Sally Tells of Her Sweethearts,
and Discourses on the Duties of Life
Sally and Miss Benson took it in turns to sit up, or rather, they
took it in turns to nod by the fire; for if Ruth was awake she lay
very still in the moonlight calm of her sick bed. That time resembled
a beautiful August evening, such as I have seen. The white, snowy
rolling mist covers up under its great sheet all trees and meadows,
and tokens of earth; but it cannot rise high enough to shut out the
heavens, which on such nights seem bending very near, and to be the
only real and present objects; and so near, so real and present, did
heaven, and eternity, and God seem to Ruth, as she lay encircling her
mysterious holy child.
One night Sally found out she was not asleep.
"I'm a rare hand at talking folks to sleep," said she. "I'll try on
thee, for thou must get strength by sleeping and eating. What must I
talk to thee about, I wonder. Shall I tell thee a love story or a
fairy story, such as I've telled Master Thurstan many a time and many
a time, for all his father set his face again fairies, and called it
vain talking; or shall I tell you the dinner I once cooked, when Mr
Harding, as was Miss Faith's sweetheart, came unlooked for, and we'd
nought in the house but a neck of mutton, out of which I made seven
dishes, all with a different name?"
"Who was Mr Harding?" asked Ruth.
"Oh, he was a grand gentleman from Lunnon, as had seen Miss Faith,
and been struck by her pretty looks when she was out on a visit, and
came here to ask her to marry him. She said, 'No, she would never
leave Master Thurstan, as could never marry;' but she pined a deal at
after he went away. She kept up afore Master Thurstan, but I seed her
fretting, though I never let on that I did, for I thought she'd
soonest get over it and be thankful at after she'd the strength to do
right. However, I've no business to be talking of Miss Benson's
concerns. I'll tell you of my own sweethearts and welcome, or I'll
tell you of the dinner, which was the grandest thing I ever did in my
life, but I thought a Lunnoner should never think country folks knew
nothing; and, my word! I puzzled him with his dinner. I'm doubting
whether to this day he knows whether what he was eating was fish,
flesh, or fowl. Shall I tell you how I managed?"
But Ruth said she would rather hear about Sally's sweethearts, much
to the disappointment of the latter, who considered the dinner by far
the greatest achievement.
"Well, you see, I don't know as I should call them sweethearts; for
excepting John Rawson, who was shut up in the mad-house the next
week, I never had what you may call a downright offer of marriage but
once. But I had once; and so I may say I had a sweetheart. I was
beginning to be afeard though, for one likes to be axed; that's but
civility; and I remember, after I had turned forty, and afore
Jeremiah Dixon had spoken, I began to think John Rawson had perhaps
not been so very mad, and that I'd done ill to lightly his offer, as
a madman's, if it was to be the only one I was ever to have; I don't
mean as I'd have had him, but I thought, if it was to come o'er
again, I'd speak respectful of him to folk, and say it were only his
way to go about on all fours, but that he was a sensible man in most
things. However, I'd had my laugh, and so had others, at my crazy
lover, and it was late now to set him up as a Solomon. However, I
thought it would be no bad thing to be tried again; but I little
thought the trial would come when it did. You see, Saturday night is
a leisure night in counting-houses and such-like places, while it's
the busiest of all for servants. Well! it was a Saturday night, and
I'd my baize apron on, and the tails of my bed-gown pinned together
behind, down on my knees, pipeclaying the kitchen, when a knock comes
to the back door. 'Come in!' says I; but it knocked again, as if it
were too stately to open the door for itself; so I got up, rather
cross, and opened the door; and there stood Jerry Dixon, Mr Holt's
head clerk; only he was not head clerk then. So I stood, stopping up
the door, fancying he wanted to speak to master; but he kind of
pushed past me, and telling me summut about the weather (as if I
could not see it for myself), he took a chair, and sat down by the
oven. 'Cool and easy!' thought I; meaning hisself, not his place,
which I knew must be pretty hot. Well! it seemed no use standing
waiting for my gentleman to go; not that he had much to say either;
but he kept twirling his hat round and round, and smoothing the nap
on't with the back of his hand. So at last I squatted down to my
