UNION NOT ALWAYS STRENGTH
'The steps of the bearers, heavy and slow,
The sobs of the mourners, deep and low.'
At the time arranged the previous day, they set out on their walk to see Nicholas Higgins and his daughter. They both were reminded of their recent loss, by a strange kind of shyness in their new habiliments, and in the fact that it was the first time, for many weeks, that they had deliberately gone out together. They drew very close to each other in unspoken sympathy.
Nicholas was sitting by the fire-side in his accustomed corner: but he had not his accustomed pipe. He was leaning his head upon his hand, his arm resting on his knee. He did not get up when he saw them, though Margaret could read the welcome in his eye.
'Sit ye down, sit ye down. Fire's welly out,' said he, giving it a vigorous poke, as if to turn attention away from himself. He was rather disorderly, to be sure, with a black unshaven beard of several days' growth, making his pale face look yet paler, and a jacket which would have been all the better for patching.
'We thought we should have a good chance of finding you, just after dinner-time,' said Margaret.
'We have had our sorrow too, since we saw you,' said Mr. Hale.
'Ay, ay. Sorrows is more plentiful than dinners just now; I reckon, my dinner hour stretches all o'er the day; yo're pretty sure of finding me.'
'Are you out of work?' asked Margaret.
'Ay,' he replied shortly. Then, after a moment's silence, he added, looking up for the first time: 'I'm not wanting brass. Dunno yo' think it. Bess, poor lass, had a little stock under her pillow, ready to slip into my hand, last moment, and Mary is fustian-cutting. But I'm out o' work a' the same.'
'We owe Mary some money,' said Mr. Hale, before Margaret's sharp pressure on his arm could arrest the words.
'If hoo takes it, I'll turn her out o' doors. I'll bide inside these four walls, and she'll bide out. That's a'.'
'But we owe her many thanks for her kind service,' began Mr. Hale again.
'I ne'er thanked yo'r daughter theer for her deeds o' love to my poor wench. I ne'er could find th' words. I'se have to begin and try now, if yo' start making an ado about what little Mary could sarve yo'.'
'Is it because of the strike you're out of work?' asked Margaret gently.
'Strike's ended. It's o'er for this time. I'm out o' work because I ne'er asked for it. And I ne'er asked for it, because good words is scarce, and bad words is plentiful.'
He was in a mood to take a surly pleasure in giving answers that were like riddles. But Margaret saw that he would like to be asked for the explanation.
'And good words are—?'
'Asking for work. I reckon them's almost the best words that men can say. "Gi' me work" means "and I'll do it like a man." Them's good words.'
'And bad words are refusing you work when you ask for it.'
'Ay. Bad words is saying "Aha, my fine chap! Yo've been true to yo'r order, and I'll be true to mine. Yo' did the best yo' could for them as wanted help; that's yo'r way of being true to yo'r kind; and I'll be true to mine. Yo've been a poor fool, as knowed no better nor be a true faithful fool. So go and be d——d to yo'. There's no work for yo' here." Them's bad words. I'm not a fool; and if I was, folk ought to ha' taught me how to be wise after their fashion. I could mappen ha' learnt, if any one had tried to teach me.'
'Would it not be worth while,' said Mr. Hale, 'to ask your old master if he would take you back again? It might be a poor chance, but it would be a chance.'
He looked up again, with a sharp glance at the questioner; and then tittered a low and bitter laugh.
'Measter! if it's no offence, I'll ask yo' a question or two in my turn.'
'You're quite welcome,' said Mr. Hale.
'I reckon yo'n some way of earning your bread. Folk seldom lives i' Milton lust for pleasure, if they can live anywhere else.'
'You are quite right. I have some independent property, but my intention in settling in Milton was to become a private tutor.'
'To teach folk. Well! I reckon they pay yo' for teaching them, dunnot they?'
'Yes,' replied Mr. Hale, smiling. 'I teach in order to get paid.'
'And them that pays yo', dun they tell yo' whatten to do, or whatten not to do wi' the money they gives you in just payment for your pains—in fair exchange like?'
'No; to be sure not!'
'They dunnot say, "Yo' may have a brother, or a friend as dear as a brother, who wants this here brass for a purpose both yo' and he think right; but yo' mun promise not give it to him. Yo' may see a good use, as yo' think, to put yo'r money to; but we don't think it good, and so if yo' spend it a-thatens we'll just leave off dealing with yo'." They dunnot say that, dun they?'
'No: to be sure not!'
'Would yo' stand it if they did?'
'It would be some very hard pressure that would make me even think of submitting to such dictation.'
'There's not the pressure on all the broad earth that would make me, said Nicholas Higgins. 'Now yo've got it. Yo've hit the bull's eye. Hamper's—that's where I worked—makes their men pledge 'emselves they'll not give a penny to help th' Union or keep turnouts fro' clemming. They may pledge and make pledge,' continued he, scornfully; 'they nobbut make liars and hypocrites. And that's a less sin, to my mind, to making men's hearts so hard that they'll not do a kindness to them as needs it, or help on the right and just cause, though it goes again the strong hand. But I'll ne'er forswear mysel' for a' the work the king could gi'e me. I'm a member o' the Union; and I think it's the only thing to do the workman any good. And I've been a turn-out, and known what it were to clem; so if I get a shilling, sixpence shall go to them if they axe it from me. Consequence is, I dunnot see where I'm to get a shilling.'
'Is that rule about not contributing to the Union in force at all the mills?' asked Margaret.
'I cannot say. It's a new regulation at ourn; and I reckon they'll find that they cannot stick to it. But it's in force now. By-and-by they'll find out, tyrants makes liars.'
There was a little pause. Margaret was hesitating whether she should say what was in her mind; she was unwilling to irritate one who was already gloomy and despondent enough. At last out it came. But in her soft tones, and with her reluctant manner, showing that she was unwilling to say anything unpleasant, it did not seem to annoy Higgins, only to perplex him.
'Do you remember poor Boucher saying that the Union was a tyrant? I think he said it was the worst tyrant of all. And I remember at the time I agreed with him.'
It was a long while before he spoke. He was resting his head on his two hands, and looking down into the fire, so she could not read the expression on his face.
'I'll not deny but what th' Union finds it necessary to force a man into his own good. I'll speak truth. A man leads a dree life who's not i' th' Union. But once i' the' Union, his interests are taken care on better nor he could do it for himsel', or by himsel', for that matter. It's the only way working men can get their rights, by all joining together. More the members, more chance for each one separate man having justice done him. Government takes care o' fools and madmen; and if any man is inclined to do himsel' or his neighbour a hurt, it puts a bit of a check on him, whether he likes it or no. That's all we do i' th' Union. We can't clap folk into prison; but we can make a man's life so heavy to be borne, that he's obliged to come in, and be wise and helpful in spite of himself. Boucher were a fool all along, and ne'er a worse fool than at th' last.'
'He did you harm?' asked Margaret.
'Ay, that did he. We had public opinion on our side, till he and his sort began rioting and breaking laws. It were all o'er wi' the strike then.'
'Then would it not have been far better to have left him alone, and not forced him to join the Union? He did you no good; and you drove him mad.'
'Margaret,' said her father, in a low and warning tone, for he saw the cloud gathering on Higgins's face.
'I like her,' said Higgins, suddenly. 'Hoo speaks plain out what's in her mind. Hoo doesn't comprehend th' Union for all that. It's a great power: it's our only power. I ha' read a bit o' poetry about a plough going o'er a daisy, as made tears come into my eyes, afore I'd other cause for crying. But the chap ne'er stopped driving the plough, I'se warrant, for all he were pitiful about the daisy. He'd too much mother-wit for that. Th' Union's the plough, making ready the land for harvest-time. Such as Boucher—'twould be settin' him up too much to liken him to a daisy; he's liker a weed lounging over the ground—mun just make up their mind to be put out o' the way. I'm sore vexed wi' him just now. So, mappen, I dunnot speak him fair. I could go o'er him wi' a plough mysel', wi' a' the pleasure in life.'
'Why? What has he been doing? Anything fresh?'
'Ay, to be sure. He's ne'er out o' mischief, that man. First of a' he must go raging like a mad fool, and kick up yon riot. Then he'd to go into hiding, where he'd a been yet, if Thornton had followed him out as I'd hoped he would ha' done. But Thornton, having got his own purpose, didn't care to go on wi' the prosecution for the riot. So Boucher slunk back again to his house. He ne'er showed himsel' abroad for a day or two. He had that grace. And then, where think ye that he went? Why, to Hamper's. Damn him! He went wi' his mealy-mouthed face, that turns me sick to look at, a-asking for work, though he knowed well enough the new rule, o' pledging themselves to give nought to th' Unions; nought to help the starving turn-out! Why he'd a clemmed to death, if th' Union had na helped him in his pinch. There he went, ossing to promise aught, and pledge himsel' to aught—to tell a' he know'd on our proceedings, the good-for-nothing Judas! But I'll say this for Hamper, and thank him for it at my dying day, he drove Boucher away, and would na listen to him—ne'er a word—though folk standing by, says the traitor cried like a babby!'
'Oh! how shocking! how pitiful!' exclaimed Margaret. 'Higgins, I don't know you to-day. Don't you see how you've made Boucher what he is, by driving him into the Union against his will—without his heart going with it. You have made him what he is!'
Made him what he is! What was he?
Gathering, gathering along the narrow street, came a hollow, measured sound; now forcing itself on their attention. Many voices were hushed and low: many steps were heard not moving onwards, at least not with any rapidity or steadiness of motion, but as if circling round one spot. Yes, there was one distinct, slow tramp of feet, which made itself a clear path through the air, and reached their ears; the measured laboured walk of men carrying a heavy burden. They were all drawn towards the house-door by some irresistible impulse; impelled thither—not by a poor curiosity, but as if by some solemn blast.
Six men walked in the middle of the road, three of them being policemen. They carried a door, taken off its hinges, upon their shoulders, on which lay some dead human creature; and from each side of the door there were constant droppings. All the street turned out to see, and, seeing, to accompany the procession, each one questioning the bearers, who answered almost reluctantly at last, so often had they told the tale.
'We found him i' th' brook in the field beyond there.'
'Th' brook!—why there's not water enough to drown him!'
'He was a determined chap. He lay with his face downwards. He was sick enough o' living, choose what cause he had for it.'
Higgins crept up to Margaret's side, and said in a weak piping
kind of voice: 'It's not John Boucher? He had na spunk enough.
Sure! It's not John Boucher! Why, they are a' looking this way!
Listen! I've a singing in my head, and I cannot hear.'
They put the door down carefully upon the stones, and all might see the poor drowned wretch—his glassy eyes, one half-open, staring right upwards to the sky. Owing to the position in which he had been found lying, his face was swollen and discoloured besides, his skin was stained by the water in the brook, which had been used for dyeing purposes. The fore part of his head was bald; but the hair grew thin and long behind, and every separate lock was a conduit for water. Through all these disfigurements, Margaret recognised John Boucher. It seemed to her so sacrilegious to be peering into that poor distorted, agonised face, that, by a flash of instinct, she went forwards and softly covered the dead man's countenance with her handkerchief. The eyes that saw her do this followed her, as she turned away from her pious office, and were thus led to the place where Nicholas Higgins stood, like one rooted to the spot. The men spoke together, and then one of them came up to Higgins, who would have fain shrunk back into his house.
'Higgins, thou knowed him! Thou mun go tell the wife. Do it gently, man, but do it quick, for we canna leave him here long.'
'I canna go,' said Higgins. 'Dunnot ask me. I canna face her.'
'Thou knows her best,' said the man. 'We'n done a deal in bringing him here—thou take thy share.'
'I canna do it,' said Higgins. 'I'm welly felled wi' seeing him.
We wasn't friends; and now he's dead.'
'Well, if thou wunnot thou wunnot. Some one mun, though. It's a dree task; but it's a chance, every minute, as she doesn't hear on it in some rougher way nor a person going to make her let on by degrees, as it were.'
'Papa, do you go,' said Margaret, in a low voice.
'If I could—if I had time to think of what I had better say; but all at once——' Margaret saw that her father was indeed unable. He was trembling from head to foot.
'I will go,' said she.
'Bless yo', miss, it will be a kind act; for she's been but a sickly sort of body, I hear, and few hereabouts know much on her.'
Margaret knocked at the closed door; but there was such a noise, as of many little ill-ordered children, that she could hear no reply; indeed, she doubted if she was heard, and as every moment of delay made her recoil from her task more and more, she opened the door and went in, shutting it after her, and even, unseen to the woman, fastening the bolt.
