|Traditional Drama Forum - No.8||ISSN 1743-3789||September 2003|
"Sweet is pleasure after pain....."
by Jessie Chambers: Haggs Farm: Underwood: Jacksdale, Notts.
In the kitchen of a small farm a little woman sat cutting bread and butter. The glow of the clear, ruddy fire was on her shining cheek and white apron; but grey hair will not take the warm caress of firelight.
She skilfully spread the softened butter, and cut off great slices from the floury loaf in her lap. Already two plates were piled, but she continued to cut.
Outside the naked ropes of the creeper tapped and lashed at the window.
The grey-haired mother looked up, and setting the butter on the hearth, rose and went to look out. The sky was heavy and grey as she saw it in the narrow band over the near black wood. So she turned and went to look through the tiny window which opened from the deep recess on the opposite side of the room. The northern sky was blacker than ever.
She turned away with a little sigh, and took a duster from the red, shining warming-pan to take the bread from the oven. Afterwards she laid the table for five.
There was a rumbling and a whirring in the corner, and the clock struck five. Like clocks in many farmers' kitchens, it was more than half an hour fast. The little woman hurried about, bringing milk and other things from the dairy; lifting the potatoes from the fire, peeping through the window anxiously. Very often her neck ached with watching the gate for a sign of approach.
There was a click of the yard gate. She ran to the window, but turned away again, and catching up the blue enamelled teapot, dropped into it a handful of tea from the caddy, and poured on the water. A clinking scrape of iron shod boots sounded outside, then the door opened with a burst as a burly, bearded man entered. He drooped at the shoulders, and leaned forward as a man who has worked heavily all his life.
"Hello, mother," he said, loudly and cheerfully. "Am I first? Aren't any of the lads down yet? Fred will be here in a minute."
"I wish they would come," said his wife, "or else it'll rain before they're here."
"Ay," he assented, "it's beginning, and it's cold rain an' all. Bit of sleet, I think," and he sat down heavily in his armchair, looking at his wife as she knelt and turned the bread, and took a large jar of stewed apples from the oven.
The Depressed Industry.
"Well, mother," he said, with a pleasant comfortable little smile, "here's another Christmas for you and me. They keep passing us by."
"Ay," she answered, the effects of her afternoon's brooding now appearing. "They come and go, but they never find us any better off."
"It seems so," he said, a shade of regret appearing momentarily over his cheerfulness. "This year we've certainly had some very bad luck. But we keep straight - and we never regret that Christmas, see, it's twenty-seven years since - twenty-seven years."
"No, perhaps not, but there's Fred as hasn't had above three pounds for the whole year's work, and the other two at the pit."
"Well, what can I do? If I hadn't lost the biggest part of the hay, and them two beast -"
"If - ! Besides what prospects has he? Here he is working year in year out for you and getting nothing at the end of it. When you were his age, when you were 25, you were married and had two children. How can he ask anybody to marry him?"
"I don't know that he wants to. He's fairly contented. Don't be worrying about him and upsetting him. He's only go and leave us if he got married. Besides, we may have a good year next year, and we can make this up."
"Ay, so you say."
"Don't fret yourself to-night, lass. It's true things haven't gone as we hoped they would. I never thought to see you doing all the work you have to do, but we've been very comfortable, all things considered, haven't we?"
"I never thought to see my first lad a farm labourer at 25, and the other two in the pit. Two of my sons in the pit!"
"I'm sure I've done what I could, and "- but they heard a scraping outside, and he said no more.
The eldest son tramped in, his great boots and his leggings all covered with mud. He took off his wet overcoat, and stood on the hearthrug, his hands spread out behind him in the warmth of the fire.
Looking smilingly at his mother, as she moved about the kitchen, he said:
"You do look warm and cosy, mother. When I was coming up with the last load, I thought of you trotting about in that big, white apron, getting tea ready, watching the weather. There are the lads. Aren't you quite contented now - perfectly happy?"
She laughed an odd little laugh, and poured out the tea. The boys came in from the pit, wet and dirty, with clean streaks down their faces where the rain had trickled. They changed their clothes and sat at the table. The elder was a big, heavy loosely-made fellow, with a long nose and chin, and comical wrinkling round his eyes. The younger, Arthur, was a handsome lad, dark-haired, with ruddy colour glowing through his dirt, and dark eyes. When he talked and laughed the red of his lips and the whiteness of his teeth and eyeballs stood out in startling contrast to the surrounding black.
"Mother, I'm glad to see thee," he said, looking at her with frank, boyish affection.
"There, mother, what more can you want?" asked her husband.
She took a bite of bread and butter, and looked up with a quaint, comical glance, as if she were given only her just dues, but for all that it pleased and amused her, only she was half shy, and a grain doubtful.
"Lad," said Henry. "it's Christmas Eve. The fire ought to burn its brightest.
"Yes. I will have just another potato, seeing as Christmas is the time for feeding. What are we going to do? Are we going to have a party, mother?
"Yes, if you want one."
"Party," laughed the father, "who'd come?
"We might ask somebody. We could have Nellie Wycherley, who used to come, an' David Garton."
We shall not do for Nellie nowadays, said the father, "I saw her on Sunday morning on the top road. She was drivin' home with another young woman, an' she stopped an' asked me if we'd got any holly with berries on, an I said we hadn't."
Fred looked up from the book he was reading over tea. He had dark brown eyes, something like his mother's, and they alway drew attention when he turned them on anyone.
"There is a tree covered in the wood," he said.
"Well," answered the irressible Henry, "that's not ours, is it? An' If she's got that proud she won't come near to see us, am I goin' choppin' trees down for her? If she'd come here an' say she wanted a bit, I'd fetch her half the wood in. but when she sits in the trap and looks down on you an' asks, 'Do you happen to hev a bush of berried holly in your hedges? Preston can't find a sprig to decorate the house, and I hev some people coming down from town,' then I tell her we're all crying because we've none to decorate ourselves, and we want it the more 'cause nobody's coming, neither from th' town nor th' country, an' we're likely to forget it's Christmas if we've neither folks nor things to remind us."
"What did she say?" asked the mother.
"She said she was sorry, an' I told her not to bother, it's better lookin' at folks than at bits o' holly. The other lass was laughing, an' she wanted to know what folks. I told her any as hadn't got more pricks than a holly bush to keep you off."
"Ha! ha!" laughed the father; "did she take it?"
"The other girl nudged her, and they both began a laughing. Then Nellie told me to send down the guysers to-night. I said I would, but they're not going now."
"Why not?" asked Fred.
"Billy Simpson's got a gathered face, an' Wardy's gone to Nottingham."
"The company down at Ramsley Mill will have nobody to laugh at to-night," said Arthur.
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