“No one knows what capacities they have for doing and suffering till the occasion comes. When water is ice, we have no idea what latent heat is in it.”
. . . . . . . . . .
“Life—all things here are but beginnings.”
I was sixteen years and five months old, when I left home to go to Downham Market, and take my place among the workers of the world. The thought pleased me. I was tired of being a mere looker-on at life’s great game, and wanted my share in it. It was on the fourth of September, A.D. 1847, and my father was to go as far as Hull with me. There he would see me on board a little steamer sailing down the Wash to Lynn Regis, from which place a carriage would carry me the few miles inland to Downham Market.
I had put on long dresses that morning, and coiled my hair in a knot under my bonnet, and looked quite eighteen; and I think Father was proud of me. I certainly was very proud of Father’s company; not entirely because of his beautiful countenance, I valued far more, that air of distinction which never left him, and to which every one deferred. We had a pleasant journey to Hull, where we arrived soon after noon. I had wondered why this way to Downham Market had been chosen for me, but as soon as we reached Hull, I knew why. It was a large seaport, excepting London and Liverpool, the largest in England; and Father wanted me to see the ancient town, and its wonderful docks.
We went to an hotel and had lunch, and then to the Queen’s and Humber docks, and I got my first glimpse of what a great commercial city must be on its water side. I heard all the languages of Northern Europe on those great walls. I saw woolpacks from Germany; hides, hemp and tallow from Russia; corn from Dantzic, and other Baltic ports; and strange thin bars of iron from Sweden. Father told me this metal would all go to Sheffield to be made into steel. On the Humber dock I saw great bales of cotton and woolen cloth from Manchester and the West Riding of Yorkshire; and other bales of lace and net, from Nottingham. They were going to France and Germany, and all over Northern Europe.
After the docks, we went to the famous Trinity House, a very rich and powerful guild, that supports disabled seamen of the merchant service and their widows, and has been doing this good work for nearly five hundred years. For it is not only wealthy in bequeathed property, but receives a shilling a month from the wages of all seamen leaving the port. We went through the wonderful old place, and were told there were nearly one hundred inmates, and nearly one thousand outside pensioners. The whole place was as clean and neat as the decks of a man-of-war and every apartment, even the council room, was strewn with fresh green rushes, after the fashion of the days of its erection.
I noticed in the entrance hall a Greenland kayak hung from the ceiling. It was picked up at sea with a man in it in A.D. 1613. The man refused to eat, and died in a few days; but the figure in the kayak wears his clothes, et cetera. I made some remark to Father afterwards about Hull sailors being in such a latitude at that date, and he said “they were commonly there then, and indeed were famous whalers as early as A.D. 1590.”
“Are they whalers now?” I asked.
“They are not extinct as whalers even now, though they are fast passing away. Why, Milly,” he added, “it was the whaler Isabella, Captain Humphries, from the port of Hull, that found and saved Sir John Ross and his company of Arctic explorers, after they had been shut up in the ice for four years. He brought them home with him to Hull, and Hull gave them a grand triumph, opened their hearts and homes to them, and the whole nation went into rejoicing. You were only two years old then, Milly, and do not remember, but I do. They had won nothing; they had lost every thing, but they had endured cheerfully till their deliverance came; and endurance is victory. Don’t forget that, Milly.”
We visited the Charter House next, and saw many curious things, but I have forgotten them. I saw too much, and Hull remains in my memory like an amazing dream of masts a-rake, intertangled rigging, black barges, ponderous black hulls floating silently past, as if they had no weight. Influences from times long past, and places far off, found their way unerringly to me. The streets and the gray afternoon seemed unreal—like a dream all floated away.
