“A life of self-indulgence is for us,
A life of self-denial is for them;
For us the streets, broad-built and populous,
For them unhealthy corners, garrets dim,
And cellars where the water-rat may swim!
For us green paths refreshed by frequent rain,
For them dark alleys where the dust lies grim!
Not doomed by us to this appointed pain —
God made us rich and poor — of what do these complain?”
— MRS. NORTON’S Child of the Islands.
The next evening it was a warm, pattering, incessant rain — just the rain to waken up the flowers. But in Manchester, where, alas! there are no flowers, the rain had only a disheartening and gloomy effect; the streets were wet and dirty, the drippings from the houses were wet and dirty, and the people were wet and dirty. Indeed, most kept within doors; and there was an unusual silence of footsteps in the little paved courts.
Mary had to change her clothes after her walk home; and had hardly settled herself before she heard some one fumbling at the door. The noise continued long enough to allow her to get up, and go and open it. There stood — could it be? yes it was, her father!
Drenched and wayworn, there he stood! He came in with no word to Mary in return for her cheery and astonished greeting. He sat down by the fire in his wet things, unheeding. But Mary would not let him so rest. She ran up and brought down his working-day clothes, and went into the pantry to rummage up their little bit of provision while he changed by the fire, talking all the while as gaily as she could, though her father’s depression hung like lead on her heart.
For Mary, in her seclusion at Miss Simmonds’ — where the chief talk was of fashions, and dress, and parties to be given, for which such and such gowns would be wanted, varied with a slight-whispered interlude occasionally about love and lovers — had not heard the political news of the day; that Parliament had refused to listen to the working-men, when they petitioned, with all the force of their rough, untutored words, to be heard concerning the distress which was riding, like the Conqueror on his Pale Horse, among the people; which was crushing their lives out of them, and stamping woe-marks over the land.
When he had eaten and was refreshed, they sat for some time in silence; for Mary wished him to tell her what oppressed him so, yet durst not ask. In this she was wise; for when we are heavy-laden in our hearts it falls in better with our humour to reveal our case in our own way, and our own time.
Mary sat on a stool at her father’s feet in old childish guise, and stole her hand into his, while his sadness infected her, and she “caught the trick of grief, and sighed,” she knew not why.
“Mary, we mun speak to our God to hear us, for man will not hearken; no, not now, when we weep tears o’ blood.”
In an instant Mary understood the fact, if not the details, that so weighed down her father’s heart. She pressed his hand with silent sympathy. She did not know what to say, and was so afraid of speaking wrongly, that she was silent. But when his attitude had remained unchanged for more than half-an-hour, his eyes gazing vacantly and fixedly at the fire, no sound but now and then a deep-drawn sigh to break the weary ticking of the clock, and the drip-drop from the roof without, Mary could bear it no longer. Anything to rouse her father. Even bad news.
“Father, do you know George Wilson’s dead?” (Her hand was suddenly and almost violently compressed.) “He dropped down dead in Oxford Road yester morning. It’s very sad, isn’t it, father?”
Her tears were ready to flow as she looked up in her father’s face for sympathy. Still the same fixed look of despair, not varied by grief for the dead.
“Best for him to die,” he said, in a low voice.
This was unbearable. Mary got up under pretence of going to tell Margaret that she need not come to sleep with her to-night, but really to ask Job Legh to come and cheer her father.
She stopped outside the door. Margaret was practising her singing, and through the still night air her voice rang out, like that of an angel —
“Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God.”
The old Hebrew prophetic words fell like dew on Mary’s heart. She could not interrupt. She stood listening and “comforted,” till the little buzz of conversation again began, and then entered and told her errand.
Both grandfather and grand-daughter rose instantly to fulfil her request.
“He’s just tired out, Mary,” said old Job. “He’ll be a different man tomorrow.”
There is no describing the looks and tones that have power over an aching, heavy-laden heart; but in an hour or so John Barton was talking away as freely as ever, though all his talk ran, as was natural, on the disappointment of his fond hope, of the forlorn hope of many.
