Martha Preston


Elizabeth Gaskell

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First published in Sartain’s Union Magazine, 6, 1850.

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“Martha Preston”

Within the last few years I have been twice at the Lakes. There is a road leading to Grasmere, on the least known side of Loughrigg, which presents a singular number of striking and dissimilar views. First of all, on departing from the highway to Langdale, you climb a little hill; and there below you, in a sort of grassy basin on the side of Loughrigg, lies Wordsworth’s favourite Loughrigg tarn; the “Speculum Dianæ,” as he loves to call it; oval, deep, and clear as her mirror should be. Then you pass between two Westmoreland farm-houses, which shut in the road as it were, and make a little home-like scene, with their gables, and stacks of chimneys, and wooden galleries, and numerous out-buildings, festooned with ivy and climbing roses; which latter straggle through the loose stone wall, and scent the air, already so fragrant with the odours of the wayside herbs. Pass these homesteads, and you seem to have left all human habitation behind, - the very fences disappear, as if the moorland and bog were not worth enclosing, until you come to a little glen - a ravine, - a “ghyll,” where linger yet one or two of the ancient trees of Loughrigg forest; and, as if they had suggested the idea of planting, in the lower and more open and genial part of this “ghyll,” there are ninny of the more hardy trees of a much later date, say fifty years old; but they have spread out their branches, and grow unchecked and unpruned, till they form quite a wood, of perhaps half a mile long, on the bleak mountain side, through which the soft grassy road passes on the way to Red Bank: where first you saw Grasmere, lying calm and still, fathoms below you, and reflecting the blue heavens, and purple mountain tops in its glassy surface. But come back with me to the shady wood on Loughrigg side: We passed a stone cottage there in the more open part, where your attention was called off from more immediate objects, by the sunny peep into the valley between Loughrigg and Highclose. You were so absorbed by this glimpse into the bright fertile little dale on the left, with its “meadow green and mountain gray,” that you did not notice the gray, old cottage, just up above the road, in the wood on the right, and yet it was very picturesque; truly “a nest in a green hold,” with yet enough of sun to gild the diamond-paned windows, all through the long afternoon of a summer’s day: and high enough to command a view through that opening in the trees for many a mile. It was large and roomy, though too irregular and low; and if we had peeped over the stone wail, we should have seen a trim little garden, with pleasant flower-borders under the low windows.

This cottage always struck me as being in a beautiful situation, sheltered, but not too much shut in for health; with a bright look out into a distant scene of much variety. But a few years ago, it gave me more a feeling of desolation and hermit-like isolation from the world than it does now. Now there are signs of childhood about, and children’s voices blend with the song of the wood-birds, - a child’s garden may be detected in this strange little mixture of white pebbles, and fading dandelions and daisies; and while quite enough of house-leek, and stone-crop, and moss, and travellers’ joy, are retained about the roof and walls to give it that rich variety of colour you see, yet much has been cleared away that formerly gave it the appearance of a dwelling, which was shrinking back into the green bosom of mother earth. The currant bushes are pruned down into fruitfulness; and the long rose-branches do not trail on the ground any more.

Now listen to me while I tell you what I heard of the inhabitants of that cottage during the last thirty years. Sit down on this felled tree, and while the noonday hum of busy insects in the wood mingles with the hum of the bees in yonder hives, I will weave together what I have learnt of “Martha Preston.”

This house, and perhaps forty acres of land, some rocky and sterile, hardly fit even for feeding sheep, some mere bog, and as such, only good to furnish peat for fuel, and some rich meadow-land, formed the hereditary possessions of the Prestons, Westmoreland “statesmen.” For two hundred years, certainly, this nook of land had been theirs; and for nearly as long a time had that house been their habitation, to judge from the initials and date carved up and down on the old oaken screen, the meal and clap-bread chest, the dresser and settle. They were probably made on the spot, out of the remains of some of the old forest-trees; and had been polished by many a housewife, before Jane Preston set her daughter Martha to rub them as her morning’s task. Thomas and Jane Preston had two children, Martha and John. The sister was the elder by eight years, and felt like a mother to the little boy, whom she had nursed almost more than his real mother. For Jane had to go to market, to see after the cows and the dairy, to look after the sheep on the fell, and was a busy, bustling, managing woman; the “gray mare” some people said. If she had had time, she would have been fond of her children, but as it was, on week days they were rather in her way. John Preston was reserved and quiet; a man of few words, but sensible, conscientious, and thoroughly upright. He never talked about his duty; people did not in those days; but it might be seen that it was the rule of his life; and as such, it impressed itself upon his daughter’s heart.

