Half a Life-Time Ago
by Elizabeth Gaskell
Half a life-time ago, there lived in one of the Westmoreland dales a
single woman, of the name of Susan Dixon. She was owner of the small
farm-house where she resided, and of some thirty or forty acres of
land by which it was surrounded. She had also an hereditary right to
a sheep-walk, extending to the wild fells that overhang Blea Tarn.
In the language of the country she was a Stateswoman. Her house is
yet to be seen on the Oxenfell road, between Skelwith and Coniston.
You go along a moorland track, made by the carts that occasionally
came for turf from the Oxenfell. A brook babbles and brattles by the
wayside, giving you a sense of companionship, which relieves the deep
solitude in which this way is usually traversed. Some miles on this
side of Coniston there is a farmstead--a gray stone house, and a
square of farm-buildings surrounding a green space of rough turf, in
the midst of which stands a mighty, funereal umbrageous yew, making a
solemn shadow, as of death, in the very heart and centre of the light
and heat of the brightest summer day. On the side away from the
house, this yard slopes down to a dark-brown pool, which is supplied
with fresh water from the overflowings of a stone cistern, into which
some rivulet of the brook before-mentioned continually and
melodiously falls bubbling. The cattle drink out of this cistern.
The household bring their pitchers and fill them with drinking-water
by a dilatory, yet pretty, process. The water-carrier brings with
her a leaf of the hound's-tongue fern, and, inserting it in the
crevice of the gray rock, makes a cool, green spout for the sparkling
The house is no specimen, at the present day, of what it was in the
lifetime of Susan Dixon. Then, every small diamond pane in the
windows glittered with cleanliness. You might have eaten off the
floor; you could see yourself in the pewter plates and the polished
oaken awmry, or dresser, of the state kitchen into which you entered.
Few strangers penetrated further than this room. Once or twice,
wandering tourists, attracted by the lonely picturesqueness of the
situation, and the exquisite cleanliness of the house itself, made
their way into this house-place, and offered money enough (as they
thought) to tempt the hostess to receive them as lodgers. They would
give no trouble, they said; they would be out rambling or sketching
all day long; would be perfectly content with a share of the food
which she provided for herself; or would procure what they required
from the Waterhead Inn at Coniston. But no liberal sum--no fair
words--moved her from her stony manner, or her monotonous tone of
indifferent refusal. No persuasion could induce her to show any more
of the house than that first room; no appearance of fatigue procured
for the weary an invitation to sit down and rest; and if one more
bold and less delicate did so without being asked, Susan stood by,
cold and apparently deaf, or only replying by the briefest
monosyllables, till the unwelcome visitor had departed. Yet those
with whom she had dealings, in the way of selling her cattle or her
farm produce, spoke of her as keen after a bargain--a hard one to
have to do with; and she never spared herself exertion or fatigue, at
market or in the field, to make the most of her produce. She led the
hay-makers with her swift, steady rake, and her noiseless evenness of
motion. She was about among the earliest in the market, examining
samples of oats, pricing them, and then turning with grim
satisfaction to her own cleaner corn.
She was served faithfully and long by those who were rather her
fellow-labourers than her servants. She was even and just in her
dealings with them. If she was peculiar and silent, they knew her,
and knew that she might be relied on. Some of them had known her
from her childhood; and deep in their hearts was an unspoken--almost
unconscious--pity for her, for they knew her story, though they never
spoke of it.
Yes; the time had been when that tall, gaunt, hard-featured, angular
woman--who never smiled, and hardly ever spoke an unnecessary word--
had been a fine-looking girl, bright-spirited and rosy; and when the
hearth at the Yew Nook had been as bright as she, with family love
and youthful hope and mirth. Fifty or fifty-one years ago, William
Dixon and his wife Margaret were alive; and Susan, their daughter,
was about eighteen years old--ten years older than the only other
child, a boy named after his father. William and Margaret Dixon were
rather superior people, of a character belonging--as far as I have
seen--exclusively to the class of Westmoreland and Cumberland
statesmen--just, independent, upright; not given to much speaking;
kind-hearted, but not demonstrative; disliking change, and new ways,
and new people; sensible and shrewd; each household self-contained,
and its members having little curiosity as to their neighbours, with
whom they rarely met for any social intercourse, save at the stated
times of sheep-shearing and Christmas; having a certain kind of sober
pleasure in amassing money, which occasionally made them miserable
(as they call miserly people up in the north) in their old age;
reading no light or ephemeral literature, but the grave, solid books
brought round by the pedlars (such as the "Paradise Lost" and
"Regained,'" "The Death of Abel," "The Spiritual Quixote," and "The
Pilgrim's Progress"), were to be found in nearly every house: the
men occasionally going off laking, i.e. playing, i.e. drinking for
days together, and having to be hunted up by anxious wives, who dared
not leave their husbands to the chances of the wild precipitous
roads, but walked miles and miles, lantern in hand, in the dead of
night, to discover and guide the solemnly-drunken husband home; who
had a dreadful headache the next day, and the day after that came
forth as grave, and sober, and virtuous looking as if there were no
such thing as malt and spirituous liquors in the world; and who were
seldom reminded of their misdoings by their wives, to whom such
occasional outbreaks were as things of course, when once the
immediate anxiety produced by them was over. Such were--such are--
the characteristics of a class now passing away from the face of the
land, as their compeers, the yeomen, have done before them. Of such
was William Dixon. He was a shrewd clever farmer, in his day and
generation, when shrewdness was rather shown in the breeding and
rearing of sheep and cattle than in the cultivation of land. Owing
to this character of his, statesmen from a distance from beyond
Kendal, or from Borrowdale, of greater wealth than he, would send
their sons to be farm-servants for a year or two with him, in order
to learn some of his methods before setting up on land of their own.
When Susan, his daughter, was about seventeen, one Michael Hurst was
farm-servant at Yew Nook. He worked with the master, and lived with
the family, and was in all respects treated as an equal, except in
the field. His father was a wealthy statesman at Wythburne, up
beyond Grasmere; and through Michael's servitude the families had
become acquainted, and the Dixons went over to the High Beck sheep-
shearing, and the Hursts came down by Red Bank and Loughrig Tarn and
across the Oxenfell when there was the Christmas-tide feasting at Yew
Nook. The fathers strolled round the fields together, examined
cattle and sheep, and looked knowing over each other's horses. The
mothers inspected the dairies and household arrangements, each openly
admiring the plans of the other, but secretly preferring their own.
Both fathers and mothers cast a glance from time to time at Michael
and Susan, who were thinking of nothing less than farm or dairy, but
whose unspoken attachment was, in all ways, so suitable and natural a
thing that each parent rejoiced over it, although with characteristic
reserve it was never spoken about--not even between husband and wife.
Susan had been a strong, independent, healthy girl; a clever help to
her mother, and a spirited companion to her father; more of a man in
her (as he often said) than her delicate little brother ever would
have. He was his mother's darling, although she loved Susan well.
There was no positive engagement between Michael and Susan--I doubt
whether even plain words of love had been spoken; when one winter-
time Margaret Dixon was seized with inflammation consequent upon a
neglected cold. She had always been strong and notable, and had been
too busy to attend to the early symptoms of illness. It would go
off, she said to the woman who helped in the kitchen; or if she did
not feel better when they had got the hams and bacon out of hand, she
would take some herb-tea and nurse up a bit. But Death could not
wait till the hams and bacon were cured: he came on with rapid
strides, and shooting arrows of portentous agony. Susan had never
seen illness--never knew how much she loved her mother till now, when
she felt a dreadful, instinctive certainty that she was losing her.
Her mind was thronged with recollections of the many times she had
slighted her mother's wishes; her heart was full of the echoes of
careless and angry replies that she had spoken. What would she not
now give to have opportunities of service and obedience, and trials
of her patience and love, for that dear mother who lay gasping in
torture! And yet Susan had been a good girl and an affectionate
The sharp pain went off, and delicious ease came on; yet still her
mother sunk. In the midst of this languid peace she was dying. She
motioned Susan to her bedside, for she could only whisper; and then,
while the father was out of the room, she spoke as much to the eager,
hungering eyes of her daughter by the motion of her lips, as by the
slow, feeble sounds of her voice.
"Susan, lass, thou must not fret. It is God's will, and thou wilt
have a deal to do. Keep father straight if thou canst; and if he
goes out Ulverstone ways, see that thou meet him before he gets to
the Old Quarry. It's a dree bit for a man who has had a drop. As
for lile Will"--Here the poor woman's face began to work and her
fingers to move nervously as they lay on the bed-quilt--"lile Will
will miss me most of all. Father's often vexed with him because he's
not a quick strong lad; he is not, my poor lile chap. And father
thinks he's saucy, because he cannot always stomach oat-cake and
porridge. There's better than three pound in th' old black tea-pot
on the top shelf of the cupboard. Just keep a piece of loaf-bread by
you, Susan dear, for Will to come to when he's not taken his
breakfast. I have, may be, spoilt him; but there'll be no one to
spoil him now."
She began to cry a low, feeble cry, and covered up her face that
Susan might not see her. That dear face! those precious moments
while yet the eyes could look out with love and intelligence. Susan
laid her head down close by her mother's ear.
"Mother I'll take tent of Will. Mother, do you hear? He shall not
want ought I can give or get for him, least of all the kind words
which you had ever ready for us both. Bless you! bless you! my own
"Thou'lt promise me that, Susan, wilt thou? I can die easy if
thou'lt take charge of him. But he's hardly like other folk; he
tries father at times, though I think father'll be tender of him when
I'm gone, for my sake. And, Susan, there's one thing more. I never
spoke on it for fear of the bairn being called a tell-tale, but I
just comforted him up. He vexes Michael at times, and Michael has
struck him before now. I did not want to make a stir; but he's not
strong, and a word from thee, Susan, will go a long way with
Susan was as red now as she had been pale before; it was the first
time that her influence over Michael had been openly acknowledged by
a third person, and a flash of joy came athwart the solemn sadness of
the moment. Her mother had spoken too much, and now came on the
miserable faintness. She never spoke again coherently; but when her
children and her husband stood by her bedside, she took lile Will's
hand and put it into Susan's, and looked at her with imploring eyes.
