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Nelly Dean

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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‘Then the farmer fell to his knees, sobbing. “Alas, I see that it is so. But I will repent me now of my greed and my anger. I beg your pardon, Brownie, for my poor treatment of you. I will ask no more wishes from you, but will use all my remaining years to make amends for my sins, and pray to God to take away my heart of stone, and give me a heart of flesh.”

‘“Pray all you please,” the Brownie replied, “but I told you once that I would abate no word of my promise, and so I will not. When the sun goes down on the next Sabbath, whether you are dumb or whether you speak, whether you stand on the hearth or a thousand miles away, you will be granted the inmost wish of your heart.” And with that he disappeared. The farmer called and called for him to return, and pleaded with the empty air to be freed from this final wish, which he now regarded with terror, but to no avail.

‘Then the farmer, seeing that the Brownie would not help him, set about to examine his heart, and bring it into a better frame, that his heart’s wish would not bring such horrors upon him as it had done hitherto. But, like many another man who has left repentance to the last, he found that the time was too short; through unchecked selfishness and greed, the evil of his heart had grown too great to be uprooted in the few days remaining before the wish was granted. As the sun began to sink on the Sabbath, he could not take his mind from the shame and degradation he would face if the neighbours discovered his secret, and he grew terrified, in his guilt and despair, that in some unsearched corner of his heart he might be wishing the annihilation of the whole neighbourhood around, as he had that of his wife. So he snatched up a knife from the table and, before the sun touched the horizon, plunged it into his heart. He was found thus the next morning, and pinned to his breast was a note in a queer, crabbed hand that read, “He got his heart’s wish.”’

‘But how could the Brownie know the wish of his inmost heart, even a thousand miles off?’ I interrupted again. ‘I thought only God could know that. And the Brownie said before that he could not fetch things by magic more than three leagues distant!’

‘Well, you are a sharp cross-questioner, Nelly,’ said my mother. ‘There is no fooling you. I suppose the Brownie was not being strictly truthful there. No doubt he had heard the farmer’s mutterings against his wife, and made out the wish of his heart from that, and as for the rest, he counted on the farmer’s fear and dismay to cloud his thinking. A man haunted by a guilty conscience thinks everyone can see into his heart. But the tale is true enough, for all that, as is pretty widely known about here. The man was buried as a suicide, in an unmarked grave at a crossroads just the other side of Gimmerton. I have seen the place myself. When I was still a girl, there was a man going around the fairs who showed what he said was the bloodstained knife and the note, at a penny a look, and I begged my mother to let me see them, but she said he could have written the note and stained the dagger himself, and no one would be the wiser, and she would not waste so much as a farthing on such trumpery shows. But the tale itself she always averred to be quite true, to her own knowledge, and she never lied. Take it to heart, Nell, and do not get in the habit of imagining yourself entitled to more than you have earned by your own labours. Leave off making idle wishes.’

Wise advice, no doubt, to anyone who could follow it. As for me, she might as well have told me to leave off breathing. But the story has haunted me since, and in my darkest times I have wondered, was there something I did in my youth, some unfledged sparrow I returned to its nest, or a moth I freed from a spider’s web, that made me the recipient, all unwitting, of some such sinister boon? How many things that my wayward heart has wished for have come true, yet in a manner crueller than their denial could ever be? That very night, I wished fervently that my father might be to me henceforth as he had been these last few days. And so he was, in the sense that I never saw him otherwise, for before I saw again, he was dead.

FIVE (#u668a3636-e978-5a58-9aff-a064794d9e05)

Now, why did I write that? I am sure I thought nothing of the kind at the time. Indeed that friendly visit had been a great relief to my conscience, in freeing me of many a guilty unbidden daydream in which my father’s death figured prominently. And though it might certainly be said that I wished for his love, it was a wish I both prayed for and intended to work for – resolving to show him in future such a mixture of dutiful respect and easy affection as would assure him I had forgiven and forgotten the wrongs of the past. How could such a wish be wrong? It is true that my mother’s story came in time to haunt me, but that was years later, after other, darker events, and less innocent wishes. And I am getting ahead of myself again.

