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Heather in Holborn by Mrs. Francis Blundell

 

"I can scarce fancy her living here," said the man, pausing half-way up the stairs to look upwards at the dusty length which remained to be traversed. "Nay, she could never live here. I'm come on a fool's errand, but I may as well see it through."

His tall, broad-shouldered figure disappeared behind another angle, and halted at length on the fifth floor. On the door facing him a name was neatly painted:--Mr. Whiteside.

"'Tis a Lancashire name, right enough," he said, "but there weren't any Whitesides in our part when I was a lad. It'll be some stranger as our Molly took up with--well, let's go for'ard."

His tap was answered by a fresh-coloured woman, neatly clad in a stuff gown. The man surveyed her with a curious searching look, and she stared back at him.

"What was you pleased to want, sir?" she inquired at length, growing uncomfortable under his scrutiny. "Mr. Whiteside--that's my husband--is out."

"Does Mrs. Rigby live here? No, I'm sure she does not--I beg your pardon--it is a mistake."

"No, sir, no mistake at all; it's quite right. Mrs. Rigby does live here--she's my mother."

The stranger again darted a swift, eager glance at her.

"Right," he said. "I'll come in; I want to see her."

Mrs. Whiteside hesitated for a moment. "My mother doesn't often have visitors," she said. "We've been here more nor ten year now, and nobody's ever come lookin' for her."

"I've come a long way to look for her," said the man; "I've come from Australia. I'm bringing her news of her son Will."

"Eh dear!" cried the woman, clapping her hands together, "ye don't say so! My word, mother will be pleased. We didn't know rightly whether he were alive or dead. Tis twenty-five year or more since he left home. Tisn't bad news I hope, mester?" she added anxiously, for the brown face, as much of it as could be seen under the thick dark beard, wore a troubled look.

"Bad news? No," returned he with a gruff laugh. "It wouldn't matter much anyway, would it? seein' as you'd lost sight of him for so long, and by all accounts he wasn't worth much at the best o' times."

"He's my brother," said Mrs. Whiteside shortly. "Will ye please to step in, sir?"

He followed her into a narrow passage, and thence into an odd, little three-cornered room; a room furnished in mahogany and green rep, with a few brightly-bound books on the shining round table in the centre, framed oleographs on the walls, stuffed birds in glass cases on the mantel-piece, and a pervading odour of paraffin.

"I'll call mother," said Mrs. Whiteside, backing towards the door and eyeing her visitor suspiciously, for her mind misgave her as to whether it would be safe to leave him alone with the Family Bible or the stuffed birds. "Mother!" she cried, raising her voice, "will you come for a minute? There's a visitor here."

"Nay, lass, I can't leave the bread," called back an old woman's voice, shrill yet strong. "Ax the body to step in here, whoever 'tis."

"Will ye come into the kitchen?" said Mrs. Whiteside unwillingly. "My mother, 'tis a notion she has, 'ull never set foot in this 'ere room. We're Lancashire folk, ye see, mester, and tis the custom there to live mostly in the kitchen."

The visitor followed her in silence across the passage and into the opposite room. Hardly had he set foot inside the door before he uttered an exclamation, looking down the while at the floor. The boards were scrubbed to an immaculate whiteness and strewn with sand. He rubbed his boot backward and forward over the gritty surface with an odd smile; then, raising his eyes, he looked hastily round the room, averting his glance quickly when it fell upon the figure bending over the great brown pan in the fender. Walking to the window he stood looking out without speaking.

"I hope the man's got all his wits," said Mrs. Whiteside to herself, "I never did see a chap act so strange."