Susan clasped her arms round Will, and leaned her head upon his
little curly one, and vowed within herself to be as a mother to him.
Henceforward she was all in all to her brother. She was a more
spirited and amusing companion to him than his mother had been, from
her greater activity, and perhaps, also, from her originality of
character, which often prompted her to perform her habitual actions
in some new and racy manner. She was tender to lile Will when she
was prompt and sharp with everybody else--with Michael most of all;
for somehow the girl felt that, unprotected by her mother, she must
keep up her own dignity, and not allow her lover to see how strong a
hold he had upon her heart. He called her hard and cruel, and left
her so; and she smiled softly to herself, when his back was turned,
to think how little he guessed how deeply he was loved. For Susan
was merely comely and fine looking; Michael was strikingly handsome,
admired by all the girls for miles round, and quite enough of a
country coxcomb to know it and plume himself accordingly. He was the
second son of his father; the eldest would have High Beck farm, of
course, but there was a good penny in the Kendal bank in store for
Michael. When harvest was over, he went to Chapel Langdale to learn
to dance; and at night, in his merry moods, he would do his steps on
the flag floor of the Yew Nook kitchen, to the secret admiration of
Susan, who had never learned dancing, but who flouted him
perpetually, even while she admired, in accordance with the rule she
seemed to have made for herself about keeping him at a distance so
long as he lived under the same roof with her. One evening he sulked
at some saucy remark of hers; he sitting in the chimney corner with
his arms on his knees, and his head bent forwards, lazily gazing into
the wood-fire on the hearth, and luxuriating in rest after a hard
day's labour; she sitting among the geraniums on the long, low
window-seat, trying to catch the last slanting rays of the autumnal
light to enable her to finish stitching a shirt-collar for Will, who
lounged full length on the flags at the other side of the hearth to
Michael, poking the burning wood from time to time with a long hazel-
stick to bring out the leap of glittering sparks.
"And if you can dance a threesome reel, what good does it do ye?"
asked Susan, looking askance at Michael, who had just been vaunting
his proficiency. "Does it help you plough, reap, or even climb the
rocks to take a raven's nest? If I were a man, I'd be ashamed to
give in to such softness."
"If you were a man, you'd be glad to do anything which made the
pretty girls stand round and admire."
"As they do to you, eh! Ho, Michael, that would not be my way o'
being a man!"
"What would then?" asked he, after a pause, during which he had
expected in vain that she would go on with her sentence. No answer.
"I should not like you as a man, Susy; you'd be too hard and
"Am I hard and headstrong?" asked she, with as indifferent a tone as
she could assume, but which yet had a touch of pique in it. His
quick ear detected the inflexion.
"No, Susy! You're wilful at times, and that's right enough. I don't
like a girl without spirit. There's a mighty pretty girl comes to
the dancing class; but she is all milk and water. Her eyes never
flash like yours when you're put out; why, I can see them flame
across the kitchen like a cat's in the dark. Now, if you were a man,
I should feel queer before those looks of yours; as it is, I rather
like them, because--"
"Because what?" asked she, looking up and perceiving that he had
stolen close up to her.
"Because I can make all right in this way," said he, kissing her
"Can you?" said she, wrenching herself out of his grasp and panting,
half with rage. "Take that, by way of proof that making right is
none so easy." And she boxed his ears pretty sharply. He went back
to his seat discomfited and out of temper. She could no longer see
to look, even if her face had not burnt and her eyes dazzled, but she
did not choose to move her seat, so she still preserved her stooping
attitude and pretended to go on sewing.
"Eleanor Hebthwaite may be milk-and-water," muttered he, "but--
Confound thee, lad! what art thou doing?" exclaimed Michael, as a
great piece of burning wood was cast into his face by an unlucky poke
of Will's. "Thou great lounging, clumsy chap, I'll teach thee
better!" and with one or two good round kicks he sent the lad
whimpering away into the back-kitchen. When he had a little
recovered himself from his passion, he saw Susan standing before him,
her face looking strange and almost ghastly by the reversed position
of the shadows, arising from the firelight shining upwards right
"I tell thee what, Michael," said she, "that lad's motherless, but
"His own father leathers him, and why should not I, when he's given
me such a burn on my face?" said Michael, putting up his hand to his
cheek as if in pain.
"His father's his father, and there is nought more to be said. But
if he did burn thee, it was by accident, and not o' purpose; as thou
kicked him, it's a mercy if his ribs are not broken."
"He howls loud enough, I'm sure. I might ha' kicked many a lad twice
as hard, and they'd ne'er ha' said ought but 'damn ye;' but yon lad
must needs cry out like a stuck pig if one touches him;" replied
Susan went back to the window-seat, and looked absently out of the
window at the drifting clouds for a minute or two, while her eyes
filled with tears. Then she got up and made for the outer door which
led into the back-kitchen. Before she reached it, however, she heard
a low voice, whose music made her thrill, say -
Her heart melted within her, but it seemed like treachery to her poor
boy, like faithlessness to her dead mother, to turn to her lover
while the tears which he had caused to flow were yet unwiped on
Will's cheeks. So she seemed to take no heed, but passed into the
darkness, and, guided by the sobs, she found her way to where Willie
sat crouched among the disused tubs and churns.
"Come out wi' me, lad;" and they went out into the orchard, where the
fruit-trees were bare of leaves, but ghastly in their tattered
covering of gray moss: and the soughing November wind came with long
sweeps over the fells till it rattled among the crackling boughs,
underneath which the brother and sister sat in the dark; he in her
lap, and she hushing his head against her shoulder.
"Thou should'st na' play wi' fire. It's a naughty trick. Thoul't
suffer for it in worse ways nor this before thou'st done, I'm
afeared. I should ha' hit thee twice as lungeous kicks as Mike, if
I'd been in his place. He did na' hurt thee, I am sure," she
assumed, half as a question.
"Yes but he did. He turned me quite sick." And he let his head fall
languidly down on his sister's breast.
"Come, lad! come, lad!" said she anxiously. "Be a man. It was not
much that I saw. Why, when first the red cow came she kicked me far
harder for offering to milk her before her legs were tied. See thee!
here's a peppermint-drop, and I'll make thee a pasty to-night; only
don't give way so, for it hurts me sore to think that Michael has
done thee any harm, my pretty."
Willie roused himself up, and put back the wet and ruffled hair from
his heated face; and he and Susan rose up, and hand-in-hand went
towards the house, walking slowly and quietly except for a kind of
sob which Willie could not repress. Susan took him to the pump and
washed his tear-stained face, till she thought she had obliterated
all traces of the recent disturbance, arranging his curls for him,
and then she kissed him tenderly, and led him in, hoping to find
Michael in the kitchen, and make all straight between them. But the
blaze had dropped down into darkness; the wood was a heap of gray
ashes in which the sparks ran hither and thither; but even in the
groping darkness Susan knew by the sinking at her heart that Michael
was not there. She threw another brand on the hearth and lighted the
candle, and sat down to her work in silence. Willie cowered on his
stool by the side of the fire, eyeing his sister from time to time,
and sorry and oppressed, he knew not why, by the sight of her grave,
almost stern face. No one came. They two were in the house alone.
The old woman who helped Susan with the household work had gone out
for the night to some friend's dwelling. William Dixon, the father,
was up on the fells seeing after his sheep. Susan had no heart to
prepare the evening meal.
"Susy, darling, are you angry with me?" said Willie, in his little
piping, gentle voice. He had stolen up to his sister's side. "I
won't never play with the fire again; and I'll not cry if Michael
does kick me. Only don't look so like dead mother--don't--don't--
please don't!" he exclaimed, hiding his face on her shoulder.
"I'm not angry, Willie," said she. "Don't be feared on me. You want
your supper, and you shall have it; and don't you be feared on
Michael. He shall give reason for every hair of your head that he
When William Dixon came home he found Susan and Willie sitting
together, hand-in-hand, and apparently pretty cheerful. He bade them
go to bed, for that he would sit up for Michael; and the next
morning, when Susan came down, she found that Michael had started an
hour before with the cart for lime. It was a long day's work; Susan
knew it would be late, perhaps later than on the preceding night,
before he returned--at any rate, past her usual bed-time; and on no
account would she stop up a minute beyond that hour in the kitchen,
whatever she might do in her bed-room. Here she sat and watched till
past midnight; and when she saw him coming up the brow with the
carts, she knew full well, even in that faint moonlight, that his
gait was the gait of a man in liquor. But though she was annoyed and
mortified to find in what way he had chosen to forget her, the fact
did not disgust or shock her as it would have done many a girl, even
at that day, who had not been brought up as Susan had, among a class
who considered it no crime, but rather a mark of spirit, in a man to
get drunk occasionally. Nevertheless, she chose to hold herself very
high all the next day when Michael was, perforce, obliged to give up
any attempt to do heavy work, and hung about the out-buildings and
farm in a very disconsolate and sickly state. Willie had far more
pity on him than Susan. Before evening, Willie and he were fast,
and, on his side, ostentatious friends. Willie rode the horses down
to water; Willie helped him to chop wood. Susan sat gloomily at her
work, hearing an indistinct but cheerful conversation going on in the
shippon, while the cows were being milked. She almost felt irritated
with her little brother, as if he were a traitor, and had gone over
to the enemy in the very battle that she was fighting in his cause.
She was alone with no one to speak to, while they prattled on
regardless if she were glad or sorry.
Soon Willie burst in. "Susan! Susan! come with me; I've something
so pretty to show you. Round the corner of the barn--run! run!" (He
was dragging her along, half reluctant, half desirous of some change
in that weary day. Round the corner of the barn; and caught hold of
by Michael, who stood there awaiting her.
"O Willie!" cried she "you naughty boy. There is nothing pretty--
what have you brought me here for? Let me go; I won't be held."
"Only one word. Nay, if you wish it so much, you may go," said
Michael, suddenly loosing his hold as she struggled. But now she was
free, she only drew off a step or two, murmuring something about
"You are going, then?" said Michael, with seeming sadness. "You
won't hear me say a word of what is in my heart."
