'SHOULD AULD ACQUAINTANCE BE FORGOT?'
'Show not that manner, and these features all,
The serpent's cunning, and the sinner's fall?'
The chill, shivery October morning came; not the October morning of the country, with soft, silvery mists, clearing off before the sunbeams that bring out all the gorgeous beauty of colouring, but the October morning of Milton, whose silver mists were heavy fogs, and where the sun could only show long dusky streets when he did break through and shine. Margaret went languidly about, assisting Dixon in her task of arranging the house. Her eyes were continually blinded by tears, but she had no time to give way to regular crying. The father and brother depended upon her; while they were giving way to grief, she must be working, planning, considering. Even the necessary arrangements for the funeral seemed to devolve upon her.
When the fire was bright and crackling—when everything was ready for breakfast, and the tea-kettle was singing away, Margaret gave a last look round the room before going to summon Mr. Hale and Frederick. She wanted everything to look as cheerful as possible; and yet, when it did so, the contrast between it and her own thoughts forced her into sudden weeping. She was kneeling by the sofa, hiding her face in the cushions that no one might hear her cry, when she was touched on the shoulder by Dixon.
'Come, Miss Hale—come, my dear! You must not give way, or where shall we all be? There is not another person in the house fit to give a direction of any kind, and there is so much to be done. There's who's to manage the funeral; and who's to come to it; and where it's to be; and all to be settled: and Master Frederick's like one crazed with crying, and master never was a good one for settling; and, poor gentleman, he goes about now as if he was lost. It's bad enough, my dear, I know; but death comes to us all; and you're well off never to have lost any friend till now. 'Perhaps so. But this seemed a loss by itself; not to bear comparison with any other event in the world. Margaret did not take any comfort from what Dixon said, but the unusual tenderness of the prim old servant's manner touched her to the heart; and, more from a desire to show her gratitude for this than for any other reason, she roused herself up, and smiled in answer to Dixon's anxious look at her; and went to tell her father and brother that breakfast was ready.
Mr. Hale came—as if in a dream, or rather with the unconscious motion of a sleep-walker, whose eyes and mind perceive other things than what are present. Frederick came briskly in, with a forced cheerfulness, grasped her hand, looked into her eyes, and burst into tears. She had to try and think of little nothings to say all breakfast-time, in order to prevent the recurrence of her companions' thoughts too strongly to the last meal they had taken together, when there had been a continual strained listening for some sound or signal from the sick-room.
After breakfast, she resolved to speak to her father, about the funeral. He shook his head, and assented to all she proposed, though many of her propositions absolutely contradicted one another. Margaret gained no real decision from him; and was leaving the room languidly, to have a consultation with Dixon, when Mr. Hale motioned her back to his side.
'Ask Mr. Bell,' said he in a hollow voice.
'Mr. Bell!' said she, a little surprised. 'Mr. Bell of Oxford?'
'Mr. Bell,' he repeated. 'Yes. He was my groom's-man.'
Margaret understood the association.
'I will write to-day,' said she. He sank again into listlessness. All morning she toiled on, longing for rest, but in a continual whirl of melancholy business.
Towards evening, Dixon said to her:
'I've done it, miss. I was really afraid for master, that he'd have a stroke with grief. He's been all this day with poor missus; and when I've listened at the door, I've heard him talking to her, and talking to her, as if she was alive. When I went in he would be quite quiet, but all in a maze like. So I thought to myself, he ought to be roused; and if it gives him a shock at first, it will, maybe, be the better afterwards. So I've been and told him, that I don't think it's safe for Master Frederick to be here. And I don't. It was only on Tuesday, when I was out, that I met-a Southampton man—the first I've seen since I came to Milton; they don't make their way much up here, I think. Well, it was young Leonards, old Leonards the draper's son, as great a scamp as ever lived—who plagued his father almost to death, and then ran off to sea. I never could abide him. He was in the Orion at the same time as Master Frederick, I know; though I don't recollect if he was there at the mutiny.'
'Did he know you?' said Margaret, eagerly.
'Why, that's the worst of it. I don't believe he would have known me but for my being such a fool as to call out his name. He were a Southampton man, in a strange place, or else I should never have been so ready to call cousins with him, a nasty, good-for-nothing fellow. Says he, "Miss Dixon! who would ha' thought of seeing you here? But perhaps I mistake, and you're Miss Dixon no longer?" So I told him he might still address me as an unmarried lady, though if I hadn't been so particular, I'd had good chances of matrimony. He was polite enough: "He couldn't look at me and doubt me." But I were not to be caught with such chaff from such a fellow as him, and so I told him; and, by way of being even, I asked him after his father (who I knew had turned him out of doors), as if they was the best friends as ever was. So then, to spite me—for you see we were getting savage, for all we were so civil to each other—he began to inquire after Master Frederick, and said, what a scrape he'd got into (as if Master Frederick's scrapes would ever wash George Leonards' white, or make 'em look otherwise than nasty, dirty black), and how he'd be hung for mutiny if ever he were caught, and how a hundred pound reward had been offered for catching him, and what a disgrace he had been to his family—all to spite me, you see, my dear, because before now I've helped old Mr. Leonards to give George a good rating, down in Southampton. So I said, there were other families be thankful if they could think they were earning an honest living as I knew, who had far more cause to blush for their sons, and to far away from home. To which he made answer, like the impudent chap he is, that he were in a confidential situation, and if I knew of any young man who had been so unfortunate as to lead vicious courses, and wanted to turn steady, he'd have no objection to lend him his patronage. He, indeed! Why, he'd corrupt a saint. I've not felt so bad myself for years as when I were standing talking to him the other day. I could have cried to think I couldn't spite him better, for he kept smiling in my face, as if he took all my compliments for earnest; and I couldn't see that he minded what I said in the least, while I was mad with all his speeches.'
'But you did not tell him anything about us—about Frederick?'
'Not I,' said Dixon. 'He had never the grace to ask where I was staying; and I shouldn't have told him if he had asked. Nor did I ask him what his precious situation was. He was waiting for a bus, and just then it drove up, and he hailed it. But, to plague me to the last, he turned back before he got in, and said, "If you can help me to trap Lieutenant Hale, Miss Dixon, we'll go partners in the reward. I know you'd like to be my partner, now wouldn't you? Don't be shy, but say yes." And he jumped on the bus, and I saw his ugly face leering at me with a wicked smile to think how he'd had the last word of plaguing.'
Margaret was made very uncomfortable by this account of Dixon's.
'Have you told Frederick?' asked she.
'No,' said Dixon. 'I were uneasy in my mind at knowing that bad Leonards was in town; but there was so much else to think about that I did not dwell on it at all. But when I saw master sitting so stiff, and with his eyes so glazed and sad, I thought it might rouse him to have to think of Master Frederick's safety a bit. So I told him all, though I blushed to say how a young man had been speaking to me. And it has done master good. And if we're to keep Master Frederick in hiding, he would have to go, poor fellow, before Mr. Bell came.'
'Oh, I'm not afraid of Mr. Bell; but I am afraid of this
Leonards. I must tell Frederick. What did Leonards look like?'
'A bad-looking fellow, I can assure you, miss. Whiskers such as I should be ashamed to wear—they are so red. And for all he said he'd got a confidential situation, he was dressed in fustian just like a working-man.'
It was evident that Frederick must go. Go, too, when he had so completely vaulted into his place in the family, and promised to be such a stay and staff to his father and sister. Go, when his cares for the living mother, and sorrow for the dead, seemed to make him one of those peculiar people who are bound to us by a fellow-love for them that are taken away. Just as Margaret was thinking all this, sitting over the drawing-room fire—her father restless and uneasy under the pressure of this newly-aroused fear, of which he had not as yet spoken—Frederick came in, his brightness dimmed, but the extreme violence of his grief passed away. He came up to Margaret, and kissed her forehead.
'How wan you look, Margaret!' said he in a low voice. 'You have been thinking of everybody, and no one has thought of you. Lie on this sofa—there is nothing for you to do.'
'That is the worst,' said Margaret, in a sad whisper. But she went and lay down, and her brother covered her feet with a shawl, and then sate on the ground by her side; and the two began to talk in a subdued tone.
Margaret told him all that Dixon had related of her interview with young Leonards. Frederick's lips closed with a long whew of dismay.
'I should just like to have it out with that young fellow. A worse sailor was never on board ship—nor a much worse man either. I declare, Margaret—you know the circumstances of the whole affair?'
'Yes, mamma told me.'
'Well, when all the sailors who were good for anything were indignant with our captain, this fellow, to curry favour—pah! And to think of his being here! Oh, if he'd a notion I was within twenty miles of him, he'd ferret me out to pay off old grudges. I'd rather anybody had the hundred pounds they think I am worth than that rascal. What a pity poor old Dixon could not be persuaded to give me up, and make a provision for her old age!'
'Oh, Frederick, hush! Don't talk so.'
