* * * * *
It was less than an hour before Farmer Lear pulled up to the door in his red-wheeled spring-cart.
“Now, friends,” said Mrs. Trueman, as her ears caught the rattle of the wheels, “I must trouble ye to step outside while I tidy up the floor.”
The women offered their help, but she declined it. Alone she put the small kitchen to rights, while they waited outside around the door. Then she stepped out with her bundle, locked the door after her, and slipped the key under an old flower-pot on the window ledge. Her eyes were dry.
“Come along, Jan.”
There was a brief hand-shaking, and the paupers climbed up beside Farmer Lear.
“I’ve made a sort o’ little plan in my head,” said old Jan at parting, “of the order in which I shall see ye again, one by one. ’Twill be a great amusement to me, friends, to see how the fact fits in wi’ my little plan.”
The guests raised three feeble cheers as the cart drove away, and hung about for several minutes after it had passed out of sight, gazing along the road as wistfully as more prosperous men look in through churchyard gates at the acres where their kinsfolk lie buried.
The first building passed by the westerly road as it descends into Tregarrick is a sombre pile of some eminence, having a gateway and lodge before it, and a high encircling wall. The sun lay warm on its long roof, and the slates flashed gaily there, as Farmer Lear came over the knap of the hill and looked down on it. He withdrew his eyes nervously to glance at the old couple beside him. At the same moment he reined up his dun-coloured mare.
“I reckoned,” he said timidly, “I reckoned you’d be for stopping hereabouts an’ getting down. You’d think it more seemly—that’s what I reckoned: an’ ’tis down-hill now all the way.”
For ten seconds and more neither the man nor the woman gave a sign of having heard him. The spring-cart’s oscillatory motion seemed to have entered into their spinal joints; and now that they had come to a halt, their heads continued to wag forward and back as they contemplated the haze of smoke spread, like a blue scarf over the town, and the one long slate roof that rose from it as if to meet them. At length the old woman spoke, and with some viciousness, though her face remained as blank as the Workhouse door.
“The next time I go back up this hill, if ever I do, I’ll be carried up feet first.”
“Maria,” said her husband, feebly reproachful, “you tempt the Lord, that you do.”
“Thank ’ee, Farmer Lear,” she went on, paying no heed; “you shall help us down, if you’ve a mind to, an’ drive on. We’ll make shift to trickly ’way down so far as the gate; for I’d be main vexed if anybody that had known me in life should see us creep in. Come along, Jan.”
Farmer Lear alighted, and helped them out carefully. He was a clumsy man, but did his best to handle them gently. When they were set on their feet, side by side on the high road, he climbed back, and fell to arranging the reins, while he cast about for something to say.