"How can I tell whether it is what I should like to hear?" replied
she, still drawing back.
"That is just what I want you to tell me; I want you to hear it and
then to tell me whether you like it or not."
"Well, you may speak," replied she, turning her back, and beginning
to plait the hem of her apron.
He came close to her ear.
"I'm sorry I hurt Willie the other night. He has forgiven me. Can
"You hurt him very badly," she replied. "But you are right to be
sorry. I forgive you."
"Stop, stop!" said he, laying his hand upon her arm. "There is
something more I've got to say. I want you to be my--what is it they
call it, Susan?"
"I don't know," said she, half-laughing, but trying to get away with
all her might now; and she was a strong girl, but she could not
"You do. My--what is it I want you to be?"
"I tell you I don't know, and you had best be quiet, and just let me
go in, or I shall think you're as bad now as you were last night."
"And how did you know what I was last night? It was past twelve when
I came home. Were you watching? Ah, Susan! be my wife, and you
shall never have to watch for a drunken husband. If I were your
husband, I would come straight home, and count every minute an hour
till I saw your bonny face. Now you know what I want you to be. I
ask you to be my wife. Will you, my own dear Susan?"
She did not speak for some time. Then she only said "Ask father."
And now she was really off like a lapwing round the corner of the
barn, and up in her own little room, crying with all her might,
before the triumphant smile had left Michael's face where he stood.
The "Ask father" was a mere form to be gone though. Old Daniel Hurst
and William Dixon had talked over what they could respectively give
their children before this; and that was the parental way of
arranging such matters. When the probable amount of worldly gear
that he could give his child had been named by each father, the young
folk, as they said, might take their own time in coming to the point
which the old men, with the prescience of experience, saw they were
drifting to; no need to hurry them, for they were both young, and
Michael, though active enough, was too thoughtless, old Daniel said,
to be trusted with the entire management of a farm. Meanwhile, his
father would look about him, and see after all the farms that were to
Michael had a shrewd notion of this preliminary understanding between
the fathers, and so felt less daunted than he might otherwise have
done at making the application for Susan's hand. It was all right,
there was not an obstacle; only a deal of good advice, which the
lover thought might have as well been spared, and which it must be
confessed he did not much attend to, although he assented to every
part of it. Then Susan was called down stairs, and slowly came
dropping into view down the steps which led from the two family
apartments into the house-place. She tried to look composed and
quiet, but it could not be done. She stood side by side with her
lover, with her head drooping, her cheeks burning, not daring to look
up or move, while her father made the newly-betrothed a somewhat
formal address in which he gave his consent, and many a piece of
worldly wisdom beside. Susan listened as well as she could for the
beating of her heart; but when her father solemnly and sadly referred
to his own lost wife, she could keep from sobbing no longer; but
throwing her apron over her face, she sat down on the bench by the
dresser, and fairly gave way to pent-up tears. Oh, how strangely
sweet to be comforted as she was comforted, by tender caress, and
many a low-whispered promise of love! Her father sat by the fire,
thinking of the days that were gone; Willie was still out of doors;
but Susan and Michael felt no one's presence or absence--they only
knew they were together as betrothed husband and wife.
In a week, or two, they were formally told of the arrangements to be
made in their favour. A small farm in the neighbourhood happened to
fall vacant; and Michael's father offered to take it for him, and be
responsible for the rent for the first year, while William Dixon was
to contribute a certain amount of stock, and both fathers were to
help towards the furnishing of the house. Susan received all this
information in a quiet, indifferent way; she did not care much for
any of these preparations, which were to hurry her through the happy
hours; she cared least of all for the money amount of dowry and of
substance. It jarred on her to be made the confidante of occasional
slight repinings of Michael's, as one by one his future father-in-law
set aside a beast or a pig for Susan's portion, which were not always
the best animals of their kind upon the farm. But he also complained
of his own father's stinginess, which somewhat, though not much,
alleviated Susan's dislike to being awakened out of her pure dream of
love to the consideration of worldly wealth.
But in the midst of all this bustle, Willie moped and pined. He had
the same chord of delicacy running through his mind that made his
body feeble and weak. He kept out of the way, and was apparently
occupied in whittling and carving uncouth heads on hazel-sticks in an
out-house. But he positively avoided Michael, and shrunk away even
from Susan. She was too much occupied to notice this at first.
Michael pointed it out to her, saying, with a laugh, -
"Look at Willie! he might be a cast-off lover and jealous of me, he
looks so dark and downcast at me." Michael spoke this jest out loud,
and Willie burst into tears, and ran out of the house.
"Let me go. Let me go!" said Susan (for her lover's arm was round
her waist). "I must go to him if he's fretting. I promised mother I
would!" She pulled herself away, and went in search of the boy. She
sought in byre and barn, through the orchard, where indeed in this
leafless winter-time there was no great concealment; up into the room
where the wool was usually stored in the later summer, and at last
she found him, sitting at bay, like some hunted creature, up behind
"What are ye gone for, lad, and me seeking you everywhere?" asked
"I did not know you would seek me. I've been away many a time, and
no one has cared to seek me," said he, crying afresh.
"Nonsense," replied Susan, "don't be so foolish, ye little good-for-
nought." But she crept up to him in the hole he had made underneath
the great, brown sheafs of wood, and squeezed herself down by him.
"What for should folk seek after you, when you get away from them
whenever you can?" asked she.
"They don't want me to stay. Nobody wants me. If I go with father,
he says I hinder more than I help. You used to like to have me with
you. But now, you've taken up with Michael, and you'd rather I was
away; and I can just bide away; but I cannot stand Michael jeering at
me. He's got you to love him and that might serve him."
"But I love you, too, dearly, lad!" said she, putting her arm round
"Which on us do you like best?" said he, wistfully, after a little
pause, putting her arm away, so that he might look in her face, and
see if she spoke truth.
She went very red.
"You should not ask such questions. They are not fit for you to ask,
nor for me to answer."
"But mother bade you love me!" said he, plaintively.
"And so I do. And so I ever will do. Lover nor husband shall come
betwixt thee and me, lad--ne'er a one of them. That I promise thee
(as I promised mother before), in the sight of God and with her
hearkening now, if ever she can hearken to earthly word again. Only
I cannot abide to have thee fretting, just because my heart is large
enough for two."
"And thou'lt love me always?"
"Always, and ever. And the more--the more thou'lt love Michael,"
said she, dropping her voice.
"I'll try," said the boy, sighing, for he remembered many a harsh
word and blow of which his sister knew nothing. She would have risen
up to go away, but he held her tight, for here and now she was all
his own, and he did not know when such a time might come again. So
the two sat crouched up and silent, till they heard the horn blowing
at the field-gate, which was the summons home to any wanderers
belonging to the farm, and at this hour of the evening, signified
that supper was ready. Then the two went in.
Susan and Michael were to be married in April. He had already gone
to take possession of his new farm, three or four miles away from Yew
Nook--but that is neighbouring, according to the acceptation of the
word in that thinly-populated district,--when William Dixon fell ill.
He came home one evening, complaining of head-ache and pains in his
limbs, but seemed to loathe the posset which Susan prepared for him;
the treacle-posset which was the homely country remedy against an
incipient cold. He took to his bed with a sensation of exceeding
weariness, and an odd, unusual looking-back to the days of his youth,
when he was a lad living with his parents, in this very house.
The next morning he had forgotten all his life since then, and did
not know his own children; crying, like a newly-weaned baby, for his
mother to come and soothe away his terrible pain. The doctor from
Coniston said it was the typhus-fever, and warned Susan of its
infectious character, and shook his head over his patient. There
were no near friends to come and share her anxiety; only good, kind
old Peggy, who was faithfulness itself, and one or two labourers'
wives, who would fain have helped her, had not their hands been tied
by their responsibility to their own families. But, somehow, Susan
neither feared nor flagged. As for fear, indeed, she had no time to
give way to it, for every energy of both body and mind was required.
Besides, the young have had too little experience of the danger of
infection to dread it much. She did indeed wish, from time to time,
that Michael had been at home to have taken Willie over to his
father's at High Beck; but then, again, the lad was docile and useful
to her, and his fecklessness in many things might make him harshly
treated by strangers; so, perhaps, it was as well that Michael was
away at Appleby fair, or even beyond that--gone into Yorkshire after
Her father grew worse; and the doctor insisted on sending over a
nurse from Coniston. Not a professed nurse--Coniston could not have
supported such a one; but a widow who was ready to go where the
doctor sent her for the sake of the payment. When she came, Susan
suddenly gave way; she was felled by the fever herself, and lay
unconscious for long weeks. Her consciousness returned to her one
spring afternoon; early spring: April,--her wedding-month. There
was a little fire burning in the small corner-grate, and the
flickering of the blaze was enough for her to notice in her weak
state. She felt that there was some one sitting on the window-side
of her bed, behind the curtain, but she did not care to know who it
was; it was even too great a trouble for her languid mind to consider
who it was likely to be. She would rather shut her eyes, and melt
off again into the gentle luxury of sleep. The next time she
wakened, the Coniston nurse perceived her movement, and made her a
cup of tea, which she drank with eager relish; but still they did not
speak, and once more Susan lay motionless--not asleep, but strangely,
pleasantly conscious of all the small chamber and household sounds;
the fall of a cinder on the hearth, the fitful singing of the half-
empty kettle, the cattle tramping out to field again after they had
been milked, the aged step on the creaking stair--old Peggy's, as she
knew. It came to her door; it stopped; the person outside listened
for a moment, and then lifted the wooden latch, and looked in. The
watcher by the bedside arose, and went to her. Susan would have been
glad to see Peggy's face once more, but was far too weak to turn, so
she lay and listened.
"How is she?" whispered one trembling, aged voice.
"Better," replied the other. "She's been awake, and had a cup of
tea. She'll do now."
"Has she asked after him?"
"Hush! No; she has not spoken a word."
"Poor lass! poor lass!"