Mr. Hale came towards them, eager and trembling. He had overheard what they were saying. He took Frederick's hand in both of his:
'My boy, you must go. It is very bad—but I see you must. You have done all you could—you have been a comfort to her.'
'Oh, papa, must he go?' said Margaret, pleading against her own conviction of necessity.
'I declare, I've a good mind to face it out, and stand my trial. If I could only pick up my evidence! I cannot endure the thought of being in the power of such a blackguard as Leonards. I could almost have enjoyed—in other circumstances—this stolen visit: it has had all the charm which the French-woman attributed to forbidden pleasures.'
'One of the earliest things I can remember,' said Margaret, 'was your being in some great disgrace, Fred, for stealing apples. We had plenty of our own—trees loaded with them; but some one had told you that stolen fruit tasted sweetest, which you took au pied de la lettre, and off you went a-robbing. You have not changed your feelings much since then.'
'Yes—you must go,' repeated Mr. Hale, answering Margaret's question, which she had asked some time ago. His thoughts were fixed on one subject, and it was an effort to him to follow the zig-zag remarks of his children—an effort which ho did not make.
Margaret and Frederick looked at each other. That quick momentary sympathy would be theirs no longer if he went away. So much was understood through eyes that could not be put into words. Both coursed the same thought till it was lost in sadness. Frederick shook it off first:
'Do you know, Margaret, I was very nearly giving both Dixon and myself a good fright this afternoon. I was in my bedroom; I had heard a ring at the front door, but I thought the ringer must have done his business and gone away long ago; so I was on the point of making my appearance in the passage, when, as I opened my room door, I saw Dixon coming downstairs; and she frowned and kicked me into hiding again. I kept the door open, and heard a message given to some man that was in my father's study, and that then went away. Who could it have been? Some of the shopmen?'
'Very likely,' said Margaret, indifferently. 'There was a little quiet man who came up for orders about two o'clock.'
'But this was not a little man—a great powerful fellow; and it was past four when he was here.'
'It was Mr. Thornton,' said Mr. Hale. They were glad to have drawn him into the conversation.
'Mr. Thornton!' said Margaret, a little surprised. 'I thought——'
'Well, little one, what did you think?' asked Frederick, as she did not finish her sentence.
'Oh, only,' said she, reddening and looking straight at him, 'I fancied you meant some one of a different class, not a gentleman; somebody come on an errand.'
'He looked like some one of that kind,' said Frederick, carelessly. 'I took him for a shopman, and he turns out a manufacturer.'
Margaret was silent. She remembered how at first, before she knew his character, she had spoken and thought of him just as Frederick was doing. It was but a natural impression that was made upon him, and yet she was a little annoyed by it. She was unwilling to speak; she wanted to make Frederick understand what kind of person Mr. Thornton was—but she was tongue-tied.
Mr. Hale went on. 'He came to offer any assistance in his power, I believe. But I could not see him. I told Dixon to ask him if he would like to see you—I think I asked her to find you, and you would go to him. I don't know what I said.'
'He has been a very agreeable acquaintance, has he not?' asked Frederick, throwing the question like a ball for any one to catch who chose.
'A very kind friend,' said Margaret, when her father did not answer.
Frederick was silent for a time. At last he spoke:
'Margaret, it is painful to think I can never thank those who have shown you kindness. Your acquaintances and mine must be separate. Unless, indeed, I run the chances of a court-martial, or unless you and my father would come to Spain.' He threw out this last suggestion as a kind of feeler; and then suddenly made the plunge. 'You don't know how I wish you would. I have a good position—the chance of a better,' continued he, reddening like a girl. 'That Dolores Barbour that I was telling you of, Margaret—I only wish you knew her; I am sure you would like—no, love is the right word, like is so poor—you would love her, father, if you knew her. She is not eighteen; but if she is in the same mind another year, she is to be my wife. Mr. Barbour won't let us call it an engagement. But if you would come, you would find friends everywhere, besides Dolores. Think of it, father. Margaret, be on my side.'
'No—no more removals for me,' said Mr. Hale. 'One removal has cost me my wife. No more removals in this life. She will be here; and here will I stay out my appointed time.'
'Oh, Frederick,' said Margaret, 'tell us more about her. I never thought of this; but I am so glad. You will have some one to love and care for you out there. Tell us all about it.'
'In the first place, she is a Roman Catholic. That's the only objection I anticipated. But my father's change of opinion—nay, Margaret, don't sigh.'
Margaret had reason to sigh a little more before the conversation ended. Frederick himself was Roman Catholic in fact, though not in profession as yet. This was, then, the reason why his sympathy in her extreme distress at her father's leaving the Church had been so faintly expressed in his letters. She had thought it was the carelessness of a sailor; but the truth was, that even then he was himself inclined to give up the form of religion into which he had been baptised, only that his opinions were tending in exactly the opposite direction to those of his father. How much love had to do with this change not even Frederick himself could have told. Margaret gave up talking about this branch of the subject at last; and, returning to the fact of the engagement, she began to consider it in some fresh light:
'But for her sake, Fred, you surely will try and clear yourself of the exaggerated charges brought against you, even if the charge of mutiny itself be true. If there were to be a court-martial, and you could find your witnesses, you might, at any rate, show how your disobedience to authority was because that authority was unworthily exercised.'
Mr. Hale roused himself up to listen to his son's answer.
'In the first place, Margaret, who is to hunt up my witnesses? All of them are sailors, drafted off to other ships, except those whose evidence would go for very little, as they took part, or sympathised in the affair. In the next place, allow me to tell you, you don't know what a court-martial is, and consider it as an assembly where justice is administered, instead of what it really is—a court where authority weighs nine-tenths in the balance, and evidence forms only the other tenth. In such cases, evidence itself can hardly escape being influenced by the prestige of authority.'
'But is it not worth trying, to see how much evidence might be discovered and arrayed on your behalf? At present, all those who knew you formerly, believe you guilty without any shadow of excuse. You have never tried to justify yourself, and we have never known where to seek for proofs of your justification. Now, for Miss Barbour's sake, make your conduct as clear as you can in the eye of the world. She may not care for it; she has, I am sure, that trust in you that we all have; but you ought not to let her ally herself to one under such a serious charge, without showing the world exactly how it is you stand. You disobeyed authority—that was bad; but to have stood by, without word or act, while the authority was brutally used, would have been infinitely worse. People know what you did; but not the motives that elevate it out of a crime into an heroic protection of the weak. For Dolores' sake, they ought to know.'
'But how must I make them know? I am not sufficiently sure of the purity and justice of those who would be my judges, to give myself up to a court-martial, even if I could bring a whole array of truth-speaking witnesses. I can't send a bellman about, to cry aloud and proclaim in the streets what you are pleased to call my heroism. No one would read a pamphlet of self-justification so long after the deed, even if I put one out.'
'Will you consult a lawyer as to your chances of exculpation?' asked Margaret, looking up, and turning very red.
'I must first catch my lawyer, and have a look at him, and see how I like him, before I make him into my confidant. Many a briefless barrister might twist his conscience into thinking, that he could earn a hundred pounds very easily by doing a good action—in giving me, a criminal, up to justice.'
'Nonsense, Frederick!—because I know a lawyer on whose honour I can rely; of whose cleverness in his profession people speak very highly; and who would, I think, take a good deal of trouble for any of—of Aunt Shaw's relations Mr. Henry Lennox, papa.'
'I think it is a good idea,' said Mr. Hale. 'But don't propose anything which will detain Frederick in England. Don't, for your mother's sake.'
'You could go to London to-morrow evening by a night-train,' continued Margaret, warming up into her plan. 'He must go to-morrow, I'm afraid, papa,' said she, tenderly; 'we fixed that, because of Mr. Bell, and Dixon's disagreeable acquaintance.'
'Yes; I must go to-morrow,' said Frederick decidedly.
Mr. Hale groaned. 'I can't bear to part with you, and yet I am miserable with anxiety as long as you stop here.'
'Well then,' said Margaret, 'listen to my plan. He gets to London on Friday morning. I will—you might—no! it would be better for me to give him a note to Mr. Lennox. You will find him at his chambers in the Temple.'
'I will write down a list of all the names I can remember on board the Orion. I could leave it with him to ferret them out. He is Edith's husband's brother, isn't he? I remember your naming him in your letters. I have money in Barbour's hands. I can pay a pretty long bill, if there is any chance of success Money, dear father, that I had meant for a different purpose; so I shall only consider it as borrowed from you and Margaret.'
'Don't do that,' said Margaret. 'You won't risk it if you do. And it will be a risk only it is worth trying. You can sail from London as well as from Liverpool?'
'To be sure, little goose. Wherever I feel water heaving under a plank, there I feel at home. I'll pick up some craft or other to take me off, never fear. I won't stay twenty-four hours in London, away from you on the one hand, and from somebody else on the other.'
