Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Sam Bentley's Christmas - Part 3
SAM BENTLEY’S CHRISTMAS.
When Mr. Sam Bentley returned from London after his visit to Miss Moore’s establishment, he maintained a strict silence about his loss. He had several reasons for so doing; first, he felt that his loss would be the occasion of much joking against him from his acquaintances, and would lessen him in their estimation, inasmuch as he, being a Yorkshireman, had not been able to take care of his own; he had other and more cogent reasons arising out of his family arrangements. He was a great man everywhere but at home. He was a bachelor, and his maiden and sole surviving sister was his housekeeper, and her tongue was one of “the powers that be.” Bentley had a very decided opinion that women should have nothing to do with business, and this might have inclined him to say nothing at home about his London adventures; but he also knew that if he spoke at all about the lost note he could not help telling all, and this would make a great disturbance. His sister, who considered it a disgrace to any family if the wife, sisters, or daughters were not the sempstresses for the male portion of the family, would be more vexed at the ordering of shirts than at the loss of the money. She would be insulted at a stranger doing for her brother, and for hire, what she alone ought to have done, and from affection. It was a wounding of one of her strongest prejudices. She was a woman of warm feelings, and little accustomed to control her temper. Her anger was not a sudden hot eruption, fierce for a few minutes, and then burnt out, but a long-continued smouldering irritation, which was displayed by constant “nagging” and galling invective, which Sam could not bear. It was not as the crackling of thorns under the pot, but as the steady burning of an ignited coal-bed. Consulting, therefore, his dignity abroad and his peace at home, he made no allusion whatever to his loss.
The only other inmate of his house was his nephew Henry, who had met with Susan, and been the unwitting cause of so much trouble to her. He was looked upon as the only recognised relative and heir of his uncle and aunt, and was in due time to enter into his uncle’s business, and meanwhile was apprenticed to a woolstapler, that he might become better acquainted with the various qualities of wool. His uncle had originally been a working man, and had by his shrewdness, skill in business, and thrift, gradually improved his position until he had become one of the largest manufacturers and most wealthy men in the town. His increase of wealth had not been accompanied by any corresponding increase of luxury or display. He continued to reside in the house he had occupied when he first, on a small scale, ventured into business on his own account. He had no servant, all the household work being done by his sister. His dwelling consisted, on the ground floor, of a large flagged kitchen, which ordinarily served for all purposes of living, cooking, and washing, and of a parlour, or “the room,” as it was commonly called, in distinction to the kitchen, which was styled “the house.” The “room” was only used on extraordinary occasions, such as the “tide,” or annual fair, and it was then left as soon as possible that the host and guests might gather round the kitchen fire, and enjoy their potations and pipes with greater ease in a more accustomed place. If the house had a fault, it was that it was too clean. It was brightly, painfully clean. The tin and brass household and culinary utensils which decked the walls and mantel-shelf were radiant in their polish. The fire-irons were kept mainly for show, for they were brightened up until a touch would sully them, and therefore they stood in state against the oven and boiler, whilst a rough bar of iron was appointed the poker for use, and had to submit to the brightening process.
