One winter morning, when his daughter Mary was about twenty years old, Mr Lindley, a thin, unobtrusive figure in his black overcoat and his wideawake, went down into Aldecross with a packet of white papers under his arm. He was delivering the parish almanacs.
A rather pale, neutral man of middle age, he waited while the train thumped over the level-crossing, going up to the pit which rattled busily just along the line. A wooden-legged man hobbled to open the gate, Mr Lindley passed on. Just at his left hand, below the road and the railway, was the red roof of a cottage, showing through the bare twigs of apple trees. Mr Lindley passed round the low wall, and descended the worn steps that led from the highway down to the cottage which crouched darkly and quietly away below the rumble of passing trains and the clank of coal-carts in a quiet little under-world of its own. Snowdrops with tight-shut buds were hanging very still under the bare currant bushes.
The clergyman was just going to knock when he heard a clinking noise, and turning saw through the open door of a black shed just behind him an elderly woman in a black lace cap stooping among reddish big cans, pouring a very bright liquid into a tundish. There was a smell of paraffin. The woman put down her can, took the tundish and laid it on a shelf, then rose with a tin bottle. Her eyes met those of the clergyman.
"Oh, is it you, Mr Lin'ley!" she said, in a complaining tone. "Go in."
The minister entered the house. In the hot kitchen sat a big, elderly man with a great grey beard, taking snuff. He grunted in a deep, muttering voice, telling the minister to sit down, and then took no more notice of him, but stared vacantly into the fire. Mr Lindley waited.
The woman came in, the ribbons of her black lace cap, or bonnet, hanging on her shawl. She was of medium stature, everything about her was tidy. She went up a step out of the kitchen, carrying the paraffin tin. Feet were heard entering the room up the step. It was a little haberdashery shop, with parcels on the shelves of the walls, a big, old-fashioned sewing machine with tailor's work lying round it, in the open space. The woman went behind the counter, gave the child who had entered the paraffin bottle, and took from her a jug.
"My mother says shall yer put it down," said the child, and she was gone. The woman wrote in a book, then came into the kitchen with her jug. The husband, a very large man, rose and brought more coal to the already hot fire. He moved slowly and sluggishly. Already he was going dead; being a tailor, his large form had become an encumbrance to him. In his youth he had been a great dancer and boxer. Now he was taciturn, and inert. The minister had nothing to say, so he sought for his phrases. But John Durant took no notice, existing silent and dull.
Mrs Durant spread the cloth. Her husband poured himself beer into a mug, and began to smoke and drink.
"Shall you have some?" he growled through his beard at the clergyman, looking slowly from the man to the jug, capable of this one idea.
"No, thank you," replied Mr Lindley, though he would have liked some beer. He must set the example in a drinking parish.
"We need a drop to keep us going," said Mrs Durant.
She had rather a complaining manner. The clergyman sat on uncomfortably while she laid the table for the half-past ten lunch. Her husband drew up to eat. She remained in her little round arm- chair by the fire.
She was a woman who would have liked to be easy in her life, but to whose lot had fallen a rough and turbulent family, and a slothful husband who did not care what became of himself or anybody. So, her rather good-looking square face was peevish, she had that air of having been compelled all her life to serve unwillingly, and to control where she did not want to control. There was about her, too, that masterful APLOMB of a woman who has brought up and ruled her sons: but even them she had ruled unwillingly. She had enjoyed managing her little haberdashery-shop, riding in the carrier's cart to Nottingham, going through the big warehouses to buy her goods. But the fret of managing her sons she did not like. Only she loved her youngest boy, because he was her last, and she saw herself free.
This was one of the houses the clergyman visited occasionally. Mrs Durant, as part of her regulation, had brought up all her sons in the Church. Not that she had any religion. Only, it was what she was used to. Mr Durant was without religion. He read the fervently evangelical "Life of John Wesley" with a curious pleasure, getting from it a satisfaction as from the warmth of the fire, or a glass of brandy. But he cared no more about John Wesley, in fact, than about John Milton, of whom he had never heard.
Mrs Durant took her chair to the table.
"I don't feel like eating," she sighed.
"Why - aren't you well?" asked the clergyman, patronizing.
"It isn't that," she sighed. She sat with shut, straight mouth. "I don't know what's going to become of us."
But the clergyman had ground himself down so long, that he could not easily sympathize.
"Have you any trouble?" he asked.
"Ay, have I any trouble!" cried the elderly woman. "I shall end my days in the workhouse."
The minister waited unmoved. What could she know of poverty, in her little house of plenty!
"I hope not," he said.
"And the one lad as I wanted to keep by me - " she lamented.
The minister listened without sympathy, quite neutral.
"And the lad as would have been a support to my old age! What is going to become of us?" she said.
The clergyman, justly, did not believe in the cry of poverty, but wondered what had become of the son.
"Has anything happened to Alfred?" he asked.
"We've got word he's gone for a Queen's sailor," she said sharply.
"He has joined the Navy!" exclaimed Mr Lindley. "I think he could scarcely have done better - to serve his Queen and country on the sea . . ."
"He is wanted to serve ME," she cried. "And I wanted my lad at home."
Alfred was her baby, her last, whom she had allowed herself the luxury of spoiling.
