A GREEN valley with a brook running through it, full almost to overflowing with the late rains, overhung by low stooping willows. Across this brook a plank is thrown, and over this plank Adam Bede is passing with his undoubting step, followed close by Gyp with the basket; evidently making his way to the thatched house, with a stack of timber by the side of it, about twenty yards up the opposite slope.
The door of the house is open, and an elderly woman is looking out; but she is not placidly contemplating the evening sunshine; she has been watching with dim eyes the gradually enlarging speck which for the last few minutes she has been quite sure is her darling son Adam. Lisbeth Bede loves her son with the love of a woman to whom her first-born has come late in life. She is an anxious, spare, yet vigorous old woman, clean as a snowdrop. Her grey hair is turned neatly back under a pure linen cap with a black band round it; her broad chest is covered with a buff neckerchief, and below this you see a sort of short bedgown made of blue-checkered linen, tied round the waist and descending to the hips, from whence there is a considerable length of linsey- woolsey petticoat. For Lisbeth is tall, and in other points too there is a strong likeness between her and her son Adam. Her dark eyes are somewhat dim now — perhaps from too much crying — but her broadly marked eyebrows are still black, her teeth are sound, and as she stands knitting rapidly and unconsciously with her work- hardened hands, she has as firmly upright an attitude as when she is carrying a pail of water on her head from the spring. There is the same type of frame and the same keen activity of temperament in mother and son, but it was not from her that Adam got his well- filled brow and his expression of large-hearted intelligence.
Family likeness has often a deep sadness in it. Nature, that great tragic dramatist, knits us together by bone and muscle, and divides us by the subtler web of our brains; blends yearning and repulsion; and ties us by our heart-strings to the beings that jar us at every movement. We hear a voice with the very cadence of our own uttering the thoughts we despise; we see eyes — ah, so like our mother’s! — averted from us in cold alienation; and our last darling child startles us with the air and gestures of the sister we parted from in bitterness long years ago. The father to whom we owe our best heritage — the mechanical instinct, the keen sensibility to harmony, the unconscious skill of the modelling hand — galls us and puts us to shame by his daily errors; the long- lost mother, whose face we begin to see in the glass as our own wrinkles come, once fretted our young souls with her anxious humours and irrational persistence.
It is such a fond anxious mother’s voice that you hear, as Lisbeth says, “Well, my lad, it’s gone seven by th’ clock. Thee’t allays stay till the last child’s born. Thee wants thy supper, I’ll warrand. Where’s Seth? Gone arter some o’s chapellin’, I reckon?”
“Aye, aye, Seth’s at no harm, mother, thee mayst be sure.
But where’s father?” said Adam quickly, as he entered the house and glanced into the room on the left hand, which was used as a workshop. “Hasn’t he done the coffin for Tholer? There’s the stuff standing just as I left it this morning.”
“Done the coffin?” said Lisbeth, following him, and knitting uninterruptedly, though she looked at her son very anxiously. “Eh, my lad, he went aff to Treddles’on this forenoon, an’s niver come back. I doubt he’s got to th’ ‘Waggin Overthrow’ again.”
A deep flush of anger passed rapidly over Adam’s face. He said nothing, but threw off his jacket and began to roll up his shirt- sleeves again.
“What art goin’ to do, Adam?” said the mother, with a tone and look of alarm. “Thee wouldstna go to work again, wi’out ha’in thy bit o’ supper?”
Adam, too angry to speak, walked into the workshop. But his mother threw down her knitting, and, hurrying after him, took hold of his arm, and said, in a tone of plaintive remonstrance, “Nay, my lad, my lad, thee munna go wi’out thy supper; there’s the taters wi’ the gravy in ’em, just as thee lik’st ’em. I saved ’em o’ purpose for thee. Come an’ ha’ thy supper, come.”
“Let be!” said Adam impetuously, shaking her off and seizing one of the planks that stood against the wall. “It’s fine talking about having supper when here’s a coffin promised to be ready at Brox’on by seven o’clock tomorrow morning, and ought to ha’ been there now, and not a nail struck yet. My throat’s too full to swallow victuals.”
“Why, thee canstna get the coffin ready,” said Lisbeth. “Thee’t work thyself to death. It ’ud take thee all night to do’t.”
