The Vale of Newlands lay green in the morning sunlight; the river that ran through its lowest bed sparkled with purple and amber; the leaves prattled low in the light breeze that soughed through the rushes and the long grass; the hills rose sheer and white to the smooth blue lake of the sky, where only one fleecy cloud floated languidly across from peak to peak. Out of unseen places came the bleating of sheep and the rumble of distant cataracts, and above the dull thud of tumbling waters far away was the thin caroling of birds overhead.
But the air was alive with yet sweeter sounds. On the breast of the fell that lies over against Cat Bell a procession of children walked, and sang, and chattered, and laughed. It was St. Peter’s Day, and they were rush-bearing; little ones of all ages, from the comely girl of fourteen, just ripening into maidenhood, who walked last, to the sweet boy of four in the pinafore braided with epaulets, who strode along gallantly in front. Most of the little hands carried rushes, but some were filled with ferns, and mosses, and flowers. They had assembled at the schoolhouse, and now, on their way to the church, they were making the circuit of the dale.
They passed over the road that crosses the river at the head of Newlands, and turned down into the path that follows the bed of the valley. At that angle there stands a little group of cottages deliciously cool in their whitewash, nestling together under the heavy purple crag from which the waters of a ghyll fall into a deep basin that reaches to their walls. The last of the group is a cottage with its end to the road, and its open porch facing a garden shaped like a wedge. As the children passed this house an old man, gray and thin and much bent, stood by the gate, leaning on a staff. A collie, with the sheep’s dog wooden bar suspended from its shaggy neck, lay at his feet. The hum of voices brought a young woman into the porch. She was bareheaded and wore a light print gown. Her face was pale and marked with lines. She walked cautiously, stretching one hand before her with an uncertain motion, and grasping a trailing tendril of honeysuckle that swept downward from the roof. Her eyes, which were partly inclined upward and partly turned toward the procession, had a vague light in their bleached pupils. She was blind. At her side, and tugging at her other hand, was a child of a year and a half—a chubby, sunny little fellow with ruddy cheeks, blue eyes, and fair curly hair. Prattling, laughing, singing snatches, and waving their rushes and ferns above their happy, thoughtless heads, the children rattled past. When they were gone the air was empty, as it is when the lark stops in its song.
After the procession of children had passed the little cottage at the angle of the roads, the old man who leaned on his staff at the gate turned about and stepped to the porch.
“Did the boy see them?—did he see the children?” said the young woman who held the child by the hand.
“I mak’ na doot,” said the old man.
He stooped to the little one and held out one long withered finger. The soft baby hand closed on it instantly.
“Did he laugh? I thought he laughed,” said the young woman.
A bright smile played on her lips.
“Maybe so, lass.”
“Ralphie has never seen the children before, father. Didn’t he look frightened—just a little bit frightened—at first, you know? I thought he crept behind my gown.”
The little one had dropped the hand of his young mother, and, still holding the bony finger of his grandfather, he toddled beside him into the house.
Very cool and sweet was the kitchen, with white-washed walls and hard earthen floor. A table and a settle stood by the window, and a dresser that was an armory of bright pewter dishes, trenchers, and piggins, crossed the opposite wall.
“Nay, but sista here, laal lad,” said the old man, and he dived into a great pocket at his side.
“Have you brought it? Is it the kitten? Oh, dear, let the boy see it!”
A kitten came out of the old man’s pocket, and was set down on the rug at the hearth. The timid creature sat dazed, then raised itself on its hind legs and mewed.
“Where’s Ralphie? Is he watching it, father? What is he doing?”
The little one had dropped on hands and knees before the kitten, and was gazing up into its face.
The mother leaned over him with a face that would have beamed with sunshine if the sun of sight had not been missing.
“Is he looking? Doesn’t he want to coddle it?”
The little chap had pushed his nose close to the nose of the kitten, and was prattling to it in various inarticulate noises.
“Isn’t he a darling, father?”
“It’s a winsome wee thing,” said the old man, still standing, with drooping head, over the group on the hearth.
The mother’s face saddened, and she turned away. Then from the opposite side of the kitchen, where she was making pretense to take plates from a plate-rack, there came the sound of suppressed weeping. The old man’s eyes followed her.
“Nay, lass; let’s have a sup of broth,” he said, in a tone that carried another message.
The young woman put plates and a bowl of broth on the table.
“To think that I can never see my own child, and everybody else can see him!” she said, and then there was another bout of tears.
The charcoal-burner supped at his broth in silence. A glistening bead rolled slowly down his wizened cheek: and the interview on the hearth went on without interruption:
The child made efforts to drag himself to his feet by laying hold of the old man’s trousers.
“Nay, laddie,” said the old man, “mind my claes—they’ll dirty thy bran-new brat for thee.”
“Is he growing, father?” said the girl.
“And his eyes—are they changing color?—going brown? Children’s eyes do, you know.”
“Maybe—I’ll not be for saying nay.”
“Is he—is he very like me, father?”
“Nay—well—nay—I’s fancying I see summat of the stranger in the laal chap at whiles.”