work, and thinks I, I shall be on my knees all ready if he puts up a
prayer, for I knew he was a Methodee by bringing-up, and had only
lately turned to master's way of thinking; and them Methodees are
terrible hands at unexpected prayers when one least looks for 'em. I
can't say I like their way of taking one by surprise, as it were; but
then I'm a parish clerk's daughter, and could never demean myself to
dissenting fashions, always save and except Master Thurstan's, bless
him. However, I'd been caught once or twice unawares, so this time I
thought I'd be up to it, and I moved a dry duster wherever I went, to
kneel upon in case he began when I were in a wet place. By-and-by I
thought, if the man would pray it would be a blessing, for it would
prevent his sending his eyes after me wherever I went; for when they
takes to praying they shuts their eyes, and quivers th' lids in a
queer kind o' way—them Dissenters does. I can speak pretty plain to
you, for you're bred in the Church like mysel', and must find it as
out o' the way as I do to be among dissenting folk. God forbid I
should speak disrespectful of Master Thurstan and Miss Faith, though;
I never think on them as Church or Dissenters, but just as
Christians. But to come back to Jerry. First, I tried always to be
cleaning at his back; but when he wheeled round, so as always to face
me, I thought I'd try a different game. So, says I, 'Master Dixon, I
ax your pardon, but I must pipeclay under your chair. Will you please
to move?' Well, he moved; and by-and-by I was at him again with the
same words; and at after that, again and again, till he were always
moving about wi' his chair behind him, like a snail as carries its
house on its back. And the great gaupus never seed that I were
pipeclaying the same places twice over. At last I got desperate
cross, he were so in my way; so I made two big crosses on the tails
of his brown coat; for you see, whenever he went, up or down, he drew
out the tails of his coat from under him, and stuck them through the
bars of the chair; and flesh and blood could not resist pipeclaying
them for him; and a pretty brushing he'd have, I reckon, to get it
off again. Well! at length he clears his throat uncommon loud; so I
spreads my duster, and shuts my eyes all ready; but when nought comed
of it, I opened my eyes a little bit to see what he were about. My
word! if there he wasn't down on his knees right facing me, staring
as hard as he could. Well! I thought it would be hard work to stand
that, if he made a long ado; so I shut my eyes again, and tried to
think serious, as became what I fancied were coming; but, forgive me!
but I thought why couldn't the fellow go in and pray wi' Master
Thurstan, as had always a calm spirit ready for prayer, instead o'
me, who had my dresser to scour, let alone an apron to iron. At last
he says, says he, 'Sally! will you oblige me with your hand?' So I
thought it were, maybe, Methodee fashion to pray hand in hand; and
I'll not deny but I wished I'd washed it better after black-leading
the kitchen fire. I thought I'd better tell him it were not so clean
as I could wish, so says I, 'Master Dixon, you shall have it, and
welcome, if I may just go and wash 'em first.' But, says he, 'My dear
Sally, dirty or clean it's all the same to me, seeing I'm only
speaking in a figuring way. What I'm asking on my bended knees is,
that you'd please to be so kind as to be my wedded wife; week after
next will suit me, if it's agreeable to you!' My word! I were up on
my feet in an instant! It were odd now, weren't it? I never thought
of taking the fellow, and getting married; for all, I'll not deny, I
had been thinking it would be agreeable to be axed. But all at once,
I couldn't abide the chap. 'Sir,' says I, trying to look shame-faced
as became the occasion, but for all that, feeling a twittering round
my mouth that I were afeard might end in a laugh—'Master Dixon, I'm
obleeged to you for the compliment, and thank ye all the same, but I
think I'd prefer a single life.' He looked mighty taken aback; but in
a minute he cleared up, and was as sweet as ever. He still kept on
his knees, and I wished he'd take himself up; but, I reckon, he
thought it would give force to his words; says he, 'Think again, my
dear Sally. I've a four-roomed house, and furniture conformable; and
eighty pound a year. You may never have such a chance again.' There
were truth enough in that, but it was not pretty in the man to say
it; and it put me up a bit. 'As for that, neither you nor I can tell,
Master Dixon. You're not the first chap as I've had down on his knees
