Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell

VIII. Margaret’s Debut as a Public Singer.

“Deal gently with them, they have much endured;

Scoff not at their fond hopes and earnest plans,

Though they may seem to thee wild dreams and fancies.

Perchance, in the rough school of stern Experience,

They’ve something learned which Theory does not teach;

Or if they greatly err, deal gently still,

And let their error but the stronger plead,

‘Give us the light and guidance that we need!’”

— LOVE THOUGHTS.

One Sunday afternoon, about three weeks after that mournful night, Jem Wilson set out with the ostensible purpose of calling on John Barton. He was dressed in his best — his Sunday suit of course; while his face glittered with the scrubbing he had bestowed on it. His dark black hair had been arranged and rearranged before the household looking-glass, and in his button-hole he stuck a narcissus (a sweet Nancy is its pretty Lancashire name), hoping it would attract Mary’s notice, so that he might have the delight of giving it her.

It was a bad beginning of his visit of happiness that Mary saw him some minutes before he came into her father’s house. She was sitting at the end of the dresser, with the little window-blind drawn on one side, in order that she might see the passers-by, in the intervals of reading her Bible, which lay open before her. So she watched all the greeting a friend gave Jem; she saw the face of condolence, the sympathetic shake of the hand, and had time to arrange her own face and manner before Jem came in, which he did, as if he had eyes for no one but her father, who sat smoking his pipe by the fire, while he read an old Northern Star, borrowed from a neighbouring public-house.

Then he turned to Mary, who, he felt through the sure instinct of love, by which almost his body thought, was present. Her hands were busy adjusting her dress; a forced and unnecessary movement Jem could not help thinking. Her accost was quiet and friendly, if grave; she felt that she reddened like a rose, and wished she could prevent it, while Jem wondered if her blushes arose from fear, or anger, or love.

She was very cunning, I am afraid. She pretended to read diligently, and not to listen to a word that was said, while in fact she heard all sounds, even to Jem’s long, deep sighs, which wrung her heart. At last she took up her Bible, and as if their conversation disturbed her, went upstairs to her little room. And she had scarcely spoken a word to Jem; scarcely looked at him; never noticed his beautiful sweet Nancy, which only awaited her least word of praise to be hers! He did not know — that pang was spared — that in her little dingy bedroom stood a white jug, filled with a luxuriant bunch of early spring roses, making the whole room fragrant and bright. They were the gift of her richer lover. So Jem had to go on sitting with John Barton, fairly caught in his own trap, and had to listen to his talk, and answer him as best he might.

“There’s the right stuff in this here Star, and no mistake. Such a right-down piece for short hours.”

“At the same rate of wages as now?” asked Jem.

“Aye, aye! else where’s the use? It’s only taking out o’ the masters’ pocket what they can well afford. Did I ever tell yo what th’ Infirmary chap let me into, many a year agone?”

“No,” said Jem listlessly.

“Well! yo must know I were in th’ Infirmary for a fever, and times were rare and bad, and there be good chaps there to a man while he’s wick,22 whate’er they may be about cutting him up at after.23 So when I were better o’ th’ fever, but weak as water, they says to me, says they, ‘If yo can write, you may stay in a week longer, and help our surgeon wi’ sorting his papers; and we’ll take care yo’ve your bellyful of meat and drink. Yo’ll be twice as strong in a week.’ So there wanted but one word to that bargain. So I were set to writing and copying; th’ writing I could do well enough, but they’d such queer ways o’ spelling, that I’d ne’er been used to, that I’d to look first at th’ copy and then at my letters, for all the world like a cock picking up grains o’ corn. But one thing startled me e’en then, and I thought I’d make bold to ask the surgeon the meaning o’t. I’ve getten no head for numbers, but this I know, that by FAR TH’ GREATER PART O’ THE ACCIDENTS AS COMED IN, HAPPENED IN TH’ LAST TWO HOURS O’ WORK, when folk getten tired and careless. Th’ surgeon said it were all true, and that he were going to bring that fact to light.”

22 Wick; alive. Anglo–Saxon, cwic. “The QUICK and the dead.” — Book of Common Prayer.

23 At after; “AT AFTER souper goth this noble king.” — CHAUCER, The Squire’s Tale.

Jem was pondering Mary’s conduct; but the pause made him aware he ought to utter some civil listening noise; so he said —

“Very true.”

