Not many years after the beginning of this century, a worthy couple of the
name of Huntroyd occupied a small farm in the North Riding of Yorkshire.
They had married late in life, although they were very young when they first
began to 'keep company' with each other. Nathan Huntroyd had been
farm-servant to Hester Rose's father, and had made up to her at a time when
her parents thought she might do better; and so, without much consultation
of her feelings, they had dismissed Nathan in somewhat cavalier fashion. He
had drifted far away from his former connections, when an uncle of his died,
leaving Nathan - by this time upwards of forty years of age - enough money
to stock a small farm, and yet have something over, to put in the bank
against bad times. One of the consequences of this bequest was, that Nathan
was looking out for a wife and housekeeper, in a kind of discreet and
leisurely way, when one day he heard that his old love, Hester, was not
married and flourishing, as he had always supposed her to be, but a poor
maid-of-all-work, in the town of Ripon. For her father had had a succession
of misfortunes, which had brought him in his old age to the workhouse; her
mother was dead; her only brother struggling to bring up a large family; and
Hester herself a hard-working, homely-looking (at thirty-seven) servant.
Nathan had a kind of growling satisfaction (which only lasted a minute or
two, however) in hearing of these turns of fortune's wheel. He did not make
many intelligible remarks to his informant, and to no one else did he say a
word. But, a few days afterwards, he presented himself, dressed in his
Sunday best, at Mrs Thompson's back-door in Ripon.
Hester stood there, in answer to the good sound knock his good sound
oak-stick made: she, with the light full upon her, he in shadow. For a
moment there was silence. He was scanning the face and figure of his old
love, for twenty years unseen. The comely beauty of youth had faded away
entirely; she was, as I have said, homely-looking, plain-featured, but with
a clean skin, and pleasant frank eyes. Her figure was no longer round, but
tidily draped in a blue and white bed-gown, tied round her waist by her
white apron-strings, and her short red linsey petticoat showed her tidy feet
and ankles. Her former lover fell into no ecstasies. He simply said to
himself, 'She'll do'; and forthwith began upon his business.
'Hester, thou dost not mind me. I am Nathan, as thy father turned off at a
minute's notice, for thinking of thee for a wife, twenty year come
Michaelmas next. I have not thought much upon matrimony since. But Uncle Ben
has died leaving me a small matter in the bank; and I have taken Nab-End
Farm, and put in a bit of stock, and shall want a missus to see after it.
Wilt like to come? I'll not mislead thee. It's dairy, and it might have been
arable. But arable takes more horses nor it suited me to buy, and I'd the
offer of a tidy lot of kine. That's all. If thou'll have me, I'll come for
thee as soon as the hay is gotten in'.
Hester only said, 'Come in, and sit thee down'.
He came in, and sat down. For a time, she took no more notice of him than of
his stick, bustling about to get dinner ready for the family whom she
served. He meanwhile watched her brisk sharp movements, and repeated to
himself, 'She'll do!' After about twenty minutes of silence thus employed,
he got up, saying -
'Well, Hester, I'm going. When shall I come back again?'
'Please thysel', and thou'll please me,' said Hester, in a tone that she
tried to make light and indifferent; but he saw that her colour came and
went, and that she trembled while she moved about. In another moment Hester
was soundly kissed; but, when she looked round to scold the middle-aged
farmer, he appeared so entirely composed that she hesitated. He said -
'I have pleased mysel', and thee too, I hope. Is it a month's wage, and a
month's warning? To-day is the eighth. July eighth is our wedding-day. I
have no time to spend a-wooing before then, and wedding must na take long.
Two days is enough to throw away, at our time o' life.'
It was like a dream; but Hester resolved not to think more about it till her
work was done. And when all was cleaned up for the evening, she went and
gave her mistress warning, telling her all the history of her life in a very
few words. That day month she was married from Mrs Thompson's house.
The issue of the marriage was one boy, Benjamin. A few years after his
birth, Hester's brother died at Leeds, leaving ten or twelve children.
Hester sorrowed bitterly over this loss; and Nathan showed her much quiet
sympathy, although he could not but remember that Jack Rose had added insult
to the bitterness of his youth. He helped his wife to make ready to go by
the waggon to Leeds. He made light of the household difficulties, which came
thronging into her mind after all was fixed for her departure. He filled her
purse, that she might have wherewithal to alleviate the immediate wants of
her brother's family. And, as she was leaving, he ran after the waggon.
'Stop, stop!' he cried. 'Hetty, if thou wilt - if it wunnot be too much for
thee - bring back one of Jack's wenches for company, like. We've enough and
to spare; and a lass will make the house winsome, as a man may say.'
The waggon moved on; while Hester had such a silent swelling of gratitude in
her heart, as was both thanks to her husband and thanksgiving to God.
And that was the way that little Bessy Rose came to be an inmate of the
Virtue met with its own reward in this instance, and in a clear and tangible
shape, too; which need not delude people in general into thinking that such
is the usual nature of virtue's rewards! Bessy grew up a bright
affectionate, active girl; a daily comfort to her uncle and aunt. She was so
much a darling in the household that they even thought her worthy of their
only son Benjamin, who was perfection in their eyes. It is not often the
case that two plain, homely people have a child of uncommon beauty; but it
is so sometimes, and Benjamin Huntroyd was one of these exceptional cases.
The hard-working, labour-and-care-marked farmer, and the mother, who could
never have been more than tolerably comely in her best days, produced a boy
who might have been an earl's son for grace and beauty. Even the hunting
squires of the neighbourhood reined up their horses to admire him, as he
opened the gates for them. He had no shyness, he was so accustomed from his
earliest years to admiration from strangers and adoration from his parents.
As for Bessy Rose, he ruled imperiously over her heart from the time she
first set eyes on him. And, as she grew older, she grew on in loving,
persuading herself that what her uncle and aunt loved so dearly it was her
duty to love dearest of all. At every unconscious symptom of the young
girl's love for her cousin, his parents smiled and winked: all was going on
as they wished; no need to go far a-field for Benjamin's wife. The household
could go on as it was now; Nathan and Hester sinking into the rest of years,
and relinquishing care and authority to those dear ones, who, in the process
of time, might bring other dear ones to share their love.
But Benjamin took it all very coolly. He had been sent to a day-school in
the neighbouring town - a grammar-school in the high state of neglect in
which the majority of such schools were thirty years ago. Neither his father
nor his mother knew much of learning. All they knew (and that directed their
choice of a school) was that they could not, by any possibility, part with
their darling to a boarding-school; that some schooling he must have, and
that Squire Pollard's son went to Highminster Grammar School. Squire
Pollardšs son, and many another son destined to make his parents' hearts
ache, went to this school. If it had not been so utterly a bad place of
education, the simple farmer and his wife might have found it out sooner.
But not only did the pupils there learn vice, they also learnt deceit.
Benjamin was naturally too clever to remain a dunce; or else, if he had
chosen so to be, there was nothing in Highminster Grammar School to hinder
his being a dunce of the first water. But, to all appearance, he grew clever
and gentleman-like. His father and mother were even proud of his airs and
graces, when he came home for the holidays; taking them for proofs of his
refinement, although the practical effect of such refinement was to make him
express his contempt for his parents' homely ways and simple ignorance. By
the time he was eighteen, an articled clerk in an attorney's office at
Highminster, - for he had quite declined becoming a 'mere clod-hopper,' that
is to say, a hard-working, honest farmer like his father - Bessy Rose was
the only person who was dissatisfied with him. The little girl of fourteen
instinctively felt there was something wrong about him. Alas! two years
more, and the girl of sixteen worshipped his very shadow, and would not see
that aught could be wrong with one so soft-spoken, so handsome, so kind as
Cousin Benjamin. For Benjamin had discovered that the way to cajole his
parents out of money for every indulgence he fancied, was to pretend to
forward their innocent scheme, and make love to his pretty cousin, Bessy
Rose. He cared just enough for her to make this work of necessity not
disagreeable at the time he was performing it. But he found it tiresome to
remember her little claims upon him, when she was no longer present. The
letters he had promised her during his weekly absence at Highminster, the
trifling commissions she had asked him to do for her, were all considered in
the light of troubles; and, even when he was with her, he resented the
inquiries she made as to his mode of passing his time, or what female
acquaintances he had in Highminster.
When his apprenticeship was ended, nothing would serve him but that he must
go up to London for a year or two. Poor Farmer Huntroyd was beginning to
repent of his ambition of making his son Benjamin a gentleman. But it was
too late to repine now. Both father and mother felt this; and, however
sorrowful they might be, they were silent, neither demurring nor assenting
to Benjamin's proposition when first he made it. But Bessy, through her
tears, noticed that both her uncle and aunt seemed unusually tired that
night, and sat hand-in-hand on the fireside settle, idly gazing into the
bright flame, as if they saw in it pictures of what they had once hoped
their lives would have been. Bessy rattled about among the supper-things, as
she put them away after Benjamin's departure, making more noise than usual -
as if noise and bustle was what she needed to keep her from bursting out
crying - and, having at one keen glance taken in the position and looks of
Nathan and Hester, she avoided looking in that direction again, for fear the
sight of their wistful faces should make her own tears overflow.
'Sit thee down, lass - sit thee down! Bring the creepie-stool to the
fireside, and let's have a bit of talk over the lad's plans,' said Nathan,
at last rousing himself to speak. Bessy came and sat down in front of the
fire, and threw her apron over her face, as she rested her head on both
hands. Nathan felt as if it was a chance which of the two women burst out
crying first. So he thought he would speak, in hopes of keeping off the
infection of tears.
'Didst ever hear of this mad plan afore, Bessy?'
'No, never!' Her voice came muffled and changed from under her apron. Hester
felt as if the tone, both of question and answer, implied blame; and this
she could not bear.
'We should ha' looked to it when we bound him; for of necessity it would ha'
come to this. There's examins, and catechizes, and I dunno what all for him
to be put through in London. It's not his fault.'
'Which on us said it were?' asked Nathan, rather put out. 'Tho', for that
matter, a few weeks would carry him over the mire, and make him as good a
lawyer as any judge among 'em. Oud Lawson the attorney told me that, in a
talk I had wi' him a bit sin. Na, na! it's the lad's own hankering after
London that makes him want for to stay there for a year, let alone two.'
Nathan shook his head.
'And if it be his own hankering,' said Bessy, putting down her apron, her
face all flame, and her eyes swollen up, 'I dunnot see harm in it. Lads
aren't like lasses, to be teed to their own fireside like th' crook yonder.
