"Don't you ever do any cleaning?" she asked him. "You've got this kitchen like a pigsty.
You ought to be ashamed of yourself.
Leave me that bucket of water and find me a broom.
I'll not eat my dinner in a place like this."
She set to work at once, all her instincts of cleanliness and order aroused by the dirt and squalour.
In half an hour she had the kitchen scrubbed clean as a pin, the stone floor wet and shining, and all the rubbish cleared away.
She had found crockery in the cupboard, and a strip of tablecloth, with which she proceeded to lay the table, and meanwhile the mutton boiled in the saucepan on the fire, surrounded by potato and turnip.
The smell was good, and Jem came in at the door, sniffing the air like a hungry dog.
"I shall have to keep a woman," he said. "I can see that. Will you leave your aunt and come and look after me?"
"You'd have to pay me too much," said Mary.
"You'd never have money enough for what I'd ask." "Women are always mean," he said, sitting down at the table. "What they do with their money I don't know, for they never spend it.
My mother was just the same.
She used to keep hers hidden in an old stocking and I never as much as saw the colour of it.
Make haste with the dinner; I'm as empty as a worm."
"You're impatient, aren't you?" said Mary. "Not a word of thanks to me that's cooked it.
Take your hands away — the plate's hot."
She put the steaming mutton down in front of him, and he smacked his lips.
"They taught you something where you came from, anyway," he said. "I always say there's two things women ought to do by instinct, and cooking's one of 'em.
Get me a jug of water, will you? You'll find the pitcher outside."
But Mary had filled a cup for him already, and she passed it to him in silence.
"We were all born here," said Jem, jerking his head to the ceiling, "up in the room overhead. But Joss and Matt were grown men when I was still a little lad, clinging to Mother's skirt.
We never saw much of my father, but when he was home we knew it all right.
I remember him throwing a knife at Mother once — it cut her above her eye, and the blood ran down her face.
I was scared and ran and hid in that corner by the fire.
Mother said nothing; she just bathed her eye in some water, and then she gave my father his supper.
She was a brave woman, I'll say that for her, though she spoke little and she never gave us much to eat.
She made a bit of a pet of me when I was small, on account of being the youngest, I suppose, and my brothers used to beat me when she wasn't looking.
Not that they were as thick as you'd think — we were never much of a loving family — and I've seen Joss thrash Matt until he couldn't stand.
Matt was a funny devil; he was quiet, more like my mother.
He was drowned down in the marsh yonder.
You could shout there until your lungs burst, no one would hear you except a bird or two and a stray pony.
I've been nearly caught there myself in my time."
"How long has your mother been dead?" said Mary.
"Seven years this Christmas," he answered, helping himself to more boiled mutton. "What with my father hanged, and Matt drowned, and Joss gone off to America, and me growing up as wild as a hawk, she turned religious and used to pray here by the hour, calling on the Lord.
I couldn't abide that, and I cleared off out of it.
I shipped on a Padstow schooner for a time, but the sea didn't suit my stomach, and I came back home.
I found Mother gone as thin as a skelton.
'You ought to eat more,' I told her, but she wouldn't listen to me, so I went off again, and stayed in Plymouth for a while, picking up a shilling or two in my own way.
I came back here to have my Christmas dinner, and I found the place deserted and the door locked up.
I was mad. I hadn't eaten for twenty-four hours.
I went back to North Hill, and they told me my mother had died. She'd been buried three weeks.
I might just as well have stayed in Plymouth for all the dinner I got that Christmas.
There's a piece of cheese in the cupboard behind you.
Will you eat the half of it?
There's maggots in it, but they won't hurt you."
Mary shook her head, and she let him get up and reach for it himself.
"What's the matter?" he said. "You look like a sick cow.
Has the mutton turned sour on you already?"
Mary watched him return to his seat and spread the hunk of dry cheese onto a scrap of stale bread.
"It will be a good thing when there's not a Merlyn left in Cornwall," she said.