“Ay, it’s true enough, my lad, that we’re sadly over-borne, and worse will come of it afore long. Block-printers is going to strike; they’n getten a bang-up Union, as won’t let ’em be put upon. But there’s many a thing will happen afore long, as folk don’t expect. Yo may take my word for that, Jem.”

Jem was very willing to take it, but did not express the curiosity he should have done. So John Barton thought he’d try another hint or two.

“Working folk won’t be ground to the dust much longer. We’n a’ had as much to bear as human nature can bear. So, if th’ masters can’t do us no good, and they say they can’t, we mun try higher folk.”

Still Jem was not curious. He gave up hope of seeing Mary again by her own good free-will; and the next best thing would be, to be alone to think of her. So muttering something which he meant to serve as an excuse for his sudden departure, he hastily wished John good-afternoon, and left him to resume his pipe and his politics.

For three years past trade had been getting worse and worse, and the price of provisions higher and higher. This disparity between the amount of the earnings of the working classes and the price of their food, occasioned, in more cases than could well be imagined, disease and death. Whole families went through a gradual starvation. They only wanted a Dante to record their sufferings. And yet even his words would fall short of the awful truth; they could only present an outline of the tremendous facts of the destitution that surrounded thousands upon thousands in the terrible years 1839, 1840, and 1841. Even philanthropists who had studied the subject, were forced to own themselves perplexed in their endeavour to ascertain the real causes of the misery; the whole matter was of so complicated a nature, that it became next to impossible to understand it thoroughly. It need excite no surprise, then, to learn that a bad feeling between working-men and the upper classes became very strong in this season of privation. The indigence and sufferings of the operatives induced a suspicion in the minds of many of them, that their legislators, their magistrates, their employers, and even the ministers of religion, were, in general, their oppressors and enemies; and were in league for their prostration and enthralment. The most deplorable and enduring evil that arose out of the period of commercial depression to which I refer, was this feeling of alienation between the different classes of society. It is so impossible to describe, or even faintly to picture, the state of distress which prevailed in the town at that time, that I will not attempt it; and yet I think again that surely, in a Christian land, it was not known even so feebly as words could tell it, or the more happy and fortunate would have thronged with their sympathy and their aid. In many instances the sufferers wept first, and then they cursed. Their vindictive feelings exhibited themselves in rabid politics. And when I hear, as I have heard, of the sufferings and privations of the poor, of provision shops where ha’porths of tea, sugar, butter, and even flour, were sold to accommodate the indigent — of parents sitting in their clothes by the fireside during the whole night, for seven weeks together, in order that their only bed and bedding might be reserved for the use of their large family — of others sleeping upon the cold hearthstone for weeks in succession, without adequate means of providing themselves with food or fuel (and this in the depth of winter)— of others being compelled to fast for days together, uncheered by any hope of better fortune, living, moreover, or rather starving, in a crowded garret, or damp cellar, and gradually sinking under the pressure of want and despair into a premature grave; and when this has been confirmed by the evidence of their careworn looks, their excited feelings, and their desolate homes — can I wonder that many of them, in such times of misery and destitution, spoke and acted with ferocious precipitation?

An idea was now springing up among the operatives, that originated with the Chartists, but which came at last to be cherished as a darling child by many and many a one. They could not believe that Government knew of their misery; they rather chose to think it possible that men could voluntarily assume the office of legislators for a nation who were ignorant of its real state; as who should make domestic rules for the pretty behaviour of children without caring to know that those children had been kept for days without food. Besides, the starving multitudes had heard, that the very existence of their distress had been denied in Parliament; and though they felt this strange and inexplicable, yet the idea that their misery had still to be revealed in all its depths, and that then some remedy would be found, soothed their aching hearts, and kept down their rising fury.

So a petition was framed, and signed by thousands in the bright spring days of 1839, imploring Parliament to hear witnesses who could testify to the unparalleled destitution of the manufacturing districts. Nottingham, Sheffield, Glasgow, Manchester, and many other towns, were busy appointing delegates to convey this petition, who might speak, not merely of what they had seen, and had heard, but from what they had borne and suffered. Life-worn, gaunt, anxious, hunger-stamped men, were those delegates.