“Ay, London’s a fine place,” said he, “and finer folk live in it than I ever thought on, or ever heerd tell on except in th’ storybooks. They are having their good things now, that afterwards they may be tormented.”
Still at the old parable of Dives and Lazarus! Does it haunt the minds of the rich as it does those of the poor?
“Do tell us all about London, dear father,” asked Mary, who was sitting at her old post by her father’s knee.
“How can I tell yo a’ about it, when I never see’d one-tenth of it. It’s as big as six Manchesters, they telled me. One-sixth may be made up o’ grand palaces, and three-sixths o’ middling kind, and th’ rest o’ holes o’ iniquity and filth, such as Manchester knows nought on, I’m glad to say.”
“Well, father, but did you see the Queen?”
“I believe I didn’t, though one day I thought I’d seen her many a time. You see,” said he, turning to Job Legh, “there were a day appointed for us to go to Parliament House. We were most on us biding at a public-house in Holborn, where they did very well for us. Th’ morning of taking our petition we had such a spread for breakfast as th’ Queen hersel might ha’ sitten down to. I suppose they thought we wanted putting in heart. There were mutton kidneys, and sausages, and broiled ham, and fried beef and onions; more like a dinner nor a breakfast. Many on our chaps though, I could see, could eat but little. Th’ food stuck in their throats when they thought o’ them at home, wives and little ones, as had, maybe at that very time, nought to eat. Well, after breakfast, we were all set to walk in procession, and a time it took to put us in order, two and two, and the petition, as was yards long, carried by the foremost pairs. The men looked grave enough, yo may be sure and such a set of thin, wan, wretched-looking chaps as they were!”
“Yourself is none to boast on.”
“Ay, but I were fat and rosy to many a one. Well, we walked on and on through many a street, much the same as Deansgate. We had to walk slowly, slowly, for th’ carriages an’ cabs as thronged th’ streets. I thought by-and-bye we should maybe get clear on ’em, but as the streets grew wider they grew worse, and at last we were fairly blocked up at Oxford Street. We getten across it after a while though, and my eyes! the grand streets we were in then! They’re sadly puzzled how to build houses though in London; there’d be an opening for a good steady master builder there, as know’d his business. For yo see the houses are many on ’em built without any proper shape for a body to live in; some on ’em they’ve after thought would fall down, so they’ve stuck great ugly pillars out before ’em. And some on ’em (we thought they must be th’ tailors’ sign) had getten stone men and women as wanted clothes stuck on ’em. I were like a child, I forgot a’ my errand in looking about me. By this it were dinner-time, or better, as we could tell by the sun, right above our heads, and we were dusty and tired, going a step now and a step then. Well, at last we getten into a street grander nor all, leading to th’ Queen’s palace, and there it were I thought I saw th’ Queen. Yo’ve seen th’ hearses wi’ white plumes, Job?”
“Well, them undertaker folk are driving a pretty trade in London. Well-nigh every lady we saw in a carriage had hired one o’ them plumes for the day, and had it niddle noddling on her head. It were the Queen’s Drawing-room, they said, and the carriages went bowling along towards her house, some wi’ dressed-up gentlemen like circus folk in ’em, and rucks28 o’ ladies in others. Carriages themselves were great shakes too. Some o’ the gentlemen as couldn’t get inside hung on behind, wi’ nosegays to smell at, and sticks to keep off folk as might splash their silk stockings. I wonder why they didn’t hire a cab rather than hang on like a whip-behind boy; but I suppose they wished to keep wi’ their wives, Darby and Joan like. Coachmen were little squat men, wi’ wigs like the oud-fashioned parsons’. Well, we could na get on for these carriages, though we waited and waited. Th’ horses were too fat to move quick; they never known want o’ food, one might tell by their sleek coats; and police pushed us back when we tried to cross. One or two of ’em struck wi’ their sticks, and coachmen laughed, and some officers as stood nigh put their spy-glasses in their eye, and left ’em sticking there like mountebanks. One o’ th’ police struck me. ‘Whatten business have you to do that?’ said I.
