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Sentiment and "Feelin" by Mrs. Francis Blundell


As a rule our Lancashire peasants are not sentimental; in fact, degenerate south-countrymen frequently take exception to their blunt ways and terrible plain-speaking. But occasionally they display an astonishing impressibility, and at all times know how to appreciate a bit of romance.

When three months after his wife's death, for instance, Joe Balshaw married her cousin, because, as he explained, "hoo favoured our Mary," all the neighbours thought such fidelity extremely touching.

I remember once when our little church was gaily decorated for the harvest festival some one had the happy thought of placing among the garlands of flowers and masses of fruit and vegetables--thank-offerings from various parishioners--which were heaped on each side of the chancel, a miniature hayrick beautifully made and thatched, and a tiny cornstack to correspond. The sermon was over, and the service proceeding as usual, when suddenly a burst of sobs distracted the congregation, and Robert Barnes, the bluffest and burliest farmer in the whole property, was observed to be wiping his eyes with a red cotton handkerchief. In vain did his scandalised wife nudge and reprove him; he sobbed on, and she grew alarmed. "Wasn't he well?" she asked.

"Aye, well enough," groaned Robert; "but it's so beautiful. I cannot choose but cry!"

"Is't th' music, feyther?" inquired his daughter.

"Nay, nay--it's them there little stacks. Eh, they're--they're gradely. I never see sich a seet i' my life."

If this was not susceptibility, I don't know where to look for it.

No doubt a certain roughness of speech, an almost brutal frankness, is a noticeable northern characteristic. It strikes a stranger painfully, but is accepted and even appreciated by those accustomed to it from childhood.

A sick man expects to be told he looks real bad, and preserves an unmoved tranquillity on hearing how small a likelihood there is of his ever looking up again, and what a deal of trouble he gives. The visitor unused to our ways shrinks from hearing these subjects discussed in the presence of the patient, but he himself listens philosophically, and, it would occasionally appear, with an odd pleasure in his own importance.

"Eh, I sometimes think it 'ud be a mercy if th' Lord 'ud tak' him," says the middle-aged daughter of a paralysed labourer, eyeing him dispassionately. "Doctor says he'll never be no better, an' I'm sure he's a misery to hissel', as well's every one else. Aren't ye, feyther?"

"Ah," grunts feyther. "I'd be fain to go. I would--I'd be fain."

"What wi's restin' so bad o' neets, an' th' gettin' up an' down to him, an' feedin' him, an' shiftin' him--he's that 'eavy I cannot stir him mysel'--I 'ave to wait till th' lads comes back fro' work--eh, it's weary work! I'm very nigh killed wi't."

"Well, but if he gets better, you know," suggests the visitor, "you'll be glad to have nursed him so well."

"Eh, he'll noan get better now; doctor says he hasn't a chance."

The patient, who has been listening with close attention, and not a little satisfaction, to his daughter's report, now rolls his eyes towards his interlocutor.

"Nay, nay, I'll noan get better," he observes somewhat resentfully. "Tisn't to be expected. I'm gettin' on for seventy-eight, an' this here's my second stroke."

"Ah, his constitution's worn out," adds the woman; "that was what doctor said. ''Tisn't to be expected as he could recover,' says he; 'his constitution's worn out.'"

The rugged old face on the pillow is indeed lined and wrinkled; the one big hand lying outside the coverlet is gnarled and knotted, like the branch of an ancient tree; the form outlined by the bedclothes is of massive proportions. A fine wreck of a man this useless cumberer of the earth.

"I shouldn't be worth my mate if I did get better," he says, reflectively, and without the faintest trace of bitterness. "Nought but lumber--in every one's road. Nay, I'd a deal sooner shift a'together. I've allus worked 'ard--it 'ud not coom nat'ral to be idle. I'm ready to go, if it's the A'mighty's will."

"Eh, He'll be like to tak' ye soon, feyther. He will--He'll tak' ye afore aught's long," says the daughter. "Raly," she adds, as she pilots her visitor downstairs after this consolatory remark, "it's a'most to be 'oped as He will."

Yet when He does, and poor feyther is carried away to his long home by his sons and cronies, there is genuine distress in the little household. When the daughter has got her "blacks," and drawn the club money, and the excitement of the funeral is over, she has leisure to miss the quiet presence, the familiar voice. She starts up at night many a time fancying she hears it, and weeps as she falls back on her pillow again. She polishes "feyther's cheer" reverently, and treasures his pipe, and sobs as she cuts up his clothes for suits for her little lads, and takes in his great-coat to make it fit her gaffer.