I had expected that I would see my father on my next month’s day off, but in the meantime, he was called away for a large job at some distance from our home. An old friend of his boyhood – a lad as poor as himself, but with a genius for all things mechanical – had risen in the world, and was now the owner of some prosperous mills outside Brassing, about thirty miles away from us. He had bought a good-sized piece of land, and was having built for himself a large manor house, and he took it into his head that none other than his old friend should oversee all the stonework, and at pay several times what my father could earn locally. My father wished to move there outright with my mother – there would be work for at least a year or two just on the house, and he counted on getting more through the connection after. But my mother flatly refused to leave the neighbourhood so soon, not wishing to be gone so far from me while I was new to my duties, or to give up the small farm into which she had poured so much work over the years, without more certain prospects elsewhere. There were hard words between them about this, as I gathered from my mother’s hints, but the result was that my father left alone, with the understanding that my mother would join him in a year or two if the situation proved as good as he thought. And so he passed from my life again, though on better terms than before, certainly. I wrote to him now and again, printing in large letters so that he could read them easily, and saying as little about the Earnshaws as possible, on my mother’s instructions.

When I returned to Wuthering Heights to take up my position as a maidservant, I found my new duties easier in some respects, and harder in others, than I had anticipated. Mrs Earnshaw kept to the intention she expressed to my mother, and was an easy, indulgent mistress. Had her commands been all I had to consider, I would have seen little difference in the tenor of my life at the Heights. She had no wish to banish me from the lessons she superintended with Hindley and Cathy, for in truth they were both more refractory pupils in my absence. Hindley could not keep his mind to a schoolroom task for five minutes together, and his mother quickly lost patience with him without me there to devise games or rhymes or riddles to keep him to his task, and make him learn his lessons in spite of himself. Cathy was much better, but she was motivated primarily by a desire to outshine Hindley, and when that became easier, her own progress slowed accordingly. So when it was time for lessons, Mrs Earnshaw would generally call me to suspend whatever I was doing and join them. And then, having included me in the labours of the schoolroom, she was too kind to deny me its holidays, too, so when Cathy and Hindley were released outside to run off the ill effects of two or three hours of sedentary application, I would be told to join them.

But my mother put a stop to this arrangement, when she came to hear of it, and there were words between her and the mistress about it, too. These I did not manage to overhear, but I saw the signs of them clearly enough, in my mother’s set face and the mistress’s quiet tears after they had been shut up together. After that my mother made time to walk over to the Heights nearly every morning, to instruct me in household duties and set my tasks for the day. These tasks, she made clear to me, were to be performed faithfully, whatever the mistress might say to the contrary – so that, in performing my new duties, I had to fight not only my own inclinations, but those of all around me. I did not take well to the change – I could not see why, if Mrs Earnshaw thought it worth my wages to have my assistance in the schoolroom, I should be denied the benefit of being there, and by my own mother, too. After a week of the new arrangement, I finally made bold to put this to her.

‘You are paid wages as a servant, Nelly, and have a duty to do the service you are paid for, even if Mrs Earnshaw is too kind to ask it of you.’

‘But you don’t know what it is like for her, teaching Hindley and Cathy without me there,’ I protested. ‘She can keep no order at all, and Hindley learns nothing without me there to help him. She said herself that it is little help to her to have me shelling peas in the kitchen while she is driven to distraction by the two of them – she would rather shell them herself later, and have my assistance where it is most needed. And I want to keep learning.’

‘Yes, she told me that, too.’ She sighed and motioned me to sit down. ‘This is hard for you, Nelly, I know. But there is not only Mrs Earnshaw to consider. The master permitted you to return on the footing of a servant, and it is he that pays your wages. He has been much occupied this week with moving the sheep to fresh pastures, but when that is done he will be looking into the household again, and there will be anger for all of us, the mistress not excluded, if he has reason to feel that we have connived in circumventing his commands. And he would have reason to feel that. You do see that Nell, do you not?’