It was rather a comfort to Margaret that Frederick took it into his head to look over her shoulder as she wrote to Mr. Lennox. If she had not been thus compelled to write steadily and concisely on, she might have hesitated over many a word, and been puzzled to choose between many an expression, in the awkwardness of being the first to resume the intercourse of which the concluding event had been so unpleasant to both sides. However, the note was taken from her before she had even had time to look it over, and treasured up in a pocket-book, out of which fell a long lock of black hair, the sight of which caused Frederick's eyes to glow with pleasure.
'Now you would like to see that, wouldn't you?' said he. 'No! you must wait till you see her herself She is too perfect to be known by fragments. No mean brick shall be a specimen of the building of my palace.'
'What! remain to be
Denounced—dragged, it may be, in chains.'
All the next day they sate together—they three. Mr. Hale hardly ever spoke but when his children asked him questions, and forced him, as it were, into the present. Frederick's grief was no more to be seen or heard; the first paroxysm had passed over, and now he was ashamed of having been so battered down by emotion; and though his sorrow for the loss of his mother was a deep real feeling, and would last out his life, it was never to be spoken of again. Margaret, not so passionate at first, was more suffering now. At times she cried a good deal; and her manner, even when speaking on indifferent things, had a mournful tenderness about it, which was deepened whenever her looks fell on Frederick, and she thought of his rapidly approaching departure. She was glad he was going, on her father's account, however much she might grieve over it on her own. The anxious terror in which Mr. Hale lived lest his son should be detected and captured, far out-weighed the pleasure he derived from his presence. The nervousness had increased since Mrs. Hale's death, probably because he dwelt upon it more exclusively. He started at every unusual sound; and was never comfortable unless Frederick sate out of the immediate view of any one entering the room. Towards evening he said:
'You will go with Frederick to the station, Margaret? I shall want to know he is safely off. You will bring me word that he is clear of Milton, at any rate?'
'Certainly,' said Margaret. 'I shall like it, if you won't be lonely without me, papa.'
'No, no! I should always be fancying some one had known him, and that he had been stopped, unless you could tell me you had seen him off. And go to the Outwood station. It is quite as near, and not so many people about. Take a cab there. There is less risk of his being seen. What time is your train, Fred?'
'Ten minutes past six; very nearly dark. So what will you do,
'Oh, I can manage. I am getting very brave and very hard. It is a well-lighted road all the way home, if it should be dark. But I was out last week much later.'
Margaret was thankful when the parting was over—the parting from the dead mother and the living father. She hurried Frederick into the cab, in order to shorten a scene which she saw was so bitterly painful to her father, who would accompany his son as he took his last look at his mother. Partly in consequence of this, and partly owing to one of the very common mistakes in the 'Railway Guide' as to the times when trains arrive at the smaller stations, they found, on reaching Outwood, that they had nearly twenty minutes to spare. The booking-office was not open, so they could not even take the ticket. They accordingly went down the flight of steps that led to the level of the ground below the railway. There was a broad cinder-path diagonally crossing a field which lay along-side of the carriage-road, and they went there to walk backwards and forwards for the few minutes they had to spare.
Margaret's hand lay in Frederick's arm. He took hold of it affectionately.
'Margaret! I am going to consult Mr. Lennox as to the chance of exculpating myself, so that I may return to England whenever I choose, more for your sake than for the sake of any one else. I can't bear to think of your lonely position if anything should happen to my father. He looks sadly changed—terribly shaken. I wish you could get him to think of the Cadiz plan, for many reasons. What could you do if he were taken away? You have no friend near. We are curiously bare of relations.'
Margaret could hardly keep from crying at the tender anxiety with which Frederick was bringing before her an event which she herself felt was not very improbable, so severely had the cares of the last few months told upon Mr. Hale. But she tried to rally as she said:
'There have been such strange unexpected changes in my life during these last two years, that I feel more than ever that it is not worth while to calculate too closely what I should do if any future event took place. I try to think only upon the present.' She paused; they were standing still for a moment, close on the field side of the stile leading into the road; the setting sun fell on their faces. Frederick held her hand in his, and looked with wistful anxiety into her face, reading there more care and trouble than she would betray by words. She went on:
'We shall write often to one another, and I will promise—for I see it will set your mind at ease—to tell you every worry I have. Papa is'—she started a little, a hardly visible start—but Frederick felt the sudden motion of the hand he held, and turned his full face to the road, along which a horseman was slowly riding, just passing the very stile where they stood. Margaret bowed; her bow was stiffly returned.
'Who is that?' said Frederick, almost before he was out of hearing. Margaret was a little drooping, a little flushed, as she replied:
'Mr. Thornton; you saw him before, you know.'
'Only his back. He is an unprepossessing-looking fellow. What a scowl he has!'
'Something has happened to vex him,' said Margaret, apologetically. 'You would not have thought him unprepossessing if you had seen him with mamma.'
'I fancy it must be time to go and take my ticket. If I had known how dark it would be, we wouldn't have sent back the cab, Margaret.'
'Oh, don't fidget about that. I can take a cab here, if I like; or go back by the rail-road, when I should have shops and people and lamps all the way from the Milton station-house. Don't think of me; take care of yourself. I am sick with the thought that Leonards may be in the same train with you. Look well into the carriage before you get in.'
They went back to the station. Margaret insisted upon going into the full light of the flaring gas inside to take the ticket. Some idle-looking young men were lounging about with the stationmaster. Margaret thought she had seen the face of one of them before, and returned him a proud look of offended dignity for his somewhat impertinent stare of undisguised admiration. She went hastily to her brother, who was standing outside, and took hold of his arm. 'Have you got your bag? Let us walk about here on the platform,' said she, a little flurried at the idea of so soon being left alone, and her bravery oozing out rather faster than she liked to acknowledge even to herself. She heard a step following them along the flags; it stopped when they stopped, looking out along the line and hearing the whizz of the coming train. They did not speak; their hearts were too full. Another moment, and the train would be here; a minute more, and he would be gone. Margaret almost repented the urgency with which she had entreated him to go to London; it was throwing more chances of detection in his way. If he had sailed for Spain by Liverpool, he might have been off in two or three hours.
Frederick turned round, right facing the lamp, where the gas darted up in vivid anticipation of the train. A man in the dress of a railway porter started forward; a bad-looking man, who seemed to have drunk himself into a state of brutality, although his senses were in perfect order.
'By your leave, miss!' said he, pushing Margaret rudely on one side, and seizing Frederick by the collar.
'Your name is Hale, I believe?'
In an instant—how, Margaret did not see, for everything danced before her eyes—but by some sleight of wrestling, Frederick had tripped him up, and he fell from the height of three or four feet, which the platform was elevated above the space of soft ground, by the side of the railroad. There he lay.
'Run, run!' gasped Margaret. 'The train is here. It was Leonards, was it? oh, run! I will carry your bag.' And she took him by the arm to push him along with all her feeble force. A door was opened in a carriage—he jumped in; and as he leant out t say, 'God bless you, Margaret!' the train rushed past her; an she was left standing alone. She was so terribly sick and faint that she was thankful to be able to turn into the ladies' waiting-room, and sit down for an instant. At first she could do nothing but gasp for breath. It was such a hurry; such a sickening alarm; such a near chance. If the train had not been there at the moment, the man would have jumped up again and called for assistance to arrest him. She wondered if the man had got up: she tried to remember if she had seen him move; she wondered if he could have been seriously hurt. She ventured out; the platform was all alight, but still quite deserted; she went to the end, and looked over, somewhat fearfully. No one was there; and then she was glad she had made herself go, and inspect, for otherwise terrible thoughts would have haunted her dreams. And even as it was, she was so trembling and affrighted that she felt she could not walk home along the road, which did indeed seem lonely and dark, as she gazed down upon it from the blaze of the station. She would wait till the down train passed and take her seat in it. But what if Leonards recognised her as Frederick's companion! She peered about, before venturing into the booking-office to take her ticket. There were only some railway officials standing about; and talking loud to one another.
'So Leonards has been drinking again!' said one, seemingly in authority. 'He'll need all his boasted influence to keep his place this time.'
'Where is he?' asked another, while Margaret, her back towards them, was counting her change with trembling fingers, not daring to turn round until she heard the answer to this question.
'I don't know. He came in not five minutes ago, with some long story or other about a fall he'd had, swearing awfully; and wanted to borrow some money from me to go to London by the next up-train. He made all sorts of tipsy promises, but I'd something else to do than listen to him; I told him to go about his business; and he went off at the front door.'
'He's at the nearest vaults, I'll be bound,' said the first speaker. 'Your money would have gone there too, if you'd been such a fool as to lend it.'
'Catch me! I knew better what his London meant. Why, he has never paid me off that five shillings'—and so they went on.
And now all Margaret's anxiety was for the train to come. She hid herself once more in the ladies' waiting-room, and fancied every noise was Leonards' step—every loud and boisterous voice was his. But no one came near her until the train drew up; when she was civilly helped into a carriage by a porter, into whose face she durst not look till they were in motion, and then she saw that it was not Leonards'.