I have a far clearer memory of the dinner we had on our return to the hotel. In my long life, I am sure there are not a dozen dinners I recollect as accurately as this one. Yet it was a very simple meal—just hare soup, and roast duck, and green peas. My father also had celery and cheese, and a glass of port wine, and I had two small raspberry tartlets. But I have that dinner over again today as I write, have it in the same little dingy parlor, with its two open windows. I hear the noise of the streets; I see the picture of Victoria above the chimney piece, and the colored, fancifully cut tissue papers, screening the empty grate; I am sitting at the neatly set table, with its daisy pattern damask cloth and napkins, its old-fashioned knives and forks, and queer-shaped drinking-glasses, and cruet stand. I have never happened to taste hare soup since that day, but I can taste it now. It was a well-cooked meal, eaten with smiles and pleasant conversation and little happy glances at each other. It is dinner number one in my book of memory, though there were neither flowers nor finger bowls on the table. Indeed I do not remember having ever seen a finger bowl at this time and I am not sure, but what I should have considered them as an unpleasant, unmannerly introduction.
Presently we heard a church clock strike, and Father took out his watch and looked at me. “It is time we were going, Milly,” he said cheerfully and I rose and put on my bonnet and gloves. At the wharf we found all in confusion, and The Queen of the Wash ready to sail. There was only time for Father to see me safely on board; then with a few cheerful words and a smiling face he put me in God’s care, and bid me good-bye. I watched him as long as I could see his tall, straight figure among the moving crowd, but he never looked back. I should have been astonished if he had. It was always onward and upward and forward with Father; there was no looking back in his nature, and his physical attitude generally illustrated the feelings and desires of the inner man.
I went at once to my cabin, and being thoroughly weary with my day’s travel and sightseeing I fell asleep, and did not awaken until a woman roused me with the information, that we were near Lynn Regis. It was barely light when I stepped on to the pier, and the ancient place seemed to be fast asleep. No one was in sight, and I asked the captain to send a boy to bring me a carriage. He did so, and I was shortly at The Cross Keys, a hotel standing in the Tuesday Market Place; but feeling still tired and only half-awake I asked for a bedroom, and slept until ten o’clock. This day I had a sense of the most absolute freedom. I could do as I liked; there was no one to obey, and no one to please but myself, and sleep appeared to me at that hour, the most desirable of luxuries. But when I awoke at ten, I was satisfied and fully refreshed, and I dressed myself prettily, and went down stairs and ordered breakfast. After it, I made inquiries about reaching Downham Market, and found there was a kind of stage running between Lynn Regis and Downham Market. The next would leave at noon, which would hurry me, and the last one at three o’clock, and this I resolved to take. For it seemed a great waste of opportunity, not to see something of the old town, when I had the day at my disposal.
I was tired of ships and of water, and wandered up the High Street looking at the shops, and when I came upon a church in Black Goose Street with the door standing open, I went inside. It contained nothing attractive and I was about to leave the building, when an old gentleman led me back to make me notice its three aisles, and the rich and peculiar tracery of the windows and clerestory, and many other things of that kind. But I was not much interested, until he showed me a slab in the pavement, “In memoriam of Thomas Hollingsworth, an eminent bookseller, a man of strictest integrity in his dealings, and much esteemed by gentlemen of taste, for the neatness and elegance of his bindings.”
At this point I remember asking my guide if that inscription was good grammar, adding it does not sound right to me, but then I do not understand grammar.
“Do you know what it means?” he asked sharply.
“Oh, yes!” I answered.
“Then it’s good grammar,” he said decisively.
This remark about grammar, however, brought on me a little lecture concerning a Dominican friar called Galfridus Grammaticus, who lived in Lynn Regis, and compiled and printed the first English and Latin dictionary; and this learned monk introduced another, who may have a rather general interest at this date—Nicholas of Lynn, a Carmelite monk, who in A.D. 1330 sailed to the most northern land in the world—the first Polar expedition on record. Friar Nicholas says, that at the Pole he discovered four indraughts of the ocean, from the four opposite quarters of the world; and I have had good reason during the last three years to retell this story of the first Polar visitor, and to point out that he discovered more than the two latest visitors, and that his narrative is better authenticated.
