The Wish House
The new Church Visitor had just left after a twenty minutes' call. During that time, Mrs. Ashcroft had used such English as an elderly, experienced, and pensioned cook should, who had seen life in London. She was the readier, therefore, to slip back into easy, ancient Sussex (Ts softening to 'd's as one warmed) when the 'bus brought Mrs. Fettley from thirty miles away for a visit, that pleasant March Saturday. The two had been friends since childhood; but, of late, destiny had separated their meetings by long intervals.
Much was to be said, and many ends, loose since last time, to be ravelled up on both sides, before Mrs. Fettley, with her bag of quilt- patches, took the couch beneath the window commanding the garden, and the football-ground in the valley below.
'Most folk got out at Bush Tye for the match there,' she explained, 'so there weren't no one for me to cushion agin, the last five mile. An' she do just-about bounce ye.'
'You've took no hurt,' said her hostess. 'You don't brittle by agein', Liz.'
Mrs. Fettley chuckled and made to match a couple of patches to her liking. 'No, or I'd ha' broke twenty year back. You can't ever mind when I was so's to be called round, can ye?'
Mrs. Ashcroft shook her head slowly-she never hurried-and went on stitching a sack-cloth lining into a list-bound rush tool-basket. Mrs. Fettley laid out more patches in the Spring light through the geraniums on the window-sill, and they were silent awhile.
'What like's this new Visitor o' yourn?' Mrs. Fettley inquired, with a nod towards the door. Being very short-sighted, she had, on her entrance, almost bumped into the lady.
Mrs. Ashcroft suspended the big packing-needle judicially on high, ere she stabbed home. 'Settin' aside she don't bring much news with her yet, I dunno as I've anythin' special agin her.'
'Ourn, at Keyneslade,' said Mrs. Fettley, 'she's full o' words an' pity, but she don't stay for answers. Ye can get on with your thoughts while she clacks.'
'This 'un don't clack. She's aimin' to be one o' those High Church nuns, like.'
'Ourn's married, but, by what they say, she've made no great gains of it...' Mrs. Fettley threw up her sharp chin. 'Lord! How they dam' cherubim do shake the very bones o' the place!'
The tile-sided cottage trembled at the passage of two specially chartered forty-seat charabancs on their way to the Bush Tye match; a regular Saturday' shopping' 'bus, for the county's capital, fumed behind them; while, from one of the crowded inns, a fourth car backed out to join the procession, and held up the stream of through pleasure-traffic.
'You're as free-tongued as ever, Liz,' Mrs. Ashcroft observed.
'Only when I'm with you. Otherwhiles, I'm Granny-three times over. I lay that basket's for one o' your gran'chiller-ain't it?'
''Tis for Arthur-my Jane's eldest.'
'But he ain't workin' nowheres, is he?'
'No. 'Tis a picnic-basket.'
'You're let off light. My Willie, he's allus at me for money for them aireated wash-poles folk puts up in their gardens to draw the music from Lunnon, like. An' I give it 'im-pore fool me!'
'An' he forgets to give you the promise-kiss after, don't he?' Mrs. Ashcroft's heavy smile seemed to strike inwards.
'He do. 'No odds 'twixt boys now an' forty year back. 'Take all an' give naught-an' we to put up with it! Pore fool we! Three shillin' at a time Willie'll ask me for!'
'They don't make nothin' o' money these days,' Mrs. Ashcroft said.
'An' on'y last week,' the other went on, 'me daughter, she ordered a quarter pound suet at the butchers's; an' she sent it back to 'im to be chopped. She said she couldn't bother with choppin' it.'
'I lay he charged her, then.'
'I lay he did. She told me there was a whisk-drive that afternoon at the Institute, an' she couldn't bother to do the choppin'.'
Mrs. Ashcroft put the last firm touches to the basket-lining. She had scarcely finished when her sixteen-year-old grandson, a maiden of the moment in attendance, hurried up the garden-path shouting to know if the thing were ready, snatched it, and made off without acknowledgment. Mrs. Fettley peered at him closely.
'They're goin' picnickin' somewheres,' Mrs. Ashcroft explained.
'Ah,' said the other, with narrowed eyes. 'I lay he won't show much mercy to any he comes across, either. Now 'oo the dooce do he remind me of, all of a sudden?'
'They must look arter theirselves-'same as we did.' Mrs. Ashcroft began to set out the tea.
'No denyin' you could, Gracie,' said Mrs. Fettley.
'What's in your head now?'
'Dunno...But it come over me, sudden-like-about dat woman from Rye--I've slipped the name-Barnsley, wadn't it?'
'Batten-Polly Batten, you're thinkin' of.'