It's fitting for a young man to go abroad and see the world, afore he
Hester's hand sought Bessy's; and the two women sat in sympathetic defiance
of any blame that should be thrown on the beloved absent. Nathan only said -
'Nay, wench, dunnot wax up so; whatten's done's done; and worse, it's my
doing. I mun needs make my bairn a gentleman; and we mun pay for it.'
'Dear Uncle! he wunna spend much, I'll answer for it; and I'll scrimp and
save i' the house, to make it good.'
'Wench!' said Nathan Solemnly, 'it were not paying in cash I were speaking
on: it were paying in heart's care, and heaviness of soul. Lunnon is a place
where the devil keeps court as well as King George; and my poor chap has
more nor once welly fallen into his clutches here. I dunno what he'll do,
when he gets close within sniff of him.'
'Don't let him go, father!' said Hester, for the first time taking this
view. Hitherto she had only thought of her own grief at parting with him.
'Father, if you think so, keep him here, safe under your own eye!'
'Nay!' said Nathan, 'he's past time o' life for that. Why, there's not one
on us knows where he is at this present time, and he not gone out of our
sight an hour. He's too big to be put back i' th' go-cart, mother, or to
keep within doors, with the chair turned bottom-upwards.'
'I wish he were a wee bairn lying in my arms again! It were a sore day when
I weaned him; and I think life's been gettin' sorer and sorer at every turn
he's ta'en towards manhood.'
'Coom, lass; that's noan the way to be talking. Be thankful to Marcy that
thou'st getten a man for thy son as stands five foot eleven in's stockings,
and nešer a sick piece about him. We wunnot grudge him his fling, will we,
Bess, my wench? He'll be coming back in a year, or, may be, a bit more, and
be a' for settling in a quiet town like, wi' a wife that's noan so fur fra'
me at this very minute. An' we oud folk, as we get into years, must gi' up
farm, and tak a bit on a house near Lawyer Benjamin.'
And so the good Nathan, his own heart heavy enough, tried to soothe his
women-kind. But, of the three, his eyes were longest in closing, his
apprehensions the deepest founded.
'I misdoubt me I hanna done well by th' lad. I misdoubt me sore,' was the
thought that kept him awake till day began to dawn. 'Summat's wrong about
him, or folk would na look me wi' such piteous-like een, when they speak on
him. I can see th' meaning of it, thof I'm too proud to let on. And Lawson,
too, he holds his tongue more nor he should do, when I ax him how my lad's
getting on, and whatten sort of a lawyer he'll mak. God be marciful to
Hester an' me, if th' lad's gone away! God be marciful! But, may be, it's
this lying waking a' the night through, that maks me so fearfu'. Why, when I
were his age, I daur be bound I should ha' spent money fast enoof, i' I
could ha' come by iy. But I had to arn it; that maks a great differ'. Well!
It were hard to thwart th' child of our old age, and we waitin' so long for
to have 'un!' Next morning, Nathan rode Moggy, the cart-horse, into
Highminster to see Mr Lawson. Anybody who saw him ride out of his own yard
would have been struck with the change in him which was visible when he
returned: a change greater than a day's unusual exercise should have made in
a man of his years. He scarcely held the reins at all. One jerk of Moggy's
head would have plucked them out of his hands. His head was bent forward,
his eyes looking on some unseen thing, with long, unwinking gaze. But, as he
drew near home on his return, he made an effort to recover himself.
'No need fretting them,' he said; 'lads will be lads. But I didna think he
had it in him to be so thowtless, young as he is. Well, well! he'll, may be,
get more wisdom i' Lunnon. Anyways, it's best to cut him off fra such evil
lads as Will Hawker, and such-like. It's they as have led my boy astray. He
were a good chap till he knowed them - a good chap till he knowed them.' But
he put all his cares in the background, when he came into the house-place,
where both Bessy and his wife met him at the door, and both would fain lend
a hand to take off his great-coat.
'Theer, wenches, theer! ye might let a man alone for to get out on's
clothes! Why, I might ha' struck thee, lass. 'And he went on talking, trying
to keep them off for a time from the subject that all had at heart. But
there was no putting them off for ever; and, by dint of repeated questioning
on his wife's part, more was got out than he had ever meant to tell - enough
to grieve both his hearers sorely: and yet the brave old man still kept the
worst in his own breast.
The next day, Benjamin came home for a week or two, before making his great
start to London. His father kept him at a distance, and was solemn and quiet
in his manner to the young man. Bessy, who had shown anger enough at first,
and had uttered many a sharp speech, began to relent, and then to feel hurt
and displeased that her uncle should persevere so long in his cold, reserved
manner - and Benjamin just going to leave them! Her aunt went, tremblingly
busy, about the clothes-presses and drawers, as if afraid of letting herself
think either of the past or the future; only once or twice, coming behind
her son, she suddenly stopped over his sitting figure, and kissed his cheek,
and stroked his hair. Bessy remembered afterwards - long years afterwards -
how he had tossed his head away with nervous irritability on one of these
occasions, and had muttered - her aunt did not hear it, but Bessy did -
'Can't you leave a man alone?'
Towards Bessy herself he was pretty gracious. No other words express his
manner.. it was not warm, nor tender, nor cousinly, but there was an
assumption of underbred politeness towards her as a young, pretty woman;
which politeness was neglected in his authoritative or grumbling manner
towards his mother, or his sullen silence before his father. He once or
twice ventured on a compliment to Bessy on her personal appearance. She
stood still, and looked at him with astonishment.
'Have my eyes changed sin' last thou saw'st them,' she asked, ' that thou
must be telling me about 'em i' that fashion? I'd rayther by a deal see thee
helping thy mother, when she's dropped her knitting-needle and canna see i'
th' dusk for to pick it up.'
But Bessy thought of his pretty speech about her eyes, long after he had
forgotten making it, and when he would have been puzzled to tell the colour
of them. Many a day, after he was gone, did she look earnestly in the little
oblong looking-glass, which hung up against the wall of her little
sleeping-chamber, but which she used to take down in order to examine the
eyes he had praised, murmuring to herself, 'Pretty, soft grey eyes! Pretty,
soft grey eyes!' until she would hang up the glass again, with a sudden
laugh and a rosy blush.
In the days when he had gone away to the vague distance and vaguer place -
the city called London - Bessy tried to forget all that had gone against her
feeling of the affection and duty that a son owed to his parents; and she
had many things to forget of this kind that would keep surging up into her
mind. For instance, she wished that he had not objected to the home-spun,
home-made shirts which his mother and she had had such pleasure in getting
ready for him. He might not know, it was true - and so her love urged - how
carefully and evenly the thread had been spun: how, not content with
bleaching the yarn in the sunniest meadow, the linen, on its return from the
weaver's, had been spread out afresh on the sweet summer grass, and watered
carefully, night after night, when there was no dew to perform the kindly
office. He did not know - for no one but Bessy herself did - how many false
or large stitches, made large and false by her aunt's failing eyes (who yet
liked to do the choicest part of the stitching all by herself), Bessy had
unpicked at night in her own room, and with dainty fingers had re-stitched;
sewing eagerly in the dead of night. All this he did not know; or he could
never have complained of the coarse texture, the old-fashioned make of these
shirts, and urged on his mother to give him part of her little store of egg-
and butter-money, in order to buy newer-fashioned linen in Highminster.
When once that little precious store of his mother's was discovered, it was
well for Bessy's peace of mind that she did not know how loosely her aunt
counted up the coins, mistaking guineas for shillings, or just the other
way, so that the amount was seldom the same in the old black spoutless
teapot. Yet this son, this hope, this love, had still a strange power of
fascination over the household. The evening before he left, he sat between
his parents, a hand in theirs on either side, and Bessy on the old creepie-stool,
her head lying on her aunt's knee, and looking up at him from time to time,
as if to learn his face off by heart; till his glances, meeting hers, made
her drop her eyes, and only sigh.
He stopped up late that night with his father, long after the women had gone
to bed. But not to sleep; for I will answer for it the grey-haired mother
never slept a wink till the late dawn of the autumn day; and Bessy heard her
uncle come upstairs with heavy, deliberate footsteps, and go to the old
stocking which served him for bank, and count out the golden guineas; once
he stopped, but again he went on afresh, as if resolved to crown his gift
with liberality. Another long pause - in which she could but indistinctly
hear continued words, it might have been advice, it might be a prayer, for
it was in her uncle's voice - and then father and son came up to bed.
Bessy's room was but parted from her cousin's by a thin wooden partition;
and the last sound she distinctly heard, before her eyes, tired out with
crying, closed themselves in sleep, was the guineas clinking down upon each
other at regular intervals, as if Benjamin were playing at pitch and toss
with his father's present.
After he was gone, Bessy wished to he had asked her to walk part of the way
with him into Highminster. She was all ready, her things laid out on the
bed; but she could not accompany him without invitation.
The little household tried to close over the gap as best they might. They
seemed to set themselves to their daily work with unusual vigour; but
somehow, when evening came there had been little done. Heavy hearts never
make light work, and there was no telling how much care and anxiety each had
had to bear in secret in the field, at the wheel, or in the dairy. Formerly,
he was looked for every Saturday - looked for, though he might not come; or,
if he came, there were things to be spoken about that made his visit
anything but a pleasure: still, he might come, and all things might go
right; and then what sunshine, what gladness to those humble people! But now
he was away, and dreary winter was come on; old folks' sight fails, and the
evenings were long and sad, in spite of all Bessy could do or say. And he
did not write so often as he might - so each one thought; though each one
would have been ready to defend him from either of the others who had
expressed such a thought aloud. 'Surely,' said Bessy to herself, when the
first primroses peeped out in a sheltered and sunny hedge-bank, and she
gathered them as she passed home from afternoon church - surely, there never
will be such a dreary, miserable winter again as this has been.' There had
been a great change in Nathan and Hester Huntroyd during this last year. The
spring before, when Benjamin was yet the subject of more hopes than fears,
his father and mother looked what I may call an elderly middle-aged couple:
people who had a good deal of hearty work in them yet. Now - it was not his
absence alone that caused the change - they looked frail and old, as if each
day's natural trouble was a burden more than they could bear. For Nathan had
heard sad reports about his only child, and had told them solemnly to his
wife - as things too bad to be believed, and yet, 'God help us if he is
indeed such a lad as this!' Their eyes were become too dry and hollow for
many tears; they sat together, hand in hand; and shivered, and sighed, and
did not speak many words, or dare to look at each other: and then Hester had
'We mauna tell th' lass. Young folks' hearts break wi' a little, and she'd
be apt to fancy it were true.' Here the old woman's voice broke into a kind
of piping cry; but she struggled, and her next words were all right. 'We
mauna tell her: he's bound to be fond on her, and, may be, if she thinks
well on him, and loves him, it will bring him straight!'
