"Don't, my chiel," whispered a buxom staylace dealer in voluminous petticoats, who sat near the woman; "yer good man don't know what he's saying."
The woman, however, did stand up. "Now, who's auctioneer?" cried the hay-trusser.
"I be," promptly answered a short man, with a nose resembling a copper knob, a damp voice, and eyes like button-holes. "Who'll make an offer for this lady?"
The woman looked on the ground, as if she maintained her position by a supreme effort of will.
"Five shillings," said someone, at which there was a laugh.
"No insults," said the husband. "Who'll say a guinea?"
Nobody answered; and the female dealer in staylaces interposed.
"Behave yerself moral, good man, for Heaven's love! Ah, what a cruelty is the poor soul married to! Bed and board is dear at some figures 'pon my 'vation 'tis!"
"Set it higher, auctioneer," said the trusser.
"Two guineas!" said the auctioneer; and no one replied.
"If they don't take her for that, in ten seconds they'll have to give more," said the husband. "Very well. Now auctioneer, add another."
"Three guineas — going for three guineas!" said the rheumy man.
"No bid?" said the husband. "Good Lord, why she's cost me fifty times the money, if a penny. Go on."
"Four guineas!" cried the auctioneer.
"I'll tell ye what — I won't sell her for less than five," said the husband, bringing down his fist so that the basins danced. "I'll sell her for five guineas to any man that will pay me the money, and treat her well; and he shall have her for ever, and never hear aught o' me. But she shan't go for less. Now then — five guineas — and she's yours. Susan, you agree?"
She bowed her head with absolute indifference.
"Five guineas," said the auctioneer, "or she'll be withdrawn. Do anybody give it? The last time. Yes or no?"
"Yes," said a loud voice from the doorway.
All eyes were turned. Standing in the triangular opening which formed the door of the tent was a sailor, who, unobserved by the rest, had arrived there within the last two or three minutes. A dead silence followed his affirmation.
"You say you do?" asked the husband, staring at him.
"I say so," replied the sailor.
"Saying is one thing, and paying is another. Where's the money?"
The sailor hesitated a moment, looked anew at the woman, came in, unfolded five crisp pieces of paper, and threw them down upon the tablecloth. They were Bank-of-England notes for five pounds. Upon the face of this he clinked down the shillings severally — one, two, three, four, five.
The sight of real money in full amount, in answer to a challenge for the same till then deemed slightly hypothetical had a great effect upon the spectators. Their eyes became riveted upon the faces of the chief actors, and then upon the notes as they lay, weighted by the shillings, on the table.
Up to this moment it could not positively have been asserted that the man, in spite of his tantalizing declaration, was really in earnest. The spectators had indeed taken the proceedings throughout as a piece of mirthful irony carried to extremes; and had assumed that, being out of work, he was, as a consequence, out of temper with the world, and society, and his nearest kin. But with the demand and response of real cash the jovial frivolity of the scene departed. A lurid colour seemed to fill the tent, and change the aspect of all therein. The mirth-wrinkles left the listeners' faces, and they waited with parting lips.
"Now," said the woman, breaking the silence, so that her low dry voice sounded quite loud, "before you go further, Michael, listen to me. If you touch that money, I and this girl go with the man. Mind, it is a joke no longer."
"A joke? Of course it is not a joke!" shouted her husband, his resentment rising at her suggestion. "I take the money; the sailor takes you. That's plain enough. It has been done elsewhere — and why not here?"
"'Tis quite on the understanding that the young woman is willing," said the sailor blandly. "I wouldn't hurt her feelings for the world."
"Faith, nor I," said her husband. "But she is willing, provided she can have the child. She said so only the other day when I talked o't!"
"That you swear?" said the sailor to her.
"I do," said she, after glancing at her husband's face and seeing no repentance there.