At stated periods there was a general cleaning down, performed from a feeling of religious duty in preserving the tradition handed down from the good housewives of old, and certainly not because it was required by the accumulation of dust. Miss Bentley had only once been in London, and she had returned disgusted with the unheard-of negligence and want of cleanliness which she had observed in her lodgings, and with the wretched and, as she averred, poisonous quality of the fluid there called milk. She from that time always commiserated those who went to town, and all but prayed for them as being subjected to a sad purgatory. Her brother was proud of her for her notable qualities as a manager;—no cakes, pickles, or preserves were, in his estimation, to be compared with hers. She was, in her way, as successful as he was in his, and if there was one thing relating to himself in which he gloried it was that he had, from being a poor man, grown into a rich one without any help from others. He was proud of his money; he rejoiced in it; he handled it with gratification; he spoke of it without reserve or delicacy. He was suspicious of all approaches to intimacy on the part of others, believing that his money was the lure. On such occasions he would say to himself, “Sam Bentley, the workin’ man, wi’ eighteen shillin’ a week, would hev’ seen nought on ’em!” and then he would jerk his head up and give his sharp, sidelong glance like a sparrow on the look-out for the hawk, and with his usual nod of self-approbation of his own observations, he would continue, “It’s not t’ man but t’ bone the dogs want.” A thrusting of his hands into his pockets full of coins and a sweet jingling of “money in both pockets,” would round off and give weight to his resolution to thwart all those roguish designs. Yet he was, in his way, liberal. Unasked, his charity would flow both in public subscriptions and in private gifts. He enjoyed in a large degree two pleasures connected with money which are most dearly prized by the men of his native county,—the pleasure of getting it and the pleasure of spending it free from the control, the advice, or the knowledge of others. When called upon to contribute towards any public charity, if those who solicited his contributions were of a higher social rank than himself, he would draw back and repulse their advances with plainness amounting almost to rudeness. He would not be dictated to by them—he would not have their superiority brought to bear, in any way, upon his conduct. They should not with smooth, roundabout speeches “come over him,” or tell him what he was to do. If any of them hinted that he ought to subscribe, he at once closed the matter by the sharp, pithy answer: “Nobody helped me to what I hev. What’s mine’s my own, an’ I’m not boun’ to gi’e it unless I like.” His pockets would give their loudest chaunting of confidence and defiance (like allied monarchs singing their Te Deum), and the sharp jerk of his head and a glance to the door would show that the interview was concluded, and his ultimatum given. He was convinced that in the estimation of the world his money was the best part of him. He entertained no inflated notion of his personal qualifications or attainments: on the contrary, he had a very low opinion of them. He knew that he was devoid of education, and had no talent except that of making money—which he considered a very easy thing to do. In his self-communings, after his advice or counsel had been sought by others, he would say, “Ay, Sam, thy money’s thy wit; loise one an’ t’ other goes wi’ it. A man’s wit is what he has; t’ lawyer’s his wig, an’ t’ parson’s his gown. There’s no wit in a poor man.” His wealth had not produced in him any of the vulgar pride which so often causes the man who has risen from the ranks to despise the grade from which he has come. He was still in heart and in manners one of the people, and he looked with undisguised and plain-spoken contempt upon such of his early acquaintances as had risen like himself, and had then assumed to themselves the style and haughtiness of those with whom they had nothing in common except wealth. After a visit to them, which he paid very seldom and reluctantly, he would, in allusion to the contrast between their luxury and their manners, say, “It wor war nor suppin’ porridge out o’ t’ dye-pan.”
His great “Boggart” was poor relations. He had no faith in their affection towards him. They were all to him plunderers, open or disguised. In his walks in the town, he would go a mile round rather than meet one, for with all his contempt for them he felt, as he expressed it, “that blood’s thicker nor water;” and however much he might rail at them, he never left them without some more pleasant and substantial proof of his kinship. It was perhaps from a sense of his weakness on this point that he carefully refrained from giving his nephew any information about his relations. To this nephew he was indulgent in all respects: perhaps because he never thwarted his will. He was determined that there should be no drawbacks to his nephew’s advancement in the world, or to his enjoyment in due time of the ease and pleasure which wealth can give. He should be able to take his place with the best in the land. His maxim was, “Th’ getter a man, an’ t’spender a gentleman,” and he spared no expense in the education of his nephew. Still he was careful that no idle or extravagant habits should be contracted by him, and maintained a strict superintendence over him. Hitherto he had had little occasion to find fault. Henry was perhaps too fond of his books, too slow in acquiring the tricks of trade, and too full of unsettled notions to altogether suit his uncle, but he was admitted to be on the whole “a steady decent lad, wi’ some queer notions.”
From the time of Henry’s last interview with Susan, there was a change in him which his uncle soon perceived, but which he could not account for. He came home at more irregular hours, he was abstracted and irritable, and sat by the fire for hours in moody silence. His uncle formed many an hypothesis as to the cause. He feared he had got into some pecuniary difficulty which he dare not confess, or that there had been some quarrel between him and his master. A little adroit inquiry of the latter satisfied him that this was not the case, but elicited the fact that Henry’s attendance to business had of late been irregular and open to comment. Bentley was determined to find out the cause, and mentioned the matter to his manager, telling him to make investigations and report the result. In a few days the manager came to him and stated that he had found out that “Henry was after a mill hand,” one famous in the town for her good looks.