'That's it-Polly Batten. That day she had it in for you with a hay- fork-'time we was all hayin' at Smalldene-for stealin' her man.'
'But you heered me tell her she had my leave to keep him?' Mrs. Ashcroft's voice and smile were smoother than ever.
'I did--an' we was all looking that she'd prod the fork spang through your breastes when you said it.'
'No-oo. She'd never go beyond bounds-Polly. She shruck too much for reel doin's.'
'Allus seems to me,' Mrs. Fettley said after a pause, 'that a man 'twixt two fightin' women is the foolishest thing on earth. 'Like a dog bein' called two ways.'
'Mebbe. But what set ye off on those times, Liz?'
'That boy's fashion o' carryin' his head an' arms. I haven't rightly looked at him since he's growed. Your Jane never showed it, but-him! Why, 'tis Jim Batten and his tricks come to life again!...Eh?'
'Mebbe. There's some that would ha' made it out so-bein' barren-like, themselves.'
'Oho! Ah well! Dearie, dearie me, now!...An' Jim Batten's been dead this--'
'Seven and twenty year,' Mrs. Ashcroft answered briefly. 'Won't ye draw up, Liz?'
Mrs. Fettley drew up to buttered toast, currant bread, stewed tea, bitter as leather, some home-preserved pears, and a cold boiled pig's tail to help down the muffins. She paid all the proper compliments.
'Yes. I dunno as I've ever owed me belly much,' said Mrs. Ashcroft thoughtfully. 'We only go through this world once.'
'But don't it lay heavy on ye, sometimes?' her guest suggested.
'Nurse says I'm a sight liker to die o' me indigestion than me leg.' For Mrs. Ashcroft had a long-standing ulcer on her shin, which needed regular care from the Village Nurse, who boasted (or others did, for her) that she had dressed it one hundred and three times already during her term of office.
'An' you that was so able, too! It's all come on ye before your full time, like. I've watched ye goin'.' Mrs. Fettley spoke with real affection.
'Somethin's bound to find ye sometime. I've me 'eart left me still,' Mrs. Ashcroft returned.
'You was always big-hearted enough for three. That's somethin' to look back on at the day's eend.'
'I reckon you've your back-lookin's, too,' was Mrs. Ashcroft's answer.
'You know it. But I don't think much regardin' such matters excep' when I'm along with you, Gra'. 'Takes two sticks to make a fire.'
Mrs. Fettley stared, with jaw half-dropped, at the grocer's bright calendar on the wall. The cottage shook again to the roar of the motortraffic, and the crowded football-ground below the garden roared almost as loudly; for the village was well set to its Saturday leisure.
Mrs. Fettley had spoken very precisely for some time without interruption, before she wiped her eyes. 'And,' she concluded, 'they read 'is death-notice to me, out o' the paper last month. O' course it wadn't any o' my becomin' concerns-let be I 'adn't set eyes on him for so long. O' course I couldn't say nor show nothin'. Nor I've no rightful call to go to Eastbourne to see 'is grave, either. I've been schemin' to slip over there by the 'bus some day; but they'd ask questions at 'ome past endurance. So I 'aven't even that to stay me.'
'But you've 'ad your satisfactions?'
'Godd! Yess! Those four years 'e was workin' on the rail near us. An' the other drivers they gave him a brave funeral, too.'
'Then you've naught to cast-up about. 'Nother cup o' tea?'
The light and air had changed a little with the sun's descent, and the two elderly ladies closed the kitchen-door against chill. A couple of jays squealed and skirmished through the undraped apple-trees in the garden. This time, the word was with Mrs. Ashcroft, her elbows on the teatable, and her sick leg propped on a stool...
'Well I never! But what did your 'usband say to that?' Mrs. Fettley asked, when the deep-toned recital halted.
''E said I might go where I pleased for all of 'im. But seein' 'e was bedrid, I said I'd 'tend 'im out. 'E knowed I wouldn't take no advantage of 'im in that state. 'E lasted eight or nine week. Then he was took with a seizure-like; an' laid stone-still for days. Then 'e propped 'imself up abed an' says: "You pray no man'll ever deal with you like you've dealed with some." "An' you?" I says, for you know, Liz, what a rover 'e was. "It cuts both ways," says 'e, "but I'm death-wise, an' I can see what's comin' to you." He died a-Sunday an' was buried a-Thursday...An' yet I'd set a heap by him-one time or- did I ever?'
'You never told me that before,' Mrs. Fettley ventured.
'I'm payin' ye for what ye told me just now. Him bein' dead, I wrote up, sayin' I was free for good, to that Mrs. Marshall in Lunnon-which gave me my first place as kitchen-maid-Lord, how long ago! She was well pleased, for they two was both gettin' on, an' I knowed their ways. You remember, Liz, I used to go to 'em in service between whiles, for years-when we wanted money, or--or my 'usband was away--on occasion.'
