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The Cottagers
By Anne Bronte

From "Agnes Grey", chapter 11 (first published in 1847).
Edited for length by Judith Bronte.

"All the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this;
Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself."
~ Galations 5:14 ~

One bright day in the last week of February, I was walk- ing in the park, enjoying the threefold luxury of solitude, a book, and pleasant weather, for Miss Matilda had set out on her daily ride, and Miss Murray was gone in the carriage with her mamma to pay some morning calls. But it struck me that I ought to leave these selfish pleasures, and the park with its glorious canopy of bright blue sky, the west wind sounding through its yet leafless branches, the snow-wreaths still lingering in its hollows, but melting fast beneath the sun, and the graceful deer browsing on its moist herbage already assuming the freshness and verdure of spring ... and go to the cottage of one Nancy Brown, a widow, whose son was at work all day in the fields, and who was afflicted with an inflammation in the eyes which had, for some time, incapacitated her from reading, to her own great grief, for she was a woman of a serious, thoughtful turn of mind.

I accordingly went, and found her alone, as usual, in her little close, dark cottage, redolent of smoke and confined air, but as tidy and clean as she could make it. She was seated beside her little fire (consisting of a few red cinders and a bit of stick), busily knitting, with a small sackcloth cushion at her feet, placed for the accommodation of her gentle friend the cat who was seated thereon, with her long tail half encircling her velvet paws, and her half-closed eyes dreamily gazing on the low, crooked fender.

"Well, Nancy, how are you to-day?"

"Why, middling, miss, i' myseln?my eyes is no better, but I'm a deal easier i' my mind nor I have been," replied she, rising to welcome me with a contented smile which I was glad to see, for Nancy had been somewhat afflicted with religious melancholy.

I congratulated her upon the change. She agreed that it was a great blessing, and expressed herself "right down thankful for it;" adding, "If it please God to spare my sight, and make me so as I can read my Bible again, I think I shall be as happy as a queen."

"I hope he will, Nancy," replied l; "and, meantime, I'll come and read to you now and then, when I have a little time to spare."

With expressions of grateful pleasure, the poor woman moved to get me a chair; but, as I saved her the trouble, she busied herself with stirring the fire, and adding a few more sticks to the decaying embers; and then, taking her well-used Bible from the shelf, dusted it carefully, and gave it me. On my asking if there was any particular part she should like me to read, she answered?

"Well, Miss Grey, if it's all the same to you, I'd like to hear that chapter in the First Epistle of St John, that says, 'God is love, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.' "

With a little searching I found these words in the fourth chapter. When I came to the seventh verse she interrupted me, .and with needless apologies for such a liberty, desired me to read it very slowly, that she might take it all in, and dwell on every word; hoping I would excuse her, as she was but a "simple body."

"The wisest person," I replied, "might think over each of these verses for an hour, and be all the better for it; and I would rather read them slowly than not."

Accordingly, I finished the chapter as slowly as need be, and at the same time as impressively as I could. My auditor listened most attentively all the while, and sincerely thanked me when I had done. I sat still about half a minute to give her time to reflect upon it; when, somewhat to my surprise, she broke the pause by asking me how I liked Mr Weston? [note: Mr. Weston is a Low Church curate (an assistant preacher).]

"I don't know," I replied, a little startled by the suddenness of the question; "I think he preaches very well."

"Ay, he does so; and talks well too!"

"Does he?"

"He does. May be you haven't seen him?not to talk to much, yet?"

"No, I never see any one to talk to?except the young ladies of the hall." [note: Agnes Grey (the one speaking) is the governess of these two young ladies.]

"Ah; they're nice, kind young ladies; but they can't talk as he does!"

"Then he comes to see you, Nancy?"

