'There's iron, they say, in all our blood,
And a grain or two perhaps is good;
But his, he makes me harshly feel,
Has got a little too much of steel.'
'Margaret!' said Mr. Hale, as he returned from showing his guest downstairs; 'I could not help watching your face with some anxiety, when Mr. Thornton made his confession of having been a shop-boy. I knew it all along from Mr. Bell; so I was aware of what was coming; but I half expected to see you get up and leave the room.'
'Oh, papa! you don't mean that you thought me so silly? I really liked that account of himself better than anything else he said. Everything else revolted me, from its hardness; but he spoke about himself so simply—with so little of the pretence that makes the vulgarity of shop-people, and with such tender respect for his mother, that I was less likely to leave the room then than when he was boasting about Milton, as if there was not such another place in the world; or quietly professing to despise people for careless, wasteful improvidence, without ever seeming to think it his duty to try to make them different,—to give them anything of the training which his mother gave him, and to which he evidently owes his position, whatever that may be. No! his statement of having been a shop-boy was the thing I liked best of all.'
'I am surprised at you, Margaret,' said her mother. 'You who were always accusing people of being shoppy at Helstone! I don't I think, Mr. Hale, you have done quite right in introducing such a person to us without telling us what he had been. I really was very much afraid of showing him how much shocked I was at some parts of what he said. His father "dying in miserable circumstances." Why it might have been in the workhouse.'
'I am not sure if it was not worse than being in the workhouse,' replied her husband. 'I heard a good deal of his previous life from Mr. Bell before we came here; and as he has told you a part, I will fill up what he left out. His father speculated wildly, failed, and then killed himself, because he could not bear the disgrace. All his former friends shrunk from the disclosures that had to be made of his dishonest gambling—wild, hopeless struggles, made with other people's money, to regain his own moderate portion of wealth. No one came forwards to help the mother and this boy. There was another child, I believe, a girl; too young to earn money, but of course she had to be kept. At least, no friend came forwards immediately, and Mrs. Thornton is not one, I fancy, to wait till tardy kindness comes to find her out. So they left Milton. I knew he had gone into a shop, and that his earnings, with some fragment of property secured to his mother, had been made to keep them for a long time. Mr. Bell said they absolutely lived upon water-porridge for years—how, he did not know; but long after the creditors had given up hope of any payment of old Mr. Thornton's debts (if, indeed, they ever had hoped at all about it, after his suicide,) this young man returned to Milton, and went quietly round to each creditor, paying him the first instalment of the money owing to him. No noise—no gathering together of creditors—it was done very silently and quietly, but all was paid at last; helped on materially by the circumstance of one of the creditors, a crabbed old fellow (Mr. Bell says), taking in Mr. Thornton as a kind of partner.'
'That really is fine,' said Margaret. 'What a pity such a nature should be tainted by his position as a Milton manufacturer.'
'How tainted?' asked her father.
'Oh, papa, by that testing everything by the standard of wealth. When he spoke of the mechanical powers, he evidently looked upon them only as new ways of extending trade and making money. And the poor men around him—they were poor because they were vicious—out of the pale of his sympathies because they had not his iron nature, and the capabilities that it gives him for being rich.'
'Not vicious; he never said that. Improvident and self-indulgent were his words.'
Margaret was collecting her mother's working materials, and preparing to go to bed. Just as she was leaving the room, she hesitated—she was inclined to make an acknowledgment which she thought would please her father, but which to be full and true must include a little annoyance. However, out it came.
'Papa, I do think Mr. Thornton a very remarkable man; but personally I don't like him at all.'
'And I do!' said her father laughing. 'Personally, as you call it, and all. I don't set him up for a hero, or anything of that kind. But good night, child. Your mother looks sadly tired to-night, Margaret.'
Margaret had noticed her mother's jaded appearance with anxiety for some time past, and this remark of her father's sent her up to bed with a dim fear lying like a weight on her heart. The life in Milton was so different from what Mrs. Hale had been accustomed to live in Helstone, in and out perpetually into the fresh and open air; the air itself was so different, deprived of all revivifying principle as it seemed to be here; the domestic worries pressed so very closely, and in so new and sordid a form, upon all the women in the family, that there was good reason to fear that her mother's health might be becoming seriously affected. There were several other signs of something wrong about Mrs. Hale. She and Dixon held mysterious consultations in her bedroom, from which Dixon would come out crying and cross, as was her custom when any distress of her mistress called upon her sympathy. Once Margaret had gone into the chamber soon after Dixon left it, and found her mother on her knees, and as Margaret stole out she caught a few words, which were evidently a prayer for strength and patience to endure severe bodily suffering. Margaret yearned to re-unite the bond of intimate confidence which had been broken by her long residence at her aunt Shaw's, and strove by gentle caresses and softened words to creep into the warmest place in her mother's heart. But though she received caresses and fond words back again, in such profusion as would have gladdened her formerly, yet she felt that there was a secret withheld from her, and she believed it bore serious reference to her mother's health. She lay awake very long this night, planning how to lessen the evil influence of their Milton life on her mother. A servant to give Dixon permanent assistance should be got, if she gave up her whole time to the search; and then, at any rate, her mother might have all the personal attention she required, and had been accustomed to her whole life. Visiting register offices, seeing all manner of unlikely people, and very few in the least likely, absorbed Margaret's time and thoughts for several days. One afternoon she met Bessy Higgins in the street, and stopped to speak to her.
