The Old Governess by Harriet
The afternoon was come when the Morells must go on board. They were
going to Canada at last, after having talked about it for several years.
There were so many children, that it was with much difficulty they had
got on for some years past; and there was no prospect for the lads at
home. They had, with extreme difficulty, paid their way: and they had,
to a certain extent, educated the children. That, however, was Miss
"We shall always feel, every one of us," said Mrs. Morell, with tears,
to the elderly homely governess, "that we are under the deepest
obligations to you. But for you, the children would have grown up
without any education at all. And, for the greatest service you or any
one could possibly render us, we have never been able to give you your
due,—even as regards the mere money."
"I can only say again," replied the governess, "that you do not look at
the whole of the case. You have given me a home, when it is no easy
matter for such as I am to earn one, with my old-womanish ways and my
"I will not hear any disparagement of your ways and your knowledge,"
interrupted Mrs. Morell. "They have been every thing to my children: and
if you could have gone with us...."
This, however, they all knew to be out of the question. It was not only
that Miss Smith was between fifty and sixty, too old to go so far, with
little prospect of comfort at the end of the journey; but she was at
present disabled for much usefulness by the state of her right hand. It
had been hurt by an accident a long time before, and it did not get
well. The surgeon had always said it would be a long case; and she had
no use whatever of the hand in the mean time. Yet she would not part
with the baby till the last moment. She carried him on the left arm, and
stood on the wharf with him—the mother at her side—till all the rest
were on board, and Mr. Morell came for his wife. It was no grand steamer
they were going in, but a humble vessel belonging to the port, which
would carry them cheap.
"Now, my love," said the husband. "Now, Miss Smith," taking the child
from her. "Words cannot tell...."
And if words could have told, the tongue could not have uttered them. It
was little, too, that his wife could say.
"Write to us. Be sure you write. We shall write as soon as we arrive.
Write to us."
Miss Smith glanced at the hand. She said only one word, "Farewell!" but
she said it cheerfully.
The steam-tug was in a hurry, and down the river they went. She had one
more appointment to keep with them. She was to wave her handkerchief
from the rocks by the fort; and the children were to let her try whether
she could see their little handkerchiefs. So she walked quickly over the
common to the fort, and sat down on the beach at the top of the rocks.
It was very well that she had something to do. But the plan did not
altogether answer. By the time the vessel crossed the bar it was nearly
dark, and she was not quite sure, among three, which it was, and she did
not suppose the children could see her handkerchief. She waved it,
however, according to promise. How little they knew how wet it was!
Then there was the walk home. It was familiar, yet very strange. When
she was a child her parents used to bring her here, in the summer time,
for sea air and bathing. The haven and the old gray bathing houses, and
the fort, and the lighthouse, and the old priory ruins crowning the
rocks, were all familiar to her; but the port had so grown up that all
else was strange. And how strange now was life to her! Her parents gone,
many years back, and her two sisters since; and now, the Morells! She
had never had any money to lose, and the retired way in which the
Morells lived had prevented her knowing any body out of their house. She
had not a relation nor a friend, nor even an acquaintance, in England.
The Morells had not been uneasy about her. They left her a little money,
and had so high an opinion of her that they did not doubt her being
abundantly employed, whenever her hand should get well. They had lived
too much to themselves to know that her French, learned during the war,
when nobody in England could pronounce French, would not do in these
days, nor that her trilling, old-fashioned style of playing on the
piano, which they thought so beautiful, would be laughed at now in any
boarding school; and that her elegant needleworks were quite out of
fashion; and that there were new ways of teaching even reading,
spelling, and writing.
She knew these things, and cautioned herself against discontent with the
progress of society, because she happened to be left alone behind. She
suspected, too, that the hand would not get well. The thing that she was
most certain of was, that she must not rack her brain with fears and
speculations as to what was to become of her. Her business was to wait
till she could find something to do, or learn what she was to suffer.
