Mary Webb | from:English

Over the Hills and Far Away

Two Young Peasant Women, by Camille Pissarro, 1891-92

Margaret Mahuntleth, in the corner of the big settle, basked in the hearth-glow like one newly come to heaven. Warm light reddened her knitted shawl, her white apron, and her face, worn and frail. It was as if the mortal part of it had been beaten thin by the rains and snows of long roads, baked, like fine enamel, by many suns, so that it had a concave look – as though hollowed out of mother o’ pearl. Some faces gather wrinkles with the years, like seamed rocks on mountains, others only become, like stones in a brook, smoother, though frailer, in the conflicting currents. Margaret’s was one of these. And though she was a bit of a has-been, yet her face, as it shone from the dark settle-back, seemed young and almost angelic in its irrefragable happiness. For Marg’ret had never dreamed (no, not for an instant!) as she fought her way to Thresholds Farm through weather that made her whole being seem a hollow shell, that she would be invited into the kitchen. Usually she did her work in the barn. For Marg’ret was a chair-mender.

She travelled, on her small birdlike feet, all over the county, carrying her long bundle of rushes. With these she mended chairs at farms and cottages and even in the kitchens of rectories and in parish rooms and at the backs of churches where the people from the almshouses sat. She mended chairs mostly for other people to draw up to glowing fires and well-spread tables. She made them very flawless for weddings. For funerals she made them strong, because the people who attend funerals are generally older than those who attend weddings, and the weight of years is on them, and they have gathered to themselves, like the caddis worm, a mass of extraneous substance.

For dances Marg’ret also made them strong, knowing that in the intervals young women of some twelve stone would subside upon the knees of stalwarts rising fifteen stone.

Marg’ret knew all about it. She had been to some of the dances years ago, but people forgot to ask her to dance. Her faint tints, her soft, sad, downcast eye, her sober dress, all combined with her personality to make her fade into any background. She was always conscious, too, of the disgrace of being only a chair-mender; of not being the gardener’s daughter at the Hall, or Rectory-Lucy. So people forgot she was there, and she even forgot she was there herself.

She worked hard. She could make butter-baskets and poultry-baskets through which not the most centrifugal half-dozen fowls could do more than insinuate anxious heads. She could make children’s ornamental basket-chairs, and she could do the close wicker-work of rocking-chairs for nursing-mothers. Winter and summer she tramped from place to place, over frozen roads and dusty roads and all the other kinds of roads, calling at farms with her timid knock and her faint, cry, plaintive and musical, soon lost on the wind – ‘Chairs to mend!’

Then she would take the chair or basket or mat into the orchard or the barn, and sit at her work through the long green day or the short grey day, plaiting with her pale, hollow hands. Within doors she never thought of going. She would have been the first to deprecate sheeding rushes all o’er. The warm kitchen was a Paradise to which she, a Peri, did not pretend. Its furnishings she knew intimately, but she knew them as a church-cleaner might know the altar and its chalices, being, if such a thing were possible, excommunicated. Under the bowl of the sky, across the valleys she came, did her work featly as an elf, and was gone, as if the swift airs had blown her away with the curled may-petals of spring, the curved leaves of autumn.

If night drew on before she had done her work, she would sleep in the hayloft. Nobody inquired where she usually slept, any more than they concerned themselves about the squirrel that ran along the fence and was away, or the thistledown that floated along the blue sky.

So Marg’ret had never dreamed of being invited to the hearth-place. It was the most wonderful thing. Outside, the wan snowflakes battered themselves upon the panes like birds, dying. The night had come, black, inevitable, long. And to those who have no house the night is a wild beast. In every chimney a hollow wind spoke its uncontent. There were many chimneys at Thresholds Farm. It was a great place, and the master was a man well-thought-of, rich.

Marg’ret trembled to think she was here in the same room with him. He might even speak to her. He sat on the other side of the hearth while the servant-girl laid tea – the knife-and-fork tea of farms, with beef and bacon and potatoes. A tea to remember.

He sat leaning forward, his broad, knotted hands on his knees, staring into the fire. The girl slammed the teapot down on the table and said–

‘Yer tea, master.’

Marg’ret got up. She supposed it was time now for her to creep to bed in the hospitable loft, after a kindly cup of tea in the back kitchen. It had been wonderful, sitting here – just sitting quietly enjoying the rest and the dignity of the solid furniture and the bright fingers of the firelight touching here a willow-pattern plate and there a piece of copper. It was one of those marvellous half-hours of a life-time, which blossom on even to the grave, and maybe afterwards. She had never dreamed–

She softly crept toward the door, but as she went the master lifted his gloomy, chestnut-coloured eyes under their thatch of grizzled hair, and so transfixed her. She could not move with that brown fire upon her, engulfing her. So he always looked when he was deeply stirred. So he had looked down at his father’s coffin long ago, at his mother’s last year. So he had looked into the eyes of his favourite dog, dying in his arms. The look was the realization of the infinite within the finite, altering all values. Never once in all fifteen years during which she had been calling here had he seemed to look at Marg’ret at all.

In the almost ferocious intensity of the look she felt faint. Her face seemed like a fragile cup made to hold an unexpressed passion which was within his soul, which must find room for itself somewhere, as the great bore of water that rushes up a river must find room, some valley, some dimple where it may rest, where it may spread its strangled magnificence. She stood. Firelight filled her hollow palms; her apron, gathered in nervous fingers, so that it looked like a gleaner’s ready to carry grain; the pale shell of her face.

The servant-girl, perturbed by some gathering emotion that had come upon the kitchen, remained with a hand on the teapot-handle, transfixed. Marg’ret trembled, saying no word. How shall a conch-shell make music unless one lends it a voice? She was of the many human beings that wait on the shores of life for the voice which so often never comes.

Suddenly the master of the house said loudly, with his eyes still hard upon her–

‘Bide!’

It was as if the word burst a dam within him.

Her being received it.

‘Bide the night over,’ he added, in the same strange thunderous voice.

She took that also into her soul.

‘And all the nights,’ he finished, and a great calm fell upon him. It had taken all the years of his life till now for the flood to find its valley.

Then seeing that she stood as mute and still as ever, he said–

‘Coom then, take bite and sup.’

And when she was seated, like a half-thawed winter dormouse at its first feast, he said to the servant-girl, who still remained holding the Britannia-metal teapot (which seemed to mock Marg’ret with its inordinate convexity)–

‘Make a bed for the Missus!’

He was determined that no misunderstanding should vex his new-found peace, and when the girl had gone, breathing hard like an exhausted swimmer, he remained staring at Marg’ret in a kind of hunger for giving. And she, perfectly receptive, empty-handed as a Peri, let his flaming eyes dwell on her face, let his fire and his food hearten her, and so gave him her charity. And this was how Marg’ret Mahuntleth, the poor chair-mender, without will of her own or desert of her own, as far as she could see, came to be the mistress of the house and lawful wife of the master of Thresholds.

 

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