If Bentley had had patience to listen on, he would have learnt that there was not that criminality which in the glow of his indignation he assumed there was, for the manager would have stated honestly the particulars of his discovery, and admitted that in his opinion no blame attached to the girl, or as yet to Henry. Bentley, however, started off in a mighty rage, vowing dreadful things against Henry and the girl, and swearing he would discard him and expose her. He went as quick as he could to the warehouse, where Henry ought to have been at work, and found he was not there, and that no one knew where he was. He had therefore to nurse his rage until evening, when Henry would return home. During the day he became, by dwelling upon the hateful subject, greatly excited, and communicated to more than one of his acquaintances the resolution to turn Henry adrift in the world if he ventured to show his face again. Idle words; the mere fume of a troubled affection, but which brought forth fruit.
At the time Bentley went in search of Henry, the latter was in search of Susan. He had past many weary hours in hanging about Mrs. Womersley’s house in hopes of again seeing Susan; he had covertly made inquiries, all without success, and was despairing of again meeting with her, when, from a casual observation by one of his companions, he obtained a clue to her residence. He immediately went out to ascertain the accuracy of the information, and learnt that Susan was lodging at the low end of the town, in one of the dingy and not very reputable streets below the Old Church with a factory girl, who did not, even amongst her own class, bear the best of characters. This surprised him. He had formed a bright idea of Susan’s purity and worth, which this fact seemed to destroy, and the soft beaming and transparent gaze which seemed to him to know no thought that man could condemn, or woman reprove, might be but a snare and a delusion. The thought was maddening. He could not give her up, and with this fearful doubt he could not seek her. The truth, be it what it might, must and should be known instantly. Instead of returning to his employment, he went into a neighbouring public-house to spend the few hours of the afternoon until the factories should close. He would wait for her—he would see her—and if she had changed so vilely a look would show it, and he would go and tear her from his heart.
His torture followed him into the inn, for soon after he had entered two young men came in and sat down within earshot. Their conversation was at first carried on in an undertone, but in a short time it became louder, and he then heard that they were speaking of Susan, or as they called her, “pretty Sue fro’ Lon’on.” The first words, which he heard distinctly, were: “I don’t know ’bout that, but Bouncing Bess, who knows more nor a thing or two, says she cam’ fro’ Lon’on becos she had quarrelled wi’ a fellow there, an’ nearly killed him, an’ so wer forced to run, an’ that she has a sister in Lon’on that’s quite a grand body.”
“But what,” said the other sceptically, “does Bess know ’bout her?”
“Why of course she lodges there. Her aunt turned her out one night becos she fun’ her wi’ a man in t’ loining. Some fellow that wor goin’ to tak’ her to Lon’on again, nobbut she took up wi’ another an’ wouldn’t go, an’ so Bess met her walking i’ t’ street, as she left her aunt, an’ not knowin’ where to go, so she took her in, an’ they’ll hev’ had fine doins ever sin.”
“Then, who’s her chap, now?”
“I don’t know. Lots, I dare say—at all rates, if she’s like Bess—she’s a rum one, is Bess. She’ll soon mak’ her as bad as hersel’; but Bess says she’s awfu’ bad, an’ tak’s on sorely about—some trouble. I dare say it’s what we may all guess, an’ talks on goin’ back to Lon’on. It’s certain she’s writ there, for Bess saw t’ letter, nobbut she couldn’t read.”
This conversation ministered to Henry’s excitement. He could bear it no longer. Their words filled him now with doubt, and now with indignation: he hurriedly left the house, and walked through the streets. He knew not what to do; there was a fierce passion flaming in his heart, which would not let him rest, and which he could not control. She had a sister in London, that he knew. She was going back to London. Once there, he should lose all traces of her. He might go and find out all there. As these thoughts were struggling into shape and consistency, he met one of his uncle’s friends, who told him of his uncle’s threat and anger. “Quite right,” said he, and walked on. The decision was made. He would go to London, and find out all—he scarcely knew what he meant or wanted, but his uncle had rejected and cast him off, so if Susan were like his picturings of her, they would now be nearer each other in all respects.
When the factory bells rung out, he placed himself by the entry or passage to the court in which Susan lodged. It was within two days of Christmas. The night was bitter cold—a cutting wind, and the snow began to fall. He waited a long time before he saw Bess come. She was alone. Still he stayed, and felt the cold freeze up his strength and his limbs grow stiff. The snow fell thickly upon him, and still he waited. He heard a feeble step, a short, sharp cough, and then he saw Susan pass under the lamp. As she did so, she looked up, and he was shocked with the wretched and careworn expression of her face. In a moment he was by her side, and said:—
“Turn back, Susan, I want you.”