After leaving St. Nicholas’ Church I sauntered up a street leading me back to the hotel and in doing so passed a jeweler’s shop. My eyes fell upon a bracelet—an old-fashioned bracelet very wide and illuminated by a large stone. I had never possessed a piece of jewelry in all my life, but now I had some money, and I longed for this bracelet. Many times I left the tempting window, but always returned, and finally I went into the shop and asked its price. It was five shillings, and I had twenty shillings. Why not buy it? I hesitated, but at last paid the five shillings and went proudly out of the shop, with the bauble in my pocket. When I reached the hotel, I put it on my arm and felt just a little disappointed at the result. However, I fancied myself wearing it with my silk dress, and thought it would give me an air of great gentility. Then the stage was ready, and I and my silly bracelet went together to Downham Market.
It was perhaps well, that I saw nothing but St. Nicholas’ Church for the mental notes I made there were so few, and so individual, that they settled themselves persistently in my memory. Also, as I had adopted the profession of a teacher, it was creditable to know who made our first dictionary. The Polar expedition lay dormant in my remembrance, until the disputing of the last three years made me recall the information given me so many years ago. Then I came to the conclusion, that any one of the three claims would be just as good as the other, so that if England should stand by her monk’s discovery, it would be hard to disprove her claim; but—
“The fault of the English is the fault of the Dutch,
They never know when they are claiming too much.”
It was about half-past four when I reached Downham Market. The ride was interesting, for the country was quite different from any that I had ever seen. Such green, such deep, living green of the pastures! Such tall strong trees, garlanded at this time of the year with hop vines, twining from branch to branch, and dropping down from their tips, so that the hand could reach them. I saw two fine old manor houses and many lovely cottages. A small, sweet, purple grape climbed over the front, and over the thatched roofs of most of them, and this astonished me, for I had never before known that grapes would grow in the open air in any part of England.
When we approached Miss Berners’, I knew the place. I had dreamed of it when I was a child—a large double-Georgian house, standing amid lawns and trees, and surrounded by a hedge higher than a man. As we came closer I saw from my point of vantage on the top of the coach, about twenty girls of varying ages, scattered about the grounds; some were playing battledore and shuttlecock, others reading, others walking about in pairs, and a couple of nearly grown girls, were taking riding lessons in a paddock, at the side of the house. It was a pretty scene, and the whole party struck me as freely and genuinely happy. I felt a little nervous at the prospect of walking through this bevy of scrutinizing girls, but I saw Miss Berners come to the front door, and I went forward with as much confidence as I could assume; and as soon as I clasped her hand, and looked into her smiling face, I was quite at ease.
After a cup of tea I was taken to my room. My trunk was already there, and Miss Stromberg, my room-mate, was sitting at the open window darning her stockings. She was an odd-looking woman, small and very thin, with slant black eyes, and a great quantity of very coarse black hair. Her face had a flat look, but was full of fire; and her complexion was bad and dark beyond belief.
But if one notices the circumstances, people of nearly the same age readily fraternize with each other. Two old men will sit down in a car and in a few minutes open a conversation, but an old man and young man sitting together, have no courtesies or conversation for each other. It is much the same with women; two mothers will talk of their children, two girls of their lovers, two old women of their past, but an old woman and a young girl sit far apart, no matter how close they may be together.
So when Miss Berners left Miss Stromberg and I alone, we had plenty to say to each other. I asked her if she liked the school and she answered, “I have been here one week, but that is long enough for an opinion. Yes, I like it.”
“What is it that you teach?” I continued.
“I teach the elegant French language to these slow, stupid English girls. It is incredible, but it is the truth, that they can not understand that French is to be spoken with the eyes, the shoulders, and the hands, as well as the tongue. One impertinent little girl as fat as an ox, told me it was not decent to talk in such a way, and that people would call her a mountebank, if she did so. I wish to swear a little, when I think of such stupidity.”
“French!” I ejaculated. “Is that all?”
“That is all. Many other things I could teach, but I keep quiet about them. I have seen that it is wise to do, but a very great folly to overdo. Maria Stromberg has learned many things since she began to teach. Will you not dress a little for the evening? Put on a white dress if you have one. White is your color.”
“Will you not dress first?” I asked. “In this small room, two cannot dress together.”
“Dress, while I finish my stockings. I wish that the Strombergs of Riga and Uleaborg could take notice that their daughter is compelled to darn her stockings. Is there any more plebeian occupation? And my feet abhor a darned stocking. They will pinch me all the time I wear them.”
