When Death is present in a household on a Christmas Day the very
contrast between the time as it now is and the day as it has often
been gives a poignancy to sorrow--a more utter blankness to the
desolation. James Leigh died just as the far-away bells of Rochdale
Church were ringing for morning service on Christmas Day 1836. A
few minutes before his death he opened his already glazing eyes and
made a sign to his wife by the faint motion of his lips that he had
yet something to say. She stooped close down and caught the broken
whisper "I forgive her Annie! May God forgive me!"
"Oh my love my dear! only get well and I will never cease showing
my thanks for those words. May God in heaven bless thee for saying
them. Thou'rt not so restless my lad! may be--Oh God!"
For even while she spoke he died.
They had been two-and-twenty years man and wife; for nineteen of
those years their life had been as calm and happy as the most perfect
uprightness on the one side and the most complete confidence and
loving submission on the other could make it. Milton's famous line
might have been framed and hung up as the rule of their married life
for he was truly the interpreter who stood between God and her; she
would have considered herself wicked if she had ever dared even to
think him austere though as certainly as he was an upright man so
surely was he hard stern and inflexible. But for three years the
moan and the murmur had never been out of her heart; she had rebelled
against her husband as against a tyrant with a hidden sullen
rebellion which tore up the old landmarks of wifely duty and
affection and poisoned the fountains whence gentlest love and
reverence had once been for ever springing.
But those last blessed words replaced him on his throne in her heart
and called out penitent anguish for all the bitter estrangement of
later years. It was this which made her refuse all the entreaties of
her sons that she would see the kind-hearted neighbours who called
on their way from church to sympathize and condole. No! she would
stay with the dead husband that had spoken tenderly at last if for
three years he had kept silence; who knew but what if she had only
been more gentle and less angrily reserved he might have relented
earlier--and in time?
She sat rocking herself to and fro by the side of the bed while the
footsteps below went in and out; she had been in sorrow too long to
have any violent burst of deep grief now; the furrows were well worn
in her cheeks and the tears flowed quietly if incessantly all the
day long. But when the winter's night drew on and the neighbours
had gone away to their homes she stole to the window and gazed out
long and wistfully over the dark grey moors. She did not hear her
son's voice as he spoke to her from the door nor his footstep as he
drew nearer. She started when he touched her.
"Mother! come down to us. There's no one but Will and me. Dearest
mother we do so want you." The poor lad's voice trembled and he
began to cry. It appeared to require an effort on Mrs. Leigh's part
to tear herself away from the window but with a sigh she complied
with his request.
The two boys (for though Will was nearly twenty-one she still
thought of him as a lad) had done everything in their power to make
the house-place comfortable for her. She herself in the old days
before her sorrow had never made a brighter fire or a cleaner
hearth ready for her husband's return home than now awaited her.
The tea-things were all put out and the kettle was boiling; and the
boys had calmed their grief down into a kind of sober cheerfulness.
They paid her every attention they could think of but received
little notice on her part; she did not resist she rather submitted
to all their arrangements; but they did not seem to touch her heart.
When tea was ended--it was merely the form of tea that had been gone
through--Will moved the things away to the dresser. His mother leant
back languidly in her chair.
"Mother shall Tom read you a chapter? He's a better scholar than
"Ay lad!" said she almost eagerly. "That's it. Read me the
Prodigal Son. Ay ay lad. Thank thee."
Tom found the chapter and read it in the high-pitched voice which is
customary in village schools. His mother bent forward her lips
parted her eyes dilated; her whole body instinct with eager
attention. Will sat with his head depressed and hung down. He knew
why that chapter had been chosen; and to him it recalled the family's
disgrace. When the reading was ended he still hung down his head in
gloomy silence. But her face was brighter than it had been before
for the day. Her eyes looked dreamy as if she saw a vision; and by-
and-by she pulled the Bible towards her and putting her finger
underneath each word began to read them aloud in a low voice to
herself; she read again the words of bitter sorrow and deep
humiliation; but most of all she paused and brightened over the
father's tender reception of the repentant prodigal.
So passed the Christmas evening in the Upclose Farm.