Through the open window a fine view could be had of tall grimy houses, and sooty roofs, with scarce a glint of sky between the chimney-stacks, and far down in the street below was the turmoil of city life; the roar and rush of it came echoing up even to that odd, peaceful little chamber. The man neither saw nor heard; as he stood there it seemed to him that he was looking out upon the moorland, with the smell of the heather strong and spicy and sweet in his nostrils, and the cry of the peewit in his ears. His chest heaved; then he turned about and faced the room again. Yes, it was no dream; here was the house-place of a North Country cottage. The sturdy deal table in the midst of the sanded floor, the oak dresser with its noble array of crockery, the big chest in the corner, the screened settle on one side of the hearth; and there, kneeling on the patchwork rug, the sturdy, strong-backed old woman, in bedgown and petticoat and frilled white cap, with lean, vigorous arms half-buried in a shining mass of dough.

"Well, what's to do?" inquired she, glancing sharply over her shoulder.

"This 'ere gentleman says he's brought news of our Will," said Mrs. Whiteside hesitatingly.

The old woman uttered a cry, and, withdrawing her hands from the dough, wiped them hastily in her apron, and ran towards the stranger.

"News indeed," she said. "Eh dear, and how is my poor lad? How is he, sir? Eh, bless you for coomin'! I scarce reckoned he were wick, 'tis so long sin' we'n had a word of him."

She was clasping the new-comer's hands now, and shaking them excitedly up and down, her eyes searching his face the while.

"How is my lad?" she repeated. "He mun be a gradely mon now--a gradely mon! Tis what he said hisself when he wur breeched. Dear o' me, I mind it well. He come runnin' in so proud wi's hands in's pockets. 'I'm a gradely mon now,' he says, 'same's my feyther.'"

She dropped his hands and wiped her eyes.

"My word, mother," said Mrs. Whiteside reprovingly, "how ye do run on! Was my brother well, mester, when ye see him last?"

"Quite well," responded the stranger gruffly. "Well and hearty."

"Thank God for that!" cried the old woman.

"He told me," went on the other, and his voice still sounded rough and harsh from behind his great beard; "he told me if I were anywhere in Lancashire to look up the old place, and tell his folks he was alive and well."

"Has he been doin' pretty well, sir, d'ye know?" inquired the younger woman, politely, but with interest.

"Pretty well--lately; so I've been told," returned he.

"And he didn't send nothin' to his mother? Nothin' besides the message?" she went on. "Well, I call it a sin and a shame; 'twas scarce worth your while to seek us out for that."

"Howd thy din, Mary," cried Mrs. Rigby angrily. "Not worth while! Why, I'll bless the gentleman for it, an' pray for him day an' neet while I live. Wick an' hearty. My lad's wick an' hearty,--an' I was afeared he wur dead. An' he took thought on his owd mother so fur away, an' sent her word, bless him!"

"He might ha' sent ye somethin' else I think," said Mary wrathfully; "I don't hold wi' makin' such a to-do about a chap as never did nothin' for you in his life. There's others as is worth more nor him."

The old woman drew herself up, her eyes blazing in their sunken orbits.

"Mary," she said, "if ye mean to cast up as ye're keepin' me in my owd age, I tell ye plain, though there are strangers here, I think no shame on't. I brought ye into the world, an' I reared you an' worked hard for you till ye was up-grown, an' kept a whoam o'er your head wi' nought but the labour o' my two hands. An' now as I'm stricken in years an' the owd place is gone, I think no shame o' being' behowden to ye for mate an' shelter."

"La, mother," stammered Mary "whatever makes ye go for to say such things?--I'm sure I wasn't castin' up--"

"Ye've no need to cast up," interrupted her mother fiercely. "I'm not behowden to ye for mich, as how 'tis--I reckon I addle my mate."

The man turned upon the younger woman with a savage glance, but she was too much absorbed in her own grievance to heed him. "I wasn't castin' up, mother," she asseverated. "I nobbut meant it seemed a bit hard as you should think as much of Will as of me."

