It was a bright spring day when they first met.
Susan was feeling rather tired that morning. She was some three months gone with her fourth baby. Dickon was walking well already and getting into everything, Elizabeth Ellen was jealous of the inevitable attention this got him and sulking as a result, and although Martha was trying hard to be a big girl and helpful, there was only so much a child of four could do. By half past noon, the bread was finally in the oven, the floor was swept, the breakfast crocks were washed - and there was as yet no dinner on the table.
Susan looked into the little larder and sighed. A half a pound of fat bacon, a half a bushel of beans, most of one loaf of last week's bread. A few scraps of salt fish, a quarter of a wheel of cheese, a dish of butter, and a crock of milk. A sack of potatoes, several onions, a sack of flour, and a bag of porridge oats. A few withered apples, a cupful of raisins, a bit of treacle, and three eggs. Certainly more than enough for dinner for a woman and three little children - one of whom was still at the breast - but nothing that wouldn't take some time to fix.
"Ma!" cried Lizbeth, and Martha put her arms around her little sister. "Hush, Lizzie - Mother's busy."
"Want Mama!" wailed Lizbeth, and Susan shut the larder door. "What, my flower?"
This was no surprise to her mother. For a moment, Susan fell trapped and cross. Why couldn't her Tom have a job close to home? Surely a man who was capable of fathering babies with the regularity of the sun in its courses could do something about raising them! But the sight of Martha's anxious face brought her back to herself. Mining was a steady trade and paid enough to keep them, and at least her Tom could see them every few weeks. Alice Garner's Bob had died in the winter, leaving her with five children to feed, and Doll Simpson's George was well-nigh crippled with rheumatism so bad that he could barely get about, let alone tend his six milk cows. She let the smile come back to her lips and grabbed the cupful of raisins.
"Come now, let's have summat t' eat an' then see what's in't garden for us today."
They sat in the sun on the scrubbed doorstep and shared the raisins. Then little Martha sang to her sister as she bounced her baby brother on her knee, and Susan took her basket to pick early greens. After a few moments, they heard the rhythmic clop of a horse trotting down the road.
The horse was a sweet-faced bay mare, and the rider was a young lady in a stylish riding habit of dove-grey cloth, with a matching hat trimmed with black velvet ribbon and gleaming black feathers. She perched lightly and comfortably in her sidesaddle, and her pretty face was flushed pink with the moor wind and the exercise she was taking. Her eyes met Susan's, and she reined the mare to a halt. "Good morning!" she called out.
Later, Susan was to wonder why she hadn't felt common and grubby in her old house dress and battered straw hat. Perhaps it was that the lady's face seemed hungry, as though she yearned for something that was to be had in the little cottage before her. "How do, ma'am," she answered, setting her basket down and wiping her hands on her apron.
"Your garden is growing so well," continued the lady, her grey eyes shining. "I rode by here last week and wondered whose it was: I'd never seen so many jonquils, and your squills were such a lovely blue. And those greens: no one else has them growing so thickly, this early."
Susan's heart warmed within her. In truth, she felt that her garden was suffering from the amount of time the children took up these days, but now she looked at it anew through this well-born stranger's eyes and felt proud. "Tis th' good, rich earth hereabout, ma'am," she said. "There's near nowt I mun do t' make the flowers an' greens grow so hearty."
Martha, who had been watching the lady with something like awe, set Dickon down carefully and leapt to her feet. "Mother!"
"Aye, Martha lass?"
"Happen - happen th' lady'd like some daffydowndillys?"
Susan looked up at her visitor, wondering whether she would think Martha was being forward, but the lady was all smiles. "Tha'rt a good, kind lass, Martha, bless thee. Get thee an' pick her a nosegay. A small one, mind - canst tha count six? Lizbeth Ellen, bring your brother here to me."
Martha ran off to the side yard, where the daffodils were still blooming, and Lizbeth walked Dickon over carefully before hiding behind her mother's skirts to peer at the impressive visitor safely. Susan hoisted Dickon to her hip before he could toddle over to the horse, which he was already eyeing with every sign of pleasure and no fear at all. The mare turned her head toward him and snorted softly. Dickon crowed with joy, and the lady laughed. "What lovely children! Martha, Elizabeth Ellen, and - who is this?"
"Dickon. Richard, he was named i' church, tha sees, but he is our Dickon."
"And you are?"
"Susan Sowerby, ma'am."
"And I am Lilias Craven, of Misselthwaite Manor." The lady looked thoughtful for a moment and then laughed. "Mrs. Sowerby, we have the same name! 'Susan' is a name from the Bible that means 'Lily.'"
"Eh, never!" exclaimed Susan. It seemed so odd that the mistress of Misselthwaite Manor should have the same name as a common Yorkshire cottager, no matter in what tongue it might be said.
"It's the truth, I assure you."
"Who would ha' thought it? But 'tis a proper name for one like mysel' as loves gardens and aught that grows."
"Truly, for I am very fond of gardens too. I have one at home now, but it is still rather raw and new - not like yours. Yours might have been here forever, for it is so rich and blooming."
At this point, Martha ran up with her little bunch of daffodils, but she stopped well short of the horse, which must have seemed gigantic to her. "Come to me slowly, Martha, and hold up your flowers," said Mrs. Craven, gently. "Linnet is a good horse, and she wouldn't want to hurt a little girl."
Martha inched over and gingerly held up the daffodils. Mrs. Craven reached down and took them carefully in one black-gloved hand. Martha, emboldened, patted the mare's shoulder, and the big creature turned her handsome head and gently blew into Martha's hair. The child giggled, and Dickon wriggled and kicked, reaching toward the horse.
"Come here, Martha," said Susan, worried that the girl would take further liberties that the mare would not enjoy. Mrs. Craven smiled and carefully took off her smart hat. She rested it in her lap while she broke the stems of the daffodils close to the blooms, and then she tucked the bouquet firmly into the ribbon around the hat's crown. Martha watched, fascinated. Mrs. Craven held the hat out to the child. "What do you think of that, Miss Martha?"
Martha grinned and clapped her hands. Mrs. Craven put the hat back on, anchoring it firmly with a long pin, and cocked her head. "I do believe that I now have the most beautiful hat in Yorkshire!"
Martha looked so proud and pleased that Susan was delighted. Just then, however, she felt a tug at her skirts. "Mama?" said Lizbeth, anxiously; "Dinner?"
Susan smoothed Lizbeth's curls, wondering whether she might excuse herself without being thought rude, but Mrs. Craven saved her the trouble. "She's quite right, it is dinnertime. My husband will wonder what's become of me. It was a pleasure meeting you and your children, Mrs. Sowerby. I hope that I may come back another time, and speak with you about gardening?"
"Please, come by any day you like, Mrs. Craven."
"Farewell for now, then. Thank you for the lovely flowers, Martha!" She turned the mare around and rode back up the track. Dickon gave one last wriggle and burst into tears as the horse disappeared from sight.
"Now then, what's amiss, my chook?" said Susan.
"He's mithered because he didn't pat the horse, Mother," said Martha, seriously. Susan cuddled her son and dried his tears with her apron. "That's nowt to be vexed o'er, my lad. There'll be other times w' the mare."
She gathered her children into the kitchen. Bread and milk would do well enough for dinner, and they could have a proper tea later. There was nothing so amiss that she couldn't make it right, as long as she kept her head. The world was a graidely place, if you knew how to take it.