"He does, Miss; and I'se thankful for it. He comes to see all us poor bodies a deal ofter nor Maister Bligh, or th' Rector ever did; and it's well he does, for he's always welcome and we can't say as much for th' Rector?there is 'at says they're fair feared on him. When he comes into a house, they say he's sure to find summut wrong, and begin a calling 'em as soon as he crossed th' doorstuns: but maybe he thinks it his duty-like to tell 'em what's wrong; and very oft, he comes o' purpose to reprove folk for not coming to church, or not kneeling an' standing when other folk does, or going to th' Methody chapel, or summut o' that sort; but I can't say 'at he ever fund much fault wi' me. He came to see me once or twice, afore Maister Weston come, when I was so ill troubled in my mind; and as I had only very poor health besides, I made bold to send for him?and he came right enough. I was sore distressed, Miss Grey?thank God, it's owered now?but when I took my bible, I could get no comfort of it at all. That very chapter 'at you've just been reading troubled me as much as aught?'He that loveth not, knoweth not God.' It seemed fearsome to me; for I felt that I loved neither God nor man as I should do, and could not, if I tried ever so. And th' chapter afore, where it says?'He that is born of God cannot commit sin.' And another place where it says?'Love is the fulfilling of the Law.' And many?many others, Miss; I should fair weary you out, if I was to tell them all.?But all seemed to condemn me, and to show me 'at I was not in the right way; and as I knew not how to get into it, I sent our Bill [her son] to beg Maister Hatfield [The High Church rector (the preacher).] to be as kind as look in on me some day; and when he came, I telled him all my troubles."

"And what did he say, Nancy?"

"Why, Miss, he liked seemed to scorn me. I might be mista'en?but he like gave a sort of a whistle, and I saw a bit of a smile on his face; and he said, 'Oh, it's all stuff! You've been among the Methodists, my good woman.' But I telled him I'd never been near the Methodies. And then he said,

"'Well,' says he, 'you must come to church, where you'll hear the scriptures properly explained, instead of sitting poring over your bible at home."

"But I telled him, I always used coming to church when I had my health; but this very cold winter weather I hardly durst venture so far?and me so bad wi' th' rheumatiz an' all.

"But he says, 'It'll do your rheumatiz good to hobble to church; there's nothing like exercise for the rheumatiz. You can walk about the house well enough; why can't you walk to church? The fact is,' says he, 'you're getting too fond of your ease. It's always easy to find excuses for shirking one's duty.' "

"But then, you know, Miss Grey, it wasn't so. However I telled him I'd try. 'But please, sir,' says I, 'If I do go to church, what the better shall I be? I want to have my sins blotted out, and to feel that they are remembered no more against me, and that the love of God is shed abroad in my heart; and if I can get no good by reading my bible, an' saying my prayers at home, what good shall I get by going to church?' "

"'The church,' says he, 'is the place appointed by God for his worship. It's your duty to go there as often as you can. If you want comfort, you must seek it in the path of duty'?an' a deal more he said, but I cannot remember all his fine words. However, it all came to this, that I was to come to church as oft as ever I could, and bring my prayer-book with me, an' read up all the sponsers after th' clerk, an' stand, an' kneel, an' sit, an' do?all as I should, an' take the Lord's supper at every opportunity, an' hearken his sermons, an' Maister Bligh's, an' it 'ud be all right: if I went on doing my duty, I should get a blessing at last.

"'But if you get no comfort that way,' says he, 'it's all up.'

"'Then, sir,' says I, 'should you think I'm a reprobate?'

"'Why,' says he?he says, 'if you do your best to get to Heaven and can't manage it, you must be one of those that seek to enter in at the strait gate and shall not be able.'

"An' then he asked me if I'd seen any of the ladies o' th' Hall about that mornin'; so I telled him where I'd seen the young Misses go on th' Moss-lane;?an' he kicked my poor cat right across th' floor, an' went off after 'em as gay as a lark; but I was very sad. That last word o' his, fair sunk into my heart, an' lay there like a lump o' lead, till I was weary to bear it.

"Howsoever, I follered his advice: I thought he meant it all for th' best though he had a queer way with him. But you know, Miss, he's rich an' young, and such like cannot right understand the thoughts of a poor old woman such as me. But howsever, I did my best to do all as he bade me?but may-be I'm plaguing you, miss, wi' my chatter."

"Oh, no, Nancy! Go on, and tell me all."

