Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell

IV. Old Alice’s History.

“To envy nought beneath the ample sky;

To mourn no evil deed, no hour misspent;

And like a living violet, silently

Return in sweets to Heaven what goodness lent,

Then bend beneath the chastening shower content.”

— ELLIOTT.

Another year passed on. The waves of time seemed long since to have swept away all trace of poor Mary Barton. But her husband still thought of her, although with a calm and quiet grief, in the silent watches of the night: and Mary would start from her hard-earned sleep, and think, in her half-dreamy, half-awakened state, she saw her mother stand by her bedside, as she used to do “in the days of long ago”; with a shaded candle and an expression of ineffable tenderness, while she looked on her sleeping child. But Mary rubbed her eyes and sank back on her pillow, awake, and knowing it was a dream; and still, in all her troubles and perplexities, her heart called on her mother for aid, and she thought, “If mother had but lived, she would have helped me.” Forgetting that the woman’s sorrows are far more difficult to mitigate than a child’s, even by the mighty power of a mother’s love; and unconscious of the fact, that she was far superior in sense and spirit to the mother she mourned. Aunt Esther was still mysteriously absent, and people had grown weary of wondering, and begun to forget. Barton still attended his club, and was an active member of a Trades’ Union; indeed, more frequently than ever, since the time of Mary’s return in the evening was so uncertain; and as she occasionally, in very busy times, remained all night. His chiefest friend was still George Wilson, although he had no great sympathy on the questions that agitated Barton’s mind. But their hearts were bound by old ties to one another, and the remembrance of former things gave an unspoken charm to their meetings. Our old friend, the cub-like lad, Jem Wilson, had shot up into the powerful, well-made young man, with a sensible face enough; nay, a face that might have been handsome, had it not been here and there marked by the small-pox. He worked with one of the great firms of engineers, who send from out their towns of workshops engines and machinery to the dominions of the Czar and the Sultan. His father and mother were never weary of praising Jem, at all which commendation pretty Mary Barton would toss her head, seeing clearly enough that they wished her to understand what a good husband he would make, and to favour his love, about which he never dared to speak, whatever eyes and looks revealed.

One day, in the early winter time, when people were provided with warm substantial gowns, not likely soon to wear out, and when, accordingly, business was rather slack at Miss Simmonds’, Mary met Alice Wilson, coming home from her half-day’s work at some tradesman’s house. Mary and Alice had always liked each other; indeed, Alice looked with particular interest on the motherless girl, the daughter of her whose forgiving kiss had comforted her in many sleepless hours. So there was a warm greeting between the tidy old woman and the blooming young work-girl; and then Alice ventured to ask if she would come in and take her tea with her that very evening.

“You’ll think it dull enough to come just to sit with an old woman like me, but there’s a tidy young lass as lives in the floor above, who does plain work, and now and then a bit in your own line, Mary; she’s grand-daughter to old Job Legh, a spinner, and a good girl she is. Do come, Mary! I’ve a terrible wish to make you known to each other. She’s a genteel-looking lass, too.”

