Read WOMEN O’ DULDITCH of A Sheaf of Corn , free online book, by Mary E. Mann, on ReadCentral.com.

Dinah Brome stood in the village shop, watching, with eyes keen to detect the slightest discrepancy in the operation, the weighing of her weekly parcels of grocery.

She was a strong, wholesome-looking woman of three- or four-and-forty, with a clean, red skin, clear eyes, dark hair, crinkling crisply beneath her sober, respectable hat. All her clothes were sober and respectable, and her whole mien. No one would have guessed from it that she had not a shred of character to her back.

The knowledge of this incontrovertible fact did not influence the demeanour of the shop-woman towards her. There was not better pay in the village, nor a more constant customer than Dinah Brome. In such circumstances, Mrs Littleproud was not the woman to throw stones.

“They tell me as how Depper’s wife ain’t a-goin’ to get over this here sickness she’ve got,” she said, tucking in the edges of the whitey-brown paper upon the half-pound of moist sugar taken from the scales. “The doctor, he ha’n’t put a name to her illness, but ’tis one as’ll carry her off, he say.”

“A quarter pound o’ butter,” Dinah unmovedly said. “The best, please. I don’t fancy none o’ that that ha’ got the taste o’ the shop in it.”

“Doctor, he put his hid in at the door this afternoon,” Mrs Littleproud went on; “he’d got his monkey up, the old doctor had! ’’Tis a rank shame,’ he say, ‘there ain’t none o’ these here lazy women o’ Dulditch with heart enough to go to help that poor critter in her necessity,’ he say.”

“Ler’m help her hisself,” said Mrs Brome, strong in her indifference. “A couple o’ boxes o’ matches, Mrs Littleproud; and you can gi’ me the odd ha’penny in clo’ balls for the disgestion.”

“You should ha’ heered ’m run on! ‘Where be that Dinah Brome?’ he say, ‘that ha’ showed herself helpful in other folks’ houses. Wha’s she a-doin’ of, that she can’t do a neighbour’s part here?’”

“And you telled ‘m she was a-mindin’ of ’er own business, I hope?” Mrs Brome suggested, in calmest unconcern.

“I’ll tell you what I did say, Dinah, bor,” the shop-woman said, transferring the sticky clove-balls from their bottle to her own greasy palm. “‘Dinah Brome, sir,’ I say, ’is the most industrousest woman in Dulditch; arly and late,’ I say, ’she’s at wark; and as for her floors you might eat off of ’em.’” She screwed the half-dozen hard red balls in their bit of paper, and stowed them lightly in the customer’s basket. “That the lot this week, Dinah?”

Dinah removed her basket from counter to arm. “What’d he got to say for hisself, then?” she asked.

“‘A woman like that can allust make time,’ the old doctor he say. ’Tell her to make time to help this here pore sufferin’ woman.’ I’m a-sayin’ it as he said it, Dinah. I ain’t a-hintin’ of it myself, bor.”

“Ler’m tell me, hisself, an old interfarin’ old fule, and he’ll ha’ the rough side o’ my tongue,” the customer said; and nodded an unsmiling good-afternoon, and went on her way.

Her way led her past the cottage of the woman of whom they had spoken. Depper’s cottage, indeed, was the first in the row of which Dinah’s was the last a half-dozen two-roomed tenements, living-room below, bedroom above, standing with their backs to the road, from which they were divided by no garden, nor even so much as a narrow path. The lower window of the two allotted to each house was about four or five feet from the ground, and was of course the window of the living-room. Mrs Brome, as she passed that of the first house in the row, suddenly yielded to the impulse to stop and look within.

A small interior, with furniture much too big for it; a huge chest of drawers, of oak with brass fittings; a broken-down couch as big as a bed, covered with a dingy shawl, a man’s greatcoat, a red flannel petticoat; a table cumbered with the remains of wretched meals never cleared away, and the poor cooking utensils of impoverished, shifty housekeeping.