''E did get that six months at Chichester, didn't 'e?' Mrs. Fettley whispered. 'We never rightly won to the bottom of it.'
''E'd ha' got more, but the man didn't die.'
''None o' your doin's, was it, Gra'?'
'No! 'Twas the woman's husband this time. An' so, my man bein' dead, I went back to them Marshall's, as cook, to get me legs under a gentleman's table again, and be called with a handle to me name. That was the year you shifted to Portsmouth.'
'Cosham,' Mrs. Fettley corrected. 'There was a middlin' lot o' new buildin' bein' done there. My man went first, an' got the room, an' I follered.'
'Well, then, I was a year-abouts in Lunnon, all at a breath, like, four meals a day an' livin' easy. Then, 'long towards autumn, they two went travellin', like, to France; keepin' me on, for they couldn't do without me. I put the house to rights for the caretaker, an' then I slipped down 'ere to me sister Bessie-me wages in me pockets, an' all 'ands glad to be'old of me.'
'That would be when I was at Cosham,' said Mrs. Fettley.
'You know, Liz, there wasn't no cheap-dog pride to folk, those days, no more than there was cinemas nor whisk-drives. Man or woman 'ud lay hold o' any job that promised a shillin' to the backside of it, didn't they? I was all peaked up after Lunnon, an' I thought the fresh airs 'ud serve me. So I took on at Smalldene, obligin' with a hand at the early potato-liftin, stubbin' hens, an' such-like. They'd ha' mocked me sore in my kitchen in Lunnon, to see me in men's boots, an me petticoats all shorted.'
'Did it bring ye any good?' Mrs. Fettley asked.
''Twadn't for that I went. You know, 's'well's me, that na'un happens to ye till it 'as 'appened. Your mind don't warn ye before'and of the road ye've took, till you're at the far eend of it. We've only a backwent view of our proceedin's.'
''Oo was it?'
''Arry Mockler.' Mrs. Ashcroft's face puckered to the pain of her sick leg.
Mrs. Fettley gasped. ''Arry? Bert Mockler's son! An' I never guessed!'
Mrs. Ashcroft nodded. 'An' I told myself-an' I beleft it-that I wanted field-work.'
'What did ye get out of it?'
'The usuals. Everythin' at first-worse than naught after. I had signs an' warnings a-plenty, but I took no heed of 'em. For we was burnin' rubbish one day, just when we'd come to know how 'twas with-with both of us. 'Twas early in the year for burnin', an' I said so. "No!" says he. "The sooner dat old stuff's off an' done with," 'e says, "the better." 'Is face was harder'n rocks when he spoke. Then it come over me that I'd found me master, which I 'adn't ever before. I'd allus owned 'em, like.'
'Yes! Yes! They're yourn or you're theirn,' the other sighed. 'I like the right way best.'
'I didn't. But 'Arry did...'Long then, it come time for me to go back to Lunnon. I couldn't. I clean couldn't! So, I took an' tipped a dollop o' scaldin' water out o' the copper one Monday mornin' over me left 'and and arm. Dat stayed me where I was for another fortnight.'
'Was it worth it?' said Mrs. Fettley, looking at the silvery scar on the wrinkled fore-arm.
Mrs. Ashcroft nodded. 'An' after that, we two made it up 'twixt us so's 'e could come to Lunnon for a job in a liv'rystable not far from me. 'E got it. I'tended to that. There wadn't no talk nowhere. His own mother never suspicioned how 'twas. He just slipped up to Lunnon, an' there we abode that winter, not 'alf a mile 'tother from each.'
'Ye paid 'is fare an' all, though'; Mrs. Fettley spoke convincedly.
Again Mrs. Ashcroft nodded. 'Dere wadn't much I didn't do for him. 'E was me master, an'-O God, help us!-we'd laugh over it walkin' together after dark in them paved streets, an' me corns fair wrenchin' in me boots! I'd never been like that before. Ner he! Ner he!'
Mrs. Fettley clucked sympathetically.
'An' when did ye come to the eend?' she asked.
'When 'e paid it all back again, every penny. Then I knowed, but I wouldn't suffer meself to know. "You've been mortal kind to me," he says. "Kind!" I said. "'Twixt us?" But 'e kep' all on tellin' me 'ow kind I'd been an' 'e'd never forget it all his days. I held it from off o' me for three evenin's, because I would not believe. Then 'e talked about not bein' satisfied with 'is job in the stables, an' the men there puttin' tricks on 'im, an' all they lies which a man tells when 'e's leavin' ye. I heard 'im out, neither 'elpin' nor 'inderin'. At the last, I took off a fiddle brooch which he'd give me an' I says: "Dat'll do. I ain't askin' na'un'." An' I turned me round an' walked off to me own sufferin's. 'E didn't make 'em worse. 'E didn't come nor write after that. 'E slipped off 'ere back 'ome to 'is mother again.'
