Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
Part 1 out of 9
This etext was produced by Charles Aldarondo.
Additional proof reading and editing by Joseph E. Loewenstein, M.D.
THE DRESSMAKER'S APPRENTICE AT WORK
There is an assize-town in one of the eastern counties which was
much distinguished by the Tudor Sovereigns, and, in consequence
of their favour and protection, attained a degree of importance
that surprises the modern traveller.
A hundred years ago its appearance was that of picturesque
grandeur. The old houses, which were the temporary residences of
such of the county families as contented themselves with the
gaieties of a provincial town, crowded the streets, and gave them
the irregular but noble appearance yet to be seen in the cities
of Belgium. The sides of the streets had a quaint richness, from
the effect of the gables, and the stacks of chimneys which cut
against the blue sky above; while, if the eye fell lower down,
the attention was arrested by all kinds of projections in the
shape of balcony and oriel; and it was amusing to see the
infinite variety of windows that had been crammed into the walls
long before Mr. Pitt's days of taxation. The streets below
suffered from all these projections and advanced stories above;
they were dark, and ill-paved with large, round, jolting pebbles,
and with no side-path protected by kerb-stones; there were no
lamp-posts for long winter nights; and no regard was paid to the
wants of the middle class, who neither drove about in coaches of
their own, nor were carried by their own men in their own sedans
into the very halls of their friends. The professional men and
their wives, the shopkeepers and their spouses, and all such
people, walked about at considerable peril both night and day.
The broad, unwieldy carriages hemmed them up against the houses
in the narrow streets. The inhospitable houses projected their
flights of steps almost into the carriage-way, forcing
pedestrians again into the danger they had avoided for twenty or
thirty paces. Then, at night, the only light was derived from the
glaring, flaring oil-lamps, hung above the doors of the more
aristocratic mansions; just allowing space for the passers-by to
become visible, before they again disappeared into the darkness,
where it was no uncommon thing for robbers to be in waiting for
The traditions of those bygone times, even to the smallest social
particular, enable one to understand more clearly the
circumstances which contributed to the formation of character.
The daily life into which people are born, and into which they
are absorbed before they are well aware, forms chains which only
one in a hundred has moral strength enough to despise, and to
break when the right time comes--when an inward necessity for
independent individual action arises, which is superior to all
outward conventionalities. Therefore, it is well to know what
were the chains of daily domestic habit, which were the natural
leading strings of our forefathers before they learnt to go
The picturesqueness of those ancient streets has departed now.
The Astleys, the Dunstans, the Waverhams--names of power in that
district--go up duly to London in the season, and have sold their
residences in the county town fifty years ago, or more. And when
the county town lost its attraction for the Astleys, the
Dunstans, the Waverhams, how could it be supposed that the
Domvilles, the Bextons, and the Wildes would continue to go and
winter there in their second-rate houses, and with their
increased expenditure? So the grand old houses stood empty
awhile; and then speculators ventured to purchase, and to turn
the deserted mansions into many smaller dwellings, fitted for
professional men, or even (bend your ear lower, lest the shade of
Marmaduke, first Baron Waverham, hear) into shops!
Even that was not so very bad, compared with the next innovation
on the old glories. The shopkeepers found out that the once
fashionable street was dark, and that the dingy light did not
show off their goods to advantage; the surgeon could not see to
draw his patients' teeth; the lawyer had to ring for candles an
hour earlier than he was accustomed to do when living in a more
plebeian street. In short, by mutual consent, the whole front of
one side of the street was pulled down, and rebuilt in the flat,
mean, unrelieved style of George the Third. The body of the
houses was too solidly grand to submit to alteration; so people
were occasionally surprised, after passing through a
commonplace-looking shop, to find themselves at the foot of a
grand carved oaken staircase, lighted by a window of stained
glass, storied all over with armorial bearings. Up such a
stair--past such a window (through which the moonlight fell on
her with a glory of many colours)--Ruth Hilton passed wearily one
January night, now many years ago. I call it night; but, strictly
speaking, it was morning. Two o'clock in the morning chimed forth
the old bells of St. Saviour's. And yet, more than a dozen girls
still sat in the room into which Ruth entered, stitching away as
if for very life, not daring to gape, or show any outward
manifestation of sleepiness. They only sighed a little when Ruth
told Mrs. Mason the hour of the night, as the result of her
errand; for they knew that, stay up as late as they might, the
work-hours of the next day must begin at eight, and their young
limbs were very weary.
Mrs. Mason worked away as hard as any of them; but she was older
and tougher; and, besides, the gains were hers. But even she
perceived that some rest was needed. "Young ladies! there will be
an interval allowed of half-an-hour. Ring the bell, Miss Sutton.
Martha shall bring you up some bread, and cheese, and beer. You
will be so good as to eat it standing--away from the dresses--and
to have your hands washed ready for work when I return. In
half-an-hour," said she once more, very distinctly; and then she
left the room.
It was curious to watch the young girls as they instantaneously
availed themselves of Mrs. Mason's absence. One fat, particularly
heavy-looking damsel laid her head on her folded arms and was
asleep in a moment; refusing to be wakened for her share in the
frugal supper, but springing up with a frightened look at the
sound of Mrs. Mason's returning footstep, even while it was still
far off on the echoing stairs. Two or three others huddled over
the scanty fireplace, which, with every possible economy of
space, and no attempt whatever at anything of grace or ornament,
was inserted in the slight, flat-looking wall, that had been run
up by the present owner of the property to portion off this
division of the grand old drawing-room of the mansion. Some
employed the time in eating their bread and cheese, with as
measured and incessant a motion of the jaws (and almost as
stupidly placid an expression of countenance), as you may see in
cows ruminating in the first meadow you happen to pass.
Some held up admiringly the beautiful ball-dress in progress,
while others examined the effect, backing from the object to be
criticised in the true artistic manner. Others stretched
themselves into all sorts of postures to relieve the weary
muscles; one or two gave vent to all the yawns, coughs, and
sneezes that bad been pent up so long in the presence of Mrs.
Mason. But Ruth Hilton sprang to the large old window, and
pressed against it as a bird presses against the bars of its
cage. She put back the blind, and gazed into the quiet moonlight
night. It was doubly light--almost as much so as day--for
everything was covered with the deep snow which had been falling
silently ever since the evening before. The window was in a
square recess; the old strange little panes of glass had been
replaced by those which gave more light. A little distance off,
the feathery branches of a larch waved softly to and fro in the
scarcely perceptible night-breeze. Poor old larch! the time had
been when it had stood in a pleasant lawn, with the tender grass
creeping caressingly up its very trunk; but now the lawn was
divided into yards and squalid back premises, and the larch was
pent up and girded about with flagstones. The snow lay thick on
its boughs, and now and then fell noiselessly down. The old
stables had been added to, and altered into a dismal street of
mean-looking houses, back to back with the ancient mansions. And
over all these changes from grandeur to squalor, bent down the
purple heavens with their unchanging splendour!
Ruth pressed her hot forehead against the cold glass, and
strained her aching eyes in gazing out on the lovely sky of a
winter's night. The impulse was strong upon her to snatch up a
shawl, and, wrapping it round her head, to sally forth and enjoy
the glory; and time was when that impulse would have been
instantly followed; but now, Ruth's eyes filled with tears, and
she stood quite still dreaming of the days that were gone. Some
one touched her shoulder while her thoughts were far away,
remembering past January nights, which had resembled this, and
were yet so different.
"Ruth, love," whispered a girl, who had unwillingly distinguished
herself by a long hard fit of coughing, "come and have some
supper. You don't know yet how it helps one through the night."
"One run--one blow of the fresh air would do me more good," said
"Not such a night as this," replied the other, shivering at the
"And why not such a night as this, Jenny?" answered Ruth. "Oh! at
home I have many a time run up the lane all the way to the mill,
just to see the icicles hang on the great wheel; and, when I was
once out, I could hardly find in my heart to come in, even to
mother, sitting by the fire;--even to mother," she added, in a
low, melancholy tone, which had something of inexpressible
sadness in it. "Why, Jenny!" said she, rousing herself, but not
before her eyes were swimming in tears, "own, now, that you never
saw those dismal, hateful, tumble-down old houses there look half
so--what shall I call them? almost beautiful--as they do now,
with that soft, pure, exquisite covering; and if they are so
improved, think of what trees, and grass, and ivy must be on such
a night as this."
Jenny could not be persuaded into admiring the winter's night,
which to her came only as a cold and dismal time, when her cough
was more troublesome, and the pain in her side worse than usual.
But she put her arm round Ruth's neck, and stood by her, glad
that the orphan apprentice, who was not yet inured to the
hardship of a dressmaker's workroom, should find so much to give
her pleasure in such a common occurrence as a frosty night.
They remained deep in separate trains of thought till Mrs.
Mason's step was heard, when each returned supperless, but
refreshed, to her seat.
Ruth's place was the coldest and the darkest in the room,
although she liked it the best; she had instinctively chosen it
for the sake of the wall opposite to her, on which was a remnant
of the beauty of the old drawing-room, which must once have been
magnificent, to judge from the faded specimen left. It was
divided into panels of pale sea-green, picked out with white and
gold; and on these panels were painted--were thrown with the
careless, triumphant hand of a master--the most lovely wreaths of
flowers, profuse and luxuriant beyond description, and so
real-looking, that you could almost fancy you smelt their
fragrance, and heard the south wind go softly rustling in and out
among the crimson roses--the branches of purple and white
lilac--the floating golden-tressed laburnum boughs. Besides
these, there were stately white lilies, sacred to the
Virgin--hollyhocks, fraxinella, monk's-hood, pansies, primroses;
every flower which blooms profusely in charming old-fashioned
country gardens was there, depicted among its graceful foliage,
but not in the wild disorder in which I have enumerated them. At
the bottom of the panel lay a holly branch, whose stiff
straightness was ornamented by a twining drapery of English ivy,
and mistletoe, and winter aconite; while down either side hung
pendent garlands of spring and autumn flowers; and, crowning all,
came gorgeous summer with the sweet musk-roses, and the
rich-coloured flowers of June and July.
Surely Monnoyer, or whoever the dead-and-gone artist might be,
would have been gratified to know the pleasure his handiwork,
even in its wane, had power to give to the heavy heart of a young
girl; for they conjured up visions of other sister-flowers that
grew, and blossomed, and withered away in her early home. Mrs.
