The Sexton's Hero


Elizabeth Gaskell

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First published in 1847.

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Last updated Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 13:37.

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“The Sexton’s Hero”

The afternoon sun shed down his glorious rays on the grassy churchyard, making the shadow cast by the old yew-tree under which we sat, seem deeper and deeper by contrast. The everlasting hum of myriads of summer insects made luxurious lullaby.

Of the view that lay beneath our gaze, I cannot speak adequately. The foreground was the grey-stone wall of the vicarage-garden; rich in the colouring made by innumerable lichens, ferns, ivy of most tender green and most delicate tracery, and the vivid scarlet of the crane’s -bill, which found a home in every nook and crevice – and at the summit of that old wall flaunted some unpruned tendrils of the vine, and long flower-laden branches of the climbing rose-tree, trained against the inner side. Beyond, lay meadow green, and mountain grey, and the blue dazzle of Morecambe Bay, as it sparkled between us and the more distant view.

For a while we were silent, living in sight and murmuring sound. Then Jeremy took up our conversation where, suddenly feeling weariness, as we saw that deep green shadowy resting-place, we had ceased speaking a quarter of an hour before.

It is one of the luxuries of holiday-time that thoughts are not rudely shaken from us by outward violence of hurry and busy impatience, but fall maturely from our lips in the sunny leisure of our days. The stock may be bad, but the fruit is ripe.

‘How would you then define a hero?’ I asked.

There was a long pause, and I had almost forgotten my question in watching a cloud-shadow floating over the far-away hills, when Jeremy made answer:

‘My idea of a hero is one who acts up to the highest idea of duty he has been able to form, no matter at what sacrifice. I think that by this definition, we may include all phases of character, even to the heroes of old, whose sole (and to us, low) idea of duty consisted in personal prowess.’

‘Then you would even admit the military heroes?’ asked I.

‘I would; with a certain kind of pity for the circumstances which had given them no higher ideas of duty. Still, if they sacrificed self to do what they sincerely believed to be right, I do not think I could deny them the title of hero.’

‘A poor, unchristian heroism, whose manifestation consists in injury to others!’ I said.

We were both startled by a third voice.

‘If I might make so bold, sir’ – and then the speaker stopped.

It was the Sexton, whom, when we first arrived, we had noticed, as an accessory to the scene, but whom we had forgotten, as much as though he were as inanimate as one of the moss-covered head-stones.

‘If I might be so bold,’ said he again, waiting leave to speak. Jeremy bowed in deference to his white, uncovered head. And so encouraged, he went on.

‘What that gentleman’ (alluding to my last speech) ‘has just now said, brings to my mind one who is dead and gone this many a year ago. I, may be, have not rightly understood your meaning, gentlemen, but as far as I could gather it, I think you’d both have given in to thinking poor Gilbert Dawson a hero. At any rate,’ said he, heaving a long quivering sigh, ‘I have reason to think him so.’

‘Will you take a seat, sir, and tell us about him?’ said Jeremy, standing up until the old man was seated. I confess I felt impatient at the interruption.