The door was shut. A weak feeling of sorrow and self-pity came over
Susan. What was wrong? Whom had she loved? And dawning, dawning,
slowly rose the sun of her former life, and all particulars were made
distinct to her. She felt that some sorrow was coming to her, and
cried over it before she knew what it was, or had strength enough to
ask. In the dead of night,--and she had never slept again,--she
softly called to the watcher, and asked -
"Who what?" replied the woman, with a conscious affright, ill-veiled
by a poor assumption of ease. "Lie still, there's a darling, and go
to sleep. Sleep's better for you than all the doctor's stuff."
"Who?" repeated Susan. "Something is wrong. Who?"
"Oh, dear!" said the woman. "There's nothing wrong. Willie has
taken the turn, and is doing nicely."
"Well! he's all right now," she answered, looking another way, as if
seeking for something.
"Then it's Michael! Oh, me! oh, me!" She set up a succession of
weak, plaintive, hysterical cries before the nurse could pacify her,
by declaring that Michael had been at the house not three hours
before to ask after her, and looked as well and as hearty as ever man
"And you heard of no harm to him since?" inquired Susan.
"Bless the lass, no, for sure! I've ne'er heard his name named since
I saw him go out of the yard as stout a man as ever trod shoe-
It was well, as the nurse said afterwards to Peggy, that Susan had
been so easily pacified by the equivocating answer in respect to her
father. If she had pressed the questions home in his case as she did
in Michael's, she would have learnt that he was dead and buried more
than a month before. It was well, too, that in her weak state of
convalescence (which lasted long after this first day of
consciousness) her perceptions were not sharp enough to observe the
sad change that had taken place in Willie. His bodily strength
returned, his appetite was something enormous, but his eyes wandered
continually; his regard could not be arrested; his speech became
slow, impeded, and incoherent. People began to say that the fever
had taken away the little wit Willie Dixon had ever possessed and
that they feared that he would end in being a "natural," as they call
an idiot in the Dales.
The habitual affection and obedience to Susan lasted longer than any
other feeling that the boy had had previous to his illness; and,
perhaps, this made her be the last to perceive what every one else
had long anticipated. She felt the awakening rude when it did come.
It was in this wise:-
One Jane evening, she sat out of doors under the yew-tree, knitting.
She was pale still from her recent illness; and her languor, joined
to the fact of her black dress, made her look more than usually
interesting. She was no longer the buoyant self-sufficient Susan,
equal to every occasion. The men were bringing in the cows to be
milked, and Michael was about in the yard giving orders and
directions with somewhat the air of a master, for the farm belonged
of right to Willie, and Susan had succeeded to the guardianship of
her brother. Michael and she were to be married as soon as she was
strong enough--so, perhaps, his authoritative manner was justified;
but the labourers did not like it, although they said little. They
remembered a stripling on the farm, knowing far less than they did,
and often glad to shelter his ignorance of all agricultural matters
behind their superior knowledge. They would have taken orders from
Susan with far more willingness; nay, Willie himself might have
commanded them; and from the old hereditary feeling toward the owners
of land, they would have obeyed him with far greater cordiality than
they now showed to Michael. But Susan was tired with even three
rounds of knitting, and seemed not to notice, or to care, how things
went on around her; and Willie--poor Willie!--there he stood lounging
against the door-sill, enormously grown and developed, to be sure,
but with restless eyes and ever-open mouth, and every now and then
setting up a strange kind of howling cry, and then smiling vacantly
to himself at the sound he had made. As the two old labourers passed
him, they looked at each other ominously, and shook their heads.
"Willie, darling," said Susan, "don't make that noise--it makes my
She spoke feebly, and Willie did not seem to hear; at any rate, he
continued his howl from time to time.
"Hold thy noise, wilt'a?" said Michael, roughly, as he passed near
him, and threatening him with his fist. Susan's back was turned to
the pair. The expression of Willie's face changed from vacancy to
fear, and he came shambling up to Susan, who put her arm round him,
and, as if protected by that shelter, he began making faces at
Michael. Susan saw what was going on, and, as if now first struck by
the strangeness of her brother's manner, she looked anxiously at
Michael for an explanation. Michael was irritated at Willie's
defiance of him, and did not mince the matter.
"It's just that the fever has left him silly--he never was as wise as
other folk, and now I doubt if he will ever get right."
Susan did not speak, but she went very pale, and her lip quivered.
She looked long and wistfully at Willie's face, as he watched the
motion of the ducks in the great stable-pool. He laughed softly to
himself every now and then.
"Willie likes to see the ducks go overhead," said Susan,
instinctively adopting the form of speech she would have used to a
"Willie, boo! Willie, boo!" he replied, clapping his hands, and
avoiding her eye.
"Speak properly, Willie," said Susan, making a strong effort at self-
control, and trying to arrest his attention.
"You know who I am--tell me my name!" She grasped his arm almost
painfully tight to make him attend. Now he looked at her, and, for
an instant, a gleam of recognition quivered over his face; but the
exertion was evidently painful, and he began to cry at the vainness
of the effort to recall her name. He hid his face upon her shoulder
with the old affectionate trick of manner. She put him gently away,
and went into the house into her own little bedroom. She locked the
door, and did not reply at all to Michael's calls for her, hardly
spoke to old Peggy, who tried to tempt her out to receive some homely
sympathy, and through the open easement there still came the idiotic
sound of "Willie, boo! Willie, boo!"
After the stun of the blow came the realization of the consequences.
Susan would sit for hours trying patiently to recall and piece
together fragments of recollection and consciousness in her brother's
mind. She would let him go and pursue some senseless bit of play,
and wait until she could catch his eye or his attention again, when
she would resume her self-imposed task. Michael complained that she
never had a word for him, or a minute of time to spend with him now;
but she only said she must try, while there was yet a chance, to
bring back her brother's lost wits. As for marriage in this state of
uncertainty, she had no heart to think of it. Then Michael stormed,
and absented himself for two or three days; but it was of no use.
When he came back, he saw that she had been crying till her eyes were
all swollen up, and he gathered from Peggy's scoldings (which she did
not spare him) that Susan had eaten nothing since he went away. But
she was as inflexible as ever.
"Not just yet. Only not just yet. And don't say again that I do not
love you," said she, suddenly hiding herself in his arms.
And so matters went on through August. The crop of oats was gathered
in; the wheat-field was not ready as yet, when one fine day Michael
drove up in a borrowed shandry, and offered to take Willie a ride.
His manner, when Susan asked him where he was going to, was rather
confused; but the answer was straight and clear enough.
He had business in Ambleside. He would never lose sight of the lad,
and have him back safe and sound before dark. So Susan let him go.
Before night they were at home again: Willie in high delight at a
little rattling paper windmill that Michael had bought for him in the
street, and striving to imitate this new sound with perpetual
buzzings. Michael, too, looked pleased. Susan knew the look,
although afterwards she remembered that he had tried to veil it from
her, and had assumed a grave appearance of sorrow whenever he caught
her eye. He put up his horse; for, although he had three miles
further to go, the moon was up--the bonny harvest-moon--and he did
not care how late he had to drive on such a road by such a light.
After the supper which Susan had prepared for the travellers was
over, Peggy went up-stairs to see Willie safe in bed; for he had to
have the same care taken of him that a little child of four years old
Michael drew near to Susan.
"Susan," said he, "I took Will to see Dr. Preston, at Kendal. He's
the first doctor in the county. I thought it were better for us--for
you--to know at once what chance there were for him."
"Well!" said Susan, looking eagerly up. She saw the same strange
glance of satisfaction, the same instant change to apparent regret
and pain. "What did he say?" said she. "Speak! can't you?"
"He said he would never get better of his weakness."
"No; never. It's a long word, and hard to bear. And there's worse
to come, dearest. The doctor thinks he will get badder from year to
year. And he said, if he was us--you--he would send him off in time
to Lancaster Asylum. They've ways there both of keeping such people
in order and making them happy. I only tell you what he said,"
continued he, seeing the gathering storm in her face.
"There was no harm in his saying it," she replied, with great self-
constraint, forcing herself to speak coldly instead of angrily.
"Folk is welcome to their opinions."
They sat silent for a minute or two, her breast heaving with
"He's counted a very clever man," said Michael at length.
"He may be. He's none of my clever men, nor am I going to be guided
by him, whatever he may think. And I don't thank them that went and
took my poor lad to have such harsh notions formed about him. If I'd
been there, I could have called out the sense that is in him."
"Well! I'll not say more to-night, Susan. You're not taking it
rightly, and I'd best be gone, and leave you to think it over. I'll
not deny they are hard words to hear, but there's sense in them, as I
take it; and I reckon you'll have to come to 'em. Anyhow, it's a bad
way of thanking me for my pains, and I don't take it well in you,
Susan," said he, getting up, as if offended.
"Michael, I'm beside myself with sorrow. Don't blame me if I speak
sharp. He and me is the only ones, you see. And mother did so
charge me to have a care of him! And this is what he's come to, poor
lile chap!" She began to cry, and Michael to comfort her with
"Don't," said she. "It's no use trying to make me forget poor Willie
is a natural. I could hate myself for being happy with you, even for
just a little minute. Go away, and leave me to face it out."
"And you'll think it over, Susan, and remember what the doctor says?"
"I can't forget," said she. She meant she could not forget what the
doctor had said about the hopelessness of her brother's case; Michael
had referred to the plan of sending Willie to an asylum, or madhouse,
as they were called in that day and place. The idea had been
gathering force in Michael's mind for some time; he had talked it
over with his father, and secretly rejoiced over the possession of
the farm and land which would then be his in fact, if not in law, by
right of his wife. He had always considered the good penny her
father could give her in his catalogue of Susan's charms and
attractions. But of late he had grown to esteem her as the heiress
of Yew Nook. He, too, should have land like his brother--land to
possess, to cultivate, to make profit from, to bequeath. For some
time he had wondered that Susan had been so much absorbed in Willie's
present, that she had never seemed to look forward to his future,
state. Michael had long felt the boy to be a trouble; but of late he
had absolutely loathed him. His gibbering, his uncouth gestures, his
loose, shambling gait, all irritated Michael inexpressibly. He did
not come near the Yew Nook for a couple of days. He thought that he
would leave her time to become anxious to see him and reconciled to
his plan. They were strange lonely days to Susan. They were the
first she had spent face to face with the sorrows that had turned her
from a girl into a woman; for hitherto Michael had never let twenty-
four hours pass by without coming to see her since she had had the
fever. Now that he was absent, it seemed as though some cause of
irritation was removed from Will, who was much more gentle and
tractable than he had been for many weeks. Susan thought that she
observed him making efforts at her bidding, and there was something
piteous in the way in which he crept up to her, and looked wistfully
in her face, as if asking her to restore him the faculties that he
felt to be wanting.