Mason was particularly desirous that her workwomen should exert
themselves to-night, for, on the next, the annual hunt-ball was
to take place. It was the one gaiety of the town since the
assize-balls had been discontinued. Many were the dresses she had
promised should be sent home "without fail" the next morning; she
had not let one slip through her fingers, for fear, if it did, it
might fall into the hands of the rival dressmaker, who had just
established herself in the very same street.
She determined to administer a gentle stimulant to the flagging
spirits, and with a little preliminary cough to attract
attention, she began--
"I may as well inform you, young ladies, that I have been
requested this year, as on previous occasions, to allow some of
my young people to attend in the antechamber of the assembly-room
with sandal ribbon, pins, and such little matters, and to be
ready to repair any accidental injury to the ladies' dresses. I
shall send four--of the most diligent." She laid a marked
emphasis on the last words, but without much effect; they were
too sleepy to care for any of the pomps and vanities, or, indeed,
for any of the comforts of this world, excepting one sole
Mrs. Mason was a very worthy woman, but, like many other worthy
women, she had her foibles; and one (very natural to her calling)
was to pay an extreme regard to appearances. Accordingly, she had
already selected in her own mind the four girls who were most
likely to do credit to the "establishment;" and these were
secretly determined upon, although it was very well to promise
the reward to the most diligent. She was really not aware of the
falseness of this conduct; being an adept in that species of
sophistry with which people persuade themselves that what they
wish to do is right.
At last there was no resisting the evidence of weariness. They
were told to go to bed; but even that welcome command was
languidly obeyed. Slowly they folded up their work, heavily they
moved about, until at length all was put away, and they trooped
up the wide, dark staircase.
"Oh! how shall I get through five years of these terrible nights!
in that close room! and in that oppressive stillness! which lets
every sound of the thread be heard as it goes eternally backwards
and forwards," sobbed out Ruth, as she threw herself on her bed,
without even undressing herself.
"Nay, Ruth, you know it won't be always as it has been to-night.
We often get to bed by ten o'clock, and by-and-by you won't mind
the closeness of the room. You're worn-out to-night, or you would
not have minded the sound of the needle; I never hear it. Come,
let me unfasten you," said Jenny.
"What is the use of undressing? We must be up again and at work
in three hours."
"And in those three hours you may get a great deal of rest, if
you will but undress yourself and fairly go to bed. Come, love."
Jenny's advice was not resisted; but before Ruth went to sleep
"Oh! I wish I was not so cross and impatient. I don't think I
used to be."
"No, I am sure not. Most new girls get impatient at first; but it
goes off, and they don't care much for anything after a while.
Poor child! she's asleep already," said Jenny to herself.
She could not sleep or rest. The tightness at her side was worse
than usual. She almost thought she ought to mention it in her
letters home; but then she remembered the premium her father had
struggled hard to pay, and the large family, younger than
herself, that had to be cared for, and she determined to bear on,
and trust that, when the warm weather came, both the pain and the
cough would go away. She would be prudent about herself.
What was the matter with Ruth? She was crying in her sleep as if
her heart would break. Such agitated slumber could be no rest; so
Jenny wakened her.
"Oh, Jenny!" said Ruth, sitting up in bed, and pushing back the
masses of hair that were heating her forehead, "I thought I saw
mamma by the side of the bed, coming as she used to do, to see if
I were asleep and comfortable; and when I tried to take hold of
her, she went away and left me alone--I don't know where; so
"It was only a dream; you know you'd been talking about her to
me, and you're feverish with sitting up late. Go to sleep again,
and I'll watch, and waken you if you seem uneasy."
"But you'll be so tired. Oh, dear! dear!" Ruth was asleep again,
even while she sighed.
Morning came, and though their rest had been short, the girls
"Miss Sutton, Miss Jennings, Miss Booth, and Miss Hilton, you
will see that you are ready to accompany me to the shire-hall by
One or two of the girls looked astonished, but the majority,
having anticipated the selection, and knowing from experience the
unexpressed rule by which it was made, received it with the
sullen indifference which had become their feeling with regard to
most events--a deadened sense of life, consequent upon their
unnatural mode of existence, their sedentary days, and their
frequent nights of late watching.
But to Ruth it was inexplicable. She had yawned, and loitered,
and looked off at the beautiful panel, and lost herself in
thoughts of home, until she fully expected the reprimand which at
any other time she would have been sure to receive, and now, to
her surprise, she was singled out as one of the most diligent!
Much as she longed for the delight of seeing the noble
shire-hall--the boast of the county--and of catching glimpses of
the dancers, and hearing the band; much as she longed for some
variety to the dull, monotonous life she was leading, she could
not feel happy to accept a privilege, granted, as she believed,
in ignorance of the real state of the case; so she startled her
companions by rising abruptly and going up to Mrs. Mason, who was
finishing a dress which ought to have been sent home two hours
"If you please, Mrs. Mason, I was not one of the most diligent; I
am afraid--I believe--I was not diligent at all. I was very
tired; and I could not help thinking, and, when I think, I can't
attend to my work." She stopped, believing she had sufficiently
explained her meaning; but Mrs. Mason would not understand, and
did not wish for any further elucidation.
"Well, my dear, you must learn to think and work, too; or, if you
can't do both, you must leave off thinking. Your guardian, you
know, expects you to make great progress in your business, and I
am sure you won't disappoint him."
But that was not to the point. Ruth stood still an instant,
although Mrs. Mason resumed her employment in a manner which any
one but a "new girl" would have known to be intelligible enough,
that she did not wish for any more conversation just then.
"But as I was not diligent I ought not to go, ma'am. Miss Wood
was far more industrious than I, and many of the others."
"Tiresome girl!" muttered Mrs. Mason; "I've half a mind to keep
her at home for plaguing me so." But, looking up, she was struck
afresh with the remarkable beauty which Ruth possessed; such a
credit to the house, with her waving outline of figure, her
striking face, with dark eyebrows and dark lashes, combined with
auburn hair and a fair complexion. No! diligent or idle, Ruth
Hilton must appear to-night.
"Miss Hilton," said Mrs. Mason, with stiff dignity "I am not
accustomed (as these young ladies can tell you) to have my
decisions questioned. What I say, I mean; and I have my reasons.
So sit down, if you please, and take care and be ready by eight.
Not a word more," as she fancied she saw Ruth again about to
"Jenny, you ought to have gone, not me," said Ruth, in no low
voice to Miss Wood, as she sat down by her.
"Hush! Ruth. I could not go if I might, because of my cough. I
would rather give it up to you than any one if it were mine to
give. And suppose it is, then take the pleasure as my present,
and tell me every bit about it when you come home to-night."
"Well! I shall take it in that way, and not as if I'd earned it,
which I haven't. So thank you. You can't think how I shall enjoy
it now. I did work diligently for five minutes last night, after
I heard of it; I wanted to go so much. But I could not keep it
up. Oh, dear! and I shall really hear a band! and see the inside
of that beautiful shire-hall!"
BUTH GOES TO THE SHIRE-HALL
In due time that evening, Mrs. Mason collected her "young ladies"
for an inspection of their appearance before proceeding to the
shire-hall. Her eager, important, hurried manner of summoning
them was not unlike that of a hen clucking her chickens together;
and, to judge from the close investigation they had to undergo,
it might have been thought that their part in the evening's
performance was to be far more important than that of temporary
"Is that your best frock, Miss Hilton?" asked Mrs. Mason, in a
half-dissatisfied tone, turning Ruth about; for it was only her
Sunday black silk, and was somewhat worn and shabby.
"Yes, ma'am," answered Ruth quietly.
"Oh! indeed. Then it will do" (still the half-satisfied tone).
"Dress, young ladies, you know, is a very secondary
consideration. Conduct is everything. Still, Miss Hilton, I think
you should write and ask your guardian to send you some money for
another gown. I am sorry I did not think of it before.
"I do not think he would send any if I wrote," answered Ruth, in
a low voice.
"He was angry when I wanted a shawl, when the cold weather set
Mrs. Mason gave her a little push of dismissal, and Ruth fell
into the ranks by her friend, Miss Wood.
"Never mind, Ruthie; you're prettier than any of them," said a
merry, good-natured girl, whose plainness excluded her from any
of the envy of rivalry.
"Yes; I know I am pretty," said Ruth sadly; "but I am sorry I
have no better gown, for this is very shabby. I am ashamed of it
myself, and I can see Mrs. Mason is twice as much ashamed. I wish
I need not go. I did not know we should have to think about our
own dress at all, or I should not have wished to go."
"Never mind, Ruth," said Jenny, "you've been looked at now, and
Mrs. Mason will soon be too busy to think about you and your
"Did you hear Ruth Hilton say she knew she was pretty?" whispered
one girl to another, so loudly that Ruth caught the words.
"I could not help knowing," answered she simply, "for many people
have told me so."
At length these preliminaries were over, and they were walking
briskly through the frosty air; the free motion was so
inspiriting that Ruth almost danced along, and quite forgot all
about shabby gowns and grumbling guardians. The shire-hall was
even more striking than she had expected. The sides of the
staircase were painted with figures that showed ghostly in the
dim light, for only their faces looked out of the dark, dingy
canvas, with a strange fixed stare of expression.
The young milliners had to arrange their wares on tables in the
ante-room, and make all ready before they could venture to peep
into the hall-room, where the musicians were already tuning their
instruments, and where one or two charwomen (strange contrast,
with their dirty, loose attire, and their incessant chatter, to
the grand echoes of the vaulted room!) were completing the
dusting of benches and chairs.
They quitted the place as Ruth and her companions entered. They
had talked lightly and merrily in the ante-room, but now their
voices were hushed, awed by the old magnificence of the vast
apartment. It was so large that objects showed dim at the further
end, as through a mist. Full-length figures of county worthies
hung around, in all varieties of costume, from the days of
Holbein to the present time. The lofty roof was indistinct, for
the lamps were not fully lighted yet; while through the
richly-painted Gothic window at one end the moonbeams fell,
many-tinted, on the floor, and mocked with their vividness the
struggles of the artificial light to illuminate its little
High above sounded the musicians, fitfully trying some strain of
which they were not certain. Then they stopped playing, and
talked, and their voices sounded goblin-like in their dark
recess, where candles were carried about in an uncertain wavering
manner, reminding Ruth of the flickering zig-zag motion of the
Suddenly the room sprang into the full blaze of light, and Ruth
felt less impressed with its appearance, and more willing to obey
Mrs. Mason's sharp summons to her wandering flock, than she had
been when it was dim and mysterious. They had presently enough to
do in rendering offices of assistance to the ladies who thronged
in, and whose voices drowned all the muffled sound of the band
Ruth had longed so much to hear. Still, if one pleasure was less,
another was greater than she had anticipated.