‘It will be forty-five year come Martinmas,’ said the Sexton, sitting down on a grassy mound at our feet, ‘since I finished my ‘prenticeship, and settled down at Lindal. You can see Lindal, sir, at evenings and mornings across the bay; a little to the right of Grange; at least, I used to see it, many a time and oft, afore my sight grew so dark: and I have spent many a quarter of an hour a-gazing at it far away, and thinking of the days I lived there, till the tears came so thick to my eyes, I could gaze no longer. I shall never look upon it again, either far-off or near, but you may see it, both ways, and a terrible bonny spot it is. In my young days, when I went to settle there, it was full of as wild a set of young fellows as ever were clapped eyes on; all for fighting, poaching, quarrelling, and such like work. I were startled myself when I first found what a set I were among, but soon I began to fall into their ways, and I ended by being as rough a chap as any on ’em. I’d been there a matter of two year, and were reckoned by most the cock of the village, when Gilbert Dawson, as I was speaking of, came to Lindal. He were about as strapping a chap as I was (I used to be six feet high, though now I’m so shrunk and doubled up), and, as we were like in the same trade (both used to prepare osiers and wood for the Liverpool coopers, who get a deal of stuff from the copses round the bay, sir) we were thrown together, and took mightily to each other. I put my best leg foremost to be equal with Gilbert, for I’d had some schooling, though since I’d been at Lindal I’d lost a good part of what I’d learnt; and I kept my rough ways out of sight for a time, I felt so ashamed of his getting to know them. But that did not last long. I began to think he fancied a girl I dearly loved, but who had always held off from me. Eh! but she was a pretty one in those days! There’s none like her, now. I think I see her going along the road with her dancing tread, and shaking back her long yellow curls, to give me or any other young fellow a saucy word; no wonder Gilbert was taken with her, for all he was grave, and she so merry and light. But I began to think she liked him again; and then my blood was all afire. I got to hate him for everything he did. Aforetime I had stood by, admiring to see him, how he leapt, and what a quoiter and cricketer he was. And now I ground my teeth with hatred whene’er he did a thing which caught Letty’s eye. I could read it in her look that she liked him, for all she held herself just as high with him as with all the rest. Lord God forgive me! how I hated that man.

He spoke as if the hatred were a thing of yesterday, so clear within his memory were shown the actions and feelings of his youth. And then he dropped his voice, and said:

‘Well! I began to look out to pick a quarrel with him, for my blood was up to fight him. If I beat him (and I were a rare boxer in those days), I thought Letty would cool towards him. So one evening at quoits (I’m sure I don’t know how or why, but large doings grow out of small words) I fell out with him, and challenged him to fight. I could see he were very wroth by his colour coming and going – and, as I said before, he were a fine active young fellow. But all at once he drew in, and said he would not fight. Such a yell as the Lindal lads, who were watching us, set up! I hear it yet. I could na’ help but feel sorry for him, to be so scorned, and I thought he’d not rightly taken my meaning, and I’d give him another chance; so I said it again, and dared him, as plain as words could speak, to fight out the quarrel. He told me then, he had no quarrel against me; that he might have said something to put me up; he did not know that he had, but that if he had, he asked pardon; but that he would not fight no-how.

‘I was so full of scorn at his cowardliness, that I was vexed I’d given him the second chance, and I joined in the yell that was set up, twice as bad as before. He stood it out, his teeth set, and looking very white, and when we were silent for want of breath, he said out loud, but in a hoarse voice, quite different from his own –

‘“I cannot fight, because I think it is wrong to quarrel, and use violence.”

‘Then he turned to go away; I were so beside myself with scorn and hate, that I called out, –

‘“Tell truth, lad, at least; if thou dare not fight, dunnot go and tell a lie about it. Mother’s moppet is afraid of a black eye, pretty dear. It shannot be hurt, but it munnot tell lies.”

‘Well, they laughed, but I could not laugh. It seemed such a thing for a stout young chap to be a coward, and afraid!

‘Before the sun had set, it was talked of all over Lindal, how I had challenged Gilbert to fight, and how he’d denied me; and the folks stood at their doors, and looked at him going up the hill to his home, as if he’d been a monkey or a foreigner, – but no one wished him good e’en. Such a thing as refusing to fight had never been heard of afore at Lindal. Next day, however, they had found voice. The men muttered the word “coward” in his hearing, and kept aloof; the women tittered as he passed, and the little impudent lads and lasses shouted out, “How long is it sin’ thou turned quaker?” “Good-bye, Jonathan Broad-brim,” and such like jests.

