Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
By Mary Russell Mitford (17871855)
From Our Village
THE PRETTIEST cottage on our village-green is the little dwelling of Dame Wilson. It stands in a corner of the common, where the hedge-rows go curving off into a sort of bay round a clear bright pond, the earliest haunt of the swallow. A deep woody, green lane, such as Hobbema or Ruysdael might have painted, a lane that hints of nightingales, forms one boundary of the garden, and a sloping meadow the other; whilst the cottage itself, a low thatched irregular building, backed by a blooming orchard, and covered with honeysuckle and jessamine, looks like the chosen abode of snugness and comfort. And so it is.
Dame Wilson was a respected servant in a most respectable family, where she passed all the early part of her life, and which she quitted only on her marriage with a man of character and industry, and of that peculiar universality of genius which forms, what is called in country phrase, a handy fellow. He could do any sort of work; was thatcher, carpenter, bricklayer, painter, gardener, gamekeeper, everything by turns, and nothing long. No job came amiss to him. He killed pigs, mended shoes, cleaned clocks, doctored cows, dogs, and horses, and even went so far as bleeding and drawing teeth in his experiments on the human subject. In addition to these multifarious talents, he was ready, obliging, and unfearing; jovial withal, and fond of good fellowship; and endowed with a promptness of resource which made him the general adviser of the stupid, the puzzled, and the timid. He was universally admitted to be the cleverest man in the parish; and his death, which happened ten years ago, in consequence of standing in the water, drawing a pond for one neighbour, at a time when he was over-heated by loading hay for another, made quite a gap in our village commonwealth. John Wilson had no rival and has had no successor, for the Robert Ellis whom certain youngsters would fain exalt to a copartnery of fame is simply nobodya bell-ringer, a ballad-singer, a trailer of profane catches, a fiddler, a bruiser, a loller on alehouse benches, a teller of good stories, a mimic, a poet! What is all this to compare with the solid parts of John Wilson? Whose clock hath Robert Ellis cleaned? whose windows hath he mended? whose dog hath he broken? whose pigs hath he ringed? whose pond hath he fished? whose hay hath he saved? whose cow hath he cured? whose calf hath he killed? whose teeth hath he drawn? whom hath he bled? Tell me that, irreverent whipsters! No! John Wilson is not to be replaced. He was missed by the whole parish; and most of all he was missed at home. His excellent wife was left the sole guardian and protector of two fatherless girls; one an infant at her knee, the other a pretty handy lass about nine years old. Cast thus upon the world, there must have been much to endure, much to suffer; but it was borne with a smiling patience, a hopeful cheeriness of spirit, and a decent pride, which seemed to command success as well as respect in their struggle for independence. Without assistance of any sort, by needlework, by washing and mending lace and fine linen, and other skilful and profitable labours, and by the produce of her orchard and poultry Dame Wilson contrived to maintain herself and her children in their old comfortable home. There was no visible change; she and the little girls were as neat as ever; the house had still within and without the same sunshiny cleanliness, and the garden was still famous over all other gardens for its cloves, and stocks, and double wall-flowers. But the sweetest flower of the garden, and the pride and joy of her mothers heart, was her daughter Hannah. Well might she be proud of her! At sixteen Hannah Wilson was, beyond a doubt, the prettiest girl in the village, and the best. Her beauty was quite in a different style from the common country rosebudfar more choice and rare. Its chief characteristic was modesty. A light youthful figure, exquisitely graceful and rapid in all its movements; springy, elastic, and buoyant as a bird, and almost as shy; a fair innocent face, with downcast blue eyes, and smiles and blushes coming and going almost with her thoughts; a low soft voice, sweet even in its monosyllables; a dress remarkable for neatness and propriety, and borrowing from her delicate beauty an air of superiority not its own;such was the outward woman of Hannah. Her mind was very like her person; modest, graceful, gentle, affectionate, grateful, and generous above all. The generosity of the poor is always a very real and fine thing; they give what they want and Hannah was of all poor people the most generous. She loved to give; it was her pleasure, her luxury. Rosy-cheeked apples, plums with the bloom on them, nosegays of cloves and blossomed myrtle; these were offerings which Hannah delighted to bring to those whom she loved, or those who had shown her kindness; whilst to such of her neighbours as needed other attentions than fruit and flowers, she would give her time, her assistance, her skill; for Hannah inherited her mothers dexterity in feminine employments, with something of her fathers versatile power. Besides being an excellent laundress, she was accomplished in all the arts of the needle, millinery, dressmaking, and plain work; a capital cutter-out, an incomparable mender, and endowed with a gift of altering, which made old things better than new. She had no rival at a rifacimento, as half the turned gowns on the common can witness. As a dairy-woman, and a rearer of pigs and poultry, she was equally successful; none of her ducks and turkeys ever died of neglect or carelessness, or to use the phrase of the poultry-yard on such occasions, of ill luck. Hannahs fowls never dreamed of sliding out of the world in such an ignoble way; they all lived to be killed, to make a noise at their deaths, as chickens should do. She was also a famous scholar; kept accounts, wrote bills, read letters, and answered them; was a trusty accomptant, and a safe confidante. There was no end to Hannahs usefulness or Hannahs kindness; and her prudence was equal to either. Except to be kind or useful, she never left her home; attended no fairs, or revels, or mayings; went nowhere but to church; and seldom made a nearer approach to rustic revelry than by standing at her own garden-gate on a Sunday evening, with her little sister in her hand, to look at the lads and lasses on the green. In short, our village beauty had fairly reached her twentieth year without a sweetheart, without the slightest suspicion of her having ever written a love-letter on her own account; when, all on a sudden, appearances changed. She was missing at the accustomed gate; and one had seen a young man go into Dame Wilsons; and another had descried a trim, elastic figure walking, not unaccompanied, down the shady lane. Matters were quite clear. Hannah had gotten a lover; and, when poor little Susan, who, deserted by her sister, ventured to peep rather nearer to the gay group, was laughingly questioned on the subject, the hesitating No, and the half Yes, of the smiling child, were equally conclusive.