“What signifies how long it takes me? Isn’t the coffin promised? Can they bury the man without a coffin? I’d work my right hand off sooner than deceive people with lies i’ that way. It makes me mad to think on’t. I shall overrun these doings before long. I’ve stood enough of ’em.”
Poor Lisbeth did not hear this threat for the first time, and if she had been wise she would have gone away quietly and said nothing for the next hour. But one of the lessons a woman most rarely learns is never to talk to an angry or a drunken man. Lisbeth sat down on the chopping bench and began to cry, and by the time she had cried enough to make her voice very piteous, she burst out into words.
“Nay, my lad, my lad, thee wouldstna go away an’ break thy mother’s heart, an’ leave thy feyther to ruin. Thee wouldstna ha’ ’em carry me to th’ churchyard, an’ thee not to follow me. I shanna rest i’ my grave if I donna see thee at th’ last; an’ how’s they to let thee know as I’m a-dyin’, if thee’t gone a-workin’ i’ distant parts, an’ Seth belike gone arter thee, and thy feyther not able to hold a pen for’s hand shakin’, besides not knowin’ where thee art? Thee mun forgie thy feyther — thee munna be so bitter again’ him. He war a good feyther to thee afore he took to th’ drink. He’s a clever workman, an’ taught thee thy trade, remember, an’s niver gen me a blow nor so much as an ill word — no, not even in ’s drink. Thee wouldstna ha’ ’m go to the workhus — thy own feyther — an’ him as was a fine-growed man an’ handy at everythin’ amost as thee art thysen, five-an’-twenty ’ear ago, when thee wast a baby at the breast.”
Lisbeth’s voice became louder, and choked with sobs — a sort of wail, the most irritating of all sounds where real sorrows are to be borne and real work to be done. Adam broke in impatiently.
“Now, Mother, don’t cry and talk so. Haven’t I got enough to vex me without that? What’s th’ use o’ telling me things as I only think too much on every day? If I didna think on ’em, why should I do as I do, for the sake o’ keeping things together here? But I hate to be talking where it’s no use: I like to keep my breath for doing i’stead o’ talking.”
“I know thee dost things as nobody else ’ud do, my lad. But thee’t allays so hard upo’ thy feyther, Adam. Thee think’st nothing too much to do for Seth: thee snapp’st me up if iver I find faut wi’ th’ lad. But thee’t so angered wi’ thy feyther, more nor wi’ anybody else.”
“That’s better than speaking soft and letting things go the wrong way, I reckon, isn’t it? If I wasn’t sharp with him he’d sell every bit o’ stuff i’ th’ yard and spend it on drink. I know there’s a duty to be done by my father, but it isn’t my duty to encourage him in running headlong to ruin. And what has Seth got to do with it? The lad does no harm as I know of. But leave me alone, Mother, and let me get on with the work.”
Lisbeth dared not say any more; but she got up and called Gyp, thinking to console herself somewhat for Adam’s refusal of the supper she had spread out in the loving expectation of looking at him while he ate it, by feeding Adam’s dog with extra liberality. But Gyp was watching his master with wrinkled brow and ears erect, puzzled at this unusual course of things; and though he glanced at Lisbeth when she called him, and moved his fore-paws uneasily, well knowing that she was inviting him to supper, he was in a divided state of mind, and remained seated on his haunches, again fixing his eyes anxiously on his master. Adam noticed Gyp’s mental conflict, and though his anger had made him less tender than usual to his mother, it did not prevent him from caring as much as usual for his dog. We are apt to be kinder to the brutes that love us than to the women that love us. Is it because the brutes are dumb?
“Go, Gyp; go, lad!” Adam said, in a tone of encouraging command; and Gyp, apparently satisfied that duty and pleasure were one, followed Lisbeth into the house-place.
But no sooner had he licked up his supper than he went back to his master, while Lisbeth sat down alone to cry over her knitting. Women who are never bitter and resentful are often the most querulous; and if Solomon was as wise as he is reputed to be, I feel sure that when he compared a contentious woman to a continual dropping on a very rainy day, he had not a vixen in his eye — a fury with long nails, acrid and selfish. Depend upon it, he meant a good creature, who had no joy but in the happiness of the loved ones whom she contributed to make uncomfortable, putting by all the tid-bits for them and spending nothing on herself. Such a woman as Lisbeth, for example — at once patient and complaining, self-renouncing and exacting, brooding the livelong day over what happened yesterday and what is likely to happen tomorrow, and crying very readily both at the good and the evil. But a certain awe mingled itself with her idolatrous love of Adam, and when he said, “Leave me alone,” she was always silenced.