'An' 'ow often did ye look for 'en to come back?' Mrs. Fettley demanded mercilessly.
'More'n once-more'n once! Goin' over the streets we'd used, I thought de very pave-stones 'ud shruck out under me feet.'
'Yes,' said Mrs. Fettley. 'I dunno but dat don't 'urt as much as aught else. An' dat was all ye got?'
'No. 'Twadn't. That's the curious part, if you'll believe it, Liz.'
'I do. I lay you're further off lyin' now than in all your life, Gra'.'
'I am...An' I suffered, like I'd not wish my most arrantest enemies to. God's Own Name! I went through the hoop that spring! One part of it was 'eddicks which I'd never known all me days before. Think o' me with an 'eddick! But I come to be grateful for 'em. They kep' me from thinkin'...'
''Tis like a tooth,' Mrs. Fettley commented. 'It must rage an' rugg till it tortures itself quiet on ye; an' then-then there's na'un left.'
'I got enough lef' to last me all my days on earth. It come about through our charwoman's fiddle girl-Sophy Ellis was 'er name-all eyes an' elbers an' hunger. I used to give 'er vittles. Otherwhiles, I took no special notice of 'er, an' a sight less, o' course, when me trouble about 'Arry was on me. But-you know how fiddle maids first feel it sometimes-she come to be crazy-fond o' me, pawin' an' cuddlin' all whiles; an' I 'adn't the 'eart to beat 'er off...One afternoon, early in spring 'twas, 'er mother 'ad sent 'er round to scutchel up what vittles she could off of us. I was settin' by the fire, me apern over me head, halfmad with the 'eddick, when she slips in. I reckon I was middlin' short with 'er. "Lor'!" she says. "Is that all? I'll take it off you in two-twos!" I told her not to lay a finger on me, for I thought she'd want to stroke my forehead; an'-I ain't that make. "I won't tech ye," she says, an' slips out again. She 'adn't been gone ten minutes 'fore me old 'eddick took off quick as bein' kicked. So I went about my work. Prasin'ly, Sophy comes back, an' creeps into my chair quiet as a mouse. 'Er eyes was deep in 'er 'ead an' 'er face all drawed. I asked 'er what 'ad 'appened. "Nothin'," she says. "On'y I've got it now." "Got what?" I says. "Your 'eddick," she says, all hoarse an' sticky-tipped. "I've took it on me." "Nonsense," I says, "it went of itself when you was out. Lay still an' I'll make ye a cup o' tea." "'Twon't do no good," she says, "till your time's up. 'Ow long do your 'eddicks last?" "Don't talk silly," I says, "or I'll send for the Doctor." It looked to me like she might be hatchin' de measles. "Oh, Mrs. Ashcroft," she says, stretchin' out 'er fiddle thin arms. "I do love ye." There wasn't any holdin' agin that. I took 'er into me lap an' made much of 'er. "Is it truly gone?" she says. "Yes," I says, "an' if 'twas you took it away, I'm truly grateful." "'Twas me," she says, layin' 'er cheek to mine. "No one but me knows how." An' then she said she'd changed me 'eddick for me at a Wish 'Ouse.'
'Whatt?' Mrs. Fettley spoke sharply.
'A Wish House. No! I'adn't 'eard o' such things, either. I couldn't get it straight at first, but, puttin' all together, I made out that a Wish 'Ouse 'ad to be a house which 'ad stood unlet an' empty long enough for Some One, like, to come an' in'abit there. She said a fiddle girl that she'd played with in the livery-stables where 'Arty worked 'ad told 'er so. She said the girl 'ad belonged in a caravan that laid up, o' winters, in Lunnon. Gipsy, I judge.'
'Ooh! There's no sayin' what Gippos know, but I've never 'eard of a Wish 'Ouse, an' I know-some things,' said Mrs. Fettley.
'Sophy said there was a Wish 'Ouse in Wadloes Road just a few streets off, on the way to our green-grocer's. All you 'ad to do, she said, was to ring the bell an' wish your wish through the slit o' the letter-box. I asked 'er if the fairies give it 'er? "Don't ye know," she says, "there's no fairies in a Wish 'Ouse? There's on'y a Token."'
'Goo' Lord A'mighty! Where did she come by that word?' cried Mrs. Fettley; for a Token is a wraith of the dead or, worse still, of the living.