"You will miss him," said Mr Lindley, "that is certain. But this is no regrettable step for him to have taken - on the contrary."
"That's easy for you to say, Mr Lindley," she replied tartly. "Do you think I want my lad climbing ropes at another man's bidding, like a monkey - ?"
"There is no DISHONOUR, surely, in serving in the Navy?"
"Dishonour this dishonour that," cried the angry old woman. "He goes and makes a slave of himself, and he'll rue it."
Her angry, scornful impatience nettled the clergyman and silenced him for some moments.
"I do not see," he retorted at last, white at the gills and inadequate, "that the Queen's service is any more to be called slavery than working in a mine."
"At home he was at home, and his own master. I know he'll find a difference."
"It may be the making of him," said the clergyman. "It will take him away from bad companionship and drink."
Some of the Durants' sons were notorious drinkers, and Alfred was not quite steady.
"And why indeed shouldn't he have his glass?" cried the mother. "He picks no man's pocket to pay for it!"
The clergyman stiffened at what he thought was an allusion to his own profession, and his unpaid bills.
"With all due consideration, I am glad to hear he has joined the Navy," he said.
"Me with my old age coming on, and his father working very little! I'd thank you to be glad about something else besides that, Mr Lindley."
The woman began to cry. Her husband, quite impassive, finished his lunch of meat-pie, and drank some beer. Then he turned to the fire, as if there were no one in the room but himself.
"I shall respect all men who serve God and their country on the sea, Mrs Durant," said the clergyman stubbornly.
"That is very well, when they're not your sons who are doing the dirty work. - It makes a difference," she replied tartly.
"I should be proud if one of my sons were to enter the Navy."
"Ay - well - we're not all of us made alike - "
The minister rose. He put down a large folded paper.
"I've brought the almanac," he said.
Mrs Durant unfolded it.
"I do like a bit of colour in things," she said, petulantly.
The clergyman did not reply.
"There's that envelope for the organist's fund - " said the old woman, and rising, she took the thing from the mantelpiece, went into the shop, and returned sealing it up.
"Which is all I can afford," she said.
Mr Lindley took his departure, in his pocket the envelope containing Mrs Durant's offering for Miss Louisa's services. He went from door to door delivering the almanacs, in dull routine. Jaded with the monotony of the business, and with the repeated effort of greeting half-known people, he felt barren and rather irritable. At last he returned home.
In the dining-room was a small fire. Mrs Lindley, growing very stout, lay on her couch. The vicar carved the cold mutton; Miss Louisa, short and plump and rather flushed, came in from the kitchen; Miss Mary, dark, with a beautiful white brow and grey eyes, served the vegetables; the children chattered a little, but not exuberantly. The very air seemed starved.
"I went to the Durants," said the vicar, as he served out small portions of mutton; "it appears Alfred has run away to join the Navy."
"Do him good," came the rough voice of the invalid.
Miss Louisa, attending to the youngest child, looked up in protest.
"Why has he done that?" asked Mary's low, musical voice.
"He wanted some excitement, I suppose," said the vicar. "Shall we say grace?"
The children were arranged, all bent their heads, grace was pronounced, at the last word every face was being raised to go on with the interesting subject.
"He's just done the right thing, for once," came the rather deep voice of the mother; "save him from becoming a drunken sot, like the rest of them."
"They're not ALL drunken, mama," said Miss Louisa, stubbornly.
"It's no fault of their upbringing if they're not. Walter Durant is a standing disgrace."
"As I told Mrs Durant," said the vicar, eating hungrily, "it is the best thing he could have done. It will take him away from temptation during the most dangerous years of his life - how old is he - nineteen?"
"Twenty," said Miss Louisa.
"Twenty!" repeated the vicar. "It will give him wholesome discipline and set before him some sort of standard of duty and honour - nothing could have been better for him. But - "
"We shall miss him from the choir," said Miss Louisa, as if taking opposite sides to her parents.
"That is as it may be," said the vicar. "I prefer to know he is safe in the Navy, than running the risk of getting into bad ways here."
"Was he getting into bad ways?" asked the stubborn Miss Louisa.
"You know, Louisa, he wasn't quite what he used to be," said Miss Mary gently and steadily. Miss Louisa shut her rather heavy jaw sulkily. She wanted to deny it, but she knew it was true.
For her he had been a laughing, warm lad, with something kindly and something rich about him. He had made her feel warm. It seemed the days would be colder since he had gone.
"Quite the best thing he could do," said the mother with emphasis.
"I think so," said the vicar. "But his mother was almost abusive because I suggested it."
He spoke in an injured tone.
"What does she care for her children's welfare?" said the invalid. "Their wages is all her concern."
"I suppose she wanted him at home with her," said Miss Louisa.
"Yes, she did - at the expense of his learning to be a drunkard like the rest of them," retorted her mother.
"George Durant doesn't drink," defended her daughter.
"Because he got burned so badly when he was nineteen - in the pit - and that frightened him. The Navy is a better remedy than that, at least."
"Certainly," said the vicar. "Certainly."
And to this Miss Louisa agreed. Yet she could not but feel angry that he had gone away for so many years. She herself was only nineteen.