Mrs. Boucher was sitting in a rocking-chair, on the other side of the ill-redd-up fireplace; it looked as if the house had been untouched for days by any effort at cleanliness.
Margaret said something, she hardly knew what, her throat and mouth were so dry, and the children's noise completely prevented her from being heard. She tried again.
'How are you, Mrs. Boucher? But very poorly, I'm afraid.'
'I've no chance o' being well,' said she querulously. 'I'm left alone to manage these childer, and nought for to give 'em for to keep 'em quiet. John should na ha' left me, and me so poorly.'
'How long is it since he went away?'
'Four days sin'. No one would give him work here, and he'd to go on tramp toward Greenfield. But he might ha' been back afore this, or sent me some word if he'd getten work. He might——'
'Oh, don't blame him,' said Margaret. 'He felt it deeply, I'm sure——'
'Willto' hold thy din, and let me hear the lady speak!' addressing herself, in no very gentle voice, to a little urchin of about a year old. She apologetically continued to Margaret, 'He's always mithering me for "daddy" and "butty;" and I ha' no butties to give him, and daddy's away, and forgotten us a', I think. He's his father's darling, he is,' said she, with a sudden turn of mood, and, dragging the child up to her knee, she began kissing it fondly.
Margaret laid her hand on the woman's arm to arrest her attention. Their eyes met.
'Poor little fellow!' said Margaret, slowly; 'he was his father's darling.'
'He is his father's darling,' said the woman, rising hastily, and standing face to face with Margaret. Neither of them spoke for a moment or two. Then Mrs. Boucher began in a low, growling tone, gathering in wildness as she went on: He is his father's darling, I say. Poor folk can love their childer as well as rich. Why dunno yo' speak? Why dun yo' stare at me wi' your great pitiful eyes? Where's John?' Weak as she was, she shook Margaret to force out an answer. 'Oh, my God!' said she, understanding the meaning of that tearful look. She sank hack into the chair. Margaret took up the child and put him into her arms.
'He loved him,' said she.
'Ay,' said the woman, shaking her head, 'he loved us a'. We had some one to love us once. It's a long time ago; but when he were in life and with us, he did love us, he did. He loved this babby mappen the best on us; but he loved me and I loved him, though I was calling him five minutes agone. Are yo' sure he's dead?' said she, trying to get up. 'If it's only that he's ill and like to die, they may bring him round yet. I'm but an ailing creature mysel'—I've been ailing this long time.'
'But he is dead—he is drowned!'
'Folk are brought round after they're dead-drowned. Whatten was I thinking of, to sit still when I should be stirring mysel'? Here, whisth thee, child—whisth thee! tak' this, tak' aught to play wi', but dunnot cry while my heart's breaking! Oh, where is my strength gone to? Oh, John—husband!'
Margaret saved her from falling by catching her in her arms. She sate down in the rocking chair, and held the woman upon her knees, her head lying on Margaret's shoulder. The other children, clustered together in affright, began to understand the mystery of the scene; but the ideas came slowly, for their brains were dull and languid of perception. They set up such a cry of despair as they guessed the truth, that Margaret knew not how to bear it. Johnny's cry was loudest of them all, though he knew not why he cried, poor little fellow.
The mother quivered as she lay in Margaret's arms. Margaret heard a noise at the door.
'Open it. Open it quick,' said she to the eldest child. 'It's bolted; make no noise—be very still. Oh, papa, let them go upstairs very softly and carefully, and perhaps she will not hear them. She has fainted—that's all.'
'It's as well for her, poor creature,' said a woman following in the wake of the bearers of the dead. 'But yo're not fit to hold her. Stay, I'll run fetch a pillow and we'll let her down easy on the floor.'
This helpful neighbour was a great relief to Margaret; she was evidently a stranger to the house, a new-comer in the district, indeed; but she was so kind and thoughtful that Margaret felt she was no longer needed; and that it would be better, perhaps, to set an example of clearing the house, which was filled with idle, if sympathising gazers.
She looked round for Nicholas Higgins. He was not there. So she spoke to the woman who had taken the lead in placing Mrs. Boucher on the floor.
'Can you give all these people a hint that they had better leave in quietness? So that when she comes round, she should only find one or two that she knows about her. Papa, will you speak to the men, and get them to go away? She cannot breathe, poor thing, with this crowd about her.'
Margaret was kneeling down by Mrs. Boucher and bathing he face with vinegar; but in a few minutes she was surprised at the gush of fresh air. She looked round, and saw a smile pass between her father and the woman.
'What is it?' asked she.
'Only our good friend here,' replied her father, 'hit on a capital expedient for clearing the place.'
'I bid 'em begone, and each take a child with 'em, and to mind that they were orphans, and their mother a widow. It was who could do most, and the childer are sure of a bellyful to-day, and of kindness too. Does hoo know how he died?'
'No,' said Margaret; 'I could not tell her all at once.'
'Hoo mun be told because of th' Inquest. See! Hoo's coming round; shall you or I do it? or mappen your father would be best?'
'No; you, you,' said Margaret.
They awaited her perfect recovery in silence. Then the neighbour woman sat down on the floor, and took Mrs. Boucher's head and shoulders on her lap.
'Neighbour,' said she, 'your man is dead. Guess yo' how he died?'
'He were drowned,' said Mrs. Boucher, feebly, beginning to cry for the first time, at this rough probing of her sorrows.
'He were found drowned. He were coming home very hopeless o' aught on earth. He thought God could na be harder than men; mappen not so hard; mappen as tender as a mother; mappen tenderer. I'm not saying he did right, and I'm not saying he did wrong. All I say is, may neither me nor mine ever have his sore heart, or we may do like things.'
'He has left me alone wi' a' these children!' moaned the widow, less distressed at the manner of the death than Margaret expected; but it was of a piece with her helpless character to feel his loss as principally affecting herself and her children.
'Not alone,' said Mr. Hale, solemnly. 'Who is with you? Who will take up your cause?' The widow opened her eyes wide, and looked at the new speaker, of whose presence she had not been aware till then.
'Who has promised to be a father to the fatherless?' continued he.
'But I've getten six children, sir, and the eldest not eight years of age. I'm not meaning for to doubt His power, sir,—only it needs a deal o' trust;' and she began to cry afresh.
'Hoo'll be better able to talk to-morrow, sir,' said the neighbour. 'Best comfort now would be the feel of a child at her heart. I'm sorry they took the babby.'
'I'll go for it,' said Margaret. And in a few minutes she returned, carrying Johnnie, his face all smeared with eating, and his hands loaded with treasures in the shape of shells, and bits of crystal, and the head of a plaster figure. She placed him in his mother's arms.
'There!' said the woman, 'now you go. They'll cry together, and comfort together, better nor any one but a child can do. I'll stop with her as long as I'm needed, and if yo' come to-morrow, yo' can have a deal o' wise talk with her, that she's not up to to-day.'
As Margaret and her father went slowly up the street, she paused at Higgins's closed door.
'Shall we go in?' asked her father. 'I was thinking of him too.'
They knocked. There was no answer, so they tried the door. It was bolted, but they thought they heard him moving within.
'Nicholas!' said Margaret. There was no answer, and they might have gone away, believing the house to be empty, if there had not been some accidental fall, as of a book, within.
'Nicholas!' said Margaret again. 'It is only us. Won't you let us come in?'
'No,' said he. 'I spoke as plain as I could, 'bout using words, when I bolted th' door. Let me be, this day.'
Mr. Hale would have urged their desire, but Margaret placed her finger on his lips.
'I don't wonder at it,' said she. 'I myself long to be alone. It seems the only thing to do one good after a day like this.'
'A spade! a rake! a hoe!
A pickaxe or a bill!
A hook to reap, or a scythe to mow,
A flail, or what ye will—
And here's a ready hand
To ply the needful tool,
And skill'd enough, by lessons rough,
In Labour's rugged school.'
Higgins's door was locked the next day, when they went to pay their call on the widow Boucher: but they learnt this time from an officious neighbour, that he was really from home. He had, however, been in to see Mrs. Boucher, before starting on his day's business, whatever that was. It was but an unsatisfactory visit to Mrs. Boucher; she considered herself as an ill-used woman by her poor husband's suicide; and there was quite germ of truth enough in this idea to make it a very difficult one to refute. Still, it was unsatisfactory to see how completely her thoughts were turned upon herself and her own position, and this selfishness extended even to her relations with her children, whom she considered as incumbrances, even in the very midst of her somewhat animal affection for them. Margaret tried to make acquaintances with one or two of them, while her father strove to raise the widow's thoughts into some higher channel than that of mere helpless querulousness. She found that the children were truer and simpler mourners than the widow. Daddy had been a kind daddy to them; each could tell, in their eager stammering way, of some tenderness shown some indulgence granted by the lost father.
'Is yon thing upstairs really him? it doesna look like him. I'm feared on it, and I never was feared o' daddy.'
Margaret's heart bled to hear that the mother, in her selfish requirement of sympathy, had taken her children upstairs to see their disfigured father. It was intermingling the coarseness of horror with the profoundness of natural grief She tried to turn their thoughts in some other direction; on what they could do for mother; on what—for this was a more efficacious way of putting it—what father would have wished them to do. Margaret was more successful than Mr. Hale in her efforts. The children seeing their little duties lie in action close around them, began to try each one to do something that she suggested towards redding up the slatternly room. But her father set too high a standard, and too abstract a view, before the indolent invalid. She could not rouse her torpid mind into any vivid imagination of what her husband's misery might have been before he had resorted to the last terrible step; she could only look upon it as it affected herself; she could not enter into the enduring mercy of the God who had not specially interposed to prevent the water from drowning her prostrate husband; and although she was secretly blaming her husband for having fallen into such drear despair, and denying that he had any excuse for his last rash act, she was inveterate in her abuse of all who could by any possibility be supposed to have driven him to such desperation. The masters—Mr. Thornton in particular, whose mill had been attacked by Boucher, and who, after the warrant had been issued for his apprehension on the charge of rioting, had caused it to be withdrawn,—the Union, of which Higgins was the representative to the poor woman,—the children so numerous, so hungry, and so noisy—all made up one great army of personal enemies, whose fault it was that she was now a helpless widow.
Margaret heard enough of this unreasonableness to dishearten her; and when they came away she found it impossible to cheer her father.
'It is the town life,' said she. 'Their nerves are quickened by the haste and bustle and speed of everything around them, to say nothing of the confinement in these pent-up houses, which of itself is enough to induce depression and worry of spirits. Now in the country, people live so much more out of doors, even children, and even in the winter.'
'But people must live in towns. And in the country some get such stagnant habits of mind that they are almost fatalists.'
'Yes; I acknowledge that. I suppose each mode of life produces its own trials and its own temptations. The dweller in towns must find it as difficult to be patient and calm, as the country-bred man must find it to be active, and equal to unwonted emergencies. Both must find it hard to realise a future of any kind; the one because the present is so living and hurrying and close around him; the other because his life tempts him to revel in the mere sense of animal existence, not knowing of, and consequently not caring for any pungency of pleasure for the attainment of which he can plan, and deny himself and look forward.'
'And thus both the necessity for engrossment, and the stupid content in the present, produce the same effects. But this poor Mrs. Boucher! how little we can do for her.'
'And yet we dare not leave her without our efforts, although they may seem so useless. Oh papa! it's a hard world to live in!'
'So it is, my child. We feel it so just now, at any rate; but we have been very happy, even in the midst of our sorrow. What a pleasure Frederick's visit was!'
'Yes, that it was,' said Margaret; brightly. 'It was such a charming, snatched, forbidden thing.' But she suddenly stopped speaking. She had spoiled the remembrance of Frederick's visit to herself by her own cowardice. Of all faults the one she most despised in others was the want of bravery; the meanness of heart which leads to untruth. And here had she been guilty of it! Then came the thought of Mr. Thornton's cognisance of her falsehood. She wondered if she should have minded detection half so much from any one else. She tried herself in imagination with her Aunt Shaw and Edith; with her father; with Captain and Mr. Lennox; with Frederick. The thought of the last knowing what she had done, even in his own behalf, was the most painful, for the brother and sister were in the first flush of their mutual regard and love; but even any fall in Frederick's opinion was as nothing to the shame, the shrinking shame she felt at the thought of meeting Mr. Thornton again. And yet she longed to see him, to get it over; to understand where she stood in his opinion. Her cheeks burnt as she recollected how proudly she had implied an objection to trade (in the early days of their acquaintance), because it too often led to the deceit of passing off inferior for superior goods, in the one branch; of assuming credit for wealth and resources not possessed, in the other. She remembered Mr. Thornton's look of calm disdain, as in few words he gave her to understand that, in the great scheme of commerce, all dishonourable ways of acting were sure to prove injurious in the long run, and that, testing such actions simply according to the poor standard of success, there was folly and not wisdom in all such, and every kind of deceit in trade, as well as in other things. She remembered—she, then strong in her own untempted truth—asking him, if he did not think that buying in the cheapest and selling in the dearest market proved some want of the transparent justice which is so intimately connected with the idea of truth: and she had used the word chivalric—and her father had corrected her with the higher word, Christian; and so drawn the argument upon himself, while she sate silent by with a slight feeling of contempt.