The young mother turned her head aside.
The old man’s name was Matthew Fisher; but the folks of the countryside called him Laird Fisher. This dubious dignity came of the circumstance that he had been the holder of an absolute royalty in a few acres of land under Hindscarth. The royalty had been many generations in his family. His grandfather had set store by it. When the Lord of the Manor had worked the copper pits at the foot of the Eal Crags, he had tried to possess himself of the royalties of the Fishers. But the present families resisted the aristocrat. Luke Fisher believed there was a fortune under his feet, and he meant to try his luck on his holding some day. That day never came. His son, Mark Fisher, carried on the tradition, but made no effort to unearth the fortune. They were a cool, silent, slow, and stubborn race. Matthew Fisher followed his father and his grandfather, and inherited the family pride. All these years the tenders of the Lord of the Manor were ignored, and the Fishers enjoyed their title of courtesy or badinage. Matthew married, and had one daughter called Mercy. He farmed his few acres with poor results. The ground was good enough, but Matthew was living under the shadow of the family tradition. One day—it was Sunday morning, and the sun shone brightly—he was rambling by the Po Bett that rises on Hindscarth, and passed through his land, when his eyes glanced over a glittering stone that lay among the pebbles at the bottom of the stream. It was ore, good full ore, and on the very surface. Then the Laird sank a shaft, and all his earnings with it, in an attempt to procure iron or copper. The dalespeople derided him, but he held silently on his way.
“How dusta find the cobbles to-day—any softer?” they would say in passing.
“As soft as the hearts of most folk,” he would answer; and then add in a murmur, “and maybe a vast harder nor their heads.”
The undeceiving came at length, and then the Laird Fisher was old and poor. His wife died broken-hearted. After that the Laird never rallied. The shaft was left unworked, and the holding lay fallow. Laird Fisher took wage from the Lord of the Manor to burn charcoal in the wood. The breezy irony of the dalesfolk did not spare the old man’s bent head. There was a rime current in the vale which ran:
A second man came to Matthew’s abandoned workings. He put money into it and skill and knowledge, struck a vein, and began to realize a fortune. The only thing he did for the old Laird was to make him his banksman at a pound a week—the only thing save one thing, and that is the beginning of this story.
The man’s name was Hugh Ritson. He was the second son of a Cumbrian statesman in a neighboring valley, was seven-and-twenty, and had been brought up as a mining engineer, first at Cleaton Moor and afterward at the College in Jerman Street. When he returned to Cumberland and bought the old Laird’s holding he saw something of the old Laird’s daughter. He remembered Mercy as a pretty prattling thing of ten or eleven. She was now a girl of eighteen, with a simple face, a timid manner, and an air that was neither that of a woman nor of a child. Her mother was lately dead, her father spent most of his days on the fell (some of his nights also when the charcoal was burning), and she was much alone. Hugh Ritson liked her sweet face, her gentle replies, and her few simple questions. It is unnecessary to go further. The girl gave herself up to him with her whole heart and soul. Then he married another woman.
The wife was the daughter of the Vicar, Parson Christian. Her name was Greta: she was beautiful to look upon—a girl of spirit and character. Greta knew nothing of Hugh Ritson’s intercourse with Mercy until after he had become her husband. Mercy was then in the depth of her trouble, and Greta had gone to comfort her. Down to that hour, though idle tongues had wagged, no one had lighted on Mercy’s lover, and not even in her fear had she confessed. Greta told her that it was brave and beautiful to shield her friend, but he was unworthy of her friendship or he would stand by her side—who was he? It was a trying moment. Greta urged and pleaded and coaxed, and Mercy trembled and stammered and was silent. The truth came out at last, and from that moment the love between the two women was like the love of David and Jonathan. Hugh Ritson was compelled to stand apart and witness it. He could not recognize it; he dared not oppose it; he could only drop his head and hold his tongue. It was coals of fire on his head from both sides. The women never afterward mentioned him to each other, and yet somehow—by some paradox of love—he was the bond between them.
A month before the birth of the child, Mercy became blind. This happened suddenly and without much warning. A little cold in the eyes, a little redness around them and a total eclipse of sight. If such a disaster had befallen a married wife, looking forward to a happy motherhood, death itself might have seemed a doom more kind. But Mercy took it with a sombre quietness. She was even heard to say that it was just as well. These startling words, repeated to Greta, just told her something of the mystery and misery of Mercy’s state. But their full meaning, the whole depth of the shame they came from, were only revealed on the morning after the night on which Mercy’s child was born.