'Well, Bessy, how are you? Better, I hope, now the wind has changed.'
'Better and not better, if yo' know what that means.'
'Not exactly,' replied Margaret, smiling.
'I'm better in not being torn to pieces by coughing o'nights, but I'm weary and tired o' Milton, and longing to get away to the land o' Beulah; and when I think I'm farther and farther off, my heart sinks, and I'm no better; I'm worse.' Margaret turned round to walk alongside of the girl in her feeble progress homeward. But for a minute or two she did not speak. At last she said in a low voice,
'Bessy, do you wish to die?' For she shrank from death herself, with all the clinging to life so natural to the young and healthy.
Bessy was silent in her turn for a minute or two. Then she replied,
'If yo'd led the life I have, and getten as weary of it as I have, and thought at times, "maybe it'll last for fifty or sixty years—it does wi' some,"—and got dizzy and dazed, and sick, as each of them sixty years seemed to spin about me, and mock me with its length of hours and minutes, and endless bits o' time—oh, wench! I tell thee thou'd been glad enough when th' doctor said he feared thou'd never see another winter.'
'Why, Bessy, what kind of a life has yours been?'
'Nought worse than many others, I reckon. Only I fretted again it, and they didn't.'
'But what was it? You know, I'm a stranger here, so perhaps I'm not so quick at understanding what you mean as if I'd lived all my life at Milton.'
'If yo'd ha' come to our house when yo' said yo' would, I could maybe ha' told you. But father says yo're just like th' rest on 'em; it's out o' sight out o' mind wi' you.'
'I don't know who the rest are; and I've been very busy; and, to tell the truth, I had forgotten my promise—'
'Yo' offered it! we asked none of it.'
'I had forgotten what I said for the time,' continued Margaret quietly. 'I should have thought of it again when I was less busy. May I go with you now?' Bessy gave a quick glance at Margaret's face, to see if the wish expressed was really felt. The sharpness in her eye turned to a wistful longing as she met Margaret's soft and friendly gaze.
'I ha' none so many to care for me; if yo' care yo' may come.
So they walked on together in silence. As they turned up into a small court, opening out of a squalid street, Bessy said,
'Yo'll not be daunted if father's at home, and speaks a bit gruffish at first. He took a mind to ye, yo' see, and he thought a deal o' your coming to see us; and just because he liked yo' he were vexed and put about.'
'Don't fear, Bessy.'
But Nicholas was not at home when they entered. A great slatternly girl, not so old as Bessy, but taller and stronger, was busy at the wash-tub, knocking about the furniture in a rough capable way, but altogether making so much noise that Margaret shrunk, out of sympathy with poor Bessy, who had sat down on the first chair, as if completely tired out with her walk. Margaret asked the sister for a cup of water, and while she ran to fetch it (knocking down the fire-irons, and tumbling over a chair in her way), she unloosed Bessy's bonnet strings, to relieve her catching breath.
'Do you think such life as this is worth caring for?' gasped Bessy, at last. Margaret did not speak, but held the water to her lips. Bessy took a long and feverish draught, and then fell back and shut her eyes. Margaret heard her murmur to herself: 'They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.'
Margaret bent over and said, 'Bessy, don't be impatient with your life, whatever it is—or may have been. Remember who gave it you, and made it what it is!' She was startled by hearing Nicholas speak behind her; he had come in without her noticing him.
'Now, I'll not have my wench preached to. She's bad enough as it is, with her dreams and her methodee fancies, and her visions of cities with goulden gates and precious stones. But if it amuses her I let it abe, but I'm none going to have more stuff poured into her.'
'But surely,' said Margaret, facing round, 'you believe in what I said, that God gave her life, and ordered what kind of life it was to be?'
'I believe what I see, and no more. That's what I believe, young woman. I don't believe all I hear—no! not by a big deal. I did hear a young lass make an ado about knowing where we lived, and coming to see us. And my wench here thought a deal about it, and flushed up many a time, when hoo little knew as I was looking at her, at the sound of a strange step. But hoo's come at last,—and hoo's welcome, as long as hoo'll keep from preaching on what hoo knows nought about.' Bessy had been watching Margaret's face; she half sate up to speak now, laying her hand on Margaret's arm with a gesture of entreaty. 'Don't be vexed wi' him—there's many a one thinks like him; many and many a one here. If yo' could hear them speak, yo'd not be shocked at him; he's a rare good man, is father—but oh!' said she, falling back in despair, 'what he says at times makes me long to die more than ever, for I want to know so many things, and am so tossed about wi' wonder.'
