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Friendly Brook
by [?]

‘I dunno; unless you tell me what manner o’ words he said to you.’

Jabez drew back from the hedge–all hedges are nests of treachery and eavesdropping–and moved to an open cattle-lodge in the centre of the field.

‘No need to go ferretin’ around,’ said Jesse. ‘None can’t see us here ‘fore we see them.’

‘What was Jim Wickenden gettin’ at when I said he’d set his stack too near anigh the brook?’ Jabez dropped his voice. ‘He was in his mind.’

‘He ain’t never been out of it yet to my knowledge,’ Jesse drawled, and uncorked his tea-bottle.

‘But then Jim says: “I ain’t goin’ to shift my stack a yard,” he says. “The Brook’s been good friends to me, and if she be minded,” he says, “to take a snatch at my hay, I ain’t settin’ out to withstand her.” That’s what Jim Wickenden says to me last–last June-end ’twas,’ said Jabez.

‘Nor he hasn’t shifted his stack, neither,’ Jesse replied. ‘An’ if there’s more rain, the brook she’ll shift it for him.’

‘No need tell me! But I want to know what Jim was gettin’ at?

Jabez opened his clasp-knife very deliberately; Jesse as carefully opened his. They unfolded the newspapers that wrapped their dinners, coiled away and pocketed the string that bound the packages, and sat down on the edge of the lodge manger. The rain began to fall again through the fog, and the brook’s voice rose.

* * * * *

‘But I always allowed Mary was his lawful child, like,’ said Jabez, after Jesse had spoken for a while.

”Tain’t so…. Jim Wickenden’s woman she never made nothing. She come out o’ Lewes with her stockin’s round her heels, an’ she never made nor mended aught till she died. He had to light fire an’ get breakfast every mornin’ except Sundays, while she sowed it abed. Then she took an’ died, sixteen, seventeen, year back; but she never had no childern.’

‘They was valley-folk,’ said Jabez apologetically. ‘I’d no call to go in among ’em, but I always allowed Mary–‘

‘No. Mary come out o’ one o’ those Lunnon Childern Societies. After his woman died, Jim got his mother back from his sister over to Peasmarsh, which she’d gone to house with when Jim married. His mother kept house for Jim after his woman died. They do say ’twas his mother led him on toward adoptin’ of Mary–to furnish out the house with a child, like, and to keep him off of gettin’ a noo woman. He mostly done what his mother contrived. ‘Cardenly, twixt ’em, they asked for a child from one o’ those Lunnon societies–same as it might ha’ been these Barnardo children–an’ Mary was sent down to ’em, in a candle-box, I’ve heard.’

‘Then Mary is chance-born. I never knowed that,’ said Jabez. ‘Yet I must ha’ heard it some time or other …’

‘No. She ain’t. ‘Twould ha’ been better for some folk if she had been. She come to Jim in a candle-box with all the proper papers–lawful child o’ some couple in Lunnon somewheres–mother dead, father drinkin’. And there was that Lunnon society’s five shillin’s a week for her. Jim’s mother she wouldn’t despise week-end money, but I never heard Jim was much of a muck-grubber. Let be how ’twill, they two mothered up Mary no bounds, till it looked at last like they’d forgot she wasn’t their own flesh an’ blood. Yes, I reckon they forgot Mary wasn’t their’n by rights.’

‘That’s no new thing,’ said Jabez. ‘There’s more’n one or two in this parish wouldn’t surrender back their Bernarders. You ask Mark Copley an’ his woman an’ that Bernarder cripple-babe o’ theirs.’

‘Maybe they need the five shillin’,’ Jesse suggested.

‘It’s handy,’ said Jabez. ‘But the child’s more. “Dada” he says, an’ “Mumma” he says, with his great rollin’ head-piece all hurdled up in that iron collar. He won’t live long–his backbone’s rotten, like. But they Copleys do just about set store by him–five bob or no five bob.’