English Literature

The Settlers at Home by Harriet Martineau

The Settlers at Home by Harriet Martineau

Chapter One.

The Settlers at Home.

Two hundred years ago, the Isle of Axholme was one of the most remarkable places in England. It is not an island in the sea. It is a part of Lincolnshire—a piece of land hilly in the middle, and surrounded by rivers. The Trent runs on the east side of it; and some smaller rivers formerly flowed round the rest of it, joining the Humber to the north. These rivers carried down a great deal of mud with them to the Humber, and the tides of the Humber washed up a great deal of sea-sand into the mouths of the rivers; so that the waters could not for some time flow freely, and were at last prevented from flowing away at all: they sank into the ground, and made a swamp of it—a swamp of many miles round the hilly part of the Isle of Axholme.

This swamp was long a very dismal place. Fish, and water-birds, and rats inhabited it: and here and there stood the hut of a fowler; or a peat-stack raised by the people who lived on the hills round, and who obtained their fuel from the peat-lands in the swamp. There were also, sprinkled over the district, a few very small houses—cells belonging to the Abbey of Saint Mary, at York. To these cells some of the monks from Saint Mary’s had been fond of retiring, in old times, for meditation and prayer, and doing good in the district round; but when the soil became so swampy as to give them the ague as often as they paid a visit to these cells, the monks left off their practice of retiring hither; and their little dwellings stood empty, to be gradually overgrown with green moss and lank weeds, which no hand cleared away.

At last a Dutchman, having seen what wonders were done in his own country by good draining, thought he could render this district fit to be inhabited and cultivated; and he made a bargain with the king about it. After spending much money, and taking great pains, he succeeded. He drew the waters off into new channels, and kept them there by sluices, and by carefully watching the embankments he had raised. The land which was left dry was manured and cultivated, till, instead of a reedy and mossy swamp, there were fields of clover and of corn, and meadows of the finest grass, with cattle and sheep grazing in large numbers. The dwellings that were still standing were made into farm-houses, and new farmhouses were built. A church here, and a chapel there was cleaned, and warmed, and painted, and opened for worship; and good roads crossed the district into all the counties near.

Instead of being pleased with this change, the people of the country were angry and discontented. Those who lived near had been long accustomed to fishing and fowling in the swamp, without paying any rent, or having to ask anybody’s leave. They had no mind now to settle to the regular toilsome business of farming,—and to be under a landlord, to whom they must pay rent. Probably, too, they knew nothing about farming, and would have failed in it if they had tried. Thus far they were not to be blamed. But nothing can exceed the malignity with which they treated the tenants who did settle in the isle, and the spiteful spirit which they showed towards them, on every occasion.

These tenants were chiefly foreigners. There was a civil war in England at that time: and the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire people were so much engaged in fighting for King Charles or for the Parliament, that fewer persons were at liberty to undertake new farms than there would have been in a time of peace. When the Dutchman and his companions found that the English were not disposed to occupy the Levels (as the drained lands were called), they encouraged some of their own countrymen to come over. With them arrived some few Frenchmen, who had been driven from France into Holland, on account of their being Protestants. From first to last, there were about two hundred families, Dutch and French, settled in the Levels. Some were collected into a village, and had a chapel opened, where a pastor of their own performed service for them. Others were scattered over the district, living just where their occupations required them to settle.

All these foreigners were subject to bad treatment from their neighbours; but the stragglers were the worst off; because it was easiest to tease and injure those who lived alone. The disappointed fishers and fowlers gave other reasons for their own conduct, besides that of being nearly deprived of their fishing and fowling. These reasons were all bad, as reasons for hating always are. One excuse was that the new settlers were foreigners—as if those who were far from their own land did not need particular hospitality and kindness. Another plea was that they were connected with the king, by being settled on the lands which he had bargained to have drained: so that all who sided with the parliament ought to injure the new tenants, in order to annoy the king. If the settlers had tried to serve the king by injuring his enemies, this last reason might have passed in a time of war. But it was not so. It is probable that the foreigners did not understand the quarrel. At any rate, they took no part in it. All they desired was to be left in peace, to cultivate the lands they paid rent for. But instead of peace, they had little but persecution.

