MOTHER AND SON
'I have found that holy place of rest
When Mr. Thornton had left the house that morning he was almost blinded by his baffled passion. He was as dizzy as if Margaret, instead of looking, and speaking, and moving like a tender graceful woman, had been a sturdy fish-wife, and given him a sound blow with her fists. He had positive bodily pain,—a violent headache, and a throbbing intermittent pulse. He could not bear the noise, the garish light, the continued rumble and movement of the street. He called himself a fool for suffering so; and yet he could not, at the moment, recollect the cause of his suffering, and whether it was adequate to the consequences it had produced. It would have been a relief to him, if he could have sat down and cried on a door-step by a little child, who was raging and storming, through his passionate tears, at some injury he had received. He said to himself, that he hated Margaret, but a wild, sharp sensation of love cleft his dull, thunderous feeling like lightning, even as he shaped the words expressive of hatred. His greatest comfort was in hugging his torment; and in feeling, as he had indeed said to her, that though she might despise him, contemn him, treat him with her proud sovereign indifference, he did not change one whit. She could not make him change. He loved her, and would love her; and defy her, and this miserable bodily pain.
He stood still for a moment, to make this resolution firm and clear. There was an omnibus passing—going into the country; the conductor thought he was wishing for a place, and stopped near the pavement. It was too much trouble to apologise and explain; so he mounted upon it, and was borne away,—past long rows of houses—then past detached villas with trim gardens, till they came to real country hedge-rows, and, by-and-by, to a small country town. Then every body got down; and so did Mr. Thornton, and because they walked away he did so too. He went into the fields, walking briskly, because the sharp motion relieved his mind. He could remember all about it now; the pitiful figure he must have cut; the absurd way in which he had gone and done the very thing he had so often agreed with himself in thinking would be the most foolish thing in the world; and had met with exactly the consequences which, in these wise moods, he had always fore-told were certain to follow, if he ever did make such a fool of himself. Was he bewitched by those beautiful eyes, that soft, half-open, sighing mouth which lay so close upon his shoulder only yesterday? He could not even shake off the recollection that she had been there; that her arms had been round him, once—if never again. He only caught glimpses of her; he did not understand her altogether. At one time she was so brave, and at another so timid; now so tender, and then so haughty and regal-proud. And then he thought over every time he had ever seen her once again, by way of finally forgetting her. He saw her in every dress, in every mood, and did not know which became her best. Even this morning, how magnificent she had looked,—her eyes flashing out upon him at the idea that, because she had shared his danger yesterday, she had cared for him the least!
If Mr. Thornton was a fool in the morning, as he assured himself at least twenty times he was, he did not grow much wiser in the afternoon. All that he gained in return for his sixpenny omnibus ride, was a more vivid conviction that there never was, never could be, any one like Margaret; that she did not love him and never would; but that she—no! nor the whole world—should never hinder him from loving her. And so he returned to the little market-place, and remounted the omnibus to return to Milton.
It was late in the afternoon when he was set down, near his warehouse. The accustomed places brought back the accustomed habits and trains of thought. He knew how much he had to do—more than his usual work, owing to the commotion of the day before. He had to see his brother magistrates; he had to complete the arrangements, only half made in the morning, for the comfort and safety of his newly imported Irish hands; he had to secure them from all chance of communication with the discontented work-people of Milton. Last of all, he had to go home and encounter his mother.
Mrs. Thornton had sat in the dining-room all day, every moment expecting the news of her son's acceptance by Miss Hale. She had braced herself up many and many a time, at some sudden noise in the house; had caught up the half-dropped work, and begun to ply her needle diligently, though through dimmed spectacles, and with an unsteady hand! and many times had the door opened, and some indifferent person entered on some insignificant errand. Then her rigid face unstiffened from its gray frost-bound expression, and the features dropped into the relaxed look of despondency, so unusual to their sternness. She wrenched herself away from the contemplation of all the dreary changes that would be brought about to herself by her son's marriage; she forced her thoughts into the accustomed household grooves. The newly-married couple-to-be would need fresh household stocks of linen; and Mrs. Thornton had clothes-basket upon clothes-basket, full of table-cloths and napkins, brought in, and began to reckon up the store. There was some confusion between what was hers, and consequently marked G. H. T. (for George and Hannah Thornton), and what was her son's—bought with his money, marked with his initials. Some of those marked G. H. T. were Dutch damask of the old kind, exquisitely fine; none were like them now. Mrs. Thornton stood looking at them long,—they had been her pride when she was first married. Then she knit her brows, and pinched and compressed her lips tight, and carefully unpicked the G. H. She went so far as to search for the Turkey-red marking-thread to put in the new initials; but it was all used,—and she had no heart to send for any more just yet. So she looked fixedly at vacancy; a series of visions passing before her, in all of which her son was the principal, the sole object,—her son, her pride, her property. Still he did not come. Doubtless he was with Miss Hale. The new love was displacing her already from her place as first in his heart. A terrible pain—a pang of vain jealousy—shot through her: she hardly knew whether it was more physical or mental; but it forced her to sit down. In a moment, she was up again as straight as ever,—a grim smile upon her face for the first time that day, ready for the door opening, and the rejoicing triumphant one, who should never know the sore regret his mother felt at his marriage. In all this, there was little thought enough of the future daughter-in-law as an individual. She was to be John's wife. To take Mrs. Thornton's place as mistress of the house, was only one of the rich consequences which decked out the supreme glory; all household plenty and comfort, all purple and fine linen, honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, would all come as naturally as jewels on a king's robe, and be as little thought of for their separate value. To be chosen by John, would separate a kitchen-wench from the rest of the world. And Miss Hale was not so bad. If she had been a Milton lass, Mrs. Thornton would have positively liked her. She was pungent, and had taste, and spirit, and flavour in her. True, she was sadly prejudiced, and very ignorant; but that was to be expected from her southern breeding. A strange sort of mortified comparison of Fanny with her, went on in Mrs. Thornton's mind; and for once she spoke harshly to her daughter; abused her roundly; and then, as if by way of penance, she took up Henry's Commentaries, and tried to fix her attention on it, instead of pursuing the employment she took pride and pleasure in, and continuing her inspection of the table-linen.
His step at last! She heard him, even while she thought she was finishing a sentence; while her eye did pass over it, and her memory could mechanically have repeated it word for word, she heard him come in at the hall-door. Her quickened sense could interpret every sound of motion: now he was at the hat-stand—now at the very room-door. Why did he pause? Let her know the worst.
Yet her head was down over the book; she did not look up. He came close to the table, and stood still there, waiting till she should have finished the paragraph which apparently absorbed her. By an effort she looked up. Well, John?'
He knew what that little speech meant. But he had steeled himself. He longed to reply with a jest; the bitterness of his heart could have uttered one, but his mother deserved better of him. He came round behind her, so that she could not see his looks, and, bending back her gray, stony face, he kissed it, murmuring:
'No one loves me,—no one cares for me, but you, mother.'
He turned away and stood leaning his head against the mantel-piece, tears forcing themselves into his manly eyes. She stood up,—she tottered. For the first time in her life, the strong woman tottered. She put her hands on his shoulders; she was a tall woman. She looked into his face; she made him look at her.
'Mother's love is given by God, John. It holds fast for ever and ever. A girl's love is like a puff of smoke,—it changes with every wind. And she would not have you, my own lad, would not she?' She set her teeth; she showed them like a dog for the whole length of her mouth. He shook his head.
'I am not fit for her, mother; I knew I was not.'
She ground out words between her closed teeth. He could not hear what she said; but the look in her eyes interpreted it to be a curse,—if not as coarsely worded, as fell in intent as ever was uttered. And yet her heart leapt up light, to know he was her own again.
'Mother!' said he, hurriedly, 'I cannot hear a word against her. Spare me,—spare me! I am very weak in my sore heart;—I love her yet; I love her more than ever.'
'And I hate her,' said Mrs. Thornton, in a low fierce voice. 'I tried not to hate her, when she stood between you and me, because,—I said to myself,—she will make him happy; and I would give my heart's blood to do that. But now, I hate her for your misery's sake. Yes, John, it's no use hiding up your aching heart from me. I am the mother that bore you, and your sorrow is my agony; and if you don't hate her, I do.'
'Then, mother, you make me love her more. She is unjustly treated by you, and I must make the balance even. But why do we talk of love or hatred? She does not care for me, and that is enough,—too much. Let us never name the subject again. It is the only thing you can do for me in the matter. Let us never name her.'
'With all my heart. I only wish that she, and all belonging to her, were swept back to the place they came from.'
He stood still, gazing into the fire for a minute or two longer. Her dry dim eyes filled with unwonted tears as she looked at him; but she seemed just as grim and quiet as usual when he next spoke.
'Warrants are out against three men for conspiracy, mother. The riot yesterday helped to knock up the strike.'
And Margaret's name was no more mentioned between Mrs. Thornton and her son. They fell back into their usual mode of talk,—about facts, not opinions, far less feelings. Their voices and tones were calm and cold a stranger might have gone away and thought that he had never seen such frigid indifference of demeanour between such near relations.
'For never any thing can be amiss
When simpleness and duty tender it.'
MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.
Mr. Thornton went straight and clear into all the interests of the following day. There was a slight demand for finished goods; and as it affected his branch of the trade, he took advantage of it, and drove hard bargains. He was sharp to the hour at the meeting of his brother magistrates,—giving them the best assistance of his strong sense, and his power of seeing consequences at a glance, and so coming to a rapid decision. Older men, men of long standing in the town, men of far greater wealth—realised and turned into land, while his was all floating capital, engaged in his trade—looked to him for prompt, ready wisdom. He was the one deputed to see and arrange with the police—to lead in all the requisite steps. And he cared for their unconscious deference no more than for the soft west wind, that scarcely made the smoke from the great tall chimneys swerve in its straight upward course. He was not aware of the silent respect paid to him. If it had been otherwise, he would have felt it as an obstacle in his progress to the object he had in view. As it was, he looked to the speedy accomplishment of that alone. It was his mother's greedy ears that sucked in, from the women-kind of these magistrates and wealthy men, how highly Mr. This or Mr. That thought of Mr. Thornton; that if he had not been there, things would have gone on very differently,—very badly, indeed. He swept off his business right and left that day. It seemed as though his deep mortification of yesterday, and the stunned purposeless course of the hours afterwards, had cleared away all the mists from his intellect. He felt his power and revelled in it. He could almost defy his heart. If he had known it, he could have sang the song of the miller who lived by the river Dee:—
'I care for nobody—Nobody cares for me.'