'The caravan-girl 'ad told 'er, she said. Well, Liz, it troubled me to 'ear 'er, an' lyin' in me arms she must ha' felt it. "That's very kind o' you," I says, holdin' 'er tight, "to wish me 'eddick away. But why didn't ye ask somethin' nice for yourself?" "You can't do that," she says. "All you'll get at a Wish 'Ouse is leave to take some one else's trouble. I've took Ma's 'eddicks, when she's been kind to me; but this is the first time I've been able to do aught for you. Oh, Mrs. Ashcroft, I do just-about love you." An' she goes on all like that. Liz, I tell you my 'air e'en a'most stood on end to 'ear 'er. I asked 'er what like a Token was. "I dunno," she says, "but after you've ringed the bell, you'll 'ear it run up from the basement, to the front door. Then say your wish," she says, "an' go away." "The Token don't open de door to ye, then?" I says. "Oh no," she says. "You on'y 'ear gigglin', like, be'ind the front door. Then you say you'll take the trouble off of 'oo ever 'tis you've chose for your love; an' yell get it," she says. I didn't ask no more-she was too 'ot an' fevered. I made much of 'er till it come time to light de gas, an' a fiddle after that, 'er 'eddick-mine, I suppose-took off, an' she got down an' played with the cat.'
'Well, I never!' said Mrs. Fettley. 'Did-did ye foller it up, anyways?'
'She askt me to, but I wouldn't 'ave no such dealin's with a child.'
'What did ye do, then?'
''Sat in me own room 'stid o' the kitchen when me 'eddicks come on. But it lay at de back o' me mind.'
''Twould. Did she tell ye more, ever?'
'No. Besides what the Gippo girl 'ad told 'er, she knew naught, 'cept that the charm worked. An', next after that-in May 'twas-I suffered the summer out in Lunnon. 'Twas hot an' windy for weeks, an' the streets stinkin' o' dried 'orsedung blowin' from side to side an' lyin' level with the kerb. We don't get that nowadays. I 'ad my 'ol'day just before hoppin', an' come down 'ere to stay with Bessie again. She noticed I'd lost flesh, an' was all poochy under the eyes.'
'Did ye see 'Arry'
Mrs. Ashcroft nodded. 'The fourth-no, the fifth day. Wednesday 'twas. I knowed 'e was workin' at Smalldene again. I asked 'is mother in the street, bold as brass. She 'adn't room to say much, for Bessie-you know 'er tongue-was talkin' full-clack. But that Wednesday, I was walkin' with one o' Bessie's chillern hangin' on me skirts, at de back o' Chanter's Tot. Prasin'ly, I felt 'e was be'ind me on the footpath, an' I knowed by 'is tread 'e'd changed 'is nature. I slowed, an' I heard 'im slow. Then I fussed a piece with the child, to force him past me, like. So 'e 'ad to come past. 'E just says "Good-evenin'," and goes on, tryin' to pull 'isself together.'
'Drunk, was he?' Mrs. Fettley asked.
'Never! S'runk an' wizen; 'is clothes 'angin' on 'im like bags, an' the back of 'is neck whiter'n chalk. 'Twas all I could do not to oppen my arms an' cry after him. But I swallered me spittle till I was back 'ome again an' the chillern abed. Then I says to Bessie, after supper, "What in de world's come to 'Arry Mockler?" Bessie told me 'e'd been a-Hospital for two months, 'long o' cuttin' 'is foot wid a spade, muckin' out the old pond at Smalldene. There was poison in de dirt, an' it rooshed up 'is leg, like, an' come out all over him. 'E 'adn't been back to 'is job-carterin' at Smalldene-more'n a fortnight. She told me the Doctor said he'd go off, likely, with the November frostes; an' 'is mother 'ad told 'er that 'e didn't rightly eat nor sleep, an' sweated 'imself into pools, no odds 'ow chill 'e lay. An' spit terrible o' mornin's. "Dearie me," I says. "But, mebbe, hoppin' 'll set 'im right again," an' I licked me thread-point an' I fetched me needle's eye up to it an' I threads me needle under de lamp, steady as rocks. An' dat night (me bed was in de wash-house) I cried an' I cried. An' you know, Liz-for you've been with me in my throes-it takes summat to make me cry.'
'Yes; but Chile-bearin' is on'y just pain,' said Mrs. Fettley.