A wan smile of irrepressible pleasure passed over her face, as she replied:—
“I must not meet you any more. You must go. I’m busy to-night.”
“One word, Susan.”
She stood patiently in the storm, as if resigned to hear what he wished to say, but anxious for him to go.
“Susan,” said he, with a broken voice. “I have sought you daily since I last saw you. I have just heard that you have been blamed, and have suffered on my account. Tell me how I can make recompense.”
“No way. I don’t blame you. I think you meant kindness, but you should not have spoken to me.”
“Oh, say not so. I could not help it. I think of you only.”
“No, no: you must not. You must forget me. I am going away—to my sister—I must not stay here, good-night and good-bye.”
“I will not leave you—I cannot. All else is as nothing.”
“Remember who you are, and what I am. There can be nothing between us.” She stopped, seemed suddenly to recollect something, and then laid her hand on his arm, and said. “You have not thought ill of me?”
“And you would do something to please me?”
“Anything you can ask.”
“Then go not home for a couple of hours to-night. I have a message from my sister to your uncle.”
She walked on. He followed. She waved him back, but he still followed, until they were within the shade of the passage, and there in answer to her supplicating appeal, “You must leave me,” he took her hand, raised it to his lips, and kissed it. As he did so he felt a tear fall upon it, heard her mutter “Good-bye,” and was left alone. He loitered about until he saw her again come out, guarded her unseen to his uncle’s door, and then saying, “Now for a messenger,” turned back into the town, and walked towards the railway station.
When Susan knocked at Bentley’s door she was answered by Miss Bentley, who called out to her to open for herself. When she had done so, and inquired for him, she was told that he was not at home, with a cross-question as to who Susan was.
“I work in the mill,” was her reply.
“Then go to t’ manager.”
“But I have a letter for Mr. Bentley from London. It’s about money. I must see him to-night.”
Miss Bentley was by no means devoid of curiosity, and Susan’s words were well calculated to awaken it. She called out. “Mak’ thy feet clean an’ come in.”
When Susan pushing open the door came into the light she saw that her questioner was a tall, thin, wiry woman, between fifty and sixty years old. At a glance she observed the cleanliness, tidiness, and brightness of the house. On a large deal table which stood behind the door, and which was scoured until it rivalled in whiteness the clean cloth which covered one end, were currants, flour, and other ingredients for Christmas pies and cakes. Beside it was Miss Bentley, with tucked-up sleeves, busily at work. Before the large bright fire was a large “bowl” full of dough for spiced bread; from the oven came a simmering, and a rich flavour of good cheer pervaded the room. Susan stood timidly on the mat by the door, not venturing further in until she was invited.
Miss Bentley who was then inspecting and arranging the contents of the oven saw, as she turned back to the table, Susan standing in doubt, and the snow hanging on her shawl. “It’s a bad night,” said she, “heavy snow, shak’ it off on the outside, and then shut t’ door, an’ come to t’ fire.”
Miss Bentley, without desisting from her labours, asked Susan, after she was seated, to explain her business. Susan told her briefly that she had a letter from her sister in London, and that it was about some lost money.
“Lost money,” cried Miss Bentley, rolling out the paste; “it’s some of Sam’s fond work again—where’s the letter, my girl?”
Susan took out a letter. Miss Bentley came from the table, and with floury fingers, eagerly seized it. Susan, in her forgetfulness, had given her the letter written by Julia to her sister, as well as the one enclosed for Mr. Bentley.
Miss Bentley examined the letter addressed to her brother. Her fingers itched to open it, but her curiosity could not overcome her repugnance to opening a letter addressed to another. Without saying a word she put it in her pocket, and then, taking up Julia’s letter to Susan, deliberately read it through. It did not give her much information as to the writer or receiver, for it had no address, and was signed “Julia;” it expressed sorrow for her sister’s misfortune, hoped it would be a warning, assured her of continued love, of joy at the prospect of re-union, and then spoke of Mr. Bentley’s visit, of the loss and finding of the note, of anxiety for its return, and for payment of her small account, as she was almost penniless, and the care of the note was heavy on her mind.
