Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Sam Bentley's Christmas - Part 2
SAM BENTLEY’S CHRISTMAS.
When Susan Moore determined not to be dependent on her sister, but to find some employment by which she might earn her own livelihood, her thoughts turned instinctively to the scenes of her childhood. She had decided on leaving home from an exaggerated feeling of the difficulties which her sister had to contend with, a sense of the wrong of relying upon her for any help, a long smouldering dislike to the rude notice which was bestowed upon her in the streets, and an irrepressible longing to be again in the neighbourhood of her earlier and happier days. She knew that there labour was always in demand, that in many instances the children, and not the parents, were the bread-winners and supporters of the household, and to her excited imagination the hearts of the dwellers there were warmer, and their lives more orderly, than those around her. She therefore determined to go to Yorkshire. She had no settled plan of action, nor even any clear notion of what she would do when she arrived there. She would be among friends or acquaintances, for she was sure that all the old neighbours could not have forgotten the family, and if all else failed there was the factory. By the disposal of all such articles as she could possibly dispense with, she raised the sum required for taking her down.
Towards the end of August, after a long and tedious journey, as the sun was drawing westwards—its bright, dazzling rays shining on her face as she looked out anxiously from the narrow window of a third-class carriage, she began to recognise the scenes by which she passed. On her left were the bleak heights, pitted with quarry-holes and scarred with heaped-up clearings and stone-dressings, beyond which was Idle; down in the valley was the inky and torpid canal; and then a sudden turn, and on the right—seen for a minute between two brown hills—was the vale which led to Shipley, and then the dark-blue, dye-polluted brook, the steep narrow bridge, the clustering factories, and beyond them, hills dotted with greystone houses, and with mills blackened with smoke. To one coming from an agricultural district the scene might be unpleasing and suggestive only of bustle, smoke, and dirt, but to her it spoke of home. The affections of her childhood shed a charm over it, and dimly in her poetic heart were hintings that in it was a manifestation of the glory of labour, and of the multitudinous sorrows and joys of the tens of thousands of busy, industrious fellow-creatures who had transformed the old wastes into new things of wealth and power. A few minutes more rapid travelling between long, dull warehouses, round the doors of which were white cotton flakes and tufts of scattered wool; past the corners of jutting mills; beneath the many bridges which flew past with a sudden shriek; by dilapidated cottages; alongside a dusty road, thronged with wool-ladened drays, and busy crowds hurrying home; beneath unsightly slopes of rubbish, with glimpses of pleasant villas and large mansions rising above the verdant fields and trim gardens which slope up towards Manningham, and then she was at her journey’s end, and stood lonely in the noisy, bustling, and dingy Railway Station at Bradford.
She stood awhile, doubtful where to go; the firmness of her purpose shaken as the decisive moment arrived. For the first time she became aware of the vagueness of her intentions. She hesitated when it was too late for hesitation to avail her anything. She looked round in an impotent desire to see a familiar face. The place began to assume a cold, dispiriting appearance—to repel her—to tell her that she had no friends—no home. The hardness of the world and the difficulties of life began to be realities, and to damp her courage.
“I wish Julie was with me,” was her sorrowful thought; “but I’ve begun, and must go on. I must weave out my piece, but it’s a tangly web.”
She walked slowly up the Station. A good-tempered porter, who had been watching her, inquired if she had any luggage.
“No,” replied she, and added to herself, “none but my own burden, and that I am afraid will be a sad load to get through with.”
She passed through the open gates into the dusty, dirty, disorderly yard, turned up Kirkgate, looking vacantly at the objects she passed, but scarcely conscious of what she saw. As she passed the watchmaker’s, near the Manor Market, she noticed that it was nearly seven o’clock. Night would soon come on, and she must get a lodging somewhere. She went slowly on till she came to the end of Westgate. Towards the outskirts of the town a relation of her father’s used to live—she might still be there. Susan would go there. She reached the place, weary and faint. She went to the house. It was one of a long low row of dingy plain stone houses, along which ran an unpaved road with a causeway of hard flags, which, with the proverbial house-cleanliness of Yorkshire, were daily washed, scoured with light-coloured stone, and sprinkled with bright red sand. Her heart rose as she knocked at the door. When it was opened she had no need to make an inquiry, for she saw the familiar face of her relative—an elderly woman, with sharp, expressive features, piercing and suspicious eye, her mouth puckered at the corners, and telling of a strong will, and if not of selfishness, yet of self-care and self-esteem. She looked keenly at Susan, as the latter stood silent on the step, and she then sharply said, “Can’t ye say what ye want?”