28 Rucks; a great quantity.
“‘You’re frightening them horses,’ says he, in his mincing way (for Londoners are mostly all tongue-tied, and can’t say their a’s and i’s properly, ‘and it’s our business to keep you from molesting the ladies and gentlemen going to her Majesty’s Drawing-room.’
“‘And why are we to be molested?’ asked I, ‘going decently about our business, which is life and death to us, and many a little one clemming at home in Lancashire? Which business is of most consequence i’ the sight o’ God, think yo, ourn or them grand ladies and gentlemen as yo think so much on?’
“But I might as well ha’ held my peace, for he only laughed.”
John ceased. After waiting a little, to see if he would go on himself, Job said —
“Well, but that’s not a’ your story, man. Tell us what happened when you got to th’ Parliament House.”
After a little pause, John answered —
“If you please, neighbour, I’d rather say nought about that. It’s not to be forgotten, or forgiven either, by me or many another; but I canna tell of our down-casting just as a piece of London news. As long as I live, our rejection of that day will abide in my heart; and as long as I live I shall curse them as so cruelly refused to hear us; but I’ll not speak of it no29 more.”
29 A similar use of a double negative is frequent in Chaucer; as in the “Miller’s Tale”:
“That of no wife toke he non offering
For curtesie, he sayd, he n’old non.”
So, daunted in their inquiries, they sat silent for a few minutes.
Old Job, however, felt that some one must speak, else all the good they had done in dispelling John Barton’s gloom was lost. So after a while he thought of a subject, neither sufficiently dissonant from the last to jar on a full heart, nor too much the same to cherish the continuance of the gloomy train of thought.
“Did you ever hear tell,” said he to Mary, “that I were in London once?”
“No!” said she with surprise, and looking at Job with increased respect.
“Ay, but I were though, and Peg there too, though she minds nought about it, poor wench! You must know I had but one child, and she were Margaret’s mother. I loved her above a bit, and one day when she came (standing behind me for that I should not see her blushes, and stroking my cheeks in her own coaxing way), and told me she and Frank Jennings (as was a joiner lodging near us) should be so happy if they were married, I could not find in my heart t’ say her nay, though I went sick at the thought of losing her away from my home. However, she was my only child, and I never said nought of what I felt, for fear o’ grieving her young heart. But I tried to think o’ the time when I’d been young mysel, and had loved her blessed mother, and how we’d left father and mother, and gone out into th’ world together, and I’m now right thankful I held my peace, and didna fret her wi’ telling her how sore I was at parting wi’ her that were the light o’ my eyes.”
“But,” said Mary, “you said the young man were a neighbour.”
“Ay, so he were, and his father afore him. But work were rather slack in Manchester, and Frank’s uncle sent him word o’ London work and London wages, so he were to go there, and it were there Margaret was to follow him. Well, my heart aches yet at thought of those days. She so happy, and he so happy; only the poor father as fretted sadly behind their backs. They were married and stayed some days wi’ me afore setting off; and I’ve often thought sin’, Margaret’s heart failed her many a time those few days, and she would fain ha’ spoken; but I knew fra’ mysel it were better to keep it pent up, and I never let on what I were feeling. I knew what she meant when she came kissing, and holding my hand, and all her old childish ways o’ loving me. Well, they went at last. You know them two letters, Margaret?”
“Yes, sure,” replied his grand-daughter.
“Well, them two were the only letters I ever had fra’ her, poor lass. She said in them she were very happy, and I believe she were. And Frank’s family heard he were in good work. In one o’ her letters, poor thing, she ends wi’ saying, ‘Farewell, Grandad!’ wi’ a line drawn under grandad, and fra’ that an’ other hints I knew she were in th’ family way; and I said nought, but I screwed up a little money, thinking come Whitsuntide I’d take a holiday and go and see her an’ th’ little one. But one day towards Whitsuntide, comed Jennings wi’ a grave face, and says he, ‘I hear our Frank and your Margaret’s both getten the fever.’ You might ha’ knocked me down wi’ a straw, for it seemed as if God told me what th’ upshot would be. Old Jennings had gotten a letter, you see, fra’ the landlady they lodged wi’; a well-penned letter, asking if they’d no friends to come and nurse them. She’d caught it first, and Frank, who was as tender o’er her as her own mother could ha’ been, had nursed her till he’d caught it himsel; and she expecting her down-lying30 everyday. Well, t’ make a long story short, old Jennings and I went up by that night’s coach. So you see, Mary, that was the way I got to London.”
