Steam issued from the Mayows’ doorway, which had a board across it to keep the younger Mayows from straggling. A voice from the steam invited her to come in. She climbed over the board, groped along the dusky passage, pushed open a door and looked in on the kitchen, where, amid clouds of vapour, Mrs. Mayow and her daughter Cherry were washing the children. Each had a tub and a child in it; and three children, already washed, skipped around the floor stark naked, one with a long churchwarden pipe blowing bubbles which the other two pursued. In the far corner, behind a deal table, sat Mr. Mayow, and patiently tuned a fiddle—a quite hopeless task in that atmosphere.
“My gracious!” Mrs. Mayow exclaimed, rising from her knees; “if it isn’t Hester already! Amelia, get out and dry yourself while I make a cup of tea.”
Hester took a step forward, but paused at a sound of dismal bumping on the staircase leading up from the passage.
“That’s Elizabeth Ann,” said Mrs. Mayow composedly, “or Heber, or both. We shall know when they get to the bottom. My dear, you must be perishing for a cup of tea. Oh, it’s Elizabeth Ann! Cherry, go and smack her, and tell her what I’ll do if she falls downstairs again. It’s all Matthew Henry’s fault.” Here she turned on the naked urchin with the churchwarden pipe. “If he’d only been home to his time—”
“I was listening to Zeke Penhaligon,” said Matthew Henry (aged eight). “He’s home to-day in the Touch-me-not.”
“He’s no good to King nor country,” said Mrs. Mayow.
“He was telling me about a man that got swallowed by a whale—”
“Go away with your Jonahses!” sneered one of his sisters.
“It wasn’t Jonah. This man’s name was Jones—Captain Jones, from Dundee. A whale swallowed him; but, as it happened, the whale had swallowed a cask just before, and the cask stuck in its stomach. So whatever the whale swallowed after that went into the cask, and did the whale no good. But Captain Jones had plenty to eat till he cut his way out with a clasp-knife—”
“How could he?”
“That’s all you know. Zeke says he did. A whale always turns that way up when he’s dying. So Captain Jones cut his way into daylight, when, what does he see but a sail, not a mile away! He fell on his knees—”
“How could he, you silly? He’d have slipped.”
But at this point Cherry swept the family off to bed. Mrs. Mayow, putting forth unexpected strength, carried the tubs out to the back-yard, and poured the soapy water into the harbour. Hester, having borrowed a touzer,[A] tucked up her sleeves and fell to tidying the kitchen. Mr. Mayow went on tuning his fiddle. It was against his principles to work on a Saturday night.
[Footnote A: Tout-serve, apron.]
“Your wife seems very strong,” observed Hester, with a shade of reproach in her voice.