Half a Life-time Ago, by Elizabeth Gaskell

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-inhand 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-inhand, 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-inlaw 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.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17