‘That evening I met him, with Letty by his side, coming up from the shore. She was almost crying as I came upon them at the turn of the lane; and looking up in his face, as if begging him something. And so she was, she told me it after. For she did really like him; and could not abide to hear him scorned by every one for being a coward; and she, coy as she was, all but told him that very night that she loved him, and begged him not to disgrace himself, but fight me as I’d dared him to. When he still stuck to it he could not, for that it was wrong, she was so vexed and mad-like at the way she’d spoken, and the feelings she’d let out to coax him, that she said more stinging things about his being a coward than all the rest put together (according to what she told me, sir, afterwards), and ended by saying she’d never speak to him again, as long as she lived; – she did once again though, – her blessing was the last human speech that reached his ear in his wild death struggle.

‘But much happened afore that time. From the day I met them walking, Letty turned towards me; I could see a part of it was to spite Gilbert, for she’d be twice as kind when he was near, or likely to hear of it; but by-and-by she got to like me for my own sake, and it was all settled for our marriage. Gilbert kept aloof from every one, and fell into a sad, careless way. His very gait was changed; his step used to be brisk and sounding, and now his foot lingered heavily on the ground. I used to try and daunt him with my eye, but he would always meet my look in a steady, quiet way, for all so much about him was altered; the lads would not play with him; and as soon as he found he was to be slighted by them whenever he came to quoiting or cricket, he just left off coming.

‘The old clerk was the only one he kept company with; or perhaps, rightly to speak, the only one who would keep company with him. They got so thick at last, that old Jonas would say, Gilbert had gospel on his side, and did no more than gospel told him to do; but we none of us gave much credit to what he said, more by token our vicar had a brother, a colonel in the army; and as we threeped it many a time to Jonas, would he set himself up to know the gospel better than the vicar? that would be putting the cart afore the horse, like the French radicals. And if the vicar had thought quarrelling and fighting wicked, and again the Bible, would he have made so much work about all the victories, that were as plenty as blackberries at that time of day, and kept the little bell of Lindal church for ever ringing; or would he have thought so much of “my brother the colonel,” as he was always talking on?

‘After I was married to Letty I left off hating Gilbert. I even kind of pitied him – he was so scorned and slighted; and for all he’d a bold look about him, as if he were not ashamed, he seemed pining and shrunk. It’s a wearying thing to be kept at arm’s length by one’s kind; and so Gilbert found it, poor fellow. The little children took to him, though; they’d be round about him like a swarm of bees – them as was too young to know what a coward was, and only felt that he was ever ready to love and to help them, and was never loud or cross, however naughty they might be. After a while we had our little one too; such a blessed darling she was, and dearly did we love her; Letty in especial, who seemed to get all the thought I used to think sometimes she wanted, after she had her baby to care for.

