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Abandoned as a baby, Hannah is brought up in the loving Quaker household of John and Agnes Burton in the Yorkshire Dales. As she grows, her constant playmate is gentle Samuel Gayle, younger son of a neighbouring hosier – and it is Samuel who one day inadvertently lets slip that she is a foundling. Suddenly Hannah’s carefree life is turned upside down, tainted by the questions hanging over her.
Growing to womanhood, Hannah becomes aware of a growing attraction between herself and handsome, ambitious Robert Gayle, Samuel’s older brother. But Robert, fired by the possibilities of the newly emerging industrial revolution, is intent on making his fortune by any means, no matter how ruthless, and Hannah, fiery and rebellious though she is, cannot entirely shake herself free of her Quaker upbringing. She knows that somehow she must escape the hold Robert has on her, but all ways seem closed to her.
And then there is the question of her birth. Will she ever know what desperation led to her abandonment on the Burtons’ doorstep in their remote Dales village?
Hannah demands the truth:
Agnes spoke very slowly and carefully, considering every word. ‘I am thy mother, Hannah, just as surely as my dear John is thy father. God sent thee to us to bring joy into our life, and indeed thou hast, from that first day.’
She saw the smiling relief on Hannah’s face and knew she could not leave it there. But it was with great reluctance that she added, ‘I am thy mother, because I have cared for thee and loved thee and watched over thee from the very first – and if that is not what makes a mother, then I don’t know what is.’
Hannah was not a stupid child. On the contrary, her quickness of perception sometimes startled John and Agnes. It was only for a moment that her face showed not just relief but a relaxed and sighing delight. The next instant Agnes saw that the full implication of what she said had reached the child. The relief faded, and the delight; pain darkened the eyes raised to hers, and Hannah burst out sharply,
‘Then thou art not my mother!’ She pulled her hands free and drew back into the corner of the settle.
Hurt, distressed, Agnes reached out to stroke her cheek. ‘I told thee, lass: I’m as truly thy mother as anyone ever was.’
‘But thou didst find me, didst thou not? Samuel was right!’ The anguish in her voice was almost unendurable to Agnes, but she knew that she had long ago reached the point beyond which there was no turning back. The years of unruffled happiness, of safety, had suddenly retreated; they were far off now, and a great unbridgeable gulf cut her off from them, and Hannah too. Agnes had to go on and hope that somehow at the end the child would emerge calmed and reassured from the tempest that had so suddenly broken around her.
Hannah tossed her head free of the caressing hand. Accepting that rejection, Agnes let her hand fall and – in spite of the involuntary trembling of her voice – said as quietly as she was able, ‘Aye, we found thee. God gave thee to us, our very own bairn. We’ve been thy mother and father from that day – thine only mother and father!’ She said those last words with great emphasis, almost with severity, as if it was something against which there could be no argument – nor could there be, she firmly believed.
‘But there was another mother, wasn’t there? My real mother.’