Susan was chilled with her manner, and at the moment wished she was back with her sister, and half turned away, when the woman said, in a most repelling tone,
“Is she deaf or demented? bothering one in this way. Who do ye want?” and then looking in her face and observing and misconstruing her palor and agitation, added, “there’s no lad here, my lass, thou’st made a mistake.”
The inuendo conveyed by these words was felt by Susan as expressing a reproach, and turning to the woman with tearful eyes, she looked her boldly in the face and said, “I don’t want any lads. I’m come from London, and I thought my aunt would not have turned me away—but ye can’t be Bessy Womersley, or ye would have known Susan Moore, your own brother’s lass.”
Mrs. Womersley sprang forwards, seized Susan by the arm, turned her face to the light, looked scrutinisingly at her, and then said, in a cool tone,
“I know thee now, lass. Come in.”
Susan entered. Though it had been a hot, autumnal day, there was a blazing fire, and the hearth was heaped up with ashes and cinders.
“Tak’ thy things off,” said her aunt, as she left her and went towards the fire.
Susan obeyed, and then stood uncertain what next to do. Looking round, she saw that her aunt was examining the articles she took off.
“Is that bundle all thou’s got?” said her aunt, indicating by a nod the little bundle which Susan had brought.
Another nod showed that her aunt’s attention had been drawn to Susan’s mourning.
“Who’s that black for?”
“My mother; she died a month ago.”
“Humph. In London?”
“A happy thing for her. Folk should never cry for them that’s dead, for its nubbut to the Elect going home with their wages when t’mill of this world loises.” Then added, as she saw Susan’s tears, “I expect thou will cry—it’s a sign of the Ungracious, which I ’spect thou’rt one on, so sit down and hav’ it out.”
Her aunt then went from her, and took no further notice of her, stirred up the fire, put on the kettle, cleared up the hearth, and prepared tea. When all was ready she called Susan, bade her bring a chair to the table, and then seating herself, poured out the tea without further invitation, and as though her visitor had for years formed part of her family.
Susan sat opposite her aunt; and as she partook of the substantial meal which had been so unceremoniously prepared for her, she saw that beneath the seeming coldness of her aunt’s demeanour there was a hearty welcome and gladness, and could scarcely refrain from expressing her girlish delight at the large, well starched, and many-bordered muslin cap, the clean blue-and-white checked apron, and the clear healthy complexion of her aunt. As the hot tea, broiled ham, cake, and other piled-up viands which were pressed upon her, either silently or with the laconic invitation, “Reach to,” renovated Susan’s strength, she began to feel at home, and to appreciate the kindness and affection which disdained to express themselves in words.
Her reflections were interrupted by her aunt saying to her,
“How long is thou goin’ to stop?”
“Here, aunt, or in the town?”
“Always—in one place or another. I’m come to get work.”
Her aunt rested her elbow on the table, steadied her chin firmly on her hand, and bringing her face almost close to Susan, exclaimed, “Bless the bairn, is there no work in Lun’on!”
“Aunt,” replied Susan, “when my mother died, Julie had all to pay—had all to do. Whilst mother lived, I didn’t go out. They would not let me. They said I was too young, and too—I don’t know that I am, but they said—pretty. But I do think there’s too little and too much work in London for girls like me. I knew sister could not leave her shop, and menfolk bothered me, and so I thought I’d come to my ain folk, and then Julie could not fret about me, and I could get work somehow, and be a trouble to nobody, and so I’ve come to you, and you must tell me what to do.”
Her aunt listened attentively, but almost frowningly to her: then deliberately and slowly surveyed her from head to foot, and for the first time became aware how pretty her niece was. A clear, fair complexion almost white from fatigue and grief, an oval face with finely arched brow, bearing the indescribable impress of thought and pure feeling, her cheeks now, from agitation, flushing bright beneath the soft shadow of her long light brown hair, pensive meditative eyes; a face which once seen and noticed could never be forgotten, and having only one noticeable fault—the thinness and lightness of the eyebrows, which was rendered more conspicuous by the length and silkiness of the eyelashes; a tall, slim, symmetrical figure, and a voice deliciously sweet and metallic.