30 Down-lying; lying in.
“But how was your daughter when you got there?” asked Mary anxiously.
“She were at rest, poor wench, and so were Frank. I guessed as much when I see’d th’ landlady’s face, all swelled wi’ crying, when she opened th’ door to us. We said, ‘Where are they?’ and I knew they were dead, fra’ her look; but Jennings didn’t, as I take it; for when she showed us into a room wi’ a white sheet on th’ bed, and underneath it, plain to be seen, two still figures, he screeched out as if he’d been a woman.
“Yet he’d other children and I’d none. There lay my darling, my only one. She were dead, and there were no one to love me, no, not one. I disremember31 rightly what I did; but I know I were very quiet, while my heart were crushed within me.
31 Disremember; forget.
“Jennings could na’ stand being in the room at all, so the landlady took him down, and I were glad to be alone. It grew dark while I sat there; and at last th’ landlady came up again, and said, ‘Come here.’ So I got up, and walked into the light, but I had to hold by th’ stair-rails, I were so weak and dizzy. She led me into a room, where Jennings lay on a sofa fast asleep, wi’ his pocket-handkerchief over his head for a night-cap. She said he’d cried himself fairly off to sleep. There were tea on th’ table all ready; for she were a kind-hearted body. But she still said, ‘Come here,’ and took hold o’ my arm. So I went round the table, and there were a clothes-basket by th’ fire, wi’ a shawl put o’er it. ‘Lift that up,’ says she, and I did; and there lay a little wee babby fast asleep. My heart gave a leap, and th’ tears comed rushing into my eyes first time that day. ‘Is it hers?’ said I, though I knew it were. ‘Yes,’ said she. ‘She were getting a bit better o’ the fever, and th’ babby were born; and then the poor young man took worse and died, and she were not many hours behind.’
“Little mite of a thing! and yet it seemed her angel come back to comfort me. I were quite jealous o’ Jennings whenever he went near the babby. I thought it were more my flesh and blood than his’n, and yet I were afraid he would claim it. However, that were far enough fra’ his thoughts; he’d plenty other childer, and, as I found out after, he’d all along been wishing me to take it. Well, we buried Margaret and her husband in a big, crowded, lonely churchyard in London. I were loath to leave them there, as I thought, when they rose again, they’d feel so strange at first away fra’ Manchester, and all old friends; but it could na be helped. Well, God watches o’er their graves there as well as here. That funeral cost a mint o’ money, but Jennings and I wished to do th’ thing decent. Then we’d the stout little babby to bring home. We’d not overmuch money left; but it were fine weather, and we thought we’d take th’ coach to Brummagem, and walk on. It were a bright May morning when I last saw London town, looking back from a big hill a mile or two off. And in that big mass o’ a place I were leaving my blessed child asleep — in her last sleep. Well, God’s will be done! She’s gotten to heaven afore me; but I shall get there at last, please God, though it’s a long while first.
