"Oh, pretty well, Mrs. Moss, pretty well," answered the brother, with cool deliberation, as if it were rather too forward of her to ask that question. She knew at once that her brother was not in a good humor; he never called her Mrs. Moss except when he was angry, and when they were in company. But she thought it was in the order of nature that people who were poorly off should be snubbed. Mrs. Moss did not take her stand on the equality of the human race; she was a patient, prolific, loving-hearted woman.
"Your husband isn't in the house, I suppose?" added Mr. Tulliver after a grave pause, during which four children had run out, like chickens whose mother has been suddenly in eclipse behind the hen-coop.
"No," said Mrs. Moss, "but he's only in the potato-field yonders. Georgy, run to the Far Close in a minute, and tell father your uncle's come. You'll get down, brother, won't you, and take something?"
"No, no; I can't get down. I must be going home again directly," said Mr. Tulliver, looking at the distance.
"And how's Mrs. Tulliver and the children?" said Mrs. Moss, humbly, not daring to press her invitation.
"Oh, pretty well. Tom's going to a new school at Midsummer, — a deal of expense to me. It's bad work for me, lying out o' my money."
"I wish you'd be so good as let the children come and see their cousins some day. My little uns want to see their cousin Maggie so as never was. And me her godmother, and so fond of her; there's nobody 'ud make a bigger fuss with her, according to what they've got. And I know she likes to come, for she's a loving child, and how quick and clever she is, to be sure!"
If Mrs. Moss had been one of the most astute women in the world, instead of being one of the simplest, she could have thought of nothing more likely to propitiate her brother than this praise of Maggie. He seldom found any one volunteering praise of "the little wench"; it was usually left entirely to himself to insist on her merits. But Maggie always appeared in the most amiable light at her aunt Moss's; it was her Alsatia, where she was out of the reach of law, — if she upset anything, dirtied her shoes, or tore her frock, these things were matters of course at her aunt Moss's. In spite of himself, Mr. Tulliver's eyes got milder, and he did not look away from his sister as he said, —
"Ay; she's fonder o' you than o' the other aunts, I think. She takes after our family: not a bit of her mother's in her."
"Moss says she's just like what I used to be," said Mrs. Moss, "though I was never so quick and fond o' the books. But I think my Lizzy's like her; she's sharp. Come here, Lizzy, my dear, and let your uncle see you; he hardly knows you, you grow so fast."
Lizzy, a black-eyed child of seven, looked very shy when her mother drew her forward, for the small Mosses were much in awe of their uncle from Dorlcote Mill. She was inferior enough to Maggie in fire and strength of expression to make the resemblance between the two entirely flattering to Mr. Tulliver's fatherly love.
"Ay, they're a bit alike," he said, looking kindly at the little figure in the soiled pinafore. "They both take after our mother. You've got enough o' gells, Gritty," he added, in a tone half compassionate, half reproachful.
"Four of 'em, bless 'em!" said Mrs. Moss, with a sigh, stroking Lizzy's hair on each side of her forehead; "as many as there's boys. They've got a brother apiece."
"Ah, but they must turn out and fend for themselves," said Mr. Tulliver, feeling that his severity was relaxing and trying to brace it by throwing out a wholesome hint "They mustn't look to hanging on their brothers."
"No; but I hope their brothers 'ull love the poor things, and remember they came o' one father and mother; the lads 'ull never be the poorer for that," said Mrs. Moss, flashing out with hurried timidity, like a half-smothered fire.
Mr. Tulliver gave his horse a little stroke on the flank, then checked it, and said angrily, "Stand still with you!" much to the astonishment of that innocent animal.
"And the more there is of 'em, the more they must love one another," Mrs. Moss went on, looking at her children with a didactic purpose. But she turned toward her brother again to say, "Not but what I hope your boy 'ull allays be good to his sister, though there's but two of 'em, like you and me, brother."
The arrow went straight to Mr. Tulliver's heart. He had not a rapid imagination, but the thought of Maggie was very near to him, and he was not long in seeing his relation to his own sister side by side with Tom's relation to Maggie. Would the little wench ever be poorly off, and Tom rather hard upon her?