“I am not a good hand at reading writing,” said Miss Bentley, as she returned the letter to Susan, “an’ don’t exactly mak’ it out, but it seems that Sam has not known how to tak’ care of his money, an’ haz been disgracin’ himsel’ wi’ gettin’ into debt an’ dirt wi’ a poor woman that hazn’t a penny. What he wanted wi’ her I can’t imagine. I al’ays thought it would come to this. He shall know my mind when he comes in. The ungrateful beast.” In the meantime she vented her anger on the paste she was making up, belabouring it with the rolling-pin, and beating it with her hands with a spirit and zest typical of the treatment which her brother was to receive. By-and-by, as she drew a tin full of mince-pies from the oven, fragrant, crisp and hot, and was passing Susan with them, she said to her, “Tak’ one or two, my lass,” and then saw that Susan was weeping. The warmth of the fire had Hushed her face, her bright brown hair had, on one side, slipped from its fastenings and hung in long wavy curls on her shoulder. Her eyes were turned to the ground, and half closed, and thro’ the long soft lashes the tears were streaming fast.
Miss Bentley put down her tin, and went at once to Susan, took her hands within her own, and fumbled with them until she found her pulse, and then muttered “Feverish—excitement—half-starved, too.” Then, speaking to Susan, said sharply, but kindly, “What ails thee, lass?” Susan wept on. The contending emotions of the evening, added to her long struggle against illness and stinted food, to enable her to save money to return to her sister, had undermined her strength, and as she reflected, as she sat, that she was in Henry’s home, an unregarded stranger amongst the things made dear to her by his life amongst them,—she was overcome. She was vexed and ashamed of her weakness, but she could not control her emotions.
Miss Bentley had hitherto scarcely noticed her, but as she stood beside her she was struck with the beauty of her countenance, and as she looked at her it seemed as if the sight was familiar to her, or like the suddenly recalled recollection of a dream—new, yet not novel; fresh, and yet as having the dearness of long acquaintance. “What’s your name?” asked she.
“Oh!” and the little half-articulated sound was expressive as much of disappointment as of relief.
“Your sister’s name?”
Miss Bentley’s curiosity seemed satisfied, and the cakes in the oven claimed her attention. For a while she carried on her operations in silence, but kept glancing towards Susan, and then muttered, “It may be, there was a Julia and a Susan” returned to the charge, saying, “Thy mother living?”
“No,” and this reference to her loss made her tears again gush out.
“Wert thou born in London?”
Susan brushed the tears from her eyes and tried to smile as she replied, “Oh, no, I’m a Yorkshire girl, born at Burley.”
Miss Bentley threw down her half kneaded loaf, left the table, and standing by Susan’s chair, said anxiously, “Thy mother’s name?”
“I was called after some one who died young, and they thought I was like her,—an aunt, I think—but my mother’s name was Martha.”
“Why, lass,” cried Miss Bentley, throwing her arms round Susan, and kissing her heartily, “thou’rt my own cousin. How strangely things come about, an’ I’ve wondered what had become on ye, an’ Sam, an ill-natured beggar—I’ve no patience wi’ him—wouldn’t let me find ye out, Susan, after my poor aunt. Thou’rt her very marrow, as like as twin cherries.” Again, in her warm-hearted welcoming she kissed her. Her hand slipped down Susan’s dress. She felt it was wet. “Stand up, lass,” she cried, “what’s this?”
When Susan moved, her cousin saw there was a pool of water where she had sat. The snow, which had gathered in her thin dress, had melted, and soaked through to the floor.
“Why, mercy, bairn, thou’rt wet through, an’ scarce a thing on—I mun n’t loise thee as soon as I’ve fun’ thee!”
She hurried Susan up-stairs; hunted amongst her hoarded stores, and soon produced abundant clothing, which she insisted on Susan putting on until her own things were dried, and bringing out an old-fashioned rich blue silk frock, said to her, “We read i’ t’ book about t’ killing t’ fatted calf when t’ prodigal cam* back, but I never rightly made it out, as a calf’s a poor thing for a feast, but I do understand about t’ best robe, so thou shall hev this on, an’ as to ring on t’ finger, somebody’ll do that some o’ these days, for thou’rt bonnie enough for ony on ’em. This frock wor I made for Susan Bentley, thy aunt, an’ let’s see how thou suits it. Now, don’t hurry on, I’ll tell thee when to come down.”
When her cousin left the room, Susan fell on her knees by the bed, and wept as if her heart would break. She was confused by the rapid change; excited by the thought that he was of her own family, that she was not so far removed from him as before, and alarmed lest he should return whilst she was there, and think that she had been waiting for him, or deceiving him by concealing from him the fact (hitherto undreamed of by her) of her relationship to him. In the midst of this tumult of feeling and agitation, she heard the house door open. Mr. Bentley had come in.