As I dressed we chattered, yet when I had finished my toilet, I was rather pleased with the result. But Miss Stromberg rose impetuously, threw down her darning, and pushing me into a chair, uncoiled the hair I had so carefully arranged.
“Mon Dieu!” she cried. “It is impossible. Look here!” and in a few minutes she had it raised in puffs, and knots, that added two inches or more to my height, and imparted to me an air of great intellectuality.
“How can it be?” I cried. “I do not look like the same girl.”
“No, but you look as you ought to look. You were masquerading in a madonna front, and a Grecian knot at the nape of your neck. Do you not know that throwing back the hair from the brow, reveals whatever is good in you?”
Then I lifted my bracelet and asked her to fasten it. An expression of pity, or contempt, flashed over her face, but she said kindly, “Ah! but you can not wear it here. Jewelry is forbidden. Put it at the bottom of your trunk; it will be safe there.”
She did not resume her darning, but slipped into a silver gray dress of lustrous silk. A pair of gray slippers stood on a table, and I was sure no full grown human foot could get its toes into them, but she stepped into them with the greatest ease. Then we went down stairs, and Miss Berners introduced me to the girls, and after tea we had a pleasant evening together.
I shall not detain my readers with any account of this school. It was the usual boarding school of its date, under very delightful surroundings and conditions. I remained until the following June in Downham Market, working hard, but willingly, and forming many agreeable acquaintances, but not one among them, that had any influence or bearing upon my future life. I remember their names, and their personalities, and can go all through their simple or splendid homes, but that is all. Doubtless we were merely introduced to each other for our next reincarnation. Then we may have a more fortunate meeting.
I liked all the people I was brought into constant contact with, but if I had not liked them, Miss Stromberg would have been sufficient. I really loved the clever little woman. She spoke five languages; she played with the magical tang and touch of a gypsy with a violin; she danced like a fairy; and when she sang her North Russian songs, you wept with pity for the lonely souls, on the great snow plains, who out of their own deep sadness, caused their very music to weep. She made all her dresses, and we envied their cut and style, and she knew perfectly all the feminine arts of the toilet.
It was not her fault that I did not become a creditable French scholar. She did her best with me but I had no aptitude for languages; and like the other “stupid English girls” I found it silly to talk with four of my members at once; my eyes at that time had not learned speech, my shoulders I had been told from my childhood, to keep down and well back, and my hands had a hundred duties of their own. But for many, many other things, I thank her even to this day. I kissed her good-bye in June. I was sure we would meet in September, but I never saw her again—never, never, even heard from her. But I remember yet, how patiently she rubbed off the crudities of my insular education, and how day by day her kind tactful ways, led me to a far lower estimate of my own attainments; for measuring myself by Maria Stromberg, I could not but see how little I knew, how unpolished I really was, and especially how far behind the mark in that control of temper and sweetness of thought and intention, that made all Maria Stromberg said and did, agreeable and welcome. I have never forgotten her; I wonder if she still lives! Wherever in God’s universe she now dwells, I hope she is happy, and still remembers me.
On the last evening of my stay in Downham Market, Miss Berners asked me to walk with her in the garden, and while doing so, she told me she intended to remove her school to some London suburb. She thought probably to Richmond. I was glad to hear this. The thought of London was an enchantment, and I promised to come to her as soon as I could in any way help the settlement of the new home. We parted mutually pleased and hopeful, and the next morning I took a train for London, and from thence one direct to Kendal.
I had twenty pounds in my pocket book, and I felt that my ten months’ faithful work had given me a right to turn homeward, and then as soon as I did so, I was impatient of any delay. I found the whole family at tea, and how happily I joined the party, any one can imagine. I had so much to tell about the school, and was so proud that we were going to remove it to London. Downham Market had become almost contemptible, and I spoke of it as a dull, country village, where nothing ever happened but a horse or a cattle fair. After tea, Father went to his study, and I followed and laid the twenty sovereigns beside him.
“They are yours, dear Father,” I said. “I do not need them, and they will help Mary’s and Alethia’s school bills.”