'Poor wench—poor old wench,—I'm loth to vex thee, I am; but a man mun speak out for the truth, and when I see the world going all wrong at this time o' day, bothering itself wi' things it knows nought about, and leaving undone all the things that lie in disorder close at its hand—why, I say, leave a' this talk about religion alone, and set to work on what yo' see and know. That's my creed. It's simple, and not far to fetch, nor hard to work.'
But the girl only pleaded the more with Margaret.
'Don't think hardly on him—he's a good man, he is. I sometimes think I shall be moped wi' sorrow even in the City of God, if father is not there.' The feverish colour came into her cheek, and the feverish flame into her eye. 'But you will be there, father! you shall! Oh! my heart!' She put her hand to it, and became ghastly pale.
Margaret held her in her arms, and put the weary head to rest upon her bosom. She lifted the thin soft hair from off the temples, and bathed them with water. Nicholas understood all her signs for different articles with the quickness of love, and even the round-eyed sister moved with laborious gentleness at Margaret's 'hush!' Presently the spasm that foreshadowed death had passed away, and Bessy roused herself and said,—
'I'll go to bed,—it's best place; but,' catching at Margaret's gown, 'yo'll come again,—I know yo' will—but just say it!'
'I will come to-morrow, said Margaret.
Bessy leant back against her father, who prepared to carry her upstairs; but as Margaret rose to go, he struggled to say something: 'I could wish there were a God, if it were only to ask Him to bless thee.'
Margaret went away very sad and thoughtful.
She was late for tea at home. At Helstone unpunctuality at meal-times was a great fault in her mother's eyes; but now this, as well as many other little irregularities, seemed to have lost their power of irritation, and Margaret almost longed for the old complainings.
'Have you met with a servant, dear?'
'No, mamma; that Anne Buckley would never have done.'
'Suppose I try,' said Mr. Hale. 'Everybody else has had their turn at this great difficulty. Now let me try. I may be the Cinderella to put on the slipper after all.'
Margaret could hardly smile at this little joke, so oppressed was she by her visit to the Higginses.
'What would you do, papa? How would you set about it?'
'Why, I would apply to some good house-mother to recommend me one known to herself or her servants.'
'Very good. But we must first catch our house-mother.'
'You have caught her. Or rather she is coming into the snare, and you will catch her to-morrow, if you're skilful.'
'What do you mean, Mr. Hale?' asked his wife, her curiosity aroused.
'Why, my paragon pupil (as Margaret calls him), has told me that his mother intends to call on Mrs. and Miss Hale to-morrow.'
'Mrs. Thornton!' exclaimed Mrs. Hale.
'The mother of whom he spoke to us?' said Margaret.
'Mrs. Thornton; the only mother he has, I believe,' said Mr. Hale quietly.
'I shall like to see her. She must be an uncommon person, her mother added.
'Perhaps she may have a relation who might suit us, and be glad of our place. She sounded to be such a careful economical person, that I should like any one out of the same family.'
'My dear,' said Mr. Hale alarmed. 'Pray don't go off on that idea. I fancy Mrs. Thornton is as haughty and proud in her way, as our little Margaret here is in hers, and that she completely ignores that old time of trial, and poverty, and economy, of which he speaks so openly. I am sure, at any rate, she would not like strangers to know anything about It.'
'Take notice that is not my kind of haughtiness, papa, if I have any at all; which I don't agree to, though you're always accusing me of it.'
'I don't know positively that it is hers either; but from little things I have gathered from him, I fancy so.'
They cared too little to ask in what manner her son had spoken about her. Margaret only wanted to know if she must stay in to receive this call, as it would prevent her going to see how Bessy was, until late in the day, since the early morning was always occupied in household affairs; and then she recollected that her mother must not be left to have the whole weight of entertaining her visitor.
'Well—I suppose we must.'
FRIENDS IN COUNCIL.
Mr. Thornton had had some difficulty in working up his mother to the desired point of civility. She did not often make calls; and when she did, it was in heavy state that she went through her duties. Her son had given her a carriage; but she refused to let him keep horses for it; they were hired for the solemn occasions, when she paid morning or evening visits. She had had horses for three days, not a fortnight before, and had comfortably 'killed off' all her acquaintances, who might now put themselves to trouble and expense in their turn. Yet Crampton was too far off for her to walk; and she had repeatedly questioned her son as to whether his wish that she should call on the Hales was strong enough to bear the expense of cab-hire. She would have been thankful if it had not; for, as she said, 'she saw no use in making up friendships and intimacies with all the teachers and masters in Milton; why, he would be wanting her to call on Fanny's dancing-master's wife, the next thing!'
'And so I would, mother, if Mr. Mason and his wife were friend less in a strange place, like the Hales.'
'Oh! you need not speak so hastily. I am going to-morrow. I only wanted you exactly to understand about it.'
'If you are going to-morrow, I shall order horses.'
'Nonsense, John. One would think you were made of money.'
'Not quite, yet. But about the horses I'm determined. The last time you were out in a cab, you came home with a headache from the jolting.'
'I never complained of it, I'm sure.'
'No. My mother is not given to complaints,' said he, a little proudly. 'But so much the more I have to watch over you. Now as for Fanny there, a little hardship would do her good.'
