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   Chapter 12 AT THE PRIORY

Anna of the Five Towns By Arnold Bennett Characters: 36869

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


She was not to be pardoned: the offence was too monstrous, daring, and final. At the same time, the unappeasable ire of the old man tended to weaken his power over her. All her life she had been terrorised by the fear of a wrath which had never reached the superlative degree until that day. Now that she had seen and felt the limit of his anger, she became aware that she could endure it; the curse was heavy, and perhaps more irksome than heavy, but she survived; she continued to breathe, eat, drink, and sleep; her father's power stopped short of annihilation. Here, too, was a satisfaction: that things could not be worse. And still greater comfort lay in the fact that she had not only accomplished the deliverance of Willie Price, but had secured absolute secrecy concerning the episode.

The next day was Saturday, when, after breakfast, it was Ephraim's custom to give Anna the weekly sovereign for housekeeping.

'Here, Agnes,' he said, turning in his armchair to face the child, and drawing a sovereign from his waistcoat-pocket, 'take charge o' this, and mind ye make it go as far as ye can.' His tone conveyed a subsidiary message: 'I am terribly angry, but I am not angry with you. However, behave yourself.'

The child mechanically took the coin, scared by this proof of an unprecedented domestic convulsion. Anna, with a tightening of the lips, rose and went into the kitchen. Agnes followed, after a discreet interval, and in silence gave up the sovereign.

'What is it all about, Anna?' she ventured to ask that night.

'Never mind,' said Anna curtly.

The question had needed some courage, for, at certain times, Agnes would as easily have trifled with her father as with Anna. From that moment, with the passive fatalism characteristic of her years, Agnes' spirits began to rise again to the normal level. She accepted the new situation, and fitted herself into it with a child's adaptability. If Anna naturally felt a slight resentment against this too impartial and apparently callous attitude on the part of the child, she never showed it.

Nearly a week later, Anna received a postcard from Beatrice announcing her complete recovery, and the immediate return of her parents and herself to Bursley. That same afternoon, a cab encumbered with much luggage passed up the street as Anna was fixing clean curtains in her father's bedroom. Beatrice, on the look-out, waved a hand and smiled, and Anna responded to the signals. She was glad now that the Suttons had come back, though for several days she had almost forgotten their existence. On the Saturday afternoon, Mynors called. Anna was in the kitchen; she heard him scuffling with Agnes in the lobby, and then talking to her father. Three times she had seen him since her disgrace, and each time the secret bitterness of her soul, despite conscientious effort to repress it, had marred the meeting-it had been plain, indeed, that she was profoundly disturbed; he had affected at first not to observe the change in her, and she, anticipating his questions, hinted briefly that the trouble was with her father, and had no reference to himself, and that she preferred not to discuss it at all; reassured, and too young in courtship yet to presume on a lover's rights, he respected her wish, and endeavoured by every art to restore her to equanimity. This time, as she went to greet him in the parlour, she resolved that he should see no more of the shadow. He noticed instantly the difference in her face.

'I've come to take you into Sutton's for tea-and for the evening,' he said eagerly. 'You must come. They are very anxious to see you. I've told your father,' he added. Ephraim had vanished into his office.

'What did he say, Henry?' she asked timidly.

'He said you must please yourself, of course. Come along, love. Mustn't she, Agnes?'

Agnes concurred, and said that she would get her father's tea, and his supper too.

'You will come,' he urged. She nodded, smiling thoughtfully, and he kissed her, for the first time in front of Agnes, who was filled with pride at this proof of their confidence in her.

'I'm ready, Henry,' Anna said, a quarter of an hour later, and they went across to Sutton's.

'Anna, tell me all about it,' Beatrice burst out when she and Anna had fled to her bedroom. 'I'm so glad. Do you love him really-truly? He's dreadfully fond of you. He told me so this morning; we had quite a long chat in the market. I think you're both very lucky, you know.' She kissed Anna effusively for the third time. Anna looked at her smiling but silent.

'Well?' Beatrice said.

'What do you want me to say?'