I said nothing, but looked downward and felt my face flush. I knew she was right, but it was a bitter draught to swallow, for all that, and I should have preferred to put it off as long as I could. But that was never my mother’s way: she preferred to face unpleasant duties ‘head on’, as she said. It was the hardest of all the lessons she taught me, but it was a good one, and has stood me in better stead than all the rest combined. So I bid farewell to the schoolroom, and took some comfort in the general grumbling at this change, without adding much to it myself.

There was actually much to learn in my new sphere: I had to know all about the proper management of a dairy, from scouring and scalding the milk pans, to skimming and churning the cream, making up the butter, and straining curds to make cheese. I had to learn how to keep the fire in the kitchen hot enough for our daily needs without making it so hot that it burned the oatcakes and wasted the coal, and how to make the smooth, thick oat porridge we ate daily, without creating lumps from too much haste in adding the oats, or burning the bottom through too little stirring – and a great many other things which it would bore you to hear, no doubt. In time, as my mother predicted, I came to take almost the same pride in my quickness and efficiency at these duties that I had in my book learning before, and I had the added comfort of knowing that these skills would allow me to earn a living anywhere – which could not be said of my command of the principal rivers of Asia, or my familiarity with the longest words in Johnson’s Dictionary.

There were other changes in the schoolroom at this time besides that of my absence. Heathcliff too had been excluded from it at first, on the grounds that he was too young and could not speak our language – but it was really because no one in the house wanted him there – and so he fell to my charge. I soon found, though, that it was only that his accent was so queer we could not make out what he was saying, nor he us. He must have been a bright lad at base, because within a few weeks that had changed, and he and I could make shift to understand each other well enough. By that time the master was back, and he made it known that Heathcliff was to have his lessons with the other children. And so he was settled on a footstool in the far corner, and given Cathy’s old hornbook to begin learning his letters. At first, both Cathy and Hindley made faces at him and jeered at his ignorance, every chance they got. But Heathcliff took no notice of it, except to turn his back to them and hunch more tightly over his hornbook, and Cathy soon tired of this sport and began to take an interest in the lad’s progress. Her first kind words to him brought forth a grateful devotion: he began following her about like a puppy, and taking her commands with such joyful alacrity that it is no wonder she was soon won over to loving him.

We have a saying that ‘a four-wheeled cart is steady, and a two-wheeled cart is quick, but a three-wheeled cart is good for naught but landing in a ditch’. Before Heathcliff came, Hindley and I were the two-wheeled cart, and Cathy was often left behind on our excursions, or excluded from our sports, on the grounds that she was too little to participate. Now, with Heathcliff arrived and me gone from the schoolroom, Cathy saw that the tables could be turned, and Hindley would be the third wheel. And so it fell out.

The effect of all this on Hindley’s behaviour was not good. He became, as I said, more refractory in the schoolroom, and often uncontrollable out if it, except by his father, who enforced obedience with fear rather than love. Even the mistress, who had always loved Hindley best despite all his waywardness – or perhaps for it – lost all patience with him, and took to reporting his more egregious misdeeds directly to the master, something she had never used to do before, as it invariably earned the boy a beating. Hindley had always been a difficult, wilful child, but he began now to exhibit signs of real maliciousness and ill temper. And his favourite object for these was the new boy in the household. Heathcliff learned early not to carry tales to the master or mistress, except in extreme cases. Not that they were not ready enough to credit his tale and punish Hindley accordingly, but the master’s bitterness too often spilled over – most unreasonably – onto Cathy as well, which Heathcliff could not bear to see. Also, every flogging Hindley received on Heathcliff’s behalf only lengthened the score of the former’s vengeance, and heightened his violence when the next opportunity presented itself. Cathy, for her part, would fight like a wild cat to defend her favourite, or if that failed, scurry off with him to nurse his wounds with kisses and plot some petty revenge. I would remonstrate with Hindley, and if possible interfere between them, if only for Hindley’s sake, but we would neither of us carry tales, partly from the old loyalty of the schoolroom, and more because we could see that it did more harm than good. Even old Joseph, though normally he liked nothing better than to get any of us into trouble with the master, disliked Heathcliff too much to take up his defence. And so it became a more or less constant game of cat-and-mouse between Heathcliff and Hindley. Hindley knew that, if he could catch Heathcliff out of sight and hearing of either of his parents – and what was more difficult, away from Cathy as well – he could do pretty near whatever he liked to the boy with impunity, only provided he restrained himself from producing conspicuous injuries.