'She is not made of the same stuff as you are, John. She could not bear it.' Mrs. Thornton was silent after this; for her last words bore relation to a subject which mortified her. She had an unconscious contempt for a weak character; and Fanny was weak in the very points in which her mother and brother were strong. Mrs. Thornton was not a woman much given to reasoning; her quick judgment and firm resolution served her in good stead of any long arguments and discussions with herself; she felt instinctively that nothing could strengthen Fanny to endure hardships patiently, or face difficulties bravely; and though she winced as she made this acknowledgment to herself about her daughter, it only gave her a kind of pitying tenderness of manner towards her; much of the same description of demeanour with which mothers are wont to treat their weak and sickly children. A stranger, a careless observer might have considered that Mrs. Thornton's manner to her children betokened far more love to Fanny than to John. But such a one would have been deeply mistaken. The very daringness with which mother and son spoke out unpalatable truths, the one to the other, showed a reliance on the firm centre of each other's souls, which the uneasy tenderness of Mrs. Thornton's manner to her daughter, the shame with which she thought to hide the poverty of her child in all the grand qualities which she herself possessed unconsciously, and which she set so high a value upon in others—this shame, I say, betrayed the want of a secure resting-place for her affection. She never called her son by any name but John; 'love,' and 'dear,' and such like terms, were reserved for Fanny. But her heart gave thanks for him day and night; and she walked proudly among women for his sake.
'Fanny dear I shall have horses to the carriage to-day, to go and call on these Hales. Should not you go and see nurse? It's in the same direction, and she's always so glad to see you. You could go on there while I am at Mrs. Hale's.'
'Oh! mamma, it's such a long way, and I am so tired.'
'With what?' asked Mrs. Thornton, her brow slightly contracting.
'I don't know—the weather, I think. It is so relaxing. Couldn't you bring nurse here, mamma? The carriage could fetch her, and she could spend the rest of the day here, which I know she would like.'
Mrs. Thornton did not speak; but she laid her work on the table, and seemed to think.
'It will be a long way for her to walk back at night!' she remarked, at last.
'Oh, but I will send her home in a cab. I never thought of her walking.' At this point, Mr. Thornton came in, just before going to the mill.
'Mother! I need hardly say, that if there is any little thing that could serve Mrs. Hale as an invalid, you will offer it, I'm sure.'
'If I can find it out, I will. But I have never been ill myself, so I am not much up to invalids' fancies.'
'Well! here is Fanny then, who is seldom without an ailment. She will be able to suggest something, perhaps—won't you, Fan?'
'I have not always an ailment,' said Fanny, pettishly; 'and I am not going with mamma. I have a headache to-day, and I shan't go out.'
Mr. Thornton looked annoyed. His mother's eyes were bent on her work, at which she was now stitching away busily.
'Fanny! I wish you to go,' said he, authoritatively. 'It will do you good, instead of harm. You will oblige me by going, without my saying anything more about it.'
He went abruptly out of the room after saying this.
If he had staid a minute longer, Fanny would have cried at his tone of command, even when he used the words, 'You will oblige me.' As it was, she grumbled.
'John always speaks as if I fancied I was ill, and I am sure I never do fancy any such thing. Who are these Hales that he makes such a fuss about?'
'Fanny, don't speak so of your brother. He has good reasons of some kind or other, or he would not wish us to go. Make haste and put your things on.'
But the little altercation between her son and her daughter did not incline Mrs. Thornton more favourably towards 'these Hales.' Her jealous heart repeated her daughter's question, 'Who are they, that he is so anxious we should pay them all this attention?' It came up like a burden to a song, long after Fanny had forgotten all about it in the pleasant excitement of seeing the effect of a new bonnet in the looking-glass.
Mrs. Thornton was shy. It was only of late years that she had had leisure enough in her life to go into society; and as society she did not enjoy it. As dinner-giving, and as criticising other people's dinners, she took satisfaction in it. But this going to make acquaintance with strangers was a very different thing. She was ill at ease, and looked more than usually stern and forbidding as she entered the Hales' little drawing-room.
Margaret was busy embroidering a small piece of cambric for some little article of dress for Edith's expected baby—'Flimsy, useless work,' as Mrs. Thornton observed to herself. She liked Mrs. Hale's double knitting far better; that was sensible of its kind. The room altogether was full of knick-knacks, which must take a long time to dust; and time to people of limited income was money. She made all these reflections as she was talking in her stately way to Mrs. Hale, and uttering all the stereotyped commonplaces that most people can find to say with their senses blindfolded. Mrs. Hale was making rather more exertion in her answers, captivated by some real old lace which Mrs. Thornton wore; 'lace,' as she afterwards observed to Dixon, 'of that old English point which has not been made for this seventy years, and which cannot be bought. It must have been an heir-loom, and shows that she had ancestors.' So the owner of the ancestral lace became worthy of something more than the languid exertion to be agreeable to a visitor, by which Mrs. Hale's efforts at conversation would have been otherwise bounded. And presently, Margaret, racking her brain to talk to Fanny, heard her mother and Mrs. Thornton plunge into the interminable subject of servants.