'Oh! You are the funniest girl, Anna, I ever met. "What do you want me to say," indeed!' Beatrice added in a different tone: 'Don't imagine this affair was the least bit of a surprise to us. It wasn't. The fact is, Henry had-oh! well, never mind. Do you know, mother and dad used to think there was something between Henry and me. But there wasn't, you know-not really. I tell you that, so that you won't be able to say you were kept in the dark. When shall you be married, Anna?'

'I haven't the least idea,' Anna replied, and began to question Beatrice about her convalescence.

'I'm perfectly well,' Beatrice said. 'It's always the same. If I catch anything I catch it bad and get it over quickly.'

'Now, how long are you two chatterboxes going to stay here?' It was Mrs. Sutton who came into the room. 'Bee, you've got those sewing-meeting letters to write. Eh, Anna, but I'm glad of this. You'll make him a good wife. You two'll just suit each other.'

Anna could not but be impressed by this unaffected joy of her friends in the engagement. Her spirits rose, and once more she saw visions of future happiness. At tea, Alderman Sutton added his felicitations to the rest, with that flattering air of intimate sympathy and comprehension which some middle-aged men can adopt towards young girls. The tea, made specially magnificent in honour of the betrothal, was such a meal as could only have been compassed in Staffordshire or Yorkshire-a high tea of the last richness and excellence, exquisitely gracious to the palate, but ruthless in its demands on the stomach. At one end of the table, which glittered with silver, glass, and Longshaw china, was a fowl which had been boiled for four hours; at the other, a hot pork-pie, islanded in liquor, which might have satisfied a regiment. Between these two dishes were all the delicacies which differentiate high tea from tea, and on the quality of which the success of the meal really depends; hot pikelets, hot crumpets, hot toast, sardines with tomatoes, raisin-bread, current-bread, seed-cake, lettuce, home-made marmalade and home-made jams. The repast occupied over an hour, and even then not a quarter of the food was consumed. Surrounded by all that good fare and good-will, with the Alderman on her left, Henry on her right, and a bright fire in front of her, Anna quickly caught the gaiety of the others. She forgot everything but the gladness of reunion, the joy of the moment, the luxurious comfort of the house. Conversation was busy with the doings of the Suttons at Port Erin after Anna and Henry had left. A listener would have caught fragments like this:-'You know such-and-such a point.... No, not there, over the hill. Well, we hired a carriage and drove.... The weather was simply.... Tom Kelly said he'd never.... And that little guard on the railway came all the way down to the steamer.... Did you see anything in the "Signal" about the actress being drowned? Oh! It was awfully sad. We saw the corpse just after.... Beatrice, will you hush?'

'Wasn't it terrible about Titus Price?' Beatrice exclaimed.

'Eh, my!' sighed Mrs. Sutton, glancing at Anna. 'You can never tell what's going to happen next. I'm always afraid to go away for fear of something happening.'

A silence followed. When tea was finished Beatrice was taken away by her mother to write the letters concerning the immediate resumption of sewing-meetings, and for a little time Anna was left in the drawing-room alone with the two men, who began to talk about the affairs of the Prices. It appeared that Mr. Sutton had been asked to become trustee for the creditors under a deed of arrangement, and that he had hopes of being able to sell the business as a going concern. In the meantime it would need careful management.

'Will Willie Price manage it?' Anna inquired. The question seemed to divert Henry and the Alderman, to afford them a contemptuous and somewhat inimical amusement at the expense of Willie.

'No,' said the Alderman, quietly, but emphatically.

'Master William is fairly good on the works,' said Henry; 'but in the office, I imagine, he is worse than useless.'

Grieved and confused, Anna bent down and moved a hassock in order to hide her face. The attitude of these men to Willie Price, that victim of circumstances and of his own simplicity, wounded Anna inexpressibly. She perceived that they could see in him only a defaulting debtor, that his misfortune made no appeal to their charity. She wondered that men so warm-hearted and kind in some relations could be so hard in others.