One of these settlers, Mr Linacre, was not himself a farmer. He supplied the farmers of the district with a manure of a particular kind, which suited some of the richest soils they cultivated. He found, in the red soil of the isle, a large mass of that white earth, called gypsum, which, when wetted and burnt, makes plaster of Paris; and which, when ground, makes a fine manure for some soils, as the careful Dutchmen well knew. Mr Linacre set up a windmill on a little eminence which rose out of the Level, just high enough to catch the wind; and there he ground the gypsum which he dug from the neighbouring patch or quarry. He had to build some out-houses, but not a dwelling-house; for, near his mill, with just space enough for a good garden between, was one of the largest of the old cells of the monks of Saint Mary’s, so well built of stone, and so comfortably arranged, that Mr Linacre had little to do but to have it cleaned and furnished, and the windows and doors made new, to fit it for the residence of his wife and children, and a servant.

This building was round, and had three rooms below, and three over them. A staircase of stone was in the very middle, winding round, like a corkscrew,—leading to the upper rooms, and out upon the roof, from which there was a beautiful view,—quite as far as the Humber to the north-east, and to the circle of hills on every other side. Each of the rooms below had a door to the open air, and another to the staircase;—very unlike modern houses, and not so fit as they to keep out wind and cold. But for this, the dwelling would have been very warm, for the walls were of thick stone; and the fire-places were so large, that it seemed as if the monks had been fond of good fires. Two of these lower rooms opened into the garden; and the third, the kitchen, into the yard;—so that the maid, Ailwin, had not far to go to milk the cow and feed the poultry.

Mrs Linacre was as neat in the management of her house as people from Holland usually are; and she did not like that the sitting-room, where her husband had his meals, and spent his evenings, should be littered by the children, or used at all by them during her absence at her daily occupation, in the summer. So she let them use the third room for their employments and their play. Her occupation, every summer’s day, was serving out the waters from a mineral spring, a good deal frequented by sick people, three miles from her house, on the way to Gainsborough. She set off, after an early breakfast, in the cool of the morning, and generally arrived at the hill-side where the spring was, and had unlocked her little shed, and taken out her glasses, and rinsed them, before any travellers passed. It was rarely indeed that a sick person had to wait a minute for her appearance. There she sat, in her shed when it rained, and under a tree when it was fine, sewing or knitting very diligently when no customers appeared, and now and then casting a glance over the Levels to the spot where her husband’s mill rose in the midst of the green fields, and where she almost fancied sometimes that she could see the children sitting on the mill-steps, or working in the garden. When customers appeared, she was always ready in a moment to serve them; and her smile cheered those who were sick, and pleased those who came merely from curiosity. She slipped the halfpence she received into a pocket beneath her apron; and sometimes the pocket was such a heavy one to carry three miles home, that she just stepped aside to the village shop at Haxey, or into a farm-house where the people would be going to market next day, to get her copper exchanged for silver. Since the times had become so troubled as they were now, however, she had avoided showing her money anywhere on the road. Her husband’s advice was that she should give up attending the spring altogether; but she gained so much money by it, and it was so likely that somebody would step into her place there as soon as she gave it up, so that she would not be able to regain her office when quieter times should come, that she entreated him to allow her to go on while she had no fears. She took the heavy gold ear-rings out of her ears, wore a plainer cap, and left her large silver watch at home; so that she looked like a poor woman whom no needy soldier or bold thief would think of robbing. She guessed by the sun what was the right time for locking up her glasses and going home; and she commonly met her husband, coming to fetch her, before she had got half-way.