The evidence against Boucher, and other ringleaders of the riot, was taken before him; that against the three others, for conspiracy, failed. But he sternly charged the police to be on the watch; for the swift right arm of the law should be in readiness to strike, as soon as they could prove a fault. And then he left the hot reeking room in the borough court, and went out into the fresher, but still sultry street. It seemed as though he gave way all at once; he was so languid that he could not control his thoughts; they would wander to her; they would bring back the scene,—not of his repulse and rejection the day before but the looks, the actions of the day before that. He went along the crowded streets mechanically, winding in and out among the people, but never seeing them,—almost sick with longing for that one half-hour—that one brief space of time when she clung to him, and her heart beat against his—to come once again.
'Why, Mr. Thornton you're cutting me very coolly, I must say. And how is Mrs. Thornton? Brave weather this! We doctors don't like it, I can tell you!'
'I beg your pardon, Dr. Donaldson. I really didn't see you. My mother's quite well, thank you. It is a fine day, and good for the harvest, I hope. If the wheat is well got in, we shall have a brisk trade next year, whatever you doctors have.'
'Ay, ay. Each man for himself Your bad weather, and your bad times, are my good ones. When trade is bad, there's more undermining of health, and preparation for death, going on among you Milton men than you're aware of.'
'Not with me, Doctor. I'm made of iron. The news of the worst bad debt I ever had, never made my pulse vary. This strike, which affects me more than any one else in Milton,—more than Hamper,—never comes near my appetite. You must go elsewhere for a patient, Doctor.'
'By the way, you've recommended me a good patient, poor lady! Not to go on talking in this heartless way, I seriously believe that Mrs. Hale—that lady in Crampton, you know—hasn't many weeks to live. I never had any hope of cure, as I think I told you; but I've been seeing her to-day, and I think very badly of her.'
Mr. Thornton was silent. The vaunted steadiness of pulse failed him for an instant.
'Can I do anything, Doctor?' he asked, in an altered voice. 'You know—you would see, that money is not very plentiful; are there any comforts or dainties she ought to have?'
'No,' replied the Doctor, shaking his head. 'She craves for fruit,—she has a constant fever on her; but jargonelle pears will do as well as anything, and there are quantities of them in the market.'
'You will tell me, if there is anything I can do, I'm sure, replied Mr. Thornton. 'I rely upon you.'
'Oh! never fear! I'll not spare your purse,—I know it's deep enough. I wish you'd give me carte-blanche for all my patients, and all their wants.'
But Mr. Thornton had no general benevolence,—no universal philanthropy; few even would have given him credit for strong affections. But he went straight to the first fruit-shop in Milton, and chose out the bunch of purple grapes with the most delicate bloom upon them,—the richest-coloured peaches,—the freshest vine-leaves. They were packed into a basket, and the shopman awaited the answer to his inquiry, 'Where shall we send them to, sir?'
There was no reply. 'To Marlborough Mills, I suppose, sir?'
'No!' Mr. Thornton said. 'Give the basket to me,—I'll take it.'
It took up both his hands to carry it; and he had to pass through the busiest part of the town for feminine shopping. Many a young lady of his acquaintance turned to look after him, and thought it strange to see him occupied just like a porter or an errand-boy.
He was thinking, 'I will not be daunted from doing as I choose by the thought of her. I like to take this fruit to the poor mother, and it is simply right that I should. She shall never scorn me out of doing what I please. A pretty joke, indeed, if, for fear of a haughty girl, I failed in doing a kindness to a man I liked I do it for Mr. Hale; I do it in defiance of her.'
He went at an unusual pace, and was soon at Crampton. He went upstairs two steps at a time, and entered the drawing-room before Dixon could announce him,—his face flushed, his eyes shining with kindly earnestness. Mrs. Hale lay on the sofa, heated with fever. Mr. Hale was reading aloud. Margaret was working on a low stool by her mother's side. Her heart fluttered, if his did not, at this interview. But he took no notice of her, hardly of Mr. Hale himself; he went up straight with his basket to Mrs. Hale, and said, in that subdued and gentle tone, which is so touching when used by a robust man in full health, speaking to a feeble invalid—
'I met Dr. Donaldson, ma'am, and as he said fruit would be good for you, I have taken the liberty—the great liberty of bringing you some that seemed to me fine.' Mrs. Hale was excessively surprised; excessively pleased; quite in a tremble of eagerness. Mr. Hale with fewer words expressed a deeper gratitude.
'Fetch a plate, Margaret—a basket—anything.' Margaret stood up by the table, half afraid of moving or making any noise to arouse Mr. Thornton into a consciousness of her being in the room. She thought it would be awkward for both to be brought into conscious collision; and fancied that, from her being on a low seat at first, and now standing behind her father, he had overlooked her in his haste. As if he did not feel the consciousness of her presence all over, though his eyes had never rested on her!
'I must go,' said he, 'I cannot stay. If you will forgive this liberty,—my rough ways,—too abrupt, I fear—but I will be more gentle next time. You will allow me the pleasure of bringing you some fruit again, if I should see any that is tempting. Good afternoon, Mr. Hale. Good-bye, ma'am.'
He was gone. Not one word: not one look to Margaret. She believed that he had not seen her. She went for a plate in silence, and lifted the fruit out tenderly, with the points of her delicate taper fingers. It was good of him to bring it; and after yesterday too!
'Oh! it is so delicious!' said Mrs. Hale, in a feeble voice. 'How kind of him to think of me! Margaret love, only taste these grapes! Was it not good of him?'
'Yes!' said Margaret, quietly.
'Margaret!' said Mrs. Hale, rather querulously, 'you won't like anything Mr. Thornton does. I never saw anybody so prejudiced.'
Mr. Hale had been peeling a peach for his wife; and, cutting off a small piece for himself, he said:
'If I had any prejudices, the gift of such delicious fruit as this would melt them all away. I have not tasted such fruit—no! not even in Hampshire—since I was a boy; and to boys, I fancy, all fruit is good. I remember eating sloes and crabs with a relish. Do you remember the matted-up currant bushes, Margaret, at the corner of the west-wall in the garden at home?'
Did she not? Did she not remember every weather-stain on the old stone wall; the gray and yellow lichens that marked it like a map; the little crane's-bill that grew in the crevices? She had been shaken by the events of the last two days; her whole life just now was a strain upon her fortitude; and, somehow, these careless words of her father's, touching on the remembrance of the sunny times of old, made her start up, and, dropping her sewing on the ground, she went hastily out of the room into her own little chamber. She had hardly given way to the first choking sob, when she became aware of Dixon standing at her drawers, and evidently searching for something.
'Bless me, miss! How you startled me! Missus is not worse, is she? Is anything the matter?'
'No, nothing. Only I'm silly, Dixon, and want a glass of water.
What are you looking for? I keep my muslins in that drawer.'
Dixon did not speak, but went on rummaging. The scent of lavender came out and perfumed the room.
At last Dixon found what she wanted; what it was Margaret could not see. Dixon faced round, and spoke to her:
'Now I don't like telling you what I wanted, because you've fretting enough to go through, and I know you'll fret about this. I meant to have kept it from you till night, may be, or such times as that.'
'What is the matter? Pray, tell me, Dixon, at once.'
'That young woman you go to see—Higgins, I mean.'
'Well! she died this morning, and her sister is here—come to beg a strange thing. It seems, the young woman who died had a fancy for being buried in something of yours, and so the sister's come to ask for it,—and I was looking for a night-cap that wasn't too good to give away.'
'Oh! let me find one,' said Margaret, in the midst of her tears.
'Poor Bessy! I never thought I should not see her again.'
'Why, that's another thing. This girl down-stairs wanted me to ask you, if you would like to see her.'
'But she's dead!' said Margaret, turning a little pale. 'I never saw a dead person. No! I would rather not.'
'I should never have asked you, if you hadn't come in. I told her you wouldn't.'
'I will go down and speak to her,' said Margaret, afraid lest Dixon's harshness of manner might wound the poor girl. So, taking the cap in her hand, she went to the kitchen. Mary's face was all swollen with crying, and she burst out afresh when she saw Margaret.
'Oh, ma'am, she loved yo', she loved yo', she did indeed!' And for a long time, Margaret could not get her to say anything more than this. At last, her sympathy, and Dixon's scolding, forced out a few facts. Nicholas Higgins had gone out in the morning, leaving Bessy as well as on the day before. But in an hour she was taken worse; some neighbour ran to the room where Mary was working; they did not know where to find her father; Mary had only come in a few minutes before she died.
'It were a day or two ago she axed to be buried in somewhat o' yourn. She were never tired o' talking o' yo'. She used to say yo' were the prettiest thing she'd ever clapped eyes on. She loved yo' dearly Her last words were, "Give her my affectionate respects; and keep father fro' drink." Yo'll come and see her, ma'am. She would ha' thought it a great compliment, I know.'
Margaret shrank a little from answering.
'Yes, perhaps I may. Yes, I will. I'll come before tea. But where's your father, Mary?'
Mary shook her head, and stood up to be going.
'Miss Hale,' said Dixon, in a low voice, 'where's the use o' your going to see the poor thing laid out? I'd never say a word against it, if it could do the girl any good; and I wouldn't mind a bit going myself, if that would satisfy her. They've just a notion, these common folks, of its being a respect to the departed. Here,' said she, turning sharply round, 'I'll come and see your sister. Miss Hale is busy, and she can't come, or else she would.'
The girl looked wistfully at Margaret. Dixon's coming might be a compliment, but it was not the same thing to the poor sister, who had had her little pangs of jealousy, during Bessy's lifetime, at the intimacy between her and the young lady.
'No, Dixon!' said Margaret with decision. 'I will go. Mary, you shall see me this afternoon.' And for fear of her own cowardice, she went away, in order to take from herself any chance of changing her determination.
COMFORT IN SORROW
'Through cross to crown!—And though thy spirit's life
Trials untold assail with giant strength,
Good cheer! good cheer! Soon ends the bitter strife,
And thou shalt reign in peace with Christ at length.'
'Ay sooth, we feel too strong in weal, to need Thee on that road;
But woe being come, the soul is dumb, that crieth not on "God."'
That afternoon she walked swiftly to the Higgins's house. Mary was looking out for her, with a half-distrustful face. Margaret smiled into her eyes to re-assure her. They passed quickly through the house-place, upstairs, and into the quiet presence of the dead. Then Margaret was glad that she had come. The face, often so weary with pain, so restless with troublous thoughts, had now the faint soft smile of eternal rest upon it. The slow tears gathered into Margaret's eyes, but a deep calm entered into her soul. And that was death! It looked more peaceful than life. All beautiful scriptures came into her mind. 'They rest from their labours.' 'The weary are at rest.' 'He giveth His beloved sleep.'
