Just on the borders of Old Down Wood stands a pretty thatched cottage within its neat garden, which I can remember as the home of this dear old woman. She looked a perfect picture, with her upright figure, her high muslin cap as white as snow, a little plaid shawl neatly pinned across her shoulders, and a faint apple-bloom in her cheeks. She was by no means wanting in intelligence and would have "paid for a good education."
The cottage itself was so spotless that one might have eaten one's dinner from off its red brick floor. The neat dresser, laden with old china and rows of jugs, the quaint open fire-place with its cheery wood-fire upon the hearth, the grandfather clock in the corner, the bright pot-flowers upon the window ledge, all added to the charm. Not a speck of dust rested anywhere.
Dame Digweed kept a tiny school for the children of that district, and well can I recall the little picture which met one's eyes when peeping in through the open door. The two rows of small rustics seated on rough wooden benches and dressed in such a homely way as any modern boy nowadays would laugh at and disdain. Before them stood their patient teacher, cane in hand. This was mostly used as a "pointer," I think, though occasionally it might descend with a sharp rap upon the knuckles of some refractory urchin.
A very elementary and ancient Primer, its pages discoloured and torn, formed the material from which the reading lesson was given. The writing was confined to a few easy sentences upon a slate, whilst the arithmetic, of which I have no recollection, was probably entirely absent. The day's instruction was usually concluded by a lesson from the New Testament, during which the homely explanation given by this dear old woman, and the influence of her own simple faith and fervent piety would doubtless go far towards impressing her youthful hearers.
Sarah Digweed and I had, I believe, a real affection for one another. She always called me "Little Missie," as did most of the village people at that time. My mother used sometimes to allow me to go and take tea with her, well knowing that her influence would be always good, and I looked forward to these events as great treats. Coming home through the big wood I remember that some times I used to fear a little, and would start off running at the top of my speed till I emerged breathless into the open field where the "barrow" is still standing as of yore.
Sarah Digweed was one of the most beautiful characters whom I have ever known in her class of life. Sweet, humble, and true to the core. Her life was beautiful and it shed its fragrance around. Though "filling but a little space," and unknown beyond this her native village, I remember in connection with her those words of the prophet Malachi, "And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of Hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels."
Of her husband I have no clear remembrance, save that he acted as our "organist !" That is to say that dressed in his white smock frock he "turned" the barrel-organ in church on Sundays. This instrument stood in the gallery, and was capable of producing a few long, short, or common-metre tunes at will. Occasionally it would refuse to play at all, and then the service proceeded without music.
"Let not ambition mock their simple toil
Their homely joys and destiny obscure
Nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor."
Men call their wives "My Dame," in speaking kindly and respectfully of them. The word "Master" is still in use as a title of respect for elderly men.
From Mr. Woodhouse's Note-Book
May 31st, 1873.
Sarah Digweed was buried, aged 79. She was a very remarkable person, gifted with great powers of speech and clearness of understanding. She was a widow and extremely poor ; and kept a little Dame School to eke out the pittance which she received from the parish. Her home was at Swelling Hill, nearly two miles from the church, yet she came to church occasionally. The last time she was there was Sunday, May 11th. She was taken ill the next day and lingered in very great pain for more than a fortnight.
We attempted to sing a hymn over her grave, according to her own request ; but it was a sad failure. It was the well-known one :
"There is a Land of pure delight."
I promised her to plant a tree to mark the spot.