afore me, axing me to marry him (you see I were thinking of John
Rawson, only I thought there were no need to say he were on all
fours—it were truth he were on his knees, you know), and maybe
you'll not be the last. Anyhow, I've no wish to change my condition
just now.' 'I'll wait till Christmas,' says he. 'I've a pig as will
be ready for killing then, so I must get married before that.' Well
now! would you believe it? the pig were a temptation. I'd a receipt
for curing hams, as Miss Faith would never let me try, saying the old
way were good enough. However, I resisted. Says I, very stern,
because I felt I'd been wavering, 'Master Dixon, once for all, pig or
no pig, I'll not marry you. And if you'll take my advice, you'll get
up off your knees. The flags is but damp yet, and it would be an
awkward thing to have rheumatiz just before winter.' With that he got
up, stiff enough. He looked as sulky a chap as ever I clapped eyes
on. And as he were so black and cross, I thought I'd done well
(whatever came of the pig) to say 'No' to him. 'You may live to
repent this,' says he, very red. 'But I'll not be too hard upon ye,
I'll give you another chance. I'll let you have the night to think
about it, and I'll just call in to hear your second thoughts, after
chapel to-morrow.' Well now! did ever you hear the like? But that is
the way with all of them men, thinking so much of theirselves, and
that it's but ask and have. They've never had me, though; and I shall
be sixty-one next Martinmas, so there's not much time left for them
to try me, I reckon. Well! when Jeremiah said that, he put me up more
than ever, and I says, 'My first thoughts, second thoughts, and third
thoughts is all one and the same; you've but tempted me once, and
that was when you spoke of your pig. But of yoursel' you're nothing
to boast on, and so I'll bid you good night, and I'll keep my
manners, or else, if I told the truth, I should say it had been a
great loss of time listening to you. But I'll be civil—so good
night.' He never said a word, but went off as black as thunder,
slamming the door after him. The master called me in to prayers, but
I can't say I could put my mind to them, for my heart was beating so.
However, it was a comfort to have had an offer of holy matrimony; and
though it flustered me, it made me think more of myself. In the
night, I began to wonder if I'd not been cruel and hard to him. You
see, I were feverish-like; and the old song of Barbary Allen would
keep running in my head, and I thought I were Barbary, and he were
young Jemmy Gray, and that maybe he'd die for love of me; and I
pictured him to mysel', lying on his death-bed, with his face turned
to the wall, 'wi' deadly sorrow sighing,' and I could ha' pinched
mysel' for having been so like cruel Barbary Allen. And when I got up
next day, I found it hard to think on the real Jerry Dixon I had seen
the night before, apart from the sad and sorrowful Jerry I thought on
a-dying, when I were between sleeping and waking. And for many a day
I turned sick, when I heard the passing bell, for I thought it were
the bell loud-knelling which were to break my heart wi' a sense of
what I'd missed in saying 'No' to Jerry, and so killing him with
cruelty. But in less than a three week, I heard parish bells
a-ringing merrily for a wedding; and in the course of a morning, some
one says to me, 'Hark! how the bells is ringing for Jerry Dixon's
wedding!' And, all on a sudden, he changed back again from a
heart-broken young fellow, like Jemmy Gray, into a stout, middle-aged
man, ruddy-complexioned, with a wart on his left cheek like life!"
Sally waited for some exclamation at the conclusion of her tale; but
receiving none, she stepped softly to the bedside, and there lay
Ruth, peaceful as death, with her baby on her breast.
"I thought I'd lost some of my gifts if I could not talk a body to
sleep," said Sally, in a satisfied and self-complacent tone.
Youth is strong and powerful, and makes a hard battle against sorrow.
So Ruth strove and strengthened, and her baby flourished accordingly;
and before the little celandines were out on the hedge-banks, or the
white violets had sent forth their fragrance from the border under
the south wall of Miss Benson's small garden, Ruth was able to carry
her baby into that sheltered place on sunny days.
She often wished to thank Mr Benson and his sister, but she did not
know how to tell the deep gratitude she felt, and therefore she was
silent. But they understood her silence well. One day, as she watched
her sleeping child, she spoke to Miss Benson, with whom she happened
to be alone.