The three children were sure to be perched on the top of the quarry bank, or on the mill-steps, or out on the roof of the house, at the top of the winding staircase. Little George himself, though only two years old, knew the very moment when he should shout and clap his hands, to make his mother wave her handkerchief from the turn of the road. Oliver and Mildred did not exactly feel that the days were too long while their mother was away, for they had plenty to do; but they felt that the best part of the day was the hour between her return and their going to bed: and, unlike people generally, they liked winter better than summer, because at that season their mother never left them, except to go to the shop, or the market at Haxey.

Though Oliver was only eleven, and Mildred nine, they were not too young to have a great deal to do. Oliver was really useful as a gardener; and many a good dish of vegetables of his growing came to table in the course of the year. Mildred had to take care of the child almost all day; she often prepared the cabbage, and cut the bacon for Ailwin to broil. She could also do what Ailwin could not,—she could sew a little; and now and then there was an apron or a handkerchief ready to be shown when Mrs Linacre came home in the evening. If she met with any difficulty in her job, the maid could not help her, but her father sometimes could; and it was curious to see Mildred mounting the mill when she was at any loss, and her father wiping the white plaster off his hands, and taking the needle or the scissors in his great fingers, rather than that his little girl should not be able to surprise her mother with a finished piece of work. Then, both Oliver and Mildred had to learn their catechism, to say to Pastor Dendel on Sunday; and always a copy or an exercise on hand, to be ready to show him when he should call; and some book to finish that he had lent them to read, and that others of his flock would be ready for when they had done.

Besides all this, there was an occupation which both boy and girl thought more of than of all others together. Among the loads of gypsum that came to the mill, there were often pieces of the best kind,—lumps of real, fine alabaster. Alabaster is so soft as to be easily worked. Even a finger-nail will make a mark upon it. Everybody knows how beautiful vases and little statues, well wrought in alabaster, look on a mantelpiece, or a drawing-room table. Oliver had seen such in France, where they are very common: and his father had carried one or two ornaments of this kind into Holland, when he had to leave France. It was a great delight for Oliver to find, on settling in Axholme, that he could have as much alabaster as he pleased, if he could only work it. With a little help from Pastor Dendel and his father, he soon learned to do so; and of all his employments, he liked this the best. Pastor Dendel brought him a few bowls and cups of pretty shapes and different sizes, made of common wood by a turner, who was one of his flock; and Oliver first copied these in clay, and then in alabaster. By degrees he learned to vary his patterns, and at last to make his clay models from fancies of his own,— some turning out failures, and others prettier than any of his wooden cups. These last he proceeded to carve out of alabaster.

Mildred could not help watching him while he was about his favourite work, though it was difficult to keep little George from tossing the alabaster about, and stamping on the best pieces, or sucking them. He would sometimes give his sister a few minutes’ peace and quiet by rolling the wooden bowls the whole length of the room, and running after them: and there was also an hour, in the middle of the day, when he went to sleep in his large Dutch cradle. At those times Mildred would consult with her brother about his work; or sew or watch him by turns; or read one of the pastor’s little books, stopping occasionally to wonder whether Oliver could attend at once to his carving, and to what she was reading. When she saw that he was spoiling any part, or that his hand was shaking, she would ask whether he had not been at work long enough; and then they would run out to the garden or the quarry, or to jump George (if he was awake again) from the second mill-step.

One fine month of August, not a breath of wind had been blowing for a week or two, so that the mill-sails had not made a single turn; not a load of gypsum had been brought during the time, and Oliver was quite out of alabaster; though, as it happened, he much wanted a good supply, for a particular reason. Every morning he brought out his tools; and every morning the sky was so clear, the corn-fields so still—the very trees so silent, that he wondered whether there had ever been so calm a month of August before. His father and he employed their time upon the garden, while they had so good an opportunity. Before it was all put in order, and the entire stock of autumn cabbages set, there came a breezy day; and the children were left to finish the cabbage patch by themselves. While they were at work, it made them merry to hear the mill-sails whirring through the air, and to see, at intervals, the trees above the quarry bowing their heads, and the reeds waving in the swamp, and the water of the meadow-ponds dimpling and rippling, as the wind swept over the Levels. Oliver soon heard something that he liked better still—the creak of the truck that brought the gypsum from the quarry, and the crack of the driver’s whip.