One of them was John Barton. He would have been ashamed to own the flutter of spirits his appointment gave him. There was the childish delight of seeing London — that went a little way, and but a little way. There was the vain idea of speaking out his notions before so many grand folk — that went a little further; and last, there was the really pure gladness of heart arising from the idea that he was one of those chosen to be instruments in making known the distresses of the people, and consequently in procuring them some grand relief, by means of which they should never suffer want or care any more. He hoped largely, but vaguely, of the results of his expedition. An argosy of the precious hopes of many otherwise despairing creatures, was that petition to be heard concerning their sufferings.

The night before the morning on which the Manchester delegates were to leave for London, Barton might be said to hold a levee, so many neighbours came dropping in. Job Legh had early established himself and his pipe by John Barton’s fire, not saying much, but puffing away, and imagining himself of use in adjusting the smoothing-irons that hung before the fire, ready for Mary when she should want them. As for Mary, her employment was the same as that of Beau Tibbs’ wife, “just washing her father’s two shirts,” in the pantry back-kitchen; for she was anxious about his appearance in London. (The coat had been redeemed, though the silk handkerchief was forfeited.) The door stood open, as usual, between the house-place and back-kitchen, so she gave her greeting to their friends as they entered.

“So, John, yo’re bound for London, are yo?” said one.

“Ay, I suppose I mun go,” answered John, yielding to necessity as it were.

“Well, there’s many a thing I’d like yo to speak on to the Parliament people. Thou’lt not spare ’em, John, I hope. Tell ’em our minds: how we’re thinking we’n been clemmed long enough, and we donnot see whatten good they’n been doing, if they can’t give us what we’re all crying for sin’ the day we were born.”

“Ay, ay! I’ll tell ’em that, and much more to it, when it gets to my turn; but thou knows there’s many will have their word afore me.”

“Well, thou’lt speak at last. Bless thee, lad, do ask ’em to make th’ masters to break th’ machines. There’s never been good times sin’ spinning-jennies came up.”

“Machines is th’ ruin of poor folk,” chimed in several voices.

“For my part,” said a shivering, half-clad man, who crept near the fire, as if ague-stricken, “I would like thee to tell ’em to pass th’ Short-hours Bill. Flesh and blood gets wearied wi’ so much work; why should factory hands work so much longer nor other trades? Just ask ’em that, Barton, will ye?”

Barton was saved the necessity of answering, by the entrance of Mrs. Davenport, the poor widow he had been so kind to. She looked half-fed, and eager, but was decently clad. In her hand she brought a little newspaper parcel, which she took to Mary, who opened it, and then called out, dangling a shirt collar from her soapy fingers —

“See, father, what a dandy you’ll be in London! Mrs. Davenport has brought you this; made new cut, all after the fashion. Thank you for thinking on him.”

“Eh, Mary!” said Mrs. Davenport in a low voice, “whatten’s all I can do, to what he’s done for me and mine? But, Mary, sure I can help ye, for you’ll be busy wi’ this journey.”

“Just help me wring these out, and then I’ll take ’em to the mangle.”

So Mrs. Davenport became a listener to the conversation; and after a while joined in.

“I’m sure, John Barton, if yo are taking messages to the Parliament folk, yo’ll not object to telling ’em what a sore trial it is, this law o’ theirs, keeping childer fra’ factory work, whether they be weakly or strong. There’s our Ben; why, porridge seems to go no way wi’ him, he eats so much; and I han gotten no money to send him t’ school, as I would like; and there he is, rampaging about the streets a’ day, getting hungrier and hungrier, and picking up a’ manner o’ bad ways; and th’ inspector won’t let him in to work in th’ factory, because he’s not right age; though he’s twice as strong as Sankey’s little ritling24 of a lad, as works till he cries for his legs aching so, though he is right age, and better.”

24 Ritling; probably a corruption of “ricketling,” a child that suffers from the rickets — a weakling.

“I’ve one plan I wish to tell John Barton,” said a pompous, careful-speaking man, “and I should like him for to lay it afore the Honourable House. My mother comed out o’ Oxfordshire, and were under-laundry-maid in Sir Francis Dashwood’s family; and when we were little ones, she’d tell us stories of their grandeur: and one thing she named were, that Sir Francis wore two shirts a day. Now he were all as one as a Parliament man; and many on ’em, I han no doubt, are like extravagant. Just tell ’em, John, do, that they’d be doing the Lancashire weavers a great kindness, if they’d ha’ their shirts a’ made o’ calico; ‘t would make trade brisk, that would, wi’ the power o’ shirts they wear.”

