- CHAPTER XII HERON'S COTTAGE
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IT was early spring again, and on the fruit trees pale emerald buds of yet unfolded leaves. The blackbirds came in flocks to the ploughed fields. But this year there were many fields that were not ploughed; dead men could not plough, nor those who had been to death's door and were coming halting, halting back.
Joan sat in her kitchen, on a low stool by the hearth. The room was clean, with shafts of sunlight slanting in. But her wheel was pushed back into a corner, and there lacked other signs of industry. She sat still and listless, bent over, her cheek resting upon her knees, and with her forefinger she made idle marks and letters in the ashes. The fire was smouldering out, the place seemed deadly still.
There came a knock upon the door. She raised her head, and sat with a frozen look, listening. After a minute the knock was repeated. Rising, she moved noiselessly across the floor to the window, and, standing so that she could not be seen, looked out. The rigour passed from her face; she drew a breath of relief and went and opened the door.
The sunshine flooded in and in the midst of it stood Aderhold. He looked at her quietly and | | 152 kindly. "I came again but to see if you were well and lacked naught."
"I lack naught, thank you, sir," said Joan. "And I am well—O me, O me, I would that it had taken me, too! O father, father!"
She leaned against the wall, shaken with dry sobs. The fit did not last; she was resolute enough. She straightened herself. "I've done what you told me to. Yesterday I washed and cleaned and let the sun in everywhere, and burned in the room the powder you gave me. Everything is clean—and lonely. No, I don't feel badly anywhere. I feel terribly strong, as though I would live to be an old woman. ... I miss father—I miss father!"
"It looks so clean and bright," said Aderhold, "and your cat purring there on the hearth. Your father went very quickly, and without much suffering. His presence will come back to you, and you will take comfort in it. You will feel it in this room, and upon this doorstep, and out here among the fruit trees, and under the stars at night."
"Aye," said Joan, "I think it too. But now—"She stood beside him on the doorstep, looking out past the budding trees to the gate and the misty green twisted path that led at last to the village road. Overhead drove a fleecy drift of clouds with islands of blue. "All last night the countryside mourned low and wailed. It was the wind, but I knew it was the other too! It is sad for miles and miles to be so woeful."| | 153
"The sickness is greatly lessening. By the time the spring is strongly here it will be over and Hawthorn beginning to forget.—You have been here now three days alone. Has no one come to enquire or help?"
"Mother Spuraway from beyond the mill-race came. No one else."
"In a time like this all fear all. But presently friends will find out friends again."
"It is not that way that I am lonely," said Joan. "There are some that I care not if they never come."
He had his round to go. The sickness in the town dwindling, he had come back, when it broke over Hawthorn, to the Oak Grange. Since then he had gone far and near, wherever it struck down the poorer sort. As he turned from the cottage door, Joan stepped, too, upon the flagged path, and they moved side by side toward the gate, between the lines of green lance-heads the daffodils were thrusting above the soil. They moved in silence, almost of a height, two simply, almost poorly dressed figures, each with its load of sorrow and care for the morrow. And yet they were not old, and about them was the low ecstatic murmur of winter swiftening into spring.
"Do you remember," asked Aderhold, "that day when we chanced to meet in the forest and Master Harry Carthew came upon us?"
"Aye," said Joan, "I remember."
"Since then we have neither met nor spoken to- | | 154 gether until last week when your father was stricken and you watched for me coming from the village.—And now today I come only for this moment and will come no more.—Have you no close friends nor kindred?"
"They are buried with father. ... I mean to stay on here and spin flax and keep myself. And if—I mean to stay." Her hand went out to touch the eglantine growing by the beehives. "I love it and I mean to stay."
