Dorothy Pyecroft - by Thomas Cooper 1815


ALL the world, in the village of Sturton-le-Steeple, had said so, before the time of old Dorothy Pyecroft; but Dorothy did not join all the world in saying so. Sturton is a homely little place, situate in the pleasant shire of Nottingham, and lying within a couple of miles of the Trent, and old Lincolnshire; and its church steeple forms a pretty object in the landscape which you view from the hills above Gainsboro’. Dorothy Pyecroft, from the time that she was a child but the height of a table, went to Gainsboro’ market with butter, eggs, or poultry, as regularly as Tuesday returned in each week; for the hearty old dame used commonly to boast that she had never known what it was to have a day’s illness in her life, although, at the season we are beginning to gossip about, she was full threescore and ten. It was a bonny sight to see the dame go tripping o’er the charming lea which spreads its flowery riches from Sturton-le-Steeple to the banks of noble Trent, by four of the clock on a gay summer’s morning, with the clean milking-pail under her arm, that was bare to the elbow. You would have thought, at a distance, she had been some blithe maiden in her teens. And then the cheerful and clear tone in which she summoned her cows, calling to them as kindly as if they were her children—” Come, my pratty creaturs !” a call that was the signal for a treat of pleasing pastoral music to the enthusiastic early angler on the Trent: the rich, varied ” low ” of the cows, —alto, tenor, and bass,—answered that call, in changeful echo across the stream; the angler’s delighted ear caught a treble, heavenward, from the matin lark, to complete the “harmony “; and even the cackling of the geese, uttering their confused joy at the sound of the dame’s voice, seemed to mingle no unpleasing “discord” with the natural chorus. By the time that her morning’s milking was over, the spoilt maidens of the village were only beginning to open their kitchen window-shutters; and she usually passed the whole train of them, loitering and chattering about their sweethearts, on their way to the lea, as she returned home, with the rich load upon her head, and her arms fixed as properly a-kimbo as could be shown by the sprightliest lass that ever carried a milking-pail. Some little shame was commonly felt among the loiterers as they passed the exemplary old woman,—but it did not result in their reformation. Old Farmer Muxloe, who was always abroad at daybreak, and usually chatted a few moments with the dame just at the point where the footpath crossed the bridle-way over the lea, often commented, in no very measured terms, on the decline of discipline among milkmaids since the days when he was a lad.

“Ah, dame!” he used to say, “there have been sore changes since you and I used to take a turn around the maypole; I’m sure the world gets lazier and lazier every day.”

“Why, you see, neighbour, fashions change,” the old dame would reply—for she ever loved to take the more charitable side of a question; “maybe, things may change again, and folk may take to getting up earlier, after a few more years are over.”

“I’faith, I’ve little hope on’t,” the old farmer would reply, and shake his head, and smile; “but there’s nobody like thee, Dolly, for taking the kindest side.”

“Why, neighbour, I always think it the best,” Dorothy would rejoin, with a benevolent smile; “I never saw things grow better by harsh words and harsh thinkings, in my time.”

And then the old farmer would smile again, and say, “Well well, that’s just like thee! God bless thee, Dolly, and good morning to thee!” and away he would turn Dobbin’s head, and proceed on his usual morning’s ride from field to field.

The work of her little dairy, added to the care of an humble household, composed of an infirm and helpless husband, and an equally infirm maiden sister—with, all and sundry, a stout house-dog, two tabby cats, and a fruitful poultry-yard,—usually occupied Dorothy Pyecroft through the bustling forenoon of each day; and when there was no immediate call upon her skill and benevolence among sick neighbours,—for she was the cleverest herb-woman in the village, and exercised her knowledge of the healing art without fee, or willing acceptance even of thanks,—she would sit in her polished high-backed chair, and work through the livelong afternoon at her spinning-wheel, drowsing her two infirm companions into a salutary rest and forgetfulness with the humming monotony of her labour, but revolving within her own mind many a useful and solemn thought, meanwhile.

Dorothy sat absorbed in this her favourite employ, one afternoon in autumn, when an itinerant pedlar made his customary call at the cottage-door. The dame’s mind was so deeply involved in the contrivance of one of her little plans of benevolence, that she did not recognize the face of the traveller until he had addressed her twice.

“Any small wares for children? any needles, pins, or thimbles?” cried the pedlar, running through the list of his articles with the glibness of frequent repetition.

“No, Jonah: I want none,” replied the dame kindly; “but, maybe, you’ll take a horn o’ beer, and a crumb or two o’ bread and cheese?”