At the beginning of this speech Mary had feared the intended visitor was to be no other than Alice’s nephew; but Alice was too delicate-minded to plan a meeting, even for her dear Jem, when one would have been an unwilling party; and Mary, relieved from her apprehension by the conclusion, gladly agreed to come. How busy Alice felt! it was not often she had any one to tea; and now her sense of the duties of a hostess were almost too much for her. She made haste home, and lighted the unwilling fire, borrowing a pair of bellows to make it burn the faster. For herself she was always patient; she let the coals take their time. Then she put on her pattens, and went to fill her kettle at the pump in the next court, and on her way she borrowed a cup; of odd saucers she had plenty, serving as plates when occasion required. Half an ounce of tea and a quarter of a pound of butter went far to absorb her morning’s wages; but this was an unusual occasion. In general, she used herb-tea for herself, when at home, unless some thoughtful mistress made a present of tea-leaves from her more abundant household. The two chairs drawn out for visitors, and duly swept and dusted; an old board arranged with some skill upon two old candle boxes set on end (rather rickety to be sure, but she knew the seat of old, and when to sit lightly; indeed the whole affair was more for apparent dignity of position than for any real ease); a little, very little round table, put just before the fire, which by this time was blazing merrily; her unlacquered ancient, third-hand tea-tray arranged with a black tea-pot, two cups with a red and white pattern, and one with the old friendly willow pattern, and saucers, not to match (on one of the extra supply the lump of butter flourished away); all these preparations complete, Alice began to look about her with satisfaction, and a sort of wonder what more could be done to add to the comfort of the evening. She took one of the chairs away from its appropriate place by the table, and putting it close to the broad large hanging shelf I told you about when I first described her cellar-dwelling, and mounting on it, she pulled towards her an old deal box, and took thence a quantity of the oat bread of the north, the “clap-bread” of Cumberland and Westmoreland, and descending carefully with the thin cakes, threatening to break to pieces in her hand, she placed them on the bare table, with the belief that her visitors would have an unusual treat in eating the bread of her childhood. She brought out a good piece of a four-pound loaf of common household bread as well, and then sat down to rest, really to rest, and not to pretend, on one of the rush-bottomed chairs. The candle was ready to be lighted, the kettle boiled, the tea was awaiting its doom in its paper parcel; all was ready.

A knock at the door! It was Margaret, the young workwoman who lived in the rooms above, who having heard the bustle, and the subsequent quiet, began to think it was time to pay her visit below. She was a sallow, unhealthy, sweet-looking young woman, with a careworn look; her dress was humble and very simple, consisting of some kind of dark stuff gown, her neck being covered by a drab shawl or large handkerchief, pinned down behind and at the sides in front.

The old woman gave her a hearty greeting, and made her sit down on the chair she had just left, while she balanced herself on the board seat, in order that Margaret might think it was quite her free and independent choice to sit there.

“I cannot think what keeps Mary Barton. She’s quite grand with her late hours,” said Alice, as Mary still delayed.

The truth was, Mary was dressing herself; yes, to come to poor old Alice’s — she thought it worth while to consider what gown she should put on. It was not for Alice, however, you may be pretty sure; no, they knew each other too well. But Mary liked making an impression, and in this it must be owned she was pretty often gratified — and there was this strange girl to consider just now. So she put on her pretty new blue merino, made tight to her throat her little linen collar and linen cuffs, and sallied forth to impress poor gentle Margaret. She certainly succeeded. Alice, who never thought much about beauty, had never told Margaret how pretty Mary was; and, as she came in half-blushing at her own self-consciousness, Margaret could hardly take her eyes off her, and Mary put down her long black lashes with a sort of dislike of the very observation she had taken such pains to secure. Can you fancy the bustle of Alice to make the tea, to pour it out, and sweeten it to their liking, to help and help again to clap-bread and bread and butter? Can you fancy the delight with which she watched her piled-up clap-bread disappear before the hungry girls and listened to the praises of her home-remembered dainty?

“My mother used to send me some clap-bread by any north-country person — bless her! She knew how good such things taste when far away from home. Not but what every one likes it. When I was in service my fellow-servants were always glad to share with me. Eh, it’s a long time ago, yon.”

“Do tell us about it, Alice,” said Margaret.

“Why, lass, there’s nothing to tell. There was more mouths at home than could be fed. Tom, that’s Will’s father (you don’t know Will, but he’s a sailor to foreign parts), had come to Manchester, and sent word what terrible lots of work was to be had, both for lads and lasses. So father sent George first (you know George, well enough, Mary), and then work was scarce out toward Burton, where we lived, and father said I maun try and get a place. And George wrote as how wages were far higher in Manchester than Milnthorpe or Lancaster; and, lasses, I was young and thoughtless, and thought it was a fine thing to go so far from home. So, one day, th’ butcher he brings us a letter fra George, to say he’d heard on a place — and I was all agog to go, and father was pleased like; but mother said little, and that little was very quiet. I’ve often thought she was a bit hurt to see me so ready to go — God forgive me! But she packed up my clothes, and some of the better end of her own as would fit me, in yon little paper box up there — it’s good for nought now, but I would liefer live without fire than break it up to be burnt; and yet it is going on for eighty years old, for she had it when she was a girl, and brought all her clothes in it to father’s when they were married. But, as I was saying, she did not cry, though the tears was often in her eyes; and I seen her looking after me down the lane as long as I were in sight, with her hand shading her eyes — and that were the last look I ever had on her.”

