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Interlopers at the Knap
by [?]

She did most of the talking, her mother listening with a half-absent air, as she picked up fragments of red-hot wood ember with the tongs, and piled them upon the brands. But the number of speeches that passed was very small in proportion to the meanings exchanged. Long experience together often enabled them to see the course of thought in each other’s minds without a word being spoken. Behind them, in the centre of the room, the table was spread for supper, certain whiffs of air laden with fat vapours, which ever and anon entered from the kitchen, denoting its preparation there.

‘The new gown he was going to send you stays about on the way like himself,’ Sally’s mother was saying.

‘Yes, not finished, I daresay,’ cried Sally independently. ‘Lord, I shouldn’t be amazed if it didn’t come at all! Young men make such kind promises when they are near you, and forget ’em when they go away. But he doesn’t intend it as a wedding-gown–he gives it to me merely as a gown to wear when I like–a travelling-dress is what it would be called by some. Come rathe or come late it don’t much matter, as I have a dress of my own to fall back upon. But what time is it?’

She went to the family clock and opened the glass, for the hour was not otherwise discernible by night, and indeed at all times was rather a thing to be investigated than beheld, so much more wall than window was there in the apartment. ‘It is nearly eight,’ said she.

‘Eight o’clock, and neither dress nor man,’ said Mrs. Hall.

‘Mother, if you think to tantalize me by talking like that, you are much mistaken! Let him be as late as he will–or stay away altogether–I don’t care,’ said Sally. But a tender, minute quaver in the negation showed that there was something forced in that statement.

Mrs. Hall perceived it, and drily observed that she was not so sure about Sally not caring. ‘But perhaps you don’t care so much as I do, after all,’ she said. ‘For I see what you don’t, that it is a good and flourishing match for you; a very honourable offer in Mr. Darton. And I think I see a kind husband in him. So pray God ’twill go smooth, and wind up well.’

Sally would not listen to misgivings. Of course it would go smoothly, she asserted. ‘How you are up and down, mother!’ she went on. ‘At this moment, whatever hinders him, we are not so anxious to see him as he is to be here, and his thought runs on before him, and settles down upon us like the star in the east. Hark!’ she exclaimed, with a breath of relief, her eyes sparkling. ‘I heard something. Yes–here they are!’

The next moment her mother’s slower ear also distinguished the familiar reverberation occasioned by footsteps clambering up the roots of the sycamore.

‘Yes it sounds like them at last,’ she said. ‘Well, it is not so very late after all, considering the distance.’

The footfall ceased, and they arose, expecting a knock. They began to think it might have been, after all, some neighbouring villager under Bacchic influence, giving the centre of the road a wide berth, when their doubts were dispelled by the new-comer’s entry into the passage. The door of the room was gently opened, and there appeared, not the pair of travellers with whom we have already made acquaintance, but a pale-faced man in the garb of extreme poverty–almost in rags.

‘O, it’s a tramp–gracious me!’ said Sally, starting back.

His cheeks and eye-orbits were deep concaves–rather, it might be, from natural weakness of constitution than irregular living, though there were indications that he had led no careful life. He gazed at the two women fixedly for a moment: then with an abashed, humiliated demeanour, dropped his glance to the floor, and sank into a chair without uttering a word.