I do not know if you have ever noticed it, but it strikes me that a very active mother does not always make a very active daughter. She does things too cleverly and eagerly herself, to have patience with the awkward and slow efforts of a learner. At least, such was the case with Jane Preston. Martha was too long in going to market with the butter; she would rather go herself. Martha did not know how to get the “afterings” from the cow, and the best milk was lost; so instead of showing her how to do it, she did it herself. Martha made the clap-bread too thick, - the butter with the water not pressed out, - she folded up the fleeces in the wrong way, so that they had to be done over again; - the end of it was, that Jane Preston did all the work in her own quick, sharp, clever manner, and Martha was left to nurse her little heart’s darling, and roam about the wood, and dream and think. When she was about fifteen, her mother died, - quickly, sharply as she had lived. It was strange to know her dead, when to the last she had seemed so full of active, bustling life; but when she was gone, the husband and daughter she had often worried and annoyed, missed sorely the head and heart which were always full of thought for others, never for herself. Johnnie missed her the least of the three, Martha was his all-in-all. But Martha had now to try and take her mother’s place in the farm; and had to see after sheep and cows, and go to market as well as she could. Johnnie was sent to Grasmere school.

So they went on for several years, till Martha grew up to be a fine young woman, quiet, steady, and calm in her manners, but with a warm, sensitive heart, and a character full of imagination. Heart and character were attracted, (as hearts and characters sometimes are,) by her very opposite; a certain William Hawkshaw, who was engaged as “month’s man,” (helper for a month in the busy sheep- shearing and hay-time,) by her father. He was one of the many Sons of a statesman on the other side of Ambleside; his father possessed more land than John Preston, but then his large family made his means more limited, and several of his sons went out as farm-servants. Old Hawkshaw tried to impress upon his sons the most prudent and careful habits; but for a time his precepts lay dormant and unproductive. Will Hawkshaw was a fine, handsome young fellow, light-hearted and gay in appearance; full of spirit and life, and bringing a sort of sunshine with him wherever he went, “at church or at market.” It was the most natural thing in the world, that Martha, living in a green solitude with her father and brother, (of like retired, unsocial habits,) should be powerfully attracted by the young man, who (as the custom is) came to lodge and board with them for the month; and thus was thrown into intimate domestic communion with him. They worked together in the hay; they ran after the truant sheep; and as Johnnie once innocently observed, “Martha had quite learnt to laugh out loud since Will Hawkshaw had come;” for before that, her smile had been as noiseless as a sunbeam; but now her laugh gushed into music. The father saw all with calm approval. It was natural young men and young women should take to each other. Will came of a respectable stock; and if he had not much, why Martha would have a good piece of the money in Kendal Bank (the land went to Johnnie of course); so there was no let or hindrance to the growing attachment. Will was, in his way, attracted by Martha; he was, pleased to see his influence over her, and to perceive that he could stir the depths of that soul, so still and calm in appearance. It must have been soon after that summer month, in 1818, that they were engaged, and Martha’s heart was full to the brim of happiness. There was no definite plan for the future. Will was to labour as farm-servant for a few years; to save; and by-and-by, perhaps, some farm might be to let, within their means. Such was the most they looked forward to; Martha shrunk from too much looking into the future, for now she was secure of Will’s affection, she began to reproach herself for wishing to leave her father and Johnnie; and the natural desire for a home and a husband began to be considered as a crime by her tender conscience, as she felt how necessary she was to their happiness. In this way two or three years passed by; Martha cherishing the idea of Will with the most faithful constancy, and hardly daring to show him the exceeding joy there was in her heart when he came on his occasional visits; he, going from farm-service to farm-service, a favourite everywhere for his manly capabilities and cheerful social temper; and what faults and temptations he had, known principally to himself alone, as hitherto they had borne no fruit whereby men should recognise them.