'I had a talk with your father at the creditors' meeting yesterday,' said the Alderman. 'You won't lose much. Of course you've got a preferential claim for six months' rent.' He said this reassuringly, as though it would give satisfaction. Anna did not know what a preferential claim might be, nor was she aware of any creditors' meeting. She wished ardently that she might lose as much as possible-hundreds of pounds. She was relieved when Beatrice swept in, her mother following.

'Now, your worship,' said Beatrice to her father, 'seven stamps for these letters, please.' Anna glanced up inquiringly on hearing the form of address. 'You don't mean to say that you didn't know that father is going to be mayor this year?' Beatrice asked, as if shocked at this ignorance of affairs. 'Yes, it was all settled rather late, wasn't it, dad? And the mayor-elect pretends not to care much, but actually he is filled with pride, isn't he, dad? As for the mayoress--?'

'Eh, Bee!' Mrs. Sutton stopped her, smiling; 'you'll tumble over that tongue of yours some day.'

'Mother said I wasn't to mention it,' said Beatrice, 'lest you should think we were putting on airs.'

'Nay, not I!' Mrs. Sutton protested. 'I said no such thing. Anna knows us too well for that. But I'm not so set up with this mayor business as some people will think I am.'

'Or as Beatrice is,' Mynors added.

At half-past eight, and again at nine, Anna said that she must go home; but the Suttons, now frankly absorbed in the topic of the mayoralty, their secret preoccupation, would not spoil the confidential talk which had ensued by letting the lovers depart. It was nearly half-past nine before Anna and Henry stood on the pavement outside, and Beatrice, after facetious farewells, had shut the door.

'Let us just walk round by the Manor Farm,' Henry pleaded. 'It won't take more than a quarter of an hour or so.'

She agreed dutifully. The footpath ran at right angles to Trafalgar Road, past a colliery whose engine-fires glowed in the dark, moonless, autumn night, and then across a field. They stood on a knoll near the old farmstead, that extraordinary and pathetic survival of a vanished agriculture. Immediately in front of them stretched acres of burning ironstone-a vast tremulous carpet of flame woven in red, purple, and strange greens. Beyond were the skeleton-like silhouettes of pit-heads, and the solid forms of furnace and chimney-shaft. In the distance a canal reflected the gigantic illuminations of Cauldon Bar Ironworks. It was a scene mysterious and romantic enough to kindle the raptures of love, but Anna felt cold, melancholy, and apprehensive of vague sorrows. 'Why am I so?' she asked herself, and tried in vain to shake off the mood.

'What will Willie Price do if the business is sold?' she questioned Mynors suddenly.

'Surely,' he said to soothe her, 'you aren't still worrying about that misfortune. I wish you had never gone near the inquest; the thing seems to have got on your mind.'

'Oh, no!' she protested, with an air of cheerfulness. 'But I was just wondering.'

'Well, Willie will have to do the best he can. Get a place somewhere, I suppose. It won't be much, at the best.'

Had he guessed what perhaps hung on that answer, Mynors might have given it in a tone less callous and perfunctory. Could he have seen the tightening of her lips, he might even afterwards have repaired his error by some voluntary assurance that Willie Price should be watched over with a benevolent eye and protected with a strong arm. But how was he to know that in misprizing Willie Price before her, he was misprizing a child to its mother? He had done something for Willie Price, and considered that he had done enough. His thoughts, moreover, were on other matters.

'Do you remember that day we went up to the park?' he murmured fondly; 'that Sunday? I have never told you that that evening I came out of chapel after the first hymn, when I noticed you weren't there, and walked up past your house. I couldn't help it. Something drew me. I nearly called in to see you. Then I thought I had better not.'

'I saw you,' she said calmly. His warmth made her feel sad. 'I saw you stop at the gate.'

'You did? But you weren't at the window?'

'I saw you through the glass of the front-door.' Her voice grew fainter, more reluctant.

'Then you were watching?' In the dark he seized her with such violence, and kissed her so vehemently, that she was startled out of herself.

'Oh! Henry!' she exclaimed.

'Call me Harry,' he entreated, his arm still round her waist; 'I want you to call me Harry. No one else does or ever has done, and no one shall, now.'

