A PROPOSAL

Jane Marley was at the kneading trough, with her sleeves tucked up, and her hands in the dough, when a shadow thrown upon her made her look up, and she saw Olver Dench at the window. He nodded to her through the window, came to the door, opened and entered without ceremony.
‘How do you find yourself this morning, mistress?’ asked the ferryman, seating himself.
Jane made a gesture indicative of impatience.
‘The captain is out,’ she answered curtly.
‘I have not come to see the captain.’
‘The house is not a show-place like Colyton Castle.’
‘I have not come to see it.’
‘Then you have no business here.’
‘That is an uncivil address to an old friend.’
‘I do not recognise any friend.’
This silenced him for a while.
He observed her, with her sleeves rolled above her elbows, her fine moulded arms, her handsome, if somewhat stern, face, the full lips, the fine sweep of the jaw, the copious, dark hair with warm glints in it, the ripe complexion, and he thought what a good-looking woman she was.
She continued to knead the dough, in total disregard of his presence, and the sun entering through the latticed window played over her arms, the dimpled, rosy elbows her swelling bosom, over which the breast-piece of her white apron was pinned at the shoulders, and it flamed occasionally on her pouting lips.
Then, after a considerable pause, Olver Dench began once more.
‘I have come here, Jane, not on the captain’s affairs, but on yours.’
[68]
‘Mine, you will favour me not to trouble about.’
‘When I say yours, I really mean those of your child.’
At once she was interested. He saw that. Her arm remained stationary for a moment, the hands plunged in the dough. Then she resumed work with increased energy. She tossed her head and said, ‘My child is under my care, and her affairs in no way demand your meddling.’
‘That is just as you will,’ said Dench with assumed indifference. ‘But I would bid you bear in mind that you are at present under the roof of one of the most fanciful, humorous, and shortest-tempered of men. He will welcome you to-day, and if you offend him turn you out of doors to-morrow. He is headstrong, and has brimstone in him, by George! and you have sparks enough in you to make a conflagration probable. Unless you knuckle under to him, he will thrust you and Winefred forth—and you will be once more as you have been—homeless. Did you ever hear tell of the visit made him one day by two gaugers who wanted to overhaul the place? He received them, seated on a keg, with a pistol in his hand. Masters, said he, this little cask is full of gunpowder, come near by another step and I will discharge my pistol into it—and we three will march together. They made for the door. That is your man; wilful, desperate, overbearing. If you cross his will in any particular he will send you to the right-abouts. That will not matter for such as you, but it will be bad for Winefred.’
He perceived by her heightened colour, by her quickened breathing, that he had touched Jane where most sensitive.
‘Do you know, mistress, why Captain Job has taken you both into his house?’
She made no other answer than a shrug of the shoulder.
‘I will tell you: I will lift a corner of the crust and let you see what is the meat in the pie. Was not your father, Topsham Marley, associated with him in most of his ventures? What did he gain by that? Did he leave you comfortably off? I always heard tell that there was money to bury him, but nothing over. Your brother Philip, he was with him also. What profit came to him out of the partnership? When Philip thought that he was pulling the chestnuts out of the fire for Job—he getting the burns and none of the nuts—Philip and he came to words and they parted company, and Philip started on his own account. He was at once betrayed and shot. Take my word for it, certain big men with large dealings will not allow the little men to[69] succeed. The iron pot breaks all the cloam pipkins that float on the same water.’
tumblr_obm67iqhvo1r888xpo1_1280‘You do not dare to tell me that the captain caused my brother’s death?’
‘I do not say that I know he did. All that I pretend to say is that I was not the only man who noticed the curious coincidence. No sooner did Philip start on his own bottom than he was put out of the running. It is a singular thing, if you are interested in such matters, to observe how the wholesale dealers go free, and how the little retailers get nabbed. What profit had Topsham, what had Philip out of their ventures? Did your brother leave anything? I reckon it was the same tale with Philip, the son, as with Topsham, the father—enough to bury him and not a penny over. Now look at Job Rattenbury. He has bought and is fitting out a cutter for his son Jack, and is going to set him up as a gentleman. He does not spare money where Jack is concerned. Cash seems as plentiful with the captain as elderberries on the undercliff. He has made a fortune where others have failed. Some have sown, but all the harvest goes into his barns. If right were done all round, your father ought to have died a rich man, and your brother would have been alive this day, and you and your child not be homeless and destitute.’
‘As to Philip,’ said Jane in a quivering voice, ‘it is well known he was killed in a scuffle with the preventive men.’
‘Yes. But how did they know when and where to drop upon him? And why, if they did come on him, did they shoot him instead of running him into prison?’
