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PAGE 4

The Paupers
by [?]

They watched him out of sight before either stirred. The last decisive step, the step across the Workhouse threshold, must be taken with none to witness. If they could not pass out of their small world by the more reputable mode of dying, they would at least depart with this amount of mystery. They had left the village in Farmer Lear’s cart, and Farmer Lear had left them in the high road; and after that, nothing should be known.

“Shall we be moving on?” Jan asked at length. There was a gate beside the road just there, with a small triangle of green before it, and a granite roller half-buried in dock-leaves. Without answering, the woman seated herself on this, and pulling a handful of the leaves, dusted her shoes and skirt.

“Maria, you’ll take a chill that’ll carry you off, sitting ‘pon that cold stone.”

“I don’t care. ‘Twon’t carry me off afore I get inside, an’ I’m going in decent, or not at all. Come here, an’ let me tittivate you.”

He sat down beside her, and submitted to be dusted.

“You’d as lief lower me as not in their eyes, I verily believe.”

“I always was one to gather dust.”

“An’ a fresh spot o’ bacon-fat ‘pon your weskit, that I’ve kept the moths from since goodness knows when!”

Old Jan looked down over his waistcoat. It was of good “West-of-England broadcloth, and he had worn it on the day when he married the woman at his side.

“I’m thinking–” he began.

“Hey?”

“I’m thinking I’ll find it hard to make friends in–in there. ‘Tis such a pity, to my thinking, that by reggilations we’ll be parted so soon as we get inside. You’ve a-got so used to my little ways an’ corners, an’ we’ve a-got so many little secrets together an’ old-fash’ned odds an’ ends o’ knowledge, that you can take my meaning almost afore I start to speak. An’ that’s a great comfort to a man o’ my age. It’ll be terrible hard, when I wants to talk, to begin at the beginning every time. There’s that old yarn o’ mine about Hambly’s cow an’ the lawn-mowing machine–I doubt that anybody ‘ll enjoy it so much as you always do; an’ I’ve so got out o’ the way o’ telling the beginning–which bain’t extra funny, though needful to a stranger’s understanding the whole joke–that I ‘most forgets how it goes.”

“We’ll see one another now an’ then, they tell me. The sexes meet for Chris’mas-trees an’ such-like.”

“I’m jealous that ‘twon’t be the same. You can’t hold your triflin’ confabs with a great Chris’mas-tree blazin’ away in your face as important as a town afire.”

“Well, I’m going to start along,” the old woman decided, getting on her feet; “or else someone ‘ll be driving by and seeing us.”

Jan, too, stood up.

“We may so well make our congees here,” she went on, “as under the porter’s nose.”

An awkward silence fell between them for a minute, and these two old creatures, who for more than fifty years had felt no constraint in each other’s presence, now looked into each other’s eyes with a fearful diffidence. Jan cleared his throat, much as if he had to make a public speech.

“Maria,” he began in an unnatural voice, “we’re bound for to part, and I can trewly swear, on leaving ye, that–“

“–that for two-score year and twelve It’s never entered your head to consider whether I’ve made ‘ee a good wife or a bad. Kiss me, my old man; for I tell ‘ee I wouldn’ ha’ wished it other. An’ thank ‘ee for trying to make that speech. What did it feel like?”

“Why, ‘t rather reminded me o’ the time when I offered ‘ee marriage.”

“It reminded me o’ that, too. Com’st along.”

They tottered down the hill towards the Workhouse gate. When they were but ten yards from it, however, they heard the sound of wheels on the road behind them, and walked bravely past, pretending to have no business at that portal. They had descended a good thirty yards beyond (such haste was put into them by dread of having their purpose guessed) before the vehicle overtook them–a four-wheeled dog-cart carrying a commercial traveller, who pulled up and offered them a lift into the town.

They declined.

Then, as soon as he passed out of sight, they turned, and began painfully to climb back towards the gate. Of the two, the woman had shown the less emotion. But all the way her lips were at work, and as she went she was praying a prayer. It was the only one she used night and morning, and she had never changed a word since she learned it as a chit of a child. Down to her seventieth year she had never found it absurd to beseech God to make her “a good girl”; nor did she find it so as the Workhouse gate opened, and she began a new life.