'Sleep on, my love, in thy cold bed,
Never to be disquieted!
My last Good Night—thou wilt not wake
Till I thy fate shall overtake.'
Home seemed unnaturally quiet after all this terror and noisy commotion. Her father had seen all due preparation made for her refreshment on her return; and then sate down again in his accustomed chair, to fall into one of his sad waking dreams. Dixon had got Mary Higgins to scold and direct in the kitchen; and her scolding was not the less energetic because it was delivered in an angry whisper; for, speaking above her breath she would have thought irreverent, as long as there was any one dead lying in the house. Margaret had resolved not to mention the crowning and closing affright to her father. There was no use in speaking about it; it had ended well; the only thing to be feared was lest Leonards should in some way borrow money enough to effect his purpose of following Frederick to London, and hunting him out there. But there were immense chances against the success of any such plan; and Margaret determined not to torment herself by thinking of what she could do nothing to prevent. Frederick would be as much on his guard as she could put him; and in a day or two at most he would be safely out of England.
'I suppose we shall hear from Mr. Bell to-morrow,' said Margaret.
'Yes,' replied her father. 'I suppose so.'
'If he can come, he will be here to-morrow evening, I should think.'
'If he cannot come, I shall ask Mr. Thornton to go with me to the funeral. I cannot go alone. I should break down utterly.'
'Don't ask Mr. Thornton, papa. Let me go with you,' said
'You! My dear, women do not generally go.'
'No: because they can't control themselves. Women of our class don't go, because they have no power over their emotions, and yet are ashamed of showing them. Poor women go, and don't care if they are seen overwhelmed with grief. But I promise you, papa, that if you will let me go, I will be no trouble. Don't have a stranger, and leave me out. Dear papa! if Mr. Bell cannot come, I shall go. I won't urge my wish against your will, if he does.'
Mr. Bell could not come. He had the gout. It was a most affectionate letter, and expressed great and true regret for his inability to attend. He hoped to come and pay them a visit soon, if they would have him; his Milton property required some looking after, and his agent had written to him to say that his presence was absolutely necessary; or else he had avoided coming near Milton as long as he could, and now the only thing that would reconcile him to this necessary visit was the idea that he should see, and might possibly be able to comfort his old friend.
Margaret had all the difficulty in the world to persuade her father not to invite Mr. Thornton. She had an indescribable repugnance to this step being taken. The night before the funeral, came a stately note from Mrs. Thornton to Miss Hale, saying that, at her son's desire, their carriage should attend the funeral, if it would not be disagreeable to the family. Margaret tossed the note to her father.
'Oh, don't let us have these forms,' said she. 'Let us go alone—you and me, papa. They don't care for us, or else he would have offered to go himself, and not have proposed this sending an empty carriage.'
'I thought you were so extremely averse to his going, Margaret,' said Mr. Hale in some surprise.
'And so I am. I don't want him to come at all; and I should especially dislike the idea of our asking him. But this seems such a mockery of mourning that I did not expect it from him.' She startled her father by bursting into tears. She had been so subdued in her grief, so thoughtful for others, so gentle and patient in all things, that he could not understand her impatient ways to-night; she seemed agitated and restless; and at all the tenderness which her father in his turn now lavished upon her, she only cried the more.
She passed so bad a night that she was ill prepared for the additional anxiety caused by a letter received from Frederick. Mr. Lennox was out of town; his clerk said that he would return by the following Tuesday at the latest; that he might possibly be at home on Monday. Consequently, after some consideration, Frederick had determined upon remaining in London a day or two longer. He had thought of coming down to Milton again; the temptation had been very strong; but the idea of Mr. Bell domesticated in his father's house, and the alarm he had received at the last moment at the railway station, had made him resolve to stay in London. Margaret might be assured he would take every precaution against being tracked by Leonards. Margaret was thankful that she received this letter while her father was absent in her mother's room. If he had been present, he would have expected her to read it aloud to him, and it would have raised in him a state of nervous alarm which she would have found it impossible to soothe away. There was not merely the fact, which disturbed her excessively, of Frederick's detention in London, but there were allusions to the recognition at the last moment at Milton, and the possibility of a pursuit, which made her blood run cold; and how then would it have affected her father? Many a time did Margaret repent of having suggested and urged on the plan of consulting Mr. Lennox. At the moment, it had seemed as if it would occasion so little delay—add so little to the apparently small chances of detection; and yet everything that had since occurred had tended to make it so undesirable. Margaret battled hard against this regret of hers for what could not now be helped; this self-reproach for having said what had at the time appeared to be wise, but which after events were proving to have been so foolish. But her father was in too depressed a state of mind and body to struggle healthily; he would succumb to all these causes for morbid regret over what could not be recalled. Margaret summoned up all her forces to her aid. Her father seemed to have forgotten that they had any reason to expect a letter from Frederick that morning. He was absorbed in one idea—that the last visible token of the presence of his wife was to be carried away from him, and hidden from his sight. He trembled pitifully as the undertaker's man was arranging his crape draperies around him. He looked wistfully at Margaret; and, when released, he tottered towards her, murmuring, 'Pray for me, Margaret. I have no strength left in me. I cannot pray. I give her up because I must. I try to bear it: indeed I do. I know it is God's will. But I cannot see why she died. Pray for me, Margaret, that I may have faith to pray. It is a great strait, my child.'
Margaret sat by him in the coach, almost supporting him in her arms; and repeating all the noble verses of holy comfort, or texts expressive of faithful resignation, that she could remember. Her voice never faltered; and she herself gained strength by doing this. Her father's lips moved after her, repeating the well-known texts as her words suggested them; it was terrible to see the patient struggling effort to obtain the resignation which he had not strength to take into his heart as a part of himself.
Margaret's fortitude nearly gave way as Dixon, with a slight motion of her hand, directed her notice to Nicholas Higgins and his daughter, standing a little aloof, but deeply attentive to the ceremonial. Nicholas wore his usual fustian clothes, but had a bit of black stuff sewn round his hat—a mark of mourning which he had never shown to his daughter Bessy's memory. But Mr. Hale saw nothing. He went on repeating to himself, mechanically as it were, all the funeral service as it was read by the officiating clergyman; he sighed twice or thrice when all was ended; and then, putting his hand on Margaret's arm, he mutely entreated to be led away, as if he were blind, and she his faithful guide.
Dixon sobbed aloud; she covered her face with her handkerchief, and was so absorbed in her own grief, that she did not perceive that the crowd, attracted on such occasions, was dispersing, till she was spoken to by some one close at hand. It was Mr. Thornton. He had been present all the time, standing, with bent head, behind a group of people, so that, in fact, no one had recognised him.
'I beg your pardon,—but, can you tell me how Mr. Hale is? And
Miss Hale, too? I should like to know how they both are.'
'Of course, sir. They are much as is to be expected. Master is terribly broke down. Miss Hale bears up better than likely.'
Mr. Thornton would rather have heard that she was suffering the natural sorrow. In the first place, there was selfishness enough in him to have taken pleasure in the idea that his great love might come in to comfort and console her; much the same kind of strange passionate pleasure which comes stinging through a mother's heart, when her drooping infant nestles close to her, and is dependent upon her for everything. But this delicious vision of what might have been—in which, in spite of all Margaret's repulse, he would have indulged only a few days ago—was miserably disturbed by the recollection of what he had seen near the Outwood station. 'Miserably disturbed!' that is not strong enough. He was haunted by the remembrance of the handsome young man, with whom she stood in an attitude of such familiar confidence; and the remembrance shot through him like an agony, till it made him clench his hands tight in order to subdue the pain. At that late hour, so far from home! It took a great moral effort to galvanise his trust—erewhile so perfect—in Margaret's pure and exquisite maidenliness, into life; as soon as the effort ceased, his trust dropped down dead and powerless: and all sorts of wild fancies chased each other like dreams through his mind. Here was a little piece of miserable, gnawing confirmation. 'She bore up better than likely' under this grief. She had then some hope to look to, so bright that even in her affectionate nature it could come in to lighten the dark hours of a daughter newly made motherless. Yes! he knew how she would love. He had not loved her without gaining that instinctive knowledge of what capabilities were in her. Her soul would walk in glorious sunlight if any man was worthy, by his power of loving, to win back her love. Even in her mourning she would rest with a peaceful faith upon his sympathy. His sympathy! Whose? That other man's. And that it was another was enough to make Mr. Thornton's pale grave face grow doubly wan and stern at Dixon's answer.
'I suppose I may call,' said he coldly. 'On Mr. Hale, I mean. He will perhaps admit me after to-morrow or so.'
He spoke as if the answer were a matter of indifference to him. But it was not so. For all his pain, he longed to see the author of it. Although he hated Margaret at times, when he thought of that gentle familiar attitude and all the attendant circumstances, he had a restless desire to renew her picture in his mind—a longing for the very atmosphere she breathed. He was in the Charybdis of passion, and must perforce circle and circle ever nearer round the fatal centre.