The woman of whom they had been speaking stood with her back to the window. A stooping, drooping skeleton of a woman, who, with weak, shaking hands, kneaded some dough in which a few currants were stuck, before laying it on a black-looking baking tin.

“A fine time o’ day to bake his fourses cake!” the woman outside commented, reaching on tiptoe, the better to look in at the window.

The tin having its complement of cakes, the sick woman essayed to carry it to the oven. But its weight was too much for her; it hung limply in her weak grasp; before the oven was reached the cakes were on the ragged carpet of the hearth.

“God in heaven!” ejaculated the woman looking in.

She watched while the poor woman within dropped on all-fours, feebly trying to gather up the cakes spreading themselves slowly over the dirty floor.

“If that don’t make me sick!” said Dinah Brome to herself as she turned and went on her way.

The cottage of Dinah Brome, distant from that of Depper’s wife by a score or so of yards, was, in its domestic economy, as removed from it as the North Pole from the South. Small wonder that Depper his name was William Kittle, a fact of which the neighbourhood made no practical use, which he himself only recalled with an effort preferred to the dirt, untidiness and squalor of his own abode the spick-and-span cleanliness of Dinah Brome’s. Small wonder that in this atmosphere of wholesomeness and comfort, he chose to spend the hours of the Sabbath during which the public-house was closed; and other hours. Small wonder, looking at the fine, capable figure of the woman, now bustling about with teapot and cups, he should esteem Mrs Brome personally above the slatternly skeleton at his own hearth.

Having made a cup of tea and cut a couple of slices of bread-and-butter, the owner of the fresh-scrubbed bricks, the fresh polished furniture, the dazzlingly white hearth, turned her back on her household gods, and, plate and cup in hands, betook herself, by way of the uneven bricked passage separating the row of houses from their rows of gardens at the back, to the house of the wife of Depper.

“I swore I wouldn’t,” she said to herself as she went along; “but I’m dinged if the sight o’ Depper’s old woman a-crawlin’ arter them mamucked up bits o’ dough ha’n’t tarned my stomach!”

She knocked at the door with the toe of her boot, her hands being full, and receiving no answer, opened it and went in.

Depper’s old woman had fallen, a miserable heap of bones and dingy clothing, upon the broken-down couch, and had fainted there.

“I’d suner ‘twas anyone in the warld than you a-waitin’ on me like this,” she said, when, consciousness having returned during the ministrations of the other woman, her weary eyes opened upon the healthy face above her.

“And the las’ time you telled me to walk out o’ your house, I swore I’d never set fût in it again,” Mrs Brome made answer. “But I ha’ swallered worse things in my time than my own wards, I make no doubt; and you ha’ come to a pass, Car’line Kittle, when you ha’ got to take what you can git and be thankful.”

“Pass? I ha’ come to a pass, indeed!” the sick woman moaned. “You’re wholly right there, bor; wholly right.”

“So now you ha’ got to drink this here cup o’ hot tea I ha’ brought ye; and let me help ye upstairs to yer bed as quick as may be.”

“When I ha’ baked Depper’s fourses cake, and sent it off by ’Meelyer’s little gal she ha’ lent her to me to go back and forth to the harvest-field, ’Meelyer have I kin go,” the wife said; “not afore,” hiccoughing loudly over the tea she tried to drink; “not afore not afore! Oh, how I wish I could, bor; how I wish I could!”

“You’re a-goin’, this instant minute,” the masterful Dinah declared.

The other had not the strength to resist. “I’m wholly done,” she murmured, helplessly, “wholly done at last.”

“My! How ha’ you got up these here stairs alone?” Dinah, having half-dragged, half-carried the feeble creature to the top, demanded of her, wiping her own brow.

“Crawled, all-fours.” Depper’s wife panted out the explanation. “And to git down ’em i’ the mornin’s oh, the Lord alone knows how I ha’ got down ’em i’ th’ mornin’s. Thankful I’d be to know I’d never ha’ to come down ’em agin.”