When Mrs. Womersley had finished her survey, she said, with a sigh, “Aye, thou’rt raight, lass. Thou’rt too bonnie to be let alone—too bonnie, I’m ’fraid, to be one of the Chosen, but may be not—we mun think about it—poor motherless bairn!” As she spoke, she got up, crossed to Susan, kissed her, and at the same time pushed her from her chair, saying, “We’ll ha’ no more chat to-night. Thou’rt tired, so come away to bed.”
Next morning at breakfast it was decided by Mrs. Womersley that for a week Susan should be a visitor, and in all respects treated as such, and that at the end of the week she should ascertain what work she could do and could obtain.
The week was a pleasant holiday for Susan. She rambled about at her own will, uninterfered with, in the fields and woods. Fond of the rural scenes among which her childhood had been passed, she never wearied of her walks and of gathering the wild-flowers which seemed to her more beautiful than ever. After the first day, she noticed that, in her rambles, vary them as she would, she frequently met a young man, who, judging from his dress and deportment, was of considerable better position in the world than herself. Their meetings appeared to be accidental. There was nothing in his manner to suggest that they were intentional on his part, and yet Susan soon felt that they were. He scarcely looked at her, as she thought, as they passed; and yet their glances occasionally met, and he showed by his look that there was to him a pleasure in meeting her. She could not say that he followed her, though she knew that it was a certainty that she would meet him if she went out. She was half vexed and displeased at this, but still would have missed something if she had not seen him. Towards the end of the week, as she was endeavouring, in a lonely field-walk, to reach a tuft of harebells which were growing beyond the ditch under a woodside, she saw him coming towards her. She at once desisted from her attempt, and walked hurriedly on. In a few minutes he came up to her, and when, as she thought, he was about to pass her, he suddenly paused and said, in a courteous and deferential manner,
“Don’t think me rude. I have seen that you, like myself, are fond of wild-flowers—Will you accept these? They were gathered for you.” He offered them as he spoke, and she, confused by his sudden address, and scarcely knowing that she did so, accepted them. He bowed, and bid her good morning, and walked on.
Her first impulse was to throw the flowers away. She was angry with herself that there should have been anything in her conduct or look which could have emboldened him to offer them to her. She stood in the path where he had left her, undecided whether to walk on or to return; she did the latter, still carrying the flowers. When her excitement subsided she noticed the beauty of the flowers, among which were many which were quite new to her, and which could therefore have been procured only by much searching and considerable walking. She thought she ought not to keep them, and yet they were too pretty to throw away. On examining them more closely she discovered that on the paper which was wrapped round the stems there was writing. She tore it off. On it were verses, addressed to her. This was an indignity—she threw the flowers on the ground, and passionately tore the paper, without reading, into fragments, which she flung into the grass. She walked on; her breast heaving with anger. After a while she stopped—turned back and walked to the place where the flowers lay, picked out a few and carried them home, saying, “They are so pretty.” When at home she put them between the leaves of her Bible, repeating her words of self-excuse, “only because they are so pretty.”
Next day—the last of the week—she again went out, but did not see him. She speculated much on the reason;—had he seen her throw the flowers away—was he ashamed of what he had done? Though she would not own it, she yet felt disappointed that she did not see him.
At the end of a week, Susan and her aunt endeavoured to find work for her. Dressmaking and plain sewing, to which she had been accustomed, could not be obtained without considerable waiting, and Susan was determined to go at once to work and rigorously fulfil her agreement with her aunt. At night she said she would go to the Factory until something better could be met with. There was then a great demand for “hands,” and wages were good.
Mrs. Womersley did not disapprove of the decision. She was neither able nor willing to keep a young and able girl in idleness. The labour Susan was going to was honest, well remunerated, and such as the great majority of women in Mrs. Womersley’s rank had, at one time or another, been practically acquainted with.
“They say,” continued Susan, in explanation of her plans, “there’s a new mill by the canal—Bentley’s—where I can be taken on at once. I shall try in the morning.”