The next event was the calm sinking into death of John Preston, the elder. He told Martha, a few minutes before his death, what a comfort her engagement was to him in his dying hour; and above all things, charged her to be father and mother to Johnnie, now just sixteen; to see after his worldly affairs, but above all, to bear his soul up with hers to that heaven where the household should meet once more. So for Johnnie’s sake she calmed herself in her orphanhood; and for his sake she ruled her daily life, until such time as she should leave him for a home of her own.

Her share of her father’s property was about £80; a bad year or two for stock had made it less than was one time expected. Will seemed a little surprised at this diminution, and for his sake she wished it had been more. The murrain among the cattle must have sprung from some diseased state of the air, for human beings began to be affected. A low kind of fever, (from the account I heard, a sort of typhoid fever, I imagine,) became prevalent; and to Martha’s sickening terror, Johnnie caught it. When that danger came, it seemed as if her sisterly love swallowed up all other loves; in his helplessness, and rambling unconsciousness, he was once more the little baby she had carried about with the yearning love of a young mother. Kind neighbours, (neighbours in the Samaritan sense,) came from Easedale and Skelwith, to help her to nurse him for the twenty days of raging illness; the doctor from Ambleside was sent for in distrust of the nearer Grasmere apothecary. And he recovered! But oh, wo! as he recovered, his wandering lost senses were not restored. The neighbours sighed and shook their heads, and looked mysteriously, long before the idea of this sorrow darkened life to Martha. But when he was strong enough to walk out, and when the stupor remained still upon his poor brain, - when the bright blaze of the wood-fire called out a wild laugh of delight, at which he looked round affrighted at the noise himself had made, - when he came cowering up to his sister for protection against the phantoms of his own conjuring up, then Martha knew the truth in her heart, that her brother was an idiot.

The doctor confirmed this with sad gravity. That night Martha never went to bed, but sat alone mutely gazing at the gray embers among which the sparks ran to and fro. There was no doubt in her mind as to her duty, no perplexed struggling of that kind; but before her eyes his life, from his babyhood upwards, was displayed as in a panorama; and that memory of the past and thought of the present, made the tears roll unheeded down her cheeks, and drop unwiped upon her lap. The very mice ran about, after awhile, as if she had not been there, so still and motionless was she through the night of inward agony. When it was light enough to write, she took pen and paper and desired Will Hawkshaw to come to her. She could not express thoughts easily in this unwonted manner, so confined herself to this one request, reserving the reason till he should come.

The next Sunday brought him as she had expected, and his quick eye understood the trouble, before she, with her sobbing voice, could put it into words. Then the tares sprang up. The old worldly maxims sown by his father covered and strangled the life out of the wheat. If Johnnie were shut up in an asylum, he and Martha might have the land, and marry at once. Thought of their marriage had been in Martha’s mind too, and all bashfulness forgotten in the sense of her exceeding sorrow, she proposed it to him with a calm manner, only as her words struck upon her own ear a maidenly blush covered her face.

“If you come here I can do all I need to do, and tend the poor lad too. The doctor gave but little hope; but God is powerful for many things, and I will never cease praying.” But Will had other thoughts, the covetousness of his heart was as a mail-clad man, and he believed his power over Martha was enough to persuade her to his views; but he was mistaken. She saw a great gulf between their souls that day - a greater, deeper gulf than that between her and the poor innocent who causelessly went in and out with mutterings and laughter, witless of the misery of which he was even then the occasion. Though Martha shrank and shuddered as she first began to understand Will, she hoped for many hours that it might be a mistake - a dream; that he was only joking (at a strange, sad, inappropriate time, to be sure); and the sun set that October day while they were still discussing the matter. I believe Will had no idea but that she would yield if he was relentless and firm enough. He had made many conquests among the farmers’ daughters, and had a great idea of his own power; so when they parted that evening (he had to go to Patterdale to his work the next day,) he thought he was only leaving her for a time to digest his words, and expected to be recalled, even with penitence on her part, before the next Sunday. He went so far as to talk of his prospects to one or two companions; but the letter from Martha never came. He had boasted of his power - and his power was defied. Then anger took the place of the love he had had; and at the best of times his way of loving had been very different from Martha’s .

