No one in the room had watched the man except in a furtive way, after he had spoken, although while he was speaking every eye had been fixed upon him. The sight of the effect of a great emotion makes some people feel strangely abashed, and the miller and his friends were among such persons. When the carrier had gone they remained silent for some time. Each of them seemed to be thinking his thoughts.

“Poor Jake!” said the miller at last. “He was ever the sort of man that would be like to have a twist, and he hath got one now. He's made us forget the cider, lads. Blest if the jug has been touched since Jake began his story! Hal, man, pass the jug to your neighbour.'Tis Jake that should have swallowed a mouthful before he left: talking is drouthier work than listening.”

The smith passed on the jug of cider without replenishing his own mug; and then knocked the ashes out of the bowl of his pipe.

“I don't know that there's a deal in all this,” he remarked. “What do you say, miller?”

“I don't say nought: I only looks on,” replied the miller cautiously.

“Ay, that may be,” said the smith. “We all know Jake. He never wronged his fellow—nay, there's some of us knows that if the worst came to the worst with us, Jake 'ud be the first to hold out a helping hand, with a guinea or two in it, as the case may be. Still there may be something in what he said about being brought to feel himself a miserable sinner.”

“He allowed that the preacher on'y kept him in that suspensory way o' thought for a brief space,” said the miller.

“Ay, there's men that be mortal sinners, and for all that their luck is tremendous and saves 'em from the eye of their fellow-men,” said the smith.

“I feel bound to say this to the credit o' parson,” remarked the water-finder with deprecatory suavity: “he never makes a simple countryman feel himself to be a miserable sinner. He is of such a good nature that he slurs over the General Confession so genteelly that I defy the wickedest of his churchful to feel in any ways as if parson was dictating the words to him.”

“That shows that parson's heart be in the right place,” nodded the farmer. “He gives us all to understand at a glance that he reads the words 'cause they are set down for him in the solemn prayer book, and hopes that there's none among his hearers who will hold him responsible as a man for their ungentility.”

“True, sir, true; parson's an am'able gentleman, always 'cepting when the cock he has hatched from the noblest game strain fails him in the first main,” said the blacksmith.

“And who is he that would be different, tell me that?” cried the miller, who had fought a few cocks in the course of his life. “Ay, we be well content wi' parson, we be so; but I don't say that if Jake's Bristol preacher came within earshot I would refuse to listen to him—only out o' curiosity—only out o' curiosity. But I do wonder much that a man o' the steadiness o' Jake Pullsford owning himself overcome by a parson that has no church of his own.”

“'Tis as humble as allowing a toothache to be cured by a quack at a fair, when a wholesome Doctor of Physic, like Mr. Corballis, has wrestled, with it for a whole week,” said the water-finder.

“I hope I haven't offended any friend by my homeliness when the talk was serious,” he added, glancing around, not without apprehension.

No one took the trouble to say a word that might place him at his ease. The farmer took a hasty drink out of his mug, and sighed after. The blacksmith cut up some tobacco and rolled it between his palms. There was a long silence in the room. It seemed as if the weakness which Jake, the carrier, had displayed had saddened the little company. It was pretty clear that they were all thinking of it.

“Hey, neighbours,” cried the miller at last, with a loud attempt to pull his friends together. “Hey lads, what's amiss? These be doleful dumps that have fallen on us. A plague on Jake and his quack preacher! Now, if I'm not better satisfied than ever with parson may I fail to know firsts from seconds by a sniff of the dust. Come, farmer, tell Hal what answer you gave to Squire's young lady when she asked you if you made the cows drink wine wouldn't they milk syllabub? He told me before you looked in, Hal! Droll, it was surely. You'd never think that the farmer had it in him.”

“Nay, nay,” said the farmer with a smile that broke up his face into the semblance of a coloured diagram of the canals in Mars. “Nay, miller, 'twas on the spur o' the moment. I had no time to think o' some ready reply that a young miss might think suitable to her station in life coming from a humble yeoman that has no learning but of tillage.”