“The babby had been fed afore we set out, and th’ coach moving kept it asleep, bless its little heart! But when th’ coach stopped for dinner it were awake, and crying for its pobbies.32 So we asked for some bread and milk, and Jennings took it first for to feed it, but it made its mouth like a square, and let it run out at each o’ the four corners. ‘Shake it, Jennings,’ says I; ‘that’s the way they make water run through a funnel, when it’s o’er full; and a child’s mouth is broad end o’ th’ funnel, and th’ gullet the narrow one.’ So he shook it, but it only cried th’ more. ‘Let me have it,’ says I, thinking he were an awkward oud chap. But it were just as bad wi’ me. By shaking th’ babby we got better nor a gill into its mouth, but more nor that came up again, wetting a’ th’ nice dry clothes landlady had put on. Well, just as we’d gotten to th’ dinner-table, and helped oursels, and eaten two mouthful, came in th’ guard, and a fine chap wi’ a sample of calico flourishing in his hand. ‘Coach is ready!’ says one; ‘Half-a-crown your dinner!’ says the other. Well, we thought it a deal for both our dinners, when we’d hardly tasted ’em; but, bless your life, it were half-a-crown apiece, and a shilling for th’ bread and milk as were possetted all over babby’s clothes. We spoke up again33 it; but everybody said it were the rule, so what could two poor oud chaps like us do again it? Well, poor babby cried without stopping to take breath, fra’ that time till we got to Brummagem for the night. My heart ached for th’ little thing. It caught wi’ its wee mouth at our coat sleeves and at our mouths, when we tried t’ comfort it by talking to it. Poor little wench! it wanted its mammy, as were lying cold in th’ grave. ‘Well,’ says I, ‘it’ll be clemmed to death, if it lets out its supper as it did its dinner. Let’s get some woman to feed it; it comes natural to women to do for babbies.’ So we asked th’ chambermaid at the inn, and she took quite kindly to it; and we got a good supper, and grew rare and sleepy, what wi’ th’ warmth and wi’ our long ride i’ the open air. Th’ chambermaid said she would like t’ have it t’ sleep wi’ her, only missis would scold so; but it looked so quiet and smiling like, as it lay in her arms, that we thought ‘t would be no trouble to have it wi’ us. I says: ‘See, Jennings, how women folk do quieten babbies; it’s just as I said.’ He looked grave; he were always thoughtful-looking, though I never heard him say anything very deep. At last says he —
“‘Young woman! have you gotten a spare nightcap?’
“‘Missis always keeps nightcaps for gentlemen as does not like to unpack,’ says she, rather quick.
32 “Pobbies,” or “pobs,” child’s porridge.
33 “Again,” for against. “He that is not with me, he is ageyn me.” — Wickliffe’s Version.
“‘Ay, but young woman, it’s one of your nightcaps I want. Th’ babby seems to have taken a mind to yo; and maybe in th’ dark it might take me for yo if I’d getten your nightcap on.’
“The chambermaid smirked and went for a cap, but I laughed outright at th’ oud bearded chap thinking he’d make hissel like a woman just by putting on a woman’s cap. Howe’er he’d not be laughed out on’t, so I held th’ babby till he were in bed. Such a night as we had on it! Babby began to scream o’ th’ oud fashion, and we took it turn and turn about to sit up and rock it. My heart were very sore for the little one, as it groped about wi’ its mouth; but for a’ that I could scarce keep fra’ smiling at th’ thought o’ us two oud chaps, th’ one wi’ a woman’s nightcap on, sitting on our hinder ends for half the night, hushabying a babby as wouldn’t be hushabied. Toward morning, poor little wench! it fell asleep, fairly tired out wi’ crying, but even in its sleep it gave such pitiful sobs, quivering up fra’ the very bottom of its little heart, that once or twice I almost wished it lay on its mother’s breast, at peace for ever. Jennings fell asleep too; but I began for to reckon up our money. It were little enough we had left, our dinner the day afore had ta’en so much. I didn’t know what our reckoning would be for that night lodging, and supper, and breakfast. Doing a sum always sent me asleep ever sin’ I were a lad; so I fell sound in a short time, and were only wakened by chambermaid tapping at th’ door, to say she’d dress the babby before her missis were up if we liked. But bless yo, we’d never thought o’ undressing it the night afore, and now it were sleeping so sound, and we were so glad o’ the peace and quietness, that we thought it were no good to waken it up to screech again.