And Martha lived alone with her idiot brother. She braced herself up to her life, and said that with God’s help she would go through it. So she did. Something of her mother’s character came out in the energy with which she devoted herself to the management of the farm. She got help at busy times, and always the advice of her neighbours was at her service; for though they said little, they felt deep respect for her. Johnnie, too, could help a little, and liked to be employed by her. He was as docile as a child in general, but sometimes (old people have told me), he was restless, and wild, and irritable, and passers through the wood in dead of night heard his cries, and Martha’s voice soothing him with singing hymns, - her voice that never stayed for all her anguish and anxiety, but went clear and bell-like up to God. That singing of hers - that homely loving music, used to quiet him; but for all that she might have been doing and bearing through the night, she was abroad as early as ever in the mornings, and used to say to sympathizing inquirers that Johnnie was much the same. They respected her uncomplaining reserve too much to tell what they had heard; and the poor creature had received such a terrible fright from the proposal made by Will, of sending her brother to an asylum, (or as she phrased it, a “mad- house,") that I believe she would have born anything rather than have made revelations which should give any ground for such a proceeding. What she endured exactly can therefore never be known on earth. Once, I was told, a farmer, rising more than usually betimes to look after a horse that was ill, saw in the summer’s dawn Martha walking to and fro in a little paddock, with hasty, agitated steps, wringing her hands; and then he thought he caught words of passionate prayer. But he did not go up to her, and passed on unobserved by the wood-road near the cottage; as he saw the open door, his mind suggested that perhaps there might be some reason for her violent emotion, in some sudden illness of the poor idiot, so he went in softly, and saw Johnnie lying asleep on the settle, with flushed face and disordered hair, as if he had been in great irritation; but he breathed as if in deep sleep (probably from exhaustion), and was tenderly covered up with Martha’s Sunday cloak; so the man went on his way, and contented himself with sending his wife in the course of the day, ostensibly on some unimportant errand, but in reality to see how the sister and brother were going on. Johnnie then seemed pretty well, but Martha looked haggard and worn. But to all inquiries respecting her brother she answered so curtly, and unwillingly, that no real information was to be gained.

All this time Will Hawkshaw had not been idle in his way of getting through the world. The boasts he had uttered in the early days of his estrangement of his unlimited power over Martha, cut off the vain man from any chance of a retreat from his first avowed determination; if, indeed, he ever wished to change his mind. But independently of the difference of love, arising from the difference of character, he was a man thrown abroad in the shifting, vivid scenes of life; she was a woman dwelling alone, with ample leisure during the long, long nights and solitary days, to nurse up his remembrance, or rather the remembrance of what she had fancied him to be. So it was not without a shock, the depth of which was, I suppose, known only to God, who searcheth all hearts, that, about three years after their last interview, she heard of his intended marriage to the only daughter of a wealthy statesman in Troutbeck. As far as I could make out from the account, vague as to time, yet graphic as to particulars, given me, it must have been close upon this period that the farmer saw her abroad in the fields in such deep distress, after one of Johnnie’s restless nights.

Of course the marriage soon followed the public announcement of such intention; and henceforward Martha’s life presented no outward variety for many years. Young children grew up to man’s estate, - all was unchanged to her. Girls and boys became old married people; her days and nights had the only variety of Johnnie’s being well or ill. At last a change came; the solemn change of life into death. After a day or two of violent illness, Johnnie went to his long rest. Martha thought that in the speechless exhaustion which immediately preceded death she saw sense in his eyes, and a composed intelligence in his face; and certain it is, those poor eyes followed hen moving form, as long as life gave them power to recognise her.