'God grant it !' said Nathan.
'God shall grant it!' said Hester, passionately moaning out her words; and
then repeating them, alas! with a vain repetition.
'It's a bad place for lying, is Highminster,' said she at length, as if
impatient of the silence. 'I never knowed such a place for getting up
stories. But Bessy knows nought on 'em and nother you nor me belie'es 'em,
that's one blessing.'
But, if they did not in their hearts believe them, how came they to look so
sad and worn, beyond what mere age could make them?
Then came round another year, another winter, yet more miserable than the
last. This year, with the primroses, came Benjamin; a bad, hard, flippant
young man, with yet enough of specious manners and handsome countenance to
make his appearance striking at first to those to whom the aspect of a
London fast young man of the lowest order is strange and new. Just at first,
as he sauntered in with a swagger and an air of indifference, which was
partly assumed, partly real, his old parents felt a simple kind of awe of
him, as if he were not their son, but a real gentleman; but they had too
much fine instinct in their homely natures not to know, after a very few
minutes had passed, that this was not a true prince.
'Whatten ever does he mean,' said Hester to her niece, as soon as they were
alone, 'by a' them maks and wear-locks? And he minces his words, as if his
tongue were clipped short, or split like a magpie's. Hech! London is as bad
as a hot day i' August for spoiling good flesh; for he were a good-looking
lad when he went up; and now, look at him, with his skin gone into lines and
flourishes, just like the first page on a copybook.'
'I think he looks a good deal better, aunt, for them new-fashioned
whiskers!' said Bessy, blushing still at the remembrance of the kiss he had
given her on first seeing her - a pledge, she thought, poor girl, that, in
spite of his long silence in letter-writing, he still looked upon her as his
troth-plight wife. There were things about him which none of them liked,
although they never spoke of them; yet there was also something to gratify
them in the way in which he remained quiet at Nab-End, instead of seeking
variety, as he had formerly done, by constantly stealing off to the
neighbouring town. His father had paid all the debts that he knew of, soon
after Benjamin had gone up to London; so there were no duns that his parents
knew of to alarm him, and keep him at home. And he went out in the morning
with the old man, his father, and lounged by his side, as Nathan went round
his fields, with busy yet infirm gait; having heart, as he would have
expressed it, in all that was going on, because at length his son seemed to
take an interest in the farming affairs, and stood patiently by his side,
while he compared his own small galloways with the great shorthorns looming
over his neighbour's hedge.
'It's a slovenly way, thou seest, that of selling th' milk; folk don't care
whether its good or not, so that they get their pint-measure of stuff that's
watered afore it leaves th' beast, instead o' honest cheating by the help o'
th' pump. But look at Bessy's butter, what skill it shows! part her own
manner o' making, and part good choice o' cattle. It's a pleasure to see her
basket, a' packed ready to go to market; and it's noan o' a pleasure for to
see the buckets fu' of their blue starch-water as yon beasts give. I'm
thinking they crossed th' breed wi' a pump not long sin'. Hech! but our
Bessy's a clever canny wench! I sometimes think thou'lt be for gie'ing up th'
law, and taking to th' oud trade, when thou wedst wi' her!' This was
intended to be a skilful way of ascertaining whether there was any ground
for the old farmer's wish and prayer, that Benjamin might give up the law
and return to the primitive occupation of his father. Nathan dared to hope
it now, since his son had never made much by his profession, owing, as he
had said, to his want of a connection; and the farm, and the stock, and the
clean wife, too, were ready to his hand; and Nathan could safely rely on
himself never, in his most unguarded moments, to reproach his son with the
hardly-earned hundreds that had been spent on his education. So the old man
listened with painful interest to the answer which his son was evidently
struggling to make, coughing a little and blowing his nose before he spoke.
'Well, you see, father, law is a precarious livelihood; a man, as I may
express myself, has no chanes in the profession unless he is known - known
to the judges, and tip-top barristers, and that sort of thing. Now, you see,
my mother and you have no acquaintance that you may call exactly in that
line. But luckily I have met with a man, a friend, as I may say, who is
really a first-rate fellow, knowing everybody, from the Lord Chancellor
downwards; and he has offered me a share in his business - a partnership, in
short' - He hesitated a little.
'I'm sure that's uncommon kind of the gentleman,' said Nathan. I should like
for to thank him mysen; for it's not many as would pick up a young chap out
o' th' dirt, as it were, and say "Here's hauf my good fortune for you, sir,
and your very good health!" Most on 'em when they're gettin' a bit o' luck,
run off wi' it to keep it a' to themselves, and gobble it down in a corner.
What may be his name? for I should like to know it.'
'You don't quite apprehend me, father. A great deal of what you've said is
true to the letter. People don't like to share their good luck, as you say.'
'The more credit to them as does,' broke in Nathan.
'Ay, but, you see, even such a fine fellow as my friend Cavendish does not
like to give away half his good practice for nothing. He expects an
'"An equivalent?"' said Nathan; his voice had dropped down an octave.' And
what may that be? There's always some meaning in grand words, I take it;
though I am not book-larned enough to find it out.'
'Why, in this case, the equivalent he demands for taking me into
partnership, and afterwards relinquishing the whole business to me, is three
hundred pounds down.'
Benjamin looked sideways from under his eyes, to see how his father took the
proposition. His father struck his stick deep down in the ground; and,
leaning one hand upon it, faced round at him.
'Then thy fine friend may go and be hanged. Three hunder pounds! I'll be
darned an' danged too, if I know where to get 'em, if I'd be making a fool
o' thee an' mysen too.'
He was out of breath by this time. His son took his father's first words in
dogged silence; it was but the burst of surprise he had led himself to
expect, and did not daunt him for long.
'I should think, sir' -
'"Sir" - whatten for dost thou "sir" me? Is them your manners? I'm plain
Nathan Huntroyd, who never took on to be a gentleman; but I have paid my way
up to this time, which I shannot do much longer, if I'm to have a son coming
an' asking me for three hundred pound, just meet same as if I were a cow,
and had nothing to do but let down my milk to the first person as strokes
'Well, father,' said Benjamin, with an affectation of frankness; 'then
there's nothing for me but to do as I have often planned before - go and
'And what?' said his father, looking sharply and steadily at him.
'Emigrate. Go to America, or India, or some colony where there would be an
opening for a young man of spirit.'
Benjamin had reserved this proposition for his trump card, expecting by
means of it to carry all before him. But, to his surprise, his father
plucked his stick out of the hole he had made when he so vehemently thrust
it into the ground, and walked on four or five steps in advance; there he
stood still again, and there was a dead silence for a few minutes.
'It 'ud, may be, be the best thing thou couldst do,' the father began.
Benjamin set his teeth hard to keep in curses. It was well for poor Nathan
he did not look round then, and see the look his son gave him. 'But it would
come hard like upon us, upon Hester and me; for, whether thou'rt a good 'un
or not, thou'rt our flesh and blood, our only bairn; and, if thou'rt not all
as a man could wish, it's, may be, been the fault on our pride i' the - It 'ud
kill the missus, if he went off to Amerikay, and Bess, too, the lass as
thinks so much on him!' The speech, originally addressed to his son, had
wandered off into a monologue - as keenly listened to by Benjamin, however,
as if it had all been spoken to him. After a pause of consideration, his
father turned round:
'Yon man - I wunnot call him a friend o' yourn, to think of asking you for
such a mint o' money - is not th' only one, I'll be bound, as could give ye
a start i' the law? Other folks 'ud, may be, do it for less?'
'Not one of 'em; to give me equal advantages,' said Benjamin, thinking he
perceived signs of relenting.
'Well, then, thou may'st tell him that it's nother he nor thee as 'll see th'
sight o' three hundred pound o' my money. I'll not deny as I've a bit laid
up again' a rainy day; it's not so much as thatten, though; and a part on it
is for Bessy, as has been like a daughter to us.'
'But Bessy is to be your real daughter some day, when I've a home to take
her to,' said Benjamin; for he played very fast and loose, even in his own
mind, with his engagement with Bessy. Present with her, when she was looking
her brightest and best, he behaved to her as if they were engaged lovers;
absent from her, he looked upon her rather as a good wedge, to be driven
into his parents' favour on his behalf Now, however, he was not exactly
untrue in speaking as if he meant to make her his wife; for the thought was
in his mind, though he made use of it to work upon his father.
'It will be a dree day for us, then,' said the old man. 'But God'll have us
in His keeping, and'll, may-happen, be taking more care on us i' heaven by
that time than Bess, good lass as she is, has had on us at Nab-End. Her
heart is set on thee, too. But, lad, I hanna gotten the three hunder; I
keeps my cash i' th' stocking, thous know'st, till it reaches fifty pound,
and then I takes it to Ripon Bank. Now the last scratch they'n gi'en me made
it just two-hunder, and I hanna but on to fifteen pound yet i' the stockin',
and I meant one hunder an' the red cow's calf to be for Bess, she's ta'en
such pleasure like i' rearing it'.
Benjamin gave a sharp glance at his father, to see if he was telling the
truth; and, that a suspicion of the old man, his father, had entered into
the son's head, tells enough of his own character.
'I canna do it, I canna do it, for sure; although I shall like to think as I
had helped on the wedding. There's the black heifer to be sold yet, and
she'll fetch a matter of ten pound; but a deal on't will be needed for
seed-corn, for the arable did but bad last year, and I thought I would try -
I'll tell thee what, lad! I'll make it as though Bess lent thee her hunder,
only thou must give her a writ of hand for it; and thou shalt have a' the
money i' Ripon Bank, and see if the lawyer wunnot let thee have a share of
what he offered thee at three hunder for two. I dunnot mean for to wrong
him; but thou must get a fair share for the money. At times, I think thou'rt
done by folk; now I wadna have you cheat a bairn of a brass farthing; same
time, I wadna have thee so soft as to be cheated.'
To explain this, it should be told that some of the bills, which Benjamin
had received money from his father to pay, had been altered so as to cover
other and less creditable expenses which the young man had incurred; and the
simple old farmer, who had still much faith left in him for his boy, was
acute enough to perceive that he had paid above the usual price for the
articles he had purchased.