"On condition" of such a number of little observances that Ruth
thought Mrs. Mason would never have ended enumerating them, they
were allowed during the dances to stand at a side-door and watch.
And what a beautiful sight it was! Floating away to that bounding
music--now far away, like garlands of fairies, now near, and
showing as lovely women, with every ornament of graceful
dress--the elite of the county danced on, little caring whose
eyes gazed and were dazzled. Outside all was cold, and
colourless, and uniform,--one coating of snow over all. But
inside it was warm, and glowing, and vivid; flowers scented the
air, and wreathed the head, and rested on the bosom, as if it
were midsummer. Bright colours flashed on the eye and were gone,
and succeeded by others as lovely in the rapid movement of the
dance. Smiles dimpled every face, and low tones of happiness
murmured indistinctly through the room in every pause of the
Ruth did not care to separate figures that formed a joyous and
brilliant whole; it was enough to gaze, and dream of the happy
smoothness of the lives in which such music, and such profusion
of flowers, of jewels, elegance of every description, and beauty
of all shapes and hues, were everyday things. She did not want to
know who the people were; although to hear a catalogue of names
seemed to be the great delight of most of her companions.
In fact, the enumeration rather disturbed her; and, to avoid the
shock of too rapid a descent into the commonplace world of Miss
Smiths and Mr. Thomsons, she returned to her post in the
ante-room. There she stood, thinking or dreaming. She was
startled back to actual life by a voice close to her. One of the
dancing young ladies had met with a misfortune. Her dress, of
some gossamer material, had been looped up by nosegays of
flowers, and one of these had fallen off in the dance, leaving
her gown to trail. To repair this, she had begged her partner to
bring her to the room where the assistants should have been. None
were there but Ruth.
"Shall I leave you?" asked the gentleman. "Is my absence
"Oh, no!" replied the lady; "a few stitches will set all to
rights. Besides, I dare not enter that room by myself." So far
she spoke sweetly and prettily. But now she addressed Ruth. "Make
haste--don't keep me an hour!" And her voice became cold and
She was very pretty, with long dark ringlets and sparkling black
eyes. These had struck Ruth in the hasty glance she had taken,
before she knelt down to her task. She also saw that the
gentleman was young and elegant.
"Oh, that lovely galop! how I long to dance to it! Will it never
be done? What a frightful time you are taking; and I'm dying to
return in time for this galop!" By way of showing a pretty,
childlike impatience, she began to beat time with her feet to the
spirited air the band was playing. Ruth could not darn the rent
in her dress with this continual motion, and she looked up to
remonstrate. As she threw her head back for this purpose, she
caught the eye of the gentleman who was standing by; it was so
expressive of amusement at the airs and graces of his pretty
partner, that Ruth was infected by the feeling, and had to bend
her face down to conceal the smile that mantled there. But not
before he had seen it; and not before his attention had been
thereby drawn to consider the kneeling figure, that, habited in
black up to the throat, with the noble head bent down to the
occupation in which she was engaged, formed such a contrast to
the flippant, bright, artificial girl, who sat to be served with
an air as haughty as a queen on her throne.
"Oh, Mr. Bellingham! I'm ashamed to detain you so long. I had no
idea any one could have spent so much time over a little tear. No
wonder Mrs. Mason charges so much for dressmaking, if her
workwomen are so slow."
It was meant to be witty, but Mr. Bellingham looked grave. He saw
the scarlet colour of annoyance flush to that beautiful cheek,
which was partially presented to him. He took a candle from the
table, and held it so that Ruth had more light. She did not look
up to thank him, for she felt ashamed that he should have seen
the smile which she had caught from him.
"I am sorry I have been so long, ma'am," said she gently, as she
finished her work; "I was afraid it might tear out again if I did
not do it carefully." She rose.
"I would rather have had it torn than have missed that charming
galop," said the young lady, shaking out her dress as a bird
shakes its plumage. "Shall we go, Mr. Bellingham?" looking up at
He was surprised that she gave no word or sign of thanks to the
assistant. He took up a camellia that some one had left on the
"Allow me, Miss Duncombe, to give this, in your name, to this
young lady, as thanks for her dexterous help."
"Oh, of course," said she.
Ruth received the flower silently, but with a grave, modest
motion of her head. They had gone, and she was once more alone.
Presently her companions returned.
"What was the matter with Miss Duncombe? Did she come here?"
"Only her lace dress was torn, and I mended it," answered Ruth
"Did Mr. Bellingham come with her?--they say he's going to be
married to her. Did he come, Ruth?"
"Yes," said Ruth, and relapsed into silence.
Mr. Bellingham danced on gaily and merrily through the night, and
fitted with Miss Duncombe as he thought good. But he looked often
to the side-door where the milliner's apprentices stood; and once
he recognised the tall, slight figure, and the rich auburn hair
of the girl in black; and then his eye sought for the camellia.
It was there, snowy white in her bosom. And he danced on more
gaily than ever.
The cold grey dawn was drearily lighting up the streets when Mrs.
Mason and her company returned home. The lamps were extinguished,
yet the shutters of the shops and dwelling-houses were not
opened. All sounds had an echo unheard by day. One or two
houseless beggars sat on doorsteps, and shivering, slept with
heads bowed on their knees, or resting against the cold hard
support afforded by the wall.
Ruth felt as if a dream had melted away, and she were once more
in the actual world. How long it would be, even in the most
favourable chance, before she should again enter the shire-hall,
or hear a band of music, or even see again those bright, happy
people--as much without any semblance of care or woe as if they
belonged to another race of beings! Had they ever to deny
themselves a wish, much less a want? Literally and figuratively
their lives seemed to wander through flowery pleasure-paths. Here
was cold, biting, mid-winter for her, and such as her--for those
poor beggars almost a season of death; but to Miss Duncombe and
her companions, a happy, merry time--when flowers still bloomed,
and fires crackled, and comforts and luxuries were piled around
them like fairy gifts. What did they know of the meaning of the
word, so terrific to the poor? What was winter to them? But Ruth
fancied that Mr. Bellingham looked as if he could understand the
feelings of those removed from him by circumstance and station.
He had drawn up the windows of his carriage, it is true, with a
Ruth, then, had been watching him.
Yet she had no idea that any association made her camellia
precious to her. She believed it was solely on account of its
exquisite beauty that she tended it so carefully. She told Jenny
every particular of its presentation, with open, straight-looking
eye, and without the deepening of a shade of colour.
"Was it not kind of him? You can't think how nicely he did it,
just when I was a little bit mortified by her ungracious ways."
"It was very nice, indeed," replied Jenny. "Such a beautiful
flower! I wish it had some scent."
"I wish it to be exactly as it is--it is perfect. So pure!" said
Ruth, almost clasping her treasure as she placed it in water.
"Who is Mr. Bellingham?"
"He is son to that Mrs. Bellingham of the Priory, for whom we
made the grey satin pelisse," answered Jenny sleepily.
"That was before my time," said Ruth. But there was no answer.
Jenny was asleep.
It was long before Ruth followed her example. Even on a winter
day, it was clear morning light that fell upon her face as she
smiled in her slumber. Jenny would not waken her, but watched her
face with admiration; it was So lovely in its happiness.
"She is dreaming of last night," thought Jenny.
It was true she was; but one figure flitted more than all the
rest through her visions. He presented flower after flower to her
in that baseless morning dream, which was all too quickly ended.
The night before she had seen her dead mother in her sleep, and
she wakened weeping. And now she dreamed of Mr. Bellingham, and
And yet, was this a more evil dream than the other?
The realities of life seemed to cut more sharply against her
heart than usual that morning. The late hours of the preceding
nights, and perhaps the excitement of the evening before, had
indisposed her to bear calmly the rubs and crosses which beset
all Mrs. Mason's young ladies at times.
For Mrs. Mason, though the first dressmaker in the county, was
human after all; and suffered, like her apprentices, from the
same causes that affected them. This morning she was disposed to
find fault with everything, and everybody. She seemed to have
risen with the determination of putting the world and all that it
contained (her world, at least) to rights before night; and
abuses and negligences, which had long passed unreproved, or
winked at, were to-day to be dragged to light, and sharply
reprimanded. Nothing less than perfection would satisfy Mrs.
Mason at such times.
She had her ideas of justice, too; but they were not divinely
beautiful and true ideas; they were something more resembling a
grocer's or tea-dealer's ideas of equal right. A little
over-indulgence last night was to be balanced by a good deal of
over-severity to-day; and this manner of rectifying previous
errors fully satisfied her conscience.
Ruth was not inclined for, or capable of, much extra exertion;
and it would have tasked all her powers to have pleased her
superior. The work-room seemed filled with sharp calls. "Miss
Hilton! where have you put the blue Persian? Whenever things are
mislaid, I know it has been Miss Hilton's evening for siding
"Miss Hilton was going out last night, so I offered to clear the
work-room for her. I will find it directly, ma'am," answered one
of the girls.
"Oh, I am well aware of Miss Hilton's custom of shuffling off her
duties upon any one who can be induced to relieve her," replied
Ruth reddened, and tears sprang to her eyes; but she was so
conscious of the falsity of the accusation, that she rebuked
herself for being moved by it, and, raising her head, gave a
proud look round, as if in appeal to her companions.
"Where is the skirt of Lady Farnham's dress? The flounces not put
on! I am surprised! May I ask to whom this work was entrusted
yesterday?" inquired Mrs. Mason, fixing her eyes on Ruth.
"I was to have done it, but I made a mistake, and had to undo it.
I am very sorry."
"I might have guessed, certainly. There is little difficulty, to
be sure, in discovering, when work has been neglected or spoilt,
into whose hands it has fallen."
Such were the speeches which fell to Ruth's share on this day of
all days, when she was least fitted to bear them with equanimity.
In the afternoon it was necessary for Mrs Mason to go a few miles
into the country. She left injunctions, and orders, and
directions, and prohibitions without end; but at last she was
gone, and, in the relief of her absence, Ruth laid her arms on
the table, and, burying her head, began to cry aloud, with weak,
"Don't cry, Miss Hilton,"--"Ruthie, never mind the old
dragon,"--"How will you bear on for five years, if you don't
spirit yourself up not to care a straw for what she says?"--were
some of the modes of comfort and sympathy administered by the
Jenny, with a wiser insight into the grievance and its remedy,
"Suppose Ruth goes out instead of you, Fanny Barton, to do the
errands. The fresh air will do her good; and you know you dislike
the cold east winds, while Ruth says she enjoys frost and snow,
and all kinds of shivery weather."