Job Legh now put in his word. Taking the pipe out of his mouth, and addressing the last speaker, he said —

“I’ll tell ye what, Bill, and no offence, mind ye; there’s but hundreds of them Parliament folk as wear so many shirts to their back; but there’s thousands and thousands o’ poor weavers as han only gotten one shirt i’ the world; ay, and don’t know where t’ get another when that rag’s done, though they’re turning out miles o’ calico every day; and many a mile o’t is lying in warehouses, stopping up trade for want o’ purchasers. Yo take my advice, John Barton, and ask Parliament to set trade free, so as workmen can earn a decent wage, and buy their two, ay and three, shirts a year; that would make weaving brisk.”

He put his pipe in his mouth again, and redoubled his puffing, to make up for lost time.

“I’m afeard, neighbours,” said John Barton, “I’ve not much chance o’ telling ’em all yo say; what I think on, is just speaking out about the distress that they say is nought. When they hear o’ children born on wet flags, without a rag t’ cover ’em or a bit o’ food for th’ mother; when they hear of folk lying down to die i’ th’ streets, or hiding their want i’ some hole o’ a cellar till death come to set ’em free; and when they hear o’ all this plague, pestilence, and famine, they’ll surely do somewhat wiser for us than we can guess at now. Howe’er, I han no objection, if so be there’s an opening, to speak up for what yo say; anyhow, I’ll do my best, and yo see now, if better times don’t come after Parliament knows all.”

Some shook their heads, but more looked cheery: and then one by one dropped off, leaving John and his daughter alone.

“Didst thou mark how poorly Jane Wilson looked?” asked he, as they wound up their hard day’s work by a supper eaten over the fire, which glowed and glimmered through the room, and formed their only light.

“No, I can’t say as I did. But she’s never rightly held up her head since the twins died; and all along she has never been a strong woman.”

“Never sin’ her accident. Afore that I mind her looking as fresh and likely a girl as e’er a one in Manchester.”

“What accident, father?”

“She cotched25 her side again a wheel. It were afore wheels were boxed up. It were just when she were to have been married, and many a one thought George would ha’ been off his bargain; but I knew he wern’t the chap for that trick. Pretty near the first place she went to when she were able to go about again, was th’ Oud Church; poor wench, all pale and limping, she went up the aisle, George holding her up as tender as a mother, and walking as slow as e’er he could, not to hurry her, though there were plenty enow of rude lads to cast their jests at him and her. Her face were white like a sheet when she came in church, but afore she got to th’ altar she were all one flush. But for a’ that it’s been a happy marriage, and George has stuck by me through life like a brother. He’ll never hold up his head again if he loses Jane. I didn’t like her looks to-night.”

25 Cotched; caught.

And so he went to bed, the fear of forthcoming sorrow to his friend mingling with his thoughts of tomorrow, and his hopes for the future.

Mary watched him set off, with her hands over her eyes to shade them from the bright slanting rays of the morning sun, and then she turned into the house to arrange its disorder before going to her work. She wondered if she should like or dislike the evening and morning solitude; for several hours when the clock struck she thought of her father, and wondered where he was; she made good resolutions according to her lights; and by-and-bye came the distractions and events of the broad full day to occupy her with the present, and to deaden the memory of the absent.

One of Mary’s resolutions was, that she would not be persuaded or induced to see Mr. Harry Carson during her father’s absence. There was something crooked in her conscience after all; for this very resolution seemed an acknowledgment that it was wrong to meet him at any time; and yet she had brought herself to think her conduct quite innocent and proper, for although unknown to her father, and certain, even did he know it, to fail of obtaining his sanction, she esteemed her love-meetings with Mr. Carson as sure to end in her fathers good and happiness. But now that he was away, she would do nothing that he would disapprove of; no, not even though it was for his own good in the end.

Now, amongst Miss Simmonds’ young ladies was one who had been from the beginning a confidante in Mary’s love affair, made so by Mr. Carson himself. He had felt the necessity of some third person to carry letters and messages, and to plead his cause when he was absent. In a girl named Sally Leadbitter he had found a willing advocate. She would have been willing to have embarked in a love affair herself (especially a clandestine one), for the mere excitement of the thing; but her willingness was strengthened by sundry half-sovereigns, which from time to time Mr. Carson bestowed upon her.