"Well, my rheumatiz got better?I know not whether wi' going to church or not, but one frosty Sunday I got this cold i' my eyes. Th' inflammation didn't come on all at once like, but bit by bit?but I wasn't going to tell you about my eyes, I was talking about my trouble o' mind;?and to tell the truth, Miss Grey, I don't think it was any-ways eased by coming to church?nought to speak on at least: I like got my health better; but that didn't mend my soul. I hearkened and hearkened the ministers, and read an' read at my prayer-book, but it was all like sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal: the sermons I couldn't understand, an' th' prayer-book only served to shew me how wicked I was, that I could read such good words an' never be no better for it, and oftens feel it a sore labour an' a heavy task beside, instead of a blessing and a privilege as all good christians does. It seemed like as all were barren an' dark to me. And then, them dreadful words, 'Many shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able.' They like as they fair dried up my sperrit.

"But one Sunday, when Maister Hatfield gave out about the sacrament, I noticed where he said, 'If there be any of you that cannot quiet his own conscience, but requireth further comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or some other discreet and learned minister of God's word, and open his grief!' So next Sunday morning, afore service, I just looked in to th' vestry, an' began a talking to th' rector again ... I hardly could fashion to take such a liberty, but I thought when my soul was at stake, I shouldn't stick at a trifle. But he said he hadn't time to attend to me then."

"'And, indeed,' says he, 'I've nothing to say to you, but what I've said before ... take the sacrament of course, and go on doing your duty; if that won't serve you, nothing will. So don't bother me anymore.'

"So then, I went away. But I heard Maister Weston ... Maister Weston was there, Miss?this was his first Sunday at Horton, you know, an' he was i' th' vestry in his surplice helping th' rector on with his gown."

"Yes, Nancy."

"And I heard him ask Maister Hatfield who I was; an' he said, 'Oh! she's a canting old fool.'

"And I was very ill grieved, Miss Grey; but I went to my seat, and I tried to do my duty as afore time; but I like got no peace. An' I even took the sacrament; but I felt as though I were eating an' drinking to my own damnation all th' time. So I went home, sorely troubled.

"But next day, afore I'd gotten fettled up?for indeed, Miss, I'd no heart to sweeping an' fettling, an' washing pots; so I sat me down i' th' muck?who should come in but Maister Weston! I started siding stuff then, an' sweeping an' doing; and I expected he'd begin a calling me for my idle ways as Maister Hatfield would a' done; but I was mista'en: he only bid me good mornin' like, in a quiet dacent way. So I dusted him a chair, an' fettled up th' fire place a bit; but I hadn't forgotten th' rector's words, so says I,

" 'I wonder sir, you should give yourself that trouble, to come so far to see a 'canting old fool,' such as me.

"He liked seemed taken aback at that; but he would fain persuade me 'at the rector was only in jest; and when that wouldn't do, he says,

" 'Well, Nancy, you shouldn't think so much about it: Mr Hatfield was a little out of humour just then; you know we're none of us perfect?even Moses spoke unadvisedly with his lips. But now sit down a minute, if you can spare the time, and tell me all your doubts and fears; and I'll try to remove them.'

"So I sat me down anent him. He was quite a stranger you know Miss Grey, and even younger nor Maister Hatfield, I believe; an' I had thought him not so pleasant looking as him, and rather a bit crossish, at first, to look at; but he spake so civil like?and when th' cat, poor thing, jumped on to his knee, he only stroked her, and gave a bit of a smile: so I thought that was a good sign; for once, when she did so to th' rector, he knocked her off, like as it might be in scorn and anger, poor thing. But you can't expect a cat to know manners like a christian, you know, Miss Grey."

"No; of course not, Nancy. But what did Mr Weston say then ? "

"He said naught; but he listened to me as steady an' patient as could be, an' never a bit o' scorn about him; so I went on, an' telled him all, just as I've telled you?an' more too.

"'Well,' says he, 'Mr Hatfield was quite right in telling you to persevere in doing your duty; but in advising you to go to church and attend to the service, and so on, he didn't mean that was the whole of a christian's duty; he only thought you might there learn what more was to be done, and be led to take delight in those exercises, instead of finding them a task and a burden. And if you had asked him to explain those words that trouble you so much, I think he would have told you that, if many shall seek to enter in at the strait gate and shall not be able, it is their own sins that hinder them; just as a man with a large sack on his back might wish to pass through a narrow doorway, and find it impossible to do so, unless, he would leave his sack behind him. But you, Nancy, I dare say, have no sins that you would not gladly throw aside, if you knew how?'