He looked at them, and at me, and his eyes filled. “Milly! Milly!” he answered, “you are a good child, and I thank God for you, but you must keep your money; Father does not need it. You know about your Uncle Bell, do you not?”
“I know nothing of Uncle Bell, Father. I wrote to him once, but he never answered my letter.”
“Then I must tell you, that on the fifth of last February, your mother’s birthday, he called on Mother and gave her the row of cottages standing on Tenter Fell. Now, Milly, the income from there, just about balances the loss I made through that villain, Blackpool. So, my dear, we have enough, and even a little to spare; what more does a child of God want?” and as he spoke, he gently pushed the sovereigns towards me.
“No one told me about Uncle Bell,” I said. “I wish I had known.”
“I remember, we thought it best not to name it. You would not have saved twenty pounds if you had known of the gift, and you might have missed some fine lessons, that only a sense of poverty teaches.”
I soon went back to Mother. I found her sitting quiet in the gloaming. I told her about the twenty pounds, and said, “Dear Mother, you and I will divide it. Will you take half?”
“I will take it gladly,” she answered. “There are so many little things a woman wants, that I do not like to ask Father for.”
“I know that, Mother,” I answered. “Have I not seen you alter the dressing of your hair, because you broke one of your side combs, and did not wish to trouble Father about a new pair. I can recall twenty things, that were a distress to you to want, and which you did without rather than——”
“Milly, that ten pounds puts all right. I shall get what I want out of it.”
“Did not Uncle Bell leave you some money, Mother?”
“Did Father tell you so?”
“Yes, he said it covered the loss he made. Now you will have a small income, Mother. Will it begin soon?”
“It began at once. The cottages were a gift. Father went the next morning and drew February’s rents.”
“How much did they amount to, Mother?”
“I do not know, Milly. He never told me. He has drawn them now for five months, but I have never seen a farthing of the money. I have felt sometimes, as if it would be pleasant—just to see it, and have it in my hands,” and the tears welled slowly into her soft brown eyes.
“But I do not understand,” I continued. “Father would not touch my money, yet he takes all of yours without leave or license. What does it mean?”
“It means that I am a wife. All I had, or might have, became your father’s as soon as I was his wife. You are yet a spinster, and have some rights in your own earnings.”
“But suppose you have no legal rights, all the more Father ought to give your every right. It is unkind, unjust, utterly contemptible!” I cried in something of a passion. “I am ashamed of Father!”
“No! No! All men do as he does, and many do a great deal worse. Father has never seen, or heard of wives treated any differently. If he knew better, he would do better.”
“Then, Mother,” I said, “he ought to know better for he will not escape punishment on the plea of ignorance. I have often wondered why John Bunyan makes Ignorance go into hell by the back door. He is right. Such ignorance as you make an excuse for Father is a sneaking sin. It suits back doors. I would rather be a brazen thief, and go in swearing by the main entrance. Father ought to be told the truth, and you ought to ask for your money.”
“It is too late, Milly. Say no more. I have got so far through life without money. Until I was married, I had to go to my father for every shilling—since then, I have gone to your father. But I have ten pounds now. I never had as much money before, to spend as I liked. I feel quite rich.”
This conversation sunk into my soul. A great pity for this sweet, patient, penniless mother, suffering so unnoticed and uncomplaining the need of many womanly trifles, made me childishly angry. The next day I went to Father with “Pilgrim’s Progress” in my hand, and asked him what Bunyan meant “by putting Ignorance into hell in such an ignominious manner?” I followed this question with others, which made him look at me with a queer, thoughtful expression, and then relapse into a silence so marked, as to be virtually a dismissal.
It is a joy to me this day to remember that on this visit, I was able to do many little things for Mother which made life pleasanter to her; for Father was certainly much worse, and it appeared almost wrong to permit him to preach. Yet I could see that in the pulpit the spiritual man had not lost control; for the same lucid, telling sentences followed each other with a fiery eloquence, as in the past years. “Mr. Huddleston isn’t sick in the pulpit,” people would say as they walked thoughtfully home, from one of those last passionate exhortations.
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