'I dare say, sir, master will see you. He was very sorry to have to deny you the other day; but circumstances was not agreeable just then.'
For some reason or other, Dixon never named this interview that she had had with Mr. Thornton to Margaret. It might have been mere chance, but so it was that Margaret never heard that he had attended her poor mother's funeral.
FALSE AND TRUE
'Truth will fail thee never, never!
Though thy bark be tempest-driven,
Though each plank be rent and riven,
Truth will bear thee on for ever!'
The 'bearing up better than likely' was a terrible strain upon Margaret. Sometimes she thought she must give way, and cry out with pain, as the sudden sharp thought came across her, even during her apparently cheerful conversations with her father, that she had no longer a mother. About Frederick, too, there was great uneasiness. The Sunday post intervened, and interfered with their London letters; and on Tuesday Margaret was surprised and disheartened to find that there was still no letter. She was quite in the dark as to his plans, and her father was miserable at all this uncertainty. It broke in upon his lately acquired habit of sitting still in one easy chair for half a day together. He kept pacing up and down the room; then out of it; and she heard him upon the landing opening and shutting the bed-room doors, without any apparent object. She tried to tranquillise him by reading aloud; but it was evident he could not listen for long together. How thankful she was then, that she had kept to herself the additional cause for anxiety produced by their encounter with Leonards. She was thankful to hear Mr. Thornton announced. His visit would force her father's thoughts into another channel.
He came up straight to her father, whose hands he took and wrung without a word—holding them in his for a minute or two, during which time his face, his eyes, his look, told of more sympathy than could be put into words. Then he turned to Margaret. Not 'better than likely' did she look. Her stately beauty was dimmed with much watching and with many tears. The expression on her countenance was of gentle patient sadness—nay of positive present suffering. He had not meant to greet her otherwise than with his late studied coldness of demeanour; but he could not help going up to her, as she stood a little aside, rendered timid by the uncertainty of his manner of late, and saying the few necessary common-place words in so tender a voice, that her eyes filled with tears, and she turned away to hide her emotion. She took her work and sate down very quiet and silent. Mr. Thornton's heart beat quick and strong, and for the time he utterly forgot the Outwood lane. He tried to talk to Mr. Hale: and—his presence always a certain kind of pleasure to Mr. Hale, as his power and decision made him, and his opinions, a safe, sure port—was unusually agreeable to her father, as Margaret saw.
Presently Dixon came to the door and said, 'Miss Hale, you are wanted.'
Dixon's manner was so flurried that Margaret turned sick at heart. Something had happened to Fred. She had no doubt of that. It was well that her father and Mr. Thornton were so much occupied by their conversation.
'What is it, Dixon?' asked Margaret, the moment she had shut the drawing-room door.
'Come this way, miss,' said Dixon, opening the door of what had been Mrs. Hale's bed-chamber, now Margaret's, for her father refused to sleep there again after his wife's death. 'It's nothing, miss,' said Dixon, choking a little. 'Only a police-inspector. He wants to see you, miss. But I dare say, it's about nothing at all.'
'Did he name—' asked Margaret, almost inaudibly.
'No, miss; he named nothing. He only asked if you lived here, and if he could speak to you. Martha went to the door, and let him in; she has shown him into master's study. I went to him myself, to try if that would do; but no—it's you, miss, he wants.'
Margaret did not speak again till her hand was on the lock of the study door. Here she turned round and said, 'Take care papa does not come down. Mr. Thornton is with him now.'
The inspector was almost daunted by the haughtiness of her manner as she entered. There was something of indignation expressed in her countenance, but so kept down and controlled, that it gave her a superb air of disdain. There was no surprise, no curiosity. She stood awaiting the opening of his business there. Not a question did she ask.
'I beg your pardon, ma'am, but my duty obliges me to ask you a few plain questions. A man has died at the Infirmary, in consequence of a fall, received at Outwood station, between the hours of five and six on Thursday evening, the twenty-sixth instant. At the time, this fall did not seem of much consequence; but it was rendered fatal, the doctors say, by the presence of some internal complaint, and the man's own habit of drinking.'
The large dark eyes, gazing straight into the inspector's face, dilated a little. Otherwise there was no motion perceptible to his experienced observation. Her lips swelled out into a richer curve than ordinary, owing to the enforced tension of the muscles, but he did not know what was their usual appearance, so as to recognise the unwonted sullen defiance of the firm sweeping lines. She never blenched or trembled. She fixed him with her eye. Now—as he paused before going on, she said, almost as if she would encourage him in telling his tale—'Well—go on!'
'It is supposed that an inquest will have to be held; there is some slight evidence to prove that the blow, or push, or scuffle that caused the fall, was provoked by this poor fellow's half-tipsy impertinence to a young lady, walking with the man who pushed the deceased over the edge of the platform. This much was observed by some one on the platform, who, however, thought no more about the matter, as the blow seemed of slight consequence. There is also some reason to identify the lady with yourself; in which case—'
'I was not there,' said Margaret, still keeping her expressionless eyes fixed on his face, with the unconscious look of a sleep-walker.
The inspector bowed but did not speak. The lady standing before him showed no emotion, no fluttering fear, no anxiety, no desire to end the interview. The information he had received was very vague; one of the porters, rushing out to be in readiness for the train, had seen a scuffle, at the other end of the platform, between Leonards and a gentleman accompanied by a lady, but heard no noise; and before the train had got to its full speed after starting, he had been almost knocked down by the headlong run of the enraged half intoxicated Leonards, swearing and cursing awfully. He had not thought any more about it, till his evidence was routed out by the inspector, who, on making some farther inquiry at the railroad station, had heard from the station-master that a young lady and gentleman had been there about that hour—the lady remarkably handsome—and said, by some grocer's assistant present at the time, to be a Miss Hale, living at Crampton, whose family dealt at his shop. There was no certainty that the one lady and gentleman were identical with the other pair, but there was great probability. Leonards himself had gone, half-mad with rage and pain, to the nearest gin-palace for comfort; and his tipsy words had not been attended to by the busy waiters there; they, however, remembered his starting up and cursing himself for not having sooner thought of the electric telegraph, for some purpose unknown; and they believed that he left with the idea of going there. On his way, overcome by pain or drink, he had lain down in the road, where the police had found him and taken him to the Infirmary: there he had never recovered sufficient consciousness to give any distinct account of his fall, although once or twice he had had glimmerings of sense sufficient to make the authorities send for the nearest magistrate, in hopes that he might be able to take down the dying man's deposition of the cause of his death. But when the magistrate had come, he was rambling about being at sea, and mixing up names of captains and lieutenants in an indistinct manner with those of his fellow porters at the railway; and his last words were a curse on the 'Cornish trick' which had, he said, made him a hundred pounds poorer than he ought to have been. The inspector ran all this over in his mind—the vagueness of the evidence to prove that Margaret had been at the station—the unflinching, calm denial which she gave to such a supposition. She stood awaiting his next word with a composure that appeared supreme.
'Then, madam, I have your denial that you were the lady accompanying the gentleman who struck the blow, or gave the push, which caused the death of this poor man?'
A quick, sharp pain went through Margaret's brain. 'Oh God! that I knew Frederick were safe!' A deep observer of human countenances might have seen the momentary agony shoot out of her great gloomy eyes, like the torture of some creature brought to bay. But the inspector though a very keen, was not a very deep observer. He was a little struck, notwithstanding, by the form of the answer, which sounded like a mechanical repetition of her first reply—not changed and modified in shape so as to meet his last question.
'I was not there,' said she, slowly and heavily. And all this time she never closed her eyes, or ceased from that glassy, dream-like stare. His quick suspicions were aroused by this dull echo of her former denial. It was as if she had forced herself to one untruth, and had been stunned out of all power of varying it.
He put up his book of notes in a very deliberate manner. Then he looked up; she had not moved any more than if she had been some great Egyptian statue.
'I hope you will not think me impertinent when I say, that I may have to call on you again. I may have to summon you to appear on the inquest, and prove an alibi, if my witnesses' (it was but one who had recognised her) 'persist in deposing to your presence at the unfortunate event.' He looked at her sharply. She was still perfectly quiet—no change of colour, or darker shadow of guilt, on her proud face. He thought to have seen her wince: he did not know Margaret Hale. He was a little abashed by her regal composure. It must have been a mistake of identity. He went on:
'It is very unlikely, ma'am, that I shall have to do anything of the kind. I hope you will excuse me for doing what is only my duty, although it may appear impertinent.'
Margaret bowed her head as he went towards the door. Her lips were stiff and dry. She could not speak even the common words of farewell. But suddenly she walked forwards, and opened the study door, and preceded him to the door of the house, which she threw wide open for his exit. She kept her eyes upon him in the same dull, fixed manner, until he was fairly out of the house. She shut the door, and went half-way into the study; then turned back, as if moved by some passionate impulse, and locked the door inside.