“You never will,” said Mrs Brome.

“I don’t want to trouble you, no fudder. I can fend for myself now,” the poor woman said, when at length she lay at peace between the sheets; her face bathed, and the limp grimy fingers; the scant dry hair smoothed decently down the fallen temples. “I’d rather it’d ha’ been another woman that had done me the sarvice, but I ain’t above bein’ thankful to you, for all that. All I’ll ask of ye now, Dinah Brome, is that ye’ll have an eye to Depper’s fourses cake in th’ oven, and see that ‘Meelyer’s gal take it and his home-brew, comf’table, to th’ field for ’m.”

Dinah, having folded the woman’s clothes, spread them for additional warmth upon the poor bed-covering. “Don’t you worrit no more about Depper,” she said, “Strike me, you’re the one that want seem’ to now, Car’line.”

The slow tears oozed beneath Car’line’s closed lids. “I kin fend for myself if Depper ain’t put about,” she said.

When Depper returned, with the shades of night, from the harvest-field, he might hardly have known his own living-room. The dirty rags of carpet had disappeared, the bricks were scrubbed, the dangerous-looking heap of clothing had been removed from the sofa, and a support added to its broken leg; the fireside chairs, the big chest of drawers, redolent of the turpentine with which they had been rubbed, shone in the candlelight; the kettle sang on the bars by the side of a saucepan of potatoes boiling for the meal. It was the sight of Dinah Brome at the head of affairs, however, which drew his attention from these details.

“Well, I’m jiggered!” Depper said, and paused, door in hand, on his own freshly-washed step.

“You wipe your feet, afore you come in,” said Mrs Brome, masterful as ever. “Here’s yer supper ready. I ain’t a-goin’ to ate it along of you, Depper; but I ha’ got a ward or two to say to you afore I go.”

Depper entered, closed the door behind him, sat down, hat on head, in the freshly-polished chair by the hearth; he fixed his eyes, his mouth fallen open, on the fine form of Dinah standing before him, with hands on hips, arms akimbo, and the masterful gleam in her eyes.

“Depper, yer old woman’s a-dyin’” Dinah said.

“Marcy on us! Ye don’t tell me that! Kind o’ piney, like, fer the las’ six months, my missus ha’ bin’, but ”

“Now she’s a-dyin’. D’ye think I ha’n’t got the right use o’ my senses, arter all these years? Wheer ha’ yer own eyes been? Look at ’er! No better’n a skeercrow of a woman, under yer very nose! She’s a-dyin’, I tell ye. And, Depper, what du I come here to find? I find a bare cupboard and a bare board. Not a mite o’ nouragement i’ th’ house, sech as a pore suff’rin’ woman like Car’line’s in need of.”

“Car’line’s a pore manager, as right well you know, Dinah. Ha’n’t I telled ye?”

“You ha’ telled me yes. But have you played th’ husban’s part? You ha’ telled me and I ha’ put the fault o’ yer poverty home on ter yer pore missus’s shoulders. But since I been here, I ha’ seen ‘er crawlin’ on ‘er han’s and knees to wait on you, wi’ yer fourses i’ th’ harvest-field. I ha’ heered her manderin’ on, ’let things be comf’table for Depper,’ and let her fend for herself. And I can see with half an eye the bute is on t’other fût, Depper. And this here is what I’m a-goin’ ter say to you, and don’t you make no mistake about it: I’m yer wife’s woman while she want me, and none o’ yours.”

Depper was a small, well-made man, with a curling, grizzled head, and a well-featured face. It is possible that in his youth the word ‘dapper’ may have applied to him; a forgotten fact which perhaps accounted for his nickname. He gazed with an open mouth and puzzled, blear eyes at the woman before him.