After some hesitation, Benjamin agreed to receive the two hundred, and
promised to employ it to the best advantage in setting himself up in
business. He had, nevertheless, a strange hankering after the additional
fifteen pounds that was left to accumulate in the stocking. It was his, he
thought, as heir to his father; and he soon lost some of his usual
complaisance for Bessy that evening, as he dwelt on the idea that there was
money being laid by for her, and grudged it to her even in imagination. He
thought more of this fifteen pounds that he was not to have than of all the
hardly-earned and humbly-saved two hundred that he was to come into
possession of. Meanwhile, Nathan was in unusual spirits that evening. He was
so generous and affectionate at heart, that he had an unconscious
satisfaction in having helped two people on the road to happiness by the
sacrifice of the greater part of his property. The very fact of having
trusted his son so largely seemed to make Benjamin more worthy of trust in
his father's estimation. The sole idea he tried to banish was, that, if all
came to pass as he hoped, both Benjamin and Bessy would be settled far away
from Nab-End; but then he had a child-like reliance that 'God would take
care of him and his missus, somehow or anodder. It wur o' no use looking too
Bessy had to hear many unintelligible jokes from her uncle that night, for
he made no doubt that Benjamin had told her all that had passed.' whereas
the truth was, his son had said never a word to his cousin on the subject.
When the old couple were in bed, Nathan told his wife of the promise he had
made to his son, and the plan in life which the advance of the two hundred
was to promote. Poor Hester was a little startled at the sudden change in
the destination of the sum, which she had long thought of with secret pride
as money i' th' bank'. But she was willing enough to part with it, if
necessary, for Benjamin. Only, how such a sum could be necessary, was the
puzzle. But even the perplexity was jostled out of her mind by the
overwhelming idea, not only of 'our Ben' settling in London, but of Bessy
going there too as his wife. This great trouble swallowed up all care about
money, and Hester shivered and sighed all the night through with distress.
In the morning, as Bessy was kneading the bread, her aunt, who had been
sitting by the fire in an unusual manner, for one of her active habits, said
'I reckon we maun go to th' shop for our bread; an' that's a thing I never
thought to come to so long as I lived.'
Bessy looked up from her kneading, surprised.
'I'm sure, I'm noan going to cat their nasty stuff. What for do ye want to
get baker's bread, aunt? This dough will rise as high as a kite in a south
'I'm not up to kneading as I could do once; it welly breaks my back; and,
when tou'rt off in London, I reckon we maun buy our bread, first time in my
'I'm not a-goin to London,' said Bessy, kneading away with fresh resolution,
and growing very red, either with the idea or the exertion.
'But our Ben is going partner wi' a great London lawyer; and thou know'st
he'll not tarry long but what he'll fetch thee.'
'Now, aunt,' said Bessy, stripping her arms of the dough, but still not
looking up, 'if that's all, don't fret yourself Ben will have twenty minds
in his head, afore he settles, eyther in business or in wedlock. I sometimes
wonder,' she said, with increasing vehemence, 'why I go on thinking on him;
for I dunnot think he thinks on me, when I'm out o' sight. I've a month's
mind to try and forget him this time, when he leaves us - that I have!'
'For shame, wench! and he to be planning and purposing, all for thy sake! It
wur only yesterday as he wur talking to thy uncle, and mapping it out so
clever; only, thou seest, wench, it'll be dree work for us when both thee
and him is gone.'
The old woman began to cry the kind of tearless cry of the aged. Bessy
hastened to comfort her; and the two talked, and grieved, and hoped, and
planned for the days that now were to be, till they ended, the one in being
consoled, the other in being secretly happy.
Nathan and his son came back from Highminster that evening, with their
business transacted in the round-about way which was most satisfactory to
the old man. If he had thought it necessary to take half as much pains in
ascertaining the truth of the plausible details by which his son bore out
the story of the offered partnership, as he did in trying to get his money
conveyed to London in the most secure manner, it would have been well for
him. But he knew nothing of all this, and acted in the way which satisfied
his anxiety best. Hecame home tired, but content; not in such high spirits
as on the night before, but as easy in his mind as he could be on the eve of
his son's departure. Bessy, pleasantly agitated by her aunt's tale of the
morning of her cousin's true love for her ('what ardently we wish we long
believe') and the plan which was to end in their marriage - end to her, the
woman, at least - looked almost pretty in her bright, blushing comeliness,
and more than once, as she moved about from kitchen to dairy, Benjamin
pulled her towards him, and gave her a kiss. To all such proceedings the old
couple were wilfully blind; and, as night drew on, every one became sadder
and quieter, thinking of the parting that was to be on the morrow. As the
hours slipped away, Bessy too became subdued; and, by and by, her simple
cunning was exerted to get Benjamin to sit down next his mother, whose very
heart was yearning after him, as Bessy saw. When once her child was placed
by her side, and she had got possession of his hand, the old woman kept
stroking it, and murmuring long unused words of endearment, such as she had
spoken to him while he was yet a little child. But all this was wearisome to
him. As long as he might play with, and plague, and caress Bessy, he had not
been sleepy; but now he yawned loudly. Bessy could have boxed his cars for
not curbing this gaping; at any rate, he need not have done it so openly -
so almost ostentatiously. His mother was more pitiful.
'Thou'rt tired, my lad!' said she, putting her hand fondly on his shoulder;
but it fell off, as he stood up suddenly, and said -
'Yes, deuced tired! I'm off to bed.' And with a rough, careless kiss all
round, even to Bessy, as if he was 'deuced tired' of playing the lover, he
was gone; leaving the three to gather up their thoughts slowly, and follow
He seemed almost impatient at them for rising betimes to see him off the
next morning, and made no more of a good-bye than some such speech as this:
'Well, good folk, when next I see you, I hope you'll have merrier faces than
you have to-day. Why, you might be going to a funeral; it's enough to scare
a man from the place; you look quite ugly to what you did last night, Bess.'
He was gone; and they turned into the house, and settled to the long day's
work without many words about their loss. They had no time for unnecessary
talking, indeed; for much had been left undone, during his short visit, that
ought to have been done, and they had now to work double tides. Hard work
was their comfort for many a long day.
For some time Benjamin's letters, if not frequent, were full of exultant
accounts of his well-doing. It is true that the details of his prosperity
were somewhat vague; but the fact was broadly and unmistakenly stated. Then
came longer pauses; shorter letters, altered in tone. About a year after he
had left them, Nathan received a letter which bewildered and irritated him
exceedingly. Something had gone wrong - what, Benjamin did not say - but the
letter ended with a request that was almost a demand, for the remainder of
his father's savings, whether in the stocking or in the bank. Now, the year
had not been prosperous with Nathan; there had been an epidemic among
cattle, and he had suffered along with his neighbours; and, moreover, the
price of cows, when he had bought some to repair his wasted stock, was
higher than he had ever remembered it before. The fifteen pounds in the
stocking, which Benjamin left, had diminished to little more than three; and
to have that required of him in so peremptory a manner! Before Nathan
imparted the contents of this letter to anyone (Bessy and her aunt had gone
to market in a neighbour's cart that day), he got pen and ink and paper, and
wrote back an ill-spelt, but very explicit and stem negative. Benjamin had
had his portion; and if he could not make it do, so much the worse for him;
his father had no more to give him. That was the substance of the letter.
The letter was written, directed, and sealed, and given to the country
postman, returning to Highminster after his day's distribution and
collection of letters, before Hester and Bessy came back from market. It had
been a pleasant day of neighbourly meeting and sociable gossip; prices had
been high, and they were in good spirits - only agreeably tired, and full of
small pieces of news. It was some time before they found out how flatly all
their talk fell on the cars of the stay-at-home listener. But, when they saw
that his depression was caused by something beyond their powers of
accounting for by any little every-day cause, they urged him to tell them
what was the matter. His anger had not gone off. It had rather increased by
dwelling upon it, and he spoke it out in good, resolute terms; and, long ere
he had ended, the two women were as sad, if not as angry, as himself.
Indeed, it was many days before either feeling wore away in the minds of
those who entertained them. Bessy was the soonest comforted, because she
found a vent for her sorrow in action: action that was half as a kind of
compensation for many a sharp word that she had spoken, when her cousin had
done anything to displease her on his last visit, and half because she
believed that he never could have written such a letter to his father,
unless his want of money had been very pressing and real; though how he
could ever have wanted money so soon, after such a heap of it had been given
to him, was more than she could justly say. Bessy got out all her savings of
little presents of sixpences and shillings, ever since she had been a child
- of all the money she had gained for the eggs of two hens, called her own;
she put the whole together, and it was above two pounds - two pounds five
and seven-pence, to speak accurately - and, leaving out the penny as a
nest-egg for her future savings, she made up the rest in a little parcel,
and sent it, with a note, to Benjamin's address in London:
'From a well-wisher.
'Dr BENJAMIN, - Unkle has lost 2 cows and a vast of monney. He is a good
deal Angored, but more Troubled. So no more at present. Hopeing this will
finding you well As it leaves us. Tho' lost to Site, To Memory Dear.
Repayment not kneeded. - Your effectonet cousin,
When this packet was once fairly sent off, Bessy began to sing again over
her work. She never expected the mere form of acknowledgement; indeed, she
had such faith in the carrier (who took parcels to York, whence they were
forwarded to London by coach), that she felt sure he would go on purpose to
London to deliver anything intrusted to him, if he had not full confidence
in the person, persons, coach and horses, to whom he committed it. Therefore
she was not anxious that she did not hear of its arrival. 'Giving a thing to
a man as one knows,' said she to herself, 'is a vast different to poking a
thing through a hole into a box, th' inside of which one has never clapped
eyes on; and yet letters get safe, some ways or another.' (The belief in the
infallibility of the post was destined to a shock before long.) But she had
a secret yearning for Benjamin's thanks, and some of the old words of love
that she had been without so long. Nay, she even thought - when, day after
day, week after week, passed by without a line - that he might be winding up
his affairs in that weary, wasteful London, and coming back to Nab-End to
thank her in person.
One day - her aunt was upstairs, inspecting the summer's make of cheeses,
her uncle out in the fields - the postman brought a letter into the kitchen
to Bessy. A country postman, even now, is not much pressed for time; and in
those days there were but few letters to distribute, and they were only sent
out from Highminster once a week into the district in which Nab-End was
situated; and, on those occasions, the letter-carrier usually paid morning
calls on the various people for whom he had letters. So, half-standing by
the dresser, half-sitting on it, he began to rummage out his bag.