The pedlar assented, well pleased, and lowered the pack from his shoulders, and set down the basket from his hand, next seating himself in a chair without the ceremonial of asking, and in all the gladsome confidence of welcome.

“Thank you, thank you, dame,” he said, and smacked his lips with pleasurable anticipation, as he took the horn of smiling beer and the piece of bread and cheese from the dame’s hand. “You’re welcome, Jonah,” replied the dame heartily. “Have you walked far to-day? and what luck have you had?”

“I’ve come twenty miles, and have never taken handsel yet, dame,” answered Jonah, in a melancholy tone.

“So, poor heart!” said Dorothy, very pitifully; “I must buy a few dozens of needles of thee, however, before thou goest. I fear times are hard, Jonah: I hear many and grievous complaints.”

“Times are harder than ever I knew them to be, dame, I assure you,” rejoined Jonah; “and they that have a little money seem most determined to hold it fast. Sore murmurings are made about this by poor folk: but I don’t wonder at it, myself,” concluded the worldly pedlar, “for, in sore times like these, there’s no knowing what a body may come to want; and, as the old saying goes, you know, dame, ‘Charity begins at home!'”—and Jonah buried his nose in the ale-horn, thinking he had said something so wisely conclusive that it could not be contradicted.

“They say it was a parson who first used that saying,” observed Dorothy, glancing from her wheel, very keenly, towards the pedlar: “but, for my part, Jonah, I am very far from thinking it such a saying as a parson ought to use.”

“Say you, dame ?” said Jonah, opening his eyes very wide. “Did charity begin at home with their Master?” said Dorothy, by way of explanation.

“Ah, dame!” said the pedlar, quickly discerning Dorothy’s meaning, “I fear but few parsons think of imitating their Master now-a-days!”

“That’s more than I like to say,” observed the gentle Dorothy; “I think there are more good people in the world than some folks think for;—but I’m sure, Jonah, we all want a better understanding of our duty towards each other.”

“Right, Dame Dorothy, right!—that’s the best sort of religion; but there’s the least of it in this world,” rejoined the pedlar.

“Why, Jonah,” continued the good dame, “I think there

might easily be a great deal more good in the world than

there is. Everybody ought to remember how many little kind

. nesses it is in their power to perform for others, without any

hurt to themselves.”

“Yes, a sight o’ good might be done in that way, dame,” observed the pedlar, beginning very much to admire Dorothy’s remarks; “and how much more happy the world would be then!”

“Just so !” exclaimed Dorothy, her aged face beaming with benevolence; “that is the true way of making the world happy, —for all to be trying to do their fellow-creatures some kindness. And then, you see, Jonah, when once the pleasure of thus acting began to be felt, there would soon be a pretty general willingness to make greater efforts, and even sacrifices of self-interest, as it is wrongly called, in order to experience greater pleasure and likewise to increase the world’s happiness.”

“Truly, dame,” said the pedlar, “you do me good to hear you talk. . I’m but a poor scholar; yet I can tell, without book, that you must be right.”

“But then, you see, Jonah,” continued the dame, half unconscious of Jonah’s last observation, “if everybody were to say, ‘Charity begins at home,’ this general happiness would never begin. I like best, Jonah, to think of the example of the Blessed Being who came into the world to do us all good. He went about pitying the miserable and afflicted, and healing and blessing them. Charity did not begin at home with Him, Jonah!”

The tears were now hastening down Jonah’s rough cheeks. How forcible are lessons of goodness ! how irresistibly the heart owns their power! Jonah could not support the conversation further. Dorothy’s plain and unaffected remarks sank deep in his bosom: and when he rose up, and buckled on his pack once more, and the aged dame gave him “handsel,” or first money for the day, by purchasing a few pins and needles, the poor pedlar bade her farewell in an accent that showed he felt more than common thankfulness for her kindness.

Alas ! this is a world where good impressions are, too often, speedily effaced by bad ones. Jonah called next at the gate of a wealthy squire, and, with hat in hand, asked for leave to go up to the kitchen-door and expose his wares to the servants, The squire refused; and when Jonah pleaded his poverty, and ventured to remonstrate, the squire frowningly threatened to set the dogs upon him, if he did not instantly decamp! Jonah turned away, and bitterly cursed the unfeeling heart of the rich man,—avowing, internally, that Dorothy Pyecroft was only a doating old fool,—for, after all, “Charity begun at home!”

Scarcely had the pedlar taken twenty steps from Dame Dorothy’s cottage, ere the village clergyman knocked at her door. The dame knew the young parson’s “rap-rap-rap!” It was quick and consequential, and unlike the way of knocking at a door used by any one else in Sturton who thought it necessary to be so ceremonious as to give notice before they entered their neighbour’s dwelling. Dame Dorothy ceased her spinning, and rose to open the door, curtseying with natural politeness, and inviting her visitor to be seated.