I saw it all with a heavy heart. Towards me, and me alone, had Hindley retained any of his old warmth and boyish sense of fun, and I felt I had still some good influence over him, but we had little time together any more.

One day, about a month after Heathcliff’s arrival, we contrived to go off for a whole day together. It was the first of my monthly holidays, but my father being away, and my mother still a regular visitor at the Heights, I was not expected at home. Hindley had just succeeded (with much secret assistance from me of an evening) in keeping the whole of some hundred lines of Shakespeare in his mind at once, in honour of which achievement he had been granted a day’s freedom from lessons. The day being sunny, we had resolved to go to Pennistone Crag for a picnic. Mrs Earnshaw made up a packet of oatcakes and cheese for us to take along, which Hindley put in an old sack and slung over his shoulder, and off we went. But the day was unseasonably hot, so we chose to stop instead at another favourite place about midway there, a little hollow graced by a burbling stream and a small waterfall that stayed always cool and refreshing even when the rest of the world was baking.

It was a beautiful little grotto, naturally walled with stone, where the water ran in over flat slabs of bedrock and then dropped in little waterfalls through multiple pools of varying shapes and levels. The water was coloured orange by the iron-rich soil, which also drifted to the bottom and made the pools red. There was one in particular in which a narrow fall dropped straight into still water, causing it to roil up in red bubbles. We had always called this ‘the pool of blood’, and avoided touching its contents with as much superstitious horror as if it had been blood indeed. At another place, the sunlight somehow came through the water from the back, though there was only stone behind it, so that the little waterfall, no more than a hand’s-breadth across, danced with an orange glow like flames. We called it the ‘the waternixie’s bonfire’, and liked to imagine tiny fairy-like creatures dancing behind it. Once, Hindley put out his hand and caught up the water’s flow, so we could see behind it and ‘catch them at it’ as he said, but there was nothing but bare stone behind. ‘Too quick for us,’ I said.

We took off our shoes and sat on a rock to dangle our feet in the stream. Then Hindley scooped up some water in his hand to cool his face and neck, and I did the same. By chance, a bit of it splashed onto Hindley, and he responded by flinging some on me. Then I returned fire, and soon we were in full battle, chasing each other about, splashing and laughing until we both collapsed, sopping wet and exhausted, on the bank. In that state, we found the shaded hollow a little too cool, so we went back up into the sunlight, where we rolled about on the dry heather, and lay in the hot sun to dry our clothes. After a time, Hindley declared us ‘toasted to perfection’ – neither too hot, nor too cold – and said it was time to eat, so we made our way back to where we had left our provisions.

‘This is a bit like old times, is it not, Nelly?’ he said, as we sat ourselves on a patch of soft moss beside the stream.

‘Better,’ I said, ‘because these days are rarer for us now, and more precious accordingly.’ I was fond of wise sayings, then.

‘No, not better, because even now I can’t forget what I have to go home to,’ he replied bitterly. Then he burst out, ‘What am I to do, Nelly? Everybody hates me now, except you.’

Well I had a dozen answers on the tip of my tongue, beginning with ‘Leave Heathcliff alone’. But for once I knew better than to offer them. I made no answer but to lean against him, and he was silent too, for so long that I peeked over to see if he had fallen asleep. But his eyes were open, and I saw a steady trickle of tears making a path down the side of his face. When he saw me looking at him, he made a savage grunt and turned away, ashamed to have been caught weeping. But by then I’d caught the infection, and I was soon sobbing away myself, huddling myself against his back for comfort. And then he turned round, and we held each other until the worst of it passed. There was no need to speak. We both knew what we had lost. After a while I began to busy myself with our provisions: I spread my kerchief on the ground and started to empty the sack and arrange our meal on it. When that was done, we both ate, still silent, but not so grieved as we had been.