So the hours passed, to the loud ticking of the old day-clock and the sound of Adam’s tools. At last he called for a light and a draught of water (beer was a thing only to be drunk on holidays), and Lisbeth ventured to say as she took it in, “Thy supper stan’s ready for thee, when thee lik’st.”
“Donna thee sit up, mother,” said Adam, in a gentle tone. He had worked off his anger now, and whenever he wished to be especially kind to his mother, he fell into his strongest native accent and dialect, with which at other times his speech was less deeply tinged. “I’ll see to Father when he comes home; maybe he wonna come at all to-night. I shall be easier if thee’t i’ bed.”
“Nay, I’ll bide till Seth comes. He wonna be long now, I reckon.”
It was then past nine by the clock, which was always in advance of the days, and before it had struck ten the latch was lifted and Seth entered. He had heard the sound of the tools as he was approaching.
“Why, Mother,” he said, “how is it as Father’s working so late?”
“It’s none o’ thy feyther as is a-workin’— thee might know that well anoof if thy head warna full o’ chapellin’— it’s thy brother as does iverything, for there’s niver nobody else i’ th’ way to do nothin’.”
Lisbeth was going on, for she was not at all afraid of Seth, and usually poured into his ears all the querulousness which was repressed by her awe of Adam. Seth had never in his life spoken a harsh word to his mother, and timid people always wreak their peevishness on the gentle. But Seth, with an anxious look, had passed into the workshop and said, “Addy, how’s this? What! Father’s forgot the coffin?”
“Aye, lad, th’ old tale; but I shall get it done,” said Adam, looking up and casting one of his bright keen glances at his brother. “Why, what’s the matter with thee? Thee’t in trouble.”
Seth’s eyes were red, and there was a look of deep depression on his mild face.
“Yes, Addy, but it’s what must be borne, and can’t be helped. Why, thee’st never been to the school, then?”
“School? No, that screw can wait,” said Adam, hammering away again.
“Let me take my turn now, and do thee go to bed,” said Seth.
“No, lad, I’d rather go on, now I’m in harness. Thee’t help me to carry it to Brox’on when it’s done. I’ll call thee up at sunrise. Go and eat thy supper, and shut the door so as I mayn’t hear Mother’s talk.”
Seth knew that Adam always meant what he said, and was not to be persuaded into meaning anything else. So he turned, with rather a heavy heart, into the house-place.
“Adam’s niver touched a bit o’ victual sin’ home he’s come,” said Lisbeth. “I reckon thee’st hed thy supper at some o’ thy Methody folks.”
“Nay, Mother,” said Seth, “I’ve had no supper yet.”
“Come, then,” said Lisbeth, “but donna thee ate the taters, for Adam ’ull happen ate ’em if I leave ’em stannin’. He loves a bit o’ taters an’ gravy. But he’s been so sore an’ angered, he wouldn’t ate ’em, for all I’d putten ’em by o’ purpose for him. An’ he’s been a-threatenin’ to go away again,” she went on, whimpering, “an’ I’m fast sure he’ll go some dawnin’ afore I’m up, an’ niver let me know aforehand, an’ he’ll niver come back again when once he’s gone. An’ I’d better niver ha’ had a son, as is like no other body’s son for the deftness an’ th’ handiness, an’ so looked on by th’ grit folks, an’ tall an’ upright like a poplar-tree, an’ me to be parted from him an’ niver see ’m no more.”
“Come, Mother, donna grieve thyself in vain,” said Seth, in a soothing voice. “Thee’st not half so good reason to think as Adam ’ull go away as to think he’ll stay with thee. He may say such a thing when he’s in wrath — and he’s got excuse for being wrathful sometimes — but his heart ’ud never let him go. Think how he’s stood by us all when it’s been none so easy — paying his savings to free me from going for a soldier, an’ turnin’ his earnin’s into wood for father, when he’s got plenty o’ uses for his money, and many a young man like him ’ud ha’ been married and settled before now. He’ll never turn round and knock down his own work, and forsake them as it’s been the labour of his life to stand by.”