Sally Leadbitter was vulgar-minded to the last degree; never easy unless her talk was of love and lovers; in her eyes it was an honour to have had a long list of wooers. So constituted, it was a pity that Sally herself was but a plain, red-haired, freckled girl; never likely, one would have thought, to become a heroine on her own account. But what she lacked in beauty she tried to make up for by a kind of witty boldness, which gave her what her betters would have called piquancy. Considerations of modesty or propriety never checked her utterance of a good thing. She had just talent enough to corrupt others. Her very good nature was an evil influence. They could not hate one who was so kind; they could not avoid one who was so willing to shield them from scrapes by any exertion of her own; whose ready fingers would at any time make up for their deficiencies, and whose still more convenient tongue would at any time invent for them. The Jews, or Mohammedans (I forget which), believe that there is one little bone of our body — one of the vertebrae, if I remember rightly — which will never decay and turn to dust, but will lie incorrupt and indestructible in the ground until the Last Day: this is the Seed of the Soul. The most depraved have also their Seed of the Holiness that shall one day overcome their evil; their one good quality, lurking hidden, but safe, among all the corrupt and bad.

Sally’s seed of the future soul was her love for her mother, an aged bedridden woman. For her she had self-denial; for her, her good-nature rose into tenderness; to cheer her lonely bed, her spirits, in the evenings, when her body was often woefully tired, never flagged, but were ready to recount the events of the day, to turn them into ridicule, and to mimic, with admirable fidelity, any person gifted with an absurdity who had fallen under her keen eye. But the mother was lightly principled like Sally herself; nor was there need to conceal from her the reason why Mr. Carson gave her so much money. She chuckled with pleasure, and only hoped that the wooing would be long a-doing.

Still neither she, nor her daughter, nor Harry Carson liked this resolution of Mary, not to see him during her father’s absence.

One evening (and the early summer evenings were long and bright now), Sally met Mr. Carson by appointment, to be charged with a letter for Mary, imploring her to see him, which Sally was to back with all her powers of persuasion. After parting from him she determined, as it was not so very late, to go at once to Mary’s, and deliver the message and letter.

She found Mary in great sorrow. She had just heard of George Wilson’s sudden death: her old friend, her father’s friend, Jem’s father — all his claims came rushing upon her. Though not guarded from unnecessary sight or sound of death, as the children of the rich are, yet it had so often been brought home to her this last three or four months. It was so terrible thus to see friend after friend depart. Her father, too, who had dreaded Jane Wilson’s death the evening before he set off. And she, the weakly, was left behind, while the strong man was taken. At any rate the sorrow her father had so feared for him was spared. Such were the thoughts which came over her.

She could not go to comfort the bereaved, even if comfort were in her power to give; for she had resolved to avoid Jem; and she felt that this of all others was not the occasion on which she could keep up a studiously cold manner.

And in this shock of grief, Sally Leadbitter was the last person she wished to see. However, she rose to welcome her, betraying her tear-swollen face.

“Well, I shall tell Mr. Carson tomorrow how you’re fretting for him; it’s no more nor he’s doing for you, I can tell you.”

“For him, indeed!” said Mary, with a toss of her pretty head.

“Ay, miss, for him! You’ve been sighing as if your heart would break now for several days, over your work; now arn’t you a little goose not to go and see one who I am sure loves you as his life, and whom you love; ‘How much, Mary?’ ‘This much,’ as the children say” (opening her arms very wide).

“Nonsense,” said Mary, pouting; “I often think I don’t love him at all.”

“And I’m to tell him that, am I, next time I see him?” asked Sally.

“If you like,” replied Mary. “I’m sure I don’t care for that or anything else now”; weeping afresh.

But Sally did not like to be the bearer of any such news. She saw she had gone on the wrong tack, and that Mary’s heart was too full to value either message or letter as she ought. So she wisely paused in their delivery and said, in a more sympathetic tone than she had hitherto used —

“Do tell me, Mary, what’s fretting you so? You know I never could abide to see you cry.”

“George Wilson’s dropped down dead this afternoon,” said Mary, fixing her eyes for one minute on Sally, and the next hiding her face in her apron as she sobbed anew.

“Dear, dear! All flesh is grass; here today and gone tomorrow, as the Bible says. Still he was an old man, and not good for much; there’s better folk than him left behind. Is th’ canting old maid as was his sister alive yet?”

“I don’t know who you mean,” said Mary sharply; for she did know, and did not like to have her dear, simple Alice so spoken of.