‘All my kin lived on this side the bay, up above Kellet. Jane (that’s her that lies buried near yon white rose-tree) was to be married, and nought would serve her but that Letty and I must come to the wedding; for all my sisters loved Letty, she had such winning ways with her. Letty did not like to leave her baby, nor yet did I want her to take it: so, after a talk, we fixed to leave it with Letty’s mother for the afternoon. I could see her heart ached a bit, for she’d never left it till then, and she seemed to fear all manner of evil, even to the French coming and taking it away. Well! we borrowed a shandry, and harnessed my old grey mare, as I used in th’ cart, and set off as grand as King George across the Sands about three o’clock, for you see it were high water about twelve, and we’d to go and come back same tide, as Letty could not leave her baby for long. It were a merry afternoon, were that; last time I ever saw Letty laugh heartily; and for that matter, last time I ever laughed downright hearty myself. The latest crossing time fell about nine o’clock, and we were late at starting. Clocks were wrong; and we’d a piece of work chasing a pig father had given Letty to take home; we bagged him at last, and he screeched and screeched in the back part o’ th’ shandry, and we laughed and they laughed; and in the midst of all the merriment the sun set, and that sober’d us a bit, for then we knew what time it was. I whipped the old mare, but she was a deal beener than she was in the morning, and would neither go quick up nor down the brows, and they¹re not a few ‘twixt Kellet and the shore. On the sands it were worse. They were very heavy, for the fresh had come down after the rains we’d had. Lord! how I did whip the poor mare, to make the most of the red light as yet lasted. You, maybe, don’t know the Sands, gentlemen. From Bolton side, where we started from, it is better than six mile to Cart-lane, and two channels to cross, let alone holes and quick-sands. At the second channel from us the guide waits, all during crossing time from sunrise to sunset; – but for the three hours on each side high water he’s not there, in course. He stays after sunset if he’s forespoken, not else. So now you know where we were that awful night. For we’d crossed the first channel about two mile, and it were growing darker and darker above and around us, all but one red line of light above the hills, when we came to a hollow (for all the Sands look so flat, there’s many a hollow in them where you lose all sight of the shore).We were longer than we should ha’ been in crossing the hollow, the sand was so quick; and when we came up again, there, again the blackness, was the white line of the rushing tide coming up the bay! It looked not a mile from us; and when the wind blows up the bay, it comes swifter than a galloping horse. “Lord help us!” said I; and then I were sorry I’d spoken, to frighten Letty, but the words were crushed out of my heart by the terror. I felt her shiver up by my side, and clutch my coat. And as if the pig (as had screeched himself hoarse some time ago) had found out the danger we were all in, he took to squealing again, enough to bewilder any man. I cursed him between my teeth for his noise; and yet it was God’s answer to my prayer, blind sinner as I was. Ay! you may smile, sir, but God can work through many a scornful thing, if need be.

‘By this time the mare were all in a lather, and trembling and panting, as if in mortal fright; for though we were on the last bank afore the second channel, the water was gathering up her legs; and she so tired out! When we came close to the channel she stood still, and not all my flogging could get her to stir; she fairly groaned aloud, and shook in a terrible quaking way. Till now Letty had not spoken; only held my coat tightly. I heard her say something, and bent down my head.

‘“I think, John – I think – I shall never see baby again!”

‘And then she sent up such a cry – so loud and shrill, and pitiful! It fairly maddened me. I pulled out my knife to spur on the old mare, that it might end one way or the other, for the water was stealing sullenly up to the very axle-tree, let alone the white waves that knew no mercy in their steady advance. That one quarter of an hour, sir, seemed as long as all my life since. Thoughts, and fancies, and dreams, and memory, ran into each other. The mist, the heavy mist, that was like a ghastly curtain, shutting us in for death, seemed to bring with it the scents of the flowers that grew around our own threshold; – it might be, for it was falling on them like blessed dew, though to us it was a shroud. Letty told me at after, she heard her baby crying for her, above the gurgling of the rising waters, as plain as ever she heard anything; but the sea-birds were skirling, and the pig shrieking; I never caught it; it was miles away, at any rate.

‘Just as I’d gotten my knife out, another sound was close upon us, blending with the gurgle of the near waters, and the roar of the distant; (not so distant though) we could hardly see, but we thought we saw something black against the deep lead colour of wave, and mist, and sky. It neared and neared: with slow, steady motion, it came across the channel right to where we were.

‘O God! it was Gilbert Dawson on his strong bay horse.

‘Few words did we speak, and little time had we to say them in. I had no knowledge at that moment of past or future – only of one present thought – how to save Letty, and, if I could, myself. I only remembered afterwards that Gilbert said he had been guided by an animal’s shriek of terror; I only heard when all was over, that he had been uneasy about our return, because of the depth of fresh, and had borrowed a pillion, and saddled his horse early in the evening, and ridden down to Cart-lane to watch for us. If all had gone well, we should ne’er have heard of it. As it was, old Jonas told it, the tears down-dropping from his withered cheeks.