Her aunt was sitting right in front of the fire, her feet crossed and resting on the fender as she swayed herself backwards and forwards as if weighing opposing reasons or arguments. It was not until after a long pause that she replied, “Now, Susan, let us have a fair understandin’. So long as thou stops here, pays me what’s agreed on, and ’s a good girl, thou’rt welcome; an’ thou’ll be a sort of company for me, an’ I’ll mak’ thee comfortable; but if thou begin to stop out at nights—don’t come raight home—goes wi’ t’other lasses, or tak’s up wi’ a chap, then thou leaves me, there and then, for I know what it’ll come to, and I won’t ha’ my door darkened wi’ them that won’t walk in th’ raight way, or that begin to peep over t’wall down into t’other way. Dost thou understand me?”
“Yes. I will be like your own bairn, if you will let me; and you’ll be my mother, won’t you?”
As she said this, she went to her aunt and laid her hand on her arm. Her aunt pressed it closely, and without once looking away from the fire, said energetically, “I hope thou wilt. I shall watch thee. If thou does raight, as a young woman ought to do, thou’lt cheer up my ould heart better nor wine or med’cine; but if thou don’t, thou’lt be to me as that!” With a fierce gesture she dashed Susan’s hand away, and starting up, shook off from her shoe the ashes which had dropped on it from the fire.
Susan was startled and astonished, and said, “Aunt, aunt, what is the matter?”
Mrs. Womersley walked up and down the room with a short quick step, put aside Susan who tried to cling to her, and then standing before her, said in a low voice, like that of one who is faint from inward wrestling, “I will, Susan, on the day thou deceive me—I will cast thee off, though it be not thy fault—though it ha’ been predestinated for thee. Thou mun then go thy own gate, up to the moors and fells, or down into the pits, but no’ by the green pastures. So, Susan, keep thysel’ from fooilish ways, and thy foot fro’ the scorner’s walk.”
Next morning Susan laid aside her mourning dress, and putting on a far-worn dark-coloured print, and folding, in factory-girl style, her grey shawl over her head, went to the new factory by the canal and obtained employment.
Through September and October, and on into November, she worked in cheerless routine. She was at first oppressed by the irksomeness and newness of the life she had entered on, and the unpleasant strangeness and boldness of her companions. On her first entering the factory her conversation had been free from the provincialisms or dialect of the district. At this the roisterous girls around her had giggled and sneered, and so, partly from a wish to be at peace, and partly from becoming daily accustomed to the speech of those around her, she soon assimilated her language to theirs. She knew that her aunt kept a strict watch upon her, for on more than one occasion when some ardent youth or potential overlooker, unable to resist the attraction of her beauteous face, would insist upon walking with her, or waylay her as she returned home, her aunt had suddenly appeared and put them to flight.
She always, when she returned from work, found a tidy house, a cheerful fire, and a substantial meal. Her aunt was not unkind, but time seemed to develope more strongly her peculiarities, and these were as a separating barrier preventing full communion of thought or feelings. Her aunt was a member of one of the most thorough Calvinistic congregations, such as at that time were to be frequently met with in the rising towns and manufacturing villages of the West Riding. In no part of the kingdom were the doctrines of the Institutes more completely believed, and more uncompromisingly preached, undiluted by any modern sentiment. To Mrs. Womersley, as to the other members of this congregation (on the site of whose chapel now stands a German warehouse), there were but two classes of human beings—the Elect, who could not escape Heaven by any repugnancy they showed to Good, nor improve their hope of it by any abstinence from Evil, and the Non-elect, who could not avoid Hell though their lives were as pure as an angel’s. She had had an assurance, and possessed a conviction, that she was among the Elect, but she was in grievous doubt—a very agony of doubt—lest her niece should be of the other class, and have been devoted, long before her birth, to perdition. These opinions and fears acting upon her naturally reserved disposition threw a coldness around the intercourse between the aunt and niece which robbed it of all enjoyment or hilarity. A laugh was never heard in her house, and a smile scarcely known. There was a gravity amounting almost to positive gloom always around the hearth. There was, it is true, with this a depth of feeling and even of affection which would, if the heart could have been read, have done much to reconcile the most impulsive and susceptible; but Susan could only at rare intervals catch a glimpse of this silver lining of the home-cloud, whilst its shadow was constantly on her heart. She longed for sympathy, for recreation, for something