“Well, I’m going to start along,” the old woman decided, getting on her feet; “or else someone ’ll be driving by and seeing us.”
Jan, too, stood up.
“We may so well make our congees here,” she went on, “as under the porter’s nose.”
An awkward silence fell between them for a minute, and these two old creatures, who for more than fifty years had felt no constraint in each other’s presence, now looked into each other’s eyes with a fearful diffidence. Jan cleared his throat, much as if he had to make a public speech.
“Maria,” he began in an unnatural voice, “we’re bound for to part, and I can trewly swear, on leaving ye, that—”
“—that for two-score year and twelve It’s never entered your head to consider whether I’ve made ’ee a good wife or a bad. Kiss me, my old man; for I tell ‘ee I wouldn’ ha’ wished it other. An’ thank ’ee for trying to make that speech. What did it feel like?”
“Why, ‘t rather reminded me o’ the time when I offered ’ee marriage.”
“It reminded me o’ that, too. Com’st along.”
They tottered down the hill towards the Workhouse gate. When they were but ten yards from it, however, they heard the sound of wheels on the road behind them, and walked bravely past, pretending to have no business at that portal. They had descended a good thirty yards beyond (such haste was put into them by dread of having their purpose guessed) before the vehicle overtook them—a four-wheeled dog-cart carrying a commercial traveller, who pulled up and offered them a lift into the town.
Then, as soon as he passed out of sight, they turned, and began painfully to climb back towards the gate. Of the two, the woman had shown the less emotion. But all the way her lips were at work, and as she went she was praying a prayer. It was the only one she used night and morning, and she had never changed a word since she learned it as a chit of a child. Down to her seventieth year she had never found it absurd to beseech God to make her “a good girl”; nor did she find it so as the Workhouse gate opened, and she began a new life.
This century was still young and ardent when ruin fell upon Cuckoo Valley. Its head rested on the slope of a high and sombre moorland, scattered with granite and china-clay; and by the small town of Ponteglos, where it widened out into arable and grey pasture-land, the Cuckoo river grew deep enough to float up vessels of small tonnage from the coast at the spring tides. I have seen there the boom of a trading schooner brush the grasses on the river-bank as she came before a southerly wind, and the haymakers stop and almost crick their necks staring up at her top-sails. But between the moors and Ponteglos the valley wound for fourteen miles or so between secular woods, so steeply converging that for the most part no more room was