Alice knew that before long she should go to that mother; and, besides, the griefs and bitter woes of youth have worn themselves out before we grow old; but she looked so sorrowful that the girls caught her sadness, and mourned for the poor woman who had been dead and gone so many years ago.

“Did you never see her again, Alice? Did you never go home while she was alive?” asked Mary.

“No, nor since. Many a time and oft have I planned to go. I plan it yet, and hope to go home again before it please God to take me. I used to try and save money enough to go for a week when I was in service; but first one thing came, and then another. First, missis’s children fell ill of the measles, just when the week I’d asked for came, and I couldn’t leave them, for one and all cried for me to nurse them. Then missis herself fell sick, and I could go less than ever. For, you see, they kept a little shop, and he drank, and missis and me was all there was to mind children and shop and all, and cook and wash besides.”

Mary was glad she had not gone into service, and said so.

“Eh, lass! thou little knows the pleasure o’ helping others; I was as happy there as could be; almost as happy as I was at home. Well, but next year I thought I could go at a leisure time, and missis telled me I should have a fortnight then, and I used to sit up all that winter working hard at patchwork, to have a quilt of my own making to take to my mother. But master died, and missis went away fra Manchester, and I’d to look out for a place again.”

“Well, but,” interrupted Mary, “I should have thought that was the best time to go home.”

“No, I thought not. You see it was a different thing going home for a week on a visit, may be with money in my pocket to give father a lift, to going home to be a burden to him. Besides, how could I hear o’ a place there? Anyways I thought it best to stay, though perhaps it might have been better to ha’ gone, for then I should ha’ seen mother again”; and the poor old woman looked puzzled.

“I’m sure you did what you thought right,” said Margaret gently.

“Ay, lass, that’s it,” said Alice, raising her head and speaking more cheerfully. “That’s the thing, and then let the Lord send what He sees fit; not but that I grieved sore, oh, sore and sad, when towards spring next year, when my quilt were all done to th’ lining, George came in one evening to tell me mother was dead. I cried many a night at after;4 I’d no time for crying by day, for that missis was terrible strict; she would not hearken to my going to th’ funeral; and indeed I would have been too late, for George set off that very night by th’ coach, and the letter had been kept or summut (posts were not like th’ posts now-a-days), and he found the burial all over, and father talking o’ flitting; for he couldn’t abide the cottage after mother was gone.”

4 “Come to me, Tyrrel, soon, AT AFTER supper.” — SHAKSPEARE, Richard III.

“Was it a pretty place?” asked Mary.

“Pretty, lass! I never seed such a bonny bit anywhere. You see there are hills there as seem to go up into th’ skies, not near maybe, but that makes them all the bonnier. I used to think they were the golden hills of heaven, about which mother sang when I was a child —

“‘Yon are the golden hills o’ heaven,

  Where ye sall never win.’

“Something about a ship and a lover that should hae been na lover, the ballad was. Well, and near our cottage were rocks. Eh, lasses! ye don’t know what rocks are in Manchester! Grey pieces o’ stone as large as a house, all covered over wi’ mosses of different colours, some yellow, some brown; and the ground beneath them knee-deep in purple heather, smelling sae sweet and fragrant, and the low music of the humming-bee for ever sounding among it. Mother used to send Sally and me out to gather ling and heather for besoms, and it was such pleasant work! We used to come home of an evening loaded so as you could not see us, for all that it was so light to carry. And then mother would make us sit down under the old hawthorn tree (where we used to make our house among the great roots as stood above th’ ground), to pick and tie up the heather. It seems all like yesterday, and yet it’s a long long time agone. Poor sister Sally has been in her grave this forty year and more. But I often wonder if the hawthorn is standing yet, and if the lasses still go to gather heather, as we did many and many a year past and gone. I sicken at heart to see the old spot once again. May be next summer I may set off, if God spares me to see next summer.”