Slowly, slowly Margaret turned away from the bed. Mary was humbly sobbing in the back-ground. They went down stairs without a word.
Resting his hand upon the house-table, Nicholas Higgins stood in the midst of the floor; his great eyes startled open by the news he had heard, as he came along the court, from many busy tongues. His eyes were dry and fierce; studying the reality of her death; bringing himself to understand that her place should know her no more. For she had been sickly, dying so long, that he had persuaded himself she would not die; that she would 'pull through.'
Margaret felt as if she had no business to be there, familiarly acquainting herself with the surroundings of death which he, the father, had only just learnt. There had been a pause of an instant on the steep crooked stair, when she first saw him; but now she tried to steal past his abstracted gaze, and to leave him in the solemn circle of his household misery.
Mary sat down on the first chair she came to, and throwing her apron over her head, began to cry.
The noise appeared to rouse him. He took sudden hold of Margaret's arm, and held her till he could gather words to speak seemed dry; they came up thick, and choked, and hoarse:
'Were yo' with her? Did yo' see her die?'
'No!' replied Margaret, standing still with the utmost patience, now she found herself perceived. It was some time before he spoke again, but he kept his hold on her arm.
'All men must die,' said he at last, with a strange sort of gravity, which first suggested to Margaret the idea that he had been drinking—not enough to intoxicate himself, but enough to make his thoughts bewildered. 'But she were younger than me.' Still he pondered over the event, not looking at Margaret, though he grasped her tight. Suddenly, he looked up at her with a wild searching inquiry in his glance. 'Yo're sure and certain she's dead—not in a dwam, a faint?—she's been so before, often.'
'She is dead,' replied Margaret. She felt no fear in speaking to him, though he hurt her arm with his gripe, and wild gleams came across the stupidity of his eyes.
'She is dead!' she said.
He looked at her still with that searching look, which seemed to fade out of his eyes as he gazed. Then he suddenly let go his hold of Margaret, and, throwing his body half across the table, he shook it and every piece of furniture in the room, with his violent sobs. Mary came trembling towards him.
'Get thee gone!—get thee gone!' he cried, striking wildly and blindly at her. 'What do I care for thee?' Margaret took her hand, and held it softly in hers. He tore his hair, he beat his head against the hard wood, then he lay exhausted and stupid. Still his daughter and Margaret did not move. Mary trembled from head to foot.
At last—it might have been a quarter of an hour, it might have been an hour—he lifted himself up. His eyes were swollen and bloodshot, and he seemed to have forgotten that any one was by; he scowled at the watchers when he saw them. He Shook himself heavily, gave them one more sullen look, spoke never a word, but made for the door.
'Oh, father, father!' said Mary, throwing herself upon his arm,—'not to-night! Any night but to-night. Oh, help me! he's going out to drink again! Father, I'll not leave yo'. Yo' may strike, but I'll not leave yo'. She told me last of all to keep yo' fro' drink!'
But Margaret stood in the doorway, silent yet commanding. He looked up at her defyingly.
'It's my own house. Stand out o' the way, wench, or I'll make yo'!' He had shaken off Mary with violence; he looked ready to strike Margaret. But she never moved a feature—never took her deep, serious eyes off him. He stared back on her with gloomy fierceness. If she had stirred hand or foot, he would have thrust her aside with even more violence than he had used to his own daughter, whose face was bleeding from her fall against a chair.
'What are yo' looking at me in that way for?' asked he at last, daunted and awed by her severe calm. 'If yo' think for to keep me from going what gait I choose, because she loved yo'—and in my own house, too, where I never asked yo' to come, yo're mista'en. It's very hard upon a man that he can't go to the only comfort left.'
Margaret felt that he acknowledged her power. What could she do next? He had seated himself on a chair, close to the door; half-conquered, half-resenting; intending to go out as soon as she left her position, but unwilling to use the violence he had threatened not five minutes before. Margaret laid her hand on his arm.
'Come with me,' she said. 'Come and see her!'
The voice in which she spoke was very low and solemn; but there was no fear or doubt expressed in it, either of him or of his compliance. He sullenly rose up. He stood uncertain, with dogged irresolution upon his face. She waited him there; quietly and patiently waited for his time to move. He had a strange pleasure in making her wait; but at last he moved towards the stairs.
She and he stood by the corpse.
'Her last words to Mary were, "Keep my father fro' drink."'
'It canna hurt her now,' muttered he. 'Nought can hurt her now.' Then, raising his voice to a wailing cry, he went on: 'We may quarrel and fall out—we may make peace and be friends—we may clem to skin and bone—and nought o' all our griefs will ever touch her more. Hoo's had her portion on 'em. What wi' hard work first, and sickness at last, hoo's led the life of a dog. And to die without knowing one good piece o' rejoicing in all her days! Nay, wench, whatever hoo said, hoo can know nought about it now, and I mun ha' a sup o' drink just to steady me again sorrow.'
'No,' said Margaret, softening with his softened manner. 'You shall not. If her life has been what you say, at any rate she did not fear death as some do. Oh, you should have heard her speak of the life to come—the life hidden with God, that she is now gone to.'
He shook his head, glancing sideways up at Margaret as he did so.
His pale, haggard face struck her painfully.
'You are sorely tired. Where have you been all day—not at work?'
'Not at work, sure enough,' said he, with a short, grim laugh. 'Not at what you call work. I were at the Committee, till I were sickened out wi' trying to make fools hear reason. I were fetched to Boucher's wife afore seven this morning. She's bed-fast, but she were raving and raging to know where her dunder-headed brute of a chap was, as if I'd to keep him—as if he were fit to be ruled by me. The d——d fool, who has put his foot in all our plans! And I've walked my feet sore wi' going about for to see men who wouldn't be seen, now the law is raised again us. And I were sore-hearted, too, which is worse than sore-footed; and if I did see a friend who ossed to treat me, I never knew hoo lay a-dying here. Bess, lass, thou'd believe me, thou wouldst—wouldstn't thou?' turning to the poor dumb form with wild appeal.
'I am sure,' said Margaret, 'I am sure you did not know: it was quite sudden. But now, you see, it would be different; you do know; you do see her lying there; you hear what she said with her last breath. You will not go?'
No answer. In fact, where was he to look for comfort?
'Come home with me,' said she at last, with a bold venture, half trembling at her own proposal as she made it. 'At least you shall have some comfortable food, which I'm sure you need.'
'Yo'r father's a parson?' asked he, with a sudden turn in his ideas.
'He was,' said Margaret, shortly.
'I'll go and take a dish o' tea with him, since yo've asked me. I've many a thing I often wished to say to a parson, and I'm not particular as to whether he's preaching now, or not.'
Margaret was perplexed; his drinking tea with her father, who would be totally unprepared for his visitor—her mother so ill—seemed utterly out of the question; and yet if she drew back now, it would be worse than ever—sure to drive him to the gin-shop. She thought that if she could only get him to their own house, it was so great a step gained that she would trust to the chapter of accidents for the next.
'Goodbye, ou'd wench! We've parted company at last, we have! But thou'st been a blessin' to thy father ever sin' thou wert born. Bless thy white lips, lass,—they've a smile on 'em now! and I'm glad to see it once again, though I'm lone and forlorn for evermore.'
He stooped down and fondly kissed his daughter; covered up her face, and turned to follow Margaret. She had hastily gone down stairs to tell Mary of the arrangement; to say it was the only way she could think of to keep him from the gin-palace; to urge Mary to come too, for her heart smote her at the idea of leaving the poor affectionate girl alone. But Mary had friends among the neighbours, she said, who would come in and sit a bit with her, it was all right; but father—
He was there by them as she would have spoken more. He had shaken off his emotion, as if he was ashamed of having ever given way to it; and had even o'erleaped himself so much that he assumed a sort of bitter mirth, like the crackling of thorns under a pot.
'I'm going to take my tea wi' her father, I am!'
But he slouched his cap low down over his brow as he went out into the street, and looked neither to the right nor to the left, while he tramped along by Margaret's side; he feared being upset by the words, still more the looks, of sympathising neighbours. So he and Margaret walked in silence.
As he got near the street in which he knew she lived, he looked down at his clothes, his hands, and shoes.
'I should m'appen ha' cleaned mysel', first?'
It certainly would have been desirable, but Margaret assured him he should be allowed to go into the yard, and have soap and towel provided; she could not let him slip out of her hands just then.
While he followed the house-servant along the passage, and through the kitchen, stepping cautiously on every dark mark in the pattern of the oil-cloth, in order to conceal his dirty foot-prints, Margaret ran upstairs. She met Dixon on the landing.
'How is mamma?—where is papa?'
Missus was tired, and gone into her own room. She had wanted to go to bed, but Dixon had persuaded her to lie down on the sofa, and have her tea brought to her there; it would be better than getting restless by being too long in bed.
So far, so good. But where was Mr. Hale? In the drawing-room. Margaret went in half breathless with the hurried story she had to tell. Of course, she told it incompletely; and her father was rather 'taken aback' by the idea of the drunken weaver awaiting him in his quiet study, with whom he was expected to drink tea, and on whose behalf Margaret was anxiously pleading. The meek, kind-hearted Mr. Hale would have readily tried to console him in his grief, but, unluckily, the point Margaret dwelt upon most forcibly was the fact of his having been drinking, and her having brought him home with her as a last expedient to keep him from the gin-shop. One little event had come out of another so naturally that Margaret was hardly conscious of what she had done, till she saw the slight look of repugnance on her father's face.
'Oh, papa! he really is a man you will not dislike—if you won't be shocked to begin with.'
'But, Margaret, to bring a drunken man home—and your mother so ill!'
Margaret's countenance fell. 'I am sorry, papa. He is very quiet—he is not tipsy at all. He was only rather strange at first, but that might be the shock of poor Bessy's death.' Margaret's eyes filled with tears. Mr. Hale took hold of her sweet pleading face in both his hands, and kissed her forehead.
'It is all right, dear. I'll go and make him as comfortable as I can, and do you attend to your mother. Only, if you can come in and make a third in the study, I shall be glad.'
'Oh, yes—thank you.' But as Mr. Hale was leaving the room, she ran after him:
'Papa—you must not wonder at what he says: he's an——I mean he does not believe in much of what we do.'
'Oh dear! a drunken infidel weaver!' said Mr. Hale to himself, in dismay. But to Margaret he only said, 'If your mother goes to sleep, be sure you come directly.'
Margaret went into her mother's room. Mrs. Hale lifted herself up from a doze.