“Come, Mary, don’t be so innocent. Is Miss Alice Wilson alive, then; will that please you? I haven’t seen her hereabouts lately.”

“No, she’s left living here. When the twins died, she thought she could, maybe, be of use to her sister, who was sadly cast down, and Alice thought she could cheer her up; at any rate she could listen to her when her heart grew overburdened; so she gave up her cellar and went to live with them.”

“Well, good go with her. I’d no fancy for her, and I’d no fancy for her making my pretty Mary into a Methodee.”

“She wasn’t a Methodee; she was Church o’ England.”

“Well, well, Mary, you’re very particular. You know what I meant. Look, who is this letter from?” holding up Henry Carson’s letter.

“I don’t know, and don’t care,” said Mary, turning very red.

“My eye! as if I didn’t know you did know and did care.”

“Well, give it me,” said Mary impatiently, and anxious in her present mood for her visitor’s departure.

Sally relinquished it unwillingly. She had, however, the pleasure of seeing Mary dimple and blush as she read the letter, which seemed to say the writer was not indifferent to her.

“You must tell him I can’t come,” said Mary, raising her eyes at last. “I have said I won’t meet him while father is away, and I won’t.”

“But, Mary, he does so look for you. You’d be quite sorry for him, he’s so put out about not seeing you. Besides, you go when your father’s at home, without letting on26 to him, and what harm would there be in going now?”

26 Letting on; informing. In Anglo–Saxon one meaning of “laetan” was “to admit,” and we say “to let out the secret.”

“Well, Sally, you know my answer, I won’t; and I won’t.”

“I’ll tell him to come and see you himself some evening, instead o’ sending me; he’d maybe find you not so hard to deal with.”

Mary flashed up.

“If he dares to come here while father’s away, I’ll call the neighbours in to turn him out, so don’t be putting him up to that.”

“Mercy on us! one would think you were the first girl that ever had a lover; have you never heard what other girls do and think no shame of?”

“Hush, Sally! that’s Margaret Jennings at the door.”

And in an instant Margaret was in the room. Mary had begged Job Legh to let her come and sleep with her. In the uncertain firelight you could not help noticing that she had the groping walk of a blind person.

“Well, I must go, Mary,” said Sally. “And that’s your last word?”

“Yes, yes; good-night.” She shut the door gladly on her unwelcome visitor — unwelcome at that time at least.

“O Margaret, have ye heard this sad news about George Wilson?”

“Yes, that I have. Poor creatures, they’ve been so tried lately. Not that I think sudden death so bad a thing; it’s easy, and there’s no terrors for him as dies. For them as survives it’s very hard. Poor George! he were such a hearty-looking man.”

“Margaret,” said Mary, who had been closely observing her friend, “thou’rt very blind to-night, arn’t thou? Is it wi’ crying? Your eyes are so swollen and red.”

“Yes, dear! but not crying for sorrow. Han ye heard where I was last night?”

“No; where?”

“Look here.” She held up a bright golden sovereign. Mary opened her large grey eyes with astonishment.

“I’ll tell you all and how about it. You see there’s a gentleman lecturing on music at th’ Mechanics’, and he wants folk to sing his songs. Well, last night the counter got a sore throat and couldn’t make a note. So they sent for me. Jacob Butterworth had said a good word for me, and they asked me would I sing? You may think I was frightened, but I thought, Now or never, and said I’d do my best. So I tried o’er the songs wi’ th’ lecturer, and then th’ managers told me I were to make myself decent and be there by seven.”

“And what did you put on?” asked Mary. “Oh, why didn’t you come in for my pretty pink gingham?”

“I did think on’t; but you had na come home then. No! I put on my merino, as was turned last winter, and my white shawl, and did my hair pretty tidy; it did well enough. Well, but as I was saying, I went at seven. I couldn’t see to read my music, but I took th’ paper in wi’ me, to ha’ something to do wi’ my fingers. Th’ folks’ heads danced, as I stood as right afore ’em all as if I’d been going to play at ball wi’ ’em. You may guess I felt squeamish, but mine weren’t the first song, and th’ music sounded like a friend’s voice telling me to take courage. So, to make a long story short, when it were all o’er th’ lecturer thanked me, and th’ managers said as how there never was a new singer so applauded (for they’d clapped and stamped after I’d done, till I began to wonder how many pair o’ shoes they’d get through a week at that rate, let alone their hands). So I’m to sing again o’ Thursday; and I got a sovereign last night, and am to have half-a-sovereign every night th’ lecturer is at th’ Mechanics’.”