‘We fastened his horse to the shandry. We lifted Letty to the pillion. The waters rose every instant with sullen sound. They were all but in the shandry. Letty clung to the pillion handles, but drooped her head as if she had yet no hope of life. Swifter than thought (and yet he might have had time for thought and for temptation, sir: – if he had ridden off with Letty, he would have been saved not me), Gilbert was in the shandry by my side.

‘“Quick!” said he, clear and firm. “You must ride before her, and keep her up. The horse can swim. By God’s mercy I will follow. I can cut the traces, and if the mare is not hampered with the shandry, she’ll carry me safely through. At any rate, you are a husband and a father. No one cares for me.”

‘Do not hate me, gentlemen. I often wish that night was a dream. It has haunted my sleep ever since like a dream, and yet it was no dream. I took his place on the saddle, and put Letty’s arms around me, and felt her head rest on my shoulder. I trust in God I spoke some word of thanks; but I can’t remember. I only recollect Letty raising her head, and calling out, -

“God bless you, Gilbert Dawson, for saving my baby from being an orphan this night.” And then she fell against me, as if unconscious.

‘I bore her through; or, rather, the strong horse swam bravely through the gathering waves. We were dripping wet when we reached the banks in-shore; but we could have but one thought – where was Gilbert? Thick mists and heaving waters compassed us round. Where was he? We shouted. Letty, faint as she was, raised her voice and shouted, clear and shrill. No answer came, the sea boomed on with ceaseless sullen beat. I rode to the guide’s house. He was a-bed, and would not get up, though I offered him more than I was worth. Perhaps he knew it, the cursed old villain! At any rate I’d have paid it if I’d toiled my life long. He said I might take his horn and welcome. I did, and blew such a blast through the still, black night, the echoes came back upon the heavy air: but no human voice or sound was heard; that wild blast could not awaken the dead.

‘I took Letty home to her baby, over whom she wept the livelong night. I rode back to the shore about Cart-lane; and to and fro, with weary march, did I pace along the brink of the waters, now and then shouting out into the silence a vain cry for Gilbert. The waters went back and left no trace. Two days afterwards he was washed ashore near Flukeborough. The shandry and poor old mare were found half-buried in a heap of sand by Arnside Knot. As far as we could guess, he had dropped his knife while trying to cut the traces, and so had lost all chance of life. Any rate, the knife was found in a cleft of the shaft.

‘His friends came over from Garstang to his funeral. I wanted to go chief mourner, but it was not my right, and I might not; though I’ve never done mourning him to this day. When his sister packed up his things, I begged hard for something that had been his. She would give me none of his clothes (she was a right-down having woman), as she had boys of her own, who might grow up into them. But she threw me his Bible, as she said they’d gotten one already, and his were but a poor used-up thing. It was his, and so I cared for it. It were a black leather one, with pockets at the sides, old-fashioned-wise; and in one were a bunch of wild flowers, Letty said she could almost be sure were some she had once given him.

‘There were many a text in the Gospel, marked broad with his carpenter’s pencil, which more than bore him out in his refusal to fight. Of a surety, sir, there’s call enough for bravery in the service of God, and to show love to man, without quarrelling and fighting.

‘Thank you, gentlemen, for listening to me. Your words called up the thoughts of him, and my heart was full to speaking. But I must make up; I’ve to dig a grave for a little child, who is to be buried to-morrow morning, just when his playmates are trooping off to school.’

‘But tell us of Letty; is she yet alive?’ asked Jeremy.

The old man shook his head, and struggled against a choking sigh. After a minute’s pause he said, –

‘She died in less than two year at after that night. She was never like the same again. She would sit thinking, on Gilbert, I guessed’ but I could not blame her. We had a boy, and we named it Gilbert Dawson Knipe; he that’s stoker on the London railway. Our girl was carried off in teething, and Letty just quietly drooped, and died in less than a six week. They were buried here; so I came to be near them, and away from Lindal, a place I could never abide after Letty was gone.

He turned to his work, and we, having rested sufficiently, rose up, and came away.

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eBooks@Adelaide
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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005