“I'll swear you'll esteem it neat as a sheep's tongue,” said the miller. “Come, farmer, out with it, and don't force me to spoil it i' the telling.”

“Oh, well——” began the farmer, pursing out his lips and assuming the expression of one who is forced into a position of enviable prominence.

“Oh, well, 'twas o' Tuesday last—or was it Monday, miller?”

“You told me Monday,” replied the miller.

“Did I? Well, if I said Monday I sticks to it whatever may hap; for as ye know me, friends, I don't go back on my word, even though I be wrong, that being my way, so to speak, that came natural to me ever since poor father said to me——”

But the revelation as to the terms of his father's discourse which had produced so lasting an impression upon him, was not to be made at that time; for before the slow farmer had spoken, the porch door was opened, and there appeared against the background of the spring green side of the little valley slope, the figure of a young girl, rather tall, wearing a cloak by the lined hood of which her pretty face was framed.

“Hey,” cried the miller, “this be an improvement. After all we won't need your story, farmer.”

“Your servant, Master Miller—gentlemen, I am your most obedient to command now as ever,” said the girl, dropping a curtsey first to the miller, then to his guests. “Oh, Master Hal, black but comely as usual, and rather more idle than usual. And Farmer Pendelly, too—fresh as a new-washed cherub on a tombstone. Master Pritchard, with his magic wand up his sleeve, I doubt not. I didn't know that you was entertaining a party, miller, or I—I——”

“Don't tell us that you would ha' tarried, Nelly; that would be to pay a bad compliment to my company as well as to me,” said the miller.

“I was about to say that I would have hurried, not tarried. Maybe I'll not tarry even now, in spite of the attractions you hold out, sir.”

While she spoke the girl conveyed the impression of making another general curtsey to the company, though she had merely glanced around at them with an inclusive smile. She made a pretty pretence of drawing her cloak around her—she had thrown back the hood immediately after entering the room—and made a movement towards the door.

“Don't you dare to think of fleeing, hussy,” said the miller. “If you was to flee just now, there's not one of us here that wouldn't hale thee back by the hair o' the head—and a nobler tow line couldn't be found.”

He had put his arms about her and patted her hair, which was the lightest chestnut in colour, and shining like very fine unspun silk.

“Hey, Nelly, where did ye pick up that head of hair, anyway? All your household be black as night,” he continued.

“Where's the puzzle, sir?” said she, without a suggestion of sauciness. “I favour the night, too, only a moonlight night. My hair is the flash o' moonlight.”

“The lass never was slack in speaking up for herself,” said the blacksmith.

“True, friend Hal; but haven't I ever been moderate? Have I ever gone even half-way to describe my own charms?” said the girl with a mock seriousness that set everyone laughing—they roared when she looked at them more seriously still, as if reproving their levity.

“I'll not stay here to be flouted,” she cried with a pout, giving the miller a pat on the cheek. “Ah, here comes Sue to protect me. Dear Sue, you come in good time. Tell these gentlemen that I haven't a red hair in my head, and as for its being good only to make towing lines of——”

Here she broke down and fell sobbing into the arms of Susan Pendelly, a girl of about her own age, who had entered the room by the door that led to the parlour. For a few moments Susan was puzzled, for Nelly went through her piece of acting extremely well, but the laughter of the miller and the smith—the farmer and the water-finder were not quite sure, so they remained solemn—quickly let her know that Nelly was up to a prank, so she put her arms about her and pretended to soothe her, calling the men ill-mannered wretches, and shaking her fist at them. Susan was a little heavy and homely in her comedy.

“Towing line indeed!” she said, looking indignantly over Nelly's bowed head at the men. “Towing line indeed! Why 'tis the loveliest hair in Cornwall.”