No more contempt for her!—no more talk about the chivalric! Henceforward she must feel humiliated and disgraced in his sight. But when should she see him? Her heart leaped up in apprehension at every ring of the door-bell; and yet when it fell down to calmness, she felt strangely saddened and sick at heart at each disappointment. It was very evident that her father expected to see him, and was surprised that he did not come. The truth was, that there were points in their conversation the other night on which they had no time then to enlarge; but it had been understood that if possible on the succeeding evening—if not then, at least the very first evening that Mr. Thornton could command,—they should meet for further discussion. Mr. Hale had looked forward to this meeting ever since they had parted. He had not yet resumed the instruction to his pupils, which he had relinquished at the commencement of his wife's more serious illness, so he had fewer occupations than usual; and the great interest of the last day or so (Boucher's suicide) had driven him back with more eagerness than ever upon his speculations. He was restless all evening. He kept saying, 'I quite expected to have seen Mr. Thornton. I think the messenger who brought the book last night must have had some note, and forgot to deliver it. Do you think there has been any message left to-day?'
'I will go and inquire, papa,' said Margaret, after the changes on these sentences had been rung once or twice. 'Stay, there's a ring!' She sate down instantly, and bent her head attentively over her work. She heard a step on the stairs, but it was only one, and she knew it was Dixon's. She lifted up her head and sighed, and believed she felt glad.
'It's that Higgins, sir. He wants to see you, or else Miss Hale. Or it might be Miss Hale first, and then you, sir; for he's in a strange kind of way.
'He had better come up here, Dixon; and then he can see us both, and choose which he likes for his listener.'
'Oh! very well, sir. I've no wish to hear what he's got to say, I'm sure; only, if you could see his shoes, I'm sure you'd say the kitchen was the fitter place.
'He can wipe them, I suppose, said Mr. Hale. So Dixon flung off, to bid him walk up-stairs. She was a little mollified, however, when he looked at his feet with a hesitating air; and then, sitting down on the bottom stair, he took off the offending shoes, and without a word walked up-stairs.
'Sarvant, sir!' said he, slicking his hair down when he came into the room. 'If hoo'l excuse me (looking at Margaret) for being i' my stockings; I'se been tramping a' day, and streets is none o' th' cleanest.'
Margaret thought that fatigue might account for the change in his manner, for he was unusually quiet and subdued; and he had evidently some difficulty in saying what he came to say.
Mr. Hale's ever-ready sympathy with anything of shyness or hesitation, or want of self-possession, made him come to his aid.
'We shall have tea up directly, and then you'll take a cup with us, Mr. Higgins. I am sure you are tired, if you've been out much this wet relaxing day. Margaret, my dear, can't you hasten tea?'
Margaret could only hasten tea by taking the preparation of it into her own hands, and so offending Dixon, who was emerging out of her sorrow for her late mistress into a very touchy, irritable state. But Martha, like all who came in contact with Margaret—even Dixon herself, in the long run—felt it a pleasure and an honour to forward any of her wishes; and her readiness, and Margaret's sweet forbearance, soon made Dixon ashamed of herself.
'Why master and you must always be asking the lower classes up-stairs, since we came to Milton, I cannot understand. Folk at Helstone were never brought higher than the kitchen; and I've let one or two of them know before now that they might think it an honour to be even there.'
Higgins found it easier to unburden himself to one than to two.
After Margaret left the room, he went to the door and assured
himself that it was shut. Then he came and stood close to Mr.
'Master,' said he, 'yo'd not guess easy what I've been tramping after to-day. Special if yo' remember my manner o' talk yesterday. I've been a seeking work. I have' said he. 'I said to mysel', I'd keep a civil tongue in my head, let who would say what 'em would. I'd set my teeth into my tongue sooner nor speak i' haste. For that man's sake—yo' understand,' jerking his thumb back in some unknown direction.
'No, I don't,' said Mr. Hale, seeing he waited for some kind of assent, and completely bewildered as to who 'that man' could be.
'That chap as lies theer,' said he, with another jerk. 'Him as went and drownded himself, poor chap! I did na' think he'd got it in him to lie still and let th' water creep o'er him till he died. Boucher, yo' know.'
'Yes, I know now,' said Mr. Hale. 'Go back to what you were saying: you'd not speak in haste——'
'For his sake. Yet not for his sake; for where'er he is, and whate'er, he'll ne'er know other clemming or cold again; but for the wife's sake, and the bits o' childer.'
'God bless you!' said Mr. Hale, starting up; then, calming down, he said breathlessly, 'What do you mean? Tell me out.'
'I have telled yo',' said Higgins, a little surprised at Mr. Hale's agitation. 'I would na ask for work for mysel'; but them's left as a charge on me. I reckon, I would ha guided Boucher to a better end; but I set him off o' th' road, and so I mun answer for him.'
Mr. Hale got hold of Higgins's hand and shook it heartily, without speaking. Higgins looked awkward and ashamed.
'Theer, theer, master! Theer's ne'er a man, to call a man, amongst us, but what would do th' same; ay, and better too; for, belie' me, I'se ne'er got a stroke o' work, nor yet a sight of any. For all I telled Hamper that, let alone his pledge—which I would not sign—no, I could na, not e'en for this—he'd ne'er ha' such a worker on his mill as I would be—he'd ha' none o' me—no more would none o' th' others. I'm a poor black feckless sheep—childer may clem for aught I can do, unless, parson, yo'd help me?'
'Help you! How? I would do anything,—but what can I do?'
'Miss there'—for Margaret had re-entered the room, and stood silent, listening—'has often talked grand o' the South, and the ways down there. Now I dunnot know how far off it is, but I've been thinking if I could get 'em down theer, where food is cheap and wages good, and all the folk, rich and poor, master and man, friendly like; yo' could, may be, help me to work. I'm not forty-five, and I've a deal o' strength in me, measter.'
'But what kind of work could you do, my man?'
'Well, I reckon I could spade a bit——'
'And for that,' said Margaret, stepping forwards, 'for anything you could do, Higgins, with the best will in the world, you would, may be, get nine shillings a week; may be ten, at the outside. Food is much the same as here, except that you might have a little garden——'
'The childer could work at that,' said he. 'I'm sick o' Milton anyways, and Milton is sick o' me.'
'You must not go to the South,' said Margaret, 'for all that. You could not stand it. You would have to be out all weathers. It would kill you with rheumatism. The mere bodily work at your time of life would break you down. The fare is far different to what you have been accustomed to.'
'I'se nought particular about my meat,' said he, as if offended.
'But you've reckoned on having butcher's meat once a day, if you're in work; pay for that out of your ten shillings, and keep those poor children if you can. I owe it to you—since it's my way of talking that has set you off on this idea—to put it all clear before you. You would not bear the dulness of the life; you don't know what it is; it would eat you away like rust. Those that have lived there all their lives, are used to soaking in the stagnant waters. They labour on, from day to day, in the great solitude of steaming fields—never speaking or lifting up their poor, bent, downcast heads. The hard spade-work robs their brain of life; the sameness of their toil deadens their imagination; they don't care to meet to talk over thoughts and speculations, even of the weakest, wildest kind, after their work is done; they go home brutishly tired, poor creatures! caring for nothing but food and rest. You could not stir them up into any companionship, which you get in a town as plentiful as the air you breathe, whether it be good or bad—and that I don't know; but I do know, that you of all men are not one to bear a life among such labourers. What would be peace to them would be eternal fretting to you. Think no more of it, Nicholas, I beg. Besides, you could never pay to get mother and children all there—that's one good thing.'
'I've reckoned for that. One house mun do for us a', and the furniture o' t'other would go a good way. And men theer mun have their families to keep—mappen six or seven childer. God help 'em!' said he, more convinced by his own presentation of the facts than by all Margaret had said, and suddenly renouncing the idea, which had but recently formed itself in a brain worn out by the day's fatigue and anxiety. 'God help 'em! North an' South have each getten their own troubles. If work's sure and steady theer, labour's paid at starvation prices; while here we'n rucks o' money coming in one quarter, and ne'er a farthing th' next. For sure, th' world is in a confusion that passes me or any other man to understand; it needs fettling, and who's to fettle it, if it's as yon folks say, and there's nought but what we see?'
Mr. Hale was busy cutting bread and butter; Margaret was glad of this, for she saw that Higgins was better left to himself: that if her father began to speak ever so mildly on the subject of Higgins's thoughts, the latter would consider himself challenged to an argument, and would feel himself bound to maintain his own ground. She and her father kept up an indifferent conversation until Higgins, scarcely aware whether he ate or not, had made a very substantial meal. Then he pushed his chair away from the table, and tried to take an interest in what they were saying; but it was of no use; and he fell back into dreamy gloom. Suddenly, Margaret said (she had been thinking of it for some time, but the words had stuck in her throat), 'Higgins, have you been to Marlborough Mills to seek for work?'
'Thornton's?' asked he. 'Ay, I've been at Thornton's.'
'And what did he say?'
'Such a chap as me is not like to see the measter. Th' o'erlooker bid me go and be d——d.'
'I wish you had seen Mr. Thornton,' said Mr. Hale. 'He might not have given you work, but he would not have used such language.'
'As to th' language, I'm welly used to it; it dunnot matter to me. I'm not nesh mysel' when I'm put out. It were th' fact that I were na wanted theer, no more nor ony other place, as I minded.'
'But I wish you had seen Mr. Thornton,' repeated Margaret. 'Would you go again—it's a good deal to ask, I know—but would you go to-morrow and try him? I should be so glad if you would.'
'I'm afraid it would be of no use,' said Mr. Hale, in a low voice. 'It would be better to let me speak to him.' Margaret still looked at Higgins for his answer. Those grave soft eyes of hers were difficult to resist. He gave a great sigh.
'It would tax my pride above a bit; if it were for mysel', I could stand a deal o' clemming first; I'd sooner knock him down than ask a favour from him. I'd a deal sooner be flogged mysel'; but yo're not a common wench, axing yo'r pardon, nor yet have yo' common ways about yo'. I'll e'en make a wry face, and go at it to-morrow. Dunna yo' think that he'll do it. That man has it in him to be burnt at the stake afore he'll give in. I do it for yo'r sake, Miss Hale, and it's first time in my life as e'er I give way to a woman. Neither my wife nor Bess could e'er say that much again me.'
'All the more do I thank you,' said Margaret, smiling. 'Though I don't believe you: I believe you have just given way to wife and daughter as much as most men.'
'And as to Mr. Thornton,' said Mr. Hale, 'I'll give you a note to him, which, I think I may venture to say, will ensure you a hearing.'
'I thank yo' kindly, sir, but I'd as lief stand on my own bottom. I dunnot stomach the notion of having favour curried for me, by one as doesn't know the ins and outs of the quarrel. Meddling 'twixt master and man is liker meddling 'twixt husband and wife than aught else: it takes a deal o' wisdom for to do ony good. I'll stand guard at the lodge door. I'll stand there fro' six in the morning till I get speech on him. But I'd liefer sweep th' streets, if paupers had na' got hold on that work. Dunna yo' hope, miss. There'll be more chance o' getting milk out of a flint. I wish yo' a very good night, and many thanks to yo'.'
'You'll find your shoe's by the kitchen fire; I took them there to dry,' said Margaret.
He turned round and looked at her steadily, and then he brushed his lean hand across his eyes and went his way.
'How proud that man is!' said her father, who was a little annoyed at the manner in which Higgins had declined his intercession with Mr. Thornton.
'He is,' said Margaret; 'but what grand makings of a man there are in him, pride and all.'
'It's amusing to see how he evidently respects the part in Mr.
Thornton's character which is like his own.'
'There's granite in all these northern people, papa, is there not?'
'There was none in poor Boucher, I am afraid; none in his wife either.'
'I should guess from their tones that they had Irish blood in them. I wonder what success he'll have to-morrow. If he and Mr. Thornton would speak out together as man to man—if Higgins would forget that Mr. Thornton was a master, and speak to him as he does to us—and if Mr. Thornton would be patient enough to listen to him with his human heart, not with his master's ears—'
'You are getting to do Mr. Thornton justice at last, Margaret,' said her father, pinching her ear.
