I have met northern dourness and the inarticulate manner which is such a contrast to the gushing and noisy effusion of the south. By a paradox it is not inconsistent with the familiar conversationalism to which Briggs had treated me, a stranger. But I admit I found Briggs’s family circle a little embarrassing. They were respectable people: the cottage was neat and decently furnished, its occupants were sprucely dressed. I fancy they were in their best clothes; certainly their demeanour—and the aspect of the table in their midst—denoted a great occasion. This table, as I saw when I assisted Briggs up the steps into the room, had indeed borne a well-spread tea. No very acute powers of deduction were required to decide, from the crumbs on the white cloth and on the dishes, that there had been bread and butter and jam and cake. Of these not a vestige (except the crumbs) remained. Briggs and I were an hour behindhand, and the relatives who awaited the wanderer had eaten the banquet laid to welcome him: or so it appeared. I have no doubt that all sorts of delicacies were in the cupboard; the kettle on the hob was probably on the boil; perhaps buttered toast was in the oven. The fact remains that devastation was on the table.
However, Briggs did not see the table, and the table’s state occupied me only for a fraction of a second. I was more concerned with the three people in the parlour and with their reception of my patient. The pale woman in the chair by the fire was evidently Briggs’s wife. She stared at us, as we entered, but said absolutely nothing. Nor did the other and slightly younger woman, his sister, say anything. She too stared. And the man stared, and said nothing.
“Well, here we are,” I announced—an imbecile assertion, but I produced it as cheerfully and matter-of-factly as I knew how. I unhooked my arm from Briggs’s, and made as though to push him forward into the family group.
“Nay!” said Briggs. “I mun take my top-coat off first.”
I helped him off with his coat. Not one of the three members of his family had either moved or spoken—beyond one faint murmur, not an actual word, in response to my “Here we are.” But Briggs seemed to know that his folk were in the room with him, and he neither accosted them, expressed any curiosity about them, or betrayed any astonishment at their silence.