"Do you know of any cottage where the people are clean, and where
they would not mind taking me in?" asked she.
"Taking you in! What do you mean?" said Miss Benson, dropping her
knitting, in order to observe Ruth more closely.
"I mean," said Ruth, "where I might lodge with my baby—any very poor
place would do, only it must be clean, or he might be ill."
"And what in the world do you want to go and lodge in a cottage for?"
said Miss Benson, indignantly.
Ruth did not lift up her eyes, but she spoke with a firmness which
showed that she had considered the subject.
"I think I could make dresses. I know I did not learn as much as I
might, but perhaps I might do for servants, and people who are not
"Servants are as particular as any one," said Miss Benson, glad to
lay hold of the first objection that she could.
"Well! somebody who would be patient with me," said Ruth.
"Nobody is patient over an ill-fitting gown," put in Miss Benson.
"There's the stuff spoilt, and what not!"
"Perhaps I could find plain work to do," said Ruth, very meekly.
"That I can do very well; mamma taught me, and I liked to learn from
her. If you would be so good, Miss Benson, you might tell people I
could do plain work very neatly, and punctually, and cheaply."
"You'd get sixpence a day, perhaps," said Miss Benson, "and who would
take care of baby, I should like to know? Prettily he'd be neglected,
would not he? Why, he'd have the croup and the typhus fever in no
time, and be burnt to ashes after."
"I have thought of all. Look how he sleeps! Hush, darling;" for just
at this point he began to cry, and to show his determination to be
awake, as if in contradiction to his mother's words. Ruth took him
up, and carried him about the room while she went on speaking.
"Yes, just now I know he will not sleep; but very often he will, and
in the night he always does."
"And so you'd work in the night and kill yourself, and leave your
poor baby an orphan. Ruth! I'm ashamed of you. Now, brother" (Mr
Benson had just come in), "is not this too bad of Ruth; here she is
planning to go away and leave us, just as we—as I, at least, have
grown so fond of baby, and he's beginning to know me."
"Where were you thinking of going to, Ruth?" interrupted Mr Benson,
with mild surprise.
"Anywhere to be near you and Miss Benson; in any poor cottage where I
might lodge very cheaply, and earn my livelihood by taking in plain
sewing, and perhaps a little dressmaking; and where I could come and
see you and dear Miss Benson sometimes and bring baby."
"If he was not dead before then of some fever, or burn, or scald,
poor neglected child; or you had not worked yourself to death with
never sleeping," said Miss Benson.
Mr Benson thought a minute or two, and then he spoke to Ruth.
"Whatever you may do when this little fellow is a year old, and able
to dispense with some of a mother's care, let me beg you, Ruth, as a
favour to me—as a still greater favour to my sister, is it not,
"Yes; you may put it so if you like."
"To stay with us," continued he, "till then. When baby is twelve
months old, we'll talk about it again, and very likely before then
some opening may be shown us. Never fear leading an idle life, Ruth.
We'll treat you as a daughter, and set you all the household tasks;
and it is not for your sake that we ask you to stay, but for this
little dumb helpless child's; and it is not for our sake that you
must stay, but for his."
Ruth was sobbing.
"I do not deserve your kindness," said she, in a broken voice; "I do
not deserve it."
Her tears fell fast and soft like summer rain, but no further word
was spoken. Mr Benson quietly passed on to make the inquiry for which
he had entered the room.
But when there was nothing to decide upon, and no necessity for
entering upon any new course of action, Ruth's mind relaxed from its
strung-up state. She fell into trains of reverie, and mournful
regretful recollections which rendered her languid and tearful. This
was noticed both by Miss Benson and Sally, and as each had keen
sympathies, and felt depressed when they saw any one near them
depressed, and as each, without much reasoning on the cause or reason
for such depression, felt irritated at the uncomfortable state into
which they themselves were thrown, they both resolved to speak to
Ruth on the next fitting occasion.