“Well! (there’s Mary asleep for a good listener!) I suppose you’re getting weary of my tale, so I’ll not be long over ending it. Th’ reckoning left us very bare, and we thought we’d best walk home, for it were only sixty mile, they telled us, and not stop again for nought, save victuals. So we left Brummagem (which is as black a place as Manchester, without looking so like home), and walked a’ that day, carrying babby turn and turn about. It were well fed by chambermaid afore we left, and th’ day were fine, and folk began to have some knowledge o’ th’ proper way o’ speaking, and we were more cheery at thought o’ home (though mine, God knows, were lonesome enough). We stopped none for dinner, but at baggin-time34 we getten a good meal at a public-house, an’ fed th’ babby as well as we could, but that were but poorly. We got a crust too for it to suck — chambermaid put us up to that. That night, whether we were tired or whatten, I don’t know, but it were dree35 work, and th’ poor little wench had slept out her sleep, and began th’ cry as wore my heart out again. Says Jennings, says he —
“‘We should na ha’ set out so like gentlefolk a top o’ the coach yesterday.’
“‘Nay, lad! We should ha’ had more to walk if we had na ridden, and I’m sure both you and I’se36 weary o’ tramping.’
34 Baggin-time; time of the evening meal.
35 Dree; long and tedious. Anglo–Saxon, “dreogan,” to suffer, to endure.
36 “I have not been, nor IS, nor never schal.”— Wickliffe’s Apology, p. I.
“So he were quiet a bit. But he were one o’ them as were sure to find out somewhat had been done amiss when there were no going back to undo it. So presently he coughs, as if he were going to speak, and I says to myself, ‘At it again, my lad.’ Says he —
“‘I ax pardon, neighbour, but it strikes me it would ha’ been better for my son if he had never begun to keep company wi’ your daughter.’
“Well! that put me up, and my heart got very full, and but that I were carrying HER babby, I think I should ha’ struck him. At last I could hold in no longer, and says I—
“‘Better say at once it would ha’ been better for God never to ha’ made th’ world, for then we’d never ha’ been in it, to have had th’ heavy hearts we have now.’
“Well! he said that were rank blasphemy; but I thought his way of casting up again th’ events God had pleased to send, were worse blasphemy. Howe’er, I said nought more angry, for th’ little babby’s sake, as were th’ child o’ his dead son, as well as o’ my dead daughter.
“Th’ longest lane will have a turning, and that night came to an end at last; and we were footsore and tired enough, and to my mind the babby were getting weaker and weaker, and it wrung my heart to hear its little wail! I’d ha’ given my right hand for one of yesterday’s hearty cries. We were wanting our breakfasts, and so were it too, motherless babby! We could see no public-houses, so about six o’clock (only we thought it were later) we stopped at a cottage, where a woman were moving about near th’ open door. Says I, ‘Good woman, may we rest us a bit?’ ‘Come in,’ says she, wiping a chair, as looked bright enough afore, wi’ her apron. It were a cheery, clean room; and we were glad to sit down again, though I thought my legs would never bend at th’ knees. In a minute she fell a noticing th’ babby, and took it in her arms, and kissed it again and again. ‘Missis,’ says I, ‘we’re not without money and if yo’d give us somewhat for breakfast, we’d pay yo honest, and if yo would wash and dress that poor babby, and get some pobbies down its throat, for it’s well-nigh clemmed, I’d pray for you till my dying day.’ So she said nought but gived me th’ babby back, and afore you could say Jack Robinson, she’d a pan on th’ fire, and bread and cheese on th’ table. When she turned round, her face looked red, and her lips were tight pressed together. Well! we were right down glad on our breakfast, and God bless and reward that woman for her kindness that day! She fed th’ poor babby as gently and softly, and spoke to it as tenderly as its own poor mother could ha’ done. It seemed as if that stranger and it had known each other afore, maybe in heaven, where folk’s spirits come from, they say; th’ babby looked up so lovingly in her eyes, and made little noises more like a dove than aught else. Then she undressed it (poor darling! it were time), touching it so softly; and washed it from head to foot; and as many on its clothes were dirty, and what bits o’ things its mother had gotten ready for it had been sent by th’ carrier fra’ London, she put ’em aside; and wrapping little naked babby in her apron, she pulled out a key, as were fastened to a black ribbon, and hung down her breast, and unlocked a drawer in th’ dresser. I were sorry to be prying, but I could na help seeing in that drawer some little child’s clothes, all strewed wi’ lavender, and lying by ’em a little whip an’ a broken rattle. I began to have an insight into that woman’s heart then. She took out a thing or two and locked the drawer, and went on dressing babby. Just about then come her husband down, a great big fellow as didn’t look half awake, though it were getting late; but he’d heard all as had been said downstairs, as were plain to be seen; but he were a gruff chap. We’d finished our breakfast, and Jennings were looking hard at th’ woman as she were getting the babby to sleep wi’ a sort of rocking way. At length says he, ‘I ha’ learnt th’ way now; it’s two jiggits and a shake, two jiggits and a shake. I can get that babby asleep now mysel.’