“A towing line,” said her father, laughing. “A towing line that has drawn more craft in its wake than any twenty-oared galley of a man-o'-war. Oh, the poor fools that try to get a grip o' that towing line! Let me count them. First there was Spanish Roderick——”

The girl lifted up her head from her friend's shoulder.

“Spanish Roderigo the first!” she cried. “Oh, miller, I did think that my reputation was safe in your keeping! Why, sir, there were three after me long before Roderigo showed his face at the Cove.”

“I ask your pardon, madam; I did you an injustice; you began the towing business when you were twelve——”

“Ten, miller—ten, if you love me. You would not accuse a simple girl of wasting her time.”

“Once again, your pardon, miss. I'll make it nine, if so be that you wish.”

“I have no wish in the matter, sir. I'm nought but a simple country wench with no wish but to be let live in peace.”

“Tell us how many lads are dangling after you at the present moment, Nell—dangling like mackerel on the streamers?”

“How could I possibly tell, sir? Do you suppose that my father knows to a fish how many mackerel are on his cast of streamers at any time? You should have more sense, miller. The most that I can speak for is the five that I angled for.”

“The impudence of the girl! She allows that she angled for five!”

“Miller, you would not have me treat them like trout and whip for them with a rod and a single hook. Oh, no, sir, that would not be worth the while. You see, miller, there are so many of them swimming about—and—and—well, life is brief.”

“'Tis my belief, Nelly, that there's a hook on every hair of your head and a foolish lad wriggling on it.”

“You compliment my fishing too highly, sir. If I thought that——”

“Well, what would happen if you thought that, madam?”

“Oh, well, I believe that I would e'en weave my hair into a reasonable fishing-net to save time and a diffusion of wriggling. There now, miller, we have had said the last word between us of this nonsense. I know what I am, and you know what I am—a healthy, wholesome country wench, that two or three lads think well of, and as many more think ill of—they don't get distraught about me on the one hand, and they don't have any particular enmity of me on the other hand. That's the way with all girls, even such as are black-browed, and hard-voiced, which no one has yet accused me of being, and I've walked seven miles from Porthawn within the two hours to give you my father's message about Rowan's corner, and when I've given it to you, I have to trudge back with a six-pound bag of your best seconds to keep us from starvation for a day or two.”

“You'll not trudge back before the morning if I have any say in the matter,” cried the miller's daughter, catching up the other's cloak and throwing it over one arm. “Come hither, Nelly, and we'll have a chat in the parlour, like the well-to-do folk that we be; these men can have this place to themselves till the time comes to lay out supper.”

“Supper! what good pixie made you say that word?” cried the other girl. “If you hadn't said it it would have clean gone from my mind that I brought with me a stale fish or two that was left over from our dinner on Sunday week. What a memory I lack, to be sure!”

She picked up a rush basket which she had placed on the floor when she was taking off her cloak, and handed it to Susan.

“You young rapparee!” said the miller. “Did it not cross your foolish pate that a basket of fish a week old and more is fully capable of betraying its presence without the need for a laboured memory?”

“I know that that basket betrayed its presence to me more than once as it hung on my arm after the first three mile hither,” said the girl.

“As I live'tis a seven-pound pink salmon, and 'twas swimming in the sea at noon this day,” said Susan when she had opened the basket.

“She must ha' heard that we were supping at the mill this eve'n, and that I was of the company,” said the blacksmith. “Mistress Polwhele, my respects to you!”

“Nay, Master Hal, had I known that you were to be of the company, the salmon would ha' been a fifteen-pounder at least—that is if I wanted any of the others to have a mouthful,” laughed the girl.

She was out of the room before the blacksmith had ceased rattling his chair in his pretence of rising to carry out the menace he made with his fist when she was speaking.

The miller and his guests watched in silence the door through which she had gone.

“A bit of a change from Jake Pullsford, eh, friends!” remarked Hal.

“That's what we needed sorely,” said the miller.

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