'When did you write to Frederick, Margaret? Yesterday, or the day before?'
'Yesterday. And the letter went?'
'Yes. I took it myself'
'Oh, Margaret, I'm so afraid of his coming! If he should be recognised! If he should be taken! If he should be executed, after all these years that he has kept away and lived in safety! I keep falling asleep and dreaming that he is caught and being tried.'
'Oh, mamma, don't be afraid. There will be some risk no doubt; but we will lessen it as much as ever we can. And it is so little! Now, if we were at Helstone, there would be twenty—a hundred times as much. There, everybody would remember him and if there was a stranger known to be in the house, they would be sure to guess it was Frederick; while here, nobody knows or cares for us enough to notice what we do. Dixon will keep the door like a dragon—won't you, Dixon—while he is here?'
'They'll be clever if they come in past me!' said Dixon, showing her teeth at the bare idea.
'And he need not go out, except in the dusk, poor fellow!'
'Poor fellow!' echoed Mrs. Hale. 'But I almost wish you had not written. Would it be too late to stop him if you wrote again, Margaret?'
'I'm afraid it would, mamma,' said Margaret, remembering the urgency with which she had entreated him to come directly, if he wished to see his mother alive.
'I always dislike that doing things in such a hurry,' said Mrs.
Margaret was silent.
'Come now, ma am,' said Dixon, with a kind of cheerful authority, 'you know seeing Master Frederick is just the very thing of all others you're longing for. And I'm glad Miss Margaret wrote off straight, without shilly-shallying. I've had a great mind to do it myself. And we'll keep him snug, depend upon it. There's only Martha in the house that would not do a good deal to save him on a pinch; and I've been thinking she might go and see her mother just at that very time. She's been saying once or twice she should like to go, for her mother has had a stroke since she came here, only she didn't like to ask. But I'll see about her being safe off, as soon as we know when he comes, God bless him! So take your tea, ma'am, in comfort, and trust to me.'
Mrs. Hale did trust in Dixon more than in Margaret. Dixon's words quieted her for the time. Margaret poured out the tea in silence, trying to think of something agreeable to say; but her thoughts made answer something like Daniel O'Rourke, when the man-in-the-moon asked him to get off his reaping-hook. 'The more you ax us, the more we won't stir.' The more she tried to think of something anything besides the danger to which Frederick would be exposed—the more closely her imagination clung to the unfortunate idea presented to her. Her mother prattled with Dixon, and seemed to have utterly forgotten the possibility of Frederick being tried and executed—utterly forgotten that at her wish, if by Margaret's deed, he was summoned into this danger. Her mother was one of those who throw out terrible possibilities, miserable probabilities, unfortunate chances of all kinds, as a rocket throws out sparks; but if the sparks light on some combustible matter, they smoulder first, and burst out into a frightful flame at last. Margaret was glad when, her filial duties gently and carefully performed, she could go down into the study. She wondered how her father and Higgins had got on.
In the first place, the decorous, kind-hearted, simple, old-fashioned gentleman, had unconsciously called out, by his own refinement and courteousness of manner, all the latent courtesy in the other.
Mr. Hale treated all his fellow-creatures alike: it never entered into his head to make any difference because of their rank. He placed a chair for Nicholas stood up till he, at Mr. Hale's request, took a seat; and called him, invariably, 'Mr. Higgins,' instead of the curt 'Nicholas' or 'Higgins,' to which the 'drunken infidel weaver' had been accustomed. But Nicholas was neither an habitual drunkard nor a thorough infidel. He drank to drown care, as he would have himself expressed it: and he was infidel so far as he had never yet found any form of faith to which he could attach himself, heart and soul.
Margaret was a little surprised, and very much pleased, when she found her father and Higgins in earnest conversation—each speaking with gentle politeness to the other, however their opinions might clash. Nicholas—clean, tidied (if only at the pump-trough), and quiet spoken—was a new creature to her, who had only seen him in the rough independence of his own hearthstone. He had 'slicked' his hair down with the fresh water; he had adjusted his neck-handkerchief, and borrowed an odd candle-end to polish his clogs with and there he sat, enforcing some opinion on her father, with a strong Darkshire accent, it is true, but with a lowered voice, and a good, earnest composure on his face. Her father, too, was interested in what his companion was saying. He looked round as she came in, smiled, and quietly gave her his chair, and then sat down afresh as quickly as possible, and with a little bow of apology to his guest for the interruption. Higgins nodded to her as a sign of greeting; and she softly adjusted her working materials on the table, and prepared to listen.
'As I was a-sayin, sir, I reckon yo'd not ha' much belief in yo' if yo' lived here,—if yo'd been bred here. I ax your pardon if I use wrong words; but what I mean by belief just now, is a-thinking on sayings and maxims and promises made by folk yo' never saw, about the things and the life, yo' never saw, nor no one else. Now, yo' say these are true things, and true sayings, and a true life. I just say, where's the proof? There's many and many a one wiser, and scores better learned than I am around me,—folk who've had time to think on these things,—while my time has had to be gi'en up to getting my bread. Well, I sees these people. Their lives is pretty much open to me. They're real folk. They don't believe i' the Bible,—not they. They may say they do, for form's sake; but Lord, sir, d'ye think their first cry i' th' morning is, "What shall I do to get hold on eternal life?" or "What shall I do to fill my purse this blessed day? Where shall I go? What bargains shall I strike?" The purse and the gold and the notes is real things; things as can be felt and touched; them's realities; and eternal life is all a talk, very fit for—I ax your pardon, sir; yo'r a parson out o' work, I believe. Well! I'll never speak disrespectful of a man in the same fix as I'm in mysel'. But I'll just ax yo another question, sir, and I dunnot want yo to answer it, only to put in yo'r pipe, and smoke it, afore yo' go for to set down us, who only believe in what we see, as fools and noddies. If salvation, and life to come, and what not, was true—not in men's words, but in men's hearts' core—dun yo' not think they'd din us wi' it as they do wi' political 'conomy? They're mighty anxious to come round us wi' that piece o' wisdom; but t'other would be a greater convarsion, if it were true.'
'But the masters have nothing to do with your religion. All that they are connected with you in is trade,—so they think,—and all that it concerns them, therefore, to rectify your opinions in is the science of trade.'
'I'm glad, sir,' said Higgins, with a curious wink of his eye, 'that yo' put in, "so they think." I'd ha' thought yo' a hypocrite, I'm afeard, if yo' hadn't, for all yo'r a parson, or rayther because yo'r a parson. Yo' see, if yo'd spoken o' religion as a thing that, if it was true, it didn't concern all men to press on all men's attention, above everything else in this 'varsal earth, I should ha' thought yo' a knave for to be a parson; and I'd rather think yo' a fool than a knave. No offence, I hope, sir.'
'None at all. You consider me mistaken, and I consider you far more fatally mistaken. I don't expect to convince you in a day,—not in one conversation; but let us know each other, and speak freely to each other about these things, and the truth will prevail. I should not believe in God if I did not believe that. Mr. Higgins, I trust, whatever else you have given up, you believe'—(Mr. Hale's voice dropped low in reverence)—'you believe in Him.'
Nicholas Higgins suddenly stood straight, stiff up. Margaret started to her feet,—for she thought, by the working of his face, he was going into convulsions. Mr. Hale looked at her dismayed. At last Higgins found words:
'Man! I could fell yo' to the ground for tempting me. Whatten business have yo' to try me wi' your doubts? Think o' her lying theere, after the life hoo's led and think then how yo'd deny me the one sole comfort left—that there is a God, and that He set her her life. I dunnot believe she'll ever live again,' said he, sitting down, and drearily going on, as if to the unsympathising fire. 'I dunnot believe in any other life than this, in which she dreed such trouble, and had such never-ending care; and I cannot bear to think it were all a set o' chances, that might ha' been altered wi' a breath o' wind. There's many a time when I've thought I didna believe in God, but I've never put it fair out before me in words, as many men do. I may ha' laughed at those who did, to brave it out like—but I have looked round at after, to see if He heard me, if so be there was a He; but to-day, when I'm left desolate, I wunnot listen to yo' wi' yo'r questions, and yo'r doubts. There's but one thing steady and quiet i' all this reeling world, and, reason or no reason, I'll cling to that. It's a' very well for happy folk'——
Margaret touched his arm very softly. She had not spoken before, nor had he heard her rise.
'Nicholas, we do not want to reason; you misunderstand my father. We do not reason—we believe; and so do you. It is the one sole comfort in such times.'
He turned round and caught her hand. 'Ay! it is, it is—(brushing away the tears with the back of his hand).—'But yo' know, she's lying dead at home and I'm welly dazed wi' sorrow, and at times I hardly know what I'm saying. It's as if speeches folk ha' made—clever and smart things as I've thought at the time—come up now my heart's welly brossen. Th' strike's failed as well; dun yo' know that, miss? I were coming whoam to ask her, like a beggar as I am, for a bit o' comfort i' that trouble; and I were knocked down by one who telled me she were dead—just dead That were all; but that were enough for me.
Mr. Hale blew his nose, and got up to snuff the candles in order to conceal his emotion. 'He's not an infidel, Margaret; how could you say so?' muttered he reproachfully 'I've a good mind to read him the fourteenth chapter of Job.'
'Not yet, papa, I think. Perhaps not at all. Let us ask him about the strike, and give him all the sympathy he needs, and hoped to have from poor Bessy.'
So they questioned and listened. The workmen's calculations were based (like too many of the masters') on false premises. They reckoned on their fellow-men as if they possessed the calculable powers of machines, no more, no less; no allowance for human passions getting the better of reason, as in the case of Boucher and the rioters; and believing that the representations of their injuries would have the same effect on strangers far away, as the injuries (fancied or real) had upon themselves. They were consequently surprised and indignant at the poor Irish, who had allowed themselves to be imported and brought over to take their places. This indignation was tempered, in some degree, by contempt for 'them Irishers,' and by pleasure at the idea of the bungling way in which they would set to work, and perplex their new masters with their ignorance and stupidity, strange exaggerated stories of which were already spreading through the town. But the most cruel cut of all was that of the Milton workmen, who had defied and disobeyed the commands of the Union to keep the peace, whatever came; who had originated discord in the camp, and spread the panic of the law being arrayed against them.
'And so the strike is at an end,' said Margaret.
'Ay, miss. It's save as save can. Th' factory doors will need open wide to-morrow to let in all who'll be axing for work; if it's only just to show they'd nought to do wi' a measure, which if we'd been made o' th' right stuff would ha' brought wages up to a point they'n not been at this ten year.'