“The man had nodded cross enough to us, and had gone to th’ door, and stood there, whistling wi’ his hands in his breeches-pockets, looking abroad. But at last he turns and says, quite sharp —
“‘I say, missis, I’m to have no breakfast today, I s’pose.’
“So wi’ that she kissed th’ child, a long, soft kiss, and looking in my face to see if I could take her meaning, gave me th’ babby without a word. I were loath to stir, but I saw it were better to go. So giving Jennings a sharp nudge (for he’d fallen asleep), I says, ‘Missis, what’s to pay?’ pulling out my money wi’ a jingle that she might na guess we were at all bare o’ cash. So she looks at her husband, who said ne’er a word, but were listening with all his ears nevertheless; and when she saw he would na say, she said, hesitating, as if pulled two ways, by her fear o’ him, ‘Should you think sixpence over much?’ It were so different to public-house reckoning, for we’d eaten a main deal afore the chap came down. So says I, ‘And, missis, what should we gi’ you for the babby’s bread and milk?’ (I had it once in my mind to say ‘and for a’ your trouble with it,’ but my heart would na let me say it, for I could read in her ways how it had been a work o’ love). So says she, quite quick, and stealing a look at her husband’s back, as looked all ear, if ever a back did, ‘Oh, we could take nought for the little babby’s food, if it had eaten twice as much, bless it.’ Wi’ that he looked at her; such a scowling look! She knew what he meant, and stepped softly across the floor to him, and put her hand on his arm. He seem’d as though he’d shake it off by a jerk on his elbow, but she said quite low, ‘For poor little Johnnie’s sake, Richard.’ He did not move or speak again, and after looking in his face for a minute, she turned away, swallowing deep in her throat. She kissed th’ sleeping babby as she passed, when I paid her. To quieten th’ gruff husband, and stop him if he rated her, I could na help slipping another sixpence under th’ loaf, and then we set off again. Last look I had o’ that woman she were quietly wiping her eyes wi’ the corner of her apron, as she went about her husband’s breakfast. But I shall know her in heaven.”
He stopped to think of that long ago May morning, when he had carried his grand-daughter under the distant hedgerows and beneath the flowering sycamores.
“There’s nought more to say, wench,” said he to Margaret, as she begged him to go on. “That night we reached Manchester, and I’d found out that Jennings would be glad enough to give up babby to me, so I took her home at once, and a blessing she’s been to me.”
They were all silent for a few minutes; each following out the current of their thoughts. Then, almost simultaneously, their attention fell upon Mary. Sitting on her little stool, her head resting on her father’s knee, and sleeping as soundly as any infant, her breath (still like an infant’s) came and went as softly as a bird steals to her leafy nest. Her half-open mouth was as scarlet as the winter-berries, and contrasted finely with the clear paleness of her complexion, where the eloquent blood flushed carnation at each motion. Her black eye-lashes lay on the delicate cheek, which was still more shaded by the masses of her golden hair, that seemed to form a nest-like pillar for her as she lay. Her father in fond pride straightened one glossy curl, for an instant, as if to display its length and silkiness.