After the funeral was over, the friendly neighbours came in more frequently than before, when their visits had been so unacceptable. Still the nearest were far away; and their lives were busy: and many and many a day, and many a week must have passed to Martha in solitude. She was asked again and again to the “gaieties” of the neighbourhood;. to the christenings at Christmas, the favourite time in that country - the mountain sheep-shearings. She was urged to accompany neighbours to the grand dissipation of sales by auction, but all this she steadily refused. Though she was more than a middle-aged woman now, her heart still beat, her face still flushed at the thought that at some of these gatherings she might meet the lover of her youth. She had never been able to displace her ideal by the thought of the man he really was, and as she acknowledged him to herself to be. A neighbour took her produce to market, and made what little purchases she required; two or three kindly friends helped her at busy times; and were consulted as to the disposal of her accumulating money, for Martha was growing very rich in the simple estimation of the dalesmen; a circumstance about which she scarcely thought herself; money had but little power to heal the deep, sharp sorrows of her heart. She was growing old alone; with a most loving nature, she had none to love as she could have done, had God permitted her to have husband and children; and sometimes in the deep midnight she cried aloud to heaven in her exceeding grief that she had never heard a child’s murmuring voice call her “Mother.” The late autumn, with falling leaves, and piping winds, and long rainy nights harmonized with her life, which like the year had had a bright calm spring, in the days now long past, when she strayed about the woods with little Johnnie. She saw herself and him, happy wanderers; she watched the two pictures in her mind’s eye as if they were separate from herself, and so they were, by long years of sorrow and disappointment.

One winter’s night, when evening had shut in unusually early, owing to the black snow clouds that hung like night close around the horizon, she sat looking dreamily into the fire; she saw in the blaze the two children of her imagination roaming to and fro; her old sheep dog, Fly, lay at her feet; the cows were foddered for the night; the sheep were penned up in the outhouse close by. Fly had been with her while these duties were being done three hours ago; what made the old dog so suddenly restless then? Why did he prick up his ears, and go snuffing to the door; and then pace back to her with such a meaning look?

“Lie down, Fly - good dog!” said she, anxious to resume her dreaming. But Fly would not lie down; and she could no longer dream. Somebody, something must be abroad in this heavy snow- storm; she said afterwards to a neighbour, she felt as “if she must go up to the Fell;” and sure enough it was God’s guiding which led her out. With the foresight common to the Dale’s people, who know what mountain storms are, she took under her cloak a little vial of gin, which had long been stored up for any emergency. She set out with Fly; the snow fell so fast she was almost blinded at first, and the drifts lay thick where the wind blew them. But she had long confidence in Fly, and he ran straight up the little steep path which led through the wood to the more open part of Loughring Fell. On she went, her cloak white with snow, which fell on her face, her very eyelashes; when she emerged into the more open ground, it even fell so thickly that she lost sight of Fly, and stood bewildered until he should return to guide her. The wind had ceased for a time, and the air was still and motionless, - every bird and beast was in its sheltering home, and the quiet on those moors was almost awful. Suddenly a child’s feeble, wailing, hopeless cry smote her ear, and in an instant she pressed on in the direction from whence it came. As she gained upon it, she heard Fly’s loud howl for assistance; and that gave her more guidance, for she was sure he was by the lost wanderer. At last, panting and agitated, she reached the spot where, what seemed in that obscurity to be merely a black heap, was fast becoming whitened by the ceaseless snow. It was a child half asleep, in the fatal sleep which precedes death, but not yet unconscious to the pain of the excessive cold which was freezing up his life-blood, for though he could not speak in reply to her anxious words, he moaned dreamily. Now came in the use for the gin; she wetted his lips, she poured a little down his throat; she raised him up, and, past youth as she long had been, she yet found strength to carry him a little way down the hill; then she stopped, overpowered, for a short time; then again with desperate effort she bore him on to the wood, where at any rate the cold was less piercing. Again she gave him a little gin; and now he was able to walk a few steps; and so with passionate prayers to God, who looked down upon her that wild night, she dragged him along to her cottage, and laid him down within the warm influence of the fire. She threw herself on the ground in utter exhaustion for a minute or two; then she arose, stripped him of his wet things, wrapped him in her cloak, and began to chafe his limbs. Then presently he recovered and was able to tell his short story.