'You'll get work, shan't you?' asked Margaret. 'You're a famous workman, are not you?'
'Hamper'll let me work at his mill, when he cuts off his right hand—not before, and not after,' said Nicholas, quietly. Margaret was silenced and sad.
'About the wages,' said Mr. Hale. 'You'll not be offended, but I think you make some sad mistakes. I should like to read you some remarks in a book I have.' He got up and went to his book-shelves.
'Yo' needn't trouble yoursel', sir,' said Nicholas. 'Their book-stuff goes in at one ear and out at t'other. I can make nought on't. Afore Hamper and me had this split, th' overlooker telled him I were stirring up the men to ask for higher wages; and Hamper met me one day in th' yard. He'd a thin book i' his hand, and says he, "Higgins, I'm told you're one of those damned fools that think you can get higher wages for asking for 'em; ay, and keep 'em up too, when you've forced 'em up. Now, I'll give yo' a chance and try if yo've any sense in yo'. Here's a book written by a friend o' mine, and if yo'll read it yo'll see how wages find their own level, without either masters or men having aught to do with them; except the men cut their own throats wi' striking, like the confounded noodles they are." Well, now, sir, I put it to yo', being a parson, and having been in th' preaching line, and having had to try and bring folk o'er to what yo' thought was a right way o' thinking—did yo' begin by calling 'em fools and such like, or didn't yo' rayther give 'em some kind words at first, to make 'em ready for to listen and be convinced, if they could; and in yo'r preaching, did yo' stop every now and then, and say, half to them and half to yo'rsel', "But yo're such a pack o' fools, that I've a strong notion it's no use my trying to put sense into yo'?" I were not i' th' best state, I'll own, for taking in what Hamper's friend had to say—I were so vexed at the way it were put to me;—but I thought, "Come, I'll see what these chaps has got to say, and try if it's them or me as is th' noodle." So I took th' book and tugged at it; but, Lord bless yo', it went on about capital and labour, and labour and capital, till it fair sent me off to sleep. I ne'er could rightly fix i' my mind which was which; and it spoke on 'em as if they was vartues or vices; and what I wanted for to know were the rights o' men, whether they were rich or poor—so be they only were men.'
'But for all that,' said Mr. Hale, 'and granting to the full the offensiveness, the folly, the unchristianness of Mr. Hamper's way of speaking to you in recommending his friend's book, yet if it told you what he said it did, that wages find their own level, and that the most successful strike can only force them up for a moment, to sink in far greater proportion afterwards, in consequence of that very strike, the book would have told you the truth.'
'Well, sir,' said Higgins, rather doggedly; 'it might, or it might not. There's two opinions go to settling that point. But suppose it was truth double strong, it were no truth to me if I couldna take it in. I daresay there's truth in yon Latin book on your shelves; but it's gibberish and not truth to me, unless I know the meaning o' the words. If yo', sir, or any other knowledgable, patient man come to me, and says he'll larn me what the words mean, and not blow me up if I'm a bit stupid, or forget how one thing hangs on another—why, in time I may get to see the truth of it; or I may not. I'll not be bound to say I shall end in thinking the same as any man. And I'm not one who think truth can be shaped out in words, all neat and clean, as th' men at th' foundry cut out sheet-iron. Same bones won't go down wi' every one. It'll stick here i' this man's throat, and there i' t'other's. Let alone that, when down, it may be too strong for this one, too weak for that. Folk who sets up to doctor th' world wi' their truth, mun suit different for different minds; and be a bit tender in th' way of giving it too, or th' poor sick fools may spit it out i' their faces. Now Hamper first gi'es me a box on my ear, and then he throws his big bolus at me, and says he reckons it'll do me no good, I'm such a fool, but there it is.'
'I wish some of the kindest and wisest of the masters would meet some of you men, and have a good talk on these things; it would, surely, be the best way of getting over your difficulties, which, I do believe, arise from your ignorance—excuse me, Mr. Higgins—on subjects which it is for the mutual interest of both masters and men should be well understood by both. I wonder'—(half to his daughter), 'if Mr. Thornton might not be induced to do such a thing?'
'Remember, papa,' said she in a very low voice, 'what he said one day—about governments, you know.' She was unwilling to make any clearer allusion to the conversation they had held on the mode of governing work-people—by giving men intelligence enough to rule themselves, or by a wise despotism on the part of the master—for she saw that Higgins had caught Mr. Thornton s name, if not the whole of the speech: indeed, he began to speak of him.
'Thornton! He's the chap as wrote off at once for these Irishers; and led to th' riot that ruined th' strike. Even Hamper wi' all his bullying, would ha' waited a while—but it's a word and a blow wi' Thornton. And, now, when th' Union would ha' thanked him for following up th' chase after Boucher, and them chaps as went right again our commands, it's Thornton who steps forrard and coolly says that, as th' strike's at an end, he, as party injured, doesn't want to press the charge again the rioters. I thought he'd had more pluck. I thought he'd ha' carried his point, and had his revenge in an open way; but says he (one in court telled me his very words) "they are well known; they will find the natural punishment of their conduct, in the difficulty they will meet wi' in getting employment. That will be severe enough." I only wish they'd cotched Boucher, and had him up before Hamper. I see th' oud tiger setting on him! would he ha' let him off? Not he!'
'Mr. Thornton was right,' said Margaret. You are angry against Boucher, Nicholas; or else you would be the first to see, that where the natural punishment would be severe enough for the offence, any farther punishment would be something like revenge.
'My daughter is no great friend of Mr. Thornton's,' said Mr. Hale, smiling at Margaret; while she, as red as any carnation, began to work with double diligence, 'but I believe what she says is the truth. I like him for it.'
'Well, sir, this strike has been a weary piece o' business to me; and yo'll not wonder if I'm a bit put out wi' seeing it fail, just for a few men who would na suffer in silence, and hou'd out, brave and firm.'
'You forget!' said Margaret. 'I don't know much of Boucher; but the only time I saw him it was not his own sufferings he spoke of, but those of his sick wife—his little children.'
'True! but he were not made of iron himsel'. He'd ha' cried out for his own sorrows, next. He were not one to bear.'
'How came he into the Union?' asked Margaret innocently. 'You don't seem to have much respect for him; nor gained much good from having him in.'
Higgins's brow clouded. He was silent for a minute or two. Then he said, shortly enough:
'It's not for me to speak o' th' Union. What they does, they does. Them that is of a trade mun hang together; and if they're not willing to take their chance along wi' th' rest, th' Union has ways and means.'
Mr. Hale saw that Higgins was vexed at the turn the conversation had taken, and was silent. Not so Margaret, though she saw Higgins's feeling as clearly as he did. By instinct she felt, that if he could but be brought to express himself in plain words, something clear would be gained on which to argue for the right and the just.
'And what are the Union's ways and means?'
He looked up at her, as if on' the point of dogged resistance to her wish for information. But her calm face, fixed on his, patient and trustful, compelled him to answer.
'Well! If a man doesn't belong to th' Union, them as works next looms has orders not to speak to him—if he's sorry or ill it's a' the same; he's out o' bounds; he's none o' us; he comes among us, he works among us, but he's none o' us. I' some places them's fined who speaks to him. Yo' try that, miss; try living a year or two among them as looks away if yo' look at 'em; try working within two yards o' crowds o' men, who, yo' know, have a grinding grudge at yo' in their hearts—to whom if yo' say yo'r glad, not an eye brightens, nor a lip moves,—to whom if your heart's heavy, yo' can never say nought, because they'll ne'er take notice on your sighs or sad looks (and a man 's no man who'll groan out loud 'bout folk asking him what 's the matter?)—just yo' try that, miss—ten hours for three hundred days, and yo'll know a bit what th' Union is.'
'Why!' said Margaret, 'what tyranny this is! Nay, Higgins, I don't care one straw for your anger. I know you can't be angry with me if you would, and I must tell you the truth: that I never read, in all the history I have read, of a more slow, lingering torture than this. And you belong to the Union! And you talk of the tyranny of the masters!'
'Nay,' said Higgins, 'yo' may say what yo' like! The dead stand between yo and every angry word o' mine. D' ye think I forget who's lying there, and how hoo loved yo'? And it's th' masters as has made us sin, if th' Union is a sin. Not this generation maybe, but their fathers. Their fathers ground our fathers to the very dust; ground us to powder! Parson! I reckon, I've heerd my mother read out a text, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes and th' children's teeth are set on edge." It's so wi' them. In those days of sore oppression th' Unions began; it were a necessity. It's a necessity now, according to me. It's a withstanding of injustice, past, present, or to come. It may be like war; along wi' it come crimes; but I think it were a greater crime to let it alone. Our only chance is binding men together in one common interest; and if some are cowards and some are fools, they mun come along and join the great march, whose only strength is in numbers.'
'Oh!' said Mr. Hale, sighing, 'your Union in itself would be beautiful, glorious,—it would be Christianity itself—if it were but for an end which affected the good of all, instead of that of merely one class as opposed to another.'
'I reckon it's time for me to be going, sir,' said Higgins, as the clock struck ten.
'Home?' said Margaret very softly. He understood her, and took her offered hand. 'Home, miss. Yo' may trust me, tho' I am one o' th' Union.'
'I do trust you most thoroughly, Nicholas.'
'Stay!' said Mr. Hale, hurrying to the book-shelves. 'Mr.
Higgins! I'm sure you'll join us in family prayer?'
Higgins looked at Margaret, doubtfully. Hey grave sweet eyes met his; there was no compulsion, only deep interest in them. He did not speak, but he kept his place.
Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the
Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm.
A RAY OF SUNSHINE
'Some wishes crossed my mind and dimly cheered it,
And one or two poor melancholy pleasures,
Each in the pale unwarming light of hope,
Silvering its flimsy wing, flew silent by—
Moths in the moonbeam!'