"It was a blessed release," she says, wiping her eyes, "an' we had a nice funeral, but it's lonely wi'out him."

"A nice funeral" is the most important of all desiderata, and many are the privations which the living cheerfully endure, that the dead may be interred with due respect and decorum. The most improvident of these people look forward to and prepare for the contingency, inevitable indeed, and yet deemed by other folk unutterably remote.

"Ah! it's bin a struggle to keep 'em," said a poor woman once, speaking of her little flock of ten healthy hearty children. "I've noan bin able to put by much, but theer's wan thing, I've got 'em all in a buryin'-club."

Now and then when the death has been preceded by a long illness, and the family exchequer has sunk low, the neighbours come to the rescue, and with characteristic straightforwardness and goodnature avert impending disgrace. One such case occurred here recently. The father of the family had been hovering for months between life and death, and when he "drew away" at last, wife and children were left absolutely without means. Nevertheless the funeral was beautiful, it was universally agreed. The wheelwright made a coffin free of charge, one of the farmers sent the necessary refection; each household in the village did something, one supplying a whole dress, one merely a hatband. When the time came for the procession to start, every child had its decent blacks, and though the question of how to live to-morrow was still unanswered, the poor widow, wiping her eyes behind her flowing veil, felt soothed and in a manner elated. No one could say but what her master had a gradely buryin'. She could not repress a certain honest pride, and, oddly enough, though the neighbours were quite aware that without their assistance this desirable appearance would never have been presented, they were none the less impressed, and felt that Mrs. ----deserved great credit.

If sentiment be not common among us, there is no dearth of "feelin'," though it is sometimes exhibited in unusual and rather startling fashion. The doctor, for instance, was somewhat taken aback one day by the reply of a poor man with whom he had been condoling over the death of an only son.

"I tell ye," sobbed the inconsolable parent, "if it hadn't bin for what neighbours 'ud say, I'd ha' had th' little divil stuffed."

There is no rule without its exception, and, though our people are for the most part affectionate and tender-hearted in their own rugged way, I am bound to own there are some Stoics in our midst.

One old woman, in particular, whom I have known to be afflicted in a variety of ways, has never betrayed the least sign of emotion; whether she is incapable of it, or whether she heroically conceals it, I have been unable to discover.

She lost two sons in rapid succession after a few hours' illness.

"What did they die of?" asked some one sympathetically.

As a rule such a remark would have led to a flood of tearful and affectionate reminiscences, but this old lady was laconic.

"One deed of a Tuesday, and one of a Thursday," she replied.

The third son a short time afterwards, returning home from market slightly hazy in his ideas, was run over by an express train as he endeavoured to cross the line.

Next morning the body was found, horribly mutilated, and a porter was despatched to break the tidings to the bereaved mother. The man, overcome with the horror of the event, and full of compassion for the white-haired woman--who stood stolidly awaiting his message, evidently unsuspicious of its tenor--could scarcely find words with which to tell the news.

"There's bin an accident," he faltered, "we'n foun' a mon o' th' rails--dead--cut t' pieces by a train."

Old Lizzie stared at him in silence; then a light seemed to break in on her.

"Ah," she said. "Happen it's our Bill!"

And with that she turned on her heel and went upstairs to select a winding-sheet for him.

Some of our folks like to talk about their troubles. Over and over again they tell you, almost in the same words, exactly how it all came about. A poor woman pleats her apron and gazes at you with pathetic eyes, which she stops to wipe occasionally. The story has grown familiar to both relater and listener, and sometimes you are regaled not only with the tale itself, but with the repetition of your own comments thereon.

"I mind ye said so and so," she says, "an' it's often seemed to comfort me."

Clearly there is nothing for it but immediately to say it again, and you are rewarded by seeing the face brighten perceptibly, much as a child's brightens as it hears a well--known point in a familiar tale. These simple people are very like children.

But sometimes the pain is too great to be dilated on, and then a chance phrase or word, infinitely pathetic, betrays the depth of sorrow; sometimes there is silence more pathetic still.

Looking into a cottage, one day, where the week before a little child had been carried to the churchyard, I found the mother hard at work, ironing.

"I will not come in," I said. "You are busy."

"Nay, ma'am, coom your ways in an' sit ye down. There's no hurry. I'm nobbut puttin' away our Teddy's little clothes."