"Ay, ay, Gritty," said the miller, with a new softness in his tone; "but I've allays done what I could for you," he added, as if vindicating himself from a reproach.
"I'm not denying that, brother, and I'm noways ungrateful," said poor Mrs. Moss, too fagged by toil and children to have strength left for any pride. "But here's the father. What a while you've been, Moss!"
"While, do you call it?" said Mr. Moss, feeling out of breath and injured. "I've been running all the way. Won't you 'light, Mr. Tulliver?"
"Well, I'll just get down and have a bit o' talk with you in the garden," said Mr. Tulliver, thinking that he should be more likely to show a due spirit of resolve if his sister were not present.
He got down, and passed with Mr. Moss into the garden, toward an old yew-tree arbor, while his sister stood tapping her baby on the back and looking wistfully after them.
Their entrance into the yew-tree arbor surprised several fowls that were recreating themselves by scratching deep holes in the dusty ground, and at once took flight with much pother and cackling. Mr. Tulliver sat down on the bench, and tapping the ground curiously here and there with his stick, as if he suspected some hollowness, opened the conversation by observing, with something like a snarl in his tone, —
"Why, you've got wheat again in that Corner Close, I see; and never a bit o' dressing on it. You'll do no good with it this year."
Mr. Moss, who, when he married Miss Tulliver, had been regarded as the buck of Basset, now wore a beard nearly a week old, and had the depressed, unexpectant air of a machine-horse. He answered in a patient-grumbling tone, "Why, poor farmers like me must do as they can; they must leave it to them as have got money to play with, to put half as much into the ground as they mean to get out of it."
"I don't know who should have money to play with, if it isn't them as can borrow money without paying interest," said Mr. Tulliver, who wished to get into a slight quarrel; it was the most natural and easy introduction to calling in money.
"I know I'm behind with the interest," said Mr. Moss, "but I was so unlucky wi' the wool last year; and what with the Missis being laid up so, things have gone awk'arder nor usual."
"Ay," snarled Mr. Tulliver, "there's folks as things 'ull allays go awk'ard with; empty sacks 'ull never stand upright."
"Well, I don't know what fault you've got to find wi' me, Mr. Tulliver," said Mr. Moss, deprecatingly; "I know there isn't a day-laborer works harder."
"What's the use o' that," said Mr. Tulliver, sharply, "when a man marries, and's got no capital to work his farm but his wife's bit o' fortin? I was against it from the first; but you'd neither of you listen to me. And I can't lie out o' my money any longer, for I've got to pay five hundred o' Mrs. Glegg's, and there'll be Tom an expense to me. I should find myself short, even saying I'd got back all as is my own. You must look about and see how you can pay me the three hundred pound."
"Well, if that's what you mean," said Mr. Moss, looking blankly before him, "we'd better be sold up, and ha' done with it; I must part wi' every head o' stock I've got, to pay you and the landlord too."
Poor relations are undeniably irritating, — their existence is so entirely uncalled for on our part, and they are almost always very faulty people. Mr. Tulliver had succeeded in getting quite as much irritated with Mr. Moss as he had desired, and he was able to say angrily, rising from his seat, —
"Well, you must do as you can. I can't find money for everybody else as well as myself. I must look to my own business and my own family. I can't lie out o' my money any longer. You must raise it as quick as you can."
Mr. Tulliver walked abruptly out of the arbor as he uttered the last sentence, and, without looking round at Mr. Moss, went on to the kitchen door, where the eldest boy was holding his horse, and his sister was waiting in a state of wondering alarm, which was not without its alleviations, for baby was making pleasant gurgling sounds, and performing a great deal of finger practice on the faded face. Mrs. Moss had eight children, but could never overcome her regret that the twins had not lived. Mr. Moss thought their removal was not without its consolations. "Won't you come in, brother?" she said, looking anxiously at her husband, who was walking slowly up, while Mr. Tulliver had his foot already in the stirrup.
"No, no; good-by," said he, turning his horse's head, and riding away.