“Why have you never been in all these many years?” asked Mary.

“Why, lass! first one wanted me and then another; and I couldn’t go without money either, and I got very poor at times. Tom was a scapegrace, poor fellow, and always wanted help of one kind or another; and his wife (for I think scapegraces are always married long before steady folk) was but a helpless kind of body. She were always ailing, and he were always in trouble; so I had enough to do with my hands, and my money too, for that matter. They died within twelvemonth of each other, leaving one lad (they had had seven, but the Lord had taken six to Hisself), Will, as I was telling you on; and I took him myself, and left service to make a bit of a home-place for him, and a fine lad he was, the very spit of his father as to looks, only steadier. For he was steady, although nought would serve him but going to sea. I tried all I could to set him again a sailor’s life. Says I, ‘Folks is as sick as dogs all the time they’re at sea. Your own mother telled me (for she came from foreign parts, being a Manx woman) that she’d ha’ thanked any one for throwing her into the water.’ Nay, I sent him a’ the way to Runcorn by th’ Duke’s canal, that he might know what th’ sea were; and I looked to see him come back as white as a sheet wi’ vomiting. But the lad went on to Liverpool and saw real ships, and came back more set than ever on being a sailor, and he said as how he had never been sick at all, and thought he could stand the sea pretty well. So I told him he mun do as he liked; and he thanked me and kissed me, for all I was very frabbit5 with him; and now he’s gone to South America at t’other side of the sun, they tell me.”

5 Frabbit; peevish.

Mary stole a glance at Margaret to see what she thought of Alice’s geography; but Margaret looked so quiet and demure, that Mary was in doubt if she were not really ignorant. Not that Mary’s knowledge was very profound, but she had seen a terrestrial globe, and knew where to find France and the continents on a map.

After this long talking Alice seemed lost for a time in reverie; and the girls respecting her thoughts, which they suspected had wandered to the home and scenes of her childhood, were silent. All at once she recalled her duties as hostess, and by an effort brought back her mind to the present time.

“Margaret, thou must let Mary hear thee sing. I don’t know about fine music myself, but folks say Marget is a rare singer, and I know she can make me cry at any time by singing ‘Th’ Owdham Weaver.’ Do sing that, Marget, there’s a good lass.”

With a faint smile, as if amused at Alice’s choice of a song, Margaret began.

Do you know “The Oldham Weaver?” Not unless you are Lancashire born and bred, for it is a complete Lancashire ditty. I will copy it for you.

The Oldham Weaver.
I.

Oi’m a poor cotton-weyver, as mony a one knoowas,

Oi’ve nowt for t’ yeat, an’ oi’ve worn eawt my clooas,

Yo’ad hardly gi’ tuppence for aw as oi’ve on,

My clogs are both brosten, an’ stuckings oi’ve none,

     Yo’d think it wur hard,

     To be browt into th’ warld,

To be-clemmed,6 an’ do th’ best as yo con.

II.

Owd Dicky o’ Billy’s kept telling me long,

Wee s’d ha’ better toimes if I’d but howd my tung,

Oi’ve howden my tung, till oi’ve near stopped my breath,

Oi think i’ my heeart oi’se soon clem to deeath,

     Owd Dicky’s weel crammed,

     He never wur clemmed,

An’ he ne’er picked ower i’ his loife,7

III.

We tow’rt on six week — thinking aitch day wur th’ last,

We shifted, an’ shifted, till neaw we’re quoite fast;

We lived upo’ nettles, whoile nettles wur good,

An’ Waterloo porridge the best o’ eawr food,

     Oi’m tellin’ yo’ true,

     Oi can find folk enow,

As wur livin’ na better nor me.