'Harry,' she said deliberately, bracing her mind to a positive determination. She must please him, and she said it again: 'Harry; yes, it has a nice sound.'

Ephraim sat reading the 'Signal' in the parlour when she arrived home at five minutes to ten. Imbued then with ideas of duty, submission, and systematic kindliness, she had an impulse to attempt a reconciliation with her father.

'Good-night, father,' she said, 'I hope I've not kept you up.'

He was deaf.

She went to bed resigned; sad, but not gloomy. It was not for nothing that during all her life she had been accustomed to infelicity. Experience had taught her this: to be the mistress of herself. She knew that she could face any fact-even the fact of her dispassionate frigidity under Mynors' caresses. It was on the firm, almost rapturous resolve to succour Willie Price, if need be, that she fell asleep.

The engagement, which had hitherto been kept private, became the theme of universal gossip immediately upon the return of the Suttons from the Isle of Man. Two words let fall by Beatrice in the St. Luke's covered market on Saturday morning had increased and multiplied till the whole town echoed with the news. Anna's private fortune rose as high as a quarter of a million. As for Henry Mynors, it was said that Henry Mynors knew what he was about. After all, he was like the rest. Money, money! Of course it was inconceivable that a fine, prosperous figure of a man, such as Mynors, would have made up to her, if she had not been simply rolling in money. Well, there was one thing to be said for young Mynors, he would put money to good use; you might rely he would not hoard it up same as it had been hoarded up. However, the more saved, the more for young Mynors, so he needn't grumble. It was to be hoped he would make her dress herself a bit better-though indeed it hadn't been her fault she went about so shabby; the old skinflint would never allow her a penny of her own. So tongues wagged.

The first Sunday was a tiresome ordeal for Anna, both at school and at chapel. 'Well, I never!' seemed to be written like a note of exclamation on every brow; the monotony of the congratulations fatigued her as much as her involuntary efforts to grasp what each speaker had left unsaid of innuendo, malice, envy or sycophancy. Even the people in the shops, during the next few days, could not serve her without direct and curious reference to her private affairs. The general opinion that she was a cold and bloodless creature was strengthened by her attitude at this period. But the apathy which she displayed was neither affected nor due to an excessive diffidence. As she seemed, so she felt. She often wondered what would have happened to her if that vague 'something' between Henry and Beatrice, to which Beatrice had confessed, had ever taken definite shape.

'Hancock came back from Lancashire last night,' said Mynors, when he arrived at Manor Terrace on the next Saturday afternoon. Ephraim was in the room, and Henry, evidently joyous and triumphant, addressed both him and Anna.

'Is Hancock the commercial traveller?' Anna asked. She knew that Hancock was the commercial traveller, but she experienced a nervous compulsion to make idle remarks in order to hide the breach of intercourse between her father and herself.

'Yes,' said Mynors; 'he's had a magnificent journey.'

'How much?' asked the miser.

Henry named the amount of orders taken in a fortnight's journey.

'Humph!' the miser ejaculated. 'That's better than a bat in the eye with a burnt stick.' From him, this was the superlative of praise. 'You're making good money at any rate?'

'We are,' said Mynors.

'That reminds me,' Ephraim remarked gruffly. 'When dost think o' getting wed? I'm not much for long engagements, and so I tell ye.' He threw a cold glance sideways at Anna. The idea penetrated her heart like a stab: 'He wants to get me out of the house!'

'Well,' said Mynors, surprised at the question and the tone, and, looking at Anna as if for an explanation: 'I had scarcely thought of that. What does Anna say?'

'I don't know,' she murmured; and then, more bravely, in a louder voice, and with a smile: 'The sooner the better.' She thought, in her bitter and painful resentment: 'If he wants me to go, go I will.'

Henry tactfully passed on to another phase of the subject: 'I met Mr. Sutton yesterday, and he was telling me of Price's house up at Toft End. It belonged to Mr. Price, but of course it was mortgaged up to the hilt. The mortgagee

s have taken possession, and Mr. Sutton said it would be to let cheap at Christmas. Of course Willie and old Sarah Vodrey, the housekeeper, will clear out. I was thinking it might do for us. It's not a bad sort of house, or, rather, it won't be when it's repaired.'