Not another word did she say in allusion to her sorrow, and no tears fell on the little worn garments. Poor little garments, so pathetically bringing to mind the wee lost personality! Darned socks which had covered active little feet; tiny short "knickers" patched at the knees; shabby coat--moulded, it would seem, into the very shape of the chubby figure--the mother ironed and polished them, and laid them in a tidy heap. As she worked she tried to talk of other things, but her face told its own tale, and I went away with an aching heart.

The men carry their troubles afield; manual labour dulls, if it does not altogether exorcise, them; some have other less creditable means of seeking oblivion. But the poor women, shut in in their little houses, with their anxieties and sorrow staring them in the face--God help them! So narrow are their lives, so few their experiences, that their thoughts must run perpetually in the same groove; everything which surrounds them, their "sticks" of furniture, their little household gods, are reminders of lost joys and present grief.

"Eh, I can scarce 'bide to see my mother's cheer," said a poor crippled girl to me. "Her 'an me was allus sat one aside o' t'other, an' now hoo's gone. Eh, I know I shouldn't complain, an' hoo's in a better place; but hoo's gone, ye see, an' I'm awful lonely. I keep settin' here all day, an' thinkin' of her, and fancyin' I hear her moanin'. Eh dear, yes, it's a shame for me, an' I know I ought to be glad hoo isn't sufferin' no longer. Eh, at th' last, ye know, Mrs. Francis, it were summat awful what hoo suffered. Oh yes, I know. But, ye see, when I'm sat here all day by mysel', an' when I see th' empty cheer, an' o' neets when I dream hoo's layin' aside o' me, an' then wakken up an' stretch out my arms--eh, dear o' me!"

Some of the neighbours thought this poor girl's grief excessive. Nancy indeed, who buried her own exceedingly ancient parent comparatively recently, bade her remember that she was not the only one who knew what it is to lose a mother. It is not, as a rule, considered quite decent to speak in other than cheerful tones of a bereavement which has occurred more than a year ago,--unless, of course, you are taking a general survey of your troubles, in which case it is allowable to include it as a proof the more that you have "supped sorrow." But Mary set etiquette at defiance. Out of the fulness of her heart her mouth spake. To all corners she must needs tell her loneliness and her sorrow.

One day, however, she received me with a bright face and a certain air of mysterious joy.

"Mrs. Francis, I scarce know how to tell ye, but it seems as if th' Lord Hissel sent me a bit o' comfort. Ye see, nobry had no feelin' for me here in village; they all towd me to resign mysel', an' that, an' it were wicked o' me to be ill-satisfied wi' th' A'mighty's will. But, ye see, I wouldn't seem able to give ower frettin'--I raly couldn't. Well but, last neet--I haven't towd nobry, because I didn't want to have 'em laughin', ye know, and, o' course, I dunnot set mich store by dreams; but still, it seemed to comfort me."

She looked at me appealingly, and, being assured of my sympathy, continued--

"Well, last neet I were very lonesome when I geet into bed, an' I began o' thinkin' o' my mother, an' wonderin' where hoo was. An' 'Eh, mother,' I says out loud, 'wheer are ye, an' are ye thinkin' o' me, an' are ye in heaven?' An' I geet agate o' cryin' an' axin' mysel wheer was heaven, an' was hoo raly theer. Well, at last I dozed off, an' I had a dream. I thought I saw my mother, in her cap an' apron, an' wi' her sleeves rolled up--just same as hoo used to look when hoo was busy about th' house. An' I thought hoo coom along, lookin' fro' one side to t'other, as if hoo were seechin' soombry; an' I said, 'Here I am, mother.' An' hoo stood a moment, an' smiled. An' then"--sinking her voice and speaking hurriedly and excitedly--"I looked up at sky (we was out o' doors i' my dream), an' then I saw it all full o' light, and rays coomin', goldy rays, same as--same as ye see sometimes on a Christmas card; an' they coom down, an' gathered all about my mother, an' lapped her round. An' then I see her goin' up, up--reet into th' leet; an' then I wakkened. Eh, Mrs. Francis, dunnot ye think--dunnot ye raly think--as th' Lord sent me that dream to comfort me? Eh, I feel sure hoo's in heaven now, an' hoo's thinkin' o' me. I cannot tell ye how 'appy it mak's me."

"Eye hath not seen," says St. Paul, "ear hath not heard." Very different was poor Mary's vision. Think of it: the little old woman in her working dress, with the sleeves rolled up on her skinny arms--the "goldy rays, same as ye see on Christmas cards." But, nevertheless, even in her attic room she has had a glimpse of Paradise.