Read DORA OF THE RINGOLETS of A Sheaf of Corn , free online book, by Mary E. Mann, on ReadCentral.com.

“I wish I c’d du my ringolets same as yu kin, mother. When I carl ’em over my fingers they don’t hang o’ this here fashion down my back, but go all of a womble-like; not half s’ pretty.”

“Tha’s ’cause ye twist ’em wrong way, back’ards round yer fingers,” the faint voice from the bed made answer. “Yu ha’ got to larn to du ’em, Dora, don’t, yer’ll miss me cruel when I’m gone.”

The dying woman was propped on a couple of pillows of more or less soiled appearance; these were raised to the required height by means of a folded flannel petticoat and dingy woollen frock, worn through all the twelve years of her married life, but now to be worn no more. On the man’s coat, spread for extra warmth over the thin counterpane, lay a broken comb and brush. Over her fingers, distorted by hard work, but pale from sickness and languid with coming death, the mother twisted the locks, vigorously waving, richly gilded, and dragged them in shining, curled lengths over the child’s shoulders.

Because of the extreme weakness of the hands the process was a laborious one. A heavier pallor was upon the face, a cold moisture upon the sunken brow when it was accomplished.

“I’ll kape on while I kin I don’ know as I shall ha’ the strength much longer, Dora.”

The child twitched her curls from the fingers that lay heavily upon them and turned on her mother fiercely. “Yu ha’ got ter du ’em, then!” she cried. She glared upon the faint head slipped sideways on the pillow. “Yu ha’n’t got ter put none o’ them parts on, du I’ll let ye ter know.”

Her eyes were suddenly wide and brilliant with tears; the fading sight of the mother was dazzled by the yellow shine of them and of the richly-coloured hair. “My pretty gal!” she breathed; “my pretty Dora! I ha’n’t got no strength, bor.”

“I’ll let yer ter know!” Dora cried with fury. “I’ll hull yer pillars away, and let yer hid go flop, if ye say yer ha’an’t got no strength. I’ll let yer ter know!”

She stopped, because the sobs which had been stormily rising choked her. She seized in her red little hands the pillow beneath her mother’s head. No word of remonstrance was spoken, the faded eyes gazing wearily upon the child held no reproof.

“What d’ye look at me, that mander, for? Why don’t ye ketch me a lump o’ the hid?” the child cried fiercely; then gave way to the suppressed sobbing. “Oh, mother, yu ain’t a-dyin’? Yu ain’t a-dyin’ yit?”

She flung her own head on the soiled pillow; all the crisply waving, long ringlets flew over the mother’s sunken chest; one fell across her parched lips. She moistened them with her tongue, and made a feeble motion of kissing. A tear slid slowly down her cheek.

“Not yit, my pretty gal,” she whispered. “Mother ain’t a-goin’ ter lave yer yit.”

Promus! Yer ain’t a-tellin’ no lies? Yer’ll stop along of me till I kin carl my ringolets myself. I ha’ got ter have ’em carled, and there ain’t no one else to du ’em for me.”

The mother promised.

“There’s Jim and Jack they don’t want ye, mother. Their hairs is short. They kin play hopstick i’ th’ midder, alonger th’ other boys. Both on ’em kin put their own collars on. There’s on’y me, what have carls, that’ll want yer so. Mother! Mother!”

“Don’ I kape on a-tellin’ of yer I ain’t a-goin’.”

There was no time to sob for long on the mother’s pillow. Dora was due at school. She wiped her crimsoned cheeks upon the corner of the sheet, stood up and put her sunburnt sailor-hat upon the carefully curled hair. She was neatly dressed in a brown woollen frock nearly covered by a white, lace-trimmed overall; she wore brown stockings and brown shoes. The mother watched her to the door with yearning eyes.

“My pretty gal!” she said.

The neighbour who waited on her in moments spared from her own household labours came in. She held a cup of paste made from cornflour in her hand, and stirred the mixture invitingly.

“It’s time yu had suffin’ inside of yer, Mis’ Green,” she said. “Yu ha’n’t tasted wittels since that mossel o’ bread-an’-butter yu fancied las’ night.”

She put a spoonful of the food, stirred over a smoky fire, to the parched lips.

“I’d suner, a sight, have a drink o’ water,” the sick woman said. “There ain’t nothin’ I fare ter crave ’cept water now.”

“There ain’t no nouragement in water, Mis’ Green. Take this here, instids,” the neighbour said firmly.

Two spoonfuls were swallowed with difficulty.

“Come! Tha’s as ter should be! That comfort ye, Mis’ Green, bor?”