Margaret had a strange choking at her heart, which made her unable to answer. 'Oh!' thought she, 'I wish I were a man, that I could go and force him to express his disapprobation, and tell him honestly that I knew I deserved it. It seems hard to lose him as a friend just when I had begun to feel his value. How tender he was with dear mamma! If it were only for her sake, I wish he would come, and then at least I should know how much I was abased in his eyes.'
'Then proudly, proudly up she rose,
Tho' the tear was in her e'e,
"Whate'er ye say, think what ye may,
Ye's get na word frae me!"'
It was not merely that Margaret was known to Mr. Thornton to have spoken falsely,—though she imagined that for this reason only was she so turned in his opinion,—but that this falsehood of hers bore a distinct reference in his mind to some other lover. He could not forget the fond and earnest look that had passed between her and some other man—the attitude of familiar confidence, if not of positive endearment. The thought of this perpetually stung him; it was a picture before his eyes, wherever he went and whatever he was doing. In addition to this (and he ground his teeth as he remembered it), was the hour, dusky twilight; the place, so far away from home, and comparatively unfrequented. His nobler self had said at first, that all this last might be accidental, innocent, justifiable; but once allow her right to love and be beloved (and had he any reason to deny her right?—had not her words been severely explicit when she cast his love away from her?), she might easily have been beguiled into a longer walk, on to a later hour than she had anticipated. But that falsehood! which showed a fatal consciousness of something wrong, and to be concealed, which was unlike her. He did her that justice, though all the time it would have been a relief to believe her utterly unworthy of his esteem. It was this that made the misery—that he passionately loved her, and thought her, even with all her faults, more lovely and more excellent than any other woman; yet he deemed her so attached to some other man, so led away by her affection for him as to violate her truthful nature. The very falsehood that stained her, was a proof how blindly she loved another—this dark, slight, elegant, handsome man—while he himself was rough, and stern, and strongly made. He lashed himself into an agony of fierce jealousy. He thought of that look, that attitude!—how he would have laid his life at her feet for such tender glances, such fond detention! He mocked at himself, for having valued the mechanical way in which she had protected him from the fury of the mob; now he had seen how soft and bewitching she looked when with a man she really loved. He remembered, point by point, the sharpness of her words—'There was not a man in all that crowd for whom she would not have done as much, far more readily than for him.' He shared with the mob, in her desire of averting bloodshed from them; but this man, this hidden lover, shared with nobody; he had looks, words, hand-cleavings, lies, concealment, all to himself.
Mr. Thornton was conscious that he had never been so irritable as he was now, in all his life long; he felt inclined to give a short abrupt answer, more like a bark than a speech, to every one that asked him a question; and this consciousness hurt his pride he had always piqued himself on his self-control, and control himself he would. So the manner was subdued to a quiet deliberation, but the matter was even harder and sterner than common. He was more than usually silent at home; employing his evenings in a continual pace backwards and forwards, which would have annoyed his mother exceedingly if it had been practised by any one else; and did not tend to promote any forbearance on her part even to this beloved son.
'Can you stop—can you sit down for a moment? I have something to say to you, if you would give up that everlasting walk, walk, walk.'
He sat down instantly, on a chair against the wall.
'I want to speak to you about Betsy. She says she must leave us; that her lover's death has so affected her spirits she can't give her heart to her work.'
'Very well. I suppose other cooks are to be met with.'
'That's so like a man. It's not merely the cooking, it is that she knows all the ways of the house. Besides, she tells me something about your friend Miss Hale.'
'Miss Hale is no friend of mine. Mr. Hale is my friend.'
'I am glad to hear you say so, for if she had been your friend, what Betsy says would have annoyed you.'
'Let me hear it,' said he, with the extreme quietness of manner he had been assuming for the last few days.
'Betsy says, that the night on which her lover—I forget his name—for she always calls him "he"——'
'The night on which Leonards was last seen at the station—when he was last seen on duty, in fact—Miss Hale was there, walking about with a young man who, Betsy believes, killed Leonards by some blow or push.'
'Leonards was not killed by any blow or push.'
'How do you know?'
'Because I distinctly put the question to the surgeon of the Infirmary. He told me there was an internal disease of long standing, caused by Leonards' habit of drinking to excess; that the fact of his becoming rapidly worse while in a state of intoxication, settled the question as to whether the last fatal attack was caused by excess of drinking, or the fall.'
'The fall! What fall?'
'Caused by the blow or push of which Betsy speaks.'
'Then there was a blow or push?'
'I believe so.'
'And who did it?'
'As there was no inquest, in consequence of the doctor's opinion,
I cannot tell you.'
'But Miss Hale was there?'
'And with a young man?'
Still no answer. At last he said: 'I tell you, mother, that there was no inquest—no inquiry. No judicial inquiry, I mean.'
'Betsy says that Woolmer (some man she knows, who is in a grocer's shop out at Crampton) can swear that Miss Hale was at the station at that hour, walking backwards and forwards with a young man.'
'I don't see what we have to do with that. Miss Hale is at liberty to please herself.'
'I'm glad to hear you say so,' said Mrs. Thornton, eagerly. 'It certainly signifies very little to us—not at all to you, after what has passed! but I—I made a promise to Mrs. Hale, that I would not allow her daughter to go wrong without advising and remonstrating with her. I shall certainly let her know my opinion of such conduct.'
'I do not see any harm in what she did that evening,' said Mr. Thornton, getting up, and coming near to his mother; he stood by the chimney-piece with his face turned away from the room.
'You would not have approved of Fanny's being seen out, after dark, in rather a lonely place, walking about with a young man. I say nothing of the taste which could choose the time, when her mother lay unburied, for such a promenade. Should you have liked your sister to have been noticed by a grocer's assistant for doing so?'
'In the first place, as it is not many years since I myself was a draper's assistant, the mere circumstance of a grocer's assistant noticing any act does not alter the character of the act to me. And in the next place, I see a great deal of difference between Miss Hale and Fanny. I can imagine that the one may have weighty reasons, which may and ought to make her overlook any seeming Impropriety in her conduct. I never knew Fanny have weighty reasons for anything. Other people must guard her. I believe Miss Hale is a guardian to herself.'
'A pretty character of your sister, indeed! Really, John, one would have thought Miss Hale had done enough to make you clear-sighted. She drew you on to an offer, by a bold display of pretended regard for you,—to play you off against this very young man, I've no doubt. Her whole conduct is clear to me now. You believe he is her lover, I suppose—you agree to that.'
He turned round to his mother; his face was very gray and grim. 'Yes, mother. I do believe he is her lover.' When he had spoken, he turned round again; he writhed himself about, like one in bodily pain. He leant his face against his hand. Then before she could speak, he turned sharp again:
'Mother. He is her lover, whoever he is; but she may need help and womanly counsel;—there may be difficulties or temptations which I don't know. I fear there are. I don't want to know what they are; but as you have ever been a good—ay! and a tender mother to me, go to her, and gain her confidence, and tell her what is best to be done. I know that something is wrong; some dread, must be a terrible torture to her.'
'For God's sake, John!' said his mother, now really shocked, 'what do you mean? What do you mean? What do you know?'
He did not reply to her.
'John! I don't know what I shan't think unless you speak. You have no right to say what you have done against her.'
'Not against her, mother! I could not speak against her.'
'Well! you have no right to say what you have done, unless you say more. These half-expressions are what ruin a woman's character.'
'Her character! Mother, you do not dare—' he faced about, and looked into her face with his flaming eyes. Then, drawing himself up into determined composure and dignity, he said, 'I will not say any more than this, which is neither more nor less than the simple truth, and I am sure you believe me,—I have good reason to believe, that Miss Hale is in some strait and difficulty connected with an attachment which, of itself, from my knowledge of Miss Hale's character, is perfectly innocent and right. What my reason is, I refuse to tell. But never let me hear any one say a word against her, implying any more serious imputation than that she now needs the counsel of some kind and gentle woman. You promised Mrs. Hale to be that woman!'
No!' said Mrs. Thornton. 'I am happy to say, I did not promise kindness and gentleness, for I felt at the time that it might be out of my power to render these to one of Miss Hale's character and disposition. I promised counsel and advice, such as I would give to my own daughter; I shall speak to her as I would do to Fanny, if she had gone gallivanting with a young man in the dusk. I shall speak with relation to the circumstances I know, without being influenced either one way or another by the "strong reasons" which you will not confide to me. Then I shall have fulfilled my promise, and done my duty.'
'She will never bear it,' said he passionately.
'She will have to bear it, if I speak in her dead mother's name.'
'Well!' said he, breaking away, 'don't tell me any more about it. I cannot endure to think of it. It will be better that you should speak to her any way, than that she should not be spoken to at all.—Oh! that look of love!' continued he, between his teeth, as he bolted himself into his own private room. 'And that cursed lie; which showed some terrible shame in the background, to be kept from the light in which I thought she lived perpetually! Oh, Margaret, Margaret! Mother, how you have tortured me! Oh! Margaret, could you not have loved me? I am but uncouth and hard, but I would never have led you into any falsehood for me.'
The more Mrs. Thornton thought over what her son had said, in pleading for a merciful judgment for Margaret's indiscretion, the more bitterly she felt inclined towards her. She took a savage pleasure in the idea of 'speaking her mind' to her, in the guise of fulfilment of a duty. She enjoyed the thought of showing herself untouched by the 'glamour,' which she was well aware Margaret had the power of throwing over many people. She snorted scornfully over the picture of the beauty of her victim; her jet black hair, her clear smooth skin, her lucid eyes would not help to save her one word of the just and stern reproach which Mrs. Thornton spent half the night in preparing to her mind.
'Is Miss Hale within?' She knew she was, for she had seen her at the window, and she had her feet inside the little hall before Martha had half answered her question.
Margaret was sitting alone, writing to Edith, and giving her many particulars of her mother's last days. It was a softening employment, and she had to brush away the unbidden tears as Mrs. Thornton was announced.
She was so gentle and ladylike in her mode of reception that her visitor was somewhat daunted; and it became impossible to utter the speech, so easy of arrangement with no one to address it to. Margaret's low rich voice was softer than usual; her manner more gracious, because in her heart she was feeling very grateful to Mrs. Thornton for the courteous attention of her call. She exerted herself to find subjects of interest for conversation; praised Martha, the servant whom Mrs. Thornton had found for them; had asked Edith for a little Greek air, about which she had spoken to Miss Thornton. Mrs. Thornton was fairly discomfited. Her sharp Damascus blade seemed out of place, and useless among rose-leaves. She was silent, because she was trying to task herself up to her duty At last, she stung herself into its performance by a suspicion which, in spite of all probability, she allowed to cross her mind, that all this sweetness was put on with a view of propitiating Mr. Thornton; that, somehow, the other attachment had fallen through, and that it suited Miss Hale's purpose to recall her rejected lover. Poor Margaret! there was perhaps so much truth in the suspicion as this: that Mrs. Thornton was the mother of one whose regard she valued, and feared to have lost; and this thought unconsciously added to her natural desire of pleasing one who was showing her kindness by her visit. Mrs. Thornton stood up to go, but yet she seemed to have something more to say. She cleared her throat and began:
'Miss Hale, I have a duty to perform. I promised your poor mother that, as far as my poor judgment went, I would not allow you to act in any way wrongly, or (she softened her speech down a little here) inadvertently, without remonstrating; at least, without offering advice, whether you took it or not.'
Margaret stood before her, blushing like any culprit, with her eyes dilating as she gazed at Mrs. Thornton. She thought she had come to speak to her about the falsehood she had told—that Mr. Thornton had employed her to explain the danger she had exposed herself to, of being confuted in full court! and although her heart sank to think he had not rather chosen to come himself, and upbraid her, and receive her penitence, and restore her again to his good opinion, yet she was too much humbled not to bear any blame on this subject patiently and meekly.
Mrs. Thornton went on:
'At first, when I heard from one of my servants, that you had been seen walking about with a gentleman, so far from home as the Outwood station, at such a time of the evening, I could hardly believe it. But my son, I am sorry to say, confirmed her story. It was indiscreet, to say the least; many a young woman has lost her character before now——'
Margaret's eyes flashed fire. This was a new idea—this was too insulting. If Mrs. Thornton had spoken to her about the lie she had told, well and good—she would have owned it, and humiliated herself But to interfere with her conduct—to speak of her character! she—Mrs. Thornton, a mere stranger—it was too impertinent! She would not answer her—not one word. Mrs. Thornton saw the battle-spirit in Margaret's eyes, and it called up her combativeness also.