The snow had fallen heavily over the dark waving moorland before the
day of the funeral. The black storm-laden dome of heaven lay very
still and close upon the white earth as they carried the body forth
out of the house which had known his presence so long as its ruling
power. Two and two the mourners followed making a black procession
in their winding march over the unbeaten snow to Milne Row Church;
now lost in some hollow of the bleak moors now slowly climbing the
heaving ascents. There was no long tarrying after the funeral for
many of the neighbours who accompanied the body to the grave had far
to go and the great white flakes which came slowly down were the
boding forerunners of a heavy storm. One old friend alone
accompanied the widow and her sons to their home.
The Upclose Farm had belonged for generations to the Leighs; and yet
its possession hardly raised them above the rank of labourers. There
was the house and out-buildings all of an old-fashioned kind and
about seven acres of barren unproductive land which they had never
possessed capital enough to improve; indeed they could hardly rely
upon it for subsistence; and it had been customary to bring up the
sons to some trade such as a wheelwright's or blacksmith's.
James Leigh had left a will in the possession of the old man who
accompanied them home. He read it aloud. James had bequeathed the
farm to his faithful wife Anne Leigh for her lifetime and
afterwards to his son William. The hundred and odd pounds in the
savings bank was to accumulate for Thomas.
After the reading was ended Anne Leigh sat silent for a time and
then she asked to speak to Samuel Orme alone. The sons went into the
back kitchen and thence strolled out into the fields regardless of
the driving snow. The brothers were dearly fond of each other
although they were very different in character. Will the elder was
like his father stern reserved and scrupulously upright. Tom (who
was ten years younger) was gentle and delicate as a girl both in
appearance and character. He had always clung to his mother arid
dreaded his father. They did not speak as they walked for they were
only in the habit of talking about facts and hardly knew the more
sophisticated language applied to the description of feelings.
Meanwhile their mother had taken hold of Samuel Orme's arm with her
"Samuel I must let the farm--I must."
"Let the farm! What's come o'er the woman?"
"Oh Samuel!" said she her eyes swimming in tears "I'm just fain to
go and live in Manchester. I mun let the farm."
Samuel looked and pondered but did not speak for some time. At
last he said -
"If thou hast made up thy mind there's no speaking again it; and
thou must e'en go. Thou'lt be sadly pottered wi' Manchester ways;
but that's not my look out. Why thou'lt have to buy potatoes a
thing thou hast never done afore in all thy born life. Well! it's
not my look out. It's rather for me than again me. Our Jenny is
going to be married to Tom Higginbotham and he was speaking of
wanting a bit of land to begin upon. His father will be dying
sometime I reckon and then he'll step into the Croft Farm. But
"Then thou'lt let the farm" said she still as eagerly as ever.
"Ay ay he'll take it fast enough I've a notion. But I'll not
drive a bargain with thee just now; it would not be right; we'll wait
"No; I cannot wait; settle it out at once."
"Well well; I'll speak to Will about it. I see him out yonder.
I'll step to him and talk it over."
Accordingly he went and joined the two lads and without more ado
began the subject to them.
"Will thy mother is fain to go live in Manchester and covets to let
the farm. Now I'm willing to take it for Tom Higginbotham; but I
like to drive a keen bargain and there would be no fun chaffering
with thy mother just now. Let thee and me buckle to my lad! and try
and cheat each other; it will warm us this cold day."
"Let the farm!" said both the lads at once with infinite surprise.
"Go live in Manchester!"
When Samuel Orme found that the plan had never before been named to
either Will or Tom he would have nothing to do with it he said
until they had spoken to their mother. Likely she was "dazed" by her
husband's death; he would wait a day or two and not name it to any
one; not to Tom Higginbotham himself or may be he would set his
heart upon it. The lads had better go in and talk it over with their
mother. He bade them good-day and left them.
Will looked very gloomy but he did not speak till they got near the
house. Then he said -
"Tom go to th' shippon and supper the cows. I want to speak to
When he entered the house-place she was sitting before the fire
looking into its embers. She did not hear him come in: for some
time she had lost her quick perception of outward things.
"Mother! what's this about going to Manchester?" asked he.
"Oh lad!" said she turning round and speaking in a beseeching
tone "I must go and seek our Lizzie. I cannot rest here for
thinking on her. Many's the time I've left thy father sleeping in
bed and stole to th' window and looked and looked my heart out
towards Manchester till I thought I must just set out and tramp over
moor and moss straight away till I got there and then lift up every
downcast face till I came to our Lizzie. And often when the south
wind was blowing soft among the hollows I've fancied (it could but