‘When I am grown up and Wuthering Heights is mine,’ Hindley said at last, ‘I shall marry you, Nelly. I shall send Heathcliff packing, and Joseph too, and then we will be happy all day long.’

I made no reply to his announcement, but blushed, and no doubt looked as awkward as I felt. When we were small children, Hindley and I had often talked of marrying when we grew up, as if it were a matter of course. We had even gone a whole fortnight, once, pretending that we were secretly married already, with a ‘cottage’ marked out with a square of stones in a little hollow nearby. But, as we got older, we had become shy of such talk, so that there had been no mention of marriage between us for some years. I had retained some secret hopes on that score, though, and often wondered if he did the same – especially after I had transformed from playmate to maidservant.

Hindley looked a little dismayed at my reaction.

‘You will marry me, won’t you, Nell?’ he asked anxiously. I hastened to assure him that I loved him as dearly as ever, all my shyness dissolving in the face of his obvious distress. And then I had a marvellous thought.

‘Hindley,’ I said excitedly, ‘I tell you what we must do. We must not grieve for the past, but think to the future, and prepare ourselves to be a good master and mistress of Wuthering Heights, as we will be some day. I am learning a great deal about that already, and you must learn too. You must ask your father if you can help him more in managing the estate, and ask him a great many questions about everything.’ Hindley caught my enthusiasm, so much so that he proposed we should return home straight away to put this plan into action. And so we packed up our things and headed back to Wuthering Heights, both of us more cheerful than we had been in a month. I was particularly delighted with my own cleverness in finding a way to turn Hindley into a path more likely to win him his father’s approbation, and more conducive to general peace in the household. When we were nearly home, with but one little hillock hiding us from view of the house, Hindley stopped and quickly kissed me on the lips. It was but a child’s kiss, after all, but it seemed momentous to us, and we walked the rest of the way holding hands and feeling rather solemn.

Well, turning a person out of his wonted path is not like turning a sheep, to be accomplished with a single wave of a stick or a nip at the heels. It is more like trying to shift a stream out of its bed: it looks easy enough at the start, as the water will go wherever you send it, but your dam of pebbles and mud will only hold so long as you are there to tend it, and left alone the water soon finds its way into its old path again. So it was with Hindley. To be fair, it was not all his fault. He began with great enthusiasm, hovering about his father, offering his help, and asking all manner of questions. But the change was so sudden that his father was more puzzled than pleased, and suspected some hidden motive, the more so as he could not help but observe that the lad did not attend particularly well to his answers. I assured Hindley at every opportunity that the master would come round in time if he would but persevere, but in the end the father’s suspicions lasted longer than the son’s resolve. Not only did the waters return to their own path, but the release of dammed-up force only dug the channel deeper: to the master, Hindley’s short-lived reformation seemed to confirm that the boy would never come to anything, while Hindley took his father’s refusal to credit his good intentions as proof that any further effort to please his father would be fruitless. And I, who had been so pleased with my own hand in bringing this about, felt sick at heart, and feared I had done more harm than good.

Despite this, however, Hindley and I still spoke privately of our marriage as a settled thing, and I continued in my own resolve to learn as much as I could of household management, against the day that I would be mistress there, and to steer Hindley into good behaviour whenever I could, and comfort him when I couldn’t.