The faint eyes looked solemnly in the healthy, stolid face above her. “There’s nothin’ don’t comfort me, Mis’ Barrett.”

“An’ why’s the raisen?” the neighbour reprovingly demanded. “Because yu’re a-dyin’, Mis’ Green, and yu don’t give yer mind tu it. I ha’ been by other deathbeds the Lord reward me for it, as ’tis ter be expected He will and I ha’n’t never seed a Christian woman so sot agin goin’ as yu are.”

The reluctant one shut her eyes wearily; the dropped lids trembled for a minute, then were raised upon the same hard face.

“She don’ look like a labourer’s gal, Dora don’t,” she said faintly. “She ha’n’t got th’ mander o’ them sort o’ truck.”

“What then, Mis’ Green?” the neighbour inquired, stern with the consciousness of her own large family of “truck.” The supposed superiority of Dora of the ringolets hurt her maternal pride and raised a storm of righteous anger in her breast.

Mrs Green did not explain; the discoloured lids fell again waveringly over the dim eyes, the upper lip was drawn back showing the gums above the teeth.

It was the mere skeleton of a woman who lay there. She had suffered long and intensely; no one could look upon her now and doubt that the hour of discharge was very near. The woman standing above her reasoned that if a word of reproof or advice was to be given there was not much time to lose. Often, from open door to open door (for the pair inhabited a double dwelling), often, across the garden fence, she had called aloud her opinion of her neighbour’s goings on; she would seize the opportunity to give it once again.

“And why ain’t yer Dora like a labourer’s gal, then?” she demanded, shrilly accusing. “Oh, Mis’ Green! Don’t yu, a-layin’ there o’ your deathbed, know right well the why and the wherefore? Ha’n’t yu borrered right and left, ha’n’t you got inter debt high and low, to put a hape o’ finery on yer mawther’s back? Ha’n’t yu moiled yerself, an’ yu a dyin’ woman, over her hid o’ hair? Put her i’ my Gladus’s clo’es, an’ see what yer Dora ‘ud look like. Har, wi’ her coloured shues, an’ all!”

“They was giv’ her,” the dying woman faintly protested. “Her Uncle Willum sent them brown uns along of her brown hat wi’ th’ welwet bow.”

“Now, ain’t yu a-lyin’, Mis’ Green, as yu lay there o’ yer deathbed? Them tales may ha’ flung dust i’ th’ eyes o’ yer old man, them i’ my hid is too sharp for no sech a story. Di’n’t I see th’ name o’ ‘Bunn o’ Wotton’ on th’ bag th’ hat come out of? An’ don’t yer brother Willum live i’ London, and ha’n’t he got seven of’s own to look arter? Ter think as I sh’d come ter pass ter say sich wards, an’ yu a-layin’ there a-dyin’! Ain’t yer ashamed o’ yerself, Mis’ Green. I’m a-askin’ of yer th’ question; ain’t yer ashamed o’ yerself?”

“No, an’ ain’t,” said Mrs Green, feebly whispering.

Beneath the flickering, bruised-looking lids, tears slowly oozed. The neighbour felt for a pocket-handkerchief under the pillow, and wiped them away.

“Fact o’ th’ matter, Mis’ Green,” she inflexibly pursued her subject, “yu ha’ made a raglar idle o’ that gal; yu ha’ put a sight o’ finery on ‘er back, an’ stuffed ‘er hid wi’ notions; an’ wha’s a-goin ter become on ’r when you’re gone?”

“I was a-wonderin’,” the dying woman said, “s’posin’ as I was willin’ to speer this here parple gownd o’ mine, rolled onder my pillar I was a-wonderin’, Mis’ Barrett, ef so bein’ as yu’d ondertake ter carl my gal’s ringolets, now an’ agin, for ’er?”

“No,” the other said, spiritedly, nobly proof against the magnitude of the bribe. “That’d go agin my conscience, Mis’ Green. I’m sorrer ter be a denyin’ of yer, but yer mawther’s hid o’ hair I ha’n’t niver approved on; I can’t ondertake it, an’ so, I say, straight forrerd, at oncet.”

The face so “accustomed to refusings” did not change, no flush of resentment relieved its waxen pallor or lightened its fading eyes. “‘Tis th’ last thing I’m a-askin’ of yer,” the poor woman said, weakly. “Try as I kin, I can’t live much longer. ’Tis on’y nat’ral I should think o’ Dora an’ th’ child’en.”

“Yu think a sight too much on ’em, bor! ’Tis time yu give ’em up. Yu lay o’ yer deathbed, Mis’ Green, an’ yu a mis’rable sinner; can’t you put up a prayer to ask th’ Lord ter have marcy on yer?”