which should contrast with her daily drudgery, which should give an aim to her industry. The rigour of her aunt and the many dull and weary hours which were spent at home were often contrasted with the happiness of her first week, and put in dangerous juxtaposition with the attention and the undisguised interest of the Stranger, which she had then so strongly—and, as she now felt, too strongly—reprehended. A longing arose to see him again—a desire to hear, though but for a minute, a voice speaking to her in the tones of affection. Still she worked on, keeping resolutely to her aunt’s instructions, and endeavouring to overcome all the annoyances of her present life by making her own thoughts and fancies the world of her pleasure and the sole sources of her happiness. One annoyance, however, she could not remove; on the contrary, it continued to increase. Her work-companions, the girls of the factory, were flippant, bold in speech, and lax in morals. It is well known in the neighbourhood that, at that time, the factory labourers of the town were sadly deficient in all the purer feelings of womanhood, and were brazen in their expression of this deficiency. Susan was shocked with the language and conduct of those with whom she was forced to mix during work-hours, and unflinching in her determination to have no private acquaintance with them. This they resented and ascribed to pride and hypocrisy. They gibed at her, taunted her, and coarsely told her that she was more cunning than they, perhaps looked higher, but was at heart like themselves.
Thus matters went on until the end of November, when, as Susan was returning one evening from the mill, a sudden and heavy shower drove her for shelter to the covered way which leads from the foot of Ivygate to the post-office. As she stood there waiting for the ceasing of the rain, she looked upon the open space in front of the Sun and Bowling-green hotels, which was dotted with stalls, noisy and chattering cabmen and troops of factory girls, who hurried across, unbonnetted, with gaily-coloured handkerchiefs or shawls drawn tight round their heads and tied below the chins, laughing merrily, chattering or singing as they clattered along the muddy roads. Girls of all ages and sizes, but all alike ready with a loud taunt or scoff at the peculiarities of any one who impeded their progress, and at bandying coarse jests with each other and with the “chaps” they met.
Others besides Susan sought shelter, and the place was soon crowded. She was anxious to reach home. She feared what her aunt would say if she were late—her clothes were already partly wet—she was chilled, and, besides this, she much disliked remaining out in the evening—her beauty attracted the idle and designing, and rude staring and bold remarks gave her pain. As she stood close to the entrance from the street, peering out for the first signs of the ceasing of the rain, a young man, who was passing by, caught sight of her face, and appeared to be struck with it, for after walking on a few yards he returned, and, putting down his umbrella, entered the passage. Susan instantly recognised him as the one whom she had met in her walks, and who had given her the flowers. He seemed to be in doubt, for, coming near her, he looked at her attentively for some time. She had on a plain dark brown cotton dress, which the wet had pressed close to her figure; over her head, and drawn round the lower part of her face, was a grey shawl, worn thin and threadbare, on which were specks of waste or “fluff,” brought from the mill. It was a poor and ignoble setting of a beauteous picture; but from the sordid wrapping shone forth a lovely face which, though pinched with cold, worn with work, and paled with thought, was expressive of grace not to be surpassed. He started with joyful surprise as his doubts passed away, and, drawing close to her, emboldened by his discovery of her social position and the circumstances under which he found her, said abruptly:
“What! are you a factory girl after all?”
There was something in the tone and manner in which this question was put which jarred with Susan’s cherished thoughts of the questioner, but as she had no wish to disguise for a moment her real position, she replied:
“I am, sir.”
“Do you remember me?” was the next question.
“I do,” replied Susan, without flinching, and without looking towards him, but steadily watching the rain.
He saw, however, that her cheek flushed, and that she nervously twitched her shawl more closely over her face, as though she would hide herself from observation.
“Do you live where you did—with Mrs. Womersley?”
Susan gave no answer. Her heart was beating fast. If her bold-faced fellow workers should come by—if her aunt were to see her—would they not misjudge her? Ought she not at once to bid him go? She could not—there was pleasure in listening to his voice.
“If you do, you had better avail yourself of the help of this,” holding up his umbrella, “as far as we go together.”
She looked up to him with a timid but pleased look, as if to thank him for and to decline the proffered civility.