"Eh," said the old woman, beginning to laugh and shaking her head, "I'll not deny but what the lad was a great fav'ryite. The only lad ever I had, and my first-born. Dear o' me, I mind how proud I was when they telled me 'twas a lad. 'A fine lad,' said the woman as did for me. Eh, I thought my heart 'ud fair burst wi' joy! An' he wur sech a gradely little chap, so peart an' lively, crowin' an' laughin' from morn till neet. Dear, yes--soon as ever leet coom he'd come creepin' up to our bed an' pull at the sheet. 'Wakken up, mother,' he'd say; 'mother, it's time to wakken up!' Eh, mony a time I fancy I can hear the little voice when I wak' up now, i' this dark dirty place. I keep my e'en shut, an' hark at the birds chirrupin', an' think o' the little hand pluckin' at the sheet, an' the little voice. An' then clock strikes an' I oppen my e'en and see the smoke an' the black chimnies--eh, I'm welly smoored among 'em all! I could fair go mad to find mysel' so far away fro' whoam."

"But surely," said the visitor, with a dreamy glance round, "you've made this place very home-like."

"'Tis, an' 'tisn't. Says I to Mary when she axed me to shift wi' her, 'I'll not coom,' says I, 'wi'out I bring th' clock an' chest, an' all they bits o' things as I'm used to.' 'Eh, mother,' says she, 'what would you be doin' wi' 'em down i' London town?'--'What should I be doin' wi' 'em?' says I. 'Same as I do here,' says I. 'If I coom wi' you, my lass I mun keep to the owd ways. I'm too owd mysel' for aught else. I mun keep th' owd things an' th' owd fashions.'--Is that a bit o' heather as ye've getten i' your hat, sir?"

"Yes," said the man deliberately; "'tis a bit of heather--and it comes from Boggart Moor. I picked it last week when I went to look for you."

"'Twas wonderful kind of you to go all that way, I'm sure," said Mrs. Whiteside. "I doubt our Will reckoned we was livin' there still. Tis years an' years since we've had a word from him. He didn't know I'd got wed, very like."

"No, he didn't," said the man. "He thought his mother and sister were livin' still in the little cot up yonder. I had hard work to trace you."

"How does the little place look, sir?" asked the old woman, with a wistful look.

"Much as usual," returned he, half absently. "They'n shifted the horse-block, an' thrown the two shippons into one, an' tiled the wash-house roof."

Mrs. Rigby clacked her tongue, and her daughter stared.

"How did ye know about the horse-block?" she inquired, "an' how did ye guess the shippons was throwed into one? Did our Will tell you about the place?"

He paused a moment, and then laughed.

"Often and often. He said he could find his way there blindfold, an' I doubt he made me know it as well as himself."

Mrs. Rigby stretched out her hand and touched the sprig of heather wistfully.

"The moor mun be lookin' gradely now," she said; "all one sheet o' bloom, I reckon. Eh, I mind how I used to leave windows open, summer an' winter, an let the air come in, soomtimes hot an' soomtimes cowd, but al'ays wi' the smell o' the moor in it. Dear, when I think on't I can scarce breathe here."

"Come, mother, we're keepin' the gentleman standin' all this time," said Mary, suddenly recalled to a sense of her hospitable duties. "Sit ye down, sir, and sup a cup o' tea with us. Kettle's boilin', isn't it, mother? You're not in a hurry, are you, mester?"

"I reckon I can stop a twothree minutes," said the man.

Mrs. Whiteside glanced at him sharply, and her mother clapped her hands together.

"Ye're a Lancashire lad, for sure," cried she; "ye speak just same as our own folks up on the moor yon."

He hesitated for a moment.

"Aye, I'll not deny the talk cooms natural to me," he said. "I thought I'd forgot it, but my tongue seems to turn to it when I get agate o' talkin' wi' Lancashire folks."

"I reckon you and our Will had many a crack together about the bonny North," said Mrs. Rigby, as she spread the cloth, smoothing it carefully with her wrinkled hands. "I'm fain to think my lad minds th' owd place. Eh, I doubt he'd be nigh broken-hearted if he knowed we had to leave it--I like as if I could be glad to think he knows nought about it, poor lad. He didn't ever talk o' coomin' back, mester, did he?"

"He met think on't," said the visitor slowly, "if he could be sure of a welcome. But he run away, you see, again his father's will, an' he wur allus reckoned a good-for-nothin' kind o' chap--so he seemed to think."