He threw down the dibble with which he was planting out his cabbages—tripped over the line he had set to direct his drilling, tumbled on his face, scrambled up again, and ran, rubbing the dirt from his knees as he went, to look out some alabaster from the load.

Mildred was not long after him, though he called to her that she had better stay and finish the cabbages, and though little George, immediately on feeling himself at liberty, threw himself upon the fresh mould of the cabbage bed, and amused himself with pulling up, and flinging right and left, the plants that had just been set. How could Mildred attend to this, when she was sure she was wanted to turn over the gypsum, and see what she could find? So Master George went on with his pranks, till Ailwin, by accident, saw him from the yard, ran and snatched him up, flung him over her shoulder, and carried him away screaming, till, to pacify him, she set him down among the poultry, which he presently found more amusing than young cabbage plants.

“Now we shall have a set of new cups for the spring, presently,” said Oliver, as he measured lump after lump with his little foot-rule.

“Cups for the waters!” exclaimed his father. “So that is the reason of this prodigious hurry, is it, my boy? You think tin cups not good enough for your mother, or for her customers, or for the waters. Which of them do you think ought to be ashamed of tin cups?”

“The water, most of all. Instead of sparkling in a clear bright glass, it looks as nasty as it tastes in a thing that is more brown and rusty every time it is dipped. I will give the folk a pair of cups that shall tempt them to drink—a pair of cups as white as milk.”

“They will not long remain white: and those who broke the glasses will be the more bent upon spoiling your cups, the more pains you spend upon them.”

“I hope the Redfurns will not happen to hear of them. We need not blab; and the folk who drink the waters go their way, as soon as they have done.”

“Whether the Redfurns be here or there, my boy, there is no want of prying eyes to see all that the poor foreigners do. Your mother is watched, it is my belief, every time she dips her cup; and I in the mill, and you in the garden. There is no hope of keeping anything from our enemies.”

Seeing Oliver look about him uneasily, Mr Linacre reproached himself for having said anything to alarm his timid boy: so he added what he himself always found the most comforting thought, when he felt disturbed at living among unkind neighbours.

“Let them watch us, Oliver. We do nothing that we need be ashamed of. The whole world is welcome to know how we live,—all we do, from year’s end to year’s end.”

“Yes, if they would let us alone, father. But it is so hard to have our things broken and spoiled!”

“So it is; and to know what ill-natured talk is going on about us. But we must let them take their own way, and bear it as well as we can; for there is no help for it.”

“I wish I were a justice!” cried Mildred. “How I would punish them, every one!”

“Then I wish you were a justice, my dear; for we cannot get anybody punished as it is.”

“Mildred,” said Oliver, “I wish you would finish the cabbages. You know they must be done; and I am very busy.”

“Oh, Oliver! I am such a little thing to plant a whole cabbage bed. You will be able to come by and by; I want to help you.”

“You cannot help me, dear: and you know how to do the cabbages as well as anybody. You really cannot help me.”

“Well, I want to see you then.”

“There is nothing to see yet. You will have done, if you make haste, before I begin to cut. Do, dear!”

“Well, I will,” replied Mildred, cheerfully. Her father caught her up, and gave her one good jump down the whole flight of steps, then bidding her work away before the plants were all withered and dead.

She did work away, till she was so hot and tired that she had to stop and rest. There were still two rows to plant; and she thought she should never get through them,—or at any rate, not before Oliver had proceeded a great way with his carving. She was going to cry; but she remembered how that would vex Oliver: so she restrained herself, and ran to ask Ailwin whether she could come and help. Ailwin always did what everybody asked her; so she gave over sorting feathers, and left them all about, while she went down the garden.

Mildred knew she must take little George away, or he would be making confusion among the feathers that had been sorted. She invited him to go with her, and peep over the hedge at the geese in the marsh; and the little fellow took her fore-finger, and trotted away with his sister to the hedge.