'For your mother's sake, I have thought it right to warn you against such improprieties; they must degrade you in the long run in the estimation of the world, even if in fact they do not lead you to positive harm.'
'For my mother's sake,' said Margaret, in a tearful voice, 'I will bear much; but I cannot bear everything. She never meant me to be exposed to insult, I am sure.'
'Insult, Miss Hale!'
'Yes, madam,' said Margaret more steadily, 'it is insult. What do you know of me that should lead you to suspect—Oh!' said she, breaking down, and covering her face with her hands—'I know now, Mr. Thornton has told you——'
'No, Miss Hale,' said Mrs. Thornton, her truthfulness causing her to arrest the confession Margaret was on the point of making, though her curiosity was itching to hear it. 'Stop. Mr. Thornton has told me nothing. You do not know my son. You are not worthy to know him. He said this. Listen, young lady, that you may understand, if you can, what sort of a man you rejected. This Milton manufacturer, his great tender heart scorned as it was scorned, said to me only last night, "Go to her. I have good reason to know that she is in some strait, arising out of some attachment; and she needs womanly counsel." I believe those were his very words. Farther than that—beyond admitting the fact of your being at the Outwood station with a gentleman, on the evening of the twenty-sixth—he has said nothing—not one word against you. If he has knowledge of anything which should make you sob so, he keeps it to himself.'
Margaret's face was still hidden in her hands, the fingers of which were wet with tears. Mrs. Thornton was a little mollified.
'Come, Miss Hale. There may be circumstances, I'll allow, that, if explained, may take off from the seeming impropriety.'
Still no answer. Margaret was considering what to say; she wished to stand well with Mrs. Thornton; and yet she could not, might not, give any explanation. Mrs. Thornton grew impatient.
'I shall be sorry to break off an acquaintance; but for Fanny's sake—as I told my son, if Fanny had done so we should consider it a great disgrace—and Fanny might be led away——'
'I can give you no explanation,' said Margaret, in a low voice. 'I have done wrong, but not in the way you think or know about. I think Mr. Thornton judges me more mercifully than you;'—she had hard work to keep herself from choking with her tears—'but, I believe, madam, you mean to do rightly.'
'Thank you,' said Mrs. Thornton, drawing herself up; 'I was not aware that my meaning was doubted. It is the last time I shall interfere. I was unwilling to consent to do it, when your mother asked me. I had not approved of my son's attachment to you, while I only suspected it. You did not appear to me worthy of him. But when you compromised yourself as you did at the time of the riot, and exposed yourself to the comments of servants and workpeople, I felt it was no longer right to set myself against my son's wish of proposing to you—a wish, by the way, which he had always denied entertaining until the day of the riot.' Margaret winced, and drew in her breath with a long, hissing sound; of which, however, Mrs. Thornton took no notice. 'He came; you had apparently changed your mind. I told my son yesterday, that I thought it possible, short as was the interval, you might have heard or learnt something of this other lover——'
'What must you think of me, madam?' asked Margaret, throwing her head back with proud disdain, till her throat curved outwards like a swan's. 'You can say nothing more, Mrs. Thornton. I decline every attempt to justify myself for anything. You must allow me to leave the room.'
And she swept out of it with the noiseless grace of an offended princess. Mrs. Thornton had quite enough of natural humour to make her feel the ludicrousness of the position in which she was left. There was nothing for it but to show herself out. She was not particularly annoyed at Margaret's way of behaving. She did not care enough for her for that. She had taken Mrs. Thornton's remonstrance to the full as keenly to heart as that lady expected; and Margaret's passion at once mollified her visitor, far more than any silence or reserve could have done. It showed the effect of her words. 'My young lady,' thought Mrs. Thornton to herself; 'you've a pretty good temper of your own. If John and you had come together, he would have had to keep a tight hand over you, to make you know your place. But I don't think you will go a-walking again with your beau, at such an hour of the day, in a hurry. You've too much pride and spirit in you for that. I like to see a girl fly out at the notion of being talked about. It shows they're neither giddy, nor hold by nature. As for that girl, she might be hold, but she'd never be giddy. I'll do her that justice. Now as to Fanny, she'd be giddy, and not bold. She's no courage in her, poor thing!'
Mr. Thornton was not spending the morning so satisfactorily as his mother. She, at any rate, was fulfilling her determined purpose. He was trying to understand where he stood; what damage the strike had done him. A good deal of his capital was locked up in new and expensive machinery; and he had also bought cotton largely, with a view to some great orders which he had in hand. The strike had thrown him terribly behindhand, as to the completion of these orders. Even with his own accustomed and skilled workpeople, he would have had some difficulty in fulfilling his engagements; as it was, the incompetence of the Irish hands, who had to be trained to their work, at a time requiring unusual activity, was a daily annoyance.
It was not a favourable hour for Higgins to make his request. But he had promised Margaret to do it at any cost. So, though every moment added to his repugnance, his pride, and his sullenness of temper, he stood leaning against the dead wall, hour after hour, first on one leg, then on the other. At last the latch was sharply lifted, and out came Mr. Thornton.
'I want for to speak to yo', sir.'
'Can't stay now, my man. I'm too late as it is.'
'Well, sir, I reckon I can wait till yo' come back.'
Mr. Thornton was half way down the street. Higgins sighed. But it was no use. To catch him in the street was his only chance of seeing 'the measter;' if he had rung the lodge bell, or even gone up to the house to ask for him, he would have been referred to the overlooker. So he stood still again, vouchsafing no answer, but a short nod of recognition to the few men who knew and spoke to him, as the crowd drove out of the millyard at dinner-time, and scowling with all his might at the Irish 'knobsticks' who had just been imported. At last Mr. Thornton returned.
'What! you there still!'
'Ay, sir. I mun speak to yo'.'
'Come in here, then. Stay, we'll go across the yard; the men are not come back, and we shall have it to ourselves. These good people, I see, are at dinner;' said he, closing the door of the porter's lodge.
He stopped to speak to the overlooker. The latter said in a low tone:
'I suppose you know, sir, that that man is Higgins, one of the leaders of the Union; he that made that speech in Hurstfield.'
'No, I didn't,' said Mr. Thornton, looking round sharply at his follower. Higgins was known to him by name as a turbulent spirit.
'Come along,' said he, and his tone was rougher than before. 'It is men such as this,' thought he, 'who interrupt commerce and injure the very town they live in: mere demagogues, lovers of power, at whatever cost to others.'
'Well, sir! what do you want with me?' said Mr. Thornton, facing round at him, as soon as they were in the counting-house of the mill.
'My name is Higgins'—
'I know that,' broke in Mr. Thornton. 'What do you want, Mr.
Higgins? That's the question.'
'I want work.'
'Work! You're a pretty chap to come asking me for work. You don't want impudence, that's very clear.'
'I've getten enemies and backbiters, like my betters; but I ne'er heerd o' ony of them calling me o'er-modest,' said Higgins. His blood was a little roused by Mr. Thornton's manner, more than by his words.
Mr. Thornton saw a letter addressed to himself on the table. He took it up and read it through. At the end, he looked up and said, 'What are you waiting for?'
'An answer to the question I axed.'
'I gave it you before. Don't waste any more of your time.'
'Yo' made a remark, sir, on my impudence: but I were taught that it was manners to say either "yes" or "no," when I were axed a civil question. I should be thankfu' to yo' if yo'd give me work. Hamper will speak to my being a good hand.'
'I've a notion you'd better not send me to Hamper to ask for a character, my man. I might hear more than you'd like.'
'I'd take th' risk. Worst they could say of me is, that I did what I thought best, even to my own wrong.'
'You'd better go and try them, then, and see whether they'll give you work. I've turned off upwards of a hundred of my best hands, for no other fault than following you and such as you; and d'ye think I'll take you on? I might as well put a firebrand into the midst of the cotton-waste.'
Higgins turned away; then the recollection of Boucher came over him, and he faced round with the greatest concession he could persuade himself to make.
'I'd promise yo', measter, I'd not speak a word as could do harm, if so be yo' did right by us; and I'd promise more: I'd promise that when I seed yo' going wrong, and acting unfair, I'd speak to yo' in private first; and that would be a fair warning. If yo' and I did na agree in our opinion o' your conduct, yo' might turn me off at an hour's notice.'
'Upon my word, you don't think small beer of yourself! Hamper has had a loss of you. How came he to let you and your wisdom go?'
'Well, we parted wi' mutual dissatisfaction. I wouldn't gi'e the pledge they were asking; and they wouldn't have me at no rate. So I'm free to make another engagement; and as I said before, though I should na' say it, I'm a good hand, measter, and a steady man—specially when I can keep fro' drink; and that I shall do now, if I ne'er did afore.'
'That you may have more money laid up for another strike, I suppose?'
'No! I'd be thankful if I was free to do that; it's for to keep th' widow and childer of a man who was drove mad by them knobsticks o' yourn; put out of his place by a Paddy that did na know weft fro' warp.'
'Well! you'd better turn to something else, if you've any such good intention in your head. I shouldn't advise you to stay in Milton: you're too well known here.'
'If it were summer,' said Higgins, 'I'd take to Paddy's work, and go as a navvy, or haymaking, or summut, and ne'er see Milton again. But it's winter, and th' childer will clem.'
'A pretty navvy you'd make! why, you couldn't do half a day's work at digging against an Irishman.'
'I'd only charge half-a-day for th' twelve hours, if I could only do half-a-day's work in th' time. Yo're not knowing of any place, where they could gi' me a trial, away fro' the mills, if I'm such a firebrand? I'd take any wage they thought I was worth, for the sake of those childer.'
'Don't you see what you would be? You'd be a knobstick. You'd be taking less wages than the other labourers—all for the sake of another man's children. Think how you'd abuse any poor fellow who was willing to take what he could get to keep his own children. You and your Union would soon be down upon him. No! no! if it's only for the recollection of the way in which you've used the poor knobsticks before now, I say No! to your question. I'll not give you work. I won't say, I don't believe your pretext for coming and asking for work; I know nothing about it. It may be true, or it may not. It's a very unlikely story, at any rate. Let me pass. I'll not give you work. There's your answer.'
'I hear, sir. I would na ha' troubled yo', but that I were bid to come, by one as seemed to think yo'd getten some soft place in, yo'r heart. Hoo were mistook, and I were misled. But I'm not the first man as is misled by a woman.'
'Tell her to mind her own business the next time, instead of taking up your time and mine too. I believe women are at the bottom of every plague in this world. Be off with you.'
'I'm obleeged to yo' for a' yo'r kindness, measter, and most of a' for yo'r civil way o' saying good-bye.'
Mr. Thornton did not deign a reply. But, looking out of the window a minute after, he was struck with the lean, bent figure going out of the yard: the heavy walk was in strange contrast with the resolute, clear determination of the man to speak to him. He crossed to the porter's lodge:
'How long has that man Higgins been waiting to speak to me?'
'He was outside the gate before eight o'clock, sir. I think he's been there ever since.'
'And it is now—?'
'Just one, sir.'
'Five hours,' thought Mr. Thornton; 'it's a long time for a man to wait, doing nothing but first hoping and then fearing.'
'Nay, I have done; you get no more of me:
And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart,
That thus so clearly I myself am free.'
Margaret shut herself up in her own room, after she had quitted Mrs. Thornton. She began to walk backwards and forwards, in her old habitual way of showing agitation; but, then, remembering that in that slightly-built house every step was heard from one room to another, she sate down until she heard Mrs. Thornton go safely out of the house. She forced herself to recollect all the conversation that had passed between them; speech by speech, she compelled her memory to go through with it. At the end, she rose up, and said to herself, in a melancholy tone:
'At any rate, her words do not touch me; they fall off from me; for I am innocent of all the motives she attributes to me. But still, it is hard to think that any one—any woman—can believe all this of another so easily. It is hard and sad. Where I have done wrong, she does not accuse me—she does not know. He never told her: I might have known he would not!'
She lifted up her head, as if she took pride in any delicacy of feeling which Mr. Thornton had shown. Then, as a new thought came across her, she pressed her hands tightly together.
