If the feather had fallen, if it had tipped the scale downwards, thewhole house would have plunged to the depths to lie upon the sands ofoblivion. But there was a force working; something not highly conscious;something that leered, something that lurched; something not inspired togo about its work with dignified ritual or solemn chanting. Mrs McNabgroaned; Mrs Bast creaked. They were old; they were stiff; their legsached. They came with their brooms and pails at last; they got to work.
All of a sudden, would Mrs McNab see that the house was ready, one ofthe young ladies wrote: would she get this done; would she get thatdone; all in a hurry. They might be coming for the summer; had lefteverything to the last; expected to find things as they had left them.
Slowly and painfully, with broom and pail, mopping, scouring, MrsMcNab, Mrs Bast, stayed the corruption and the rot; rescued from thepool of Time that was fast closing over them now a basin, now a cupboard;fetched up from oblivion all the Waverley novels and a tea-setone morning; in the afternoon restored to sun and air a brass fender anda set of steel fire-irons. George, Mrs Bast's son, caught the rats, and cutthe grass. They had the builders. Attended with the creaking of hingesand the screeching of bolts, the slamming and banging of damp-swollenwoodwork, some rusty laborious birth seemed to be taking place, as thewomen, stooping, rising, groaning, singing, slapped and slammed, upstairsnow, now down in the cellars. Oh, they said, the work!
They drank their tea in the bedroom sometimes, or in the study; breakingoff work at mid-day with the smudge on their faces, and their oldhands clasped and cramped with the broom handles. Flopped on chairs,they contemplated now the magnificent conquest over taps and bath;now the more arduous, more partial triumph over long rows of books,black as ravens once, now white-stained, breeding pale mushrooms andsecreting furtive spiders. Once more, as she felt the tea warm in her, thetelescope fitted itself to Mrs McNab's eyes, and in a ring of light she sawthe old gentleman, lean as a rake, wagging his head, as she came up withthe washing, talking to himself, she supposed, on the lawn. He never noticedher. Some said he was dead; some said she was dead. Which wasit? Mrs Bast didn't know for certain either. The young gentleman wasdead. That she was sure. She had read his name in the papers.
There was the cook now, Mildred, Marian, some such name as that—ared-headed woman, quick-tempered like all her sort, but kind, too, ifyou knew the way with her. Many a laugh they had had together. Shesaved a plate of soup for Maggie; a bite of ham, sometimes; whateverwas over. They lived well in those days. They had everything theywanted (glibly, jovially, with the tea hot in her, she unwound her ball ofmemories, sitting in the wicker arm-chair by the nursery fender). Therewas always plenty doing, people in the house, twenty staying sometimes,and washing up till long past midnight.
Mrs Bast (she had never known them; had lived in Glasgow at thattime) wondered, putting her cup down, whatever they hung that beast'sskull there for? Shot in foreign parts no doubt.
It might well be, said Mrs McNab, wantoning on with her memories;they had friends in eastern countries; gentlemen staying there, ladies inevening dress; she had seen them once through the dining-room door allsitting at dinner. Twenty she dared say all in their jewellery, and sheasked to stay help wash up, might be till after midnight.
Ah, said Mrs Bast, they'd find it changed. She leant out of the window.