As the weeks passed, my mother’s visits to the Heights became more infrequent, and my own responsibilities increased. I was still but a girl, of course, and not likely to be placed in command of servants older and longer-serving than myself, but I soon saw that it would not be long before I attained that eminence. At that time there were two maidservants employed at the Heights besides myself: one assigned to the dairy, and the other to the kitchen and household. They were both good, obedient, hard-working girls, like most rural folk, but rather slow of mind. They grew anxious when left to direct even their own work for very long, let alone anyone else’s, and, when faced with an unexpected obstacle, would come to a puzzled halt, like a sheep encountering a wall, until it was removed. Furthermore, neither of them expected to spend more than a few years at the Heights before leaving for homes of their own. When they did so, I foresaw, their replacements would naturally look to me for instructions when the mistress was not available, which was more often than not, and I would be housekeeper in effect, if not in name.

During this period, I received my first and, did I but know it, only letter from my father, all but the signature written not in his own painstaking, coarse print but in a flowing script that told me he had pressed someone into service as a scribe. I have it still. It reads:

Dear Nelly,

I hope this finds you well. I am well myself. I have five men working under me. They are all good men now but one was a lazy sot so I had to let him go and find another to fill his place. You would like to see the house I am building. It is very grand. It will have two floors above the ground plus the attics. The stones for the ground floor are very large and we must use a tackle to move them, but they are all dressed stone and easy enough to work with once they are in place. They have a better sort of mortar here too, smooth as butter. I am boarding at a house in town. It is a clean place and the landlady is very kind but not so good a cook as your mother. I hope your mother will come here soon. This house will need many servants when it is done and I am sure they would take you on if I said the word. Also you would get better wages I guess than you do now. Meantime, work hard and be a good girl. Be sure to save your wages and take them to your mother.

Your loving father,

THOMAS DEAN

Letters were scarce in those days, so this one would have been a prize whatever its contents, but ‘Your loving father’ moved me to tears, and remained precious to me for years, even after I realized that it was but a conventional closure, probably suggested by the scribe. The thought that my mother might leave soon, though, and worse, that my father might move me to a position in his employer’s household, filled me with alarm, which I conveyed to my mother on her next visit.

‘The house will be at least another year a-building, Nell,’ she assured me, ‘and probably more. And by the time it’s built, God willing, your father may be prosperous enough that he won’t wish you in service at all, and certainly not in his own neighbourhood.’

‘Will you be going there yourself soon?’

‘Not right away. I should like to see you better settled in your duties, and know that Mrs Earnshaw can rely on your abilities, before I leave you all.’

‘What about the cows?’ I asked. My mother had but four cows at present, but her dairy was her greatest pride and pleasure. Though generally unsentimental, she loved her ‘ladies’, as she called her cows, and continued the practice, begun in her girlhood by Mrs Earnshaw, of naming them all after Shakespeare’s heroines. So it was that I was plain Ellen, but her barn was populated with, at present, Rosalind, Ophelia, Viola, and Marina.

‘Only Reenie and Rosie will need milking over the winter,’ she told me, ‘Feelie and Vi are drying off now – they’re due to calve in March. I shall take Reenie with me – your father has his eye on a little house in the town with one stall that will do for a cow, and she’ll bear the journey easily enough. The other three shall come here – I’ve spoken to Mr Earnshaw about it already. In return for feeding them through the winter, he’s to have Rosie’s milk and his pick of Feelie’s and Vi’s calves come spring. They won’t overload the dairy either, for you’re getting low on milkers just now. And I know I can count on you to make sure my ladies get good care.’

Accordingly, one bleak afternoon in late November she appeared at the Heights, driving three weary-looking cows before her, and looking thoroughly exhausted herself.

‘Nelly,’ she called out, ‘come out here, my dear, and take these three into the barn. My, that was weary work! I thought to have been here hours ago, but these ladies won’t be hurried – balky as mules, they were.’ Despite her weariness, she was shaking her head and laughing as she spoke. Meanwhile Mrs Earnshaw had hurried out, wrapping a shawl around her as she came, and keeping up a steady stream of excited talk.

‘Mary, there you are at last! And your ladies, too – is this Rosalind? Ah, you didn’t think I’d recognize her, did you? But I remember her clear as yesterday – the prettiest heifer in all the barn she was, with those long legs and that little star on her forehead, when I picked her out to be your wedding present. And my, what a beauty she has grown into. You say she’s your best milker still, after all these years? You see I haven’t lost my eye for a good cow, at any rate.’