She thought she had better wait here. There was no call to any other
place. This was more familiar and more pleasant to her than any
other—the Morells' cottage being far away, and out of the question—and
here she could live with the utmost possible cheapness. So here she
The hand got well, as far as the pain was concerned, sooner than she had
expected. But it was in a different way from what she had expected. It
was left wholly useless. And, though the time was not long, it had
wrought as time does. It had worn out her clothes; it had emptied her
little purse. It had carried away every thing she had in the world but
the very few clothes she had on. She had been verging towards the
resolution she now took for three or four weeks. She took it finally
while sitting on the bench near the fort. It was in the dusk; for her
gown, though she had done her best to mend it with her left hand, was in
no condition to show by daylight. She was alone in the dusk, rather
hungry and very cold. The sea was dashing surlily upon the rocks below,
and there was too much mist to let any stars shine upon her. It was all
dreary enough; yet she was not very miserable, for her mind was made up.
She had made up her mind to go into the work-Pouse the next day. While
she was thinking calmly about it a fife began to play a sort of jig in
the yard of the fort behind her. Her heart heaved to her throat and the
tears gushed from her eyes. In this same spot, fifty years before, she
had heard what seemed to her the same fife. Her father was then sitting
on the grass, and she was between his knees, helping to tassel the tail
of a little kite they were going to fly; and, when the merry fife had
struck up, her father had snatched up her gay Harlequin that lay within
reach, and made him shake his legs and arms to the music. She heard her
own laugh again now, through that long course of fifty years, and in the
midst of these tears.
All that night she pondered her purpose: and the more she considered,
the more sure she was that it was right. "I might," thought she, "get
maintained by charity, no doubt: I might call on any of the clergymen of
this place, and the rich people. Or I might walk into the shops and tell
my story, and I dare say the people would give me food and clothes. And,
if it was a temporary distress, I would do so. I should think it right
to ask for help, if I had any prospect of work or independence in any
way. But I have none: and this, I am convinced, points out my duty.
Hopeless cases like mine are those which public charity—legal
charity—is intended to meet. My father little dreamed of this, to be
sure; and the Morells little dream of it at this moment. But when do our
parents and friends, when do we ourselves, dream of what our lot is
really to turn out? Those old notions have nothing to do, if we could
but think so, with the event. Nor has my disgust any thing to do with my
duty. The plain fact is, that I am growing old—that I am nearly
helpless—that I am cold and hungry, and nearly naked—that I have no
friends within reach, and no prospect whatever. I am, therefore, an
object for public charity, and I will ask for what is my due. I am
afraid of what I may find in the workhouse;—the vicious people, the
dirty people, the diseased people,—and, I suppose, not one among them
who can give me any companionship whatever.
"It is dreadful; but it can't be helped. And the worse the case is about
my companions—my fellow-paupers—(for I must learn to bear the
word)—the greater are the chances of my finding something to do for
them;—something which may prevent my feeling myself utterly useless in
the world. This is not being wholly without prospect, after all. I
suppose nobody ever is. If it were not so cold now, I could sleep upon
It was too cold for sleep; and when, in the morning, she offered her old
shawl in payment for her bed, assuring the poor old woman who let it
that she should not want the shawl, because she was going to have other
clothes, the woman shook her head sorrowfully,—her lodger looked so wan
and chilled. She had no fear that there was any thought of suicide in
the case. No one could look in Miss Smith's sensible face, and hear her
steady, cheerful voice, and suppose that she would do any thing wild or
"Who is that woman with a book in her hand?" inquired the visiting
Commissioner, some months afterwards, of the governor of the workhouse.
The governor could only say she was a single woman of the name of Smith,
who had no use of her right hand. As to who she was, he could tell no
more than this; but his wife had sometimes mentioned her as a different
sort of person from those they generally saw there. She could not only
read, but she read very well: and she read a great deal aloud to the old
people, and in the infirmary. She talked unlike the rest, too. She said
little; but her language was good, and always correct. She could not do
much on account of her infirmity: but she was always willing to do what
could be done with one hand; and she must have been very handy when she
had the use of both.
"I should have thought her eyes had been too weak for much reading,"
observed the Commissioner. "Has the medical officer attended to her?"
The governor called his wife: and the wife called a pauper woman who was
told the question. This woman said that it was not exactly a case for
the doctor. Nobody that shed so many tears could have good eyes. Ah! the
governor might be surprised; because Smith seemed so brisk in the
daytime, and cheered the old people so much. But she made up for it at
night. Many and many a time she cried the night through.