Since the new marriage act, we, who belong to country magistrates, have gained a priority over the rest of the parish in matrimonial news. We (the privileged) see on a work-day the names which the Sabbath announces to the generality. Many a blushing awkward pair hath our little lame clerk (a sorry Cupid!) ushered in between dark and light to stammer and hacker, to bow and curtsey, to sign or make a mark, as it pleases Heaven. One Saturday, at the usual hour, the limping clerk made his appearance; and, walking through our little hall, I saw a fine athletic young man, the very image of health and vigour, mental and bodily, holding the hand of a young woman, who, with her head half buried in a geranium in the window, was turning bashfully away, listening, and yet not seeming to listen, to his tender whispers. The shrinking grace of that bending figure was not to be mistaken. Hannah! and she went aside with me, and a rapid series of questions and answers conveyed the story of the courtship. William was, said Hannah, a journeyman hatter in B. He had walked over one Sunday evening to see the cricketing, and then he came again. Her mother liked him. Everybody liked her Williamand she had promisedshe was goingwas it wrong?Oh no!and where are you to live?William has got a room in B. He works for Mr. Smith, the rich hatter in the market-place, and Mr. Smith speaks of himoh so well! But William will not tell me where our room is. I suppose in some narrow street or lane, which he is afraid I shall not like, as our common is so pleasant. He little thinksanywhere.She stopped suddenly; but her blush and her clasped hands finished the sentence, anywhere with him!And when is the happy day?On Monday fortnight, Madam, said the bridegroom elect, advancing with the little clerk to summon Hannah to the parlour, the earliest day possible. He drew her arm through his, and we parted.
The Monday fortnight was a glorious morning; one of those rare November days when the sky and air are soft and bright as in April. What a beautiful day for Hannah! was the first exclamation of the breakfast-table. Did she tell you where they should dine?No, maam; I forgot to ask.I can tell you, said the master of the house, with somewhat of good-humoured importance in his air, somewhat of the look of a man who, having kept a secret as long as it was necessary, is not sorry to get rid of the burthen. I can tell you: in London.In London!Yes. Your little favourite has been in high luck. She has married the only son of one of the best and richest men in B., Mr. Smith, the great hatter. It is quite a romance, continued he; William Smith walked over one Sunday evening to see a match at cricket. He saw our pretty Hannah, and forgot to look at the cricketers. After having gazed his fill, he approached to address her, and the little damsel was off like a bird. William did not like her the less for that, and thought of her the more. He came again and again; and at last contrived to tame this wild dove, and even to get the entrée of the cottage. Hearing Hannah talk is not the way to fall out of love with her. So William, at last finding his case serious, laid the matter before his father, and requested his consent to the marriage. Mr. Smith was at first a little startled; but William is an only son, and an excellent son; and, after talking with me, and looking at Hannah (I believe her sweet face was the more eloquent advocate of the two) he relented; and having a spice of his sons romance, finding that he had not mentioned his situation in life, he made a point of its being kept secret till the wedding-day. We have managed the business of settlements; and William, having discovered that his fair bride has some curiosity to see London, (a curiosity, by the bye, which I suspect she owes to you or poor Lucy), intends taking her thither for a fortnight. He will then bring her home to one of the best houses in B., a fine garden, fine furniture, fine clothes, fine servants, and more money than she will know what to do with. Really the surprise of Lord E.s farmers daughter, when, thinking she had married his steward, he brought her to Burleigh, and installed her as its mistress, could hardly have been greater. I hope the shock will not kill Hannah though, as is said to have been the case with that poor lady.Oh no! Hannah loves her husband too well. Anywhere with him!
And I was right. Hannah has survived the shock. She is returned to B., and I have been to call upon her. I never saw anything so delicate and bride-like as she looked in her white gown and her lace mob, in a room light and simple, and tasteful and elegant, with nothing fine except some beautiful greenhouse plants. Her reception was a charming mixture of sweetness and modesty, a little more respectful than usual, and far more shame-faced! Poor thing! her cheeks must have pained her! But this was the only difference. In everything else she is still the same Hannah, and has lost none of her old habits of kindness and gratitude. She was making a handsome matronly cap, evidently for her mother, and spoke, even with tears, of her new fathers goodness to her and to Susan. She would fetch the cake and wine herself, and would gather, in spite of all remonstrance, some of her choicest flowers as a parting nosegay. She did, indeed, just hint at her troubles with visitors and servants,how strange and sad it was! seeming distressed at ringing the bell, and visibly shrank from the sound of a double knock. But, in spite of these calamities, Hannah is a happy woman. The double rap was her husbands; and the glow on her cheek, and the smile of her lips and eyes when he appeared, spoke more plainly than ever, Anywhere with him!