"I never will let thee go, lad. Never! There's no knowing where
they would take thee to, or what they would do with thee. As it says
in the Bible, 'Nought but death shall part thee and me!'"
The country-side was full, in those days, of stories of the brutal
treatment offered to the insane; stories that were, in fact, but too
well founded, and the truth of one of which only would have been a
sufficient reason for the strong prejudice existing against all such
places. Each succeeding hour that Susan passed, alone, or with the
poor affectionate lad for her sole companion, served to deepen her
solemn resolution never to part with him. So, when Michael came, he
was annoyed and surprised by the calm way in which she spoke, as if
following Dr. Preston's advice was utterly and entirely out of the
question. He had expected nothing less than a consent, reluctant it
might be, but still a consent; and he was extremely irritated. He
could have repressed his anger, but he chose rather to give way to
it; thinking that he could thus best work upon Susan's affection, so
as to gain his point. But, somehow, he over-reached himself; and now
he was astonished in his turn at the passion of indignation that she
"Thou wilt not bide in the same house with him, say'st thou? There's
no need for thy biding, as far as I can tell. There's solemn reason
why I should bide with my own flesh and blood and keep to the word I
pledged my mother on her death-bed; but, as for thee, there's no tie
that I know on to keep thee fro' going to America or Botany Bay this
very night, if that were thy inclination. I will have no more of
your threats to make me send my bairn away. If thou marry me,
thou'lt help me to take charge of Willie. If thou doesn't choose to
marry me on those terms--why, I can snap my fingers at thee, never
fear. I'm not so far gone in love as that. But I will not have
thee, if thou say'st in such a hectoring way that Willie must go out
of the house--and the house his own too--before thoul't set foot in
it. Willie bides here, and I bide with him."
"Thou hast may-be spoken a word too much," said Michael, pale with
rage. "If I am free, as thou say'st, to go to Canada, or Botany Bay,
I reckon I'm free to live where I like, and that will not be with a
natural who may turn into a madman some day, for aught I know.
Choose between him and me, Susy, for I swear to thee, thou shan't
"I have chosen," said Susan, now perfectly composed and still.
"Whatever comes of it, I bide with Willie."
"Very well," replied Michael, trying to assume an equal composure of
manner. "Then I'll wish you a very good night." He went out of the
house door, half-expecting to be called back again; but, instead, he
heard a hasty step inside, and a bolt drawn.
"Whew!" said he to himself, "I think I must leave my lady alone for a
week or two, and give her time to come to her senses. She'll not
find it so easy as she thinks to let me go."
So he went past the kitchen-window in nonchalant style, and was not
seen again at Yew Nook for some weeks. How did he pass the time?
For the first day or two, he was unusually cross with all things and
people that came athwart him. Then wheat-harvest began, and he was
busy, and exultant about his heavy crop. Then a man came from a
distance to bid for the lease of his farm, which, by his father's
advice, had been offered for sale, as he himself was so soon likely
to remove to the Yew Nook. He had so little idea that Susan really
would remain firm to her determination, that he at once began to
haggle with the man who came after his farm, showed him the crop just
got in, and managed skilfully enough to make a good bargain for
himself. Of course, the bargain had to be sealed at the public-
house; and the companions he met with there soon became friends
enough to tempt him into Langdale, where again he met with Eleanor
How did Susan pass the time? For the first day or so, she was too
angry and offended to cry. She went about her household duties in a
quick, sharp, jerking, yet absent way; shrinking one moment from
Will, overwhelming him with remorseful caresses the next. The third
day of Michael's absence, she had the relief of a good fit of crying;
and after that, she grew softer and more tender; she felt how harshly
she had spoken to him, and remembered how angry she had been. She
made excuses for him. "It was no wonder," she said to herself, "that
he had been vexed with her; and no wonder he would not give in, when
she had never tried to speak gently or to reason with him. She was
to blame, and she would tell him so, and tell him once again all that
her mother had bade her to be to Willie, and all the horrible stories
she had heard about madhouses, and he would be on her side at once."
And so she watched for his coming, intending to apologise as soon as
ever she saw him. She hurried over her household work, in order to
sit quietly at her sewing, and hear the first distant sound of his
well-known step or whistle. But even the sound of her flying needle
seemed too loud--perhaps she was losing an exquisite instant of
anticipation; so she stopped sewing, and looked longingly out through
the geranium leaves, in order that her eye might catch the first stir
of the branches in the wood-path by which he generally came. Now and
then a bird might spring out of the covert; otherwise the leaves were
heavily still in the sultry weather of early autumn. Then she would
take up her sewing, and, with a spasm of resolution, she would
determine that a certain task should be fulfilled before she would
again allow herself the poignant luxury of expectation. Sick at
heart was she when the evening closed in, and the chances of that day
diminished. Yet she stayed up longer than usual, thinking that if he
were coming--if he were only passing along the distant road--the
sight of a light in the window might encourage him to make his
appearance even at that late hour, while seeing the house all
darkened and shut up might quench any such intention.
Very sick and weary at heart, she went to bed; too desolate and
despairing to cry, or make any moan. But in the morning hope came
afresh. Another day--another chance! And so it went on for weeks.
Peggy understood her young mistress's sorrow full well, and respected
it by her silence on the subject. Willie seemed happier now that the
irritation of Michael's presence was removed; for the poor idiot had
a sort of antipathy to Michael, which was a kind of heart's echo to
the repugnance in which the latter held him. Altogether, just at
this time, Willie was the happiest of the three.
As Susan went into Coniston, to sell her butter, one Saturday, some
inconsiderate person told her that she had seen Michael Hurst the
night before. I said inconsiderate, but I might rather have said
unobservant; for any one who had spent half-an-hour in Susan Dixon's
company might have seen that she disliked having any reference made
to the subjects nearest her heart, were they joyous or grievous. Now
she went a little paler than usual (and she had never recovered her
colour since she had had the fever), and tried to keep silence. But
an irrepressible pang forced out the question -
"At Thomas Applethwaite's, in Langdale. They had a kind of harvest-
home, and he were there among the young folk, and very thick wi'
Nelly Hebthwaite, old Thomas's niece. Thou'lt have to look after him
a bit, Susan!"
She neither smiled nor sighed. The neighbour who had been speaking
to her was struck with the gray stillness of her face. Susan herself
felt how well her self-command was obeyed by every little muscle, and
said to herself in her Spartan manner, "I can bear it without either
wincing or blenching." She went home early, at a tearing, passionate
pace, trampling and breaking through all obstacles of briar or bush.
Willie was moping in her absence--hanging listlessly on the farm-yard
gate to watch for her. When he saw her, he set up one of his
strange, inarticulate cries, of which she was now learning the
meaning, and came towards her with his loose, galloping run, head and
limbs all shaking and wagging with pleasant excitement. Suddenly she
turned from him, and burst into tears. She sat down on a stone by
the wayside, not a hundred yards from home, and buried her face in
her hands, and gave way to a passion of pent-up sorrow; so terrible
and full of agony were her low cries, that the idiot stood by her,
aghast and silent. All his joy gone for the time, but not, like her
joy, turned into ashes. Some thought struck him. Yes! the sight of
her woe made him think, great as the exertion was. He ran, and
stumbled, and shambled home, buzzing with his lips all the time. She
never missed him. He came back in a trice, bringing with him his
cherished paper windmill, bought on that fatal day when Michael had
taken him into Kendal to have his doom of perpetual idiocy
pronounced. He thrust it into Susan's face, her hands, her lap,
regardless of the injury his frail plaything thereby received. He
leapt before her to think how he had cured all heart-sorrow, buzzing
louder than ever. Susan looked up at him, and that glance of her sad
eyes sobered him. He began to whimper, he knew not why: and she
now, comforter in her turn, tried to soothe him by twirling his
windmill. But it was broken; it made no noise; it would not go
round. This seemed to afflict Susan more than him. She tried to
make it right, although she saw the task was hopeless; and while she
did so, the tears rained down unheeded from her bent head on the
"It won't do," said she, at last. "It will never do again." And,
somehow, she took the accident and her words as omens of the love
that was broken, and that she feared could never be pieced together
more. She rose up and took Willie's hand, and the two went slowly
into the house.
To her surprise, Michael Hurst sat in the house-place. House-place
is a sort of better kitchen, where no cookery is done, but which is
reserved for state occasions. Michael had gone in there because he
was accompanied by his only sister, a woman older than himself, who
was well married beyond Keswick, and who now came for the first time
to make acquaintance with Susan. Michael had primed his sister with
his wishes regarding Will, and the position in which he stood with
Susan; and arriving at Yew Nook in the absence of the latter, he had
not scrupled to conduct his sister into the guest-room, as he held
Mrs. Gale's worldly position in respect and admiration, and therefore
wished her to be favourably impressed with all the signs of property
which he was beginning to consider as Susan's greatest charms. He
had secretly said to himself, that if Eleanor Hebthwaite and Susan
Dixon were equal in point of riches, he would sooner have Eleanor by
far. He had begun to consider Susan as a termagant; and when he
thought of his intercourse with her, recollections of her somewhat
warm and hasty temper came far more readily to his mind than any
remembrance of her generous, loving nature.
And now she stood face to face with him; her eyes tear-swollen, her
garments dusty, and here and there torn in consequence of her rapid
progress through the bushy by-paths. She did not make a favourable
impression on the well-clad Mrs. Gale, dressed in her best silk gown,
and therefore unusually susceptible to the appearance of another.
