Half a Life-time Ago, by Elizabeth Gaskell

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.

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