Then she went into the study, paused—tottered forward—paused again—swayed for an instant where she stood, and fell prone on the floor in a dead swoon.
'There's nought so finely spun
But it cometh to the sun.'
Mr. Thornton sate on and on. He felt that his company gave pleasure to Mr. Hale; and was touched by the half-spoken wishful entreaty that he would remain a little longer—the plaintive 'Don't go yet,' which his poor friend put forth from time to time. He wondered Margaret did not return; but it was with no view of seeing her that he lingered. For the hour—and in the presence of one who was so thoroughly feeling the nothingness of earth—he was reasonable and self-controlled. He was deeply interested in all her father said,
'Of death, and of the heavy lull,
And of the brain that has grown dull.'
It was curious how the presence of Mr. Thornton had power over Mr. Hale to make him unlock the secret thoughts which he kept shut up even from Margaret. Whether it was that her sympathy would be so keen, and show itself in so lively a manner, that he was afraid of the reaction upon himself, or whether it was that to his speculative mind all kinds of doubts presented themselves at such a time, pleading and crying aloud to be resolved into certainties, and that he knew she would have shrunk from the expression of any such doubts—nay, from him himself as capable of conceiving them—whatever was the reason, he could unburden himself better to Mr. Thornton than to her of all the thoughts and fancies and fears that had been frost-bound in his brain till now. Mr. Thornton said very little; but every sentence he uttered added to Mr. Hale's reliance and regard for him. Was it that he paused in the expression of some remembered agony, Mr. Thornton's two or three words would complete the sentence, and show how deeply its meaning was entered into. Was it a doubt—a fear—a wandering uncertainty seeking rest, but finding none—so tear-blinded were its eyes—Mr. Thornton, instead of being shocked, seemed to have passed through that very stage of thought himself, and could suggest where the exact ray of light was to be found, which should make the dark places plain. Man of action as he was, busy in the world's great battle, there was a deeper religion binding him to God in his heart, in spite of his strong wilfulness, through all his mistakes, than Mr. Hale had ever dreamed. They never spoke of such things again, as it happened; but this one conversation made them peculiar people to each other; knit them together, in a way which no loose indiscriminate talking about sacred things can ever accomplish. When all are admitted, how can there be a Holy of Holies?
And all this while, Margaret lay as still and white as death on the study floor! She had sunk under her burden. It had been heavy in weight and long carried; and she had been very meek and patient, till all at once her faith had given way, and she had groped in vain for help! There was a pitiful contraction of suffering upon her beautiful brows, although there was no other sign of consciousness remaining. The mouth—a little while ago, so sullenly projected in defiance—was relaxed and livid.
'E par che de la sua labbia si mova Uno spirto soave e pien d'amore, Chi va dicendo a l'anima: sospira!'
The first symptom of returning life was a quivering about the lips—a little mute soundless attempt at speech; but the eyes were still closed; and the quivering sank into stillness. Then, feebly leaning on her arms for an instant to steady herself, Margaret gathered herself up, and rose. Her comb had fallen out of her hair; and with an intuitive desire to efface the traces of weakness, and bring herself into order again, she sought for it, although from time to time, in the course of the search, she had to sit down and recover strength. Her head drooped forwards—her hands meekly laid one upon the other—she tried to recall the force of her temptation, by endeavouring to remember the details which had thrown her into such deadly fright; but she could not. She only understood two facts—that Frederick had been in danger of being pursued and detected in London, as not only guilty of manslaughter, but as the more unpardonable leader of the mutiny, and that she had lied to save him. There was one comfort; her lie had saved him, if only by gaining some additional time. If the inspector came again to-morrow, after she had received the letter she longed for to assure her of her brother's safety, she would brave shame, and stand in her bitter penance—she, the lofty Margaret—acknowledging before a crowded justice-room, if need were, that she had been as 'a dog, and done this thing.' But if he came before she heard from Frederick; if he returned, as he had half threatened, in a few hours, why! she would tell that lie again; though how the words would come out, after all this terrible pause for reflection and self-reproach, without betraying her falsehood, she did not know, she could not tell. But her repetition of it would gain time—time for Frederick.
She was roused by Dixon's entrance into the room; she had just been letting out Mr. Thornton.
He had hardly gone ten steps in the street, before a passing omnibus stopped close by him, and a man got down, and came up to him, touching his hat as he did so. It was the police-inspector.
Mr. Thornton had obtained for him his first situation in the police, and had heard from time to time of the progress of his protege, but they had not often met, and at first Mr. Thornton did not remember him.
'My name is Watson—George Watson, sir, that you got——'
'Ah, yes! I recollect. Why you are getting on famously, I hear.'
'Yes, sir. I ought to thank you, sir. But it is on a little matter of business I made so bold as to speak to you now. I believe you were the magistrate who attended to take down the deposition of a poor man who died in the Infirmary last night.'
'Yes,' replied Mr. Thornton. 'I went and heard some kind of a rambling statement, which the clerk said was of no great use. I'm afraid he was but a drunken fellow, though there is no doubt he came to his death by violence at last. One of my mother's servants was engaged to him, I believe, and she is in great distress to-day. What about him?'
'Why, sir, his death is oddly mixed up with somebody in the house I saw you coming out of just now; it was a Mr. Hale's, I believe.'
'Yes!' said Mr. Thornton, turning sharp round and looking into the inspector's face with sudden interest. 'What about it?'
'Why, sir, it seems to me that I have got a pretty distinct chain of evidence, inculpating a gentleman who was walking with Miss Hale that night at the Outwood station, as the man who struck or pushed Leonards off the platform and so caused his death. But the young lady denies that she was there at the time.'
'Miss Hale denies she was there!' repeated Mr. Thornton, in an altered voice. 'Tell me, what evening was it? What time?'
'About six o'clock, on the evening of Thursday, the twenty-sixth.'
They walked on, side by side, in silence for a minute or two. The inspector was the first to speak.
'You see, sir, there is like to be a coroner's inquest; and I've got a young man who is pretty positive,—at least he was at first;—since he has heard of the young lady's denial, he says he should not like to swear; but still he's pretty positive that he saw Miss Hale at the station, walking about with a gentleman, not five minutes before the time, when one of the porters saw a scuffle, which he set down to some of Leonards' impudence—but which led to the fall which caused his death. And seeing you come out of the very house, sir, I thought I might make bold to ask if—you see, it's always awkward having to do with cases of disputed identity, and one doesn't like to doubt the word of a respectable young woman unless one has strong proof to the contrary.'
'And she denied having been at the station that evening!' repeated Mr. Thornton, in a low, brooding tone.
'Yes, sir, twice over, as distinct as could be. I told her I should call again, but seeing you just as I was on my way back from questioning the young man who said it was her, I thought I would ask your advice, both as the magistrate who saw Leonards on his death-bed, and as the gentleman who got me my berth in the force.'
'You were quite right,' said Mr. Thornton. 'Don't take any steps till you have seen me again.'
'The young lady will expect me to call, from what I said.'
'I only want to delay you an hour. It's now three. Come to my warehouse at four.'
'Very well, sir!'
And they parted company. Mr. Thornton hurried to his warehouse, and, sternly forbidding his clerks to allow any one to interrupt him, he went his way to his own private room, and locked the door. Then he indulged himself in the torture of thinking it all over, and realising every detail. How could he have lulled himself into the unsuspicious calm in which her tearful image had mirrored itself not two hours before, till he had weakly pitied her and yearned towards her, and forgotten the savage, distrustful jealousy with which the sight of her—and that unknown to him—at such an hour—in such a place—had inspired him! How could one so pure have stooped from her decorous and noble manner of bearing! But was it decorous—was it? He hated himself for the idea that forced itself upon him, just for an instant—no more—and yet, while it was present, thrilled him with its old potency of attraction towards her image. And then this falsehood—how terrible must be some dread of shame to be revealed—for, after all, the provocation given by such a man as Leonards was, when excited by drinking, might, in all probability, be more than enough to justify any one who came forward to state the circumstances openly and without reserve! How creeping and deadly that fear which could bow down the truthful Margaret to falsehood! He could almost pity her. What would be the end of it? She could not have considered all she was entering upon; if there was an inquest and the young man came forward. Suddenly he started up. There should be no inquest. He would save Margaret. He would take the responsibility of preventing the inquest, the issue of which, from the uncertainty of the medical testimony (which he had vaguely heard the night before, from the surgeon in attendance), could be but doubtful; the doctors had discovered an internal disease far advanced, and sure to prove fatal; they had stated that death might have been accelerated by the fall, or by the subsequent drinking and exposure to cold. If he had but known how Margaret would have become involved in the affair—if he had but foreseen that she would have stained her whiteness by a falsehood, he could have saved her by a word; for the question, of inquest or no inquest, had hung trembling in the balance only the night before. Miss Hale might love another—was indifferent and contemptuous to him—but he would yet do her faithful acts of service of which she should never know. He might despise her, but the woman whom he had once loved should be kept from shame; and shame it would be to pledge herself to a lie in a public court, or otherwise to stand and acknowledge her reason for desiring darkness rather than light.
