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
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 cot-
tage 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 mo-
330 THE BLIND MOTHER
tion, 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 whitewashed 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
The little one had dropped on hands and knees before the kitten,
and was gazing up into its face.
THE BLIND MOTHER 331
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.
"Boo loo lal-la mama."
"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 car-
ried 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
The charcoal-burner supped at his broth in silence. A glisten-
ing bead rolled slowly down his wizened cheek: and the interview
on the hearth went on without interruption :
"Mew mew mew. Boo loo lal-la mama."
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.
"Growing ? amain."
"And his eyes are they changing color ? going brown ? Chil-
idren's eyes do, you know."
"Maybe I'll not be for saying nay."
"Is he is he very like me, father?"
"Nay well nay Fs 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 roy-
alty 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
332 THE BLIND MOTHER
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 mar-
ried, and had one daughter called Mercy. He farmed his few
acres with poor results. The ground was good enough, but Mat-
thew 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
"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 hold-
ing 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:
"There's t'auld laird, and t'young laird, and t'laird among t'barns,
If iver there comes another laird, we'll hang him up by farms."
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
THE BLIND MOTHER 333
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 re-
membered 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 stam-
mered 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 men-
tioned, 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, re-
peated 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
334 THE BLIND MOTHER
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 whitewashed 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 counter-
pane. 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 lor 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
THE BLIND MOTHER 335
disgrace, before the touch of the spreading fingers of a babe as
they fasten on the mother's breast! Mercy thought no more of
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
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 con-
stantly 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.
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
336 THE BLIND MOTHER
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
"There, don't be afraid," said Greta, touching her hand caress-
ingly. "It will soon be over. The doctors didn't hurt you before,
"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 dar-
ling 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 butter-
flies. 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."
THE BLIND MOTHER 337
Two hours later the doctors arrived. They looked at Mercy's
eyes, and were satisfied that the time was ripe for the operation.
At the sound of their voices, Mercy trembled and turned livid.
By a maternal instinct she picked up the child, who was toddling
about the floor, and clasped it to her bosom. The little one opened
wide his blue eyes at sight of the strangers, and the prattling
tongue became quiet.
"Take her to her room, and let her lie on the bed," said one
of the doctors to Greta.
A sudden terror seized the young mother. "No, no, no !" she
said, in an indescribable accent, and the child cried a little from
the pressure to her breast.
"Come, Mercy, dear, be brave for your boy's sake," said Greta.
"Listen to me," said the doctor, quietly but firmly: "You are
now quite blind, and you have been in total darkness for a year and
a half. We may be able to restore your sight by giving you a few
minutes' pain. Will you not bear it?"
Mercy sobbed, and kissed the child passionately.
"Just think, it is quite certain that without an operation you
will never regain your sight," continued the doctor. "You have
nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Are you satisfied ? Come,
go away to your room quietly."
"Oh, oh, oh !" sobbed Mercy.
"Just imagine, only a few minutes' pain, and even of that you
will scarcely be conscious. Before you know what is doing it will
Mercy clung closer to her child, and kissed it again and yet
The doctors turned to each other. "Strange vanity !" muttered
the one who had not spoken before. "Her eyes are useless, and yet
she is afraid she may lose them."
Mercy's quick ears caught the whispered words. "It is not
that," she said, passionately.
"No, gentlemen," said Greta, "you have mistaken her thought.
Tell her she runs no danger of her life."
The doctors smiled and laughed a little. "Oh, that's it, eh?
Well, we can tell her that with certainty."
15 Yol. II.
338 THE BLIND MOTHER
Then there was another interchange of half-amused glances.
"Ah, we that be men, sirs, don't know the depth and tenderness
of a mother's heart," said old Matthew. And Mercy turned toward
him a face that was full of gratitude. Greta took the child out of
her arms and hushed it to sleep in another room. Then she brought
it back and put it in its cradle that stood in the ingle.
"Come, Mercy," she said, "for the sake of your boy." And
Mercy permitted herself to be led from the kitchen.
"So there will be no danger," she said. "I shall not leave my
boy. Who said that? The doctor? Oh, good gracious, it's noth-
ing. Only think, I shall live to see him grow to be a great lad."
Her whole face was now radiant.