IV.

Owd Billy o’ Dans sent th’ baileys one day,

Fur a shop deebt oi eawd him, as oi could na pay,

But he wur too lat, fur owd Billy o’ th’ Bent,

Had sowd th’ tit an’ cart, an’ ta’en goods for th’ rent,

     We’d neawt left bo’ th’ owd stoo’,

     That wur seeats fur two,

An’ on it ceawred Marget an’ me.

V.

Then t’ baileys leuked reawnd as sloy as a meawse,

When they seed as aw t’ goods were ta’en eawt o’ t’ heawse;

Says one chap to th’ tother, “Aws gone, theaw may see”;

Says oi, “Ne’er freet, mon, yeaur welcome ta’ me.”

     They made no moor ado

     But whopped up th’ eawd stoo’,

An’ we booath leet, whack — upo’ t’ flags

VI.

Then oi said to eawr Marget, as we lay upo’ t’ floor,

“We’s never be lower i’ this warld oi’m sure,

If ever things awtern, oi’m sure they mun mend,

For oi think i’ my heart we’re booath at t’ far eend;

     For meeat we ha’ none,

     Nor looms t’ weyve on —

Edad! they’re as good lost as fund.”

VII.

Eawr Marget declares had hoo clooas to put on,

Hoo’d goo up to Lunnon an’ talk to th’ greet mon

An’ if things were na awtered when there hoo had been,

Hoo’s fully resolved t’ sew up meawth an’ eend;

     Hoo’s neawt to say again t’ king,

     But hoo loikes a fair thing,

An’ hoo says hoo can tell when hoo’s hurt.

6 Clem; to starve with hunger.

“Hard is the choice, when the valiant

  must eat their arms or CLEM.”— BEN JONSON.

7 To “pick ower,” means to throw the shuttle in hand-loom weaving.

The air to which this is sung is a kind of droning recitative, depending much on expression and feeling. To read it, it may, perhaps, seem humorous; but it is that humour which is near akin to pathos, and to those who have seen the distress it describes it is a powerfully pathetic song. Margaret had both witnessed the destitution, and had the heart to feel it, and withal, her voice was of that rich and rare order, which does not require any great compass of notes to make itself appreciated. Alice had her quiet enjoyment of tears. But Margaret, with fixed eye, and earnest, dreamy look, seemed to become more and more absorbed in realising to herself the woe she had been describing, and which she felt might at that very moment be suffering and hopeless within a short distance of their comparative comfort.

Suddenly she burst forth with all the power of her magnificent voice, as if a prayer from her very heart for all who were in distress, in the grand supplication, “Lord, remember David.” Mary held her breath, unwilling to lose a note, it was so clear, so perfect, so imploring. A far more correct musician than Mary might have paused with equal admiration of the really scientific knowledge with which the poor depressed-looking young needlewoman used her superb and flexile voice. Deborah Travis herself (once an Oldham factory girl, and afterwards the darling of fashionable crowds as Mrs. Knyvett) might have owned a sister in her art.

She stopped; and with tears of holy sympathy in her eyes, Alice thanked the songstress, who resumed her calm, demure manner, much to Mary’s wonder, for she looked at her unweariedly, as if surprised that the hidden power should not be perceived in the outward appearance.

When Alice’s little speech of thanks was over, there was quiet enough to hear a fine, though rather quavering, male voice, going over again one or two strains of Margaret’s song.

“That’s grandfather!” exclaimed she. “I must be going, for he said he should not be at home till past nine.”

“Well, I’ll not say nay, for I have to be up by four for a very heavy wash at Mrs. Simpson’s; but I shall be terrible glad to see you again at any time, lasses; and I hope you’ll take to one another.”

As the girls ran up the cellar steps together, Margaret said —“Just step in and see grandfather, I should like him to see you.”

And Mary consented.

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