“You and me,” he said slowly, with an utterance suspiciously slow and thick “you and me ha’ kep’ comp’ny, so to speak, fer a sight o’ years, Dinah. We never had no fallin’s out, this mander, afore, as I can call ter mind. I don’t rightly onderstan’ what you ha’ got agin me come ter put it into wards.”

“I ha’ got this agin ye,” the valiant Dinah said: “that you ha’ nouraged yer own inside and let your missus’s go empty. You ha’ got too much drink aboard ye, now, an’ her fit ter die for the want of a drop o’ sperrits. And I ha’ got this ter say: that we ha’ come to a pass when I ha’ got to make ch’ice twixt you and yer old woman. Arter wha’s come and gone, we t’ree can’t hob an’ nob, as ye may say, together. My ch’ice is made, then, and this is how I ha’ fixed it up. When yer day’s wark is done, and you come home, I go out o’ your house. Sune as yer up an’ away i’ th’ mornin’, I come in and ridd up yer missus and wait on ’er, while the woman’s in need of me.”

Whether this plan met with Depper’s approval or not, Dinah Brome did not wait to see. “For Car’line’s peace o’ mind, arter wha’s come and gone, ‘tis th’ only way,” she said to herself and to him; and by it he had to abide.

It was not for many weeks. The poor unlovely wife, lying in the dismantled four-poster in the only bedroom, was too far gone to benefit by the ‘nouragement’ Mrs Brome contrived to administer. The sixpenn’orths of brandy Depper, too late relenting, spared from the sum he had hitherto expended on his own beer public-house brandy, poisonous stuff, but accredited by the labouring population of Dulditch with all but magical restorative powers for once failed in its effect. Daily more of a skeleton, hourly feebler and feebler, grew Depper’s old woman; clinging, for all that, desperately to life and the hope of recovery for the sake of Depper himself.

“Let go the things of this life, lay hold on those of Eternity,” the clergyman said, solemnly reproving her for her worldly state of mind. “Remember that there is no one in this world whose life is indispensable to the scheme of it. Try to think more humbly of yourself, my poor friend, less regretfully of the world you are hurrying from. Fix your eyes on the heavenly prospect. Try to join with me more heartily in the prayers for the dying.”

She listened to them, making no response, with slow tears falling from shut lids to the pillow. “‘Tain’t for myself I’m a-pinin’, ’tis for Depper,” she said, the parson being gone.

“All the same, Car’line,” Mrs Brome said, sharply admonishing, “I’d marmar a ward now and agin for myself, as the reverend ha’ been advisin’ of ye, if I was you. Depper he can look arter hisself; his time for prayin’ ain’t, so ter say, come yet. Yours is. I should like to hear a ‘Lord help me,’ now and agin from yer lips, when I tarn ye in the bed. I don’t think but what yu’d be the better for it, pore critter. Your time’s a-gettin’ short, and ’tis best ter go resigned.”

“I cud go resigned if ’tweren’t for Depper,” the dying woman made her moan.

“I can’t think what he’ll du all alone in th’ house and me gone!” she often whimpered. “A man can’t fend for ’isself, like a woman can. They ha’n’t the know ter du it. Depper, he ain’t no better’n a child about makin’ the kettle bile, and sechlike. It’ll go hard, me bein’ put out o’ th’ way, wi’ Depper.”

“Sarve ‘m right,” Mrs Brome always stoically said. “He ha’ been a bad man to you, Car’line. I don’ know whu should speak to that if you and me don’t, bor.”

“He ha’n’t so much as laid a finger on me since I was ill,” Car’line said, making what defence for the absent man she could.

“All the same, when you’re a-feelin’ wholly low agin, jes’ you say to yourself, ‘Th’ Lord help me!’ ‘Tis only dacent, you a dyin’ woman, to do it. When ye ha’n’t got the strength ter say it, I’ll go on my knees and say it for ye, come to that, Car’line,” the notorious wrongdoer promised.