'I suppose you are not musical,' said Fanny, 'as I see no piano.'
'I am fond of hearing good music; I cannot play well myself; and papa and mamma don't care much about it; so we sold our old piano when we came here.'
'I wonder how you can exist without one. It almost seems to me a necessary of life.'
'Fifteen shillings a week, and three saved out of them!' thought Margaret to herself 'But she must have been very young. She probably has forgotten her own personal experience. But she must know of those days.' Margaret's manner had an extra tinge of coldness in it when she next spoke.
'You have good concerts here, I believe.'
'Oh, yes! Delicious! Too crowded, that is the worst. The directors admit so indiscriminately. But one is sure to hear the newest music there. I always have a large order to give to Johnson's, the day after a concert.'
'Do you like new music simply for its newness, then?'
'Oh; one knows it is the fashion in London, or else the singers would not bring it down here. You have been in London, of course.'
'Yes,' said Margaret, 'I have lived there for several years.'
'Oh! London and the Alhambra are the two places I long to see!'
'London and the Alhambra!'
'Yes! ever since I read the Tales of the Alhambra. Don't you know them?'
'I don't think I do. But surely, it is a very easy journey to
'Yes; but somehow,' said Fanny, lowering her voice, 'mamma has never been to London herself, and can't understand my longing. She is very proud of Milton; dirty, smoky place, as I feel it to be. I believe she admires it the more for those very qualities.'
'If it has been Mrs. Thornton's home for some years, I can well understand her loving it,' said Margaret, in her clear bell-like voice.
'What are you saying about me, Miss Hale? May I inquire?'
Margaret had not the words ready for an answer to this question, which took her a little by surprise, so Miss Thornton replied:
'Oh, mamma! we are only trying to account for your being so fond of Milton.'
'Thank you,' said Mrs. Thornton. 'I do not feel that my very natural liking for the place where I was born and brought up,—and which has since been my residence for some years, requires any accounting for.'
Margaret was vexed. As Fanny had put it, it did seem as if they had been impertinently discussing Mrs. Thornton's feelings; but she also rose up against that lady's manner of showing that she was offended.
Mrs. Thornton went on after a moment's pause:
'Do you know anything of Milton, Miss Hale? Have you seen any of our factories? our magnificent warehouses?'
'No!' said Margaret. 'I have not seen anything of that description as yet. Then she felt that, by concealing her utter indifference to all such places, she was hardly speaking with truth; so she went on:
'I dare say, papa would have taken me before now if I had cared. But I really do not find much pleasure in going over manufactories.'
'They are very curious places,' said Mrs. Hale, 'but there is so much noise and dirt always. I remember once going in a lilac silk to see candles made, and my gown was utterly ruined.'
'Very probably,' said Mrs. Thornton, in a short displeased manner. 'I merely thought, that as strangers newly come to reside in a town which has risen to eminence in the country, from the character and progress of its peculiar business, you might have cared to visit some of the places where it is carried on; places unique in the kingdom, I am informed. If Miss Hale changes her mind and condescends to be curious as to the manufactures of Milton, I can only say I shall be glad to procure her admission to print-works, or reed-making, or the more simple operations of spinning carried on in my son's mill. Every improvement of machinery is, I believe, to be seen there, in its highest perfection.'
'I am so glad you don't like mills and manufactories, and all those kind of things,' said Fanny, in a half-whisper, as she rose to accompany her mother, who was taking leave of Mrs. Hale with rustling dignity.
'I think I should like to know all about them, if I were you,' replied Margaret quietly.
'Fanny!' said her mother, as they drove away, 'we will be civil to these Hales: but don't form one of your hasty friendships with the daughter. She will do you no good, I see. The mother looks very ill, and seems a nice, quiet kind of person.'
'I don't want to form any friendship with Miss Hale, mamma,' said Fanny, pouting. 'I thought I was doing my duty by talking to her, and trying to amuse her.'
'Well! at any rate John must be satisfied now.'
A SOFT BREEZE IN A SULTRY PLACE
'That doubt and trouble, fear and pain,
And anguish, all, are shadows vain,
That death itself shall not remain;
That weary deserts we may tread,
A dreary labyrinth may thread,
Thro' dark ways underground be led;
Yet, if we will one Guide obey,
The dreariest path, the darkest way
Shall issue out in heavenly day;
And we, on divers shores now cast,
Shall meet, our perilous voyage past,
All in our Father's house at last!'
R. C. TRENCH.
Margaret flew up stairs as soon as their visitors were gone, and put on her bonnet and shawl, to run and inquire how Bessy Higgins was, and sit with her as long as she could before dinner. As she went along the crowded narrow streets, she felt how much of interest they had gained by the simple fact of her having learnt to care for a dweller in them.