“Donna talk to me about’s marr’in’,” said Lisbeth, crying afresh. “He’s set’s heart on that Hetty Sorrel, as ’ull niver save a penny, an’ ’ull toss up her head at’s old mother. An’ to think as he might ha’ Mary Burge, an’ be took partners, an’ be a big man wi’ workmen under him, like Mester Burge — Dolly’s told me so o’er and o’er again — if it warna as he’s set’s heart on that bit of a wench, as is o’ no more use nor the gillyflower on the wall. An’ he so wise at bookin’ an’ figurin’, an’ not to know no better nor that!”
“But, Mother, thee know’st we canna love just where other folks ’ud have us. There’s nobody but God can control the heart of man. I could ha’ wished myself as Adam could ha’ made another choice, but I wouldn’t reproach him for what he can’t help. And I’m not sure but what he tries to o’ercome it. But it’s a matter as he doesn’t like to be spoke to about, and I can only pray to the Lord to bless and direct him.”
“Aye, thee’t allays ready enough at prayin’, but I donna see as thee gets much wi’ thy prayin’. Thee wotna get double earnin’s o’ this side Yule. Th’ Methodies ’ll niver make thee half the man thy brother is, for all they’re a-makin’ a preacher on thee.”
“It’s partly truth thee speak’st there, Mother,” said Seth, mildly; “Adam’s far before me, an’s done more for me than I can ever do for him. God distributes talents to every man according as He sees good. But thee mustna undervally prayer. Prayer mayna bring money, but it brings us what no money can buy — a power to keep from sin and be content with God’s will, whatever He may please to send. If thee wouldst pray to God to help thee, and trust in His goodness, thee wouldstna be so uneasy about things.”
“Unaisy? I’m i’ th’ right on’t to be unaisy. It’s well seen on THEE what it is niver to be unaisy. Thee’t gi’ away all thy earnin’s, an’ niver be unaisy as thee’st nothin’ laid up again’ a rainy day. If Adam had been as aisy as thee, he’d niver ha’ had no money to pay for thee. Take no thought for the morrow — take no thought — that’s what thee’t allays sayin’; an’ what comes on’t? Why, as Adam has to take thought for thee.”
“Those are the words o’ the Bible, Mother,” said Seth. “They don’t mean as we should be idle. They mean we shouldn’t be overanxious and worreting ourselves about what’ll happen to- morrow, but do our duty and leave the rest to God’s will.”
“Aye, aye, that’s the way wi’ thee: thee allays makes a peck o’ thy own words out o’ a pint o’ the Bible’s. I donna see how thee’t to know as ‘take no thought for the morrow’ means all that. An’ when the Bible’s such a big book, an’ thee canst read all thro’t, an’ ha’ the pick o’ the texes, I canna think why thee dostna pick better words as donna mean so much more nor they say. Adam doesna pick a that’n; I can understan’ the tex as he’s allays a-sayin’, ‘God helps them as helps theirsens.’”
“Nay, Mother,” said Seth, “that’s no text o’ the Bible. It comes out of a book as Adam picked up at the stall at Treddles’on. It was wrote by a knowing man, but overworldly, I doubt. However, that saying’s partly true; for the Bible tells us we must be workers together with God.”
“Well, how’m I to know? It sounds like a tex. But what’s th’ matter wi’ th’ lad? Thee’t hardly atin’ a bit o’ supper. Dostna mean to ha’ no more nor that bit o’ oat-cake? An’ thee lookst as white as a flick o’ new bacon. What’s th’ matter wi’ thee?”
“Nothing to mind about, Mother; I’m not hungry. I’ll just look in at Adam again, and see if he’ll let me go on with the coffin.”
“Ha’ a drop o’ warm broth?” said Lisbeth, whose motherly feeling now got the better of her “nattering” habit. “I’ll set two-three sticks a-light in a minute.”
“Nay, Mother, thank thee; thee’t very good,” said Seth, gratefully; and encouraged by this touch of tenderness, he went on: “Let me pray a bit with thee for Father, and Adam, and all of us — it’ll comfort thee, happen, more than thee thinkst.”
“Well, I’ve nothin’ to say again’ it.”