Fanny Barton was a great sleepy-looking girl, huddling over the
fire. No one so willing as she to relinquish the walk on this
bleak afternoon, when the east wind blew keenly down the street,
drying up the very snow itself. There was no temptation to come
abroad, for those who were not absolutely obliged to leave their
warm rooms; indeed, the dusk hour showed that it was the usual
tea-time for the humble inhabitants of that part of the town
through which Ruth had to pass on her shopping expedition. As she
came to the high ground just above the river, where the street
sloped rapidly down to the bridge, she saw the flat country
beyond all covered with snow, making the black dome of the
cloud-laden sky appear yet blacker; as if the winter's night had
never fairly gone away, but had hovered on the edge of the world
all through the short bleak day. Down by the bridge (where there
was a little shelving bank, used as a landing-place for any
pleasure-boats that could float on that shallow stream) some
children were playing, and defying the cold; one of them had got
a large washing-tub, and with the use of a broken oar kept
steering and pushing himself hither and thither in the little
creek, much to the admiration of his companions, who stood
gravely looking on, immovable in their attentive observation of
the hero, although their faces were blue with cold, and their
hands crammed deep into their pockets with some faint hope of
finding warmth there. Perhaps they feared that, if they unpacked
themselves from their lumpy attitudes and began to move about,
the cruel wind would find its way into every cranny of their
tattered dress. They were all huddled up, and still; with eyes
intent on the embryo sailor. At last, one little man, envious of
the reputation that his playfellow was acquiring by his daring,
"I'll set thee a craddy, Tom! Thou dar'n't go over yon black line
in the water, out into the real river."
Of course the challenge was not to be refused; and Tom paddled
away towards the dark line, beyond which the river swept with
smooth, steady current. Ruth (a child in years herself) stood at
the top of the declivity watching the adventurer, but as
unconscious of any danger as the group of children below. At
their playfellow's success, they broke through the calm gravity
of observation into boisterous marks of applause, clapping their
hands, and stamping their impatient little feet, and shouting,
"Well done, Tom; thou hast done it rarely!"
Tom stood in childish dignity for a moment, facing his admirers;
then, in an instant, his washing-tub boat was whirled round, and
he lost his balance, and fell out; and both he and his boat were
carried away slowly, but surely, by the strong full river which
eternally moved onwards to the sea.
The children shrieked aloud with terror; and Ruth flew down to
the little bay, and far into its shallow waters, before she felt
how useless such an action was, and that the sensible plan would
have been to seek for efficient help. Hardly had this thought
struck her, when, louder and sharper than the sullen roar of the
stream that was ceaselessly and unrelentingly flowing on, came
the splash of a horse galloping through the water in which she
was standing. Past her like lightning--down in the stream,
swimming along with the current--a stooping rider--an
outstretched grasping arm--a little life redeemed, and a child
saved to those who loved it! Ruth stood dizzy and sick with
emotion while all this took place; and when the rider turned the
swimming horse, and slowly breasted up the river to the
landing-place, she recognised him as the Mr. Bellingham of the
night before. He carried the unconscious child across his horse,
the body hung in so lifeless a manner that Ruth believed it was
dead; and her eyes were suddenly blinded with tears. She waded
back to the beach, to the point towards which Mr. Bellingham was
directing his horse.
"Is he dead?" asked she, stretching out her arms to receive the
little fellow; for she instinctively felt that the position in
which he hung was not the most conducive to returning
consciousness, if indeed it would ever return.
"I think not," answered Mr. Bellingham, as he gave the child to
her, before springing off his horse. "Is he your brother? Do you
know who he is?"
"Look!" said Ruth, who had sat down upon the ground, the better
to prop the poor lad, "his hand twitches! he lives; oh, sir, he
lives! Whose boy is he?" (to the people, who came hurrying and
gathering to the spot at the rumour of an accident).
"He's old Nelly Brownson's," said they. "Her grandson."
"We must take him into a house directly," said she. "Is his home
"No, no; it's just close by."
"One of you go for a doctor at once," said Mr. Bellingham
authoritatively, "and bring him to the old woman's without delay.
You must not hold him any longer," he continued, speaking to
Ruth, and remembering her face now for the first time; "your
dress is dripping wet already. Here! you fellow, take him up,
d'ye see!" But the child's hand had nervously clenched Ruth's
dress, and she would not have him disturbed. She carried her
heavy burden very tenderly towards a mean little cottage
indicated by the neighhours; an old crippled woman was coming out
of the door, shaking all over with agitation.
"Dear heart!" said she, "he's the last of 'em all, and he's gone
"Nonsense," said Mr. Bellingham, "the boy is alive, and likely to
But the old woman was helpless and hopeless, and insisted on
believing that her grandson was dead; and dead he would have been
if it had not been for Ruth, and one or two of the more sensible
neighbours, who, under Mr. Bellingham's directions, bustled
about, and did all that was necessary until animation was
"What a confounded time those people are in fetching the doctor!"
said Mr. Bellingham to Ruth, between whom and himself a sort of
silent understanding had sprung up from the circumstance of their
having been the only two (besides mere children) who had
witnessed the accident, and also the only two to whom a certain
degree of cultivation had given the power of understanding each
other's thoughts and even each other's words.
"It takes so much to knock an idea into such stupid people's
heads. They stood gaping and asking which doctor they were to go
for, as if it signified whether it was Brown or Smith, so long as
he had his wits about him. I have no more time to waste here,
either; I was on the gallop when I caught sight of the lad; and,
now he has fairly sobbed and opened his eyes, I see no use in my
staying in this stifling atmosphere. May I trouble you with one
thing? Will you be so good as to see that the little fellow has
all that he wants? If you'll allow me, I'll leave you my purse,"
continued he, giving it to Ruth, who was only too glad to have
this power entrusted to her of procuring one or two requisites
which she had perceived to be wanted. But she saw some gold
between the network; she did not like the charge of such riches.
"I shall not want so much, really, sir. One sovereign will be
plenty--more than enough. May I take that out, and I will give
you back what is left of it when I see you again? or, perhaps, I
had better send it to you, sir.
"I think you had better keep it all at present. Oh, what a horrid
dirty place this is insufferable two minutes longer. You must not
stay here; you'll be poisoned with this abominable air. Come
towards the door, I beg. Well, if you think one sovereign will he
enough, I will take my purse; only, remember you apply to me if
you think they want more."
They were standing at the door, where some one was holding Mr.
Bellingham's horse. Ruth was looking at him with her earnest eyes
(Mrs. Mason and her errands quite forgotten in the interest of
the afternoon's event), her whole thoughts bent upon rightly
understanding and following out his wishes for the little boy's
welfare; and until now this had been the first object in his own
mind. But at this moment the strong perception of Ruth's
exceeding beauty came again upon him. He almost lost the sense of
what he was saying, he was so startled with admiration. The night
before, he had not seen her eyes; and now they looked straight
and innocently full at him, grave, earnest, and deep. But when
she instinctively read the change in the expression of his
countenance, she dropped her large white veiling lids; and he
thought her face was lovelier still. The irresistible impulse
seized him to arrange matters, so that he might see her again
"No!" said he. "I see it would he better that you should keep the
purse. Many things may be wanted for the lad which we cannot
calculate upon now. If I remember rightly, there are three
sovereigns and some loose change; I shall, perhaps, see you again
in a few days, when, if there he any money left in the purse, you
can restore it to me."
"Oh, yes, sir," said Ruth, alive to the magnitude of the wants to
which she might have to administer, and yet rather afraid of the
responsibility implied in the possession of so much money.
"Is there any chance of my meeting you again in this house?"
"I hope to come whenever I can, sir; but I must run in
errand-times, and I don't know when my turn may be."
"Oh"--he did not fully understand this answer--"I should like to
know how you think the boy is going on, if it is not giving you
too much trouble; do you ever take walks?"
"Not for walking's sake, sir."
"Well," said he, "you go to church, I suppose? Mrs. Mason does
not keep you at work on Sundays; I trust?"
"Oh, no, sir. I go to church regularly."
"Then, perhaps, you will be so good as to tell me what church you
go to, and I will meet you there next Sunday afternoon?"
"I go to St. Nicholas', sir. I will take care and bring you word
how the boy is, and what doctor they get; and I will keep an
account of the money I spend."
"Very well, thank you. Remember, I trust to you."
He meant that he relied on her promise to meet him; but Ruth
thought that he was referring to the responsibility of doing the
best she could for the child. He was going away, when a fresh
thought struck him, and he turned back into the cottage once
more, and addressed Ruth, with a half smile on his
"It seems rather strange, but we have no one to introduce us; my
name is Bellingham--yours is"--
"Ruth Hilton, sir," she answered, in a low voice, for, now that
the conversation no longer related to the boy, she felt shy and
He held out his hand to shake hers; and, just as she gave it to
him, the old grandmother came tottering up to ask some question.
The interruption jarred upon him, and made him once more keenly
alive to the closeness of the air, and the squalor and dirt by
which he was surrounded.
"My good woman," said he to Nelly Brownson, "could you not keep
your place a little neater and cleaner? It is more fit for pigs
than human beings. The air in this room is quite offensive, and
the dirt and filth is really disgraceful." By this time he was
mounted, and, bowing to Ruth, he rode away.
Then the old woman's wrath broke out.
"Who may you be, that knows no better manners than to come into a
poor woman's house to abuse it?--fit for pigs, indeed! What d'ye
call yon fellow?"
"He is Mr. Bellingham," said Ruth, shocked at the old woman's
apparent ingratitude. "It was he that rode into the water to save
your grandson. He would have been drowned but for Mr. Bellingham.
I thought once they would both have been swept away by the
current, it was so strong."
"The river is none so deep, either," the old woman said, anxious
to diminish as much as possible the obligation she was under to
one who had offended her. "Some one else would have saved him, if
this fine young spark had never been here. He's an orphan, and
God watches over orphans, they say. I'd rather it had been any
one else as had picked him out, than one who comes into a poor
body's house only to abuse it."