'He, too, must take poor Frederick for some lover.' (She blushed as the word passed through her mind.) 'I see it now. It is not merely that he knows of my falsehood, but he believes that some one else cares for me; and that I——Oh dear!—oh dear! What shall I do? What do I mean? Why do I care what he thinks, beyond the mere loss of his good opinion as regards my telling the truth or not? I cannot tell. But I am very miserable! Oh, how unhappy this last year has been! I have passed out of childhood into old age. I have had no youth—no womanhood; the hopes of womanhood have closed for me—for I shall never marry; and I anticipate cares and sorrows just as if I were an old woman, and with the same fearful spirit. I am weary of this continual call upon me for strength. I could bear up for papa; because that is a natural, pious duty. And I think I could bear up against—at any rate, I could have the energy to resent, Mrs. Thornton's unjust, impertinent suspicions. But it is hard to feel how completely he must misunderstand me. What has happened to make me so morbid to-day? I do not know. I only know I cannot help it. I must give way sometimes. No, I will not, though,' said she, springing to her feet. 'I will not—I will not think of myself and my own position. I won't examine into my own feelings. It would be of no use now. Some time, if I live to be an old woman, I may sit over the fire, and, looking into the embers, see the life that might have been.'
All this time, she was hastily putting on her things to go out, only stopping from time to time to wipe her eyes, with an impatience of gesture at the tears that would come, in spite of all her bravery.
'I dare say, there's many a woman makes as sad a mistake as I have done, and only finds it out too late. And how proudly and impertinently I spoke to him that day! But I did not know then. It has come upon me little by little, and I don't know where it began. Now I won't give way. I shall find it difficult to behave in the same way to him, with this miserable consciousness upon me; but I will be very calm and very quiet, and say very little. But, to be sure, I may not see him; he keeps out of our way evidently. That would be worse than all. And yet no wonder that he avoids me, believing what he must about me.'
She went out, going rapidly towards the country, and trying to drown reflection by swiftness of motion.
As she stood on the door-step, at her return, her father came up:
'Good girl!' said he. 'You've been to Mrs. Boucher's. I was just meaning to go there, if I had time, before dinner.'
'No, papa; I have not,' said Margaret, reddening. 'I never thought about her. But I will go directly after dinner; I will go while you are taking your nap.
Accordingly Margaret went. Mrs. Boucher was very ill; really ill—not merely ailing. The kind and sensible neighbour, who had come in the other day, seemed to have taken charge of everything. Some of the children were gone to the neighbours. Mary Higgins had come for the three youngest at dinner-time; and since then Nicholas had gone for the doctor. He had not come as yet; Mrs. Boucher was dying; and there was nothing to do but to wait. Margaret thought that she should like to know his opinion, and that she could not do better than go and see the Higginses in the meantime. She might then possibly hear whether Nicholas had been able to make his application to Mr. Thornton.
She found Nicholas busily engaged in making a penny spin on the dresser, for the amusement of three little children, who were clinging to him in a fearless manner. He, as well as they, was smiling at a good long spin; and Margaret thought, that the happy look of interest in his occupation was a good sign. When the penny stopped spinning, 'lile Johnnie' began to cry.
'Come to me,' said Margaret, taking him off the dresser, and holding him in her arms; she held her watch to his ear, while she asked Nicholas if he had seen Mr. Thornton.
The look on his face changed instantly.
'Ay!' said he. 'I've seen and heerd too much on him.'
'He refused you, then?' said Margaret, sorrowfully.
'To be sure. I knew he'd do it all long. It's no good expecting marcy at the hands o' them measters. Yo're a stranger and a foreigner, and aren't likely to know their ways; but I knowed it.'
'I am sorry I asked you. Was he angry? He did not speak to you as
Hamper did, did he?'
'He weren't o'er-civil!' said Nicholas, spinning the penny again, as much for his own amusement as for that of the children. 'Never yo' fret, I'm only where I was. I'll go on tramp to-morrow. I gave him as good as I got. I telled him, I'd not that good opinion on him that I'd ha' come a second time of mysel'; but yo'd advised me for to come, and I were beholden to yo'.'
'You told him I sent you?'
'I dunno' if I ca'd yo' by your name. I dunnot think I did. I said, a woman who knew no better had advised me for to come and see if there was a soft place in his heart.'
'And he—?' asked Margaret.
'Said I were to tell yo' to mind yo'r own business.—That's the longest spin yet, my lads.—And them's civil words to what he used to me. But ne'er mind. We're but where we was; and I'll break stones on th' road afore I let these little uns clem.'
Margaret put the struggling Johnnie out of her arms, back into his former place on the dresser.
'I am sorry I asked you to go to Mr. Thornton's. I am disappointed in him.'
There was a slight noise behind her. Both she and Nicholas turned round at the same moment, and there stood Mr. Thornton, with a look of displeased surprise upon his face. Obeying her swift impulse, Margaret passed out before him, saying not a word, only bowing low to hide the sudden paleness that she felt had come over her face. He bent equally low in return, and then closed the door after her. As she hurried to Mrs. Boucher's, she heard the clang, and it seemed to fill up the measure of her mortification. He too was annoyed to find her there. He had tenderness in his heart—'a soft place,' as Nicholas Higgins called it; but he had some pride in concealing it; he kept it very sacred and safe, and was jealous of every circumstance that tried to gain admission. But if he dreaded exposure of his tenderness, he was equally desirous that all men should recognise his justice; and he felt that he had been unjust, in giving so scornful a hearing to any one who had waited, with humble patience, for five hours, to speak to him. That the man had spoken saucily to him when he had the opportunity, was nothing to Mr. Thornton. He rather liked him for it; and he was conscious of his own irritability of temper at the time, which probably made them both quits. It was the five hours of waiting that struck Mr. Thornton. He had not five hours to spare himself; but one hour—two hours, of his hard penetrating intellectual, as well as bodily labour, did he give up to going about collecting evidence as to the truth of Higgins's story, the nature of his character, the tenor of his life. He tried not to be, but was convinced that all that Higgins had said was true. And then the conviction went in, as if by some spell, and touched the latent tenderness of his heart; the patience of the man, the simple generosity of the motive (for he had learnt about the quarrel between Boucher and Higgins), made him forget entirely the mere reasonings of justice, and overleap them by a diviner instinct. He came to tell Higgins he would give him work; and he was more annoyed to find Margaret there than by hearing her last words, for then he understood that she was the woman who had urged Higgins to come to him; and he dreaded the admission of any thought of her, as a motive to what he was doing solely because it was right.
'So that was the lady you spoke of as a woman?' said he indignantly to Higgins. 'You might have told me who she was.
'And then, maybe, yo'd ha' spoken of her more civil than yo' did; yo'd getten a mother who might ha' kept yo'r tongue in check when yo' were talking o' women being at the root o' all the plagues.'
'Of course you told that to Miss Hale?'
'In coorse I did. Leastways, I reckon I did. I telled her she weren't to meddle again in aught that concerned yo'.'
'Whose children are those—yours?' Mr. Thornton had a pretty good notion whose they were, from what he had heard; but he felt awkward in turning the conversation round from this unpromising beginning.
'They're not mine, and they are mine.'
'They are the children you spoke of to me this morning?'
'When yo' said,' replied Higgins, turning round, with ill-smothered fierceness, 'that my story might be true or might not, bur it were a very unlikely one. Measter, I've not forgetten.'
Mr. Thornton was silent for a moment; then he said: 'No more have I. I remember what I said. I spoke to you about those children in a way I had no business to do. I did not believe you. I could not have taken care of another man's children myself, if he had acted towards me as I hear Boucher did towards you. But I know now that you spoke truth. I beg your pardon.'
Higgins did not turn round, or immediately respond to this. But when he did speak, it was in a softened tone, although the words were gruff enough.
'Yo've no business to go prying into what happened between
Boucher and me. He's dead, and I'm sorry. That's enough.'
'So it is. Will you take work with me? That's what I came to ask.'
Higgins's obstinacy wavered, recovered strength, and stood firm. He would not speak. Mr. Thornton would not ask again. Higgins's eye fell on the children.
'Yo've called me impudent, and a liar, and a mischief-maker, and yo' might ha' said wi' some truth, as I were now and then given to drink. An' I ha' called you a tyrant, an' an oud bull-dog, and a hard, cruel master; that's where it stands. But for th' childer. Measter, do yo' think we can e'er get on together?'
'Well!' said Mr. Thornton, half-laughing, 'it was not my proposal that we should go together. But there's one comfort, on your own showing. We neither of us can think much worse of the other than we do now.'
'That's true,' said Higgins, reflectively. 'I've been thinking, ever sin' I saw you, what a marcy it were yo' did na take me on, for that I ne'er saw a man whom I could less abide. But that's maybe been a hasty judgment; and work's work to such as me. So, measter, I'll come; and what's more, I thank yo'; and that's a deal fro' me,' said he, more frankly, suddenly turning round and facing Mr. Thornton fully for the first time.
'And this is a deal from me,' said Mr. Thornton, giving Higgins's hand a good grip. 'Now mind you come sharp to your time,' continued he, resuming the master. 'I'll have no laggards at my mill. What fines we have, we keep pretty sharply. And the first time I catch you making mischief, off you go. So now you know where you are.'
'Yo' spoke of my wisdom this morning. I reckon I may bring it wi' me; or would yo' rayther have me 'bout my brains?'
''Bout your brains if you use them for meddling with my business; with your brains if you can keep them to your own.'
'I shall need a deal o' brains to settle where my business ends and yo'rs begins.'
'Your business has not begun yet, and mine stands still for me.
So good afternoon.'
Just before Mr. Thornton came up to Mrs. Boucher's door, Margaret came out of it. She did not see him; and he followed her for several yards, admiring her light and easy walk, and her tall and graceful figure. But, suddenly, this simple emotion of pleasure was tainted, poisoned by jealousy. He wished to overtake her, and speak to her, to see how she would receive him, now she must know he was aware of some other attachment. He wished too, but of this wish he was rather ashamed, that she should know that he had justified her wisdom in sending Higgins to him to ask for work; and had repented him of his morning's decision. He came up to her. She started.
'Allow me to say, Miss Hale, that you were rather premature in expressing your disappointment. I have taken Higgins on.'
'I am glad of it,' said she, coldly.
'He tells me, he repeated to you, what I said this morning about—' Mr. Thornton hesitated. Margaret took it up:
'About women not meddling. You had a perfect right to express your opinion, which was a very correct one, I have no doubt. But,' she went on a little more eagerly, 'Higgins did not quite tell you the exact truth.' The word 'truth,' reminded her of her own untruth, and she stopped short, feeling exceedingly uncomfortable.
Mr. Thornton at first was puzzled to account for her silence; and then he remembered the lie she had told, and all that was foregone. 'The exact truth!' said he. 'Very few people do speak the exact truth. I have given up hoping for it. Miss Hale, have you no explanation to give me? You must perceive what I cannot but think.'
Margaret was silent. She was wondering whether an explanation of any kind would be consistent with her loyalty to Frederick.
'Nay,' said he, 'I will ask no farther. I may be putting temptation in your way. At present, believe me, your secret is safe with me. But you run great risks, allow me to say, in being so indiscreet. I am now only speaking as a friend of your father's: if I had any other thought or hope, of course that is at an end. I am quite disinterested.'
'I am aware of that,' said Margaret, forcing herself to speak in an indifferent, careless way. 'I am aware of what I must appear to you, but the secret is another person's, and I cannot explain it without doing him harm.'
'I have not the slightest wish to pry into the gentleman's secrets,' he said, with growing anger. 'My own interest in you is—simply that of a friend. You may not believe me, Miss Hale, but it is—in spite of the persecution I'm afraid I threatened you with at one time—but that is all given up; all passed away. You believe me, Miss Hale?'
'Yes,' said Margaret, quietly and sadly.
'Then, really, I don't see any occasion for us to go on walking together. I thought, perhaps you might have had something to say, but I see we are nothing to each other. If you're quite convinced, that any foolish passion on my part is entirely over, I will wish you good afternoon.' He walked off very hastily.
'What can he mean?' thought Margaret,—'what could he mean by speaking so, as if I were always thinking that he cared for me, when I know he does not; he cannot. His mother will have said all those cruel things about me to him. But I won't care for him. I surely am mistress enough of myself to control this wild, strange, miserable feeling, which tempted me even to betray my own dear Frederick, so that I might but regain his good opinion—the good opinion of a man who takes such pains to tell me that I am nothing to him. Come poor little heart! be cheery and brave. We'll be a great deal to one another, if we are thrown off and left desolate.'