Accordingly, one afternoon—the morning of that day had been spent by
Ruth in housework, for she had insisted on Mr Benson's words, and had
taken Miss Benson's share of the more active and fatiguing household
duties, but she went through them heavily, and as if her heart was
far away—in the afternoon when she was nursing her child, Sally, on
coming into the back parlour, found her there alone, and easily
detected the fact that she had been crying.
"Where's Miss Benson?" said Sally, gruffly.
"Gone out with Mr Benson," answered Ruth, with an absent sadness in
her voice and manner. Her tears, scarce checked while she spoke,
began to fall afresh; and as Sally stood and gazed she saw the babe
look back in his mother's face, and his little lip begin to quiver,
and his open blue eye to grow over-clouded, as with some mysterious
sympathy with the sorrowful face bent over him. Sally took him
briskly from his mother's arms; Ruth looked up in grave surprise, for
in truth she had forgotten Sally's presence, and the suddenness of
the motion startled her.
"My bonny boy! are they letting the salt tears drop on thy sweet face
before thou'rt weaned! Little somebody knows how to be a mother—I
could make a better myself. 'Dance, thumbkin, dance—dance, ye merry
men every one.' Aye, that's it! smile, my pretty. Any one but a child
like thee," continued she, turning to Ruth, "would have known better
than to bring ill-luck on thy babby by letting tears fall on its face
before it was weaned. But thou'rt not fit to have a babby, and so
I've said many a time. I've a great mind to buy thee a doll, and take
thy babby mysel'."
Sally did not look at Ruth, for she was too much engaged in amusing
the baby with the tassel of the string to the window-blind, or else
she would have seen the dignity which the mother's soul put into Ruth
at that moment. Sally was quelled into silence by the gentle
composure, the self-command over her passionate sorrow, which gave to
Ruth an unconscious grandeur of demeanour as she came up to the old
"Give him back to me, please. I did not know it brought ill-luck, or
if my heart broke I would not have let a tear drop on his face—I
never will again. Thank you, Sally," as the servant relinquished him
to her who came in the name of a mother. Sally watched Ruth's grave,
sweet smile, as she followed up Sally's play with the tassel, and
imitated, with all the docility inspired by love, every movement and
sound which had amused her babe.
"Thou'lt be a mother, after all," said Sally, with a kind of
admiration of the control which Ruth was exercising over herself.
"But why talk of thy heart breaking? I don't question thee about
what's past and gone; but now thou'rt wanting for nothing, nor thy
child either; the time to come is the Lord's, and in His hands; and
yet thou goest about a-sighing and a-moaning in a way that I can't
stand or thole."
"What do I do wrong?" said Ruth; "I try to do all I can."
"Yes, in a way," said Sally, puzzled to know how to describe her
meaning. "Thou dost it—but there's a right and a wrong way of
setting about everything—and to my thinking, the right way is to
take a thing up heartily, if it is only making a bed. Why! dear ah
me, making a bed may be done after a Christian fashion, I take it, or
else what's to come of such as me in heaven, who've had little enough
time on earth for clapping ourselves down on our knees for set
prayers? When I was a girl, and wretched enough about Master
Thurstan, and the crook on his back which came of the fall I gave
him, I took to praying and sighing, and giving up the world; and I
thought it were wicked to care for the flesh, so I made heavy
puddings, and was careless about dinner and the rooms, and thought I
was doing my duty, though I did call myself a miserable sinner. But
one night, the old missus (Master Thurstan's mother) came in, and sat
down by me, as I was a-scolding myself, without thinking of what I
was saying; and, says she, 'Sally! what are you blaming yourself
about, and groaning over? We hear you in the parlour every night, and
it makes my heart ache.' 'Oh, ma'am,' says I, 'I'm a miserable
sinner, and I'm travailing in the new birth.' 'Was that the reason,'
says she, 'why the pudding was so heavy to-day?' 'Oh, ma'am, ma'am,'
said I, 'if you would not think of the things of the flesh, but
trouble yourself about your immortal soul.' And I sat a-shaking my
head to think about her soul. 'But,' says she, in her sweet-dropping
voice, 'I do try to think of my soul every hour of the day, if by
that you mean trying to do the will of God, but we'll talk now about
the pudding; Master Thurstan could not eat it, and I know you'll be
sorry for that.' Well! I was sorry, but I didn't choose to say so, as
she seemed to expect me; so says I, 'It's a pity to see children