Nor were Susan's manners gracious or cordial. How could they be,
when she remembered what had passed between Michael and herself the
last time they met? For her penitence had faded away under the daily
disappointment of these last weary weeks.
But she was hospitable in substance. She bade Peggy hurry on the
kettle, and busied herself among the tea-cups, thankful that the
presence of Mrs. Gale, as a stranger, would prevent the immediate
recurrence to the one subject which she felt must be present in
Michael's mind as well as in her own. But Mrs. Gale was withheld by
no such feelings of delicacy. She had come ready-primed with the
case, and had undertaken to bring the girl to reason. There was no
time to be lost. It had been prearranged between the brother and
sister that he was to stroll out into the farm-yard before his sister
introduced the subject; but she was so confident in the success of
her arguments, that she must needs have the triumph of a victory as
soon as possible; and, accordingly, she brought a hail-storm of good
reasons to bear upon Susan. Susan did not reply for a long time; she
was so indignant at this intermeddling of a stranger in the deep
family sorrow and shame. Mrs. Gale thought she was gaining the day,
and urged her arguments more pitilessly. Even Michael winced for
Susan, and wondered at her silence. He shrank out of sight, and into
the shadow, hoping that his sister might prevail, but annoyed at the
hard way in which she kept putting the case.
Suddenly Susan turned round from the occupation she had pretended to
be engaged in, and said to him in a low voice, which yet not only
vibrated itself, but made its hearers thrill through all their
"Michael Hurst! does your sister speak truth, think you?"
Both women looked at him for his answer; Mrs. Gale without anxiety,
for had she not said the very words they had spoken together before?
had she not used the very arguments that he himself had suggested?
Susan, on the contrary, looked to his answer as settling her doom for
life; and in the gloom of her eyes you might have read more despair
He shuffled his position. He shuffled in his words.
"What is it you ask? My sister has said many things."
"I ask you," said Susan, trying to give a crystal clearness both to
her expressions and her pronunciation, "if, knowing as you do how
Will is afflicted, you will help me to take that charge of him which
I promised my mother on her death-bed that I would do; and which
means, that I shall keep him always with me, and do all in my power
to make his life happy. If you will do this, I will be your wife; if
not, I remain unwed."
"But he may get dangerous; he can be but a trouble; his being here is
a pain to you, Susan, not a pleasure."
"I ask you for either yes or no," said she, a little contempt at his
evading her question mingling with her tone. He perceived it, and it
"And I have told you. I answered your question the last time I was
here. I said I would ne'er keep house with an idiot; no more I will.
So now you've gotten your answer."
"I have," said Susan. And she sighed deeply.
"Come, now," said Mrs. Gale, encouraged by the sigh; "one would think
you don't love Michael, Susan, to be so stubborn in yielding to what
I'm sure would be best for the lad."
"Oh! she does not care for me," said Michael. "I don't believe she
"Don't I? Haven't I?" asked Susan, her eyes blazing out fire. She
left the room directly, and sent Peggy in to make the tea; and
catching at Will, who was lounging about in the kitchen, she went up-
stairs with him and bolted herself in, straining the boy to her
heart, and keeping almost breathless, lest any noise she made might
cause him to break out into the howls and sounds which she could not
bear that those below should hear.
A knock at the door. It was Peggy.
"He wants for to see you, to wish you good-bye."
"I cannot come. Oh, Peggy, send them away."
It was her only cry for sympathy; and the old servant understood it.
She sent them away, somehow; not politely, as I have been given to
"Good go with them," said Peggy, as she grimly watched their
retreating figures. "We're rid of bad rubbish, anyhow." And she
turned into the house, with the intention of making ready some
refreshment for Susan, after her hard day at the market, and her
harder evening. But in the kitchen, to which she passed through the
empty house-place, making a face of contemptuous dislike at the used
tea-cups and fragments of a meal yet standing there, she found Susan,
with her sleeves tucked up and her working apron on, busied in
preparing to make clap-bread, one of the hardest and hottest domestic
tasks of a Daleswoman. She looked up, and first met, and then
avoided Peggy's eye; it was too full of sympathy. Her own cheeks
were flushed, and her own eyes were dry and burning.
"Where's the board, Peggy? We need clap-bread; and, I reckon, I've
time to get through with it to-night." Her voice had a sharp, dry
tone in it, and her motions a jerking angularity about them.
Peggy said nothing, but fetched her all that she needed. Susan beat
her cakes thin with vehement force. As she stooped over them,
regardless even of the task in which she seemed so much occupied, she
was surprised by a touch on her mouth of something--what she did not
see at first. It was a cup of tea, delicately sweetened and cooled,
and held to her lips, when exactly ready, by the faithful old woman.
Susan held it off a hand's breath, and looked into Peggy's eyes,
while her own filled with the strange relief of tears.
"Lass!" said Peggy, solemnly, "thou hast done well. It is not long
to bide, and then the end will come."
"But you are very old, Peggy," said Susan, quivering.
"It is but a day sin' I were young," replied Peggy; but she stopped
the conversation by again pushing the cup with gentle force to
Susan's dry and thirsty lips. When she had drunken she fell again to
her labour, Peggy heating the hearth, and doing all that she knew
would be required, but never speaking another word. Willie basked
close to the fire, enjoying the animal luxury of warmth, for the
autumn evenings were beginning to be chilly. It was one o'clock
before they thought of going to bed on that memorable night.
The vehemence with which Susan Dixon threw herself into occupation
could not last for ever. Times of languor and remembrance would
come--times when she recurred with a passionate yearning to bygone
days, the recollection of which was so vivid and delicious, that it
seemed as though it were the reality, and the present bleak bareness
the dream. She smiled anew at the magical sweetness of some touch or
tone which in memory she felt and heard, and drank the delicious cup
of poison, although at the very time she knew what the consequences
of racking pain would be.
"This time, last year," thought she, "we went nutting together--this
very day last year; just such a day as to-day. Purple and gold were
the lights on the hills; the leaves were just turning brown; here and
there on the sunny slopes the stubble-fields looked tawny; down in a
cleft of yon purple slate-rock the beck fell like a silver glancing
thread; all just as it is to-day. And he climbed the slender,
swaying nut-trees, and bent the branches for me to gather; or made a
passage through the hazel copses, from time to time claiming a toll.
Who could have thought he loved me so little?--who?--who?"
Or, as the evening closed in, she would allow herself to imagine that
she heard his coming step, just that she might recall time feeling of
exquisite delight which had passed by without the due and passionate
relish at the time. Then she would wonder how she could have had
strength, the cruel, self-piercing strength, to say what she had
done; to stab himself with that stern resolution, of which the sear
would remain till her dying day. It might have been right; but, as
she sickened, she wished she had not instinctively chosen the right.
How luxurious a life haunted by no stern sense of duty must be! And
many led this kind of life; why could not she? O, for one hour again
of his sweet company! If he came now, she would agree to whatever he
It was a fever of the mind. She passed through it, and came out
healthy, if weak. She was capable once more of taking pleasure in
following an unseen guide through briar and brake. She returned with
tenfold affection to her protecting care of Willie. She acknowledged
to herself that he was to he her all-in-all in life. She made him
her constant companion. For his sake, as the real owner of Yew Nook,
and she as his steward and guardian, she began that course of careful
saving, and that love of acquisition, which afterwards gained for her
the reputation of being miserly. She still thought that he might
regain a scanty portion of sense--enough to require some simple
pleasures and excitement, which would cost money. And money should
not be wanting. Peggy rather assisted her in the formation of her
parsimonious habits than otherwise; economy was the order of the
district, and a certain degree of respectable avarice the
characteristic of her age. Only Willie was never stinted nor
hindered of anything that the two women thought could give him
pleasure, for want of money.
There was one gratification which Susan felt was needed for the
restoration of her mind to its more healthy state, after she had
passed through the whirling fever, when duty was as nothing, and
anarchy reigned; a gratification that, somehow, was to be her last
burst of unreasonableness; of which she knew and recognised pain as
the sure consequence. She must see him once more,--herself unseen.
The week before the Christmas of this memorable year, she went out in
the dusk of the early winter evening, wrapped close in shawl and
cloak. She wore her dark shawl under her cloak, putting it over her
head in lieu of a bonnet; for she knew that she might have to wait
long in concealment. Then she tramped over the wet fell-path, shut
in by misty rain for miles and miles, till she came to the place
where he was lodging; a farm-house in Langdale, with a steep, stony
lane leading up to it: this lane was entered by a gate out of the
main road, and by the gate were a few bushes--thorns; but of them the
leaves had fallen, and they offered no concealment: an old wreck of
a yew-tree grew among them, however, and underneath that Susan
cowered down, shrouding her face, of which the colour might betray
her, with a corner of her shawl. Long did she wait; cold and cramped
she became, too damp and stiff to change her posture readily. And
after all, he might never come! But, she would wait till daylight,
if need were; and she pulled out a crust, with which she had
providently supplied herself. The rain had ceased,--a dull, still,
brooding weather had succeeded; it was a night to hear distant
sounds. She heard horses' hoofs striking and splashing in the
stones, and in the pools of the road at her back. Two horses; not
well-ridden, or evenly guided, as she could tell.
Michael Hurst and a companion drew near: not tipsy, but not sober.
They stopped at the gate to bid each other a maudlin farewell.
Michael stooped forward to catch the latch with the hook of the stick
which he carried; he dropped the stick, and it fell with one end
close to Susan,--indeed, with the slightest change of posture she
could have opened the gate for him. He swore a great oath, and
struck his horse with his closed fist, as if that animal had been to
blame; then he dismounted, opened the gate, and fumbled about for his
stick. When he had found it (Susan had touched the other end) his
first use of it was to flog his horse well, and she had much ado to
avoid its kicks and plunges. Then, still swearing, he staggered up
the lane, for it was evident he was not sober enough to remount.
By daylight Susan was back and at her daily labours at Yew Nook.