'What will they ask for it?' Ephraim inquired.

'Twenty-five or twenty-eight. It's a nice large house-four bedrooms, and a very good garden.'

'Four bedrooms!' the miser exclaimed. 'What dost want wi' four bedrooms? You'd have for keep a servant.'

'Naturally we should keep a servant,' Mynors said, with calm politeness.

'You could get one o' them new houses up by th' park for fifteen pounds as would do you well enough'; the miser protested against these dreams of extravagance.

'I don't care for that part of the town,' said Mynors. 'It's too new for my taste.'

After tea, when Henry and Anna went out for the Saturday evening stroll, Mynors suddenly suggested: 'Why not go up and look through that house of Price's?'

'Won't it seem like turning them out if we happen to take it?' she asked.

'Turning them out! Willie is bound to leave it. What use is it to him? Besides, it's in the hands of the mortgagees now. Why shouldn't we take it just as well as anybody else, if it suits us?'

Anna had no reply, and she surrendered herself placidly enough to his will; nevertheless she could not entirely banish a misgiving that Willie Price was again to be victimised. Infinitely more disturbing than this illogical sensation, however, was the instinctive and sure knowledge, revealed in a flash, that her father wished to be rid of her. So implacable, then, was his animosity against her! Never, never had she been so deeply hurt. The wound, in fact, was so severe that at first she felt only a numbness that reduced everything to unimportance, robbing her of volition. She walked up to Toft End as if walking in her sleep.

Price's house, sometimes called Priory House, in accordance with a legend that a priory had once occupied the site, stood in the middle of the mean and struggling suburb of Toft End, which was flung up the hillside like a ragged scarf. Built of red brick, towards the end of the eighteenth century, double-fronted, with small, evenly disposed windows, and a chimney stack at either side, it looked westward over the town smoke towards a horizon of hills. It had a long, narrow garden, which ran parallel with the road. Behind it, adjoining, was a small, disused potworks, already advanced in decay. On the north side, and enclosed by a brick wall which surrounded also the garden, was a small orchard of sterile and withered fruit trees. In parts the wall had crumpled under the assaults of generations of boys, and from the orchard, through the gaps, could be seen an expanse of grey-green field, with a few abandoned pit-shafts scattered over it. These shafts, imperfectly protected by ruinous masonry, presented an appearance strangely sinister and forlorn, raising visions in the mind of dark and mysterious depths peopled with miserable ghosts of those who had toiled there in the days when to be a miner was to be a slave. The whole place, house and garden, looked ashamed and sad, with a shabby mournfulness acquired gradually from its inmates during many years. But, nevertheless, the house was substantial, and the air on that height fresh and pure.

Mynors rang in vain at the front door, and then they walked round the house to the orchard, and discovered Sarah Vodrey taking in clothes from a line-a diminutive and wasted figure, with scanty, grey hair, a tiny face permanently soured, and bony hands contorted by rheumatism.

'My rheumatism's that bad,' she said in response to greetings, 'I can scarce move about, and this house is a regular barracks to keep clean. No; Willie's not in. He's at th' works, as usual-Saturday like any other day. I'm by myself here all day and every day. But I reckon us'n be flitting soon, and me lived here eight-and-twenty year! Praise God, there's a mansion up there for me at last. And not sorry shall I be when He calls.'

'It must be very lonely for you, Miss Vodrey,' said Mynors. He knew exactly how to speak to this dame who lived her life like a fly between two panes of glass, and who could find room in her head for only three ideas, namely: that God and herself were on terms of intimacy; that she was, and had always been, indispensable to the Price family; and that her social status was far above that of a servant. 'It's a pity you never married,' Mynors added.

'Me, marry! What would they ha' done without me? No, I'm none for marriage and never was. I'd be shamed to be like some o' them spinsters down at chapel, always hanging round chapel-yard on the off-chance of a service, to catch that there young Mr. Sargent, the new minister. It's a sign of a hard winter, Miss Terrick, when the hay runs after the horse, that's what I say.'