"How do you know?" asked the Commissioner.
"I sleep in the next bed, sir. I can't say she disturbs any body; for
she is very quiet. But if any thing keeps me awake I hear her sobbing.
And you need but feel her pillow in the morning. It is wet almost
"And does that happen often?"
"Yes, sir. Many a time when she has turned her back,—gone into the
infirmary, or been reading to the old people,—I have got her pillow and
dried it. And I have seen her do it herself, with a smile on her face
all the time."
The Commissioner walked away. Before he left the place, the woman Smith
was beckoned out by the governor. She went with a beating heart, with
some wild idea in her head that the Morells had sent, that some friends
had turned up. While still in the passage, however, she said to herself
that she might as well look to see her parents risen from the dead.
The Commissioner had, indeed, nothing to tell. He wanted to ask. He did
ask, as much as his delicacy would allow. But he learned nothing;
except, indeed, what he ought to have considered the most important
thing, the state of her mind about being there. About that, she was
frank enough. She said over again to him what she had said to herself,
about this being the right place for one in her circumstances. She
considered that it would be an abuse of private charity for her to be
maintained in idleness at an expense which might set forward in life
some person in a less hopeless position.
"You speak cheerfully, as if you were in earnest," said the
"Of course, I am in earnest," she replied.
And cheerful she remained throughout the conversation. Only once the
Commissioner saw her eyes filled and a quiver on her lips. He did not
know it; but he had unconsciously called her "Madam."
Would she prefer the children's department of the House? There was no
doubt that she could teach them much. Would she change her quarters? No.
She was too old now for that. She should not be a good companion now for
children; and they would be too much for her. Unless she was wanted—
By no means. She should be where she preferred to be.
She preferred to be where she was. The Commissioner's lady soon after
dropped in, and managed to engage Smith in conversation. But there was
no result; because Smith did not choose that there should be. Perhaps
she was more in the infirmary; and had oftener a warm seat by the fire,
and was spoken to with more deference. But this might be solely owing to
the way she made with the people by her own acts and manners. The
invalids and the infirm grew so fond of her that they poured out to her
all their complaints. She was favored with the knowledge of every
painful sensation as it passed, and every uneasy thought as it arose.
"I never thought to die in such a place as this," groaned old Johnny
"I wonder at that," said his old wife; "for you never took any care to
provide yourself a better—to say nothing of me." And she went on to
tell how Johnny had idled and drank his life away, and brought her here
at last. Much of Johnny's idling and drinking having been connected with
electioneering in an abominably venal city, he was a great talker on
politics, and the state was made responsible for all his troubles. He
said it was a shame that any body should die in a workhouse; he appealed
to his neighbor Smith, who was warming his broth, whether it was not so?
"Which is best?" she answered; "being here, or on a common, or the
sea-sands? Because," she added, "there was a time when old people like
us were left to die wherever they fell. There are countries now where
old people die so. I should not like that."
"You don't mean to say that you or any one likes being here?"
"Oh, no; I don't mean to say that. But things are better than they were
once: and they may be better again."
"I shall not live to see that," groaned Johnny.
"No; nor I. But it is something to think of."
"D—— it," said Johnny, "I am not the better for any good that does not
happen to me, nor to any body I know."
"Are not you?" said neighbor Smith. "Well, now, I am."
And so she was to the end. She died in that infirmary, and not very long
after. When the Morells' letter came, it was plain that they had enough
to do to take care of themselves. So she did not let them know,—in her
reply, written by the hands of the schoolmaster,—where she was. The
letter was so cheerful that they are probably far from suspecting, at
this moment, how she died and was buried. As "from the abundance of the
heart the mouth speaketh," there was so much in her letter as rather
surprised them about her hope and expectation that the time would come
when hearty work in the vigorous season of life should secure its easy
close; and when a greater variety of employment should be opened to
women. There was more of this kind of speculation and less news and
detail of facts than they would have liked. But it was a household event
to have a letter from Miss Smith; and the very little children,
forgetting the wide sea they had passed, began shouting for Miss Smith
to come to them just (as it happened) when her ear was closing to every