“No,” said Mrs Green.

“‘No’ an’ why not?”

“Cos I don’ keer.”

“Don’ keer, Mis’ Green?”

“No, Mis’ Barrett, so’s He look arter Dora an’ th’ child’en, I don’t keer what He du ter me.”

“Mother!”

No answer, but a quiver of drooping lids.

“Mother!”

At the sharp terror of the voice the lids lifted themselves and fell again.

“Yu ain’t a-dyin’, mother?”

“’Course I ain’t.”

“Yer promussed! Yer said yer warn’t a-dyin’!”

“An’ I ain’t.”

“Then don’t kape a-lookin’ o’ that mander. Lay hold o’ th’ comb an’ du my ringolets.”

The comb was thrust within cold fingers which did not close upon it.

“If so bein’ yer don’t set ter wark and comb ’em out I’ll shake ye. I’ll shake ye, mother, du yer hare? Du yer hare, mother? Th’ bell’s gone, an’ how’m I ter go ter school an’ my ringolets not carled?”

They were not curled that morning, however, for at the sound of the child’s angry, frightened voice Mrs Barrett came running upstairs and seized her and dragged her from the room.

“Yer baggige, yu! Ter spake i’ that mander to a dyin’ woman!”

“She ain’t a-dyin’, then,” the child screamed as she was thrust from the house. “She ain’t a-dyin’, an’ I want my ringolets carled.”

Once, when Dora had announced in the hearing of a pupil-teacher that she was the prettiest girl in the school: “You ain’t, then,” the older girl had told her. “You are not pretty at all, Dora, but exactly like your brother Jim.”

“Jim’s ugly! You’re a-tazin’ of me!” Dora had fiercely cried.

“If you hadn’t your curls you’d be Jim over again,” the teacher had persisted.

She was a tempestuous little animal. She had flown to her mother with the horrid insinuation, had sobbed and screamed, and kicked the innocent, ugly Jim. If she had not her curls!

But she had them. Even this morning, when for the first time she must appear in school without having them freshly curled, the consciousness of their weight upon her shoulders was a comfort to the child. As well as she could without disarranging the set of it, she smoothed each long curl into order as she walked along. The sun of autumn shone, lying like a benediction upon the land whose fruits were gathered; among the hips and haws in the hedges the birds, their family cares all over, sang lightsomely, with vacant hearts. Happiness was in the air. Perhaps someone would say how pretty the curls were, to-day. Perhaps, as once, blessedly, before had happened, a lady riding slowly along the green wayside might pull up her horse to inquire whose little girl she was, to give her sixpence, to ask how much she would take for her beautiful curls.

Ah, with what joy on that happy morning Dora had galloped home to give the account to her mother! The sixpence had gone to buy the blue ribbon Dora wore among her locks on Sundays; but how the mother had cheered up! She had seemed almost well for half an hour that evening, and Dora had told the tale again and again.

“I was a-walkin’ along, like this here, not a thinkin’ a mite o’ my ringolets, an’ I see th’ woman on th’ horse keep a-smilin’. So I made my manners, an’ she pulled up ’r horse. ‘Whu’s little gal be yu?’ she say; ‘an’ where did yu git yer lovely hair?’”

Her mother had eaten two bits of bread-and-butter, that evening, and had drunk the tea Dora all alone had made her. How happy it had been! Perhaps it would all happen again.

Morning school over, she was putting on her hat among a struggling mass of children anxious to get into the open, where there was a great blue vault to shout under, and stones to shy, when the schoolmistress from the empty class-room called her back. The woman stood by her silently for a minute, one hand on the child’s shoulder, the other moving thoughtfully over the shining fell of hair.

“Don’t shout and play with the others to-day, Dora,” she said at length. “Wait till they clear off, and then go right home.”

“Yes, tacher.”

The schoolmistress waited for another minute, smoothing the curls.

“You’re only right a little girl, Dora, but you’re the only one. You must try to be good, and look after poor little Jack and Jim, and your father and be a comfort.”

“Yes, tacher.” Dora took courage beneath the caressing hand: “I like to be a comfit to mother best,” she vouchsafed, brightly daring.

“But your mother ” the governess said, then stopped and turned away her head; she could not bring herself to tell the child the news of the mother she had heard that morning, since school began.

So Dora went, sedately for the first few steps, afterwards with a happy rush, the curls dancing on her shoulders.

“Yer mother is a-dyin’, she ’ont be here long; you must try to be a better gal”; how often of late had that phrase offended her ears! She had met such announcements with a fury of denial, with storms of tears. She had rushed to her mother with wild reproach and complaint. “Why don’t ye tell ‘m yu ain’t a-dyin’, stids o’ layin’ there, that mander. They’re allust a-tazin’ of me?”