“Where’s Harry?” was his first inquiry; “hasn’t he been home?”
His sister, in a provoking tone, which, whilst it pierced and wounded, pretended to be considerate and restrained, replied, “I know nought ’bout I Harry, an’ I don’t want to do. I’ve plenty to think on wi’out him.”
There was a short silence. Mr. Bentley saw, from his sister’s face, that something was amiss, and he waited for the explanation or explosion, whatever it might be. It soon came.
“I’ve gotten,” said she, slowly and impressively, “some news for Sam Bentley.”
“Out wi’ ’em,” said he, a smile accompanying his usual jerk, as if to help it to say that the hawk was going to pounce down, but he was ready for it. “Out wi’ ’t at once. Missus?”
Miss Bentley was more than usually intent upon the elaborate finishing off of her pie-crusts, and continued to stand with her back to her brother, contriving to get a sly look at him without being perceived, as she replied, “But I’m sadly ’fraid, Sam, thou can’t ’bide them. They’re shocking bad news, Some ’at about a Lun’on lass.”
“Hang it!” cried Sam, jumping up and stamping on the hearth, “bad news fly like t’ wind—has thou heard it? An idle good-for-nothing! Could mak’ no better use o’ his time an’ his brass than to tak’ up wi’ a common hand—a hussey—that’s known all over t’ town. Let him show his face here to-night, an’ I’ll thrash him within an inch o’ his life, as sure as his name ’s Harry Bentley.”
Miss Bentley, at the commencement of this tirade, gave a cunning smile, and chuckled at the trap which she thought he had fallen into; but as her brother continued, she became puzzled to know his meaning, and when he finished by naming her nephew she turned round, and leaning against the table with a mixture of indignation and surprise, said, “What’s all this rigmarole about? What has Harry to do with it? It’s thee I’m talking about.”
Bentley replied, “An’ its Harry I’m talkin’ on. He’s ta’en up wi’ a common factory-lass, and been spendin’ all he has on her, got into debt an’ dirt, an’ he’s out wi’ her now. A hypocritical villain! If he comes here again, I’ll turn him out!”
He soused himself into his chair, leaving his sister standing in the middle of the floor, rolling-pin in hand, lost in amazement.
“Thou may looik at me,” continued Sam. “I tell thee it’s true, Harry is a scamp—he’s bad at t’ heart. He wants to tak’ her to Lun’on, an’ they say he ’s spent fifty pund on fine clothes an’ things for her—he’s stol’n it if he haz.”
“I don’t believe it,” said his aunt. “Ask him when he comes. He never telled me a lie. He’ll speak truth if he speak at all. I’d very much sooiner believe that thou gav’ somebody fifty pund when thou were in Lun’on. I know thou does such things. I wonder thou can hold thy head up when thou comes back, and can tell such fond tales about thy own flesh an’ blood. I’ve ’bout done wi’ thee. Here hev’ I been toilin’ an’ moilin’ for thee all my life, an’ I know no more how things go nor t’ engine-driver, nor so much. I daresay thou does talk wi’ him at times. Thou says there’s brass, but I don’t know what to think ’bout it—I see little on it, but fine folk in Lun’on can hev’ a fifty pund note like winkin’ fro’ Sam Bentley that can’t thoil his own sister sixpence. Thou’rt on t’ road to t’ workhous’ at last an’ to auld Nick afterwards. I mun look out for a place soon. I’ve stopped wi’ thee until I’m too auld for t’ mill; what’ll become on me I don’t know, and thou won’t care, or thou’d ta’en better care of thy money, an’ not hev’ thrown it about in that sinful way.”
As Miss Bentley began, Sam settled himself comfortably in his corner-chair, pulled off his boots, put his feet in the best position for being comfortably toasted, lit his pipe, and determined to weather out the storm as usual, expecting it to be only an ordinary squall. The allusion to the note took him by surprise. His irritation on Henry’s account made him impatient, and he was anxious that the matter might drop, or the conversation be turned back to Henry, and therefore when his sister paused to gain breath, he said:
“Thy tongue weaves fast, Nance; but it’s light stuff, and not to order. What’s t’use o’ flytin’ ’bout I don’t know what, when Harry’s makin’ a fooil o’ himsel’ or some’at war for a trumped-up factory lass.”