He was silent now for a while, to allow what he had said to sink in and produce the desired effect. He watched the woman’s face; the muscles were working, and her cheek glowed. Her eyes he could not see.
After a long pause he proceeded, ‘It is rough on us men that we should get, not kicks only, but leaden bullets put into us, and he all the ha’pence; but it is a crying iniquity that his son Jack should be brought up to be a gentleman and your Winefred should be left a beggar. Answer me this. Did not your father and brother endure the labours, the buffeting of wind and wave, the risk from the gaugers? What for? That Jack should have a spick-and-span painted cutter with gilt figure-head, and spout Latin grammar. He will rattle the guineas in his pocket, and when Winefred holds out her hand will cast a copper into the dirt and bid her bend and pick it up.’
Jane’s whole frame trembled.
‘So it is—the widow and the orphan are robbed, we underlings must not complain that we are badly served. But it makes me mad to hear how he swells and brags over what he is going to make of his boy Jack. And there are you and your Winney have to curtsey and say, Thank you, sir, when he offers you a crust of bread and pulls a bit of his thatch over your heads of a November night. We should combine to get our rights; combine against wrong and robbery.’
‘How can we combine?’
‘I will tell you. The captain is a rich man. I know it. He admits it. Whence came all his money? From the sweat and blood of men like your father, brother, and me. I also worked under him once, but I would not endure the injustice. Glad I was to get out of the concern and take a ferryboat, and thankful I am when I get a score of passengers to put across in the day. Look you, Jane; if that ferry were worked the way he does the other business, at the end of the day he would say to me, “Here, Olver, is one ha’penny, but nineteen pence ha’penny goes into my pocket, and I’m going to lay it out in picture-books for my Jack.”‘
‘How can we combine?’ she asked again.
‘I’ll make you a proposal,’ said Olver, but he spoke hesitatingly, and seemed reluctant to deliver it till he had further worked on the mother’s passions, and blinded her with anger and envy. ‘I say that what the captain has accumulated ought of rights to be divided into four equal parts. I allow that he has a claim to one-quarter, but I have to another—that I do assert; and then, if you had what properly belongs to you, the two remaining quarters should be yours, as the shares of your father Topsham, and your brother Philip, who was not married, and so his share comes to you—for Winefred.’
He paused, cleared his throat, and set a hand on each knee.
‘Now, Jane, I bargain that you and I combine to secure our lawful property, of which we have been defrauded. Lord! what thieves go to prison and what rogues run free! It makes my bile run over to think that his nipper Jack should be toasting in the bar whilst we sit on the doorstep in the cold. We must put our heads together. There is naught done without combination.’
‘How—what is to be done?’
‘That is just the secret. Can you guess why the captain houses you and the girl? It is because he knows that he has[71] wronged the widow and the fatherless, and his conscience gives him a pinch now and again. He thinks to hush it by allowing you such scraps as he would cast to a dog, Towler, if he kept one—which he don’t. Jane’—Olver spoke slowly, and with his eye fixed on her—’Jane, you are on the spot, and I looks on it as the wonderful ways of Providence bringing you here. You keep your eye wakeful, and keep an eye in the back of your head also. You discover where he hides his piles of money. Hidden it is somewhere, sure as I sit here. Now, Jane, I want us not only to put our heads together but to join hands.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, if you find that out for me, and help with the partition, I’ll make you my wife, and then you and the kid will have a home of your own.’
‘Your wife!’
‘Ay—I knew what you would say. But where he’s gone is a long way off, round the other side of the world, and he has married a Spanish woman there, with sugar plantations and slaves, and they have a fine family. He’ll never show his face in England. He daren’t, I tell you. So we may as well——’
‘You!’—the woman turned and faced him, in a flame of scorn. Her eyes sparkled, she breathed passionately through her rigid nostrils, her bosom heaved. ‘You—you dare propose this to me?’
He stood up.
‘Why not? I speak for your advantage.’
‘For my advantage—to be with you—head to head, hand to hand—with you!’ She quivered with fury, her very hair bristled. ‘You? If I had you between tongs, I would throw you into the ashpit. Leave this house!’
Olver’s face turned plum colour.
‘Jane! Will you dare try it on without me?’
‘Leave this house,’ she cried, pointing to the door with her hand covered with strings of dough.
‘Jane,’ said he, ‘I have said and let you know more than I ought. But I warn you to beware lest you take a step in this matter independent of me. Take care how you hunt and beat the thickets without me. I am not a man to be trifled with. If I find that you are going behind my back, I will tread you and your brat into the earth, as though you were snails.’