“Surely,” he continued, “you may trust me so far.” He saw she hesitated. “Come at once,” he whispered, “you know not how much pleasure it gives me.”
She went with him.
On the way he endeavoured to lead Susan into conversation, but she only replied to his questions in monosyllables. Her heart was too busy to yield words for her lips. She was with him. It was a pleasure which her cooler judgment condemned, and when they had gone a short distance down Westgate, she stopped, and said the rain was over. He showed her that it was falling in torrents. She then insisted that she needed no further help; that she would, she must go alone. Though her companion was evidently greatly disappointed, he did not press his services upon her when he found that she was in earnest, but said, “I have a friend living close by. I will not force myself upon you. Take the umbrella and go on, tho’ I must say you misjudge me, as I am mistaken in you.”
Susan would have refused the umbrella, but she feared that if she did he would follow her. As he gave her it, he had taken hold of her hand—he felt that she was trembling, and, looking at her, saw that she was much agitated, and that she glanced round on all sides, as if she were afraid of being seen. “Oh, sir,” she cried, “do go—if you—go, sir, my aunt would never forgive me!”
“Can you remember where to take it to?” said he. “No, I see you are too much alarmed to remember anything. One moment.” He took out a card, wrote on it, and gave it to her. She thrust it within her dress, and was hurrying away, when his hand laid on her arm stayed her. “I won’t detain you, Susan. You see I know your name. You will not see me when you call at the address I’ve given you. I’m not afraid nor ashamed of being seen with you, if you are of being seen with me; I think, too much ——”
With a sudden spring she freed herself from his hold, and was gone before he could say, “Good night.”
When Susan reached home, her aunt was sitting in her usual attitude and place before the fire.
“The rain has made me late,” said Susan, going to the fire, and leaning on her aunt’s chair.
“An’ nought else? I thought I saw thee in Westgate?”
Susan cowered down on the hearth.
“Thou’s brought his umbrella. Dost thou know who he is?”
“No, aunt; he would follow me. I got away as soon as I could. Indeed I did not want him. It was not my fault.”
“Noa, it never is; it’s nobody’s fault, I knows that. But it’s no matter.” She swayed herself to and fro with her arms folded tightly on her breast. “The thing mun go on. It’s no matter who picks t’shuttle if Satan lays t’web. No manner of cardin’ can mak’ burdocks into locks.”
“Aunt, hear me—I’ll tell you all.”
“Noa, lass, tell me nought about it. There’s no devil so handy as an excuse, an’ noan wi’ so long a tail. But rain or no rain, if thou tak’s up wi’ him again, thou mun bundle out o’ here.”
She leant her head down on her knees, and Susan could hear, from stray expressions, that she was praying earnestly for relief against some fearful doubt. Susan waited awhile in silence, and then crept in the dark, hungry and faint, to bed.
She arose in the morning before daylight to go to her work. She was ill and unable to eat, but went out at the usual hour. She found in her pocket the card. On it was written: “For Mr. Henry Bentley,” with an address. Turning the card over, she was surprised to find that it was one of her sister’s. It recalled to her in her sorrow the dear sister to whom, week after week, she had neglected to write, and to whom her heart now turned with increased affection. She was perplexed at finding the card, and anxious to discover how it had come into the possession of Mr. Bentley, for such it seemed was his name, and to know if he was acquainted with her. This she must discover. She went at noon to the address he had given—a woolstapler’s warehouse—but though now desirous to see him, she did not venture to inquire for him, but merely left what she brought, and went away disappointed.
During the afternoon she thought she might find out who he was from some of her fellow-workers. With this intention, she asked the girl next to her if she knew him. The answer was a loud giggle, and then her question was repeated to the next, who in like manner passed it on, so that in a few minutes it was known throughout the floor that Susan was asking after her man. She then saw the folly of what she had done, and to vindicate herself showed the card to her neighbour, and was about to give her an explanation, when it was snatched out of her hand, and her companion, reading the written address aloud, said, in a pert and meaning tone, “He’s written down where she’s to go for what she wants,” and then, looking at the other side, burst into a scornful laugh, and added, “An’ he goin’ to mak’ a fine lady on her, and send for clothes fro’ Lun’on.”