'It's a queer-like thing I've got for Nathan this time. I am afraid it will
bear ill news in it; for there's 'Dead Letter Office' stamped on the top of
'Lord save us!' said Bessy, and sat down on the nearest chair, as white as a
sheet. In an instant, however, she was up; and, snatching the ominous letter
out of the man's hands, she pushed him before her out of the house, and
said, 'Be off wi' thee, afore aunt comes down'; and ran past him as hard as
she could, till she reached the field where she expected to find her uncle.
'Uncle,' said she, breathiess, 'what is it? Oh, uncle, speak! Is he dead?'
Nathan's hands trembled, and his eyes dazzled, 'Take it,' he. said, 'and
tell me what it is.'
'It's a letter - it's from you to Benjamin, it is - and there's words
written on it, 'Not known at the address given;' so they've sent it back to
the writer - that's you, uncle. Oh, it gave me such a start, with them nasty
words written outside!'
Nathan had taken the letter back into his own hands, and was turning it
over, while he strove to understand what the quick-witted Bessy had picked
up at a glance. But he arrived at a different conclusion.
'He's dead!' said he. 'The lad is dead, and he never knowed how as I were
sorry I wrote to 'un so sharp. My lad! my lad!' Nathan sat down on the
ground where he stood, and covered his face with his old, withered hands.
The letter returned to him was one which he had written, with infinite pains
and at various times, to tell his child, in kinder words and at greater
length than he had done before, the reasons why he could not send him the
money demanded. And now Benjamin was dead; nay, the old man immediately
jumped to the conclusion that his child had been starved to death, without
money, in a wild, wide, strange place. All he could say at first was -
'My heart, Bess - my heart is broken!' And he put his hand to his side,
still keeping his shut eyes covered with the other, as though he never
wished to see the light of day again. Bessy was down by his side in an
instant, holding him in her arms, chafing and kissing him.
'It's noan so bad, uncle; he's not dead; the letter does not say that,
dunnot think it. He's flitted from that lodging, and the lazy tykes dunna
know where to find him; and so they just send y' back th' letter, instead of
trying fra' house to house, as Mark Benson would. I've alwayds heerd tell on
south-country folk for laziness. He's noan dead, uncle; he's just flitted;
and he'll let us know afore long where he's gotten to. May be, it's a
cheaper place; for that lawyer has cheated him, ye reck'lect, and he'll be
trying to live for as little as he can, that's all, uncle. Dunnot take on
so; for it doesna say he's dead.'
By this time Bessy was crying with agitation, although she firmly believed
in her own view of the case, and had felt the opening of the ill-favoured
letter as a great relief. Presently she began to urge, both with word and
action, upon her uncle, that he should sit no longer on the damp grass, She
pulled him up; for he was very stiff, and, as he said, 'all shaken to
dithers.' She made him walk about, repeating over and over again her
solution of the case, always in the same words, beginning again and again,
'He's noan dead; it's just been a flitting,' and so on. Nathan shook his
head, and tried to be convinced; but it was a steady belief in his own heart
for all that. He looked so deathly ill on his return home with Bessy (for
she would not let him go on with his day's work), that his wife made sure he
had taken cold; and he, weary and indifferent to life, was glad to subside
into bed and the rest from exertion which his real bodily illness gave him.
Neither Bessy nor he spoke of the letter again, even to each other, for many
days; and she found means to stop Mark Benson's tongue and satisfy his
kindly curiously, by giving him the rosy side of her own view of the case.
Nathan got up again, an older man in looks and constitution by ten years for
that week of bed. His wife gave him many a scolding on his imprudence for
sitting down in the wet field, if ever so tired. But now she, too, was
beginning to be uneasy at Benjamin's long-continued silence. She could not
write herself; but she urged her husband many a time to send a letter to ask
for news of her lad. He said nothing in reply for some time; at length, he
told her he would write next Sunday afternoon. Sunday was his general day
for writing, and this Sunday he meant to go to church for the first time
since his illness. On Saturday he was very persistent, against his wife's
wishes (backed by Bessy as hard as she could), in resolving to go into
Highminster to market. The change would do him good, he said. But he came
home tired, and a little mysterious in his ways. When he went to the shippon
the last thing at night, he asked Bessy to go with him, and hold the
lantern, while he looked at an ailing cow; and, when they were fairly out of
the car-shot of the house, he pulled a little shop-parcel from his pocket
and said -
'Thou'lt put that on ma Sunday hat, wilt 'on, lass? It'll be a bit on a
comfort to me; for I know my lad's dead and gone, though I dunna speak on
it, for fear o' grieving th' old woman and ye.'
'I'll put it on, uncle, if - But he's noan dead.' (Bessy was sobbing.)
'I know - I know, lass. I dunnot wish other folk to hold my opinion; but Id
like to wear a bit o' crape out o' respect to my boy. It 'ud have done me
good for to have ordered a black coat; but she'd see if I had na' on my
wedding-coat, Sundays, for a' she's losing her eyesight, poor old wench! But
she'll ne'er take notice o' a bit o' crape. Thou'lt put it on all canny and
So Nathan went to church with a strip of crape, as narrow as Bessy durst
venture to make it, round his hat. Such is the contradictoriness of human
nature that, though he was most anxious his wife should not hear of his
conviction that their son was dead, he was half-hurt that none of his
neighbours noticed his sign of mourning so far as to ask him for whom he
But after a while, when they never heard a word from or about Benjamin, the
household wonder as to what had become of him grew so painful and strong,
that Nathan no longer kept the idea to himself Poor Hester, however,
rejected it with her whole will, heart, and soul. She could and would not
believe - nothing should make her believe - that her only child Benjamin had
died without some sign of love or farewell to her. No arguments could shake
her in this. She believed that, if all natural means of communication
between her and him had been cut off at the last supreme moment - if death
had come upon him in an instant, sudden and unexpected - her intense love
would have been supernaturally made conscious of the blank. Nathan at times
tried to feel glad that she should still hope to see the lad again; but at
other moments he wanted her sympathy in his grief, his self-reproach, his
weary wonder as to how and what they had done wrong in the treatment of
their son, that he had been such a care and sorrow to his parents. Bessy was
convinced, first by her aunt, and then by her uncle - honestly convinced -
on both sides of the argument, and so, for the time, able to sympathise with
each. But she lost her youth in a very few months; she looked set and
middle-aged, long before she ought to have done, and rarely smiled and never
All sorts of new arrangements were required by the blow which told so
miserably upon the energies of all the household at Nab-End. Nathan could no
longer go about and direct his two men, taking a good rum of work himself at
busy times. Hester lost her interest in the dairy; for which, indeed, her
increasing loss of sight unfitted her. Bessy would either do field-work, or
attend to the cows and the shippon, or chum, or make cheese; she did all
well, no longer merrily, but with something of stem cleverness. But she was
not sorry when her uncle, one evening, told her aunt and her that a
neighbouring farmer, job Kirkby, had made him an offer to take so much of
his land off his hands as would leave him only pasture enough for two cows,
and no arable to attend to; while Farmer Kirkby did not wish to interfere
with anything in the house, only would be glad to use some of the
out-building for his Battening cattle.
'We can do wi' Hawky and Daisy; it'll leave us eight or ten pound o' butter
to take to market i' summer time, and keep us fra' thinking too much, which
is what I'm dreading on as I get into years.'
'Ay,' said his wife. 'Thou'll not have to go so far a-field, if it's only
the Aster-Toft as is on thy hands. And Bess will have to gie up her pride i'
cheese, and tak' to making cream-butter. I'd allays a fancy for trying at
cream-butter; but th' whey had to be used; else, where I come fra', they'd
never ha' looked near whey-butter.'
When Hester was left alone with Bessy, she said, in allusion to this change
of plan -
'I'm thankful to the Lord that it is as it is; for I were allays afeared
Nathan would have to gie up the house and farm altogether, and then the lad
would na know where to find us when he came back fra' Merikay. He's gone
there for to make his fortune, I'll be bound. Keep up thy heart, lass, he'll
be home some day; and have sown his wild oats. Eh! but thatten's a pretty
story i' the Gospel about the Prodigal, who'd to cat the pigs' vittle at one
time, but ended i' clover in his father's house. And I'm sure our Nathan 'll
be ready to forgive him, and love him, and make much of him - may be, a deal
more nor me, who never gave in to 's death. It'll be liken to a resurrection
to our Nathan.'
Farmer Kirkby, then, took by far the greater part of the land belonging to
Nab-End Farm; and the work about the rest, and about the two remaining cows,
was easily done by three pairs of willing hands, with a little occasional
assistance. The Kirkby family were pleasant enough to have to deal with.
There was a son, a stiff, grave bachelor, who was very particular and
methodical about his work, and rarely spoke to any one. But Nathan took it
into his head that John Kirkby was looking after Bessy, and was a good deal
troubled in his mind in consequence; for it was the first time he had to
face the effects of his belief in his son's death; and he discovered, to his
own surprise, that he had not that implicit faith which would make it easy
for him to look upon Bessy as the wife of another man than the one to whom
she had been betrothed in her youth. As, however, John Kirkby seemed in no
hurry to make his intentions (if indeed he had any) clear to Bessy, it was
only now and then that his jealousy on behalf of his lost son seized upon
But people, old, and in deep hopeless sorrow, grow irritable at times,
however they may repent and struggle against their irritability. There were
days when Bessy had to bear a good deal from her uncle; but she loved him so
dearly and respected him so much, that, high as her temper was to all other
people, she never returned him a rough or impatient word. And she had a
reward in the conviction of his deep, true affection for her, and her aunt's
entire and most sweet dependence upon her.
One day, however - it was near the end of November - Bessy had had a good
deal to bear, that seemed more than usually unreasonable, on the part of her
uncle. The truth was, that one of Kirkby's cows was ill, and John Kirkby was
a good deal about in the farmyard; Bessy was interested about the animal,
and had helped in preparing a mash over their own fire, that had to be given
warm to the sick creature. If John had been out of the way, there would have
been no one more anxious about the affair than Nathan: both because he was
naturally kind-hearted and neighbourly, and also because he was rather proud
of his reputation for knowledge in the diseases of cattle. But because John
was about, and Bessy helping a little in what had to be done, Nathan would
do nothing, and chose to assume that nothing to think on ailed th' beast;
but lads and lasses were allays fain to be feared on something.' Now John
was upwards of forty, and Bessy nearly eight-and-twenty; so the terms lads
and lasses did not exactly apply to their case.