The next morning brought Margaret a letter from Edith. It was affectionate and inconsequent like the writer. But the affection was charming to Margaret's own affectionate nature; and she had grown up with the inconsequence, so she did not perceive it. It was as follows:—
'Oh, Margaret, it is worth a journey from England to see my boy! He is a superb little fellow, especially in his caps, and most especially in the one you sent him, you good, dainty-fingered, persevering little lady! Having made all the mothers here envious, I want to show him to somebody new, and hear a fresh set of admiring expressions; perhaps, that's all the reason; perhaps it is not—nay, possibly, there is just a little cousinly love mixed with it; but I do want you so much to come here, Margaret! I'm sure it would be the very best thing for Aunt Hale's health; everybody here is young and well, and our skies are always blue, and our sun always shines, and the band plays deliciously from morning till night; and, to come back to the burden of my ditty, my baby always smiles. I am constantly wanting you to draw him for me, Margaret. It does not signify what he is doing; that very thing is prettiest, gracefulest, best. I think I love him a great deal better than my husband, who is getting stout, and grumpy,—what he calls "busy." No! he is not. He has just come in with news of such a charming pic-nic, given by the officers of the Hazard, at anchor in the bay below. Because he has brought in such a pleasant piece of news, I retract all I said just now. Did not somebody burn his hand for having said or done something he was sorry for? Well, I can't burn mine, because it would hurt me, and the scar would be ugly; but I'll retract all I said as fast as I can. Cosmo is quite as great a darling as baby, and not a bit stout, and as un-grumpy as ever husband was; only, sometimes he is very, very busy. I may say that without love—wifely duty—where was I?—I had something very particular to say, I know, once. Oh, it is this—Dearest Margaret!—you must come and see me; it would do Aunt Hale good, as I said before. Get the doctor to order it for her. Tell him that it's the smoke of Milton that does her harm. I have no doubt it is that, really. Three months (you must not come for less) of this delicious climate—all sunshine, and grapes as common as blackberries, would quite cure her. I don't ask my uncle'—(Here the letter became more constrained, and better written; Mr. Hale was in the corner, like a naughty child, for having given up his living.)—'because, I dare say, he disapproves of war, and soldiers, and bands of music; at least, I know that many Dissenters are members of the Peace Society, and I am afraid he would not like to come; but, if he would, dear, pray say that Cosmo and I will do our best to make him happy; and I'll hide up Cosmo's red coat and sword, and make the band play all sorts of grave, solemn things; or, if they do play pomps and vanities, it shall be in double slow time. Dear Margaret, if he would like to accompany you and Aunt Hale, we will try and make it pleasant, though I'm rather afraid of any one who has done something for conscience sake. You never did, I hope. Tell Aunt Hale not to bring many warm clothes, though I'm afraid it will be late in the year before you can come. But you have no idea of the heat here! I tried to wear my great beauty Indian shawl at a pic-nic. I kept myself up with proverbs as long as I could; "Pride must abide,"—and such wholesome pieces of pith; but it was of no use. I was like mamma's little dog Tiny with an elephant's trappings on; smothered, hidden, killed with my finery; so I made it into a capital carpet for us all to sit down upon. Here's this boy of mine, Margaret,—if you don't pack up your things as soon as you get this letter, a come straight off to see him, I shall think you're descended from King Herod!'
Margaret did long for a day of Edith's life—her freedom from care, her cheerful home, her sunny skies. If a wish could have transported her, she would have gone off; just for one day. She yearned for the strength which such a change would give,—even for a few hours to be in the midst of that bright life, and to feel young again. Not yet twenty! and she had had to bear up against such hard pressure that she felt quite old. That was her first feeling after reading Edith's letter. Then she read it again, and, forgetting herself, was amused at its likeness to Edith's self, and was laughing merrily over it when Mrs. Hale came into the drawing-room, leaning on Dixon's arm. Margaret flew to adjust the pillows. Her mother seemed more than usually feeble.
'What were you laughing at, Margaret?' asked she, as soon as she had recovered from the exertion of settling herself on the sofa.
'A letter I have had this morning from Edith. Shall I read it you, mamma?'
She read it aloud, and for a time it seemed to interest her mother, who kept wondering what name Edith had given to her boy, and suggesting all probable names, and all possible reasons why each and all of these names should be given. Into the very midst of these wonders Mr. Thornton came, bringing another offering of fruit for Mrs. Hale. He could not—say rather, he would not—deny himself the chance of the pleasure of seeing Margaret. He had no end in this but the present gratification. It was the sturdy wilfulness of a man usually most reasonable and self-controlled. He entered the room, taking in at a glance the fact of Margaret's presence; but after the first cold distant bow, he never seemed to let his eyes fall on her again. He only stayed to present his peaches—to speak some gentle kindly words—and then his cold offended eyes met Margaret's with a grave farewell, as he left the room. She sat down silent and pale.
'Do you know, Margaret, I really begin quite to like Mr.
No answer at first. Then Margaret forced out an icy 'Do you?'
'Yes! I think he is really getting quite polished in his manners.'
Margaret's voice was more in order now. She replied,
'He is very kind and attentive,—there is no doubt of that.'
'I wonder Mrs. Thornton never calls. She must know I am ill, because of the water-bed.'
'I dare say, she hears how you are from her son.'
'Still, I should like to see her You have so few friends here,
Margaret felt what was in her mother's thoughts,—a tender craving to bespeak the kindness of some woman towards the daughter that might be so soon left motherless. But she could not speak.
'Do you think,' said Mrs. Hale, after a pause, 'that you could go and ask Mrs. Thornton to come and see me? Only once,—I don't want to be troublesome.'
'I will do anything, if you wish it, mamma,—but if—but when
'Ah, to be sure! we must keep our doors shut,—we must let no one in. I hardly know whether I dare wish him to come or not. Sometimes I think I would rather not. Sometimes I have such frightful dreams about him.'
'Oh, mamma! we'll take good care. I will put my arm in the bolt sooner than he should come to the slightest harm. Trust the care of him to me, mamma. I will watch over him like a lioness over her young.'
'When can we hear from him?'
'Not for a week yet, certainly,—perhaps more.'
'We must send Martha away in good time. It would never do to have her here when he comes, and then send her off in a hurry.'
'Dixon is sure to remind us of that. I was thinking that, if we wanted any help in the house while he is here, we could perhaps get Mary Higgins. She is very slack of work, and is a good girl, and would take pains to do her best, I am sure, and would sleep at home, and need never come upstairs, so as to know who is in the house.'
'As you please. As Dixon pleases. But, Margaret, don't get to use these horrid Milton words. "Slack of work:" it is a provincialism. What will your aunt Shaw say, if she hears you use it on her return?'
'Oh, mamma! don't try and make a bugbear of aunt Shaw' said Margaret, laughing. 'Edith picked up all sorts of military slang from Captain Lennox, and aunt Shaw never took any notice of it.'
'But yours is factory slang.'
'And if I live in a factory town, I must speak factory language when I want it. Why, mamma, I could astonish you with a great many words you never heard in your life. I don't believe you know what a knobstick is.'
'Not I, child. I only know it has a very vulgar sound and I don't want to hear you using it.'
'Very well, dearest mother, I won't. Only I shall have to use a whole explanatory sentence instead.'
'I don't like this Milton,' said Mrs. Hale. 'Edith is right enough in saying it's the smoke that has made me so ill.'
Margaret started up as her mother said this. Her father had just entered the room, and she was most anxious that the faint impression she had seen on his mind that the Milton air had injured her mother's health, should not be deepened,—should not receive any confirmation. She could not tell whether he had heard what Mrs. Hale had said or not; but she began speaking hurriedly of other things, unaware that Mr. Thornton was following him.
'Mamma is accusing me of having picked up a great deal of vulgarity since we came to Milton.'
The 'vulgarity' Margaret spoke of, referred purely to the use of local words, and the expression arose out of the conversation they had just been holding. But Mr. Thornton's brow darkened; and Margaret suddenly felt how her speech might be misunderstood by him; so, in the natural sweet desire to avoid giving unnecessary pain, she forced herself to go forwards with a little greeting, and continue what she was saying, addressing herself to him expressly.
'Now, Mr. Thornton, though "knobstick" has not a very pretty sound, is it not expressive? Could I do without it, in speaking of the thing it represents? If using local words is vulgar, I was very vulgar in the Forest,—was I not, mamma?'
It was unusual with Margaret to obtrude her own subject of conversation on others; but, in this case, she was so anxious to prevent Mr. Thornton from feeling annoyance at the words he had accidentally overheard, that it was not until she had done speaking that she coloured all over with consciousness, more especially as Mr. Thornton seemed hardly to understand the exact gist or bearing of what she was saying, but passed her by, with a cold reserve of ceremonious movement, to speak to Mrs. Hale.
The sight of him reminded her of the wish to see his mother, and commend Margaret to her care. Margaret, sitting in burning silence, vexed and ashamed of her difficulty in keeping her right place, and her calm unconsciousness of heart, when Mr. Thornton was by, heard her mother's slow entreaty that Mrs. Thornton would come and see her; see her soon; to-morrow, if it were possible. Mr. Thornton promised that she should—conversed a little, and then took his leave; and Margaret's movements and voice seemed at once released from some invisible chains. He never looked at her; and yet, the careful avoidance of his eyes betokened that in some way he knew exactly where, if they fell by chance, they would rest on her. If she spoke, he gave no sign of attention, and yet his next speech to any one else was modified by what she had said; sometimes there was an express answer to what she had remarked, but given to another person as though unsuggested by her. It was not the bad manners of ignorance it was the wilful bad manners arising from deep offence. It was wilful at the time, repented of afterwards. But no deep plan, no careful cunning could have stood him in such good stead. Margaret thought about him more than she had ever done before; not with any tinge of what is called love, but with regret that she had wounded him so deeply,—and with a gentle, patient striving to return to their former position of antagonistic friendship; for a friend's position was what she found that he had held in her regard, as well as in that of the rest of the family. There was a pretty humility in her behaviour to him, as if mutely apologising for the over-strong words which were the reaction from the deeds of the day of the riot.
But he resented those words bitterly. They rung in his ears; and he was proud of the sense of justice which made him go on in every kindness he could offer to her parents. He exulted in the power he showed in compelling himself to face her, whenever he could think of any action which might give her father or mother pleasure. He thought that he disliked seeing one who had mortified him so keenly; but he was mistaken. It was a stinging pleasure to be in the room with her, and feel her presence. But he was no great analyser of his own motives, and was mistaken as I have said.
HOME AT LAST
'The saddest birds a season find to sing.'
'Never to fold the robe o'er secret pain,
Never, weighed down by memory's clouds again,
To bow thy head! Thou art gone home!'
Mrs. Thornton came to see Mrs. Hale the next morning. She was much worse. One of those sudden changes—those great visible strides towards death, had been taken in the night, and her own family were startled by the gray sunken look her features had assumed in that one twelve hours of suffering. Mrs. Thornton—who had not seen her for weeks—was softened all at once. She had come because her son asked it from her as a personal favour, but with all the proud bitter feelings of her nature in arms against that family of which Margaret formed one. She doubted the reality of Mrs. Hale's illness; she doubted any want beyond a momentary fancy on that lady's part, which should take her out of her previously settled course of employment for the day. She told her son that she wished they had never come near the place; that he had never got acquainted with them; that there had been no such useless languages as Latin and Greek ever invented. He bore all this pretty silently; but when she had ended her invective against the dead languages, he quietly returned to the short, curt, decided expression of his wish that she should go and see Mrs. Hale at the time appointed, as most likely to be convenient to the invalid. Mrs. Thornton submitted with as bad a grace as she could to her son's desire, all the time liking him the better for having it; and exaggerating in her own mind the same notion that he had of extraordinary goodness on his part in so perseveringly keeping up with the Hales.