‘No you certainly haven’t, and not a day passes that I don’t thank you for her: Rosie’s been a rare treasure to me in the dairy. And so good-natured! She’s still as an owl for the milking, and an angel for temperament always: I don’t think she’s ever kicked in her whole life. These two here are her daughters, Vi and Feely – Viola and Ophelia, that is – you see I’ve kept up our old practice. Reenie – that’s Marina – is back at home. She’s Rosie’s granddaughter, and bids fair to be her equal, but she’ll go with me to Brassing.’

‘Oh Mary, must you really go? Brassing is so far away, and I can’t bear to think of you being gone so long.’ The mistress was pulling my mother towards the house as she spoke.

‘Come now, Helen, you wouldn’t have me neglect my duty to Tom, would you? The poor fellow is living in paid lodgings, and eating Heaven-knows-what: tallow in the butter, chalk in the milk, and the last time the landlady served goose, it tasted so foul, he thought it must be a vulture! He was half minded to demand to see the feet, he said. And I’ll only be gone until spring – I’ll be back before you’ve noticed I’m gone.’ With suchlike jollyings and reassurances, my mother led the mistress back to the house, while I turned away to attend to the cows, awkwardly shooing them towards the barn. I actually had little to do with managing livestock at the Heights – the produce of the dairy was more my department than its four-footed inhabitants – so I was in some difficulties, until Joseph spied me and came running over.

‘What are ye up to, ye daft hinny? That’s no way to move cattle – ye’ll only get them into a fright, and have them trampling all the beds.’ He snatched the stick from my hands and, with a sequence of light taps, accompanied by deep cooing noises, soon had the cows moving into the barn.

‘Do you know where they’re to go?’ I asked, trying to sound as if I knew myself.

‘A-course I do – wasn’t it left to me to ready the stalls for them? An’ it’ll be left to me to find fodder for them too, I suppose. Feeding three for the milk of one – that’s a bad bargain the maister’s made – but he always did make bad bargains wi’ womanites, and yon canny witch is the warst on ’em.’

I had turned away before Joseph shot this parting bolt, but I turned to call back at him: ‘It’s nothing to the bad bargain you’d be to any “womanite” foolish enough to look twice at a sour-tempered, monkey-faced dwarf like you!’ I regretted it the moment I’d said it, of course. Not for its unkindness, which was well deserved, but because Joseph was forever trying to provoke me to lash out at him, so that he could denounce me to the master for ill temper and insubordination, and I had been trying to school myself to ignore him, or at least respond with no more than dignified silence and scornful looks. Now he had just what he wanted, and was gleefully working himself up into a hopping rage before running to report to the master: ‘Hoo, listen to the little hussy – she’s as bad as her mother – nay worse, for talking evil to her elders and betters. The maister shall hear of this – he’ll turn you out, this time, he will, for sure. It’s too long he’s put up with your insolence and bad ways, but now he’ll see, now he’ll see what she’s really made of, witch bastard that she is.’

I was almost at the house by now, using up all my little stock of self-control not to reply, or give any sign that his words affected me. ‘Witch bastard’ was one of his favourite epithets for me, combining as it did aspersions on my character, my mother’s, and the circumstances of my birth, and it usually got a response from me when nothing else could, but today I did no more than slam the kitchen door behind me and commence chopping onions with a fury, both to vent my anger, and to provide some cover for the tears that were sure to follow.

Hearing the slam and subsequent racket, my mother came into the kitchen.

‘Have you got the cows settled in, Nelly?’ she asked, but then seeing my face, ‘Whatever is the matter, Nell? You’re red as beef – and here, if you don’t slow down with that knife you’ll lose a finger for sure. Put it down, now. Good heavens, child, you’ve chopped enough onions to stew a whole ox! What brought this on?’

I did not trust myself yet for a full reply, and said only ‘Joseph’. But that was a full enough explanation for anyone who knew the household as well as my mother did.
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