"I'll take this to her room," he said, "and if you've not got a bite of supper on the table by the time I'm down again I'll give you something to cry about; and you too, if you like," he added, thrusting his face into Mary's and laying one great finger across her mouth. "Are you tame, or do you bite?" he said, and then he laughed once more, bellowing to the roof, and thundered up the narrow stairs with the box swaying on his shoulders.
Aunt Patience controlled herself.
She made a tremendous effort and smiled, patting her thin locks into place in an old gesture that Mary half remembered, and then, blinking nervously and working her mouth, she led the way to yet another murky passage, and so into the kitchen, which was lit by three candles, while a low turf fire smouldered on the hearth.
"You mustn't mind your uncle Joss," she said, her manner changing suddenly, fawning almost, like a whimpering dog that has been trained by constant cruelty to implicit obedience, and who, in spite of kicks and curses, will fight like a tiger for its master. "Your uncle must be humoured, you know; he has his ways, and strangers don't understand him at first.
He's a very good husband to me, and has been so since our wedding day."
She pattered on mechanically, going backwards and forwards across the flagged kitchen as she laid the table for supper, taking bread, cheese, and dripping from the big cupboard behind the panelling, while Mary crouched beside the fire in a hopeless attempt to warm her chilled fingers.
The kitchen was heavy with peat smoke.
It crept up to the ceiling and into the corners, and hung about the air like a thin blue cloud.
It stung Mary's eyes, and explored her nostrils, and lay upon her tongue.
"You'll soon come to like your uncle Joss, and fit into his ways," continued her aunt. "He's a very fine man, and a very brave one.
He has a great name hereabouts, and is much respected.
There's no one will say a word against Joss Merlyn.
We have great company here at times.
It's not always as quiet as this.
It's a very busy highway, you know.
The coaches pass every day.
And the gentry are most civil to us, most civil. A neighbour was in only yesterday, and I made him a cake to take home.
'Mrs. Merlyn,' he said, 'you're the only woman in Cornwall can bake a cake.'
Those were his very words.
And even the squire himself — that's Squire Bassat, you know, from North Hill; he owns all the land hereabouts — he passed me on the road the other day — Tuesday it was — and he took off his hat.
'Good morning, madam,' he said, and he bowed to me from his horse.
They say he was a great man for the women in his day. Then out comes Joss from the stable, where he had been mending the wheel of the trap.
'How's life, Mr. Bassat?' he says.
'As large as yourself, Joss,' answers the squire, and they both fell to laughing."
Mary murmured some reply to this little speech, but she was pained and worried to see how, when speaking, Aunt Patience avoided her eyes, and the very fluency of her words was in itself suspicious.
She spoke much as a child does who tells herself a story and has a talent for invention.
It hurt Mary to see her act this part, and she longed for her to be done with it, or be silent, for the flow of words was, in its way, more appalling than her tears had been.
There was a footfall outside the door, and with a sinking heart Mary realised that Joss Merlyn had come downstairs again and had in all possibility listened to his wife's conversation.
Aunt Patience heard him too, for she turned pale and began to work her mouth.
He came into the room and looked from one to the other.
"So the hens are clacking already?" he said, the smile and the laugh gone, his eyes narrow. "You'll soon stop your tears if you can talk. I heard you, you blathering fool — gobble, gobble, gobble, like a turkey hen.
Do you think your precious niece believes a word you say?
Why, you wouldn't take in a child, far less a bunch of petticoats like her."
He pulled a chair from the wall and crashed it against the table. He sat down heavily, the chair creaking beneath him, and, reaching for the loaf, cut himself off a great hunk of bread, which he slabbed with dripping.
He crammed it into his mouth, the grease running down his chin, and beckoned Mary to the table.
"You need food, I can see that," he said, and he proceeded to cut carefully a thin slice from the loaf, which he quartered in pieces and buttered for her, the whole business very delicately done and in striking contrast to his manner in serving himself — so much so that to Mary there was something almost horrifying in the change from rough brutality to fastidious care.
It was as though there were some latent power in his fingers which turned them from bludgeons into deft and cunning servants.
Had he cut her a chunk of bread and hurled it at her she would not have minded so much; it would have been in keeping with what she had seen of him.
But this sudden coming to grace, this quick and exquisite moving of his hands, was a swift and rather sinister revelation, sinister because it was unexpected and not true to type.
She thanked him quietly and began to eat.
Her aunt, who had not uttered since her husband entered the room, was frying bacon over the fire.
No one spoke.
Mary was aware of Joss Merlyn watching her across the table, and behind her she could hear her aunt fumbling with ineffectual fingers at the hot handle of the frying pan.
In a minute she had dropped it, uttering a little cry of distress.
Mary rose from her place to help her, but Joss thundered at her to sit down.
"One fool is bad enough, without making a couple of them," he shouted. "Keep your seat and let your aunt clear up the mess.
It won't be for the first time."
He leant back in his chair and began to pick his teeth with his nails.
"What'll you drink?" he asked her. "Brandy, wine, or ale?
You may starve here, but you won't go thirsty.