Without suspending her work to which she had returned, as soon as he began to speak, Miss Bentley replied:
“I won’t believe it. He’s not the lad to do’t. Tho’ for the matter o’ that, if he did, there’s nobody to blame but thysel’, who’s set him t’ example wi’ that woman i’ Lon’on. Thou said nought to me ’bout it. I wonder what devilry wor afoot then. Thou little thought o’ them that’s dead an’ gone, or of t’ livin’ either, or thou would hev’ gi’en an account of thysel’ when thou cam’ back. Thou ’st hev better paid thy debts, for I hear thou got sadly in debt up there.”
Bentley could not bear this insinuation—it wounded him in the tenderest part. He thumped the table with his clenched fist until she ceased, and then shouted out:
“It’s a lie! Hold thy tongue, thou blating calf! Who dare say that Sam Bentley owes a farthin’—that he does not pay everything as soon as it’s due?”
“I dare!” said Miss Bentley, calmly stepping up to him, and shaking her hand in his face, “an’ what’s more, I say thou ’s been dunned for it—that I’ve been asked for it. Now, be quiet, Sam, thy sister’s been dunned in thy own house for thy debts.”
He was infuriated. He jumped up, swore, stamped up and down the room, and savagely kicked aside whatever came in his way. His sister went quietly back to her occupation, leaving him to calm down at his own pleasure. A long series of violent gyrations and jerkings—in which the poor sparrow seemed to be beat down by the hawk—worked off his passion, and he returned to his seat and re-lit his pipe, spurting out occasional testy ejaculations and imprecations as parting shots. He longed to ask for an explanation, but he did not know what might be the extent of his sister’s information, and so was afraid to open the subject. He hoped that she would resume her attack, but she pursed up her mouth and maliciously kept silent. In the calm which followed Bentley’s burst of rage, he was startled by a loud noise as of something falling in the room above, and he eagerly asked:
“What’s that? Is Harry up-stairs?”
Miss Bentley, who had for the moment forgotten Susan, now remembered her, and she hastily replied:
“No, Harry isn’t. It’s nought particular. May-be t’ cat, or a winder open, or—it don’t matter what it is.”
The noise was occasioned by Susan. She had listened to the contention until she was greatly excited, and moving suddenly and incautiously she overthrew a chair. She had dressed herself as her cousin had desired, and yielding to the impulse of the moment and to the effect which her own smiling face as seen in the glass produced on her, she had carefully arranged her hair. The conversation which she overheard filled her with grief—she was unacquainted with the character and eccentricities of Bentley and his sister, and she feared there would be a complete breach between them; and besides this, and more clearly, more oppressively that anything beside, she understood that Bentley’s anger against Henry was occasioned solely on her account—that that had led to the quarrel between them, and there, as she knelt weeping by the bedside, she vowed that that impediment to the restoration of Henry to his uncle’s favour should at once and for ever be removed; he could never be anything to her; time became precious, he might return any moment, he must not find her there; she would explain all, she would justify him, and then go back to her old world of trouble and of labour.
Miss Bentley, when she gave her answer to her brother’s last question, was standing facing the stairs, which with an open staircase came down behind her brother’s chair. As she answered him she saw Susan coming softly down the steps. There instantly flashed across her a scheme by which she could alarm or astonish her brother. By a sign she stopped Susan, and then said to him:
“I tell thee, Sam, that if thou goes on as thou ha’ been doin’, thou’ll sooin hev to go to t’ workhouse or t’ treadmill, I don’t know which. Thou knows thou’rt in debt. I never fun’ thee out till now, but I believe thou’s al’ays been in debt. How much thou owes I don’t know—maybe more nor thou can pay i’ this world, but thy dun’s here, an’ thou mun speak for thysel’.”
She beckoned to Susan to come forward, then tapping her brother on the shoulder, said, “Sam, get up, look thy dun in t’ face, can thou say who it is, aye, my lad?”
Following his sister’s pointing finger he looked round and saw Susan, in the antique blue dress, her long light hair floating like a glory round her pale and lovely countenance. His pipe dropped from his hand and fell down upon the hearth; in a voice of excitement and terror, he exclaimed, “Almighty goodness! what is it? My own dear Susan come back again! Oh, what dost thou want wi’ me?” and shrinking in fear back from the figure, he covered his eyes with his hands and dropt back into his chair, and scalding tears streamed from between his fingers. Susan glided forwards, knelt by his side, put her arm round his neck, and said, in her sweet, ringing voice, “I am Susan, Susan Moore.”