“Father had sent him up to the fells for a sheep that was missing; but their dog was not well broken in to the woods, and left him; and night and snow came on, and ho got wildered on the fells, for they had only lately come to live near Rydal, and he did not know the landmarks.” Something in his dark-blue eyes prompted the sudden question, “What do they call you, lad?” Time answer was, “John Hawkshaw.”

“Is your father’s name William Hawkshaw? Did you ever live in Troutbeck?” asked Martha, as calmly as she could; for her heart gave a leap, a mist came before her eyes as she uttered the name once so familiar, but so long unspoken by her lips that the sound seemed strange and wild.

Yes! it was Will Hawkshaw’s child she had saved. She fed him and put him warm to bed, and placing the candle where the light fell on his face, without awakening him, she sat down to watch him through the night. His mouth was very different from what Will’s had been; that feature he must have inherited from his mother; and it almost seemed strange to her that she was not his mother; for the maternal breast which is in every woman yearned after him.

She sent word at break of day, by the nearest neighbours, to his parents living three miles away; then she returned to watch him once more. He slept so long and so soundly that, when his mother came with all the speed of anxious love, she found him only at breakfast - sitting like a little king, at a round table, covered with a clean coarse cloth, and feasting away on clap-bread and “sweet butter,” that regular Westmoreland dainty, composed of rum, butter, and sugar, and made only for high days and holidays. Mrs. Hawkshaw, bonny and bright, younger looking than her years, (happy matron as she was,) little dreamed that she saw a former rival in the worn, sad-looking woman, who bad saved her child’s life. Martha’s face hardly brightened as she listened to Mrs. Hawkshaw’s overpowering gratitude; she longed so to retain the child, who was now to be taken away from her. She refused all the pressing invitations showered upon her by the wife of the lover of her youth. She only said very earnestly:

“You will let the lad come and see me sometimes.”

“To be sure! we’ll all come. My master would have been here by now to thank ye, but it’s Ambleside cattle market, and he never misses a market.”

Martha wondered if any other reason hindered him from coming on the very natural errand of fetching home his lost child; but she said nothing, and when left alone that day she dreamed more than ever of the days of her youth.

John Hawkshaw often came - sent by his grateful mother; sent by his far-casting father, who thought in his heart that possibly Martha might be induced to leave the land, he had so early coveted, to his son. But from whatever motive he came, he was ever and always welcome, and his own sweet nature harboured no selfish motives. He came as a child for the amusement and the variety of the thing, but he came as a youth and as a man for the real love and respect he felt for his aunt (for so she would have him call her). Such was the state of things when first I saw the cottage, and heard the history. Martha had never cared for her wealth; had never realized the power it gave her. But all at once a bright light broke upon her, of the happiness it might create, when she learnt from “her boy” (a grown man he was), how he loved a poor girl in Grasmere; a good daughter to her parents, and a braid-sitter; but how they could not marry for many years, for she had nothing, and he was but one out of a large family. He looked forward to this long engagement with resigned regret, and she said nothing at the time. But she made long inquiry about the girl: all answers were satisfactory. She surprised her nephew when next he came, with the statement of her property in the bank; she told him he should marry the girl, and bring her to the old wood-house as to her home; and they should dwell with her, and be to her as a son and a daughter.

Now she holds the honoured place of a grandmother. She nurses a little Martha on her knee, while a “Johnnie” (for whom she puts up many an earnest prayer) strays out with toddling steps, and makes that childish garden you saw, with many a crow of delight, and call to “Granny” to come and look.

There will not be a grave in Grasmere church. yard, more decked with flowers - more visited with respect, regret, and tears, and faithful trust, than that of Martha Preston when she dies.

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