"Who said that?" cried the old woman, pausing with the teapot poised in mid-air, and reddening all over her withered face.

"Well, 'twas a kind o' notion he seemed to have, and o' course, though it's ill blamin' the absent"--here he uttered a queer little laugh--"when all's said and done he hasn't acted so very well. Any chap wi' a heart in's breast 'ud ha' took thought for his own mother, and 'ud ha' seen as she was kept comfortable an' happy in her owd age, and not forced to shift to a strange place."

"I'm sure," put in Mrs. Whiteside indignantly, "I can't think what you're droppin' hints o' that mak' for, sir. A woman has to follow her husband, an' when his business takes him to London he takes her too. Doin' very well, he is, i' th' coal business, an' I'm sure I make my mother as comfortable an' as happy as I can. Turn London into the moorside is what I cannot do, an' I'm not to be blamed for that. As you said jest now if any one was to blame 'twas my brother."

"Well, I'll not have nobody blamin' my lad," cried the old woman. "He's not to be faulted for what he knowed nought about. If he'd knowed I doubt it 'ud ha' been different."

"That's true," interrupted the man; "if he'd knowed it 'ud ha' been different. He'd ha' kept his mother on the moor. If he was to come back now he'd have her awhoam again afore aught were long."

"Tis wonderful to hear you takin' up wi' that homely talk," said Mrs. Whiteside, with a laugh, as she set a crusty loaf upon the table. "It fair brings me back. I scarce ever talk i' th' owd fashion now, wi'out 'tis a twothree words now an' then to please mother. Pull up, sir. Will ye pour out the tea, mother? All's ready now."

"Nay, fetch me a pot of the wimberry jam," said Mrs. Rigby. "Theer's jest two of 'em left. My son-in-law," she explained to the visitor, "he's oncommon kind about humourin' my fancies, an' every year he fetches me a peck or two o' wimberries--you can get 'em reet enough here i' th' market, an' I make us a few pots o' jam--'tis the only kind as ever I could fancy. Eh, what baskets-full the childer used to bring me in i' th' owd days! Will ye cut yourself a bit o' bread, sir? Tis a bit hard, I doubt; 'tis the end o' the last bakin'. I wur jest agate with the next lot when ye coom in."

He cut off a piece, and spread it with the wimberry jam, and ate a mouthful or two in silence; he seemed to swallow with difficulty, not because of the hardness of the fare, but because of a certain stirring at his heart. How long was it since he had sat him down at such a board as this, and tasted bread, pure and sweet and wholesome, such as cannot be bought in shops, with the fruit of the moor for condiment?

"I doubt it's hard," said Mrs. Whiteside commiseratingly, "and you're not eatin' a bit neither, mother. Come, fall to."

"Eh, I canna eat nought fur thinkin' o' yon lad o' mine. How could he go for to think he'd not be welcome! Ye'll write and an' tell him he'll be welcome, sir, wunnot ye?"

He nodded.

"Eh, I'd be fain to see him, I would that! Ye'll tell him kind an' careful, mester, about me havin' to shift here, an' dunnot let him think I'm axing him to do mich for me."

"It's time for him to do summat for ye, though," said Will's friend gruffly.

"Nay, I don't ax it--I don't ax for nought. I nobbut want to see his bonny face again."

"Happen you wouldn't know it," said Mrs. Whiteside; "he mun be awful altered now."

"Know it? Know my own lad! I'd pick him out among a thousand."

"I'm not so sure o' that," persisted her daughter. "Ye've seen our Will lately, I s'pose, mester? Can ye tell us what like he is?"

"He's rather like me," said the stranger.

"My word, ye don't say so!" gasped Mrs. Whiteside, while her mother, leaning forward, gazed eagerly into his face.

"He is very like me," he said brokenly, and then, of a sudden, stretching out his hand he plucked the old woman by the sleeve: "Wakken up, mother," he cried; "mother, 'tis time to wakken up!"