Lisbeth, though disposed always to take the negative side in her conversations with Seth, had a vague sense that there was some comfort and safety in the fact of his piety, and that it somehow relieved her from the trouble of any spiritual transactions on her own behalf.
So the mother and son knelt down together, and Seth prayed for the poor wandering father and for those who were sorrowing for him at home. And when he came to the petition that Adam might never be called to set up his tent in a far country, but that his mother might be cheered and comforted by his presence all the days of her pilgrimage, Lisbeth’s ready tears flowed again, and she wept aloud.
When they rose from their knees, Seth went to Adam again and said, “Wilt only lie down for an hour or two, and let me go on the while?”
“No, Seth, no. Make Mother go to bed, and go thyself.”
Meantime Lisbeth had dried her eyes, and now followed Seth, holding something in her hands. It was the brown-and-yellow platter containing the baked potatoes with the gravy in them and bits of meat which she had cut and mixed among them. Those were dear times, when wheaten bread and fresh meat were delicacies to working people. She set the dish down rather timidly on the bench by Adam’s side and said, “Thee canst pick a bit while thee’t workin’. I’ll bring thee another drop o’ water.”
“Aye, Mother, do,” said Adam, kindly; “I’m getting very thirsty.”
In half an hour all was quiet; no sound was to be heard in the house but the loud ticking of the old day-clock and the ringing of Adam’s tools. The night was very still: when Adam opened the door to look out at twelve o’clock, the only motion seemed to be in the glowing, twinkling stars; every blade of grass was asleep.
Bodily haste and exertion usually leave our thoughts very much at the mercy of our feelings and imagination; and it was so to-night with Adam. While his muscles were working lustily, his mind seemed as passive as a spectator at a diorama: scenes of the sad past, and probably sad future, floating before him and giving place one to the other in swift sucession.
He saw how it would be tomorrow morning, when he had carried the coffin to Broxton and was at home again, having his breakfast: his father perhaps would come in ashamed to meet his son’s glance — would sit down, looking older and more tottering than he had done the morning before, and hang down his head, examining the floor- quarries; while Lisbeth would ask him how he supposed the coffin had been got ready, that he had slinked off and left undone — for Lisbeth was always the first to utter the word of reproach, although she cried at Adam’s severity towards his father.
“So it will go on, worsening and worsening,” thought Adam; “there’s no slipping uphill again, and no standing still when once youve begun to slip down.” And then the day came back to him when he was a little fellow and used to run by his father’s side, proud to be taken out to work, and prouder still to hear his father boasting to his fellow-workmen how “the little chap had an uncommon notion o’ carpentering.” What a fine active fellow his father was then! When people asked Adam whose little lad he was, he had a sense of distinction as he answered, “I’m Thias Bede’s lad.” He was quite sure everybody knew Thias Bede — didn’t he make the wonderful pigeon-house at Broxton parsonage? Those were happy days, especially when Seth, who was three years the younger, began to go out working too, and Adam began to be a teacher as well as a learner. But then came the days of sadness, when Adam was someway on in his teens, and Thias began to loiter at the public-houses, and Lisbeth began to cry at home, and to pour forth her plaints in the hearing of her sons. Adam remembered well the night of shame and anguish when he first saw his father quite wild and foolish, shouting a song out fitfully among his drunken companions at the “Waggon Overthrown.” He had run away once when he was only eighteen, making his escape in the morning twilight with a little blue bundle over his shoulder, and his “mensuration book” in his pocket, and saying to himself very decidedly that he could bear the vexations of home no longer — he would go and seek his fortune, setting up his stick at the crossways and bending his steps the way it fell. But by the time he got to Stoniton, the thought of his mother and Seth, left behind to endure everything without him, became too importunate, and his resolution failed him. He came back the next day, but the misery and terror his mother had gone through in those two days had haunted her ever since.