"He did not come in only to abuse it," said Ruth gently. "He came
with little Tom; he only said it was not quite so clean as it
"What! you're taking up the cry, are you? Wait till you are an
old woman like me, crippled with rheumatiz, and a lad to see
after like Tom, who is always in mud when he isn't in water; and
his food and mine to scrape together (God knows we're often
short, and do the best I can), and water to fetch up that steep
She stopped to cough; and Ruth judiciously changed the subject,
and began to consult the old woman as to the wants of her
grandson, in which consultation they were soon assisted by the
When Ruth had made one or two arrangements with a neighbour whom
she asked to procure the most necessary things, and had heard
from the doctor that all would be right in a day or two, she
began to quake at the recollection of the length of time she had
spent at Nelly Brownson's, and to remember, with some affright,
the strict watch kept by Mrs. Mason over her apprentices'
out-goings and in-comings on working-days. She hurried off to the
shops, and tried to recall her wandering thoughts to the
respective merits of pink and blue as a match to lilac, found she
had lost her patterns, and went home with ill-chosen things, and
in a fit of despair at her own stupidity.
The truth was, that the afternoon's adventure filled her mind;
only the figure of Tom (who was now safe and likely to do well)
was receding into the background, and that of Mr. Bellingham
becoming more prominent than it had been. His spirited and
natural action of galloping into the water to save the child, was
magnified by Ruth into the most heroic deed of daring; his
interest about the boy was tender, thoughtful benevolence in her
eyes, and his careless liberality of money was fine generosity;
for she forgot that generosity implies some degree of
self-denial. She was gratified, too, by the power of dispensing
comfort he had entrusted to her, and was busy with Alnaschar
visions of wise expenditure, when the necessity of opening Mrs.
Mason's house-door summoned her back into actual present life,
and the dread of an immediate scolding.
For this time, however, she was spared; but spared for such a
reason that she would have been thankful for some blame in
preference to her impunity. During her absence, Jenny's
difficulty of breathing had suddenly become worse, and the girls
had, on their own responsibility, put her to bed, and were
standing round her in dismay, when Mrs. Mason's return home (only
a few minutes before Ruth arrived) fluttered them back into the
And now all was confusion and hurry; a doctor to be sent for; a
mind to be unburdened of directions for a dress to a forewoman,
who was too ill to understand; scoldings to be scattered with no
illiberal hand amongst a group of frightened girls, hardly
sparing the poor invalid herself for her inopportune illness. In
the middle of all this turmoil Ruth crept quietly to her place,
with a heavy saddened heart at the indisposition of the gentle
forewoman. She would gladly have nursed Jenny herself, and often
longed to do it, but she could not be spared. Hands, unskilful in
fine and delicate work, would be well enough qualified to tend
the sick, until the mother arrived from home. Meanwhile, extra
diligence was required in the workroom; and Ruth found no
opportunity of going to see little Tom, or to fulfil the plans
for making him and his grandmother more comfortable, which she
had proposed to herself. She regretted her rash promise to Mr.
Bellingham, of attending to the little boy's welfare; all that
she could do was done by means of Mrs. Mason's servant, through
whom she made inquiries, and sent the necessary help.
The subject of Jenny's illness was the prominent one in the
house. Ruth told of her own adventure, to be sure; but, when she
was at the very crisis of the boy's fall into the river, the more
fresh and vivid interest of some tidings of Jenny was brought
into the room, and Ruth ceased, almost blaming herself for caring
for anything besides the question of life or death to be decided
in that very house.
Then a pale, gentle-looking woman was seen moving softly about;
and it was whispered that this was the mother come to nurse her
child. Everybody liked her, she was so sweet-looking, and gave so
little trouble, and seemed so patient, and so thankful, for any
inquiries about her daughter, whose illness it was understood,
although its severity was mitigated, was likely to be long and
tedious. While all the feelings and thoughts relating to Jenny
were predominant, Sunday arrived. Mrs. Mason went the accustomed
visit to her father's, making some little show of apology to Mrs.
Wood for leaving her and her daughter; the apprentices dispersed
to the various friends with whom they were in the habit of
spending the day; and Ruth went to St. Nicholas', with a
sorrowful heart, depressed on account of Jenny, and
self-reproachful at having rashly undertaken what she had been
unable to perform.
As she came out of church she was joined by Mr. Bellingham. She
had half hoped that he might have forgotten the arrangement, and
yet she wished to relieve herself of her responsibility. She knew
his step behind her, and the contending feelings made her heart
beat hard, and she longed to run away.
"Miss Hilton, I believe," said he, overtaking her, and bowing
forward, so as to catch a sight of her rose-red face. "How is our
little sailor going on? Well, I trust, from the symptoms the
"I believe, sir, he is quite well now. I am very sorry, but I
have not been able to go and see him. I am so sorry--I could not
help it. But I have got one or two things through another person.
I have put them down on this slip of paper; and here is your
purse, sir, for I am afraid I can do nothing more for him. We
have illness in the house, and it makes us very busy."
Ruth had been so much accustomed to blame of late, that she
almost anticipated some remonstrance or reproach now, for not
having fulfilled her promise better. She little guessed that Mr.
Bellingham was far more busy trying to devise some excuse for
meeting her again, during the silence that succeeded her speech,
than displeased with her for not bringing a more particular
account of the little boy, in whom he had ceased to feel any
She repeated, after a minute's pause--
"I am very sorry I have done so little, sir."
"Oh, yes, I am sure you have done all you could. It was
thoughtless in me to add to your engagements."
"He is displeased with me," thought Ruth, "for what he believes
to have been neglect of the boy, whose life he risked his own to
save. If I told all, he would see that I could not do more; but I
cannot tell him all the sorrows and worries that have taken up my
"And yet I am tempted to give you another little commission, if
it is not taking up too much of your time, and presuming too much
on your good nature," said he, a bright idea having just struck
him. "Mrs. Mason lives in Heneage Place, does not she? My
mother's ancestors lived there; and once, when the house was
being repaired, she took me in to show me the old place. There
was an old hunting-piece painted on a panel over one of the
chimney-pieces; the figures were portraits of my ancestors. I
have often thought I should like to purchase it, if it still
remained there. Can you ascertain this for me, and bring me word
"Oh, yes, sir," said Ruth, glad that this commission was
completely within her power to execute, and anxious to make up
for her previous seeming neglect. "I'll look directly I get home,
and ask Mrs. Mason to write and let you know."
"Thank you," said he, only half satisfied; "I think, perhaps,
however, it might be as well not to trouble Mrs. Mason about it;
you see it would compromise me, and I am not quite determined to
purchase the picture; if you would ascertain whether the painting
is there, and tell me, I would take a little time to reflect, and
afterwards I could apply to Mrs. Mason myself."
"Very well, sir; I will see about it." So they parted.
Before the next Sunday Mrs. Wood had taken her daughter to her
distant home, to recruit in that quiet place. Ruth watched her
down the street from an upper window, and, sighing deep and long,
returned to the workroom, whence the warning voice and gentle
wisdom had departed.
SUNDAY AT MRS. MASON'S
Mr. Bellingham attended afternoon service at St. Nicholas' church
the next Sunday. His thoughts had been far more occupied by Ruth
than hers by him, although his appearance upon the scene of her
life was more an event to her than it was to him. He was puzzled
by the impression she had produced on him, though he did not in
general analyse the nature of his feelings, but simply enjoyed
them with the delight which youth takes in experiencing new and
strong emotion. He was old compared to Ruth, but young as a man;
hardly three-and-twenty. The fact of his being an only child had
given him, as it does to many, a sort of inequality in those
parts of the character which are usually formed by the number of
years that a person has lived.
The unevenness of discipline to which only children are
subjected; the thwarting, resulting from over-anxiety; the
indiscreet indulgence, arising from a love centred all in one
object--had been exaggerated in his education, probably from the
circumstance that his mother (his only surviving parent) had been
similarly situated to himself.
He was already in possession of the comparatively small property
he inherited from his father. The estate on which his mother
lived was her own; and her income gave her the means of indulging
or controlling him, after he had grown to man's estate, as her
wayward disposition and her love of power prompted her. Had he
been double-dealing in his conduct towards her, had he
condescended to humour her in the least, her passionate love for
him would have induced her to strip herself of all her
possessions to add to his dignity or happiness. But although he
felt the warmest affection for her, the regardlessness which she
had taught him (by example, perhaps, more than by precept) of the
feelings of others, was continually prompting him to do things
that she, for the time being, resented as mortal affronts. He
would mimic the clergyman she specially esteemed, even to his
very face; he would refuse to visit her schools for months and
months; and, when wearied into going at last, revenge himself by
puzzling the children with the most ridiculous questions (gravely
put) that he could imagine.
All these boyish tricks annoyed and irritated her far more than
the accounts which reached her of more serious misdoings at
college and in town. Of these grave offences she never spoke; of
the smaller misdeeds she hardly ever ceased speaking.
Still, at times, she had great influence over him, and nothing
delighted her more than to exercise it. The submission of his
will to hers was sure to be liberally rewarded; for it gave her
great happiness to extort, from his indifference or his
affection, the concessions which she never sought by force of
reason, or by appeals to principle--concessions which he
frequently withheld, solely for the sake of asserting his
independence of her control.
She was anxious for him to marry Miss Duncombe. He cared little
or nothing about it--it was time enough to be married ten years
hence; and so he was dawdling through some months of his
life--sometimes flirting with the nothing-loth Miss Duncombe,
sometimes plaguing, and sometimes delighting his mother, at all
times taking care to please himself--when he first saw Ruth
Hilton, and a new, passionate, hearty feeling shot through his
whole being. He did not know why he was so fascinated by her. She
was very beautiful, but he had seen many more ~agaceries~
calculated to set off the effect of their charms.
There was, perhaps, something bewitching in the union of the
grace and loveliness of womanhood with the naivete, simplicity,
and innocence of an intelligent child. There was a spell in the
shyness, which made her avoid and shun all admiring approaches to
acquaintance. It would be an exquisite delight to attract and
tame her wildness, just as he had often allured and tamed the
timid fawns in his mother's park.
By no over-bold admiration, or rash, passionate word, would he
startle her; and, surely, in time she might be induced to look
upon him as a friend, if not something nearer and dearer still.
In accordance with this determination, he resisted the strong
temptation of walking by her side the whole distance home after
church. He only received the intelligence she brought
respecting the panel with thanks, spoke a few words about the
weather, bowed, and was gone. Ruth believed she should never see
him again; and, in spite of sundry self-upbraidings for her
folly, she could not help feeling as if a shadow were drawn over
her existence for several days to come.