"'Indeed, sir, you speak truth,' says I.

"'Well,' says he, 'you know the first, and greatest commandment?and the second which is like unto it- on which two commandments hang all the law and the prophets? You say you cannot love God; but it strikes me, that if you rightly consider who and what He is, you cannot help it. He is your father, your best friend; every blessing, everything good, pleasant, or useful comes from him; and everything evil, everything you have reason to hate, to shun, or to fear comes from Satan, His enemy as well as ours; and for this cause was God manifest in the flesh, that he might destroy the works of the devil: in one word, God IS LOVE; and the more of love we have within us, the nearer we are to him, and the more of his spirit we possess.'

"'Well, sir,' I said, 'if I can always think on these things, I think I might well love God; but how can I love my neighbours?when they vex me, and be so contrairy and sinful as some on 'em is?"

"'It may seem a hard matter,' says he, 'to love our neighbours, who have so much of what is evil about them, and whose faults so often awaken the evil that lingers within ourselves, but remember that He made them, and He loves them; and whosoever loveth him that begat, loveth him that is begotten also. And if God so loveth us that He gave His only begotten Son to die for us, we ought also to love one another. But if you cannot feel positive affection for those who do not care for you, you can at least, try to do to them as you would they should do unto you; you can endeavour to pity their failings and excuse their offences, and to do all the good you can to those about you. And if you accustom yourself to this, Nancy, the very effort itself will make you love them in some degree?to say nothing of the goodwill your kindness would beget in them, though they might have little else that is good about them. If we love God and wish to serve him, let us try to be like Him, to do His work, to labour for His glory, which is the good of man, to hasten the coming of His kingdom, which is the peace and happiness of all the world?however powerless we may seem to be, in doing all the good we can through life, the humblest of us may do much towards it; and let us dwell in love, that He may dwell in us, and we in Him. The more happiness we bestow, the more we shall receive, even here, and the greater will be our reward in heaven when we rest from our labours.'

"I believe, Miss, them is his very words, for I've thought 'em ower many a time. An' then he took that Bible, an' read bits here and there, an' explained 'em as clear as the day: and it seemed like as a new light broke in on my soul; an' I felt a fair glow about my heart, an' only wished poor Bill an' all the world could ha' been there an' heard it all, an' rejoiced wi' me.

"After he was gone, Hannah Rogers, one o' th' neighbours came in and wanted me to help her to wash. I telled her I couldn't just then, for I hadn't set on th' potaties for th' dinner, nor washed up th' breakfast stuff yet. So then she began a calling me for my nasty idle ways. I was a little bit vexed at first; but I never said nothing wrong to her: I only telled her, like all in a quiet way, 'at I'd had th' new parson to see me; but I'd get done as quick as ever I could, an' then come an' help her. So then she softened down; and my heart like as it warmed towards her, an' in a bit we was very good friends.

"An' so it is, Miss Grey, 'a soft answer turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger.' It isn't only in them you speak to, but in yourself."

"Very true, Nancy, if we could always remember it."

"Ay, if we could!"

"And did Mr Weston ever come to see you again?"

"Yes, many a time; and since my eyes has been so bad, he's sat an' read to me by the half hour together; but you know, Miss, he has other folks to see, and other things to do?God bless him! An' that next Sunday he preached such a sermon! His text was, 'Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,' and them two blessed verses that follows. You wasn't there, Miss, you was with your friends then?but it made me so happy! And I am happy now, thank God! an' I take a pleasure, now, in doing little bits o' jobs for my neighbours?such as a poor old body 'at's half blind can do ... and they take it kindly of me, just as he said. You see, Miss, I'm knitting a pair o' stockings now:?they're for Thomas Jackson: he's a queerish old body, an' we've had many a bout at threaping one anent t' other; an' at times we've differed sorely. So I thought I couldn't do better nor knit him a pair o' warm stockings; an' I've felt to like him a deal better, poor old man, sin' I began. It's turned out just as Maister Weston said."

"Well, I'm very glad to see you so happy, Nancy, and so wise: but I must go now; I shall be wanted at the Hall," said I; and bidding her good bye, I departed, promising to come again when I had time, and feeling nearly as happy as herself.

"Great peace have they which love Thy law"
~ Psalm 119:165 ~