Half a Life-time Ago, by Elizabeth Gaskell

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!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gaskell/elizabeth/life/chapter2.html

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