Very gray and stern did Mr. Thornton look, as he passed out through his wondering clerks. He was away about half an hour; and scarcely less stern did he look when he returned, although his errand had been successful.
He wrote two lines on a slip of paper, put it in an envelope, and sealed it up. This he gave to one of the clerks, saying:—
'I appointed Watson—he who was a packer in the warehouse, and who went into the police—to call on me at four o'clock. I have just met with a gentleman from Liverpool who wishes to see me before he leaves town. Take care to give this note to Watson he calls.'
The note contained these words:
'There will be no inquest. Medical evidence not sufficient to justify it. Take no further steps. I have not seen the corner; but I will take the responsibility.'
'Well,' thought Watson, 'it relieves me from an awkward job. None of my witnesses seemed certain of anything except the young woman. She was clear and distinct enough; the porter at the rail-road had seen a scuffle; or when he found it was likely to bring him in as a witness, then it might not have been a scuffle, only a little larking, and Leonards might have jumped off the platform himself;—he would not stick firm to anything. And Jennings, the grocer's shopman,—well, he was not quite so bad, but I doubt if I could have got him up to an oath after he heard that Miss Hale flatly denied it. It would have been a troublesome job and no satisfaction. And now I must go and tell them they won't be wanted.'
He accordingly presented himself again at Mr. Hale's that evening. Her father and Dixon would fain have persuaded Margaret to go to bed; but they, neither of them, knew the reason for her low continued refusals to do so. Dixon had learnt part of the truth-but only part. Margaret would not tell any human being of what she had said, and she did not reveal the fatal termination to Leonards' fall from the platform. So Dixon curiosity combined with her allegiance to urge Margaret to go to rest, which her appearance, as she lay on the sofa, showed but too clearly that she required. She did not speak except when spoken to; she tried to smile back in reply to her father's anxious looks and words of tender enquiry; but, instead of a smile, the wan lips resolved themselves into a sigh. He was so miserably uneasy that, at last, she consented to go into her own room, and prepare for going to bed. She was indeed inclined to give up the idea that the inspector would call again that night, as it was already past nine o'clock.
She stood by her father, holding on to the back of his chair.
'You will go to bed soon, papa, won't you? Don't sit up alone!'
What his answer was she did not hear; the words were lost in the far smaller point of sound that magnified itself to her fears, and filled her brain. There was a low ring at the door-bell.
She kissed her father and glided down stairs, with a rapidity of motion of which no one would have thought her capable, who had seen her the minute before. She put aside Dixon.
'Don't come; I will open the door. I know it is him—I can—I must manage it all myself.'
'As you please, miss!' said Dixon testily; but in a moment afterwards, she added, 'But you're not fit for it. You are more dead than alive.'
'Am I?' said Margaret, turning round and showing her eyes all aglow with strange fire, her cheeks flushed, though her lips were baked and livid still.
She opened the door to the Inspector, and preceded him into the study. She placed the candle on the table, and snuffed it carefully, before she turned round and faced him.
'You are late!' said she. 'Well?' She held her breath for the answer.
'I'm sorry to have given any unnecessary trouble, ma'am; for, after all, they've given up all thoughts of holding an inquest. I have had other work to do and other people to see, or I should have been here before now.'
'Then it is ended,' said Margaret. 'There is to be no further enquiry.'
'I believe I've got Mr. Thornton's note about me,' said the
Inspector, fumbling in his pocket-book.
'Mr. Thornton's!' said Margaret.
'Yes! he's a magistrate—ah! here it is.' She could not see to read it—no, not although she was close to the candle. The words swam before her. But she held it in her hand, and looked at it as if she were intently studying it.
'I'm sure, ma'am, it's a great weight off my mind; for the evidence was so uncertain, you see, that the man had received any blow at all,—and if any question of identity came in, it so complicated the case, as I told Mr. Thornton—'
'Mr. Thornton!' said Margaret, again.
'I met him this morning, just as he was coming out of this house, and, as he's an old friend of mine, besides being the magistrate who saw Leonards last night, I made bold to tell him of my difficulty.'
Margaret sighed deeply. She did not want to hear any more; she was afraid alike of what she had heard, and of what she might hear. She wished that the man would go. She forced herself to speak.
'Thank you for calling. It is very late. I dare say it is past ten o'clock. Oh! here is the note!' she continued, suddenly interpreting the meaning of the hand held out to receive it. He was putting it up, when she said, 'I think it is a cramped, dazzling sort of writing. I could not read it; will you just read it to me?'
He read it aloud to her.
'Thank you. You told Mr. Thornton that I was not there?'
'Oh, of course, ma'am. I'm sorry now that I acted upon information, which seems to have been so erroneous. At first the young man was so positive; and now he says that he doubted all along, and hopes that his mistake won't have occasioned you such annoyance as to lose their shop your custom. Good night, ma'am.'
'Good night.' She rang the bell for Dixon to show him out. As
Dixon returned up the passage Margaret passed her swiftly.
'It is all right!' said she, without looking at Dixon; and before the woman could follow her with further questions she had sped up-stairs, and entered her bed-chamber, and bolted her door.
She threw herself, dressed as she was, upon her bed. She was too much exhausted to think. Half an hour or more elapsed before the cramped nature of her position, and the chilliness, supervening upon great fatigue, had the power to rouse her numbed faculties. Then she began to recall, to combine, to wonder. The first idea that presented itself to her was, that all this sickening alarm on Frederick's behalf was over; that the strain was past. The next was a wish to remember every word of the Inspector's which related to Mr. Thornton. When had he seen him? What had he said? What had Mr. Thornton done? What were the exact words of his note? And until she could recollect, even to the placing or omitting an article, the very expressions which he had used in the note, her mind refused to go on with its progress. But the next conviction she came to was clear enough;—Mr. Thornton had seen her close to Outwood station on the fatal Thursday night, and had been told of her denial that she was there. She stood as a liar in his eyes. She was a liar. But she had no thought of penitence before God; nothing but chaos and night surrounded the one lurid fact that, in Mr. Thornton's eyes, she was degraded. She cared not to think, even to herself, of how much of excuse she might plead. That had nothing to do with Mr. Thornton; she never dreamed that he, or any one else, could find cause for suspicion in what was so natural as her accompanying her brother; but what was really false and wrong was known to him, and he had a right to judge her. 'Oh, Frederick! Frederick!' she cried, 'what have I not sacrificed for you!' Even when she fell asleep her thoughts were compelled to travel the same circle, only with exaggerated and monstrous circumstances of pain.
When she awoke a new idea flashed upon her with all the brightness of the morning. Mr. Thornton had learnt her falsehood before he went to the coroner; that suggested the thought, that he had possibly been influenced so to do with a view of sparing her the repetition of her denial. But she pushed this notion on one side with the sick wilfulness of a child. If it were so, she felt no gratitude to him, as it only showed her how keenly he must have seen that she was disgraced already, before he took such unwonted pains to spare her any further trial of truthfulness, which had already failed so signally. She would have gone through the whole—she would have perjured herself to save Frederick, rather—far rather—than Mr. Thornton should have had the knowledge that prompted him to interfere to save her. What ill-fate brought him in contact with the Inspector? What made him be the very magistrate sent for to receive Leonards' deposition? What had Leonards said? How much of it was intelligible to Mr. Thornton, who might already, for aught she knew, be aware of the old accusation against Frederick, through their mutual friend, Mr. Bell? If so, he had striven to save the son, who came in defiance of the law to attend his mother's death-bed. And under this idea she could feel grateful—not yet, if ever she should, if his interference had been prompted by contempt. Oh! had any one such just cause to feel contempt for her? Mr. Thornton, above all people, on whom she had looked down from her imaginary heights till now! She suddenly found herself at his feet, and was strangely distressed at her fall. She shrank from following out the premises to their conclusion, and so acknowledging to herself how much she valued his respect and good opinion. Whenever this idea presented itself to her at the end of a long avenue of thoughts, she turned away from following that path—she would not believe in it.
It was later than she fancied, for in the agitation of the previous night, she had forgotten to wind up her watch; and Mr. Hale had given especial orders that she was not to be disturbed by the usual awakening. By and by the door opened cautiously, and Dixon put her head in. Perceiving that Margaret was awake, she came forwards with a letter.
'Here's something to do you good, miss. A letter from Master
'Thank you, Dixon. How late it is!'
She spoke very languidly, and suffered Dixon to lay it on the counterpane before her, without putting out a hand to lake it.
'You want your breakfast, I'm sure. I will bring it you in a minute. Master has got the tray all ready, I know.'