Aderhold looked beyond at the wavy green path and the massed trees of the forest. He, too, loved this country. He had thought much here—once or twice the light had shone through. But he was ready now to go. Just as soon as there was no more sick, just as soon as the plague was gone, he meant to steal from the Oak Grange and Hawthorn countryside. He and Joan came to the little gate, and he went out of it, then turning for a moment looked back at the thatched cottage, the pleasant beehives, the fruit trees that ere long would put forth a mist of bloom. Joan stood with a sorrowful face, but grey-eyed, vital. Her hand rested upon the worn wood. He laid his own upon it, lightly, for one moment. "Good-bye," he said, "Mistress Friendly-Soul!"
She stood in the pale sunshine until he was gone from sight, then turned and went back to her kitchen. She must bake bread; there was nothing for her to eat in the cottage. She must get water from the well. She took her well-bucket, went forth and | | 155 brought it back brimming. From the faggot pile she fed the fire, then brought to the table coarse flour and other matters for the bread, mixed and worked, moulded and set to bake. And all the time she tried to feel that her father was sitting there, in the settle corner. She made the table clear again, then looked at her wheel. But she did not feel like spinning; her heart was burdened again; she sat down on the stool by the fire and bowed her head in her arms. "Day after day and day after day," she said; "day after day and day after day."She rocked herself. "And a powerful man that I hate to come again and yet again to trouble me, and father not here. . . . Day after day and day after day. . . . And I know not why it is, but I have no friends. They've turned against me, and I know not why. . . . Day after day—"She sat with buried head and rocked herself slowly to and fro. Save for the youth in her form and the thick, pale bronze of her braided hair, she might have seemed Mother Spuraway, or Marget Primrose, or any other old and desolate woman. She rocked herself, and the faggot burned apart, and the cat stretched itself in the warmth.
From outside the cottage came a thin calling.Joan! Joan! Oh, Joan!''
Joan lifted her head, listened a moment, then rose and opened the door."Joan! Joan! Oh, Joan!" > She stepped without and saw who it was,—Alison Inch and Cecily Lukin calling to her from the green path well beyond the gate. They would come at | | 156 first no nearer. The plague had struck in the Lukin cottage no less than in Heron's, and for weeks it had closely neighboured Alison Inch and her mother. But Joan must be made to feel comrades' terror of her. "Joan! Joan! Have you got it yet?—We want but to see if you're living!"
With a gesture of anger Joan turned to reёnter the cottage.
But Alison did not wish that. "Joan! Joan! We were laughing. We're not afraid if you don't come very close.—I've got something to tell you. See! I'm not afraid."
Alison came to the gate, Cecily with her. Joan no longer liked Alison, and with Cecily she had never had much acquaintance. But they were women and young, and the loneliness was terrible about her. She went halfway up the path toward them. The grey and white cat came from the cottage and followed her.
Alison regarded her with a thin, flushed, shrewish face and an expression lifted, enlarged, and darkened beyond what might have seemed possible to her nature. But Alison had drunk deep from an acrid spring that drew in turn from a deep, perpetual fount. She spoke in a thin and cutting voice. "Watching and weeping haven't taken the rose away.—What are you going to do now, Joan?"
"I do not think," said Joan, "that it is necessary to tell thee." She looked past her to Cecily. "They say your sister died. I am sorry."| | 157
But Alison had put poison into Cecily's mind. "Yes, she died. They do say that you would not be sorry if more of us died. Why people like you and—and Mother Spuraway should wish harm to us others—"
"What are you talking of?" said Joan. "I wish no harm to any—"
Cecily was an impish small piece with no especial evil in her save a teasing devil. "Oh, they say that you and a black man understand each other! Some boys told me—"
"Nay, that's naught, Cis!" said Alison impatiently. She came closer to the gate, and Joan, as though drawn against her will, approached from her side. "Joan—nay, don't come any nearer, Joan—"
"There's one ill at the squire's house. Ah!" cried Alison. "Do you look joyful?"
"No—no!" stammered Joan.