They sent for Depper to the White Hart to come home and see his wife die.

“I ain’t, so ter say, narvish, bein’ alone with ’er, and would as lief see the pore sufferin’ critter draw her las’ breath as not, but I hold ‘tis dacent for man and wife to be together, come to th’ finish; an’ so I ha’ sent for ye,” Mrs Brome told him.

Depper shed as many tears over his old woman as would have been expected from the best husband in the world; and Car’line let her dying gaze rest on him with as much affection, perhaps, as if he had indeed been that ideal person.

“There’ll be money a-comin’ in fro’ th’ club,” were almost her last words to him. She was speaking of the burial-club, into which she had always contrived to pay the necessary weekly pence; she knew it to be the surest consolation she could offer him.

Depper had made arrangements already for the payment of the eleven pounds from the burial-club; he had drunk a pint or two extra, daily, for the last week, the innkeeper being willing to trust him, in consideration of the expected windfall. The excitement of this handling of sudden wealth, and the dying of his wife, and the extra drink combined, completely upset his mental equilibrium. In the first moments of his widower-hood he was prostrate with emotion.

Dragged downstairs by the strong arm of Dinah Brome, he subsided into the chair on the hearth, opposite that for ever empty one of his old woman’s; and with elbows on knees and head on hand he hiccoughed and moaned and wept aloud.

Above, Dinah Brome and that old woman who had a reputation in Dulditch for the laying-out of corpses, decked the poor cold body in such warmth of white flannelette, and such garniture of snipped-out frilling as, alive, Car’line Kittle could never have hoped to attain to.

These last duties achieved, Dinah descended, her arms full of blankets and pillows, no longer necessary above. These, with much banging and shaking, she spread upon the downstairs couch, indicating to the still weeping Depper it was there he was expected to pass the night.

“Bor, you may well blubber!” she said to him, with a kind of comfortable scorn of him and his sorrow. “You ‘ont ketch me a-dryin’ yer tears for ye, and so I tell ye flat. A crule husban’ yu ha’ been as any woman ever had. If ever there was a wife who was kep’ short, and used hard, that was yer wife, Depper, my man! Bad you ha’ been to her that’s gone to ’er account, in all ways; who should know that better’n me, I’ll ask ye? An’ if at las’ ’tis come home to ye, sarve ye wholly right. Tha’s all the comfort ye’ll get from me, bor.”

“Stop along of me!” Depper cried, as, her work being finished, she moved to the door. “’Taint right as I should be left here alone; and me feelin’ that low, and a’most dazed with affliction.”

“Tha’s how you’ve a right to feel,” the stern woman said, unmoved by his tears.

“I keep a-thinkin’ of wha’s layin’ up above theer, Dinah.”

“Pity you di’n’t think on ’er more in ’er lifetime.”

“’Taint nat’ral as I should be left wholly alone with a dead woman. ‘Taint a nat’ral thing, I’m a-sayin’, for me to du, Dinah, ter pass the night alone along o’ my old missus’s corp.”

“Bor, ‘taint the fust onnat’ral thing you ha’ done i’ your life,” Mrs Brome said; and went out and shut the door.

An hour or so later Depper opened it, and going hurriedly past the intervening cottages, knocked stealthily upon the door of Dinah Brome.

She looked out upon him presently from her bedroom window, her dark, crinkled hair rough from the pillow, a shawl pulled over her nightgown.

“Whu’s that a-distarbin’ o’ me, as ha’n’t had a night’s rest for a week, at this time o’ night?” she demanded sharply.

“It’s me; Depper,” the man’s voice answered, whisperingly. “Le’ me in, Dinah. I daren’t be alone along of ‘er no longer. I ha’ only got you, Dinah, now my old woman’s gone! Le’ me in!”

“You’re a rum un ter call yerself a man and a husban’ you are!” Dinah Brome ejaculated; but she came downstairs and opened her door.