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- The Underworld - 2/49 -
"And who are you?" she asked a little nervously, but trying to master the alarm in her voice.
"Do you not ken me?" replied the voice with an attempt to speak as naturally as possible; yet there was something in the tone that made her more uneasy.
Then the figure of the man drew nearer, and he whispered "Are they all sleeping?" alluding to the inmates of the house.
"Ay," she answered, drawing back into the shelter of the doorway. "Why do you ask? And what is it you want?"
"Oh, I just came along to see how you were all getting on," was the reply. "I ken you must be in very straitened circumstances by this time, and thought I might be able to help you a bit," and there was an ingratiating tone in the words now as he sidled nearer. "You must have a very hard battle just now, and I would like to do something to help you."
"Come away in," said the woman, with still an uneasy tremor in her voice, yet feeling more assured. "Geordie is sleeping, but he'll not be hard to waken up. Come away in, and let us see who you are, and tell us what you really want."
"No, I'm no' coming in," he whispered hoarsely. "Do you no' ken me? Shut the door and not let any of them hear. I'm wanting you!" and he stepped into the light and reached forward his hand, as if to draw her to him.
Mrs. Sinclair gasped and recoiled in horror, as she recognized who it was that stood before her.
"No," she cried decisively, stepping further back into the shelter of the house, her voice low and intense with indignation. "No, I have not come to that yet, thank God. Gang home, you dirty brute, that you are! I'll be very ill off when I ask anything, or take anything, from you, Jock Walker!" For it was well known in Lowwood that Jock Walker's errands to people in distress had always in them an ulterior motive.
He was the under manager at the pits, and his reputation was of the blackest. There were men in the village of Lowwood who were well aware of this man's relations with their wives, and they openly agreed to the sale of the honor of their women folk in return for what he gave them in the shape of contracts, at which they could make more money than their neighbors, or good "places," where the coal was easier won. In fact, to be a contractor was a synonym for this sort of dealing, for no one ever got a contract from Walker unless his wife, or his daughter, was a woman of easy virtue, and at the service of this man.
"Very well," replied Walker with chagrined anger. "Please yourself. But let me tell you that you'll maybe no' ay be so high and mighty; you'll maybe be dam'd glad yet of the chance that I have given you."
"No, no," protested Mrs. Sinclair. "Go away--"
"Look here, Nellie," he said, his voice changing to a low pleading tone, "you're in a hole. You must be. Be a sensible woman, and you'll never need to be so ill-grippet again. I can put Geordie in a position that he'll make any amount of money as soon as he is able to start. You are not a bit better than anyone else, and for the sake of your bairns you should be sensible. And forby," he went on, as if now more sure of his ground, "what the hell's wrang in it? It's no' what folk do that is wrong. It's in being found out. Now come away and be sensible. You ken what is wanted, and you ken that I can make you well off for it."
"No, by heavens," she cried, now tingling with anger at the insult. "Never! Get out of this, you brute! If Geordie Sinclair had been able this nicht, I'd have got him to deal with you. Get out of here, or I'll cleave your rotten body, and let out your rotten heart." And she turned in, and closed and bolted the door, leaving Walker fuming with anger at the repulse of his advances. Nellie Sinclair had never felt so outraged in all her life before. She was trembling with anger at the insult of his proposals. She paced the floor in her stockinged feet, as if a wild spirit were raging within her demanding release; then finally she flung herself into the "big chair," disgust and anger in her heart, and for the second time that night burst into a passionate fit of weeping, which seemed to shake her body almost asunder. For a long time she sat thus, sobbing, her whole being burning with indignation, and her mind in a fury of disgust and rebellion.
Then there was a faint stirring in the bed where the children slept, and a little boy's form began to crawl from amongst the rough bedclothes, his eyes gazing in amazement at the bowed figure of his mother. She was crying, he concluded, for her shoulders were heaving and it must be something very bad that made his beautiful mother cry like this. He crept across the bare wooden floor, his bare sturdy legs showing beneath the short and meager shirt, and was soon at her side.
"What's wrang wi' you, mother?" he asked, as he put his soft little hand upon her head. "What's wrang wi' you? Will I kiss you held and make it better?" But his mother did not look up--only the big sobs continued to shake her, and the boy becoming alarmed at this, also began to cry, as he placed his little head against hers. "Oh, mother, dinna greet," he sobbed, "and I'll kiss your heid till it's better."