To-day no one had said the hated words; and mother would like to hear how teacher had “kep’” her at her side, and coaxed her hair. “I ha’n’t niver seed her du that to Gladus, nor none on ’em,” she would say, and would remind her mother how these less fortunate girls had not her “hid o’ hair.”

So, her steps quickened with joyful anticipation, she came running across the meadow in which was her home.

“Here come Dora,” Mrs Barrett, who had been busy in Mrs Green’s room, said to the neighbour who had helped her. Both women peeped through the lowered blind. “She’ll come poundin’ upstairs to her mother. There ain’t no kapin’ of ’r away; and a nice how-d’ye-do there’ll be!”

The elder boy, Jim, whose ugly little face Dora’s was said to resemble, was standing against the gate of the neglected garden. He did not shout at her, nor throw a stone at her, in the fashion of his usual greeting, but pulled open the rickety gate as she came up.

“Mother’s dead,” he whispered, and looked at her with curiosity.

“She ain’t, then,” Dora said. He drew his head back to avoid the blow she aimed at it, and shut the gate after her.

Jack, an ugly urchin of five, the youngest of the family, was sitting on the doorstep, hammering with the iron-shod heel of his heavy boot a hazel nut he had found on his way home. The nut, instead of cracking, was being driven deep into the moist earth. He did not desist from his employment, or lift his head.

“Father’s gone for mother’s corffin,” he said.

The howl he gave when Dora knocked him off the step brought Mrs Barrett upon the scene. She pulled the girl off the fallen Jack with a gentler touch than usual.

“You come along upstairs, along o’ me,” she said.

There was not only the coffin to be ordered in Wotton, but suits of black for himself and children, besides the joint of meat to be cooked for the meal after the funeral. Mr Green did not hurry over his purchases, but went about them with the leisurely attentiveness of one anxious to do the right thing, but unaccustomed to the business of making bargains.

His wages had been “made a hand on,” lately; there had been brandy and “sech-like” to buy for the missus; the neighbour to pay, leaving little more than enough for bread for the rest of them. But now, with this burying money! The new-made widower enjoyed the hitherto undreamed-of experience of knowing that he might put in for a glass at every public-house he passed, and not exhaust it.

He treated himself to a tin of salmon to have with his supper, when he got back to Dulditch. While his wife had been well and about, she had been wont at rare intervals to supply such a “ralish” to the evening meal. Having the means to indulge himself, his thoughts had at once travelled to the luxury.

Yet, arrived at home, he had had too much beer to be very hungry, and the thought of the dead wife, up there, just beyond the ceiling, destroyed what little pleasure the feast might have held.

“Happen she’d been alive, she’d maybe ha’ picked a mossel,” he said to himself.

That she could be totally indifferent to the delicacy, even although dead and fairly started on her heavenward journeying, was a bewildering fact his dull brain could scarcely grasp. He got up from the table, and taking the unshaded lamp, walked heavily upstairs to look upon this marvel his wife who was no more.

He was a stolid creature, but was shaken enough to give a sharp growl of fear when, from the other side of the rigid form upon the bed, a head was lifted.

“Hello!” he called. “Hello! What yu a-doin’ here? Now then! Come out o’ that, yu young warmint; don’t, I’ll hide ye.”

The figure lying by the dead woman slipped to the ground. It wore a brown frock and a crumpled white overall trimmed with lace.

“Hello!” the man said again. He looked stupidly at his little daughter, then pulled aside the sheet which covered his wife.

In the waxen face, with lids still half-open above the dull eyes, with lips drawn back to show the gums, was little change. Beneath the chin a large white bow of coarse muslin had been tied. It was designed to hide the thinness of the throat, but gave, besides, a dreadful air of smartness to the poor corpse. Above the sunken chest the arms were crossed, but, over them, and over the thin hands, in a burning, shining mass of resplendent colour lay

The husband held the lamp nearer, and bent his dull, red face to peer closer at the scattered heap the miracle of bronze and red, red living gold. “Hello!” he said again, then moved the lamp to let its light shine on his daughter’s face, and stared at her.

“Hello!”

“I ha’n’t got no one now to carl my ringolets,” the child sobbed, her voice rising high in the scale of rebellious misery; “my ringolets ain’t no good to me no more. I ha’ cut ’em off; mother, she kin have ’em. They ain’t no good ter me.”

The glare of the lamp held awry was upon the broad red face of the girl with the streaming, yellow eyes, with the unevenly cropped head.

“I thought yu was the boy Jim,” her father said.