They were in the room upstairs, where Mercy herself had been born less than nineteen years before: a little chamber with the low eaves and the open roof rising to the ridge: a peaceful place with its white-washed walls and the odor of clean linen. On the pillow of the bed lay the simple face of the girl-mother, with its fair hair hanging loose and its blind eyes closed. Mercy had just awakened from the first deep sleep that comes after all is over, and the long fingers of one of her thin hands were plucking at the white counterpane. In a nervous voice she began to speak. Where was Mrs. Ritson? Greta answered that she was there, and the baby was sleeping on her knee. Anybody else? No, nobody else. Was it morning? Yes, it was eight in the morning, and her father, who had not been to bed, had eaten his breakfast, and lighted his pipe and gone to work. Was the day fine? Very fine. And the sun shining? Yes, shining beautifully. Was the blind down? Yes, the little white blind was down. Then all the room was full of that soft light? Oh, yes, full of it. Except in the corner by the washstand? Well, except in the corner. Was the washstand still there? Why, yes, it was still there. And mother’s picture on the wall above it? Oh, dear, yes. And the chest of drawers near the door with the bits of sparkling lead ore on top? Of course. And the texts pinned on to the wall-paper: “Come unto Me”—eh? Yes, they were all there. Then everything was just the same? Oh, yes, everything the same.
“The same,” cried Mercy, “everything the same, but, O Lord Jesus, how different!”
The child was awakened by the shrill sound of her voice, and it began to whimper, and Greta to hush it, swaying it on her knee, and calling it by a score of pretty names. Mercy raised her head a moment and listened, then fell back to the pillow and said, “How glad I am I’m blind!”
“Good gracious, Mercy, what are you saying?” said Greta.
“I’m glad I can’t see it.”
“Ah, you’re different, Mrs. Ritson. I was thinking of that last night. When your time comes perhaps you’ll be afraid you’ll die, but you’ll never be afraid you’ll not. And you’ll say to yourself, ‘It will be over soon, and then what joy!’ That wasn’t my case. When I was at the worst I could only think, ‘It’s dreadful now, but oh, to-morrow all the world will be different.'”
One poor little day changed all this. Toward sunset the child had to be given the breast for the first time. Ah! that mystery of life, that mystery of motherhood, what are the accidents of social law, the big conventions of virtue and vice, of honor and disgrace, before the touch of the spreading fingers of a babe as they fasten on the mother’s breast! Mercy thought no more of her shame.
She had her baby for it, at all events. The world was not utterly desolate. After all, God was very good!
Then came a great longing for sight. She only wished to see her child. That was all. Wasn’t it hard that a mother had never seen her own baby? In her darkness she would feel its little nose as it lay asleep beside her, and let her hand play around its mouth and over its eyes and about its ears. Her touch passed over the little one like a look. It was almost as if there were sight in the tips of her fingers.
The child lived to be six months old, and still Mercy had not seen him; a year, and yet she had no hope. Then Greta, in pity of the yearning gaze of the blind girl-face whenever she came and kissed the boy and said how bonny he was, sent to Liverpool for a doctor, that at least they might know for a certainty if Mercy’s sight was gone forever. The doctor came. Yes, there was hope. The mischief was cataract on both eyes. Sight might return, but an operation would be necessary. That could not, however, be performed immediately. He would come again in a month, and a colleague with him, and meantime the eyes must be bathed constantly in a liquid which they would send for the purpose.
At first Mercy was beside herself with delight. She plucked up the boy and kissed and kissed him. The whole day long she sang all over the house like a liberated bird. Her face, though it was blind, was like sunshine, for the joyous mouth smiled like eyes. Then suddenly there came a change. She plucked up the boy and kissed him still, but she did not sing and she did not smile. A heavy thought had come to her. Ah! if she should die under the doctor’s hands! Was it not better to live in blindness and keep her boy than to try to see him and so lose him altogether? Thus it was with her on St. Peter’s Day, when the children of the dale went by at their rush-bearing.
There was the faint sound of a footstep outside.
“Hark!” said Mercy, half rising from the sconce. “It’s Mrs. Ritson’s foot.”
The man listened. “Nay, lass, there’s no foot,” said Matthew.
“Yes, she’s on the road,” said Mercy. Her face showed that pathetic tension of the other senses which is peculiar to the blind. A moment later Greta stepped into the cottage, with a letter in her hand. “Good-morning, Matthew; I have news for you, Mercy. The doctors are coming to-day.”
Mercy’s face fell perceptibly. The old man’s head dropped lower.
“There, don’t be afraid,” said Greta, touching her hand caressingly. “It will soon be over. The doctors didn’t hurt you before, did they?”
“No, but this time it will be the operation,” said Mercy. There was a tremor in her voice.
Greta had lifted the child from the sconce. The little fellow cooed close to her ear; and babbled his inarticulate nothings.
“Only think, when it’s all over you will be able to see your darling Ralphie for the first time!”
Mercy’s sightless face brightened. “Oh, yes,” she said, “and watch him play, and see him spin his tops and chase the butterflies. Oh, that will be very good!”
“Dusta say to-day, Mistress Ritson?” asked Matthew, the big drops standing in his eyes.
“Yes, Matthew; I will stay to see it over, and mind baby, and help a little.”
Mercy took the little one from Greta’s arms and cried over it, and laughed over it, and then cried and laughed again. “Mama and Ralphie shall play together in the garden, darling; and Ralphie shall see the horses—and the flowers—and the birdies—and mama—yes, mama shall see Ralphie.”
Categories: The Book Lover