Mary Higgins, the slatternly younger sister, had endeavoured as well as she could to tidy up the house for the expected visit. There had been rough-stoning done in the middle of the floor, while the flags under the chairs and table and round the walls retained their dark unwashed appearance. Although the day was hot, there burnt a large fire in the grate, making the whole place feel like an oven. Margaret did not understand that the lavishness of coals was a sign of hospitable welcome to her on Mary's part, and thought that perhaps the oppressive heat was necessary for Bessy. Bessy herself lay on a squab, or short sofa, placed under the window. She was very much more feeble than on the previous day, and tired with raising herself at every step to look out and see if it was Margaret coming. And now that Margaret was there, and had taken a chair by her, Bessy lay back silent, and content to look at Margaret's face, and touch her articles of dress, with a childish admiration of their fineness of texture.
'I never knew why folk in the Bible cared for soft raiment afore. But it must be nice to go dressed as yo' do. It's different fro' common. Most fine folk tire my eyes out wi' their colours; but some how yours rest me. Where did ye get this frock?'
'In London,' said Margaret, much amused.
'London! Have yo' been in London?'
'Yes! I lived there for some years. But my home was in a forest; in the country.
'Tell me about it,' said Bessy. 'I like to hear speak of the country and trees, and such like things.' She leant back, and shut her eye and crossed her hands over her breast, lying at perfect rest, as if t receive all the ideas Margaret could suggest.
Margaret had never spoken of Helstone since she left it, except just naming the place incidentally. She saw it in dreams more vivid than life, and as she fell away to slumber at nights her memory wandered in all its pleasant places. But her heart was opened to this girl; 'Oh, Bessy, I loved the home we have left so dearly! I wish you could see it. I cannot tell you half its beauty. There are great trees standing all about it, with their branches stretching long and level, and making a deep shade of rest even at noonday. And yet, though every leaf may seem still, there is a continual rushing sound of movement all around—not close at hand. Then sometimes the turf is as soft and fine as velvet; and sometimes quite lush with the perpetual moisture of a little, hidden, tinkling brook near at hand. And then in other parts there are billowy ferns—whole stretches of fern; some in the green shadow; some with long streaks of golden sunlight lying on them—just like the sea.'
'I have never seen the sea,' murmured Bessy. 'But go on.'
'Then, here and there, there are wide commons, high up as if above the very tops of the trees—'
'I'm glad of that. I felt smothered like down below. When I have gone for an out, I've always wanted to get high up and see far away, and take a deep breath o' fulness in that air. I get smothered enough in Milton, and I think the sound yo' speak of among the trees, going on for ever and ever, would send me dazed; it's that made my head ache so in the mill. Now on these commons I reckon there is but little noise?'
'No,' said Margaret; 'nothing but here and there a lark high in the air. Sometimes I used to hear a farmer speaking sharp and loud to his servants; but it was so far away that it only reminded me pleasantly that other people were hard at work in some distant place, while I just sat on the heather and did nothing.'
'I used to think once that if I could have a day of doing nothing, to rest me—a day in some quiet place like that yo' speak on—it would maybe set me up. But now I've had many days o' idleness, and I'm just as weary o' them as I was o' my work. Sometimes I'm so tired out I think I cannot enjoy heaven without a piece of rest first. I'm rather afeard o' going straight there without getting a good sleep in the grave to set me up.'
'Don't be afraid, Bessy,' said Margaret, laying her hand on the girl's; 'God can give you more perfect rest than even idleness on earth, or the dead sleep of the grave can do.'
Bessy moved uneasily; then she said:
'I wish father would not speak as he does. He means well, as I telled yo' yesterday, and tell yo' again and again. But yo' see, though I don't believe him a bit by day, yet by night—when I'm in a fever, half-asleep and half-awake—it comes back upon me—oh! so bad! And I think, if this should be th' end of all, and if all I've been born for is just to work my heart and my life away, and to sicken i' this dree place, wi' them mill-noises in my ears for ever, until I could scream out for them to stop, and let me have a little piece o' quiet—and wi' the fluff filling my lungs, until I thirst to death for one long deep breath o' the clear air yo' speak on—and my mother gone, and I never able to tell her again how I loved her, and o' all my troubles—I think if this life is th' end, and that there's no God to wipe away all tears from all eyes—yo' wench, yo'!' said she, sitting up, and clutching violently, almost fiercely, at Margaret's hand, 'I could go mad, and kill yo', I could.' She fell back completely worn out with her passion. Margaret knelt down by her.
'Bessy—we have a Father in Heaven.'
'I know it! I know it,' moaned she, turning her head uneasily from side to side.
'I'm very wicked. I've spoken very wickedly. Oh! don't be frightened by me and never come again. I would not harm a hair of your head. And,' opening her eyes, and looking earnestly at Margaret, 'I believe, perhaps, more than yo' do o' what's to come. I read the book o' Revelations until I know it off by heart, and I never doubt when I'm waking, and in my senses, of all the glory I'm to come to.'
'Don't let us talk of what fancies come into your head when you are feverish. I would rather hear something about what you used to do when you were well.'
'I think I was well when mother died, but I have never been rightly strong sin' somewhere about that time. I began to work in a carding-room soon after, and the fluff got into my lungs and poisoned me.'
'Fluff?' said Margaret, inquiringly.