Mrs. Mason was a widow, and had to struggle for the sake of the
six or seven children left dependent on her exertions; thus there
was some reason, and great excuse, for the pinching economy which
regulated her household affairs. On Sundays she chose to conclude
that all her apprentices had friends who would be glad to see
them to dinner, and give them a welcome reception for the
remainder of the day; while she, and those of her children who
were not at school, went to spend the day at her father's house,
several miles out of the town. Accordingly, no dinner was cooked
on Sundays for the young workwomen; no fires were lighted in any
rooms to which they had access. On this morning they breakfasted
in Mrs. Mason's own parlour, after which the room was closed
against them through the day by some understood, though unspoken
What became of such as Ruth, who had no home and no friends in
that large, populous, desolate town? She had hitherto
commissioned the servant, who went to market on Saturdays for the
family, to buy her a bun or biscuit, whereon she made her fasting
dinner in the deserted workroom, sitting in her walking-dress to
keep off the cold, which clung to her in spite of shawl and
bonnet. Then she would sit at the window, looking out on the
dreary prospect till her eyes were often blinded by tears; and,
partly to shake off thoughts and recollections, the indulgence in
which she felt to be productive of no good, and partly to have
some ideas to dwell upon during the coming week beyond those
suggested by the constant view of the same room she would carry
her Bible, and place herself upon the window-seat on the wide
landing, which commanded the street in front of the house. From
thence she could see the irregular grandeur of the place; she
caught a view of the grey church-tower, rising hoary and massive
into mid-air; she saw one or two figures loiter along on the
sunny side of the street, in all the enjoyment of their fine
clothes and Sunday leisure; and she imagined histories for them,
and tried to picture to herself their homes and their daily
And, before long, the bells swung heavily in the church-tower,
and struck out with musical clang the first summons to afternoon
After church was over, she used to return home to the same
window-seat, and watch till the winter twilight was over and
gone, and the stars came out over the black masses of houses. And
then she would steal down to ask for a candle, as a companion to
her in the deserted workroom. Occasionally the servant would
bring her up some tea; but of late Ruth had declined taking any,
as she had discovered she was robbing the kind-hearted creature
of part of the small provision left out for her by Mrs. Mason.
She sat on, hungry and cold, trying to read her Bible, and to
think the old holy thoughts which had been her childish
meditations at her mother's knee, until one after another the
apprentices returned, weary with their day's enjoyment and their
week's late watching; too weary to make her in any way a partaker
of their pleasure by entering into details of the manner in which
they had spent their day.
And, last of all, Mrs. Mason returned; and, summoning her "young
people" once more into the parlour, she read a prayer before
dismissing them to bed. She always expected to find them all in
the house when she came home, but asked no questions as to their
proceedings through the day; perhaps because she dreaded to hear
that one or two had occasionally nowhere to go to, and that it
would be sometimes necessary to order a Sunday's dinner, and
leave a lighted fire on that day.
For five months Ruth had been an inmate at Mrs. Mason's; and such
had been the regular order of the Sundays. While the forewoman
stayed there, it is true, she was ever ready to give Ruth the
little variety of hearing of recreations in which she was no
partaker; and, however tired Jenny might be at night, she had
ever some sympathy to bestow on Ruth for the dull length of day
she had passed. After her departure, the monotonous idleness of
the Sunday seemed worse to bear than the incessant labour of the
work-days; until the time came when it seemed to be a recognised
hope in her mind, that on Sunday afternoons she should see Mr.
Bellingham, and hear a few words from him as from a friend who
took an interest in her thoughts and proceedings during the past
Ruth's mother had been the daughter of a poor curate in Norfolk,
and, early left without parents or home, she was thankful to
marry a respectable farmer a good deal older than herself. After
their marriage, however, everything seemed to go wrong. Mrs.
Hilton fell into a delicate state of health, and was unable to
bestow the ever-watchful attention to domestic affairs so
requisite in a farmer's wife. Her husband had a series of
misfortunes--of a more important kind than the death of a whole
brood of turkeys from getting among the nettles, or the year of
bad cheeses spoilt by a careless dairymaid--which were the
consequences (so the neighbours said) of Mr. Hilton's mistake in
marrying a delicate fine lady. His crops failed; his horses died;
his barn took fire: in short, if he had been in any way a
remarkable character, one might have supposed him to be the
object of an avenging fate, so successive were the evils which
pursued him; but, as he was only a somewhat commonplace farmer, I
believe we must attribute his calamities to some want in his
character of the one quality required to act as keystone to many
excellences. While his wife lived, all worldly misfortunes seemed
as nothing to him; her strong sense and lively faculty of hope
upheld him from despair; her sympathy was always ready, and the
invalid's room had an atmosphere of peace and encouragement which
affected all who entered it. But when Ruth was about twelve, one
morning in the busy hay-time, Mrs. Hilton was left alone for some
hours. This had often happened before, nor had she seemed weaker
than usual when they had gone forth to the field; but on their
return, with merry voices, to fetch the dinner prepared for the
haymakers, they found an unusual silence brooding over the house;
no low voice called out gently to welcome them, and ask after the
day's progress; and, on entering the little parlour, which was
called Mrs. Hilton's, and was sacred to her, they found her lying
dead on her accustomed sofa. Quite calm and peaceful she lay;
there had been no struggle at last; the struggle was for the
survivors, and one sank under it. Her husband did not make much
ado at first--at least, not in outward show; her memory seemed to
keep in check all external violence of grief; but, day by day,
dating from his wife's death, his mental powers decreased. He was
still a hale-looking elderly man, and his bodily health appeared
as good as ever; but he sat for hours in his easy-chair, looking
into the fire, not moving, nor speaking, unless when it was
absolutely necessary to answer repeated questions. If Ruth, with
coaxings and draggings, induced him to come out with her, he went
with measured steps around his fields, his head bent to the
ground with the same abstracted, unseeing look; never
smiling--never changing the expression of his face, not even to
one of deeper sadness, when anything occurred which might be
supposed to remind him of his dead wife. But, in this abstraction
from all outward things, his worldly affairs went ever lower
down. He paid money away, or received it, as if it had been so
much water; the gold mines of Potosi could not have touched the
deep grief of his soul; but God in in His mercy knew the sure
balm, and sent the Beautiful Messenger to take the weary one
After his death, the creditors were the chief people who appeared
to take any interest in the affairs; and it seemed strange to
Ruth to see people, whom she scarcely knew, examining and
touching all that she had been accustomed to consider as precious
and sacred. Her father had made his will at her birth. With the
pride of newly and late-acquired paternity, he had considered the
office of guardian to his little darling as one which would have
been an additional honour to the lord-lieutenant of the county;
but as he had not the pleasure of his lordship's acquaintance, he
selected the person of most consequence amongst those whom he did
know; not any very ambitious appointment in those days of
comparative prosperity; but certainly the flourishing maltster of
Skelton was a little surprised, when, fifteen years later, he
learnt that he was executor to a will bequeathing many vanished
hundreds of pounds, and guardian to a young girl whom he could
not remember ever to have seen.
He was a sensible, hard-headed man of the world; having a very
fair proportion of conscience as consciences go; indeed, perhaps
more than many people; for he had some ideas of duty extending to
the circle beyond his own family, and did not, as some would have
done, decline acting altogether, but speedily summoned the
creditors, examined into the accounts, sold up the farming-stock,
and discharged all the debts; paid about L 80 into the Skelton
bank for a week, while he inquired for a situation or
apprenticeship of some kind for poor heart-broken Ruth; heard of
Mrs. Mason's; arranged all with her in two short conversations;
drove over for Ruth in his gig; waited while she and the old
servant packed up her clothes; and grew very impatient while she
ran, with her eyes streaming with tears, round the garden,
tearing off in a passion of love whole boughs of favourite China
and damask roses, late flowering against the casement-window of
what had been her mother's room. When she took her seat in the
gig, she was little able, even if she had been inclined, to
profit by her guardian's lectures on economy and self-reliance;
but she was quiet and silent, looking forward with longing to the
night-time, when, in her bedroom, she might give way to all her
passionate sorrow at being wrenched from the home where she had
lived with her parents, in that utter absence of any anticipation
of change, which is either the blessing or the curse of
childhood. But at night there were four other girls in her room,
and she could not cry before them. She watched and waited till,
one by one, they dropped off to sleep, and then she buried her
face in the pillow, and shook with sobbing grief; and then she
paused to conjure up, with fond luxuriance, every recollection of
the happy days, so little valued in their uneventful peace while
they lasted, so passionately regretted when once gone for ever;
to remember every look and word of the dear mother, and to moan
afresh over the change caused by her death--the first clouding in
of Ruth's day of life. It was Jenny's sympathy on this first
night, when awakened by Ruth's irrepressible agony, that had made
the bond between them. But Ruth's loving disposition, continually
sending forth fibres in search of nutriment, found no other
object for regard among those of her daily life to compensate for
the want of natural ties.
But, almost insensibly, Jenny's place in Ruth's heart was filled
up; there was some one who listened with tender interest to all
her little revelations; who questioned her about her early days
of happiness, and, in return, spoke of his own childhood--not so
golden in reality as Ruth's, but more dazzling, when recounted
with stories of the beautiful cream-coloured Arabian pony, and
the old picture-gallery in the house, and avenues, and terraces,
and fountains in the garden, for Ruth to paint, with all the
vividness of imagination, as scenery and background for the
figure which was growing by slow degrees most prominent in her
It must not be supposed that this was affected all at once,
though the intermediate stages have been passed over. On Sunday,
Mr. Bellingham only spoke to her to receive the information about
the panel; nor did he come to St. Nicholas' the next, nor yet the
following Sunday. But the third he walked by her side a little
way, and, seeing her annoyance, he left her; and then she wished
for him back again, and found the day very dreary, and wondered
why a strange, undefined feeling, had made her imagine she was
doing wrong in walking alongside of one so kind and good as Mr.
Bellingham; it had been very foolish of her to be self-conscious
all the time, and if ever he spoke to her again she would not
think of what people might say, but enjoy the pleasure which his
kind words and evident interest in her might give. Then she
thought it was very likely he never would notice her again, for
she knew she had been very rude with her short answers; it was
very provoking that she had behaved so rudely. She would be
sixteen in another month, and she was still childish and awkward.