Taken by surprise, shaken and unstable as she was today, she gave back a step, lifted her hands to her forehead. As for Alison—Alison had not expected Joan to look joyful. She had spoken, burning her own heart, to make Joan feel the hot iron, knowing that the pang she gave would not be lasting, for truly it was but one of the maidservants at the great house that was stricken and not that person of overshadowing importance. She had believed with all her heart that it would smite Joan to the heart until she told her true—and now there had been in her | | 158 face an awful joy, though at once it had shrunk back and something piteous had come instead. But it was the first look with which Alison was concerned. There went through her a keen hope like a knife-blade. Perhaps he no longer liked Joan!—perhaps that made Joan angry, hurting her vanity—so, perhaps she would have liked to hear that he was sick of the plague! Alison stood astare, revolving Joan's look.
Cecily, who had never come before so close to Heron's cottage, gazed about her. "And Katherine Scott says there's something 'no canny' about the bees in your beehives. She says she had them while you were away to the castle, and they did naught for her and made, besides, her own bees idle and sick. But she says they make honey for you, great combs of it—"
"There is none that is sick at the squire's house," said Alison in a strange voice, "but Agnes, Madam Carthew's woman. They've taken her from the house and put her in a room by the stable, and the family goes freely forth.—Why did you look as you were glad, Joan?"
"If I did, God forgive me!" said Joan. "In the deep of me there is no ill-wishing.—Presently, the leech says, it will be all safe here, as, indeed, it's clean and sun-washed and safe today. Then I hope you'll both come to see me—"
Cecily gave a gibing, elfin laugh. "Are you going to live here all alone—like a witch?"| | 159
The grey and white cat had advanced beyond Joan and now stood upon the sunny path between the daffodil points. What happened none of the three saw; perhaps a dog crossed the track behind the two visitors, perhaps the creature recognized human hostility—be that as it may, the cat suddenly arched its back, its hair rose, its mouth opened.
"Ah-h!" cried Cecily. "Look at her cat!"
A curious inspiration, not of light, passed like a cloud-shadow over Alison's face. "It doesn't like what you said, Cis! It's her familiar.—Come away! We'd best be going."
They turned. Lightning came against them from Joan's grey eyes. "Yes, go! And come not here again! Do you hear?—Come not here again!" Her voice followed them up the green path. "Come not here again—"
The next day she went to get wood from the edge of the forest. She had gathered her load of faggots, and was sitting upon them, resting, in her hand a fallen bird's nest, when Will the smith's son happened that way. The two had known each other to speak to in a friendly way for many a year; it used to be that, coming or going from the Grange, he might at any time stop for a minute before the cottage for a crack with old Heron and maybe with Joan herself. That time had come to an end with Joan and her father's going to the castle; when they came back he had been, as it were, afraid of new | | 160 graces and manners. Moreover, old Master Hard-wick had presently died, and so Will left the employment of the Grange and had little need any more to come and go by Hawthorn Forest. It might be that, save at church, they had not seen each other for months. Moreover, he had been away to the nearest port.
Now he greeted her with friendliness and an honest-awkward speech of sorrow for old Heron's death. "He was a good man and, fegs! so learned!—Am sorry for thee, Joan. And what will't do now?"
Joan turned the grey and empty nest in her hands. "I do not know," she said drearily; then, with a backward fling of her shoulders and a lift of courage, "The cottage's mine. And I always sell the flax I spin. I'll bide and spin and keep the place."
Will shook his head compassionately. "A lass like thou—! In no time thou'dst be talked of and called ill names. Either thou must take service or marry—''
Joan turned upon him heavy-lidded grey orbs. "Why should I marry or be a serving-woman if I wish neither, and can keep myself?—Oh, I like not the way we've made this world!" She turned the nest again. "This thing of ill names—Well, ill names do not kill."