'Fluff,' repeated Bessy. 'Little bits, as fly off fro' the cotton, when they're carding it, and fill the air till it looks all fine white dust. They say it winds round the lungs, and tightens them up. Anyhow, there's many a one as works in a carding-room, that falls into a waste, coughing and spitting blood, because they're just poisoned by the fluff.'
'But can't it be helped?' asked Margaret.
'I dunno. Some folk have a great wheel at one end o' their carding-rooms to make a draught, and carry off th' dust; but that wheel costs a deal o' money—five or six hundred pound, maybe, and brings in no profit; so it's but a few of th' masters as will put 'em up; and I've heard tell o' men who didn't like working places where there was a wheel, because they said as how it mad 'em hungry, at after they'd been long used to swallowing fluff, tone go without it, and that their wage ought to be raised if they were to work in such places. So between masters and men th' wheels fall through. I know I wish there'd been a wheel in our place, though.'
'Did not your father know about it?' asked Margaret.
'Yes! And he were sorry. But our factory were a good one on the whole; and a steady likely set o' people; and father was afeard of letting me go to a strange place, for though yo' would na think it now, many a one then used to call me a gradely lass enough. And I did na like to be reckoned nesh and soft, and Mary's schooling were to be kept up, mother said, and father he were always liking to buy books, and go to lectures o' one kind or another—all which took money—so I just worked on till I shall ne'er get the whirr out o' my ears, or the fluff out o' my throat i' this world. That's all.'
'How old are you?' asked Margaret.
'Nineteen, come July.'
'And I too am nineteen.' She thought, more sorrowfully than Bessy did, of the contrast between them. She could not speak for a moment or two for the emotion she was trying to keep down.
'About Mary,' said Bessy. 'I wanted to ask yo' to be a friend to her. She's seventeen, but she's th' last on us. And I don't want her to go to th' mill, and yet I dunno what she's fit for.'
'She could not do'—Margaret glanced unconsciously at the uncleaned corners of the room—'She could hardly undertake a servant's place, could she? We have an old faithful servant, almost a friend, who wants help, but who is very particular; and it would not be right to plague her with giving her any assistance that would really be an annoyance and an irritation.'
'No, I see. I reckon yo're right. Our Mary's a good wench; but who has she had to teach her what to do about a house? No mother, and me at the mill till I were good for nothing but scolding her for doing badly what I didn't know how to do a bit. But I wish she could ha' lived wi' yo', for all that.'
'But even though she may not be exactly fitted to come and live with us as a servant—and I don't know about that—I will always try and be a friend to her for your sake, Bessy. And now I must go. I will come again as soon as I can; but if it should not be to-morrow, or the next day, or even a week or a fortnight hence, don't think I've forgotten you. I may be busy.'
'I'll know yo' won't forget me again. I'll not mistrust yo' no more. But remember, in a week or a fortnight I may be dead and buried!'
'I'll come as soon as I can, Bessy,' said Margaret, squeezing her hand tight.
'But you'll let me know if you are worse.
'Ay, that will I,' said Bessy, returning the pressure.
From that day forwards Mrs. Hale became more and more of a suffering invalid. It was now drawing near to the anniversary of Edith's marriage, and looking back upon the year's accumulated heap of troubles, Margaret wondered how they had been borne. If she could have anticipated them, how she would have shrunk away and hid herself from the coming time! And yet day by day had, of itself, and by itself, been very endurable—small, keen, bright little spots of positive enjoyment having come sparkling into the very middle of sorrows. A year ago, or when she first went to Helstone, and first became silently conscious of the querulousness in her mother's temper, she would have groaned bitterly over the idea of a long illness to be borne in a strange, desolate, noisy, busy place, with diminished comforts on every side of the home life. But with the increase of serious and just ground of complaint, a new kind of patience had sprung up in her mother's mind. She was gentle and quiet in intense bodily suffering, almost in proportion as she had been restless and depressed when there had been no real cause for grief. Mr. Hale was in exactly that stage of apprehension which, in men of his stamp, takes the shape of wilful blindness. He was more irritated than Margaret had ever known him at his daughter's expressed anxiety.
'Indeed, Margaret, you are growing fanciful! God knows I should be the first to take the alarm if your mother were really ill; we always saw when she had her headaches at Helstone, even without her telling us. She looks quite pale and white when she is ill; and now she has a bright healthy colour in her cheeks, just as she used to have when I first knew her.'
'But, papa,' said Margaret, with hesitation, 'do you know, I think that is the flush of pain.'
'Nonsense, Margaret. I tell you, you are too fanciful. You are the person not well, I think. Send for the doctor to-morrow for yourself; and then, if it will make your mind easier, he can see your mother.'
'Thank you, dear papa. It will make me happier, indeed.' And she went up to him to kiss him. But he pushed her away—gently enough, but still as if she had suggested unpleasant ideas, which he should be glad to get rid of as readily as he could of her presence. He walked uneasily up and down the room.
'Poor Maria!' said he, half soliloquising, 'I wish one could do right without sacrificing others. I shall hate this town, and myself too, if she——Pray, Margaret, does your mother often talk to you of the old places of Helstone, I mean?'
'No, papa,' said Margaret, sadly.