'I come round by cock-crow, an' dabbed cold tea on me eyes to take away the signs. Long towards nex' evenin'-I was settin' out to lay some flowers on me 'usband's grave, for the look o' the thing-I met 'Arry over against where the War Memorial is now. 'E was comin' back from 'is 'orses, so 'e couldn't not see me. I looked 'im all over, an' "'Arry," I says twix' me teeth, "come back an' rest-up in Lunnon." "I won't take it," he says, "for I can give ye naught." "I don't ask it," I says. "By God's Own Name, I don't ask na'un! On'y come up an' see a Lunnon doctor." 'E lifts 'is two 'eavy eyes at me: "'Tis past that, Gra'," 'e says. "I've but a few months left." "'Arry!" I says. "My man!" I says. I couldn't say no more. 'Twas all up in me throat. "Thank ye kindly, Gra'," 'e says (but 'e never says "my woman"), an' 'e went on upstreet an' 'is mother-Oh, damn 'er!-she was watchin' for 'im, an' she shut de door be'ind 'im.'
Mrs. Fettley stretched an arm across the table, and made to finger Mrs. Ashcroft's sleeve at the wrist, but the other moved it out of reach.
'So I went on to the churchyard with my flowers, an' I remembered my 'usband's warnin' that night he spoke. 'E was death-wise, an' it 'ad 'appened as 'e said. But as I was settin' down de jam-pot on the grave-mound, it come over me there was one thing I could do for 'Arry. Doctor or no Doctor, I thought I'd make a trial of it. So I did. Nex' mornin', a bill came down from our Lunnon green-grocer. Mrs. Marshall, she'd lef' me petty cash for suchlike-o' course-but I tole Bess 'twas for me to come an' open the 'ouse. So I went up, afternoon train.'
'An'-but I know you 'adn't-'adn't you no fear?'
'What for? There was nothin' front o' me but my own shame an' God's croolty. I couldn't ever get 'Arry-'ow could I? I knowed it must go on burnin' till it burned me out.'
'Aie!' said Mrs. Fettley, reaching for the wrist again, and this time Mrs. Ashcroft permitted it.
'Yit 'twas a comfort to know I could try this for 'im. So I went an' I paid the green-grocer's bill, an' put 'is receipt in me hand-bag, an' then I stepped round to Mrs. Ellis-our char-an' got the 'ouse-keys an' opened the 'ouse. First, I made me bed to come back to (God's Own Name! Me bed to lie upon!). Nex' I made me a cup o' tea an' sat down in the kitchen thinkin', till 'long towards dusk. Terrible close, 'twas. Then I dressed me an' went out with the receipt in me 'and-bag, feignin' to study it for an address, like. Fourteen, Wadloes Road, was the place-a liddle basement-kitchen 'ouse, m a row of twenty-thirty such, an' tiddy strips o' walled garden in front-the paint off the front doors, an' na'un done to na'un since ever so long. There wasn't 'ardly no one in the streets 'cept the cats. 'Twas 'ot, too! I turned into the gate bold as brass; up de steps I went an' I ringed the front-door bell. She pealed loud, like it do in an empty house. When she'd all ceased, I 'eard a cheer, like, pushed back on de floor o' the kitchen. Then I 'eard feet on de kitchen-stairs, like it might ha' been a heavy woman in slippers. They come up to de stairhead, acrost the hall-I 'eard the bare boards creak under 'em-an' at de front door dey stopped. I stooped me to the letter-box slit, an' I says: "Let me take everythin' bad that's in store for my man, 'Arry Mockler, for love's sake." Then, whatever it was 'tother side de door let its breath out, like, as if it 'ad been holdin' it for to 'ear better.'
'Nothin' was said to ye?' Mrs. Fettley demanded.
'Na'un. She just breathed out-a sort of A-ah, like. Then the steps went back an' downstairs to the kitchen-all draggy-an' I heard the cheer drawed up again.'
'An' you abode on de doorstep, throughout all, Gra'?'
Mrs. Ashcroft nodded.
'Then I went away, an' a man passin' says to me: "Didn't you know that house was empty?" "No," I says. "I must ha' been give the wrong number." An' I went back to our 'ouse, an' I went to bed; for I was fair flogged out. 'Twas too 'ot to sleep more'n snatches, so I walked me about, lyin' down betweens, till crack o' dawn. Then I went to the kitchen to make me a cup o' tea, an' I hitted meself just above the ankle on an old roastin' jack o' mine that Mrs. Ellis had moved out from the corner, her last cleanin'. An' so-nex' after that-I waited till the Marshalls come back o' their holiday.'
'Alone there? I'd ha' thought you'd 'ad enough of empty houses,' said Mrs. Fettley, horrified.
'Oh, Mrs. Ellis an' Sophy was runnin' in an' out soon's I was back, an' 'twixt us we cleaned de house again top-to-bottom. There's allus a hand's turn more to do in every house. An' that's 'ow 'twas with me that autumn an' winter, in Lunnon.'
'Then na'un hap-overtook ye for your doin's?'