At last she lifted her head, and seeing the naked boy, she caught him in her arms and crushed him to her breast, as if she would smother him. This was strange conduct for his usually undemonstrative mother; but it was nice to be hugged like that, even though she did cry.
"What made you greet, mother?" he queried, for he had never before, in all his four years, seen his mother cry. For answer she merely caught him closer to her breast, her hair falling soft and warm all over him as she did so.
"Was you hungry, mither?" he tried again.
"No' very," she answered, choking back her sobs.
"Are you often hungry, too, mither?" he persisted, feeling encouraged at getting an answer at last.
"Sometimes," she replied. "But dinna bother me, Rob," she continued. "Gang away to your bed like a man."
He was silent for a time at this repulse, and lay upon her knee puzzling over the matter.
"Do you greet when you are hungry?" he enquired, with: wide-eyed earnestness and surprise.
"There noo," she answered, "don't ask so many questions, Daddy'll not be long till he is better again, and when he is at work there'll be plenty of pieces to keep us all from being hungry."
"And will there be jeely for the pieces?" pursued the boy, for it seemed to him that there had never been a time when there was plenty to eat.
"Yes, we'll get plenty o' jeely too," she replied, drying the remaining tears from her eyes, and hugging him again to her breast.
"Oh, my," he said, with a deep sigh. "I wish my father was better!" and the little lips were moistened by his tongue, as if in anticipation of the coming feast.
Another silence; and then came the query--"What way do we not get plenty o' pieces when my daddy's no' working? Does folk no' get them then?"
"No, Robin," she answered, "but dinna fash your wee noddle with that. You'll find out all about it when you get big. Shut your eyes and mother'll sing, an' you'll go to sleep." And he snuggled in and shut his eyes, while Mrs. Sinclair gathered him softly to her breast and began to croon an old ballad.
As she sang it seemed to the boy that there were no such things as "jelly-pieces" to bother about. He liked his mother to sing to him, for he seemed to get rolled up in her soft, warm voice, and become restful and happy. Gradually the low crooning song grew fainter in his ears, the flicker of the fire danced further and further away, until long streaks of golden thready light seemed to reach out, straight from his eyes to the fireplace, and all the comfort that it was possible to have flowed through his soul, and at last he slept. Mrs. Sinclair placed him beside his brothers and sisters in the bed and went back to finish her knitting. The night was far gone before she accomplished her task, and she stood and surveyed her humble home with weariness in her heart.
Through the dim smoke which hung like a blue cloud along the roof, and made more seemingly thick by the small lamp upon the table, she looked at her husband lying asleep, and so far free from pain. Then her eyes traveled to the children in the other bed, and they filled with tears as she thought that she had had to put them supperless to bed that night, and again rebellion surged through her blood as she thought of all the misery of her life. Was it worth living and going on in this way? Was it worth while to continue? What had she done to reap all this suffering?
She was hungry and weak and exhausted. Perhaps if she could sleep she would forget it, and in the morning the socks she had finished would bring her a few pence, and that would mean food.
She decided to go to bed, and in passing by the shelf at the window, her eye caught sight of a plateful of potato skins, the remains of the meager dinner of boiled potatoes which the children had had; and clutching them, she began greedily to devour them, filling her mouth and cramming them in in handfuls, until it seemed as if she would choke herself. Then, licking the plate clean of every crumb, she undressed and slipped quietly into bed, to lie and fret and toss, as she thought of the insult which Black Jock had offered her, and pondered over the unhappy lot of her children and their injured father.
A TURN OF THE SCREW
On the Friday following Jock Walker's visit to Mrs. Sinclair, a notice was put up at the pit by Peter Pegg and Andrew Marshall, to the effect that a collection would be taken next day on behalf of Geordie Sinclair. The notice was posted up before Andrew and Peter descended the pit for the day.
"Black Jock," as Walker was called by the miners, saw the notice before it had been ten minutes posted, and deliberately tore it down. He then visited Peter Pegg and Andrew Marshall at the coal face.
"I suppose you an' Andrew are goin' to gather for Geordie Sinclair the morn?" he said, addressing Peter.
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