Susan had made the matter worse, and felt that whatever she might say it would be repeated, and distorted, and all would believe that she had met him clandestinely, and that her character must now be like that of the rest. Her cheeks burned with shame, but with a sudden effort she refrained from any further explanation or denial, knowing that it would not be believed, and would only expose her to further insults and ridicule. She must bear the reproach. That which she had endeavoured most strenuously to guard—her good name—would now be sullied by common talk. With an aching heart she went on with her work. After the first burst of merriment at the discovery was over, she might, if she had not been so deeply immersed in her own painful reflections, have noticed that those around her were now disposed to treat her with greater consideration. There was a feeling that the barrier which had separated her from them was now thrown down—the reproach which her reserve and womanliness had silently cast upon them, and which they had unconsciously owned in their tauntings and ill-will towards her, was now removed. She was as one of them, but only more clever. She had made a conquest greater than any of them could have expected, and, being so successful, deserved congratulation for having made so much of her charms. She was treated with more familiarity, but at the same time with greater respect. Her companion shortly came to her, and said, “Dost thou mean to say thou doesn’t know who thy chap is?”
Susan remained silent, and the other went on: “Thou needn’t be so pawky, lass, if thou has ta’en up wi’ our master’s nephew. Thou’ll be turned off if it’s fun’ out, for Sam Bentley isn’t the man to let his nephew gallivant with the like of us—an’ I’ll tell thee this”—waxing warm at Susan’s indifference, “if thou gives us any more of thy airs, I’ll tell Sam mysel’ that Harry keeps company wi’ thee.”
Susan let her run on without interruption or reply. It was indifferent to her what was said. She was convinced that he would not disguise the truth, and that if the whole were fairly stated no blame could fall on her, but if it did, she could not parley with those who had so wrongfully condemned her. If she must suffer from the double loss of character and employment, she would suffer in silence. To one alone could she tell it—to her sister. She would write to her—irksome as the task would be—before anyone else could by a false account prejudice her. She saw how wilful she had been in leaving home, and the desire of her heart was to go to her sister—to be comforted by her, to learn to forget him, and to be at rest. Again her thoughts went back to the question, What knowledge had Henry Moore of Julia? how had he become possessed of the card? This she must ascertain, even if she had to see him again. This would be dangerous and painful, almost impossible to undergo if, in the meantime, he should hear the factory report, and believe that even in thought she could have deserved it. Then she recalled his looks, the tone of his voice, and his manner towards her, and was satisfied that hitherto he had respected her position, and must have approved of her conduct. She lived over again and again the few minutes of their interview. He stood before her mental vision as distinctly as he had ever done before her bodily eyes. It was pleasant to dwell upon these pictures, but the pleasure was too sweet—it became painful. She sighed and endeavoured to dismiss the thought, but it would return—fancies would grow around it, her heart beat faster as she remembered him, and she could not but confess that he had, from the first, been dear to her; but what was she to him—what could she, the poor factory girl, ever be to him, the only nephew of the wealthy spinner?
A few evenings afterwards she unexpectedly met him near her home. When she saw him, she hesitated, and was about to stop. He saw this, and came up to her with a pleasant smile, and said “I am glad to meet you.”
Susan hastily replied, “Let me thank you for your kindness, and permit me to ask you one question.”
“A hundred, Susan, if you will, but let us walk on.” He turned back with her.
“You gave me a card—do you know what was on it? I mean printed on it?” He shook his head, and she continued, “It was the address of a shop in London, kept by my sister.”
“Your sister!” he exclaimed, with sudden interest.
“Yes. I want to know how you got it. Do you know her—have you seen her?”
He studied for a minute or two, and then replied, “Oh, I remember. It is one my uncle brought down in October. He had been at the shop, and something queer happened, but I don’t know what.”
Just as he had said this, two girls overtook them, looked back at him and Susan, and then gave a loud laugh. One shouted out, “There’s modest Susan with her man. Let’s know, Harry, when the fine things come down fro’ Lun’on?”
Susan stood still, and could not look up. Henry was somewhat disconcerted, and, at the moment, inclined to suspect that Susan had been boasting of her connection with him. One look at her haggard and pain-stricken face dispelled the suspicion. He drew her arm within his, and led her on, saying, “Saucy, impudent sluts! they think all as bad as themselves.”