brought up to care for things of the flesh;' and then I could have
bitten my tongue out, for the missus looked so grave, and I thought
of my darling little lad pining for want of his food. At last, says
she, 'Sally, do you think God has put us into the world just to be
selfish, and do nothing but see after our own souls? or to help one
another with heart and hand, as Christ did to all who wanted help?' I
was silent, for, you see, she puzzled me. So she went on, 'What is
that beautiful answer in your Church catechism, Sally?' I were
pleased to hear a Dissenter, as I did not think would have done it,
speak so knowledgeably about the catechism, and she went on: '"to do
my duty in that station of life unto which it shall please God to
call me;" well, your station is a servant, and it is as honourable as
a king's, if you look at it right; you are to help and serve others
in one way, just as a king is to help others in another. Now what way
are you to help and serve, or to do your duty, in that station of
life unto which it has pleased God to call you? Did it answer God's
purpose, and serve Him, when the food was unfit for a child to eat,
and unwholesome for any one?' Well! I would not give it up, I was so
pig-headed about my soul; so says I, 'I wish folks would be content
with locusts and wild honey, and leave other folks in peace to work
out their salvation;' and I groaned out pretty loud to think of
missus's soul. I often think since she smiled a bit at me; but she
said, 'Well, Sally, to-morrow, you shall have time to work out your
salvation; but as we have no locusts in England, and I don't think
they'd agree with Master Thurstan if we had, I will come and make the
pudding; but I shall try and do it well, not only for him to like it,
but because everything may be done in a right way or a wrong; the
right way is to do it as well as we can, as in God's sight; the wrong
is to do it in a self-seeking spirit, which either leads us to
neglect it to follow out some device of our own for our own ends, or
to give up too much time and thought to it both before and after the
doing.' Well! I thought of all old missus's words this morning, when
I saw you making the beds. You sighed so, you could not half shake
the pillows; your heart was not in your work; and yet it was the duty
God had set you, I reckon; I know it's not the work parsons preach
about; though I don't think they go so far off the mark when they
read, 'whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, that do with all thy
might.' Just try for a day to think of all the odd jobs as has to be
done well and truly as in God's sight, not just slurred over anyhow,
and you'll go through them twice as cheerfully, and have no thought
to spare for sighing or crying."
Sally bustled off to set on the kettle for tea, and felt half
ashamed, in the quiet of the kitchen, to think of the oration she had
made in the parlour. But she saw with much satisfaction, that
henceforward Ruth nursed her boy with a vigour and cheerfulness that
were reflected back from him; and the household work was no longer
performed with a languid indifference, as if life and duty were
distasteful. Miss Benson had her share in this improvement, though
Sally placidly took all the credit to herself. One day as she and
Ruth sat together, Miss Benson spoke of the child, and thence went on
to talk about her own childhood. By degrees they spoke of education,
and the book-learning that forms one part of it; and the result was
that Ruth determined to get up early all through the bright summer
mornings, to acquire the knowledge hereafter to be given to her
child. Her mind was uncultivated, her reading scant; beyond the mere
mechanical arts of education she knew nothing; but she had a refined
taste, and excellent sense and judgment to separate the true from the
false. With these qualities, she set to work under Mr Benson's
directions. She read in the early morning the books that he marked
out; she trained herself with strict perseverance to do all
thoroughly; she did not attempt to acquire any foreign language,
although her ambition was to learn Latin, in order to teach it to her
boy. Those summer mornings were happy, for she was learning neither
to look backwards nor forwards, but to live faithfully and earnestly
in the present. She rose while the hedge-sparrow was yet singing his
réveillé to his mate; she dressed and opened her
window, shading the soft-blowing air and the sunny
eastern light from her baby. If
she grew tired, she went and looked at him, and all her thoughts were
holy prayers for him. Then she would gaze awhile out of the high
upper window on to the moorlands, that swelled in waves one behind
the other, in the grey, cool morning light. These were her occasional
relaxations, and after them she returned with strength to her work.