When Bessy brought the milk in from their own cows, towards half-past five
o'clock, Nathan bade her make the doors, and not be running out i' the dark
and cold about other folks' business; and, though Bessy was a little
surprised and a good deal annoyed at his tone, she sat down to her supper
without making a remonstrance. It had long been Nathan's custom to look out
the last thing at night, to see 'what mak' o' weather it wur'; and when,
towards half-past eight, he got his stick and went out - two or three steps
from the door, which opened into the house-place where they were sitting -
Hester put her hand on her niecešs shoulder and said -
'He's gotten a touch o' rheumatics, as twinges him and makes him speak so
sharp. I didna like to ask thee afore him, but how's yon poor beast?'
'Very ailing, belike. John Kirkby wur off for th' cow-doctor when I cam in.
I reckon they'll have to stop up wi 't a' night.'
Since their sorrows, her uncle had taken to reading a chapter in the Bible
aloud, the last thing at night. He could not read fluently, and often
hesitated long over a word, which he miscalled at length; but the very fact
of opening the book seemed to soothe those old bereaved parents; for it made
them feel quiet and safe in the presence of God, and took them out of the
cares and troubles of this world into that futurity which, however dim and
vague, was to their faithful hearts as a sure and certain rest. This little
quiet time - Nathan sitting with his hem spectacles, the tallow candle
between him and the Bible throwing a strong light on his reverent, earnest
face; Hester sitting on the other side of the fire, her head bowed in
attentive listening; now and then shaking it, and moaning a little, but when
a promise came, or any good tidings of great joy, saying 'Amen' with
fervour; Bessy by her aunt, perhaps her mind a little wandering to some
household cares, or it might be on thoughts of those who were absent - this
little quiet pause, I say, was grateful and soothing to this household, as a
lullaby to a tired child. But this night, Bessy, sitting opposite to the
long, low window, only shaded by a few geraniums that grew in the sill, and
to the door alongside that window through which her uncle had passed not a
quarter of an hour before, saw the wooden latch of the door gently and
almost noiselessly lifted up, as if some one were trying it from the
She was startled, and watched again, intently; but it was perfectly still
now. She thought it must have been that it had not fallen into its proper
place, when her uncle had come in and locked the door. It was just enough to
make her uncomfortable, no more; and she almost persuaded herself it must
have been fancy. Before going upstairs, however, she went to the window, to
look out into the darkness; but all was still. Nothing to be seen; nothing
to be heard. So the three went quietly upstairs to bed.
The house was little better than a cottage. The front door opened on a
house-place, over which was the old couple's bed-room. To the left, as you
entered this pleasant house-place, and at close right angles with the
entrance, was a door that led into the small parlour, which was Hester's and
Bessy's pride, although not half as comfortable as the house-place, and
never on any occasion used as a sitting-room. There were shells and bunches
of honesty in the fireplace; the best chest of drawers, and a company set of
gaudy-coloured china, and a bright common carpet on the floor; but all
failed to give it the aspect of the homely comfort and delicate cleanliness
of the house-place. Over this parlour was the bedroom which Benjamin had
slept in when a boy, when at home. It was kept, still, in a kind of
readiness for him. The bed was yet there, in which none had slept since he
had last done, eight or nine years ago; and every now and then a warming-pan
was taken quietly and silently up by his old mother, and the bed thoroughly
aired. But this she did in her husband's absence, and without saying a word
to anyone; nor did Bessy offer to help her, though her eyes often filled
with tears, as she saw her aunt still going through the hopeless service.
But the room had become a receptacle for all unused things; and there was
always a corner of it appropriated to the winter's store of apples. To the
left of the house-place, as you stood facing the fire, on the side opposite
to the window and outer door, were two other doors; the one on the right led
into a kind of back kitchen, and had a lean-to roof, and a door opening on
to the farm-yard and back-premises; the left-hand door gave on the stairs,
underneath which was a closet, in which various house-hold treasures were
kept; and beyond that was the dairy, over which Bessy slept, her little
chamber window opening just above the sloping roof of the back-kitchen.
There were neither blinds nor shutters to any of the windows, either
upstairs or down; the house was built of stone; and there was heavy
framework of the same material around the little casement windows, and the
long, low window of the house-place was divided by what, in grander
dwellings, would be called mullions.
By nine o'clock this night of which I am speaking, all had gone upstairs to
bed; it was even later than usual, for the burning of candles was regarded
so much in the light of an extravagance, that the household kept early hours
even for country-folk. But, somehow, this evening, Bessy could not sleep;
although in general she was in deep slumber five minutes after her head
touched the pillow. Her thoughts ran on the chances for John Kirkby's cow,
and a little fear lest the disorder might be epidemic and spread to their
own cattle. Across all these homely cares came a vivid, uncomfortable
recollection of the way in which the door-latch went up and down, without
any sufficient agency to account for it. She felt more sure now than she had
done downstairs, that it was a real movement, and no effect of her
imagination. She wished that it had not happened just when her uncle was
reading, that she might at once have gone quick to the door, and convinced
herself of the cause. As it was, her thoughts ran uneasily on the
supernatural; and thence to Benjamin, her dear cousin and playfellow, her
early lover. She had long given him up as lost for ever to her, if not
actually dead; but this very giving him up for ever involved a free, full
forgiveness of all his wrongs to her. She thought tenderly of him, as of one
who might have been led astray in his later years, but who existed rather in
her recollection as the innocent child, the spirited lad, the handsome,
dashing young man. If John Kirkby's quiet attentions had ever betrayed his
wishes to Bessy - if indeed he ever had any wishes on the subject - her
first feeling would have been to compare his weather-beaten, middle-aged
face and figure with the face and figure she remembered well, but never more
expected to see in this life. So thinking, she became very restless, and
weary of bed, and, after long tossing and turning, ending in a belief that
she should never get to sleep at all that night, she went off soundly and
As suddenly she was wide awake, sitting up in bed, listening to some noise
that must have awakened her, but which was not repeated for some time.
Surely it was in her uncle's room - her uncle was up; but, for a minute or
two, there was no further sound. Then she heard him open his door, and go
downstairs, with hurried, stumbling steps. She now thought that her aunt
must be ill, and hastily sprang out of bed, and was putting on her petticoat
with hurried, trembling hands, and had just opened her chamber door, when
she heard the front door undone, and a scuffle, as of the feet of several
people, and many rude, passionate words, spoken hoarsely below the breath.
Quick as thought she understood it all - the house was lonely - her uncle
had the reputation of being well-to-do - they had pretended to be belated,
and had asked their way or something. What a blessing that John Kirkby's cow
was sick, for there were several men watching with him! She went back,
opened her window, squeezed herself out, slid down the lean-to roof, and ran
barefoot and breathless to the shippon -
'John, John, for the love of God, come quick; there's robbers in the house,
and uncle and aunt 'll be murdered!' she whispered, in terrified accents,
through the closed and barred shippon door. In a moment it was undone, and
John and the cow-doctor stood there, ready to act, if they but understood
her rightly. Again she repeated her words, with broken, half-unintelligible
explanations of what she as yet did not rightly understand.
'Front door is open, say'st thou?' said John, arming himself with a
pitchfork, while the cow-doctor took some other implement. 'Then I reckon
we'd best make for that way o' getting into th' house, and catch 'em all in
'Run! run!' was all Bessy could say, taking hold of John Kirkby's arm, and
pulling him along with her. Swiftly did the three run to the house round the
corner, and in at the open front-door. The men carried the hem lantern they
had been using in the shippon; and, by the sudden oblong light that it
threw, Bessy saw the principal object of her anxiety, her uncle, lying
stunned and helpless on the kitchen-floor. Her first thought was for him;
for she had no idea that her aunt was in any immediate danger, although she
heard the noise of feet, and fierce, subdued voices upstairs.
'Make th' door behind us, lass. We'll not let 'em escape!' said brave John
Kirkby, dauntless in a good cause, though he knew not how many there might
be above. The cow-doctor fastened and locked the door, saying, 'There!' in a
defiant tone, as he put the key in his pocket. It was to be a struggle for
life or death, or, at any rate, for effectual capture or desperate escape.
Bessy kneeled down by her uncle, who did not speak or give any sign of
consciousness. Bessy raised his head by drawing a pillow off the settle, and
putting it under him; she longed to go for water into the back kitchen, but
the sound of a violent struggle, and of heavy blows, and of low, hard curses
spoken through closed teeth, and muttered passion, as though breath were too
much needed for action to be wasted in speech, kept her still and quiet by
her uncle's side in the kitchen, where the darkness might almost be felt, so
thick and deep was it. Once - in a pause of her own heart's beating - a
sudden terror came over her; she perceived, in that strange way in which the
presence of a living creature forces itself on our consciousness in the
darkest room, that someone was near her, keeping as still as she. It was not
the poor old man's breathing that she heard, nor the radiation of his
presence that she felt; someone else was in the kitchen; another robber,
perhaps, left to guard the old man, with murderous intent if his
consciousness returned. Now Bessy was fully aware that self-preservation
would keep her terrible companion quiet, as there was no motive for his
betraying himself stronger than the desire of escape; any effort for which
he, the unseen witness, must know would be rendered abortive by the fact of
the door being locked.