“Well, Margaret, I’m right glad to hear it.”

“And I don’t think you’ve heard the best bit yet. Now that a way seemed open to me, of not being a burden to any one, though it did please God to make me blind, I thought I’d tell grandfather. I only tell’d him about the singing and the sovereign last night, for I thought I’d not send him to bed wi’ a heavy heart; but this morning I telled him all.”

“And how did he take it?”

“He’s not a man of many words; and it took him by surprise like.”

“I wonder at that; I’ve noticed it in your ways ever since you telled me.”

“Ay, that’s it! If I’d not telled you, and you’d seen me every day, you’d not ha’ noticed the little mite o’ difference fra’ day to day.”

“Well, but what did your grandfather say?”

“Why, Mary,” said Margaret, half smiling, “I’m a bit loth to tell yo, for unless yo knew grandfather’s ways like me, yo’d think it strange. He was taken by surprise, and he said: ‘Damn yo!’ Then he began looking at his book as it were, and were very quiet, while I telled him all about it; how I’d feared, and how downcast I’d been; and how I were now reconciled to it, if it were th’ Lord’s will; and how I hoped to earn money by singing; and while I were talking, I saw great big tears come dropping on th’ book; but in course I never let on that I saw ’em. Dear grandfather! and all day long he’s been quietly moving things out o’ my way, as he thought might trip me up, and putting things in my way as he thought I might want; never knowing I saw and felt what he were doing; for, yo see, he thinks I’m out and out blind, I guess — as I shall be soon.”

Margaret sighed in spite of her cheerful and relieved tone.

Though Mary caught the sigh, she felt it was better to let it pass without notice, and began, with the tact which true sympathy rarely fails to supply, to ask a variety of questions respecting her friend’s musical debut, which tended to bring out more distinctly how successful it had been.

“Why, Margaret,” at length she exclaimed, “thou’lt become as famous, maybe, as that grand lady fra’ London as we see’d one night driving up to th’ concert-room door in her carriage.”

“It looks very like it,” said Margaret, with a smile. “And be sure, Mary, I’ll not forget to give thee a lift now and then when that comes about. Nay, who knows, if thou’rt a good girl, but may-happen I may make thee my lady’s maid! Wouldn’t that be nice? So I e’en sing to myself th’ beginning o’ one o’ my songs —

‘An’ ye shall walk in silk attire,

  An’ siller hae to spare.’”

“Nay, don’t stop; or else give me something rather more new, for somehow I never quite liked that part about thinking o’ Donald mair?”

“Well, though I’m a bit tired I don’t care if I do. Before I come I were practising well-nigh upon two hours this one which I’m to sing o’ Thursday. The lecturer said he were sure it would just suit me, and I should do justice to it; and I should be right sorry to disappoint him, he were so nice and encouraging like to me. Eh! Mary, what a pity there isn’t more o’ that way, and less scolding and rating i’ th’ world! It would go a vast deal further. Beside, some o’ th’ singers said, they were a’most certain that it were a song o’ his own, because he were so fidgety and particular about it, and so anxious I should give it th’ proper expression. And that makes me care still more. Th’ first verse, he said, were to be sung ‘tenderly, but joyously!’ I’m afraid I don’t quite hit that, but I’ll try.

‘What a single word can do!

Thrilling all the heart-strings through,

Calling forth fond memories,

Raining round hope’s melodies,

Steeping all in one bright hue —

What a single word can do!’

“Now it falls into th’ minor key, and must be very sad-like. I feel as if I could do that better than t’other.

‘What a single word can do!

Making life seem all untrue,

Driving joy and hope away,

Leaving not one cheering ray,

Blighting every flower that grew —

What a single word can do!’”

Margaret certainly made the most of this little song. As a factory worker, listening outside, observed, “She spun it reet27 fine!” And if she only sang it at the Mechanics’ with half the feeling she put into it that night, the lecturer must have been hard to please if he did not admit that his expectations were more than fulfilled.

When it was ended, Mary’s looks told more than words could have done what she thought of it; and partly to keep in a tear which would fain have rolled out, she brightened into a laugh, and said, “For certain th’ carriage is coming. So let us go and dream on it.”

27 Reet; right; often used for “very.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gaskell/elizabeth/mary/chapter8.html

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