His goodness verging on weakness (as all the softer virtues did in her mind), and her own contempt for Mr. and Mrs. Hale, and positive dislike to Margaret, were the ideas which occupied Mrs. Thornton, till she was struck into nothingness before the dark shadow of the wings of the angel of death. There lay Mrs. Hale—a mother like herself—a much younger woman than she was,—on the bed from which there was no sign of hope that she might ever rise again No more variety of light and shade for her in that darkened room; no power of action, scarcely change of movement; faint alternations of whispered sound and studious silence; and yet that monotonous life seemed almost too much! When Mrs. Thornton, strong and prosperous with life, came in, Mrs. Hale lay still, although from the look on her face she was evidently conscious of who it was. But she did not even open her eyes for a minute or two. The heavy moisture of tears stood on the eye-lashes before she looked up, then with her hand groping feebly over the bed-clothes, for the touch of Mrs. Thornton's large firm fingers, she said, scarcely above her breath—Mrs. Thornton had to stoop from her erectness to listen,—
'Margaret—you have a daughter—my sister is in Italy. My child will be without a mother;—in a strange place,—if I die—will you'——
And her filmy wandering eyes fixed themselves with an intensity of wistfulness on Mrs. Thornton's face For a minute, there was no change in its rigidness; it was stern and unmoved;—nay, but that the eyes of the sick woman were growing dim with the slow-gathering tears, she might have seen a dark cloud cross the cold features. And it was no thought of her son, or of her living daughter Fanny, that stirred her heart at last; but a sudden remembrance, suggested by something in the arrangement of the room,—of a little daughter—dead in infancy—long years ago—that, like a sudden sunbeam, melted the icy crust, behind which there was a real tender woman.
'You wish me to be a friend to Miss Hale,' said Mrs. Thornton, in her measured voice, that would not soften with her heart, but came out distinct and clear.
Mrs. Hale, her eyes still fixed on Mrs. Thornton's face, pressed the hand that lay below hers on the coverlet. She could not speak. Mrs. Thornton sighed, 'I will be a true friend, if circumstances require it Not a tender friend. That I cannot be,'—('to her,' she was on the point of adding, but she relented at the sight of that poor, anxious face.)—'It is not my nature to show affection even where I feel it, nor do I volunteer advice in general. Still, at your request,—if it will be any comfort to you, I will promise you.' Then came a pause. Mrs. Thornton was too conscientious to promise what she did not mean to perform; and to perform any-thing in the way of kindness on behalf of Margaret, more disliked at this moment than ever, was difficult; almost impossible.
'I promise,' said she, with grave severity; which, after all, inspired the dying woman with faith as in something more stable than life itself,—flickering, flitting, wavering life! 'I promise that in any difficulty in which Miss Hale'——
'Call her Margaret!' gasped Mrs. Hale.
'In which she comes to me for help, I will help her with every power I have, as if she were my own daughter. I also promise that if ever I see her doing what I think is wrong'——
'But Margaret never does wrong—not wilfully wrong,' pleaded Mrs.
Hale. Mrs. Thornton went on as before; as if she had not heard:
'If ever I see her doing what I believe to be wrong—such wrong not touching me or mine, in which case I might be supposed to have an interested motive—I will tell her of it, faithfully and plainly, as I should wish my own daughter to be told.'
There was a long pause. Mrs. Hale felt that this promise did not include all; and yet it was much. It had reservations in it which she did not understand; but then she was weak, dizzy, and tired. Mrs. Thornton was reviewing all the probable cases in which she had pledged herself to act. She had a fierce pleasure in the idea of telling Margaret unwelcome truths, in the shape of performance of duty. Mrs. Hale began to speak:
'I thank you. I pray God to bless you. I shall never see you again in this world. But my last words are, I thank you for your promise of kindness to my child.'
'Not kindness!' testified Mrs. Thornton, ungraciously truthful to the last. But having eased her conscience by saying these words, she was not sorry that they were not heard. She pressed Mrs. Hale's soft languid hand; and rose up and went her way out of the house without seeing a creature.
During the time that Mrs. Thornton was having this interview with Mrs. Hale, Margaret and Dixon were laying their heads together, and consulting how they should keep Frederick's coming a profound secret to all out of the house. A letter from him might now be expected any day; and he would assuredly follow quickly on its heels. Martha must be sent away on her holiday; Dixon must keep stern guard on the front door, only admitting the few visitors that ever came to the house into Mr. Hale's room down-stairs—Mrs. Hale's extreme illness giving her a good excuse for this. If Mary Higgins was required as a help to Dixon in the kitchen she was to hear and see as little of Frederick as possible; and he was, if necessary to be spoken of to her under the name of Mr. Dickinson. But her sluggish and incurious nature was the greatest safeguard of all.
They resolved that Martha should leave them that very afternoon for this visit to her mother. Margaret wished that she had been sent away on the previous day, as she fancied it might be thought strange to give a servant a holiday when her mistress's state required so much attendance.
Poor Margaret! All that afternoon she had to act the part of a Roman daughter, and give strength out of her own scanty stock to her father. Mr. hale would hope, would not despair, between the attacks of his wife's malady; he buoyed himself up in every respite from her pain, and believed that it was the beginning of ultimate recovery. And so, when the paroxysms came on, each more severe than the last, they were fresh agonies, and greater disappointments to him. This afternoon, he sat in the drawing-room, unable to bear the solitude of his study, or to employ himself in any way. He buried his head in his arms, which lay folded on the table. Margaret's heart ached to see him; yet, as he did not speak, she did not like to volunteer any attempt at comfort. Martha was gone. Dixon sat with Mrs. Hale while she slept. The house was very still and quiet, and darkness came on, without any movement to procure candles. Margaret sat at the window, looking out at the lamps and the street, but seeing nothing,—only alive to her father's heavy sighs. She did not like to go down for lights, lest the tacit restraint of her presence being withdrawn, he might give way to more violent emotion, without her being at hand to comfort him. Yet she was just thinking that she ought to go and see after the well-doing of the kitchen fire, which there was nobody but herself to attend to when she heard the muffled door-ring with so violent a pull, that the wires jingled all through the house, though the positive sound was not great. She started up, passed her father, who had never moved at the veiled, dull sound,—returned, and kissed him tenderly. And still he never moved, nor took any notice of her fond embrace. Then she went down softly, through the dark, to the door. Dixon would have put the chain on before she opened it, but Margaret had not a thought of fear in her pre-occupied mind. A man's tall figure stood between her and the luminous street. He was looking away; but at the sound of the latch he turned quickly round.
'Is this Mr. Hale's?' said he, in a clear, full, delicate voice.
Margaret trembled all over; at first she did not answer. In a moment she sighed out,
'Frederick!' and stretched out both her hands to Catch his, and draw him in.
'Oh, Margaret!' said he, holding her off by her shoulders, after they had kissed each other, as if even in that darkness he could see her face, and read in its expression a quicker answer to his question than words could give,—
'My mother! is she alive?'
'Yes, she is alive, dear, dear brother! She—as ill as she can be she is; but alive! She is alive!'
'Thank God!' said he.
'Papa is utterly prostrate with this great grief.'
'You expect me, don't you?'
'No, we have had no letter.'
'Then I have come before it. But my mother knows I am coming?'
'Oh! we all knew you would come. But wait a little! Step in here. Give me your hand. What is this? Oh! your carpet-bag. Dixon has shut the shutters; but this is papa's study, and I can take you to a chair to rest yourself for a few minutes; while I go and tell him.'
She groped her way to the taper and the lucifer matches. She suddenly felt shy, when the little feeble light made them visible. All she could see was, that her brother's face was unusually dark in complexion, and she caught the stealthy look of a pair of remarkably long-cut blue eyes, that suddenly twinkled up with a droll consciousness of their mutual purpose of inspecting each other. But though the brother and sister had an instant of sympathy in their reciprocal glances, they did not exchange a word; only, Margaret felt sure that she should like her brother as a companion as much as she already loved him as a near relation. Her heart was wonderfully lighter as she went up-stairs; the sorrow was no less in reality, but it became less oppressive from having some one in precisely the same relation to it as that in which she stood. Not her father's desponding attitude had power to damp her now. He lay across the table, helpless as ever; but she had the spell by which to rouse him. She used it perhaps too violently in her own great relief.
'Papa,' said she, throwing her arms fondly round his neck; pulling his weary head up in fact with her gentle violence, till it rested in her arms, and she could look into his eyes, and let them gain strength and assurance from hers.
'Papa! guess who is here!'
He looked at her; she saw the idea of the truth glimmer into their filmy sadness, and be dismissed thence as a wild imagination.
He threw himself forward, and hid his face once more in his stretched-out arms, resting upon the table as heretofore. She heard him whisper; she bent tenderly down to listen. 'I don't know. Don't tell me it is Frederick—not Frederick. I cannot bear it,—I am too weak. And his mother is dying!'He began to cry and wail like a child. It was so different to all which Margaret had hoped and expected, that she turned sick with disappointment, and was silent for an instant. Then she spoke again—very differently—not so exultingly, far more tenderly and carefully.
'Papa, it is Frederick! Think of mamma, how glad she will be! And oh, for her sake, how glad we ought to be! For his sake, too,—our poor, poor boy!'
Her father did not change his attitude, but he seemed to be trying to understand the fact.
'Where is he?' asked he at last, his face still hidden in his prostrate arms.
'In your study, quite alone. I lighted the taper, and ran up to tell you. He is quite alone, and will be wondering why—'
'I will go to him,' broke in her father; and he lifted himself up and leant on her arm as on that of a guide.
Margaret led him to the study door, but her spirits were so agitated that she felt she could not bear to see the meeting. She turned away, and ran up-stairs, and cried most heartily. It was the first time she had dared to allow herself this relief for days. The strain had been terrible, as she now felt. But Frederick was come! He, the one precious brother, was there, safe, amongst them again! She could hardly believe it. She stopped her crying, and opened her bedroom door. She heard no sound of voices, and almost feared she might have dreamt. She went down-stairs, and listened at the study door. She heard the buzz of voices; and that was enough. She went into the kitchen, and stirred up the fire, and lighted the house, and prepared for the wanderer's refreshment. How fortunate it was that her mother slept! She knew that she did, from the candle-lighter thrust through the keyhole of her bedroom door. The traveller could be refreshed and bright, and the first excitement of the meeting with his father all be over, before her mother became aware of anything unusual.