When the spring came, Michael Hurst was married to Eleanor
Hebthwaite. Others, too, were married, and christenings made their
firesides merry and glad; or they travelled, and came back after long
years with many wondrous tales. More rarely, perhaps, a Dalesman
changed his dwelling. But to all households more change came than to
Yew Nook. There the seasons came round with monotonous sameness; or,
if they brought mutation, it was of a slow, and decaying, and
depressing kind. Old Peggy died. Her silent sympathy, concealed
under much roughness, was a loss to Susan Dixon. Susan was not yet
thirty when this happened, but she looked a middle-aged, not to say
an elderly woman. People affirmed that she had never recovered her
complexion since that fever, a dozen years ago, which killed her
father, and left Will Dixon an idiot. But besides her gray
sallowness, the lines in her face were strong, and deep, and hard.
The movements of her eyeballs were slow and heavy; the wrinkles at
the corners of her mouth and eyes were planted firm and sure; not an
ounce of unnecessary flesh was there on her bones--every muscle
started strong and ready for use. She needed all this bodily
strength, to a degree that no human creature, now Peggy was dead,
knew of: for Willie had grown up large and strong in body, and, in
general, docile enough in mind; but, every now and then, he became
first moody, and then violent. These paroxysms lasted but a day or
two; and it was Susan's anxious care to keep their very existence
hidden and unknown. It is true, that occasional passers-by on that
lonely road heard sounds at night of knocking about of furniture,
blows, and cries, as of some tearing demon within the solitary farm-
house; but these fits of violence usually occurred in the night; and
whatever had been their consequence, Susan had tidied and redded up
all signs of aught unusual before the morning. For, above all, she
dreaded lest some one might find out in what danger and peril she
occasionally was, and might assume a right to take away her brother
from her care. The one idea of taking charge of him had deepened and
deepened with years. It was graven into her mind as the object for
which she lived. The sacrifice she had made for this object only
made it more precious to her. Besides, she separated the idea of the
docile, affectionate, loutish, indolent Will, and kept it distinct
from the terror which the demon that occasionally possessed him
inspired her with. The one was her flesh and her blood--the child of
her dead mother; the other was some fiend who came to torture and
convulse the creature she so loved. She believed that she fought her
brother's battle in holding down those tearing hands, in binding
whenever she could those uplifted restless arms prompt and prone to
do mischief. All the time she subdued him with her cunning or her
strength, she spoke to him in pitying murmurs, or abused the third
person, the fiendish enemy, in no unmeasured tones. Towards morning
the paroxysm was exhausted, and he would fall asleep, perhaps only to
waken with evil and renewed vigour. But when he was laid down, she
would sally out to taste the fresh air, and to work off her wild
sorrow in cries and mutterings to herself. The early labourers saw
her gestures at a distance, and thought her as crazed as the idiot-
brother who made the neighbourhood a haunted place. But did any
chance person call at Yew Nook later on in the day, he would find
Susan Dixon cold, calm, collected; her manner curt, her wits keen.
Once this fit of violence lasted longer than usual. Susan's strength
both of mind and body was nearly worn out; she wrestled in prayer
that somehow it might end before she, too, was driven mad; or, worse,
might be obliged to give up life's aim, and consign Willie to a
madhouse. From that moment of prayer (as she afterwards
superstitiously thought) Willie calmed--and then he drooped--and then
he sank--and, last of all, he died in reality from physical
But he was so gentle and tender as he lay on his dying bed; such
strange, child-like gleams of returning intelligence came over his
face, long after the power to make his dull, inarticulate sounds had
departed, that Susan was attracted to him by a stronger tie than she
had ever felt before. It was something to have even an idiot loving
her with dumb, wistful, animal affection; something to have any
creature looking at her with such beseeching eyes, imploring
protection from the insidious enemy stealing on. And yet she knew
that to him death was no enemy, but a true friend, restoring light
and health to his poor clouded mind. It was to her that death was an
enemy; to her, the survivor, when Willie died; there was no one to
Worse doom still, there was no one left on earth for her to love.
You now know why no wandering tourist could persuade her to receive
him as a lodger; why no tired traveller could melt her heart to
afford him rest and refreshment; why long habits of seclusion had
given her a moroseness of manner, and how care for the interests of
another had rendered her keen and miserly.
But there was a third act in the drama of her life.
In spite of Peggy's prophecy that Susan's life should not seem long,
it did seem wearisome and endless, as the years slowly uncoiled their
monotonous circles. To be sure, she might have made change for
herself, but she did not care to do it. It was, indeed, more than
"not caring," which merely implies a certain degree of vis inertiae
to be subdued before an object can be attained, and that the object
itself does not seem to be of sufficient importance to call out the
requisite energy. On the contrary, Susan exerted herself to avoid
change and variety. She had a morbid dread of new faces, which
originated in her desire to keep poor dead Willie's state a profound
secret. She had a contempt for new customs; and, indeed, her old
ways prospered so well under her active hand and vigilant eye, that
it was difficult to know how they could be improved upon. She was
regularly present in Coniston market with the best butter and the
earliest chickens of the season. Those were the common farm produce
that every farmer's wife about had to sell; but Susan, after she had
disposed of the more feminine articles, turned to on the man's side.
A better judge of a horse or cow there was not in all the country
round. Yorkshire itself might have attempted to jockey her, and
would have failed. Her corn was sound and clean; her potatoes well
preserved to the latest spring. People began to talk of the hoards
of money Susan Dixon must have laid up somewhere; and one young
ne'er-do-weel of a farmer's son undertook to make love to the woman
of forty, who looked fifty-five, if a day. He made up to her by
opening a gate on the road-path home, as she was riding on a bare-
backed horse, her purchase not an hour ago. She was off before him,
refusing his civility; but the remounting was not so easy, and rather
than fail she did not choose to attempt it. She walked, and he
walked alongside, improving his opportunity, which, as he vainly
thought, had been consciously granted to him. As they drew near Yew
Nook, he ventured on some expression of a wish to keep company with
her. His words were vague and clumsily arranged. Susan turned round
and coolly asked him to explain himself, he took courage, as he
thought of her reputed wealth, and expressed his wishes this second
time pretty plainly. To his surprise, the reply she made was in a
series of smart strokes across his shoulders, administered through
the medium of a supple hazel-switch.
"Take that!" said she, almost breathless, "to teach thee how thou
darest make a fool of an honest woman old enough to be thy mother.
If thou com'st a step nearer the house, there's a good horse-pool,
and there's two stout fellows who'll like no better fun than ducking
thee. Be off wi' thee!"
And she strode into her own premises, never looking round to see
whether he obeyed her injunction or not.
Sometimes three or four years would pass over without her hearing
Michael Hurst's name mentioned. She used to wonder at such times
whether he were dead or alive. She would sit for hours by the dying
embers of her fire on a winter's evening, trying to recall the scenes
of her youth; trying to bring up living pictures of the faces she had
then known--Michael's most especially. She thought it was possible,
so long had been the lapse of years, that she might now pass by him
in the street unknowing and unknown. His outward form she might not
recognize, but himself she should feel in the thrill of her whole
being. He could not pass her unawares.
What little she did hear about him, all testified a downward
tendency. He drank--not at stated times when there was no other work
to be done, but continually, whether it was seed-time or harvest.
His children were all ill at the same time; then one died, while the
others recovered, but were poor sickly things. No one dared to give
Susan any direct intelligence of her former lover; many avoided all
mention of his name in her presence; but a few spoke out either in
indifference to, or ignorance of, those bygone days. Susan heard
every word, every whisper, every sound that related to him. But her
eye never changed, nor did a muscle of her face move.
Late one November night she sat over her fire; not a human being
besides herself in the house; none but she had ever slept there since
Willie's death. The farm-labourers had foddered the cattle and gone
home hours before. There were crickets chirping all round the warm
hearth-stones; there was the clock ticking with the peculiar beat
Susan had known from her childhood, and which then and ever since she
had oddly associated within the idea of a mother and child talking
together, one loud tick, and quick--a feeble, sharp one following.
The day had been keen, and piercingly cold. The whole lift of heaven
seemed a dome of iron. Black and frost-bound was the earth under the
cruel east wind. Now the wind had dropped, and as the darkness had
gathered in, the weather-wise old labourers prophesied snow. The
sounds in the air arose again, as Susan sat still and silent. They
were of a different character to what they had been during the
prevalence of the east wind. Then they had been shrill and piping;
now they were like low distant growling; not unmusical, but strangely
threatening. Susan went to the window, and drew aside the little
curtain. The whole world was white--the air was blinded with the
swift and heavy fall of snow. At present it came down straight, but
Susan knew those distant sounds in the hollows and gulleys of the
hills portended a driving wind and a more cruel storm. She thought
of her sheep; were they all folded? the new-born calf, was it bedded
well? Before the drifts were formed too deep for her to pass in and
out--and by the morning she judged that they would be six or seven
feet deep--she would go out and see after the comfort of her beasts.
She took a lantern, and tied a shawl over her head, and went out into
the open air. She had tenderly provided for all her animals, and was
returning, when, borne on the blast as if some spirit-cry--for it
seemed to come rather down from the skies than from any creature
standing on earth's level--she heard a voice of agony; she could not
distinguish words; it seemed rather as if some bird of prey was being
caught in the whirl of the icy wind, and torn and tortured by its
violence. Again up high above! Susan put down her lantern, and
shouted loud in return; it was an instinct, for if the creature were
not human, which she had doubted but a moment before, what good could
her responding cry do? And her cry was seized on by the tyrannous
wind, and borne farther away in the opposite direction to that from
which the call of agony had proceeded. Again she listened; no sound:
then again it rang through space; and this time she was sure it was
human. She turned into the house, and heaped turf and wood on the
fire, which, careless of her own sensations, she had allowed to fade
and almost die out. She put a new candle in her lantern; she changed
her shawl for a maud, and leaving the door on latch, she sallied out.