Mrs. Ashcroft smiled. 'No. Not then. 'Long in November I sent Bessie ten shillin's.'
'You was allus free-'anded,' Mrs. Fettley interrupted.
'An' I got what I paid for, with the rest o' the news. She said the hoppin' 'ad set 'im up wonderful. 'E'd 'ad six weeks of it, and now 'e was back again carterin' at Smalldene. No odds to me 'ow it 'ad 'appened-'slong's it 'ad. But I dunno as my ten shillin's eased me much. 'Arry bein' dead, like, 'e'd ha' been mine, till Judgment. 'Arry bein' alive, 'e'd like as not pick up with some woman middlin' quick. I raged over that. Come spring, I 'ad somethin' else to rage for. I'd growed a nasty little weepin' boil, like, on me shin, just above the boot-top, that wouldn't heal no shape. It made me sick to look at it, for I'm clean-fleshed by nature. Chop me all over with a spade, an' I'd heal like turf. Then Mrs. Marshall she set 'er own doctor at me. 'E said I ought to ha' come to him at first go-off, 'stead o' drawn' all manner o' dyed stockm's over it for months. 'E said I'd stood up too much to me work, for it was settin' very close atop of a big swelled vein, like, behither the small o' me ankle. "Slow come, slow go," 'e says. "Lay your leg up on high an' rest it," he says, "an' 'twill ease off. Don't let it close up too soon. You've got a very fine leg, Mrs. Ashcroft," 'e says. An' he put wet dressin's on it.'
''E done right.' Mrs. Fettley spoke firmly. 'Wet dressin's to wet wounds. They draw de humours, same's a lamp-wick draws de oil.'
'That's true. An' Mrs. Marshall was allus at me to make me set down more, an' dat nigh healed it up. An' then after a while they packed me off down to Bessie's to finish the cure; for I ain't the sort to sit down when I ought to stand up. You was back in the village then, Liz.'
'I was. I was, but-never did I guess!'
'I didn't desire ye to.' Mrs. Ashcroft smiled. 'I saw 'Arry once or twice in de street, wonnerful fleshed up an' restored back. Then, one day I didn't see 'im, an' 'is mother told me one of 'is 'orses 'ad lashed out an' caught 'im on the 'ip. So 'e was abed an' middlin' painful. An' Bessie, she says to his mother, 'twas a pity 'Arry 'adn't a woman of 'is own to take the nursin' off 'er. And the old lady was mad! She told us that 'Arry 'ad never looked after any woman in 'is born days, an' as long as she was atop the mowlds, she'd contrive for 'im till 'er two 'ands dropped off. So I knowed she'd do watch-dog for me, 'thout askin' for bones.'
Mrs. Fettley rocked with small laughter.
'That day,' Mrs. Ashcroft went on, 'I'd stood on me feet nigh all the time, watchin' the doctor go in an' out; for they thought it might be 'is ribs, too. That made my boil break again, issuin' an' weepin'. But it turned out 'twadn't ribs at all, an' 'Arry 'ad a good night. When I heard that, nex' mornin', I says to meself, "I won't lay two an' two together yit. I'll keep me leg down a week, an' see what comes of it." It didn't hurt me that day, to speak of-'seemed more to draw the strength out o' me like-an' 'Arry 'ad another good night. That made me persevere; but I didn't dare lay two an' two together till the week- end, an' then, 'Arry come forth e'en a'most 'imself again-na'un hurt outside ner in of him. I nigh fell on me knees in de washhouse when Bessie was up-street. "I've got ye now, my man," I says. "You'll take your good from me 'thout knowin' it till my life's end. O God, send me long to live for 'Arry's sake!" I says. An' I dunno that didn't still me ragin's.'
'For good?' Mrs. Fettley asked.
'They come back, plenty times, but, let be how 'twould, I knowed I was doin' for 'im. I knowed it. I took an' worked me pains on an' off, like regulatin' my own range, till I learned to 'ave 'em at my commandments. An' that was funny, too. There was times, Liz, when my trouble 'ud all s'rink an' dry up, like. First, I used to try an' fetch it on again; bein' fearful to leave 'Arry alone too long for anythin' to lay 'old of. Prasin'ly I come to see that was a sign he'd do all right awhile, an' so I saved myself'
''Ow long for?' Mrs. Fettley asked, with deepest interest.
'I've gone de better part of a year onct or twice with na'un more to show than the liddle weepin' core of it, like. All s'rinked up an' dried off. Then he'd inflame up-for a warnin'-an' I'd suffer it. When I couldn't no more-an' I 'ad to keep on goin' with my Lunnon work-I'd lay me leg high on a cheer till it eased. Not too quick. I knowed by the feel of it, those times, dat 'Arry was in need. Then I'd send another five shillin's to Bess, or somethin' for the chillern, to find out if, mebbe, 'e'd took any hurt through my neglects. 'Twas so! Year in, year out, I worked it dat way, Liz, an' 'e got 'is good from me 'thout knowin'-for years and years.'