Margaret did not reply; she let her go; she felt that she must be alone before she could open that letter. She opened it at last. The first thing that caught her eye was the date two days earlier than she received it. He had then written when he had promised, and their alarm might have been spared. But she would read the letter and see. It was hasty enough, but perfectly satisfactory. He had seen Henry Lennox, who knew enough of the case to shake his head over it, in the first instance, and tell him he had done a very daring thing in returning to England, with such an accusation, backed by such powerful influence, hanging over him. But when they had come to talk it over, Mr. Lennox had acknowledged that there might be some chance of his acquittal, if he could but prove his statements by credible witnesses—that in such case it might be worth while to stand his trial, otherwise it would be a great risk. He would examine—he would take every pains. 'It struck me' said Frederick, 'that your introduction, little sister of mine, went a long way. Is it so? He made many inquiries, I can assure you. He seemed a sharp, intelligent fellow, and in good practice too, to judge from the signs of business and the number of clerks about him. But these may be only lawyer's dodges. I have just caught a packet on the point of sailing—I am off in five minutes. I may have to come back to England again on this business, so keep my visit secret. I shall send my father some rare old sherry, such as you cannot buy in England,—(such stuff as I've got in the bottle before me)! He needs something of the kind—my dear love to him—God bless him. I'm sure—here's my cab. P.S.—What an escape that was! Take care you don't breathe of my having been—not even to the Shaws.'
Margaret turned to the envelope; it was marked 'Too late.' The letter had probably been trusted to some careless waiter, who had forgotten to post it. Oh! what slight cobwebs of chances stand between us and Temptation! Frederick had been safe, and out of England twenty, nay, thirty hours ago; and it was only about seventeen hours since she had told a falsehood to baffle pursuit, which even then would have been vain. How faithless she had been! Where now was her proud motto, 'Fais ce que dois, advienne que pourra?' If she had but dared to bravely tell the truth as regarded herself, defying them to find out what she refused to tell concerning another, how light of heart she would now have felt! Not humbled before God, as having failed in trust towards Him; not degraded and abased in Mr. Thornton's sight. She caught herself up at this with a miserable tremor; here was she classing his low opinion of her alongside with the displeasure of God. How was it that he haunted her imagination so persistently? What could it be? Why did she care for what he thought, in spite of all her pride in spite of herself? She believed that she could have borne the sense of Almighty displeasure, because He knew all, and could read her penitence, and hear her cries for help in time to come. But Mr. Thornton—why did she tremble, and hide her face in the pillow? What strong feeling had overtaken her at last?
She sprang out of bed and prayed long and earnestly. It soothed and comforted her so to open her heart. But as soon as she reviewed her position she found the sting was still there; that she was not good enough, nor pure enough to be indifferent to the lowered opinion of a fellow creature; that the thought of how he must be looking upon her with contempt, stood between her and her sense of wrong-doing. She took her letter in to her father as soon as she was drest. There was so slight an allusion to their alarm at the rail-road station, that Mr. Hale passed over it without paying any attention to it. Indeed, beyond the mere fact of Frederick having sailed undiscovered and unsuspected, he did not gather much from the letter at the time, he was so uneasy about Margaret's pallid looks. She seemed continually on the point of weeping.
'You are sadly overdone, Margaret. It is no wonder. But you must let me nurse you now.'
He made her lie down on the sofa, and went for a shawl to cover her with. His tenderness released her tears; and she cried bitterly.
'Poor child!—poor child!' said he, looking fondly at her, as she lay with her face to the wall, shaking with her sobs. After a while they ceased, and she began to wonder whether she durst give herself the relief of telling her father of all her trouble. But there were more reasons against it than for it. The only one for it was the relief to herself; and against it was the thought that it would add materially to her father's nervousness, if it were indeed necessary for Frederick to come to England again; that he would dwell on the circumstance of his son's having caused the death of a man, however unwittingly and unwillingly; that this knowledge would perpetually recur to trouble him, in various shapes of exaggeration and distortion from the simple truth. And about her own great fault—he would be distressed beyond measure at her want of courage and faith, yet perpetually troubled to make excuses for her. Formerly Margaret would have come to him as priest as well as father, to tell him of her temptation and her sin; but latterly they had not spoken much on such subjects; and she knew not how, in his change of opinions, he would reply if the depth of her soul called unto his. No; she would keep her secret, and bear the burden alone. Alone she would go before God, and cry for His absolution. Alone she would endure her disgraced position in the opinion of Mr. Thornton. She was unspeakably touched by the tender efforts of her father to think of cheerful subjects on which to talk, and so to take her thoughts away from dwelling on all that had happened of late. It was some months since he had been so talkative as he was this day. He would not let her sit up, and offended Dixon desperately by insisting on waiting upon her himself.
At last she smiled; a poor, weak little smile; but it gave him the truest pleasure.
'It seems strange to think, that what gives us most hope for the future should be called Dolores,' said Margaret. The remark was more in character with her father than with her usual self; but to-day they seemed to have changed natures.
'Her mother was a Spaniard, I believe: that accounts for her religion. Her father was a stiff Presbyterian when I knew him. But it is a very soft and pretty name.'
'How young she is!—younger by fourteen months than I am. Just, the age that Edith was when she was engaged to Captain Lennox. Papa, we will go and see them in Spain.'
He shook his head. But he said, 'If you wish it, Margaret. Only let us come back here. It would seem unfair—unkind to your mother, who always, I'm afraid, disliked Milton so much, if we left it now she is lying here, and cannot go with us. No, dear; you shall go and see them, and bring me back a report of my Spanish daughter.'
'No, papa, I won't go without you. Who is to take care of you when I am gone?'
'I should like to know which of us is taking care of the other. But if you went, I should persuade Mr. Thornton to let me give him double lessons. We would work up the classics famously. That would be a perpetual interest. You might go on, and see Edith at Corfu, if you liked.'
Margaret did not speak all at once. Then she said rather gravely: 'Thank you, papa. But I don't want to go. We will hope that Mr. Lennox will manage so well, that Frederick may bring Dolores to see us when they are married. And as for Edith, the regiment won't remain much longer in Corfu. Perhaps we shall see both of them here before another year is out.'
Mr. Hale's cheerful subjects had come to an end. Some painful recollection had stolen across his mind, and driven him into silence. By-and-by Margaret said:
'Papa—did you see Nicholas Higgins at the funeral? He was there, and Mary too. Poor fellow! it was his way of showing sympathy. He has a good warm heart under his bluff abrupt ways.'
'I am sure of it,' replied Mr. Hale. 'I saw it all along, even while you tried to persuade me that he was all sorts of bad things. We will go and see them to-morrow, if you are strong enough to walk so far.'
'Oh yes. I want to see them. We did not pay Mary—or rather she refused to take it, Dixon says. We will go so as to catch him just after his dinner, and before he goes to his work.'
Towards evening Mr. Hale said:
'I half expected Mr. Thornton would have called. He spoke of a book yesterday which he had, and which I wanted to see. He said he would try and bring it to-day.'
Margaret sighed. She knew he would not come. He would be too delicate to run the chance of meeting her, while her shame must be so fresh in his memory. The very mention of his name renewed her trouble, and produced a relapse into the feeling of depressed, pre-occupied exhaustion. She gave way to listless languor. Suddenly it struck her that this was a strange manner to show her patience, or to reward her father for his watchful care of her all through the day. She sate up and offered to read aloud. His eyes were failing, and he gladly accepted her proposal. She read well: she gave the due emphasis; but had any one asked her, when she had ended, the meaning of what she had been reading, she could not have told. She was smitten with a feeling of ingratitude to Mr. Thornton, inasmuch as, in the morning, she had refused to accept the kindness he had shown her in making further inquiry from the medical men, so as to obviate any inquest being held. Oh! she was grateful! She had been cowardly and false, and had shown her cowardliness and falsehood in action that could not be recalled; but she was not ungrateful. It sent a glow to her heart, to know how she could feel towards one who had reason to despise her. His cause for contempt was so just, that she should have respected him less if she had thought he did not feel contempt. It was a pleasure to feel how thoroughly she respected him. He could not prevent her doing that; it was the one comfort in all this misery.
Late in the evening, the expected book arrived, 'with Mr.
Thornton's kind regards, and wishes to know how Mr. Hale is.'
'Say that I am much better, Dixon, but that Miss Hale—'
'No, papa,' said Margaret, eagerly—'don't say anything about me.
He does not ask.'
'My dear child, how you are shivering!' said her father, a few minutes afterwards. 'You must go to bed directly. You have turned quite pale!'
Margaret did not refuse to go, though she was loth to leave her father alone. She needed the relief of solitude after a day of busy thinking, and busier repenting.
But she seemed much as usual the next day; the lingering gravity and sadness, and the occasional absence of mind, were not unnatural symptoms in the early days of grief And almost in proportion to her re-establishment in health, was her father's relapse into his abstracted musing upon the wife he had lost, and the past era in his life that was closed to him for ever.