'Miss Tellwright and myself are in search of a house,' Mynors gently interrupted the flow, and gave her a peculiar glance which she appreciated. 'We heard you and Willie were going to leave here, and so we came up just to look over the place, if it's quite convenient to you.'

'Eh, I understand ye,' she said; 'come in. But ye mun tak' things as ye find 'em, Miss Terrick.'

Dismal and unkempt, the interior of the house matched the exterior. The carpets were threadbare, the discoloured wall-papers hung loose on the walls, the ceilings were almost black, the paint had nearly been rubbed away from the woodwork; the exhausted furniture looked as if it would fall to pieces in despair if compelled to face the threatened ordeal of an auction-sale. But to Anna the rooms were surprisingly large, and there seemed so many of them! It was as if she were exploring an immense abode, like a castle, with odd chambers continually showing themselves in unexpected places. The upper story was even less inviting than the ground-floor-barer, more chill, utterly comfortless.

'This is the best bedroom,' said Miss Vodrey. 'And a rare big room too! It's not used now. He slept here. Willie sleeps at back.'

'A very nice room,' Mynors agreed blandly, and measured it, as he had done all the others, with a two-foot, entering the figures in his pocket-book.

Anna's eye wandered uneasily across the room, with its dismantled bed and decrepit mahogany suite.

'I'm glad he hanged himself at the works, and not here,' she thought. Then she looked out at the window. 'What a splendid view!' she remarked to Mynors.

She saw that he had taken a fancy to the house. The sagacious fellow esteemed it, not as it was, but as it would be, re-papered, re-painted, re-furnished, the outer walls pointed, the garden stocked; everything cleansed, brightened, renewed. And there was indeed much to be said for his fancy. The house was large, with plenty of ground; the boundary wall secured that privacy which young husbands and young wives instinctively demand; the outlook was unlimited, the air the purest in the Five Towns. And the rent was low, because the great majority of those who could afford such a house would never deign to exist in a quarter so poverty-stricken and unfashionable.

After leaving the house they continued their walk up the hill, and then turned off to the left on the high road from Hanbridge to Moorthorne. The venerable but not dignified town lay below them, a huddled medley of brown brick under a thick black cloud of smoke. The gold angel of the town-hall gleamed in the evening light, and the dark, squat tower of the parish church, sole relic of the past stood out grim and obdurate amid the featureless buildings which surrounded it. To the north and east miles of moorland, defaced by collieries and murky hamlets, ran to the horizon. Across the great field at their feet a figure slouched along, past the abandoned pit-shafts. They both recognised the man.

'There's Willie Price going home!' said Mynors.

'He looks tired,' she said. She was relieved that they had not met him at the house.

'I say,' Mynors began earnestly, after a pause, 'why shouldn't we get married soon, since the old gentleman seems rather to expect it? He's been rather awkward lately, hasn't he?'

This was the only reference made by Mynors to her father's temper. She nodded. 'How soon?' she asked.

'Well, I was just thinking. Suppose, for the sake of argument, this house turns out all right. I couldn't get it thoroughly done up much before the middle of January-couldn't begin till these people had moved. Suppose we said early in February?'

'Yes!'

'Could you be ready by that time?'

'Oh, yes,' she answered, 'I could be ready.'

'Well, why shouldn't we fix February, then?'

'There's the question of Agnes,' she said.

'Yes; and there will always be the question of Agnes. Your father will have to get a housekeeper. You and I will be able to see after little Agnes, never fear.' So, with tenderness in his voice, he reassured her on that point.

'Why not February?' she reflected. 'Why not to-morrow, as father wants me out of the house?'

It was agreed.

'I've taken the Priory, subject to your approval,' Henry said, less than a fortnight later. From that time he invariably referred to the place as the Priory.