There were plenty of water-fowl in the marsh; and there was something else which Mildred did not seem to like. While George was quack-quacking, and making himself as like a little goose as he could, Mildred softly called to Ailwin, and beckoned her to the hedge. Ailwin came, swinging the great spade in her right hand, as easily as Mildred could flourish George’s whip.

“Look,—look there!—under that bank, by the dyke!” said Mildred, as softly as if she had been afraid of being heard at a yard’s distance.

“Eh! Look—if it be not the gipsies!” cried Ailwin, almost as loud as if she had been talking across the marsh. “Eh dear! We have got the gipsies upon us now; and what will become of my poultry? Yon is a gipsy tent, sure; and we must tell the master and mistress, and keep an eye on the poultry. Sure, yon is a gipsy tent.”

Little George, thinking that everybody was very much frightened, began to roar; and that made Ailwin talk louder still, to comfort him; so that nothing that Mildred said was heard. At last, she pulled Ailwin’s apron, so that the tall woman stooped down, to ask what she wanted.

“I do not think it is the gipsies,” said she. “I am afraid it is worse than that. I am afraid it is the Redfurns. This is just the way they settle themselves—in just that sort of tent—when they come to fowl, all autumn.”

“If I catch that Roger,” said Ailwin, “I’ll—.” And she clenched her hand, as if she meant to do terrible things, if she caught Roger.

“I will go and call father, shall I?” said Mildred, her teeth chattering, as she stood in the hot sun.

She was turning to go up the garden, when a laugh from George made her look back again. She saw a head covered with an otter-skin cap,—the face looking very cross and threatening, peeping over the hedge,—which was so high above the marsh, that the person must have climbed the bank on purpose to look into the garden. There was no mistaking the face. It was certainly Roger Redfurn—the plague of the settlers, who, with his uncle, Stephen Redfurn, was always doing all the mischief he could to everybody who had, as he said, trespassed on the marshes. Nobody liked to see the Redfurns sitting down in the neighbourhood; and still less, skulking about the premises. Mildred flew towards the mill; while Ailwin, who never stopped to consider what was wise, and might not, perhaps, have hit upon wisdom if she had, took up a stone, and told Roger he had better be gone, for that he had no friends here. Roger seemed to have just come from some orchard; for he pulled a hard apple out of his pocket, aimed it at Ailwin’s head, and struck her such a blow on the nose as made her eyes water. While she was wiping her eyes with her apron, and trying to see again, Roger coaxed the child to bring him his apple again, and disappeared.

When Mildred reached the mill, she found Pastor Dendel there, talking with her father about sending some manure to his land. The pastor was so busy, that he only gave her a nod; and she had therefore time to recover herself, instead of frightening everybody with her looks and her news at once. Oliver could not stay in the house while the pastor was at the mill: so he stood behind him, chipping away at the rough part of his work. Mildred whispered to him that the Redfurns were close at hand. She saw Oliver turn very red, though he told her not to be frightened. Perhaps the pastor perceived this too, when he turned round, for he said—

“What is the matter, children? Mildred, what have you been doing, that you are so out of breath? Have you been running all the way from Lincoln spire?”

“No, sir; not running—but—”

“The Redfurns are come, sir,” cried Oliver. “Father, the Redfurns are come.”

“Roger has been peeping over the hedge into the garden,” cried Mildred, sinking into tears.

The miller looked grave, and said here was an end of all peace, for some time to come.

“Are you all at the mercy of a boy like Roger Redfurn,” asked the pastor, “so that you look as if a plague had come with this fresh breeze?”

“And his uncle, sir.”

“And his aunt,” added Mildred.

“You know what Stephen Redfurn is, sir,” observed Mr Linacre. “Roger beats even him for mischief. And we are at their mercy, sir. There is not a magistrate, as you know, that will hear a complaint from one of us against the country-people. We get nothing but trouble, and expense, and ridicule, by making complaints. We know this beforehand; for the triumph is always on the other side.”

“It is hard,” said the pastor: “but still,—here is only a man, a woman, and a boy. Cannot you defend yourselves against them?”