Will stood, biting a piece of thorn. "You'd see how it would turn out. No one would believe—"| | 161
He looked at her with rustic meditativeness. He was slow and country-living; he had no great acquaintance with Alison or Cecily, and it had never occurred to him to mark Master Harry Carthew, where the squire's brother rode or whom his looks pursued. He had heard of the vintner in the town, and had dimly supposed that Joan would marry him, or maybe the new huntsman or some other fine-feathered person at the castle. But now the plague had swept the town, and the vintner might be of those taken—and here was old Heron gone. He looked at her again, and the hand that held the piece of thorn against his lips began to shake a little. It occurred to him more strongly than it had done before that she was a fair woman—and then, Heron's cottage. There was a tiny plot of ground, the cow, some poultry. As things went, she had a good dowry. Will the smith's son might go farther and fare worse. It was not the right time, all Hawthorn being so gloomy and everybody afraid, and his own heart knocking at times against his side with fear. But it would n't hurt just to drop a hint. He moistened his lips. "Joan," he said; "Joan—"
And then, by the perversity of her fortune, Joan herself shook him from this base. She lifted sombre eyes, still turning the little grey nest about in her hands. "Why do you think we had the plague? The minister preached that it was sent against the town for its false doctrine, and we gave thanks that we were not as the town. . . . And then in a little | | 162 while it was upon us, and my father, who was a good man, took it and died. ..."
Gloom that had lifted this bright afternoon on the forest edge settled again. Will the smith's son had a strong taste for the supernatural, all the emotional in him finding that vent. It could grow to light up with strange lightnings and transform every humdrum corner of his mind. He liked to discuss these matters and feel a wind of terror prick his temples cold. He spoke oracularly, having, indeed, listened to talk at the sexton's the night before. "There's always an Evil Agent behind any pest, or a comet or a storm that wrecks ships or blows down chimneys. At times God uses the Evil Agent to punish the presumptuous with—as He might give Satan leave to spot with plague the town over yonder, seeing that if it could it would have the old mass-priests back! And at other times He gives the Evil Agent leave to prick and try his chosen people that they may turn like a wauling babe and cling the closer to Him. And again there may be one patch of weed in the good corn and Satan couching and holding his Sabbat there. In which case God will send plagues of Egypt, one after the other, until every soul wearing the Devil's livery is haled forth.—Now," said Will, and he laid it off with the sprig of thorn, " Hawthorn is for the pure faith of the Holy Scriptures, so we have n't the plague for the reason the town hath it.—Again, put case that so we 're to love the Lord the more. Now Hawthorn and all to the north of it is | | 163 known for religion. I've been a traveller," said Will with unction, "and I know how we're looked on, clear from here to the sea, and held up to the ungodly! Master Clement's got a name that sounds to the wicked like the trump of doom and Master Harry Carthew is n't far behind him—What did you say?"
"I said naught," said Joan.
Will closed his exposition. "Now it may be that God wisheth to prick up Hawthorn to fresh zeal, and, indeed, the sexton holds that it is so that Master Clement interprets the matter. But it seemed to me and the tinker, who was there talking, too, that the third case is the likelier and that there are some ill folk among us!" Will dropped the bit of thorn. " It's the more likely because there's another kind of mischief going around and growing as the plague dies off. I know myself of three plough-horses gone lame in one night, and Hodgson's cow dying without rhyme or reason, and a child at North-End Farm falling into fits and talking of a dog that runs in and out of the room, but no one else can see it. The tinker"ߞWill spoke with energyߞ"the tinker has come not long since over the border from Scotland. He says that if Hawthorn was Scotland we'd have had old Mother Spuraway and maybe others in the pennywinkis and the caschielawis before this!"
Joan rose and lifted her bundle of faggots to her shoulders. The grey bird-nest she set between two | | 164 boughs of the thorn tree. "What are the penny-winkis and the caschielawis?"
"The one's your thumbscrew," said Will, "and the other's a hollow iron case where they set your leg and build a fire beneath."
Joan turned her face toward the cottage. Her old acquaintance walked beside her. It was afternoon and there was over everything a tender, flickering, charming light. It made the new grass emerald, of the misting trees veil on veil of soft, smiling magic. Primroses and violets bloomed as though dropped from immortal hands. The blue vault of air rose height on height and so serene and kind. . . .
Joan spoke in a smothered voice. "I would believe in a good God."
The young countryman beside her had gone on in mind with the tinker and his talk. "What did you say, Joan?"
"I said naught," said Joan.
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