“No!” Adam said to himself to-night, “that must never happen again. It ’ud make a poor balance when my doings are cast up at the last, if my poor old mother stood o’ the wrong side. My back’s broad enough and strong enough; I should be no better than a coward to go away and leave the troubles to be borne by them as aren’t half so able. ‘They that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of those that are weak, and not to please themselves.’ There’s a text wants no candle to show’t; it shines by its own light. It’s plain enough you get into the wrong road i’ this life if you run after this and that only for the sake o’ making things easy and pleasant to yourself. A pig may poke his nose into the trough and think o’ nothing outside it; but if you’ve got a man’s heart and soul in you, you can’t be easy a-making your own bed an’ leaving the rest to lie on the stones. Nay, nay, I’ll never slip my neck out o’ the yoke, and leave the load to be drawn by the weak uns. Father’s a sore cross to me, an’s likely to be for many a long year to come. What then? I’ve got th’ health, and the limbs, and the sperrit to bear it.”
At this moment a smart rap, as if with a willow wand, was given at the house door, and Gyp, instead of barking, as might have been expected, gave a loud howl. Adam, very much startled, went at once to the door and opened it. Nothing was there; all was still, as when he opened it an hour before; the leaves were motionless, and the light of the stars showed the placid fields on both sides of the brook quite empty of visible life. Adam walked round the house, and still saw nothing except a rat which darted into the woodshed as he passed. He went in again, wondering; the sound was so peculiar that the moment he heard it it called up the image of the willow wand striking the door. He could not help a little shudder, as he remembered how often his mother had told him of just such a sound coming as a sign when some one was dying. Adam was not a man to be gratuitously superstitious, but he had the blood of the peasant in him as well as of the artisan, and a peasant can no more help believing in a traditional superstition than a horse can help trembling when he sees a camel. Besides, he had that mental combination which is at once humble in the region of mystery and keen in the region of knowledge: it was the depth of his reverence quite as much as his hard common sense which gave him his disinclination to doctrinal religion, and he often checked Seth’s argumentative spiritualism by saying, “Eh, it’s a big mystery; thee know’st but little about it.” And so it happened that Adam was at once penetrating and credulous. If a new building had fallen down and he had been told that this was a divine judgment, he would have said, “May be; but the bearing o’ the roof and walls wasn’t right, else it wouldn’t ha’ come down”; yet he believed in dreams and prognostics, and to his dying day he bated his breath a little when he told the story of the stroke with the willow wand. I tell it as he told it, not attempting to reduce it to its natural elements — in our eagerness to explain impressions, we often lose our hold of the sympathy that comprehends them.
But he had the best antidote against imaginative dread in the necessity for getting on with the coffin, and for the next ten minutes his hammer was ringing so uninterruptedly, that other sounds, if there were any, might well be overpowered. A pause came, however, when he had to take up his ruler, and now again came the strange rap, and again Gyp howled. Adam was at the door without the loss of a moment; but again all was still, and the starlight showed there was nothing but the dew-laden grass in front of the cottage.
Adam for a moment thought uncomfortably about his father; but of late years he had never come home at dark hours from Treddleston, and there was every reason for believing that he was then sleeping off his drunkenness at the “Waggon Overthrown.” Besides, to Adam, the conception of the future was so inseparable from the painful image of his father that the fear of any fatal accident to him was excluded by the deeply infixed fear of his continual degradation. The next thought that occurred to him was one that made him slip off his shoes and tread lightly upstairs, to listen at the bedroom doors. But both Seth and his mother were breathing regularly.
Adam came down and set to work again, saying to himself, “I won’t open the door again. It’s no use staring about to catch sight of a sound. Maybe there’s a world about us as we can’t see, but th’ ear’s quicker than the eye and catches a sound from’t now and then. Some people think they get a sight on’t too, but they’re mostly folks whose eyes are not much use to ’em at anything else. For my part, I think it’s better to see when your perpendicular’s true than to see a ghost.”
Such thoughts as these are apt to grow stronger and stronger as daylight quenches the candles and the birds begin to sing. By the time the red sunlight shone on the brass nails that formed the initials on the lid of the coffin, any lingering foreboding from the sound of the willow wand was merged in satisfaction that the work was done and the promise redeemed. There was no need to call Seth, for he was already moving overhead, and presently came downstairs.
“Now, lad,” said Adam, as Seth made his appearance, “the coffin’s done, and we can take it over to Brox’on, and be back again before half after six. I’ll take a mouthful o’ oat-cake, and then we’ll be off.”
