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Title: Half a Life-Time Ago
Author: Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Transcribed from the 1896 “Lizzie Leigh and Other Tales” Macmillan and
Co. edition by David Price, email ccx074@pglaf.org



                          HALF A LIFE-TIME AGO.


CHAPTER I.


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
stream.

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 daughter.

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 mother.”

“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 Michael.”

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 headstrong.”

“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
suddenly.

“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 under it.

“I tell thee what, Michael,” said she, “that lad’s motherless, but not
friendless.”

“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 Michael,
sullenly.

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—

“Susan, Susan!”

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 touches—he
shall.”

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 Willie.

“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?”

“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 manage it.

“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 be let.

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 the wood-stack.

“What are ye gone for, lad, and me seeking you everywhere?” asked she,
breathless.

“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 his
neck.

“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.



CHAPTER II.


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 horses.

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?”

“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.”

“Father?”

“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 did.

“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-leather.”

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 head
ache.”

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 young child.

“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!”



CHAPTER III.


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 requires.

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.”

“Never!”

“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 suppressed
feeling.

“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 caresses.

“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 burst into.

“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 have both.”

“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 Hebthwaite.

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—

“Where?”

“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 paper toy.

“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 obtuseness:

“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 than hope.

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
nettled him.

“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 ever
did.”

“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
understand.

“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.



CHAPTER IV.


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 proposed.

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 be 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 exhaustion.

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 love her.

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.



CHAPTER V.


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 inertiæ_ 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 words

“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 wrath.

“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 clock.

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.





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