“Who art thou?” cried Bentley, looking up with wild excitement, and fixing on her his glowing eyes. “Who did thou say?” He turned inquiringly to his sister. She pointed to Susan and said, “Martha’s daughter—Susan Moore.”
He gazed at her half bewildered, sat some time absorbed in thought, his head resting on his hand. Then his looks brightened, a saucy smile ran over his face—the sparrow jerked about in defiance of the crafty hawk, for now he could unravel the mystery—Susan was Julia’s sister, and from her had his sister derived her information. He could now re-assert himself; he coolly relit his pipe, and turning to Susan, said, “Thou’rt the pictur’ o’ thy aunt. If missus bad thee welcome, I say amen.”
“Gi’e him the letter,” said Miss Bentley, handing it to Susan. He hastily read it over, then crumpled it up in his hand, saying, “Aye, aye, I’m the man—it’s all right—it will be seen to—all right.”
Miss Bentley’s thought and resolve were these: “Humph, Sam thinks he’s master an’ he won’t tell me, but I’ll get that letter an’ t’ brass an’ all if I can.”
A loud knock at the door prevented her from giving some audible expressions of her opinion of Sam’s conduct. She opened it; a rough mill lad, with a most impudent and saucy expression on his face stood there, and in a loud voice that might be heard all down the street, shouted out, “Harry Bentley has sent me to tell ye that he’s goan to Lun’on. I’ve just seen him off by t’ last train wi’ pretty Sue, an’ so he won’t be home to-night, wi’ his compliments an’ me own to t’ master, an’ a happy Christmas.”
“Gone,” cried Bentley, “an’ it’s my fault. In my passion I said to t’ folks I met that I hoped he’d go to Lon’on, for I wouldn’t hev him here again, but I never meant it, an’ he’s ta’en me at my word an’ gi’en himsel’ up to a wicked trash, an’ he’ll be lost and done for.”
“Didst thou say so?” asked his sister lowly and slowly, “that thou’d turn him out for his first fault? How could thou do so to him? He never mistrusted thee, an’ is trust to be all on one side? Thou’rt a hard-hearted money-bag, an’ not a man, let alone a Christian; an’ I tell thee, Sam, tho’ thou’rt my awn an’ me only brother, as there’s a God aboon us, if any harm happens to my poor lad, I’ll never forgi’e thee, never, an’ I shall leave thee i’ t’ mornin’, an’ go an’ seek him till I find him.”
Bentley was frantic. He railed at Henry, at the supposed companion of his flight, and at his own hasty passion. Susan endeavoured to explain, but neither of them would hear her; they had no knowledge that she was acquainted with Henry, and her attempts were wholly useless. Bentley, as he stamped up and down, working himself into a greater rage, exclaimed, “Cursed be—”
“Hush,” instantly cried Susan, interrupting him by pressing her little hand upon his lips, “Hush, no wicked curse on Henry Bentley—if you will but hear me—I know all—he is honest—he is blameless to you in this.”
They turned to her with a vague surprise, scarcely crediting what she said; and Bentley, exasperated at her interference, fiercely asked, “What does thou know of him?”
In a low voice, but firmly and clearly, Susan replied, “It was me he sought. I would not hear him. It was me he wanted, but I would not listen to him because I am but a poor factory girl. It is for me that he has gone away. Oh, let me go back to my sister, far away from here, and let him come home again. Oh, cousin, let me go—I am a stranger to you and he is your own; let me go and never see him again.”
They endeavoured to soothe her, and thereby comforted themselves. The sting was taken from their grief—Harry had left them, but not criminally, with no wrongful companion of his flight, and it was easy to conclude that he would make inquiries and might be heard of at Julia’s shop. Susan was sent to bed, and it was then settled that Miss Bentley should take her up to London next day, when she went to fetch Henry back.
“An’ as next day,” said Bentley sleepily, “is Christmas, an’ I shall be lost wi’out thee an’ Harry, maybe I’ll cam’ up too; an’ we can send Julia a bit o’ some’at for dinner, an’ keep Christmas there, if we find Harry an’ Julia hasn’t spent or made away wi’ t’ note.”
“I fancy thou’ll never see it again, but thou’st better come up an’ looik after it; but thou al’ays said they were a bad lot, an’ depend on’t thou won’t get thy note back again.”