The coffin was soon propped on the tall shoulders of the two brothers, and they were making their way, followed close by Gyp, out of the little woodyard into the lane at the back of the house. It was but about a mile and a half to Broxton over the opposite slope, and their road wound very pleasantly along lanes and across fields, where the pale woodbines and the dog-roses were scenting the hedgerows, and the birds were twittering and trilling in the tall leafy boughs of oak and elm. It was a strangely mingled picture — the fresh youth of the summer morning, with its Edenlike peace and loveliness, the stalwart strength of the two brothers in their rusty working clothes, and the long coffin on their shoulders. They paused for the last time before a small farmhouse outside the village of Broxton. By six o’clock the task was done the coffin nailed down, and Adam and Seth were on their way home. They chose a shorter way homewards, which would take them across the fields and the brook in front of the house. Adam had not mentioned to Seth what had happened in the night, but he still retained sufficient impression from it himself to say, “Seth, lad, if Father isn’t come home by the time we’ve had our breakfast, I think it’ll be as well for thee to go over to Treddles’on and look after him, and thee canst get me the brass wire I want. Never mind about losing an hour at thy work; we can make that up. What dost say?”
“I’m willing,” said Seth. “But see what clouds have gathered since we set out. I’m thinking we shall have more rain. It’ll be a sore time for th’ haymaking if the meadows are flooded again. The brook’s fine and full now: another day’s rain ’ud cover the plank, and we should have to go round by the road.”
They were coming across the valley now, and had entered the pasture through which the brook ran.
“Why, what’s that sticking against the willow?” continued Seth, beginning to walk faster. Adam’s heart rose to his mouth: the vague anxiety about his father was changed into a great dread. He made no answer to Seth, but ran forward preceded by Gyp, who began to bark uneasily; and in two moments he was at the bridge.
This was what the omen meant, then! And the grey-haired father, of whom he had thought with a sort of hardness a few hours ago, as certain to live to be a thorn in his side was perhaps even then struggling with that watery death! This was the first thought that flashed through Adam’s conscience, before he had time to seize the coat and drag out the tall heavy body. Seth was already by his side, helping him, and when they had it on the bank, the two sons in the first moment knelt and looked with mute awe at the glazed eyes, forgetting that there was need for action — forgetting everything but that their father lay dead before them. Adam was the first to speak.
“I’ll run to Mother,” he said, in a loud whisper. “I’ll be back to thee in a minute.”
Poor Lisbeth was busy preparing her sons’ breakfast, and their porridge was already steaming on the fire. Her kitchen always looked the pink of cleanliness, but this morning she was more than usually bent on making her hearth and breakfast-table look comfortable and inviting.
“The lads ’ull be fine an’ hungry,” she said, half-aloud, as she stirred the porridge. “It’s a good step to Brox’on, an’ it’s hungry air o’er the hill — wi’ that heavy coffin too. Eh! It’s heavier now, wi’ poor Bob Tholer in’t. Howiver, I’ve made a drap more porridge nor common this mornin’. The feyther ’ull happen come in arter a bit. Not as he’ll ate much porridge. He swallers sixpenn’orth o’ ale, an’ saves a hap’orth o’ por-ridge — that’s his way o’ layin’ by money, as I’ve told him many a time, an’ am likely to tell him again afore the day’s out. Eh, poor mon, he takes it quiet enough; there’s no denyin’ that.”
But now Lisbeth heard the heavy “thud” of a running footstep on the turf, and, turning quickly towards the door, she saw Adam enter, looking so pale and overwhelmed that she screamed aloud and rushed towards him before he had time to speak.
“Hush, Mother,” Adam said, rather hoarsely, “don’t be frightened. Father’s tumbled into the water. Belike we may bring him round again. Seth and me are going to carry him in. Get a blanket and make it hot as the fire.”
In reality Adam was convinced that his father was dead but he knew there was no other way of repressing his mother’s impetuous wailing grief than by occupying her with some active task which had hope in it.
He ran back to Seth, and the two sons lifted the sad burden in heart-stricken silence. The wide-open glazed eyes were grey, like Seth’s, and had once looked with mild pride on the boys before whom Thias had lived to hang his head in shame. Seth’s chief feeling was awe and distress at this sudden snatching away of his father’s soul; but Adam’s mind rushed back over the past in a flood of relenting and pity. When death, the great Reconciler, has come, it is never our tenderness that we repent of, but our severity.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08