The Old Governess by Harriet Martineau

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 Smith's doing.

"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 old-fashioned knowledge."

"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 staid.

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 mine."

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 impatient.

"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 through."

"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 Commissioner.

"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 Jacks.

"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 human voice.