Just at the moment when her ear first encountered the weird noises of
the storm, on issuing forth into the open air, she thought she heard
the words, "O God! O help!" They were a guide to her, if words they
were, for they came straight from a rock not a quarter of a mile from
Yew Nook, but only to be reached, on account of its precipitous
character, by a round-about path. Thither she steered, defying wind
and snow; guided by here a thorn-tree, there an old, doddered oak,
which had not quite lest their identity under the whelming mask of
snow. Now and then she stopped to listen; but never a word or sound
heard she, till right from where the copse-wood grew thick and
tangled at the base of the rock, round which she was winding, she
heard a moan. Into the brake--all snow in appearance--almost a plain
of snow looked on from the little eminence where she stood--she
plunged, breaking down the bush, stumbling, bruising herself,
fighting her way; her lantern held between her teeth, and she herself
using head as well as hands to butt away a passage, at whatever cost
of bodily injury. As she climbed or staggered, owing to the
unevenness of the snow-covered ground, where the briars and weeds of
years were tangled and matted together, her foot felt something
strangely soft and yielding. She lowered her lantern; there lay a
man, prone on his face, nearly covered by the fast-falling flakes; he
must have fallen from the rock above, as, not knowing of the
circuitous path, he had tried to descend its steep, slippery face.
Who could tell? it was no time for thinking. Susan lifted him up
with her wiry strength; he gave no help--no sign of life; but for all
that he might be alive: he was still warm; she tied her maud round
him; she fastened the lantern to her apron-string; she held him
tight: half-carrying, half-dragging--what did a few bruises signify
to him, compared to dear life, to precious life! She got him through
the brake, and down the path. There, for an instant, she stopped to
take breath; but, as if stung by the Furies, she pushed on again with
almost superhuman strength. Clasping him round the waist, and
leaning his dead weight against the lintel of the door, she tried to
undo the latch; but now, just at this moment, a trembling faintness
came over her, and a fearful dread took possession of her--that here,
on the very threshold of her home, she might be found dead, and
buried under the snow, when the farm-servants came in the morning.
This terror stirred her up to one more effort. Then she and her
companion were in the warmth of the quiet haven of that kitchen; she
laid him on the settle, and sank on the floor by his side. How long
she remained in this swoon she could not tell; not very long she
judged by the fire, which was still red and sullenly glowing when she
came to herself. She lighted the candle, and bent over her late
burden to ascertain if indeed he were dead. She stood long gazing.
The man lay dead. There could be no doubt about it. His filmy eyes
glared at her, unshut. But Susan was not one to be affrighted by the
stony aspect of death. It was not that; it was the bitter, woeful
recognition of Michael Hurst!
She was convinced he was dead; but after a while she refused to
believe in her conviction. She stripped off his wet outer-garments
with trembling, hurried hands. She brought a blanket down from her
own bed; she made up the fire. She swathed him in fresh, warm
wrappings, and laid him on the flags before the fire, sitting herself
at his head, and holding it in her lap, while she tenderly wiped his
loose, wet hair, curly still, although its colour had changed from
nut-brown to iron-gray since she had seen it last. From time to time
she bent over the face afresh, sick, and fain to believe that the
flicker of the fire-light was some slight convulsive motion. But the
dim, staring eyes struck chill to her heart. At last she ceased her
delicate, busy cares: but she still held the head softly, as if
caressing it. She thought over all the possibilities and chances in
the mingled yarn of their lives that might, by so slight a turn, have
ended far otherwise. If her mother's cold had been early tended, so
that the responsibility as to her brother's weal or woe had not
fallen upon her; if the fever had not taken such rough, cruel hold on
Will; nay, if Mrs. Gale, that hard, worldly sister, had not
accompanied him on his last visit to Yew Nook--his very last before
this fatal, stormy might; if she had heard his cry,--cry uttered by
these pale, dead lips with such wild, despairing agony, not yet three
hours ago!--O! if she had but heard it sooner, he might have been
saved before that blind, false step had precipitated him down the
rock! In going over this weary chain of unrealized possibilities,
Susan learnt the force of Peggy's words. Life was short, looking
back upon it. It seemed but yesterday since all the love of her
being had been poured out, and run to waste. The intervening years--
the long monotonous years that had turned her into an old woman
before her time--were but a dream.
The labourers coming in the dawn of the winter's day were surprised
to see the fire-light through the low kitchen-window. They knocked,
and hearing a moaning answer, they entered, fearing that something
had befallen their mistress. For all explanation they got these
"It is Michael Hurst. He was belated, and fell down the Raven's
Crag. Where does Eleanor, his wife, live?"
How Michael Hurst got to Yew Nook no one but Susan ever knew. They
thought he had dragged himself there, with some sore internal bruise
sapping away his minuted life. They could not have believed the
superhuman exertion which had first sought him out, and then dragged
him hither. Only Susan knew of that.
She gave him into the charge of her servants, and went out and
saddled her horse. Where the wind had drifted the snow on one side,
and the road was clear and bare, she rode, and rode fast; where the
soft, deceitful heaps were massed up, she dismounted and led her
steed, plunging in deep, with fierce energy, the pain at her heart
urging her onwards with a sharp, digging spur.
The gray, solemn, winter's noon was more night-like than the depth of
summer's night; dim-purple brooded the low skies over the white
earth, as Susan rode up to what had been Michael Hurst's abode while
living. It was a small farm-house carelessly kept outside,
slatternly tended within. The pretty Nelly Hebthwaite was pretty
still; her delicate face had never suffered from any long-enduring
feeling. If anything, its expression was that of plaintive sorrow;
but the soft, light hair had scarcely a tinge of gray; the wood-rose
tint of complexion yet remained, if not so brilliant as in youth; the
straight nose, the small mouth were untouched by time. Susan felt
the contrast even at that moment. She knew that her own skin was
weather-beaten, furrowed, brown,--that her teeth were gone, and her
hair gray and ragged. And yet she was not two years older than
Nelly,--she had not been, in youth, when she took account of these
things. Nelly stood wondering at the strange-enough horse-woman, who
stopped and panted at the door, holding her horse's bridle, and
refusing to enter.
"Where is Michael Hurst?" asked Susan, at last.
"Well, I can't rightly say. He should have been at home last night,
but he was off, seeing after a public-house to be let at Ulverstone,
for our farm does not answer, and we were thinking--"
"He did not come home last night?" said Susan, cutting short the
story, and half-affirming, half-questioning, by way of letting in a
ray of the awful light before she let it full in, in its consuming
"No! he'll be stopping somewhere out Ulverstone ways. I'm sure we've
need of him at home, for I've no one but lile Tommy to help me tend
the beasts. Things have not gone well with us, and we don't keep a
servant now. But you're trembling all over, ma'am. You'd better
come in, and take something warm, while your horse rests. That's the
stable-door, to your left."
Susan took her horse there; loosened his girths, and rubbed him down
with a wisp of straw. Then she hooked about her for hay; but the
place was bare of feed, and smelt damp and unused. She went to the
house, thankful for the respite, and got some clap-bread, which she
mashed up in a pailful of lukewarm water. Every moment was a
respite, and yet every moment made her dread the more the task that
lay before her. It would be longer than she thought at first. She
took the saddle off, and hung about her horse, which seemed, somehow,
more like a friend than anything else in the world. She laid her
cheek against its neck, and rested there, before returning to the
house for the last time.
Eleanor had brought down one of her own gowns, which hung on a chair
against the fire, and had made her unknown visitor a cup of hot tea.
Susan could hardly bear all these little attentions: they choked
her, and yet she was so wet, so weak with fatigue and excitement,
that she could neither resist by voice or by action. Two children
stood awkwardly about, puzzled at the scene, and even Eleanor began
to wish for some explanation of who her strange visitor was.
"You've, maybe, heard him speaking of me? I'm called Susan Dixon."
Nelly coloured, and avoided meeting Susan's eye.
"I've heard other folk speak of you. He never named your name."
This respect of silence came like balm to Susan: balm not felt or
heeded at the time it was applied, but very grateful in its effects
for all that.
"He is at my house," continued Susan, determined not to stop or
quaver in the operation--the pain which must be inflicted.
"At your house? Yew Nook?" questioned Eleanor, surprised. "How came
he there?"--half jealously. "Did he take shelter from the coming
storm? Tell me,--there is something--tell me, woman!"
"He took no shelter. Would to God he had!"
"O! would to God! would to God!" shrieked out Eleanor, learning all
from the woful import of those dreary eyes. Her cries thrilled
through the house; the children's piping wailings and passionate
cries on "Daddy! Daddy!" pierced into Susan's very marrow. But she
remained as still and tearless as the great round face upon the
At last, in a lull of crying, she said,--not exactly questioning, but
as if partly to herself -
"You loved him, then?"
"Loved him! he was my husband! He was the father of three bonny
bairns that lie dead in Grasmere churchyard. I wish you'd go, Susan
Dixon, and let me weep without your watching me! I wish you'd never
come near the place."
"Alas! alas! it would not have brought him to life. I would have
laid down my own to save his. My life has been so very sad! No one
would have cared if I had died. Alas! alas!"
The tone in which she said this was so utterly mournful and
despairing that it awed Nelly into quiet for a time. But by-and-by
she said, "I would not turn a dog out to do it harm; but the night is
clear, and Tommy shall guide you to the Red Cow. But, oh, I want to
be alone! If you'll come back to-morrow, I'll be better, and I'll
hear all, and thank you for every kindness you have shown him,--and I
do believe you've showed him kindness,--though I don't know why."
Susan moved heavily and strangely.
She said something--her words came thick and unintelligible. She had
had a paralytic stroke since she had last spoken. She could not go,
even if she would. Nor did Eleanor, when she became aware of the
state of the case, wish her to leave. She had her laid on her own
bed, and weeping silently all the while for her lest husband, she
nursed Susan like a sister. She did not know what her guest's
worldly position might be; and she might never be repaid. But she
sold many a little trifle to purchase such small comforts as Susan
needed. Susan, lying still and motionless, learnt much. It was not
a severe stroke; it might be the forerunner of others yet to come,
but at some distance of time. But for the present she recovered, and
regained much of her former health. On her sick-bed she matured her
plans. When she returned to Yew Nook, she took Michael Hurst's widow
and children with her to live there, and fill up the haunted hearth
with living forms that should banish the ghosts.
And so it fell out that the latter days of Susan Dixon's life were
better than the former.