When all was ready, Margaret opened the study door, and went in like a serving-maiden, with a heavy tray held in her extended arms. She was proud of serving Frederick. But he, when he saw her, sprang up in a minute, and relieved her of her burden. It was a type, a sign, of all the coming relief which his presence would bring. The brother and sister arranged the table together, saying little, but their hands touching, and their eyes speaking the natural language of expression, so intelligible to those of the same blood. The fire had gone out; and Margaret applied herself to light it, for the evenings had begun to be chilly; and yet it was desirable to make all noises as distant as possible from Mrs. Hale's room.
'Dixon says it is a gift to light a fire; not an art to be acquired.'
'Poeta nascitur, non fit,' murmured Mr. Hale; and Margaret was glad to hear a quotation once more, however languidly given.
'Dear old Dixon! How we shall kiss each other!' said Frederick. 'She used to kiss me, and then look in my face to be sure I was the right person, and then set to again! But, Margaret, what a bungler you are! I never saw such a little awkward, good-for-nothing pair of hands. Run away, and wash them, ready to cut bread-and-butter for me, and leave the fire. I'll manage it. Lighting fires is one of my natural accomplishments.'
So Margaret went away; and returned; and passed in and out of the room, in a glad restlessness that could not be satisfied with sitting still. The more wants Frederick had, the better she was pleased; and he understood all this by instinct. It was a joy snatched in the house of mourning, and the zest of it was all the more pungent, because they knew in the depths of their hearts what irremediable sorrow awaited them.
In the middle, they heard Dixon's foot on the stairs. Mr. Hale started from his languid posture in his great armchair, from which he had been watching his children in a dreamy way, as if they were acting some drama of happiness, which it was pretty to look at, but which was distinct from reality, and in which he had no part. He stood up, and faced the door, showing such a strange, sudden anxiety to conceal Frederick from the sight of any person entering, even though it were the faithful Dixon, that a shiver came over Margaret's heart: it reminded her of the new fear in their lives. She caught at Frederick's arm, and clutched it tight, while a stern thought compressed her brows, and caused her to set her teeth. And yet they knew it was only Dixon's measured tread. They heard her walk the length of the passage, into the kitchen. Margaret rose up.
I will go to her, and tell her. And I shall hear how mamma is.' Mrs. Hale was awake. She rambled at first; but after they had given her some tea she was refreshed, though not disposed to talk. It was better that the night should pass over before she was told of her son's arrival. Dr. Donaldson's appointed visit would bring nervous excitement enough for the evening; and he might tell them how to prepare her for seeing Frederick. He was there, in the house; could be summoned at any moment.
Margaret could not sit still. It was a relief to her to aid Dixon in all her preparations for 'Master Frederick.' It seemed as though she never could be tired again. Each glimpse into the room where he sate by his father, conversing with him, about, she knew not what, nor cared to know,—was increase of strength to her. Her own time for talking and hearing would come at last, and she was too certain of this to feel in a hurry to grasp it now. She took in his appearance and liked it. He had delicate features, redeemed from effeminacy by the swarthiness of his complexion, and his quick intensity of expression. His eyes were generally merry-looking, but at times they and his mouth so suddenly changed, and gave her such an idea of latent passion, that it almost made her afraid. But this look was only for an instant; and had in it no doggedness, no vindictiveness; it was rather the instantaneous ferocity of expression that comes over the countenances of all natives of wild or southern countries—a ferocity which enhances the charm of the childlike softness into which such a look may melt away. Margaret might fear the violence of the impulsive nature thus occasionally betrayed, but there was nothing in it to make her distrust, or recoil in the least, from the new-found brother. On the contrary, all their intercourse was peculiarly charming to her from the very first. She knew then how much responsibility she had had to bear, from the exquisite sensation of relief which she felt in Frederick's presence. He understood his father and mother—their characters and their weaknesses, and went along with a careless freedom, which was yet most delicately careful not to hurt or wound any of their feelings. He seemed to know instinctively when a little of the natural brilliancy of his manner and conversation would not jar on the deep depression of his father, or might relieve his mother's pain. Whenever it would have been out of tune, and out of time, his patient devotion and watchfulness came into play, and made him an admirable nurse. Then Margaret was almost touched into tears by the allusions which he often made to their childish days in the New Forest; he had never forgotten her—or Helstone either—all the time he had been roaming among distant countries and foreign people. She might talk to him of the old spot, and never fear tiring him. She had been afraid of him before he came, even while she had longed for his coming; seven or eight years had, she felt, produced such great changes in herself that, forgetting how much of the original Margaret was left, she had reasoned that if her tastes and feelings had so materially altered, even in her stay-at-home life, his wild career, with which she was but imperfectly acquainted, must have almost substituted another Frederick for the tall stripling in his middy's uniform, whom she remembered looking up to with such admiring awe. But in their absence they had grown nearer to each other in age, as well as in many other things. And so it was that the weight, this sorrowful time, was lightened to Margaret. Other light than that of Frederick's presence she had none. For a few hours, the mother rallied on seeing her son. She sate with his hand in hers; she would not part with it even while she slept; and Margaret had to feed him like a baby, rather than that he should disturb her mother by removing a finger. Mrs. Hale wakened while they were thus engaged; she slowly moved her head round on the pillow, and smiled at her children, as she understood what they were doing, and why it was done.
'I am very selfish,' said she; 'but it will not be for long.' Frederick bent down and kissed the feeble hand that imprisoned his.
This state of tranquillity could not endure for many days, nor perhaps for many hours; so Dr. Donaldson assured Margaret. After the kind doctor had gone away, she stole down to Frederick, who, during the visit, had been adjured to remain quietly concealed in the back parlour, usually Dixon's bedroom, but now given up to him.
Margaret told him what Dr. Donaldson said.
'I don't believe it,' he exclaimed. 'She is very ill; she may be dangerously ill, and in immediate danger, too; but I can't imagine that she could be as she is, if she were on the point of death. Margaret! she should have some other advice—some London doctor. Have you never thought of that?'
'Yes,' said Margaret, 'more than once. But I don't believe it would do any good. And, you know, we have not the money to bring any great London surgeon down, and I am sure Dr. Donaldson is only second in skill to the very best,—if, indeed, he is to them.'
Frederick began to walk up and down the room impatiently.
'I have credit in Cadiz,' said he, 'but none here, owing to this wretched change of name. Why did my father leave Helstone? That was the blunder.'
'It was no blunder,' said Margaret gloomily. 'And above all possible chances, avoid letting papa hear anything like what you have just been saying. I can see that he is tormenting himself already with the idea that mamma would never have been ill if we had stayed at Helstone, and you don't know papa's agonising power of self-reproach!'
Frederick walked away as if he were on the quarter-deck. At last he stopped right opposite to Margaret, and looked at her drooping and desponding attitude for an instant.
'My little Margaret!' said he, caressing her. 'Let us hope as long as we can. Poor little woman! what! is this face all wet with tears? I will hope. I will, in spite of a thousand doctors. Bear up, Margaret, and be brave enough to hope!'
Margaret choked in trying to speak, and when she did it was very low.
'I must try to be meek enough to trust. Oh, Frederick! mamma was getting to love me so! And I was getting to understand her. And now comes death to snap us asunder!'
'Come, come, come! Let us go up-stairs, and do something, rather than waste time that may be so precious. Thinking has, many a time, made me sad, darling; but doing never did in all my life. My theory is a sort of parody on the maxim of "Get money, my son, honestly if you can; but get money." My precept is, "Do something, my sister, do good if you can; but, at any rate, do something."'
'Not excluding mischief,' said Margaret, smiling faintly through her tears.
'By no means. What I do exclude is the remorse afterwards. Blot your misdeeds out (if you are particularly conscientious), by a good deed, as soon as you can; just as we did a correct sum at school on the slate, where an incorrect one was only half rubbed out. It was better than wetting our sponge with our tears; both less loss of time where tears had to be waited for, and a better effect at last.'
If Margaret thought Frederick's theory rather a rough one at first, she saw how he worked it out into continual production of kindness in fact. After a bad night with his mother (for he insisted on taking his turn as a sitter-up) he was busy next morning before breakfast, contriving a leg-rest for Dixon, who was beginning to feel the fatigues of watching. At breakfast-time, he interested Mr. Hale with vivid, graphic, rattling accounts of the wild life he had led in Mexico, South America, and elsewhere. Margaret would have given up the effort in despair to rouse Mr. Hale out of his dejection; it would even have affected herself and rendered her incapable of talking at all. But Fred, true to his theory, did something perpetually; and talking was the only thing to be done, besides eating, at breakfast.
Before the night of that day, Dr. Donaldson's opinion was proved to be too well founded. Convulsions came on; and when they ceased, Mrs. Hale was unconscious. Her husband might lie by her shaking the bed with his sobs; her son's strong arms might lift her tenderly up into a comfortable position; her daughter's hands might bathe her face; but she knew them not. She would never recognise them again, till they met in Heaven.
Before the morning came all was over.
Then Margaret rose from her trembling and despondency, and became as a strong angel of comfort to her father and brother. For Frederick had broken down now, and all his theories were of no use to him. He cried so violently when shut up alone in his little room at night, that Margaret and Dixon came down in affright to warn him to be quiet: for the house partitions were but thin, and the next-door neighbours might easily hear his youthful passionate sobs, so different from the slower trembling agony of after-life, when we become inured to grief, and dare not be rebellious against the inexorable doom, knowing who it is that decrees.
Margaret sate with her father in the room with the dead. If he had cried, she would have been thankful. But he sate by the bed quite quietly; only, from time to time, he uncovered the face, and stroked it gently, making a kind of soft inarticulate noise, like that of some mother-animal caressing her young. He took no notice of Margaret's presence. Once or twice she came up to kiss him; and he submitted to it, giving her a little push away when she had done, as if her affection disturbed him from his absorption in the dead. He started when he heard Frederick's cries, and shook his head:—'Poor boy! poor boy!' he said, and took no more notice. Margaret's heart ached within her. She could not think of her own loss in thinking of her father's case. The night was wearing away, and the day was at hand, when, without a word of preparation, Margaret's voice broke upon the stillness of the room, with a clearness of sound that startled even herself: 'Let not your heart be troubled,' it said; and she went steadily on through all that chapter of unspeakable consolation.