A mop is a local name for a hiring-fair, at which young men and women present themselves to be hired as domestic servants or farm laborers for a year. It was at a mop that the windmiller had hired George, and it was at that annual festival that his long service came to an end. He betook himself to the town, where the fair was going on, not with any definite intention of seeking another master, but from a variety of reasons: partly for a holiday, and to “see the fun;” partly to visit the Cheap Jack, and hear what advice he had to give, and to learn what was in the letter; partly with the idea that something might suggest itself in the busy town as a suitable investment for his savings and his talents. At the worst, he could but take another place.
The sun shone brightly on the market-place as George passed through it. The scene was quaint and picturesque. Booths, travelling shows, penny theatres, quack doctors, tumblers, profile cutters, exhibitors and salesmen of all sorts, thronged the square, and overflowed into a space behind, where some houses had been burnt down and never rebuilt; whilst round the remains of the market cross in the centre were grouped the lads and lasses “on hire.” The girls were smartly dressed, and the young men in snowy smocks, above which peeped waistcoats of gay colors, looked in the earlier part of the day so spruce, that it was as lamentable to see them after the hours of beer-drinking and shag tobacco-smoking which followed, as it was to see what might have been a neighborly and cheerful festival finally swamped in drunkenness and debauchery.
George’s smock was white, and George’s waistcoat was red, and he had made himself smart enough, but he did not linger amongst his fellow-servants at the Cross. He hurried through the crowd, nodding sheepishly in answer to a shower of chaff and greetings, and made his way to the by-street where the Cheap Jack had a small dingy shop for the sale of coarse pottery. Some people were spiteful enough to hint that the shop-trade was of much less value to him than the store-room attached, where the goods were believed to be not all of one kind.
The red bread-pans, pipkins, flower-pots, and so forth, were grouped about the door with some attempt at effective display, and with cheap prices marked in chalk upon their sides. The window was clean, and in it many knick-knacks of other kinds were mixed with the smaller china ware. And, when George entered the shop, the hunchback’s wife was behind the counter. Like Mrs. Lake, he paused to think where he could have seen her before; the not uncomely face marred by an ugly mouth, in which the upper lip was long and cleft, and the lower lip large and heavy, seemed familiar to him. He was still beating his brains when the Cheap Jack came in.
George had been puzzled that the woman’s countenance did not seem new to him, and he was puzzled and disturbed also that the expression on the face of the Cheap Jack was quite new. Whatever the hunchback had in his head, however, he was not unfriendly in his manner.