The little action awoke her, and, like nine out of ten people in similar circumstances, she exclaimed, opening her eyes to their fullest extent —
“I’m not asleep. I’ve been awake all the time.”
Even her father could not keep from smiling, and Job Legh and Margaret laughed outright.
“Come, wench,” said Job, “don’t look so gloppened37 because thou’st fallen asleep while an oud chap like me was talking on oud times. It were like enough to send thee to sleep. Try if thou canst keep thine eyes open while I read thy father a bit on a poem as is written by a weaver like oursel. A rare chap I’ll be bound is he who could weave verse like this.”
37 Gloppened; amazed, frightened.
So adjusting his spectacles on nose, cocking his chin, crossing his legs, and coughing to clear his voice, he read aloud a little poem of Samuel Bamford’s38 he had picked up somewhere.
38 The fine-spirited author of ‘Passages in the Life of a Radical’—
a man who illustrates his order, and shows what nobility may be in a cottage.
God help the poor, who, on this wintry morn,
Come forth from alleys dim and courts obscure.
God help yon poor pale girl, who droops forlorn,
And meekly her affliction doth endure;
God help her, outcast lamb; she trembling stands,
All wan her lips, and frozen red her hands
Her sunken eyes are modestly downcast,
Her night-black hair streams on the fitful blast;
Her bosom, passing fair, is half revealed,
And oh! so cold, the snow lies there congealed;
Her feet benumbed, her shoes all rent and worn,
God help thee, outcast lamb, who standst forlorn!
God help the poor!
God help the poor! An infant’s feeble wail
Comes from yon narrow gateway, and behold!
A female crouching there, so deathly pale,
Huddling her child, to screen it from the cold;
Her vesture scant, her bonnet crushed and torn;
A thin shawl doth her baby dear enfold.
And so she ‘bides the ruthless gale of morn,
Which almost to her heart hath sent its cold.
And now she, sudden, darts a ravening look,
As one, with new hot bread, goes past the nook;
And, as the tempting load is onward borne,
She weeps. God help thee, helpless one, forlorn!
God help the poor!
God help the poor! Behold yon famished lad,
No shoes, nor hose, his wounded feet protect;
With limping gait, and looks so dreamy sad,
He wanders onward, stopping to inspect
Each window stored with articles of food.
He yearns but to enjoy one cheering meal;
Oh! to the hungry palate viands rude
Would yield a zest the famished only feel!
He now devours a crust of mouldy bread;
With teeth and hands the precious boon is torn
Unmindful of the storm that round his head
Impetuous sweeps. God help thee, child forlorn!
God help the poor!
God help the poor! Another have I found —
A bowed and venerable man is he;
His slouch-ed hat with faded crape is bound;
His coat is grey, and threadbare too, I see.
“The rude winds” seem “to mock his hoary hair”:
His shirtless bosom to the blast is bare.
Anon he turns and casts a wistful eye,
And with scant napkin wipes the blinding spray,
And looks around, as if he fain would spy
Friends he had feasted in his better day:
Ah! some are dead: and some have long forborne
To know the poor; and he is left forlorn!
God help the poor!
God help the poor, who in lone valleys dwell,
Or by far hills, where whin and heather grow;
Theirs is a story sad indeed to tell;
Yet little cares the world, and less ‘t would know
About the toil and want men undergo.
The wearying loom doth call them up at morn;
They work till worn-out nature sinks to sleep;
They taste, but are not fed. The snow drifts deep
Around the fireless cot, and blocks the door;
The night-storm howls a dirge across the moor;
And shall they perish thus — oppressed and lorn?
Shall toil and famine, hopeless, still be borne?
No! God will yet arise and help the poor!
“Amen!” said Barton, solemnly and sorrowfully. “Mary! wench, couldst thou copy me them lines, dost think? — that’s to say, if Job there has no objection.”
“Not I. More they’re heard and read and the better, say I.”
So Mary took the paper. And the next day, on a blank half-sheet of a valentine, all bordered with hearts and darts — a valentine she had once suspected to come from Jem Wilson — she copied Bamford’s beautiful little poem.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09