Her father was almost startled by her merriment this afternoon. She talked incessantly, and forced her natural humour to an unusual pitch; and if there was a tinge of bitterness in much of what she said; if her accounts of the old Harley Street set were a little sarcastic, her father could not bear to check her, as he would have done at another time—for he was glad to see her shake off her cares. In the middle of the evening, she was called down to speak to Mary Higgins; and when she came back, Mr. Hale imagined that he saw traces of tears on her cheeks. But that could not be, for she brought good news—that Higgins had got work at Mr. Thornton's mill. Her spirits were damped, at any rate, and she found it very difficult to go on talking at all, much more in the wild way that she had done. For some days her spirits varied strangely; and her father was beginning to be anxious about her, when news arrived from one or two quarters that promised some change and variety for her. Mr. Hale received a letter from Mr. Bell, in which that gentleman volunteered a visit to them; and Mr. Hale imagined that the promised society of his old Oxford friend would give as agreeable a turn to Margaret's ideas as it did to his own. Margaret tried to take an interest in what pleased her father; but she was too languid to care about any Mr. Bell, even though he were twenty times her godfather. She was more roused by a letter from Edith, full of sympathy about her aunt's death; full of details about herself, her husband, and child; and at the end saying, that as the climate did not suit, the baby, and as Mrs. Shaw was talking of returning to England, she thought it probable that Captain Lennox might sell out, and that they might all go and live again in the old Harley Street house; which, however, would seem very incomplete with-out Margaret. Margaret yearned after that old house, and the placid tranquillity of that old well-ordered, monotonous life. She had found it occasionally tiresome while it lasted; but since then she had been buffeted about, and felt so exhausted by this recent struggle with herself, that she thought that even stagnation would be a rest and a refreshment. So she began to look towards a long visit to the Lennoxes, on their return to England, as to a point—no, not of hope—but of leisure, in which she could regain her power and command over herself. At present it seemed to her as if all subjects tended towards Mr. Thornton; as if she could not for-get him with all her endeavours. If she went to see the Higginses, she heard of him there; her father had resumed their readings together, and quoted his opinions perpetually; even Mr. Bell's visit brought his tenant's name upon the tapis; for he wrote word that he believed he must be occupied some great part of his time with Mr. Thornton, as a new lease was in preparation, and the terms of it must be agreed upon.
OUT OF TUNE
'I have no wrong, where I can claim no right,
Naught ta'en me fro, where I have nothing had,
Yet of my woe I cannot so be quite;
Namely, since that another may be glad
With that, that thus in sorrow makes me sad.'
Margaret had not expected much pleasure to herself from Mr. Bell's visit—she had only looked forward to it on her father's account, but when her godfather came, she at once fell into the most natural position of friendship in the world. He said she had no merit in being what she was, a girl so entirely after his own heart; it was an hereditary power which she had, to walk in and take possession of his regard; while she, in reply, gave him much credit for being so fresh and young under his Fellow's cap and gown.
'Fresh and young in warmth and kindness, I mean. I'm afraid I must own, that I think your opinions are the oldest and mustiest I have met with this long time.'
'Hear this daughter of yours, Hale Her residence in Milton has quite corrupted her. She's a democrat, a red republican, a member of the Peace Society, a socialist—'
'Papa, it's all because I'm standing up for the progress of commerce. Mr. Bell would have had it keep still at exchanging wild-beast skins for acorns.'
'No, no. I'd dig the ground and grow potatoes. And I'd shave the wild-beast skins and make the wool into broad cloth. Don't exaggerate, missy. But I'm tired of this bustle. Everybody rushing over everybody, in their hurry to get rich.'
'It is not every one who can sit comfortably in a set of college rooms, and let his riches grow without any exertion of his own. No doubt there is many a man here who would be thankful if his property would increase as yours has done, without his taking any trouble about it,' said Mr. Hale.
'I don't believe they would. It's the bustle and the struggle they like. As for sitting still, and learning from the past, or shaping out the future by faithful work done in a prophetic spirit—Why! Pooh! I don't believe there's a man in Milton who knows how to sit still; and it is a great art.'
'Milton people, I suspect, think Oxford men don't know how to move. It would be a very good thing if they mixed a little more.'
'It might be good for the Miltoners. Many things might be good for them which would be very disagreeable for other people.'
'Are you not a Milton man yourself?' asked Margaret. 'I should have thought you would have been proud of your town.'
'I confess, I don't see what there is to be proud of If you'll only come to Oxford, Margaret, I will show you a place to glory in.'
'Well!' said Mr. Hale, 'Mr. Thornton is coming to drink tea with us to-night, and he is as proud of Milton as you of Oxford. You two must try and make each other a little more liberal-minded.'
'I don't want to be more liberal-minded, thank you,' said Mr.
'Is Mr. Thornton coming to tea, papa?' asked Margaret in a low voice.
'Either to tea or soon after. He could not tell. He told us not to wait.'
Mr. Thornton had determined that he would make no inquiry of his mother as to how far she had put her project into execution of speaking to Margaret about the impropriety of her conduct. He felt pretty sure that, if this interview took place, his mother's account of what passed at it would only annoy and chagrin him, though he would all the time be aware of the colouring which it received by passing through her mind. He shrank from hearing Margaret's very name mentioned; he, while he blamed her—while he was jealous of her—while he renounced her—he loved her sorely, in spite of himself. He dreamt of her; he dreamt she came dancing towards him with outspread arms, and with a lightness and gaiety which made him loathe her, even while it allured him. But the impression of this figure of Margaret—with all Margaret's character taken out of it, as completely as if some evil spirit had got possession of her form—was so deeply stamped upon his imagination, that when he wakened he felt hardly able to separate the Una from the Duessa; and the dislike he had to the latter seemed to envelope and disfigure the former Yet he was too proud to acknowledge his weakness by avoiding the sight of her. He would neither seek an opportunity of being in her company nor avoid it. To convince himself of his power of self-control, he lingered over every piece of business this afternoon; he forced every movement into unnatural slowness and deliberation; and it was consequently past eight o'clock before he reached Mr. Hale's. Then there were business arrangements to be transacted in the study with Mr. Bell; and the latter kept on, sitting over the fire, and talking wearily, long after all business was transacted, and when they might just as well have gone upstairs. But Mr. Thornton would not say a word about moving their quarters; he chafed and chafed, and thought Mr. Bell a most prosy companion; while Mr. Bell returned the compliment in secret, by considering Mr. Thornton about as brusque and curt a fellow as he had ever met with, and terribly gone off both in intelligence and manner. At last, some slight noise in the room above suggested the desirableness of moving there. They found Margaret with a letter open before her, eagerly discussing its contents with her father. On the entrance of the gentlemen, it was immediately put aside; but Mr. Thornton's eager senses caught some few words of Mr. Hale's to Mr. Bell.
'A letter from Henry Lennox. It makes Margaret very hopeful.'
Mr. Bell nodded. Margaret was red as a rose when Mr. Thornton looked at her. He had the greatest mind in the world to get up and go out of the room that very instant, and never set foot in the house again.
'We were thinking,' said Mr. Hale, 'that you and Mr. Thornton had taken Margaret's advice, and were each trying to convert the other, you were so long in the study.'
'And you thought there would be nothing left of us but an opinion, like the Kilkenny cat's tail. Pray whose opinion did you think would have the most obstinate vitality?'
Mr. Thornton had not a notion what they were talking about, and disdained to inquire. Mr. Hale politely enlightened him.
'Mr. Thornton, we were accusing Mr. Bell this morning of a kind of Oxonian mediaeval bigotry against his native town; and we—Margaret, I believe—suggested that it would do him good to associate a little with Milton manufacturers.'
'I beg your pardon. Margaret thought it would do the Milton manufacturers good to associate a little more with Oxford men. Now wasn't it so, Margaret?'
'I believe I thought it would do both good to see a little more of the other,—I did not know it was my idea any more than papa's.'
'And so you see, Mr. Thornton, we ought to have been improving each other down-stairs, instead of talking over vanished families of Smiths and Harrisons. However, I am willing to do my part now. I wonder when you Milton men intend to live. All your lives seem to be spent in gathering together the materials for life.'
'By living, I suppose you mean enjoyment.'
'Yes, enjoyment,—I don't specify of what, because I trust we should both consider mere pleasure as very poor enjoyment.'
'I would rather have the nature of the enjoyment defined.'
'Well! enjoyment of leisure—enjoyment of the power and influence which money gives. You are all striving for money. What do you want it for?'
Mr. Thornton was silent. Then he said, 'I really don't know. But money is not what I strive for.'
'It is a home question. I shall have to lay myself open to such a catechist, and I am not sure that I am prepared to do it.'
'No!' said Mr. Hale; 'don't let us be personal in our catechism. You are neither of you representative men; you are each of you too individual for that.'
'I am not sure whether to consider that as a compliment or not. I should like to be the representative of Oxford, with its beauty and its learning, and its proud old history. What do you say, Margaret; ought I to be flattered?'
'I don't know Oxford. But there is a difference between being the representative of a city and the representative man of its inhabitants.'
'Very true, Miss Margaret. Now I remember, you were against me this morning, and were quite Miltonian and manufacturing in your preferences.' Margaret saw the quick glance of surprise that Mr. Thornton gave her, and she was annoyed at the construction which he might put on this speech of Mr. Bell's. Mr. Bell went on—
'Ah! I wish I could show you our High Street—our Radcliffe
Square. I am leaving out our colleges, just as I give Mr.
Thornton leave to omit his factories in speaking of the charms of
Milton. I have a right to abuse my birth-place. Remember I am a
Mr. Thornton was annoyed more than he ought to have been at all that Mr. Bell was saying. He was not in a mood for joking. At another time, he could have enjoyed Mr. Bell's half testy condemnation of a town where the life was so at variance with every habit he had formed; but now, he was galled enough to attempt to defend what was never meant to be seriously attacked.
'I don't set up Milton as a model of a town.'
'Not in architecture?' slyly asked Mr. Bell.
'No! We've been too busy to attend to mere outward appearances.'
'Don't say mere outward appearances,' said Mr. Hale, gently. 'They impress us all, from childhood upward—every day of our life.'
'Wait a little while,' said Mr. Thornton. 'Remember, we are of a different race from the Greeks, to whom beauty was everything, and to whom Mr. Bell might speak of a life of leisure and serene enjoyment, much of which entered in through their outward senses. I don't mean to despise them, any more than I would ape them. But I belong to Teutonic blood; it is little mingled in this part of England to what it is in others; we retain much of their language; we retain more of their spirit; we do not look upon life as a time for enjoyment, but as a time for action and exertion. Our glory and our beauty arise out of our inward strength, which makes us victorious over material resistance, and over greater difficulties still. We are Teutonic up here in Darkshire in another way. We hate to have laws made for us at a distance. We wish people would allow us to right ourselves, instead of continually meddling, with their imperfect legislation. We stand up for self-government, and oppose centralisation.'
'In short, you would like the Heptarchy back again. Well, at any rate, I revoke what I said this morning—that you Milton people did not reverence the past. You are regular worshippers of Thor.'
'If we do not reverence the past as you do in Oxford, it is because we want something which can apply to the present more directly. It is fine when the study of the past leads to a prophecy of the future. But to men groping in new circumstances, it would be finer if the words of experience could direct us how to act in what concerns us most intimately and immediately; which is full of difficulties that must be encountered; and upon the mode in which they are met and conquered—not merely pushed aside for the time—depends our future. Out of the wisdom of the past, help us over the present. But no! People can speak of Utopia much more easily than of the next day's duty; and yet when that duty is all done by others, who so ready to cry, "Fie, for shame!"'
'And all this time I don't see what you are talking about. Would you Milton men condescend to send up your to-day's difficulty to Oxford? You have not tried us yet.'
Mr. Thornton laughed outright at this. 'I believe I was talking with reference to a good deal that has been troubling us of late; I was thinking of the strikes we have gone through, which are troublesome and injurious things enough, as I am finding to my cost. And yet this last strike, under which I am smarting, has been respectable.'
'A respectable strike!' said Mr. Bell. 'That sounds as if you were far gone in the worship of Thor.'
Margaret felt, rather than saw, that Mr. Thornton was chagrined by the repeated turning into jest of what he was feeling as very serious. She tried to change the conversation from a subject about which one party cared little, while, to the other, it was deeply, because personally, interesting. She forced herself to say something.
'Edith says she finds the printed calicoes in Corfu better and cheaper than in London.'
'Does she?' said her father. 'I think that must be one of Edith's exaggerations. Are you sure of it, Margaret?'
'I am sure she says so, papa.'
'Then I am sure of the fact,' said Mr. Bell. 'Margaret, I go so far in my idea of your truthfulness, that it shall cover your cousin's character. I don't believe a cousin of yours could exaggerate.'