"It will be nothing. Oh, no, it will be nothing. How silly it
was to think that he would live on, and grow up, and be a man, and
I lie cold in the churchyard and me his mother ! That was very
childish, wasn't it? But, then, I have been so childish since Ralphie
"There, lie and be quiet, and it will soon be over," said Greta.
"Let me kiss him first. Do let me kiss him ! Only once. You
know it's a great risk after all. And if he grew up and I wasn't
here if if "
"There, dear Mercy, you must not cry again. It inflames your
eyes, and that can't be good for the doctors."
"No, no, I won't cry. You are very good; everybody is very
good. Only let me kiss my little Ralphie just for the last."
Greta led her back to the side of the cot, and she spread herself
over it with outstretched arms, as the mother-bird poises with out-
stretched wings over her brood. Then she rose, and her face was
peaceful and resigned.
The Laird Fisher sat down before the kitchen fire, with one
arm on the cradle head. Parson Christian stood beside him. The
old charcoal-burner wept in silence, and the good Parson's voice
was too thick for the words of comfort that rose to his lips.
The doctors followed into the bedroom. Mercy was lying
tranquilly on her bed. Her countenance was without expression.
She was busy with her own thoughts. Greta stood by the bed-
side ; anxiety was written in every line of her beautiful, brave face.
"We must give her the gas," said one of the doctors, addressing
Mercy's features twitched.
"Who said that?" she asked nervously.
"My child, you must be quiet," said the doctor in a tone of
THE BLIND MOTHER 339
"Yes, I will be quiet, very quiet ; only don't make me uncon-
scious," she said. "Never mind me; I will not cry. No; if you
hurt me I will not cry out. I will not stir. I will do everything
you ask. And you shall say how quiet I have been. Only don't
let me be insensible."
The doctors consulted together aside, and in whispers.
"Who spoke about the gas? It wasn't you, Mrs. Ritson,
"You must do as the doctors wish, dear," said Greta in a
"Oh, I will be very good. I will do every little thing. Yes,
and I will be so brave. I am a little childish sometimes, but I can
be brave, can't I?"
The doctors returned to the bedside.
"Very well, we will not use the gas," said one. "You are a
brave little woman, after all. There, be still very still."
One of the doctors was tearing linen into strips for bandages,
while the other fixed Mercy's head to suit the light.
There was a faint sound from the kitchen. "Wait," said Mercy.
"That is father he's crying. Tell him not to cry. Say it's
She laughed a weak little laugh.
"There, he will hear that; go and say it was I who laughed."
Greta left the room on tiptoe. Old Matthew was still sitting
over a dying fire, gently rocking the sleeping child.
When Greta returned to the bedroom, Mercy called her, and
said, very softly, "Let me hold your hand, Greta may I say
Greta ? there," and her fingers closed on Greta's with a convulsive
The operation began. Mercy held her breath. She had the
stubborn north-country blood in her. Once only a sigh escaped.
There was a dead silence.
In two or three minutes the doctor said, "Just another minute,
and all will be over."
At the next instant Greta felt her hand held with a grasp of
"Doctor, doctor, I can see you," cried Mercy, and her words
came in gusts.
"Be quiet," said the doctor in a stern voice. In half a minute
more the linen bandages were being wrapped tightly over Mercy's
"Doctor, dear doctor, let me see my boy!" cried Mercy.
"Be quiet, I say," said the doctor again.
340 THE BLIND MOTHER
"Dear doctor, my dear doctor, only one peep one little peep.
I saw your face let me see my Ralphie's."
"Not yet, it is not safe."
"But only for a moment. Don't put the bandage on for one mo-
ment. Just think, doctor, I have never seen my boy; I've seen
other people's children, but never once my own, own darling. Oh,
dear doctor "
"You are exciting yourself. Listen to me : if you don't behave
yourself now you may never see your child."
"Yes, yes, I will behave myself; I will be very good. Only
don't shut me up in darkness again until I see my boy. Greta, bring
him to me. Listen, I hear his breathing. Go for my darling ! The
kind doctor won't be angry with you. Tell him that if I see my
child it will cure me. I know it will."
Greta's eyes were swimming in tears.
"Rest quiet, Mercy. Everything may be lost if you disturb
yourself now, my dear."