It was on the very night after this eager announcement that the approaching tragedy came one step nearer. Beatrice, in a modest evening-dress, with a white cloak-excited, hurried, and important-ran in to speak to Anna. The carriage was waiting outside. She and her father and mother had to attend a very important dinner at the mayor's house at Hillport, in connection with Mr. Sutton's impending mayoralty. Old Sarah Vodrey had just sent down a girl to say that she was unwell, and would be grateful if Mrs. Sutton or Beatrice would visit her. It was a most unreasonable time for such a summons, but Sarah was a fidgety old crotchet, and knew how frightfully good-natured Mrs. Sutton was. Would Anna mind going up to Toft End? And would Anna come out to the carriage and personally assure Mrs. Sutton that old Sarah should be attended to? If not, Beatrice was afraid her mother would take it into her head to do something stupid.

'It's very good of you, Anna,' said Mrs. Sutton, when Anna went outside with Beatrice. 'But I think I'd better go myself. The poor old thing may feel slighted if I don't, and Beatrice can well take my place at this affair at Hillport, which I've no mind for.' She was already half out of the carriage.

'Nothing of the kind,' said Anna firmly, pushing her back. 'I shall be delighted to go and do what I can.'

'That's right, Anna,' said the Alderman from the darkness of the carriage, where his shirt-front gleamed; 'Bee said you'd go, and we're much obliged to ye.'

'I expect it will be nothing,' said Beatrice, as the vehicle drove off; 'Sarah has served mother this trick before now.'

As Anna opened the garden-gate of the Priory she discerned a figure amid the rank bushes, which had been allowed to grow till they almost met across the narrow path leading to the front door of the house.

It was a thick and mysterious night-such a night as death chooses; and Anna jumped in vague terror at the apparition.

'Who's there?' said a voice sharply.

'It's me,' said Anna. 'Miss Vodrey sent down to ask Mrs. Sutton to come up and see her, but Mrs. Sutton had an engagement, so I came instead.'

The figure moved forward; it was Willie Price.

He peered into her face, and she could see the mortal pallor of his cheeks.

'Oh!' he exclaimed, 'it's Miss Tellwright, is it? Will ye come in, Miss Tellwright?'

She followed him with beating heart, alarmed, apprehensive. The front door stood wide open, and at the far end of the gloomy passage a faint light shone from the open door of the kitchen. 'This way,' he said. In the large, bare, stone-floored kitchen Sarah Vodrey sat limp and with closed eyes in an old rocking-chair close to the fireless range. The window, which gave on to the street, was open; through that window Sarah, in her extremity, had called the child who ran down to Mrs. Sutton's. On the deal table were a dirty cup and saucer, a tea-pot, bread, butter, and a lighted candle-sole illumination of the chamber.

'I come home, and I find this,' he said.

Daunted for a moment by the scene of misery, Anna could say nothing.

'I find this,' he repeated, as if accusing God of spitefulness; and he lifted the candle to show the apparently insensible form of the woman. Sarah's wrinkled and seamed face had the flush of fever, and the features were drawn into the expression of a terrible anxiety; her hands hung loose; she breathed like a dog after a run.

'I wanted her to have the doctor yesterday,' he said, 'but she wouldn't. Ever since you and Mr. Mynors called she's been cleaning the house down. She said you'd happen be coming again soon, and the place wasn't fit to be seen. No use me arguing with her.'

'You had better run for a doctor,' Anna said.

'I was just going off when you came. She's been complaining more of her rheumatism, and pain in her hips, lately.'

'Go now; fetch Mr. Macpherson, and call at our house and say I shall stay here all night. Wait a moment.' Seeing that he was exhausted from lack of food, she cut a thick piece of bread-and-butter. 'Eat this as you go,' she said.

'I can't eat; it'll choke me.'

'Let it choke you,' she said. 'You've got to swallow it.'

Child of a hundred sorrows, he must be treated as a child. As soon as Willie was gone she took off her hat and jacket, and lit a lamp; there was no gas in the kitchen.

'What's that light?' the old woman asked peevishly, rousing herself and sitting up. 'I doubt I'll be late with Willie's tea. Eh, Miss Terrick, what's amiss?'