Susan tried to free herself. “Leave me, leave me!” she repeated earnestly, though in scarcely more than a whisper. “Oh, sir, if you had never spoken to me, you would have spared me much.”
“Is then my company so distasteful to you? Must I never see you again?”
“Never, never! They say—oh! I know not what they say, but it is more than I can bear.”
She put her hand to her side, and Henry saw that she staggered. He held her up with his arm round her waist. They were then in the dark lane which led from Westgate to Mrs. Womersley’s. No one was in sight. She hung heavily on his arm. He called her by name. He looked down at her face and felt that for him it was the loveliest that ever beautified the earth. He could not resist the impulse. He bent down in act to kiss her. As if divining his intention she started up, burst from him, and in a quivering voice exclaimed, “No, no, not from you, never!” and darted away. He was about to follow her, when immediately in front of him and between him and Susan, a woman came from one of the yards opening into the lane. He followed closely down on the opposite side, and at the first lamp discovered it was Mrs. Womersley. He then retraced his steps and went slowly homewards. The pale, beautiful face of Susan was before him all the way; the words and tone of her parting sentence rung unceasingly in his ears—“Not from you.” It ought to have annoyed him, this strong emphasis on you. She would think less of it from any one else. Yet it did not annoy him—he could not tell how, and yet there seemed to be something pleasant in the very strength of the rejection—a something of hope for him, which he laid to his heart, for Susan was now to him the realisation of all his youthful dreams of beauty and happiness.
As Susan was opening her aunt’s door on her return she was tapped on the shoulder, and on looking round saw her aunt had followed her. She had no time to speak, for her aunt thrust her back, unlocked the door, and then stood with arms akimbo on the threshold.
“Aunt,” said Susan, “won’t you let me in?”
“I’m no aunt to thee now, thou trash. I gav’ thee fair warnin’, an’ I looked ower it t’ first time, but thou’rt as bad as t’ rest. Don’t speak to me!” raising her voice, and hurrying on with increased passion. “I saw it wi’ my own eyes. I saw him cuddle thee an’ kiss thee, thou unsaved sinner! Thou won’t bide peaking. Thou never sets foot in this house again.”
“Oh, you will not turn me out at night—only till morning.”
“I do not turn thee out. A bargain’s a bargain, an’ I should be a liar if I brak’ my word an’ let thee in, an’ thou’lt be as bad if thou brake thine. Thou hast turned thysel’ out. Go to him. Nay, nay, I won’t ha’ thee. The curse of God is on thee, an’ will be on thy—”
“Stop!” screamed Susan. “You shall not say that. I may be foolish, but sinful I am not. If you can think that thought of me, I will not enter your house again. Good night.”
She walked rapidly away. Her aunt stood at the door looking after her, wrapped her arms in her apron and folded them on her breast, and then walked after Susan to the top of the lane, and there listened until Susan’s footsteps died away. She then slowly returned home, fastened her door, and took her old seat before the fire. She did not sit long. She rose and walked up and down, “tidying things.” The few trifling articles belonging to Susan which she found she put carefully away, and, as she did so, furtively wiped her eyes, and then coughed vehemently as if to convince herself that the necessity for having done so arose entirely from physical causes. When she had no longer anything which she could set in order, she again seated herself.
The room was now almost dark, the fire having burnt down. “She’s a bonnie lass,” muttered she, “an’ it wor pleasant to see her. But all her bonnie looks were wor nor the filthy rags of personal holiness. She’s one of the lost I hav’ little doubt, an’ so it doesn’t matter what becomes on her. It wor no use gettin’ to be fond on her when I had no chance o’ seein’ her in the next place, an’ so she’s better goan. I dare say it wor a tempting o’ the Bad One to mak’ me mak’ an idol on her, but I resisted him, an’ now young Harry Bentley will hav’ it all his own way. Nay, nay, not so! If he don’t do t’ raight thing by her, he shall suffer for’t. I’ll be to him as that other woman of God wor to Sisera. He shan’t crow ower me nor mine. An’ she be lost in t’ next world, more cause to gi’e her some’at in this. Poor bairn, I’d hav’ kep’ her, but I fancied it wor a sin. God forgi’e me if I’m wrang, but no—I can’t hev made a mistak’.”