“No, sir; because they are not an honourable enemy,” replied Mr Linacre. “If Stephen would fight it out with me on even ground, we would see who would beat: and I dare say my boy there, though none of the roughest, would stand up against Roger. But such fair trials do not suit them, sir. People who creep through drains, to do us mischief, and hide in the reeds when we are up and awake, and come in among us only when we are asleep, are a foe that may easily ruin any honest man, who cannot get protection from the law. They houghed my cow, two years ago, sir.”

“And they mixed all mother’s feathers, for the whole year,” exclaimed Mildred.

“And they blinded my dog,” cried Oliver;—“put out its eyes.”

“Oh! What will they do next?” said Mildred, looking up through her tears at the pastor.

“Worse things than even these have been done to some of the people in my village,” replied the pastor: “and they have been borne, Mildred, without tears.”

Mildred made haste to wipe her eyes.

“And what do you think, my dears, of the life our Protestant brethren are leading now, in some parts of the world?”

“Father came away from France because he was ill-used for being a Protestant,” said Oliver.

“The pastor knows all about that, my boy,” observed Mr Linacre.

“Yes, I do,” said the pastor. “I know that you suffered worse things there than here; and I know that things worse than either are at present endured by our brethren in Piedmont. You have a warm house over your heads; and you live in sunshine and plenty. They are driven from their villages, with fire and sword—forced to shelter among the snow-drifts, and pent up in caves till they rush out starving, to implore mercy of their scoffing persecutors. Could you bear this, children?”

“They suffer these things for their religion,” observed Oliver. “They feel that they are martyrs.”

“Do you think there is comfort in that thought,—in the pride of martyrdom,—to the son who sees his aged parents perish by the wayside,—to the mother whose infant is dashed against the rock before her eyes?”

“How do they bear it all, then?”

“They keep one another in mind that it is God’s will, my dears; and that obedient children can, if they try, bear all that God sees fit to lay upon them. So they praise His name with a strong heart, though their voices be weak. Morning and night, those mountains echo with hymns; though death, in one form or another, is about the sufferers on every side.

“My dear,” said Mr Linacre, “let us make no more complaints about the Redfurns. I am ashamed, when I think of our brethren abroad, that we ever let Stephen and Roger put us up to anger. You will see no more tears here, sir, I hope.”

“Mildred will not quite promise that,” said the pastor, smiling kindly on the little girl. “Make no promises, my dear, that a little girl like you may be tempted to break. Only try to forgive all people who tease and injure you; and remember that nothing more ever happens than God permits,—though He does not yet see fit to let us know why.”

“I would only just ask this, sir,” said Mr Linacre. “Is there anything going forward just now which particularly encourages our enemies to attack us?”

“The parliament have a committee sitting at Lincoln, at present; and the king’s cause seems to be low in these parts. We are thus at the mercy of such as choose to consider us king’s men: but there is a higher and truer mercy always about us.”

The miller took off his hat in token of respect.

The pastor’s eye had been upon Oliver for some time. He now asked whether he meant to make his new cups plain, like all the rest, or to try to ornament them. Mildred assured him that Oliver had carved a beading round the two last bowls that he had cut.

“I think you might attempt something far prettier than beading,” said the pastor; “particularly with so many patterns before your eyes to work by.”

He was looking up at the little recess above the door of the house, near which they were standing. This recess, in which there had formerly been an image, was surrounded with carved stone-work.

“I see some foliage there which would answer your purpose, Oliver, if you could make a model from it. Let us look closer.”

And Pastor Dendel fixed a short ladder against the house wall, and went up, with Oliver before him. They were so busy selecting the figures that Oliver thought he could copy, and drawing them upon paper, and then setting about modelling them in clay, that the Redfurns did not prevent their being happy for this day, at least. Mr Linacre, too, was hard at work all day, grinding, that the pastor’s manure might be served to-morrow; and he found hard work as good for an anxious mind as those who have tried generally find it to be.

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