Thus she lectured herself, after parting with Mr. Bellingham; and
the consequence was, that on the following Sunday she was ten
times as blushing and conscious, and (Mr. Bellingham thought) ten
times more beautiful than ever. He suggested that, instead of
going straight home through High Street, she should take the
round by the Leasowes; at first she declined, but then, suddenly
wondering and questioning herself why she refused a thing which
was, as far as reason and knowledge (her knowledge) went, so
innocent, and which was certainly so tempting and pleasant, she
agreed to go the round; and, when she was once in the meadows
that skirted the town, she forgot all doubt and awkwardness--nay,
almost forgot the presence of Mr. Bellingham--in her delight at
the new, tender beauty of an early spring day in February. Among
the last year's brown ruins, heaped together by the wind in the
hedgerows, she found the fresh, green, crinkled leaves and pale
star-like flowers of the primroses. Here and there a golden
celandine made brilliant the sides of the little brook that (full
of water in "February fill-dyke") bubbled along by the side of
the path; the sun was low in the horizon, and once, when they
came to a higher part of the Leasowes, Ruth burst into an
exclamation of delight at the evening glory of mellow light which
was in the sky behind the purple distance, while the brown
leafless woods in the foreground derived an almost metallic
lustre from the golden mist and haze of sunset. It was but
three-quarters of a mile round by the meadows, but somehow it
took them an hour to walk it. Ruth turned to thank Mr. Bellingham
for his kindness in taking her home by this beautiful way, but
his look of admiration at her glowing, animated face, made her
suddenly silent; and, hardly wishing him good-bye, she quickly
entered the house with a beating, happy, agitated heart.
"How strange it is," she thought that evening, "that I should
feel as if this charming afternoon's walk were, somehow, not
exactly wrong, but yet as if it were not right. Why can it be? I
am not defrauding Mrs. Mason of any of her time; that I know
would be wrong; I am left to go where I like on Sundays. I have
been to church, so it can't be because I have missed doing my
duty. If I had gone this walk with Jenny, I wonder whether I
should have felt as I do now. There must be something wrong in
me, myself, to feel so guilty when I have done nothing which is
not right; and yet I can thank God for the happiness I have had
in this charming spring walk, which dear mamma used to say was a
sign when pleasures were innocent and good for us."
She was not conscious, as yet, that Mr. Bellingham's presence had
added any charm to the ramble; and when she might have become
aware of this, as, week after week, Sunday after Sunday,
loitering ramble after loitering ramble succeeded each other, she
was too much absorbed with one set of thoughts to have much
inclination for self-questioning.
"Tell me everything, Ruth, as you would to a brother; let me help
you, if I can, in your difficulties," he said to her one
afternoon. And he really did try to understand, and to realise,
how an insignificant and paltry person like Mason the dressmaker
could be an object of dread, and regarded as a person having
authority, by Ruth. He flamed up with indignation when, by way of
impressing him with Mrs. Mason's power and consequence, Ruth
spoke of some instance of the effects of her employer's
displeasure. He declared his mother should never have a gown made
again by such a tyrant--such a Mrs. Brownrigg; that he would
prevent all his acquaintances from going to such a cruel
dressmaker; till Ruth was alarmed at the threatened consequences
of her one-sided account, and pleaded for Mrs. Mason as earnestly
as if a young man's menace of this description were likely to be
"Indeed, sir, I have been very wrong; if you please, sir, don't
be so angry. She is often very good to us; it is only sometimes
she goes into a passion: and we are very provoking, I dare say. I
know I am for one. I have often to undo my work, and you can't
think how it spoils anything (particularly silk) to be unpicked;
and Mrs. Mason has to bear all the blame. Oh! I am sorry I said
anything about it. Don't speak to your mother about it, pray,
sir. Mrs. Mason thinks so much of Mrs. Bellingham's custom."
"Well, I won't this time"--recollecting that there might be some
awkwardness in accounting to his mother for the means by which he
had obtained his very correct information as to what passed in
Mrs. Mason's workroom--"but, if ever she does so again, I'll not
answer for myself."
"I will take care and not tell again, sir," said Ruth, in a low
"Nay, Ruth, you are not going to have secrets from me, are you?
Don't you remember your promise to consider me as a brother? Go
on telling me everything that happens to you, pray; you cannot
think how much interest I take in all your interests. I can quite
fancy that charming home at Milham you told me about last Sunday.
I can almost fancy Mrs. Mason's workroom; and that, surely, is a
proof either of the strength of my imagination, or of your powers
Ruth smiled. "It is, indeed, sir. Our workroom must be so
different to anything you ever saw. I think you must have passed
through Milham often on your way to Lowford."
"Then you don't think it is any stretch of fancy to have so clear
an idea as I have of Milham Grange? On the left hand of the road,
is it, Ruth?"
"Yes, sir, just over the bridge, and up the hill where the
elm-trees meet overhead and make a green shade; and then comes
the dear old Grange, that I shall never see again."
"Never! Nonsense, Ruthie; it is only six miles off; you may see
it any day. It is not an hour's ride."
"Perhaps I may see it again when I am grown old; I did not think
exactly what 'never' meant; it is so very long since I was there,
and I don't see any chance of my going for years and years at any
"Why, Ruth, you--we may go next Sunday afternoon, if you like."
She looked up at him with a lovely light of pleasure in her face
at the idea.
"How, sir? Can I walk it between afternoon-service and the time
Mrs. Mason comes home? I would go for only one glimpse; but if I
could get into the house--oh, sir! if I could just see mamma's
He was revolving plans in his head for giving her this pleasure,
and he had also his own in view. If they went in any of his
carriages, the loitering charm of the walk would be lost; and
they must, to a certain degree, be encumbered by, and exposed to
the notice of servants.
"Are you a good walker, Ruth? Do you think you can manage six
miles? If we set off at two o'clock, we shall be there by four,
without hurrying; or say half-past four. Then we might stay two
hours, and you could show me all the old walks and old places you
love, and we could still come leisurely home. Oh, it's all
"But do you think it would be right, sir? It seems as if it would
be such a great pleasure, that it must be in some way wrong."
"Why, you little goose, what can be wrong in it?"
"In the first place, I miss going to church by setting out at
two," said Ruth, a little gravely.
"Only for once. Surely you don't see any harm in missing church
for once? You will go in the morning, you know."
"I wonder if Mrs. Mason would think it right--if she would allow
"No, I dare say not. But you don't mean to be governed by Mrs.
Mason's notions of right and wrong. She thought it right to treat
that poor girl Palmer in the way you told me about. You would
think that wrong, you know, and so would every one of sense and
feeling. Come, Ruth, don't pin your faith on any one, but judge
for yourself. The pleasure is perfectly innocent: it is not a
selfish pleasure either, for I shall enjoy it to the full as much
as you will. I shall like to see the places where you spent your
childhood; I shall almost love them as much as you do." He had
dropped his voice; and spoke in low, persuasive tones. Ruth hung
down her head, and blushed with exceeding happiness; but she
could not speak, even to urge her doubts afresh. Thus it was in a
manner settled. How delightfully happy the plan made her through
the coming week! She was too young when her mother died to have
received any cautions or words of advice respecting the subject
of a woman's life--if, indeed, wise parents ever directly speak
of what, in its depth and power, cannot be put into words--which
is a brooding spirit with no definite form or shape that men
should know it, but which is there, and present before we have
recognised and realised its existence. Ruth was innocent and
snow-pure. She had heard of falling in love, but did not know the
signs and symptoms thereof; nor, indeed, had she troubled her
head much about them. Sorrow had filled up her days, to the
exclusion of all lighter thoughts than the consideration of
present duties, and the remembrance of the happy time which had
been. But the interval of blank, after the loss of her mother and
during her father's life-in-death, had made her all the more
ready to value and cling to sympathy--first from Jenny, and now
from Mr. Bellingham. To see her home again, and to see it with
him; to show him (secure of his interest) the haunts of former
times, each with its little tale of the past--of dead-and-gone
events!--No coming shadow threw its gloom over this week's dream
of happiness--a dream which was too bright to be spoken about to
common and indifferent ears.
TREADING IN PERILOUS PLACES
Sunday came, as brilliant as if there were no sorrow, or death,
or guilt in the world; a day or two of rain had made the earth
fresh and brave as the blue heavens above. Ruth thought it was
too strong a realisation of her hopes, and looked for an
over-clouding at noon; but the glory endured, and at two o'clock
she was in the Leasowes, with a beating heart full of joy,
longing to stop the hours, which would pass too quickly through
They sauntered through the fragrant lanes, as if their loitering
would prolong the time and check the fiery-footed steeds
galloping apace towards the close of the happy day. It was past
five o'clock before they came to the great mill-wheel, which
stood in Sabbath idleness, motionless in a brown mass of shade,
and still wet with yesterday's immersion in the deep transparent
water beneath. They clambered the little hill, not yet fully
shaded by the overarching elms; and then Ruth checked Mr.
Bellingham, by a slight motion of the hand which lay within his
arm, and glanced up into his face to see what that face should
express as it looked on Milham Grange, now lying still and
peaceful in its afternoon shadows. It was a house of
after-thoughts; building materials were plentiful in the
neighbourhood, and every successive owner had found a necessity
for some addition or projection, till it was a picturesque mass
of irregularity--of broken light and shadow--which, as a whole,
gave a full and complete idea of a "Home." All its gables and
nooks were blended and held together by the tender green of the
climbing roses and young creepers. An old couple were living in
the house until it should be let, but they dwelt in the back
part, and never used the front door; so the little birds had
grown tame and familiar, and perched upon the window-sills and
porch, and on the old stone cistern which caught the water from
They went silently through the untrimmed garden, full of the
pale-coloured flowers of spring. A spider had spread her web over
the front door. The sight of this conveyed a sense of desolation
to Ruth's heart; she thought it was possible the state-entrance
had never been used since her father's dead body had been borne
forth, and without speaking a word, she turned abruptly away, and
went round the house to another door. Mr. Bellingham followed
without questioning, little understanding her feelings, but full
of admiration for the varying expression called out upon her
The old woman had not yet returned from church, or from the
weekly gossip or neighbourly tea which succeeded. The husband sat
in the kitchen, spelling the psalms for the day in his
Prayer-book, and reading the words out aloud--a habit he had
acquired from the double solitude of his life, for he was deaf.
He did not hear the quiet entrance of the pair, and they were
struck with the sort of ghostly echo which seems to haunt
half-furnished and uninhabited houses. The verses he was reading
were the following:--
"Why art thou so vexed, O my soul: and why art thou so disquieted
within me? O put thy trust in God: for I will yet thank him,
which is the help of my countenance, and my God."
And when he had finished he shut the book, and sighed with the
satisfaction of having done his duty. The words of holy trust,
though, perhaps, they were not fully understood, carried a
faithful peace down into the depths of his soul. As he looked up,
he saw the young couple standing in the middle of the floor. He
pushed his iron-rimmed spectacles on to his forehead, and rose
to greet the daughter of his old master and ever-honoured
"God bless thee, lass! God bless thee! My old eyes are glad to
see thee again."
