It's nearly five o'clock; you've been gone since morning."
"I was walking on the moors," replied Mary. "I didn't think it mattered.
Why should Uncle Joss ask for me?"
She was aware of a little pang of nervousness, and she looked towards his bed in the corner of the kitchen.
It was empty.
"Where has he gone?" she said. "Is he better?"
"He wanted to sit in the parlour," said her aunt. "He said he was tired of the kitchen.
He's been sitting there all afternoon at the window, looking out for you.
You must humour him now, Mary, and speak fair to him, and not go against him.
This is the bad time, when he's recovering — he will get a little stronger every day, and he'll be very self-willed, violent perhaps.
You'll be careful what you say to him, won't you, Mary?"
This was the old Aunt Patience, with nervous hands and twitching mouth, who glanced over her shoulder as she talked.
It was pitiable to see her, and Mary caught something of her agitation.
"Why should he want to see me?" she said. "He never has anything to say to me.
What can he want?"
Aunt Patience blinked and worked her mouth.
"It's only his fancy," she said. "He mutters and talks to himself; you mustn't pay any attention to what he says at times like these.
He is not really himself.
I'll go and tell him you're home."
She went out of the room and along the passage to the parlour.
Mary crossed to the dresser and poured herself out a glass of water from the pitcher.
Her throat was very dry. The glass trembled in her hands, and she cursed herself for a fool.
She had been bold enough on the moors just now, and no sooner was she inside the inn than her courage must forsake her and leave her quaking and nervous as a child.
Aunt Patience came back into the room.
"He's quiet for the moment," she whispered. "He's dozed off in the chair.
He may sleep now for the evening.
We'll have our supper early and get it finished.
There's some cold pie for you here."
All hunger had gone from Mary, and she had to force her food.
She drank two cups of scalding tea and then pushed her plate away.
Neither of the women spoke.
Aunt Patience kept looking towards the door.
When they had finished supper they cleared the things away silently.
Mary threw some turf on the fire and crouched beside it.
The bitter blue smoke rose in the air, stinging her eyes, but no warmth came to her from the smouldering turf.
Outside in the hall the clock struck six o'clock with a sudden whirring note.
Mary held her breath as she counted the strokes.
They broke upon the silence with deliberation; it seemed an eternity before the last note fell and echoed through the house and died away.
The slow ticking of the clock continued. There was no sound from the parlour, and Mary breathed again.
Aunt Patience sat at the table, threading a needle and cotton by candlelight.
Her lips were pursed and her forehead puckered to a frown as she bent to her task.
The long evening past; and still there was no call from the landlord in the parlour.
Mary nodded her head, her eyes closed in spite of herself, and in that stupid, heavy state between sleeping and waking she heard her aunt move quietly from her chair and put her work away in the cupboard beside the dresser. In a dream she heard her whisper in her ear,
"I'm going to bed. Your uncle won't wake now; he must have settled for the night. I shan't disturb him."
Mary murmured something in reply, and half-consciously she heard the light patter of footsteps in the passage outside, and the creaking of the stairs. On the landing above, a door closed softly.
Mary felt the lethargy of sleep steal upon her, and her head sank lower into her hands.
The slow ticking of the clock made a pattern in her mind, like footsteps dragging on a highroad… one… two… one… two… they followed one another; she was on the moors beside the running brook, and the burden that she carried was heavy, too heavy to bear. If she could lay it aside for a little while, and rest herself beside the bank, and sleep… It was cold, though, much too cold. Her foot was wringing wet from the water.
She must pull herself higher up the bank, out of the way….
The fire was out; there was no more fire….
Mary opened her eyes and saw that she was lying on the floor beside the white ashes of the fire.