“Thank ye!” said the parson, raising his brows superciliously, putting the hook-end of his hunting-whip to his mouth, and striding about the floor in his spurred boots; “sit you down, I beg, Dame Pyecroft! sit you down—I’ll not sit, thank ye!”

“I fear, sir, there is a great deal of suffering at present,” said Dorothy, sitting down, and fixing her mild blue eyes upon the thoughtless young coxcomb, and feeling too ear nestly in love with goodness to lose any opportunity of recommending its glorious lessons.

“Oh !—suffering !—ay!” observed the young clergyman, in a tone that showed he did not know what it was to think seriously: “you know there always was a difference between the rich and the poor.”

“But do you not think, sir, that the rich might lessen the difference between themselves and the poor, without injuring themselves?” asked Dorothy, in a tone of mild but firm expostulation.

“Why, as to that, I can’t say exactly,” replied the parson, apparently brought to a halt in his thoughtlessness, and unable to extricate himself from the difficulty in which his ignorance placed him; “I can’t say exactly; but, you know, Dame Pyecroft, some people have nothing to give away though they may be better off than many of the poor: with such people, you know, Dame Pyecroft, the old proverb holds good, that ‘Charity begins at home.'”

“I am grieved to hear you quote that proverb, sir,” said Dorothy; “I had just been exerting my poor wits to show that that saying was not a right one, in the hearing of poor Jonah the pedlar, before your reverence came in.”

“Not a right saying, Dame Pyecroft? Why, you know it is a very old-established saying; and I think it a very shrewd one,” rejoined the clergyman. “But it is not so old as the New Testament, sir,” replied Dorothy, with a winning smile; “and as shrewd as it is, do you think, sir, it was ever acted upon by your Great Master?”

The young clergyman took his hook-whip from his mouth, laid it on the table, took out his pocket-handkerchief, and, blushing up to the eyes, sat down before he attempted an answer to the good old dame’s meek but powerful question.

“You will remember, Dame Dorothy,” he said, at length, “that the Saviour was in very different circumstances to all other human beings that ever lived.”

“But you will remember, sir,” rejoined Dorothy, in the same mildly pertinacious manner, “that that Blessed Being said to His disciples, ‘I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you : if I have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.'”

“Yes: that is very beautiful,” said the young clergyman, feeling the irresistible force of goodness, and speaking as if he had never read the passage in the book for himself: “the Saviour’s example is very beautiful.”

“And does not your reverence perceive how easy and delightful it would be for everyone to begin to follow it?” immediately rejoined Dorothy, taking advantage of the good impression which, she saw, was being made on the mind of the young parson; “how easily might all who have enough give even of their little superfluity; how easily might we all do each other kindnesses which would cost us nothing! What solid pleasure this would bring back upon each of our hearts; and how surely it would lead us to make sacrifices, in order to experience the richer pleasure of doing greater good! Oh, sir,” concluded the good old creature, with a tear that an angel might envy gliding down her aged and benevolent cheek, “I cannot think that any one knows the secret of true happiness who practises the precept—’ Charity begins at home !'”

The young and inexperienced man gazed with a strange expression at his new and humble teacher. This was better preaching than he had ever heard or practised. His heart had been misled, but not thoroughly vitiated, by a selfish and falsely styled “respectable” education. He was too much affected to prolong the conversation then; but he became, from that time, a pupil at the feet of the aged Dorothy. His fine manners were laid aside. He became a real pastor. He was, from that day, more frequently in the cottages of the poor, twenty times over, than in the houses of the rich. He distributed of his substance to relieve the wants of others, and lived himself upon little. He forgot creeds to preach goodness, and pity, and mercy, and love. He preached till he wept, and his audiences wept with him. His life was an embodiment of the virtues he inculcated. And when, in the course of five short years, he laid down his body in the grave, a victim to the earnest conviction of his mind, the poor crowded around his hallowed restingplace with streaming eyes, and loving, but afflicted hearts, wishing they might be where he was when they died, since they were sure his presence, they said, of itself would make heaven! The young clergyman interred Dorothy Pyecroft but half a year before his own departure; and her last words were words of thankfulness that ever she had shown the young man the fallacy of the proverb — ” Charity begins at home.”

From “Old Fashioned Stories” by Thomas Cooper 1815.

Notes: The young clergyman is probably Thomas Hurt who was non resident at Sturton but the Curate of Suton in Ashfield.