'But what did you get out of it, Gra'?' Mrs. Fettley almost wailed. 'Did ye see 'im reg'lar?'
'Times-when I was 'ere on me 'ol'days. An' more, now that I'm 'ere for good. But 'e's never looked at me, ner any other woman 'cept 'is mother. 'Ow I used to watch an' listen! So did she.'
'Years an' years!' Mrs. Fettley repeated. 'An' where's 'e workin' at now?'
'Oh, 'e's give up carterin' quite a while. He's workin' for one o' them big tractorisin' firms-plowin' sometimes, an' sometimes off with lorries-fur as Wales, I've 'eard. He comes 'ome to 'is mother 'tween whiles; but I don't set eyes on him now, fer weeks on end. No odds! 'Is job keeps 'im from continuin' in one stay anywheres.'
'But just for de sake o' sayin' somethin'-s'pose 'Arry did get married?' said Mrs. Fettley.
Mrs. Ashcroft drew her breath sharply between her still even and natural teeth. 'Dat ain't been required of me,' she answered. 'I reckon my pains 'ull be counted agin that. Don't you, Liz?'
'It ought to be, dearie. It ought to be.'
'It do 'urt sometimes. You shall see it when Nurse comes. She thinks I don't know it's turned.'
Mrs. Fettley understood. Human nature seldom walks up to the word 'cancer.'
'Be ye certain sure, Gra'?' she asked.
'I was sure of it when old Mr. Marshall 'ad me up to 'is study an' spoke a long piece about my faithful service. I've obliged 'em on an' off for a goodish time, but not enough for a pension. But they give me a weekly 'lowance for life. I knew what that sinnified-as long as three years ago.
'Dat don't prove it, Gra'.'
'To give fifteen bob a week to a woman 'oo'd live twenty year in the course o' nature? It do!'
'You're mistook! You're mistook!' Mrs. Fettley insisted.
'Liz, there's no mistakin' when the edges are all heaped up, like-same as a collar. You'll see it. An' I laid out Dora Wickwood, too. She 'ad it under the arm-pit, like.'
Mrs. Fettley considered awhile, and bowed her head in finality.
''Ow long d'you reckon 'twill allow ye, countin' from now, dearie?'
'Slow come, slow go. But if I don't set eyes on ye 'fore next hoppin', this'll be good-bye, Liz.'
'Dunno as I'll be able to manage by then-not 'thout I have a liddle dog to lead me. For de chillern, dey won't be troubled, an'-O Gra'! I'm blindin' up-I'm blindin' up!'
'Oh, dat was why you didn't more'n finger with your quilt-patches all this while! I was wonderin'...But the pain do count, don't ye think, Liz? The pain do count to keep 'Arry where I want 'im. Say it can't be wasted, like.'
'I'm sure of it-sure of it, dearie. You'll 'ave your reward.'
'I don't want no more'n this-if de pain is taken into de reckonin'.'
''Twill be-'twill be, Gra'.'
There was a knock on the door.
'That's Nurse. She's before 'er time,' said Mrs. Ashcroft. 'Open to 'er.'
The young lady entered briskly, all the bottles in her bag clicking. 'Evenin', Mrs. Ashcroft,' she began. 'I've come raound a little earlier than usual because of the Institute dance to-na-ite. You won't ma-ind, will you?
'Oh, no. Me dancin' days are over.' Mrs. Ashcroft was the self- contained domestic at once.
'My old friend, Mrs. Fettley 'ere, has been settin' talkin' with me a while.'
'I hope she 'asn't been fatiguing you?' said the Nurse a little frostily.
'Quite the contrary. It 'as been a pleasure. Only-only-just at the end I felt a bit-a bit flogged out like.'
'Yes, yes.' The Nurse was on her knees already, with the washes to hand. 'When old ladies get together they talk a deal too much, I've noticed.'
'Mebbe we do,' said Mrs. Fettley, rising. 'So now I'll make myself scarce.'
'Look at it first, though,' said Mrs. Ashcroft feebly. 'I'd like ye to look at it.'
Mrs. Fettley looked, and shivered. Then she leaned over, and kissed Mrs. Ashcroft once on the waxy yellow forehead, and again on the faded grey eyes.
'It do count, don't it-de pain?' The lips that still kept trace of their original moulding hardly more than breathed the words.
Mrs. Fettley kissed them and moved towards the door.
What is a God beside Woman? Dust and derision!