Yet, with the knowledge that he was there, close to her still, silent as the
grave - with fearful, it might be deadly, unspoken thoughts in his heart -
possibly even with keener and stronger sight than hers, as longer accustomed
to the darkness, able to discern her figure and posture, and glaring at her
like some wild beast - Bessy could not fail to shrink from the vision that
her fancy presented! And still the struggle went on upstairs; feet slipping,
blows sounding, and the wrench of intentioned aims, the strong gasps for
breath, as the wrestlers paused for an instant. In one of these pauses,
Bessy felt conscious of a creeping movement close to her, which ceased when
the noise of the strife above died away, and was resumed when it again
began. She was aware of it by some subtle vibration of the air, rather than
by touch or sound. She was sure that he who had been close to her one minute
as she knelt, was, the next, passing stealthily towards the inner door which
led to the staircase. She thought he was going to join and strengthen his
accomplices, and, with a great cry, she sprang after him; but just as she
came to the doorway, through which some dim portion of light from the upper
chambers came, she saw one man thrown downstairs, with such violence that he
fell almost at her very feet, while the dark, creeping figure glided
suddenly away to the left, and as suddenly entered the closet beneath the
stairs. Bessy had no time to wonder as to his purpose in so doing, whether
he had at first designed to aid his accomplices in their desperate fight or
not. He was an enemy, a robber, that was all she knew, and she sprang to the
door of the closet, and in a trice had locked it on the outside. And then
she stood frightened, panting in that dark corner, sick with terror lest the
man who lay before her was either John Kirkby or the cow-doctor. If it were
either of those friendly two, what would become of the other - of her uncle,
her aunt, herself? But, in a very few minutes, this wonder was ended; her
two defenders came slowly and heavily down the stairs, dragging with them a
man, fierce, sullen, despairing - disabled with terrible blows, which had
made his face one bloody, swollen mass. As for that, neither John nor the
cow-doctor was much more presentable. One of them bore the lantern in his
teeth; for all their strength was taken up by the weight of the fellow they
'Take care,' said Bessy, from her corner; 'there's a chap just beneath your
feet. I dunno know if he's dead or alive; and uncle lies on the floor just
They stood still on the stairs for a moment. just then the robber they had
thrown downstairs stirred and moaned.
'Bessy,' said John, 'run off to th' stable and fetch ropes and gearing for
us to bind 'em; and we'll rid the house on 'em, and thou can'st go see after
th' oud folks, who need it sadly.'
Bessy was back in a very few minutes. When she came in, there was more light
in the house-place, for someone had stirred up the raked fire.
'That felly makes as though his leg were broken,' said John, nodding towards
the man still lying on the ground. Bessy felt almost sorry for him as they
handled him - not over-gently - and bound him, only half-conscious, as
hardly and tightly as they had done his fierce, surly companion. She even
felt sorry for his evident agony, as they turned him over and over, that she
ran to get him a cup of water to moisten his lips.
'I'm loth to leave yo' with him alone,' said John, 'though I'm thinking his
leg is broken for sartin, and he can't stir, even if he comes to hissel, to
do yo' any harm. But we'll just take off this chap, and mak sure of him, and
then one on us 'll come back to yo', and we can, may be, find a gate or so
for yo' to get shut on him o' th' house. This felly's made safe enough, I'll
be bound,' said he, looking at the burglar, who stood, bloody and black,
with fell hatred on his sullen face. His eye caught Bessy's, as hers fell on
him with dread so evident that it made him smile; and the look and the smile
prevented the words from being spoken which were on Bessy's lips.
She dared not tell, before him, that an able-bodied accomplice still
remained in the house; lest, somehow, the door which kept him a prisoner
should be broken open and the fight renewed. So she only said to John, as he
was leaving the house -
'Thou'll not be long away, for I'm afeared of being left wi' this man.'
'He'll noan do thee harm,' said John.
'No! but I'm feared lest he should die. And there's uncle and aunt. Come
back soon, John!'
'Ay, ay!' said he, half-pleased; 'I'll be back, never fear me.'
So Bessy shut the door after them, but did not lock it, for fear of
mischances in the house, and went once more to her uncle, whose breathing,
by this time, was easier than when she had first returned into the
house-place with John and the doctor. By the light of the fire, too, she
could now see that he had received a blow on the head, which was probably
the occasion of his stupor. Round this wound, which was bleeding pretty
freely, Bessy put cloths dipped in cold water; and then, leaving him for a
time, she lighted a candle, and was about to go upstairs to her aunt, when,
just as she was passing the bound and disabled robber, she heard her name
softly, urgently called -
'Bessy, Bessy!' At first the voice sounded so close that she thought it must
be the unconscious wretch at her feet. But, once again, that voice thrilled
'Bessy, Bessy! for God's sake, let me out!'
She went to the stair-closet door, and tried to speak, but could not, her
heart beat so terribly. Again, close to her ear -
'Bessy, Bessy! they'll be back directly; let me out, I say! For God's sake,
let me out!' And he began to kick violently against the panels.
'Hush! hush!' she said, sick with a terrible dread, yet with a will strongly
resisting her conviction. 'Who are you?' But she knew - knew quite well.
'Benjamin.' An oath. 'Let me out, I say, and I'll be off, and out of England
by to-morrow night, never to come back, and you'll have all my father's
'D'ye think I care for that?' said Bessy vehemently, feeling with trembling
hands for the lock; 'I wish there was noan such a thing as money i' the
world, afore yo'd come to this. There, yo 're free, and I charge yo' never
to let me see your face again. I'd ne'er ha' let yo' loose but for fear o'
breaking their hearts, if yo' hanna killed him already.' But, before she had
ended her speech, he was gone - off into the black darkness, leaving the
door open wide. With a new terror in her mind, Bessy shut it afresh - shut
it and bolted it this time. Then she sat down on the first chair, and
relieved her soul by giving a great and exceeding bitter cry. But she knew
it was no time for giving way; and, lifting herself up with as much effort
as if each of her limbs was a heavy weight, she went into the back kitchen,
and took a drink of cold water. To her surprise, she heard her uncle's voice
saying feebly -
'Carry me up, and lay me by her.'
But Bessy could not carry him; she could only help his faint exertions to
walk upstairs; and, by the time he was there, sitting panting on the first
chair she could find, John Kirkby and Atkinson returned. John came up now to
her aid. Her aunt lay across the bed in a fainting-fit, and her uncle sat in
so utterly broken-down a state that Bessy feared immediate death for both.
But John cheered her up, and lifted the old man into his bed again; and,
while Bessy tried to compose poor Hester's limbs into a position of rest,
John went down to hunt about for the little store of gin which was always
kept in a corner cupboard against emergencies.
'They've had a sore fright,' said he, shaking his head, as he poured a
little gin and hot water into their mouths with a tea-spoon, while Bessy
chafed their cold feet; 'and it and the cold have been welly too much for 'em,
poor old folk!'
He looked tenderly at them, and Bessy blessed him in her heart for that
'I maun be off. I sent Atkinson up to th' farm for to bring down Bob, and
Jack came wi' him back to th' shippon, for to look after t'other man. He
began blackguarding us all round, so Bob and Jack were gagging him wi'
bridles when I left.'
'Ne'er give heed to what he says,' cried poor Bessy, a new panic besetting
her. 'Folks o' his sort are allays for dragging other folk into their
mischief. I'm right glad he were well gagged.'
'Well! but what I were saying were this: Atkinson and me will take tšother
chap, who seems quiet enough, to th' shippon, and it'll be one piece o' work
for to mind them and the cow; and I'll saddle t' old bay mare and ride for
constables and doctor fra' Highminster. I'll bring Dr Preston up to see
Nathan and Hester first; and then, I reckon, th' broken-legged chap down
below must have his turn for all as he's met wi' his misfortunes in a wrong
line o' life.'
'Ay!' said Bessy. 'We maun ha' the doctor sure enough, for look at them how
they lie - like two stone statues on a church monument, so sad and solemn!'
'There's a look o' sense come back into their faces though, sin' they supped
that gin-and-water. I'd keep on a-bathing his head and giving them a sup
on't fra' time to time, if I was you, Bessy.'
Bessy followed him downstairs, and lighted the men out of the house. She
dared not light them carrying their burden even, until they passed round the
corner of the house; so strong was her fearful conviction that Benjamin was
lurking near, seeking again to enter. She rushed back into the kitchen,
bolted and barred the door, and pushed the end of the dresser against it,
shutting her eyes as she passed the uncurtained window, for fear of catching
a glimpse of a white face pressed against the glass, and gazing at her. The
poor old couple lay quiet and speechless, although Hester's position had
slightly altered: she had turned a little on her side towards her husband,
and had laid one shrivelled arm around his neck. But he was just as Bessy
had left him, with the wet cloths around his head, his eyes not wanting in a
certain intelligence, but solemn, and unconscious to all that was passing
around as the eyes of death.
His wife spoke a little from time to time - said a word of thanks, perhaps,
or so; but he, never. All the rest of that terrible night, Bessy tended the
poor old couple with constant care, her own heart so stunned and bruised in
its feelings that she went about her pious duties almost like one in a
dream. The November morning was long in coming; nor did she perceive any
change, either for the worse or the better, before the doctor came, about
eight o'clock. John Kirkby brought him; and was full of the capture of the
As far as Bessy could make out, the participation of that unnatural Third
was unknown. It was a relief, almost sickening in the revulsion it gave her
from her terrible fear, which now she felt had haunted and held possession
of her all night long, and had, in fact, paralysed her from thinking. Now
she felt and thought with acute and feverish vividness, owing, no doubt, in
part, to the sleepless night she had passed. She felt almost sure that her
uncle (possibly her aunt, too) had recognised Benjamin; but there was a
faint chance that they had not done so, and wild horses should never tear
the secret from her, nor should any inadvertent word betray the fact that
there had been a third person concerned. As to Nathan, he had never uttered
a word. It was her aunt's silence that made Bessy fear lest Hester knew,
somehow, that her son was concerned.
The doctor examined them both closely; looked hard at the wound on Nathan's
head; asked questions which Hester answered shortly and unwillingly, and
Nathan not at all - shutting his eyes, as if even the sight of a stranger
was pain to him. Bessy replied, in their stead, to all that she could answer
respecting their state, and followed the doctor downstairs with a beating
heart. When they came into the house-place, they found John had opened the
outer door to let in some fresh air, had brushed the hearth and made up the
fire, and put the chairs and table in their right places. He reddened a
little, as Bessy's eye fell upon his swollen and battered face, but tried to
smile it off in a dry kind of way -
'Yo' see, I'm an ould bachelor, and I just thought as I'd redd up things a
bit. How dun yo' find 'em, doctor?'
'Well, the poor old couple have had a terrible shock. I shall send them some
soothing medicine to bring down the pulse, and a lotion for the old man's
head. It is very well it bled so much; there might have been a good deal of
inflammation.' And so he went on, giving directions to Bessy for keeping
them quietly in bed through the day. From these directions she gathered that
they were not, as she had feared all night long, near to death. The doctor
expected them to recover, though they would require care. She almost wished
it had been otherwise, and that they, and she too, might have just lain down
to their rest in the churchyard - so cruel did life seem to her; so dreadful
the recollection of that subdued voice of the hidden robber smiting her with
All this time, John was getting things ready for breakfast, with something
of the handiness of a woman. Bessy half-resented his officiousness in
pressing Dr Preston to have a cup of tea, she did so want him to be gone and
leave her alone with her thoughts. She did not know that all was done for
love of her; that the hard-featured, short-spoken John was thinking all the
time how ill and miserable she looked, and trying with tender artifices to
make it incumbent upon her sense of hospitality to share Dr Preston's meal.