'Is Miss Hale so remarkable for truth?' said Mr. Thornton, bitterly. The moment he had done so, he could have bitten his tongue out. What was he? And why should he stab her with her shame in this way? How evil he was to-night; possessed by ill-humour at being detained so long from her; irritated by the mention of some name, because he thought it belonged to a more successful lover; now ill-tempered because he had been unable to cope, with a light heart, against one who was trying, by gay and careless speeches, to make the evening pass pleasantly away,—the kind old friend to all parties, whose manner by this time might be well known to Mr. Thornton, who had been acquainted with him for many years. And then to speak to Margaret as he had done! She did not get up and leave the room, as she had done in former days, when his abruptness or his temper had annoyed her. She sat quite still, after the first momentary glance of grieved surprise, that made her eyes look like some child's who has met with an unexpected rebuff; they slowly dilated into mournful, reproachful sadness; and then they fell, and she bent over her work, and did not speak again. But he could not help looking at her, and he saw a sigh tremble over her body, as if she quivered in some unwonted chill. He felt as the mother would have done, in the midst of 'her rocking it, and rating it,' had she been called away before her slow confiding smile, implying perfect trust in mother's love, had proved the renewing of its love. He gave short sharp answers; he was uneasy and cross, unable to discern between jest and earnest; anxious only for a look, a word of hers, before which to prostrate himself in penitent humility. But she neither looked nor spoke. Her round taper fingers flew in and out of her sewing, as steadily and swiftly as if that were the business of her life. She could not care for him, he thought, or else the passionate fervour of his wish would have forced her to raise those eyes, if but for an instant, to read the late repentance in his. He could have struck her before he left, in order that by some strange overt act of rudeness, he might earn the privilege of telling her the remorse that gnawed at his heart. It was well that the long walk in the open air wound up this evening for him. It sobered him back into grave resolution, that henceforth he would see as little of her as possible,—since the very sight of that face arid form, the very sounds of that voice (like the soft winds of pure melody) had such power to move him from his balance. Well! He had known what love was—a sharp pang, a fierce experience, in the midst of whose flames he was struggling! but, through that furnace he would fight his way out into the serenity of middle age,—all the richer and more human for having known this great passion.
When he had somewhat abruptly left the room, Margaret rose from her seat, and began silently to fold up her work; The long seams were heavy, and had an unusual weight for her languid arms. The round lines in her face took a lengthened, straighter form, and her whole appearance was that of one who had gone through a day of great fatigue. As the three prepared for bed, Mr. Bell muttered forth a little condemnation of Mr. Thornton.
'I never saw a fellow so spoiled by success. He can't bear a word; a jest of any kind. Everything seems to touch on the soreness of his high dignity. Formerly, he was as simple and noble as the open day; you could not offend him, because he had no vanity.'
'He is not vain now,' said Margaret, turning round from the table, and speaking with quiet distinctness. 'To-night he has not been like himself Something must have annoyed him before he came here.'
Mr. Bell gave her one of his sharp glances from above his spectacles. She stood it quite calmly; but, after she had left the room, he suddenly asked,—
'Hale! did it ever strike you that Thornton and your daughter have what the French call a tendresse for each other?'
'Never!' said Mr. Hale, first startled and then flurried by the new idea. 'No, I am sure you are wrong. I am almost certain you are mistaken. If there is anything, it is all on Mr. Thornton's side. Poor fellow! I hope and trust he is not thinking of her, for I am sure she would not have him.'
'Well! I'm a bachelor, and have steered clear of love affairs all my life; so perhaps my opinion is not worth having. Or else I should say there were very pretty symptoms about her!'
'Then I am sure you are wrong,' said Mr. Hale. 'He may care for her, though she really has been almost rude to him at times. But she!—why, Margaret would never think of him, I'm sure! Such a thing has never entered her head.'
'Entering her heart would do. But I merely threw out a suggestion of what might be. I dare say I was wrong. And whether I was wrong or right, I'm very sleepy; so, having disturbed your night's rest (as I can see) with my untimely fancies, I'll betake myself with an easy mind to my own.'
But Mr. Hale resolved that he would not be disturbed by any such nonsensical idea; so he lay awake, determining not to think about it.
Mr. Bell took his leave the next day, bidding Margaret look to him as one who had a right to help and protect her in all her troubles, of whatever nature they might be. To Mr. Hale he said,—
'That Margaret of yours has gone deep into my heart. Take care of her, for she is a very precious creature,—a great deal too good for Milton,—only fit for Oxford, in fact. The town, I mean; not the men. I can't match her yet. When I can, I shall bring my young man to stand side by side with your young woman, just as the genie in the Arabian Nights brought Prince Caralmazan to match with the fairy's Princess Badoura.'
'I beg you'll do no such thing. Remember the misfortunes that ensued; and besides, I can't spare Margaret.'
'No; on second thoughts, we'll have her to nurse us ten years hence, when we shall be two cross old invalids. Seriously, Hale! I wish you'd leave Milton; which is a most unsuitable place for you, though it was my recommendation in the first instance. If you would; I'd swallow my shadows of doubts, and take a college living; and you and Margaret should come and live at the parsonage—you to be a sort of lay curate, and take the unwashed off my hands; and she to be our housekeeper—the village Lady Bountiful—by day; and read us to sleep in the evenings. I could be very happy in such a life. What do you think of it?'
'Never!' said Mr. Hale, decidedly. 'My one great change has been made and my price of suffering paid. Here I stay out my life; and here will I be buried, and lost in the crowd.'
'I don't give up my plan yet. Only I won't bait you with it any more just now. Where's the Pearl? Come, Margaret, give me a farewell kiss; and remember, my dear, where you may find a true friend, as far as his capability goes. You are my child, Margaret. Remember that, and 'God bless you!'
So they fell back into the monotony of the quiet life they would henceforth lead. There was no invalid to hope and fear about; even the Higginses—so long a vivid interest—seemed to have receded from any need of immediate thought. The Boucher children, left motherless orphans, claimed what of Margaret's care she could bestow; and she went pretty often to see Mary Higgins, who had charge of them. The two families were living in one house: the elder children were at humble schools, the younger ones were tended, in Mary's absence at her work, by the kind neighbour whose good sense had struck Margaret at the time of Boucher's death. Of course she was paid for her trouble; and indeed, in all his little plans and arrangements for these orphan children, Nicholas showed a sober judgment, and regulated method of thinking, which were at variance with his former more eccentric jerks of action. He was so steady at his work, that Margaret did not often see him during these winter months; but when she did, she saw that he winced away from any reference to the father of those children, whom he had so fully and heartily taken under his care. He did not speak easily of Mr. Thornton.
'To tell the truth,' said he, 'he fairly bamboozles me. He's two chaps. One chap I knowed of old as were measter all o'er. T'other chap hasn't an ounce of measter's flesh about him. How them two chaps is bound up in one body, is a craddy for me to find out. I'll not be beat by it, though. Meanwhile he comes here pretty often; that's how I know the chap that's a man, not a measter. And I reckon he's taken aback by me pretty much as I am by him; for he sits and listens and stares, as if I were some strange beast newly caught in some of the zones. But I'm none daunted. It would take a deal to daunt me in my own house, as he sees. And I tell him some of my mind that I reckon he'd ha' been the better of hearing when he were a younger man.'
'And does he not answer you?' asked Mr. Hale.
'Well! I'll not say th' advantage is all on his side, for all I take credit for improving him above a bit. Sometimes he says a rough thing or two, which is not agreeable to look at at first, but has a queer smack o' truth in it when yo' come to chew it. He'll be coming to-night, I reckon, about them childer's schooling. He's not satisfied wi' the make of it, and wants for t' examine 'em.'
'What are they'—began Mr. Hale; but Margaret, touching his arm, showed him her watch.
'It is nearly seven,' she said. 'The evenings are getting longer now. Come, papa.' She did not breathe freely till they were some distance from the house. Then, as she became more calm, she wished that she had not been in so great a hurry; for, somehow, they saw Mr. Thornton but very seldom now; and he might have come to see Higgins, and for the old friendship's sake she should like to have seen him to-night.
Yes! he came very seldom, even for the dull cold purpose of lessons. Mr. Hale was disappointed in his pupil's lukewarmness about Greek literature, which had but a short time ago so great an interest for him. And now it often happened that a hurried note from Mr. Thornton would arrive, just at the last moment, saying that he was so much engaged that he could not come to read with Mr. Hale that evening. And though other pupils had taken more than his place as to time, no one was like his first scholar in Mr. Hale's heart. He was depressed and sad at this partial cessation of an intercourse which had become dear to him; and he used to sit pondering over the reason that could have occasioned this change.
He startled Margaret, one evening as she sate at her work, by suddenly asking:
'Margaret! had you ever any reason for thinking that Mr. Thornton cared for you?'
He almost blushed as he put this question; but Mr. Bell's scouted idea recurred to him, and the words were out of his mouth before he well knew what he was about.
Margaret did not answer immediately; but by the bent drooping of her head, he guessed what her reply would be.
'Yes; I believe—oh papa, I should have told you.' And she dropped her work, and hid her face in her hands.
'No, dear; don't think that I am impertinently curious. I am sure you would have told me if you had felt that you could return his regard. Did he speak to you about it?'
No answer at first; but by-and-by a little gentle reluctant
'And you refused him?'
A long sigh; a more helpless, nerveless attitude, and another 'Yes.' But before her father could speak, Margaret lifted up her face, rosy with some beautiful shame, and, fixing her eyes upon him, said:
'Now, papa, I have told you this, and I cannot tell you more; and then the whole thing is so painful to me; every word and action connected with it is so unspeakably bitter, that I cannot bear to think of it. Oh, papa, I am sorry to have lost you this friend, but I could not help it—but oh! I am very sorry.' She sate down on the ground, and laid her head on his knees.
'I too, am sorry, my dear. Mr. Bell quite startled me when he said, some idea of the kind—'
'Mr. Bell! Oh, did Mr. Bell see it?'
'A little; but he took it into his head that you—how shall I say it?—that you were not ungraciously disposed towards Mr. Thornton. I knew that could never be. I hoped the whole thing was but an imagination; but I knew too well what your real feelings were to suppose that you could ever like Mr. Thornton in that way. But I am very sorry.'
They were very quiet and still for some minutes. But, on stroking her cheek in a caressing way soon after, he was almost shocked to find her face wet with tears. As he touched her, she sprang up, and smiling with forced brightness, began to talk of the Lennoxes with such a vehement desire to turn the conversation, that Mr. Hale was too tender-hearted to try to force it back into the old channel.
'To-morrow—yes, to-morrow they will be back in Harley Street. Oh, how strange it will be! I wonder what room they will make into the nursery? Aunt Shaw will be happy with the baby. Fancy Edith a mamma! And Captain Lennox—I wonder what he will do with himself now he has sold out!'
'I'll tell you what,' said her father, anxious to indulge her in this fresh subject of interest, 'I think I must spare you for a fortnight just to run up to town and see the travellers. You could learn more, by half an hour's conversation with Mr. Henry Lennox, about Frederick's chances, than in a dozen of these letters of his; so it would, in fact, be uniting business with pleasure.'
'No, papa, you cannot spare me, and what's more, I won't be spared.' Then after a pause, she added: 'I am losing hope sadly about Frederick; he is letting us down gently, but I can see that Mr. Lennox himself has no hope of hunting up the witnesses under years and years of time. No,' said she, 'that bubble was very pretty, and very dear to our hearts; but it has burst like many another; and we must console ourselves with being glad that Frederick is so happy, and with being a great deal to each other. So don't offend me by talking of being able to spare me, papa, for I assure you you can't.'
But the idea of a change took root and germinated in Margaret's heart, although not in the way in which her father proposed it at first. She began to consider how desirable something of the kind would be to her father, whose spirits, always feeble, now became too frequently depressed, and whose health, though he never complained, had been seriously affected by his wife's illness and death. There were the regular hours of reading with his pupils, but that all giving and no receiving could no longer be called companion-ship, as in the old days when Mr. Thornton came to study under him. Margaret was conscious of the want under which he was suffering, unknown to himself; the want of a man's intercourse with men. At Helstone there had been perpetual occasions for an interchange of visits with neighbouring clergymen; and the poor labourers in the fields, or leisurely tramping home at eve, or tending their cattle in the forest, were always at liberty to speak or be spoken to. But in Milton every one was too busy for quiet speech, or any ripened intercourse of thought; what they said was about business, very present and actual; and when the tension of mind relating to their daily affairs was over, they sunk into fallow rest until next morning. The workman was not to be found after the day's work was done; he had gone away to some lecture, or some club, or some beer-shop, according to his degree of character. Mr. Hale thought of trying to deliver a course of lectures at some of the institutions, but he contemplated doing this so much as an effort of duty, and with so little of the genial impulse of love towards his work and its end, that Margaret was sure that it would not be well done until he could look upon it with some kind of zest.