'You're not quite well, Miss Vodrey,' Anna answered. 'If you'll show me your room, I'll see you into bed.' Without giving her a moment for hesitation, Anna seized the feeble creature under the arms, and so, coaxing, supporting, carrying, got her to bed. At length she lay on the narrow mattress, panting, exhausted. It was Sarah's final effort.

Anna lit fires in the kitchen and in the bedroom, and when Willie returned with Dr. Macpherson, water was boiling and tea made.

'You'd better get a woman in,' said the doctor curtly, in the kitchen, when he had finished his examination of Sarah. 'Some neighbour for to-night, and I'll send a nurse up from the cottage-hospital early to-morrow morning. Not that it will be the least use. She must have been dying for the last two days at least. She's got pericarditis and pleurisy. She's breathing I don't know how many to the minute, and her temperature is just about as high as it can be. It all follows from rheumatism, and then taking cold. Gross carelessness and neglect all through! I've no patience with such work.' He turned angrily to Willie. 'I don't know what on earth you were thinking of, Mr. Price, not to send for me earlier.'

Willie, abashed and guilty, found nothing to say. His eye had the meek wistfulness of Holman Hunt's 'Scapegoat.'

'Mr. Price wanted her to have the doctor,' said Anna, defending him with warmth; 'but she wouldn't. He is out at the works all day till late at night. How was he to know how she was? She could walk about.'

The tall doctor glanced at Anna in surprise, and at once modified his tone. 'Yes,' he said, 'that's the curious thing. It passes me how she managed to get about. But there is no knowing what an obstinate woman won't force herself to do. I'll send the medicine up to-night, and come along myself with the nurse early to-morrow. Meantime, keep carefully to my instructions.'

That night remains for ever fixed in Anna's memory: the grim rooms, echoing and shadowy; the countless journeys up and down dark stairs and passages; Willie sitting always immovable in the kitchen, idle because there was nothing for him to do; Sarah incessantly panting on the truckle-bed; the hired woman from up the street, buxom, kindly, useful, but fatuous in the endless monotony of her commiserations.

Towards morning, Sarah Vodrey gave sign of a desire to talk.

'I've fought the fight,' she murmured to Anna, who alone was in the bedroom with her, 'I've fought the fight; I've kept the faith. In that box there ye'll see a purse. There's seventeen pounds six in it. That will pay for the funeral, and Willie must have what's over. There would ha' been more for the lad, but he never paid me no wages this two years past. I never troubled him.'

'Don't tell Willie that,' Anna said impetuously.

'Eh, bless ye, no!' said the dying drudge, and then seemed to doze.

Anna went to the kitchen, and sent the woman upstairs.

'How is she?' asked Willie, without stirring. Anna shook her head. 'Neither her nor me will be here much longer, I'm thinking,' he said, smiling wearily.

'What?' she exclaimed, startled.

'Mr. Sutton has arranged to sell our business as a going-concern-some people at Turnhill are buying it. I shall go to Australia; there's no room for me here. The creditors have promised to allow me twenty-five pounds, and I can get an assisted passage. Bursley'll know me no more. But-but-I shall always remember you and what you've done.'

She longed to kneel at his feet, and to comfort him, and to cry: 'It is I who have ruined you-driven your father to cheating his servant, to crime, to suicide; driven you to forgery, and turned you out of your house which your old servant killed herself in making clean for me. I have wronged you, and I love you like a mother because I have wronged you and because I saved you from prison.'

But she said nothing except: 'Some of us will miss you.'

The next day Sarah Vodrey died-she who had never lived save in the fetters of slavery and fanaticism. After fifty years of ceaseless labour, she had gained the affection of one person, and enough money to pay for her own funeral. Willie Price took a cheap lodging with the woman who had been called in on the night of Sarah's collapse. Before Christmas he was to sail for Melbourne. The Priory, deserted, gave up its rickety furniture to a van from Hanbridge, where, in an auction-room, the frail sticks lost their identity in a medley of other sticks, and ceased to be. Then the bricklayer, the plasterer, the painter, and the paper-hanger came to the Priory, and whistled and sang in it.

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