Ruth sprang forward to shake the horny hand stretched forward in
the action of blessing. She pressed it between both of hers, as
she rapidly poured out questions. Mr. Bellingham was not
altogether comfortable at seeing one whom he had already begun to
appropriate as his own, so tenderly familiar with a
hard-featured, meanly-dressed day-labourer. He sauntered to the
window, and looked out into the grass-grown farmyard; but he
could not help overhearing some of the conversation, which seemed
to him carried on too much in the tone of equality. "And who's
yon?" asked the old labourer at last. "Is he your sweetheart?
Your missis's son, I reckon. He's a spruce young chap, anyhow."
Mr. Bellingham's "blood of all the Howards" rose and tingled
about his ears, so that he could not hear Ruth's answer. It began
by "Hush, Thomas; pray hush!" but how it went on he did not
catch. The idea of his being Mrs. Mason's son! It was really too
ridiculous; but, like most things which are "too ridiculous," it
made him very angry. He was hardly himself again when Ruth shyly
came to the window-recess and asked him if he would like to see
the house-place, into which the front-door entered; many people
thought it very pretty, she said, half-timidly, for his face had
unconsciously assumed a hard and haughty expression, which he
could not instantly soften down. He followed her, however; but
before he left the kitchen he saw the old man standing, looking
at Ruth's companion with a strange, grave air of dissatisfaction.
They went along one or two zig-zag damp-smelling stone passages,
and then entered the house-place, or common sitting-room for a
farmer's family in that part of the country. The front door
opened into it, and several other apartments issued out of it,
such as the dairy, the state bedroom (which was half-parlour as
well), and a small room which had been appropriated to the late
Mrs. Hilton, where she sat, or more frequently lay, commanding
through the open door the comings and goings of her household. In
those days the house-place had been a cheerful room, full of
life, with the passing to and fro of husband, child, and
servants; with a great merry wood-fire crackling and blazing away
every evening, and hardly let out in the very heat of summer; for
with the thick stone walls, and the deep window-seats, and the
drapery of vine-leaves and ivy, that room, with its flag-floor,
seemed always to want the sparkle and cheery warmth of a fire.
But now the green shadows from without seemed to have become
black in the uninhabited desolation. The oaken shovel-board, the
heavy dresser, and the carved cupboards, were now dull and damp,
which were formerly polished up to the brightness of a
looking-glass where the fire-blaze was for ever glinting; they
only added to the oppressive gloom; the flag-floor was wet with
heavy moisture. Ruth stood gazing into the room, seeing nothing
of what was present. She saw a vision of former days--an evening
in the days of her childhood; her father sitting in the "master's
corner" near the fire, sedately smoking his pipe, while he
dreamily watched his wife and child; her mother reading to her,
as she sat on a little stool at her feet. It was gone--all gone
into the land of shadows; but for the moment it seemed so present
in the old room, that Ruth believed her actual life to be the
dream. Then, 'still silent, she went on into her mother's
parlour. But there, the bleak look of what had once been full of
peace and mother's love, struck cold on her heart. She uttered a
cry, and threw herself down by the sofa, hiding her face in her
hands, while her frame quivered with her repressed sobs.
"Dearest Ruth, don't give way so. It can do no good; it cannot
bring back the dead," said Mr. Bellingham, distressed at
witnessing her distress.
"I know it cannot," murmured Ruth; "and that is why I cry. I cry
because nothing will ever bring them back again." She sobbed
afresh, but more gently, for his kind words soothed her, and
softened, if they could not take away, her sense of desolation.
"Come away; I cannot have you stay here, full of painful
associations as these rooms must be. Come"--raising her with
gentle violence--"show me your little garden you have often told
me about. Near the window of this very room, is it not? See how
well I remember everything you tell me."
He led her round through the back part of the house into the
pretty old-fashioned garden. There was a sunny border just under
the windows, and clipped box and yew-trees by the grass-plat,
further away from the house; and she prattled again of her
childish adventures and solitary plays. When they turned round
they saw the old man, who had hobbled out with the help of his
stick, and was looking at them with the same grave, sad look of
anxiety. Mr. Bellingham spoke rather sharply--
"Why does that old man follow us about in that way? It is
excessively impertinent of him, I think."
"Oh, don't call old Thomas impertinent. He is so good and kind,
he is like a father to me. I remember sitting on his knee many
and many a time when I was a child, whilst he told me stories out
of the 'Pilgrim's Progress.' He taught me to suck up milk through
a straw. Mamma was very fond of him, too. He used to sit with us
always in the evenings when papa was away at market, for mamma
was rather afraid of having no man in the house, and used to beg
old Thomas to stay; and he would take me on his knee, and listen
just as attentively as I did while mamma read aloud."
"You don't mean to say you have sat upon that old fellow's knee?"
"Oh, yes! many and many a time."
Mr. Bellingham looked graver than he had done while witnessing
Ruth's passionate emotion in her mother's room. But he lost his
sense of indignity in admiration of his companion as she wandered
among the flowers, seeking for favourite bushes or plants, to
which some history or remembrance was attached. She wound in and
out in natural, graceful, wavy lines between the luxuriant and
overgrown shrubs, which were fragrant with a leafy smell of
spring growth; she went on, careless of watching eyes, indeed
unconscious, for the time, of their existence. Once she stopped
to take hold of a spray of jessamine, and softly kiss it; it had
been her mother's favourite flower.
Old Thomas was standing by the horse-mount, and was also an
observer of all her goings-on. But, while Mr. Bellingham's
feeling was that of passionate admiration mingled with a selfish
kind of love, the old man gazed with tender anxiety, and his lips
moved in words of blessing--
"She's a pretty creature, with a glint of her mother about her;
and she's the same kind lass as ever. Not a bit set up with yon
fine manty-maker's shop she's in. I misdoubt that young fellow
though, for all she called him a real gentleman, and checked me
when I asked if he was her sweetheart. If his are not
sweetheart's looks, I've forgotten all my young days. Here!
they're going, I suppose. Look! he wants her to go without a word
to the old man; but she is none so changed as that, I reckon."
Not Ruth, indeed! She never perceived the dissatisfied expression
of Mr. Bellingham's countenance, visible to the old man's keen
eye; but came running up to Thomas to send her love to his wife,
and to shake him many times by the hand.
"Tell Mary I'll make her such a fine gown, as soon as ever I set
up for myself; it shall be all in the fashion, big gigot sleeves,
that she shall not know herself in them! Mind you tell her that,
Thomas, will you?"
"Ay, that I will, lass; and I reckon she'll be pleased to hear
thou hast not forgotten thy old merry ways. The Lord bless
thee--the Lord lift up the light of His countenance upon thee."
Ruth was half-way towards the impatient Mr. Bellingham when her
old friend called her back. He longed to give her a warning of
the danger that he thought she was in, and yet he did not know
how. When she came up, all he could think of to say was a text;
indeed, the language of the Bible was the language in which he
thought, whenever his ideas went beyond practical everyday life
into expressions of emotion or feeling. "My dear, remember the
devil goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour;
remember that, Ruth."
The words fell on her ear, but gave no definite idea. The utmost
they suggested was the remembrance of the dread she felt as a
child when this verse came into her mind, and how she used to
imagine a lion's head with glaring eyes peering out of the bushes
in a dark shady part of the wood, which, for this reason, she had
always avoided, and even now could hardly think of without a
shudder. She never imagined that the grim warning related to the
handsome young man who awaited her with a countenance beaming
with love, and tenderly drew her hand within his arm.
The old man sighed as he watched them away. "The Lord may help
her to guide her steps aright. He may. But I'm afeard she's
treading in perilous places. I'll put my missis up to going to
the town and getting speech of her, and telling her a bit of her
danger. An old motherly woman like our Mary will set about it
better nor a stupid fellow like me."
The poor old labourer prayed long and earnestly that night for
Ruth. He called it "wrestling for her soul;" and I think that his
prayers were heard, for "God judgeth not as man judgeth."
Ruth went on her way, all unconscious of the dark phantoms of the
future that were gathering around her; her melancholy turned,
with the pliancy of childish years, at sixteen not yet lost, into
a softened manner which was infinitely charming. By-and-by she
cleared up into sunny happiness. The evening was still and full
of mellow light, and the new-born summer was so delicious that,
in common with all young creatures, she shared its influence and
was glad. They stood together at the top of a steep ascent, "the
hill" of the hundred. At the summit there was a level space,
sixty or seventy yards square, of unenclosed and broken ground,
over which the golden bloom of the gorse cast a rich hue, while
its delicious scent perfumed the fresh and nimble air. On one
side of this common, the ground sloped down to a clear bright
pond, in which were mirrored the rough sand-cliffs that rose
abrupt on the opposite bank; hundreds of martens found a home
there, and were now wheeling over the transparent water, and
dipping in their wings in their evening sport. Indeed, all sorts
of birds seemed to haunt the lonely pool; the water-wagtails were
scattered around its margin, the linnets perched on the topmost
sprays of the gorse-bushes, and other hidden warblers sang their
vespers on the uneven ground beyond. On the far side of the green
waste, close by the road, and well placed for the requirements of
horses or their riders who might be weary with the ascent of the
hill, there was a public-house, which was more of a farm than an
inn. It was a long, low building, rich in dormer-windows on the
weather side, which were necessary in such an exposed situation,
and with odd projections and unlooked-for gables on every side;
there was a deep porch in front, on whose hospitable benches a
dozen persons might sit and enjoy the balmy air. A noble sycamore
grew right before the house, with seats all round it ("such tents
the patriarchs loved"); and a nondescript sign hung from a branch
on the side next to the road, which, being wisely furnished with
an interpretation, was found to mean King Charles in the oak.
Near this comfortable, quiet, unfrequented inn, there was another
pond, for household and farmyard purposes, from which the cattle
were drinking, before returning to the fields after they had been
milked. Their very motions were so lazy and slow, that they
served to fill up the mind with the sensation of dreamy rest.
Ruth and Mr. Bellingham plunged through the broken ground to
regain the road near the wayside inn. Hand-in-hand, now pricked
by the far-spreading gorse, now ankle-deep in sand; now pressing
the soft, thick heath, which should make so brave an autumn show;
and now over wild thyme and other fragrant herbs, they made their
way, with many a merry laugh. Once on the road, at the summit,
Ruth stood silent, in breathless delight at the view before her.
The hill fell suddenly down into the plain, extending for a dozen
miles or more. There was a clump of dark Scotch firs close to
them, which cut clear against the western sky, and threw back the
nearest levels into distance. The plain below them was richly
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