'I've seen as the cows is milked,' said he, 'yourn and all; and Atkinson's
brought ours round fine. Whatten a marcy it were as she were sick this very
night! Yon two chaps 'ud ha' made short work on't, if yo' hadna fetched us
in; and, as it were, we had a sore tussle. One on 'em 'll bear the marks
on't to his dying day, wunnot he, doctor?'
'He'll barely have his leg well enough to stand his trial at York Assizes;
they're coming off in a fortnight from now.'
'Ay, and that reminds me, Bessy, yo'll have to go witness before Justice
Royds. Constables bade me tell yo' and gie yo' this summons. Dunnot be
feared: it will not be a long job, though I'm not saying as it'll be a
pleasant one. Yo'll have to answer questions as to how, and all about it;
and Jane' (his sister) 'will come and stop wi' th' oud folks; and I'll drive
yo' in the shandry.'
No one knew why Bessy's colour blenched, and her eye clouded. No one knew
how she apprehended lest she should have to say that Benjamin had been of
the gang; if indeed, in some way, the law had not followed on his heels
quick enough to catch him.
But that trial was spared her; she was warned by John to answer questions,
and say no more than was necessary, for fear of making her story less clear;
and, as she was known, by character at least, to justice Royds and his
clerk, they made the examination as little formidable as possible.
When all was over, and John was driving her back again, he expressed his
rejoicing that there would be evidence enough to convict the men, without
summoning Nathan and Hester to identify them. Bessy was so tired that she
hardly understood what an escape it was; how far greater than even her
Jane Kirkby stayed with her for a week or more, and was an unspeakable
comfort. Otherwise she sometimes thought she should have gone mad, with the
face of her uncle always reminding her, in its stony expression of agony, of
that fearful night. Her aunt was softer in her sorrow, as became one of her
faithful and pious nature; but it was easy to see how her heart bled
inwardly. She recovered her strength sooner than her husband; but, as she
recovered, the doctor perceived the rapid approach of total blindness. Every
day, nay, every hour of the day, that Bessy dared, without fear of exciting
their suspicions of her knowledge, she told them, as she had anxiously told
them at first, that only two men, and those perfect strangers, had been
discovered as being concerned in the burglary. Her uncle would never have
asked a question about it, even if she had withheld all information
respecting the affair; but she noticed the quick, watching, waiting glance
of his eye, whenever she returned from any person or place where she might
have been supposed to gain intelligence if Benjamin were suspected or
caught: and she hastened to relieve the old man's anxiety, by always telling
all that she had heard; thankful that, as the days passed on, the danger she
sickened to think of grew less and less.
Day by day, Bessy had ground for thinking that her aunt knew more than she
had apprehended at first. There was something so very humble and touching in
Hester's blind way of feeling about for her husband - stern, woe-begone
Nathan - and mutely striving to console him in the deep agony of which Bessy
learnt, from this loving, piteous manner, that her aunt was conscious. Her
aunt's face looked blankly up into his, tears slowly running down from her
sightless eyes; while from time to time, when she thought herself unheard by
any save him, she would repeat such texts as she had heard at church in
happier days, and which she thought, in her true, simple piety, might tend
to console him. Yet, day by day, her aunt grew more and more sad.
Three or four days before assize-time, two summonses to attend the trial at
York were sent to the old people. Neither Bessy, nor John, nor Jane, could
understand this: for their own notices had come long before, and they had
been told that their evidence would be enough to convict.
But, alas! the fact was, that the lawyer employed to defend the prisoners
had heard from them that there was a third person engaged, and had heard who
that third person was; and it was this advocate's business to diminish, if
possible, the guilt of his clients, by proving that they were but tools in
the hands of one who had, from his superior knowledge of the premises and
the daily customs of the inhabitants, been the originator and planner of the
whole affair. To do this, it was necessary to have the evidence of the
parents, who, as the prisoners had said, must have recognised the voice of
the young man, their son. For no one knew that Bessy, too, could have borne
witness to his having been present; and, as it was supposed that Benjamin
had escaped out of England, there was no exact betrayal of him on the part
of his accomplices.
Wondering, bewildered, and weary, the old couple reached York, in company
with John and Bessy, on the eve of the day of the trial. Nathan was still so
self-contained that Bessy could never guess what had been passing in his
mind. He was almost passive under his old wife's trembling caresses. He
seemed hardly conscious of them, so rigid was his demeanour.
She, Bessy feared at times, was becoming childish; for she had evidently so
great and anxious a love for her husband, that her memory seemed going in
her endeavours to melt the stoniness of his aspect and manners; she appeared
occasionally to have forgotten why he was so changed, in her piteous little
attempts to bring him back to his former self
'They'll, for sure, never torture them, when they see what old folks they
are!' cried Bessy, on the morning of the trial, a dim fear looming over her
mind. 'They'll never be so cruel, for sure?'
But 'for sure' it was so. The barrister looked up at the judge, almost
apologetically, as he saw how hoary-headed and woeful an old man was put
into the witness-box, when the defence came on, and Nathan Huntroyd was
called on for his evidence.
'It is necessary, on behalf of my clients, my lord, that I should pursue a
course which, for all other reasons, I deplore.'
'Go on!' said the judge. 'What is right and legal must be done.' But, an old
man himself, he covered his quivering mouth with his hand as Nathan, with
grey, unmoved face, and solemn, hollow eyes, placing his two hands on each
side of the witness-box, prepared to give his answers to questions, the
nature of which he was beginning to foresee, but would not shrink from
replying to truthfully; 'the very stones' (as he said to himself, with a
kind of dulled sense of the Eternal justice) 'rise up against such a
'Your name is Nathan Huntroyd, I believe?'
'You live at Nab-End Farm?'
'Do you remember the night of November the twelfth?'
'You were awakened that night by some noise, I believe. What was it?'
The old man's eyes fixed themselves upon his questioner with the look of a
creature brought to bay. That look the barrister never forgets. It will
haunt him till his dying day.
'It was a throwing-up of stones against our window.'
'Did you hear it at first?'
'What awakened you, then?'
'And then you both heard the stones. Did you hear anything else?'
A long pause. Then a low, clear 'Yes.'
'Our Benjamin asking us for to let him in. She said as it were him,
'And you thought it was him, did you not?'
'I told her' (this rime in a louder voice) 'for to get to sleep, and not be
thinking that every drunken chap as passed by were our Benjamin, for that he
were dead and gone.'
'She said as though she'd heerd our Benjamin, afore she were welly awake,
axing for to be let in. But I bade her ne'er heed her dreams, but turn on
her other side and get to sleep again.'
'And did she?'
A long pause - judge, jury, bar, audience, all held their breath. At length
Nathan said -
'What did you do then? (My lord, I am compelled to ask these painful
'I saw she wadna be quiet: she had allays thought he would come back to us,
like the Prodigal i' th' Gospels.' (His voice choked a little; but he tried
to make it steady, succeeded, and went on.) 'She said, if I wadna get up,
she would; and just then I heerd a voice. I'm not quite mysel', gentlemen -
I've been ill and i' bed, an' it makes me trembling-like. Someone said,
"Father, mother, I'm here, starving i' the cold - wunnot yo' get up and let
'And that voice was - ?'
'It were like our Benjamin's. I see whatten yo're driving at, sir, and I'll
tell yo' truth, though it kills me to speak it. I dunnot say it were our
Benjamin as spoke, mind yo'- I only say it were like' -
'That's all I want, my good fellow. And on the strength of that entreaty,
spoken in your son's voice, you went down and opened the door to these two
prisoners at the bar, and to a third man?'
Nathan nodded assent, and even that counsel was too merciful to force him to
put more into words.
'Call Hester Huntroyd.'
An old woman, with a face of which the eyes were evidently blind, with a
sweet, gentle, careworn face, came into the witness-box, and meekly
curtseyed to the presence of those whom she had been taught to respect - a
presence she could not see.
There was something in her humble, blind aspect, as she stood waiting to
have something done to her - what her poor troubled mind hardly knew - that
touched all who saw her, inexpressibly. Again the counsel apologised, but
the judge could not reply in words; his face was quivering all over, and the
jury looked uneasily at the prisoner's counsel. That gentleman saw that he
might go too far, and send their sympathies off on the other side; but one
or two questions he must ask. So, hastily recapitulating much that he had
learned from Nathan, he said, 'You believed it was your son's voice asking
to be let in?'
'Ay! Our Benjamin came home, I'm sure; choose where he is gone.'
She turned her head about, as if listening for the voice of her child, in
the hushed silence of the court.
'Yes; he came home that night - and your husband went down to let him in?'
'Well! I believe he did. There was a great noise of folk downstair.'
'And you heard your son Benjamin's voice among the others?'
'Is it to do him harm, sir?' asked she, her face growing more intelligent
and intent on the business in hand.
'That is not my object in questioning you. I believe he has left England; so
nothing you can say will do him any harm. You heard your son's voice, I
'Yes, sir. For sure I did.'
'And some men came upstairs into your room? What did they say?'
'They axed where Nathan kept his stocking.'
'And you - did you tell them?'
'No, sir, for I knew Nathan would not like me to.'
'What did you do then?'
A shade of reluctance came over her face, as if she began to perceive causes
'I just screamed on Bessy - that's my niece, sir.'
'And you heard someone shout out from the bottom of the stairs?'
She looked piteously at him, but did not answer.
'Gentlemen of the jury, I wish to call your particular attention to this
fact; she acknowledges she heard someone shout - some third person, you
observe - shout out to the two above. What did he say? That is the last
question I shall trouble you with. What did the third person, left behind,
Her face worked - her mouth opened two or three times as if to speak - she
stretched out her arms imploringly; but no word came, and she fell back into
the arms of those nearest to her. Nathan forced himself forward into the
'My Lord judge, a woman bore ye, as I reckon; it', a cruel shame to serve a
mother so. It wur my son, my only child, as called out for us t' open door,
and who shouted out for to hold th' oud woman's throat if she did na stop
her noise, when hoo'd fain ha' cried for her niece to help. And now yo've
truth, and a' th' truth, and I'll leave yo' to th' judgement o' God for th'
way yo've getten at it.'
Before night the mother was stricken with paralysis, and lay on her
death-bed. But the broken-hearted go Home, to be comforted of God.