'Then, you see, she can't be fretting after them, eh? It has always been a comfort to me to think that your mother was so simple and open that I knew every little grievance she had. She never would conceal anything seriously affecting her health from me: would she, eh, Margaret? I am quite sure she would not. So don't let me hear of these foolish morbid ideas. Come, give me a kiss, and run off to bed.'
But she heard him pacing about (racooning, as she and Edith used to call it) long after her slow and languid undressing was finished—long after she began to listen as she lay in bed.
'I was used
To sleep at nights as sweetly as a child,—
Now if the wind blew rough, it made me start,
And think of my poor boy tossing about
Upon the roaring seas. And then I seemed
To feel that it was hard to take him from me
For such a little fault.'
It was a comfort to Margaret about this time, to find that her mother drew more tenderly and intimately towards her than she had ever done since the days of her childhood. She took her to her heart as a confidential friend—the post Margaret had always longed to fill, and had envied Dixon for being preferred to. Margaret took pains to respond to every call made upon her for sympathy—and they were many—even when they bore relation to trifles, which she would no more have noticed or regarded herself than the elephant would perceive the little pin at his feet, which yet he lifts carefully up at the bidding of his keeper. All unconsciously Margaret drew near to a reward.
One evening, Mr. Hale being absent, her mother began to talk to her about her brother Frederick, the very subject on which Margaret had longed to ask questions, and almost the only one on which her timidity overcame her natural openness. The more she wanted to hear about him, the less likely she was to speak.
'Oh, Margaret, it was so windy last night! It came howling down the chimney in our room! I could not sleep. I never can when there is such a terrible wind. I got into a wakeful habit when poor Frederick was at sea; and now, even if I don't waken all at once, I dream of him in some stormy sea, with great, clear, glass-green walls of waves on either side his ship, but far higher than her very masts, curling over her with that cruel, terrible white foam, like some gigantic crested serpent. It is an old dream, but it always comes back on windy nights, till I am thankful to waken, sitting straight and stiff up in bed with my terror. Poor Frederick! He is on land now, so wind can do him no harm. Though I did think it might shake down some of those tall chimneys.'
'Where is Frederick now, mamma? Our letters are directed to the care of Messrs. Barbour, at Cadiz, I know; but where is he himself?'
'I can't remember the name of the place, but he is not called Hale; you must remember that, Margaret. Notice the F. D. in every corner of the letters. He has taken the name of Dickenson. I wanted him to have been called Beresford, to which he had a kind of right, but your father thought he had better not. He might be recognised, you know, if he were called by my name.'
'Mamma,' said Margaret, 'I was at Aunt Shaw's when it all happened; and I suppose I was not old enough to be told plainly about it. But I should like to know now, if I may—if it does not give you too much pain to speak about it.'
'Pain! No,' replied Mrs. Hale, her cheek flushing. 'Yet it is pain to think that perhaps I may never see my darling boy again. Or else he did right, Margaret. They may say what they like, but I have his own letters to show, and I'll believe him, though he is my son, sooner than any court-martial on earth. Go to my little japan cabinet, dear, and in the second left-hand drawer you will find a packet of letters.'
Margaret went. There were the yellow, sea-stained letters, with the peculiar fragrance which ocean letters have: Margaret carried them back to her mother, who untied the silken string with trembling fingers, and, examining their dates, she gave them to Margaret to read, making her hurried, anxious remarks on their contents, almost before her daughter could have understood what they were.
'You see, Margaret, how from the very first he disliked Captain Reid. He was second lieutenant in the ship—the Orion—in which Frederick sailed the very first time. Poor little fellow, how well he looked in his midshipman's dress, with his dirk in his hand, cutting open all the newspapers with it as if it were a paper-knife! But this Mr. Reid, as he was then, seemed to take a dislike to Frederick from the very beginning. And then—stay! these are the letters he wrote on board the Russell. When he was appointed to her, and found his old enemy Captain Reid in command, he did mean to bear all his tyranny patiently. Look! this is the letter. Just read it, Margaret. Where is it he says—Stop—'my father may rely upon me, that I will bear with all proper patience everything that one officer and gentleman can take from another. But from my former knowledge of my present captain, I confess I look forward with apprehension to a long course of tyranny on board the Russell.' You see, he promises to bear patiently, and I am sure he did, for he was the sweetest-tempered boy, when he was not vexed, that could possibly be. Is that the letter in which he speaks of Captain Reid's impatience with the men, for not going through the ship's manoeuvres as quickly as the Avenger? You see, he says that they had many new hands on board the Russell, while the Avenger had been nearly three years on the station, with nothing to do but to keep slavers off, and work her men, till they ran up and down the rigging like rats or monkeys.'
Margaret slowly read the letter, half illegible through the fading of the ink. It might be—it probably was—a statement of Captain Reid's imperiousness in trifles, very much exaggerated by the narrator, who had written it while fresh and warm from the scene of altercation. Some sailors being aloft in the main-topsail rigging, the captain had ordered them to race down, threatening the hindmost with the cat-of-nine-tails. He who was the farthest on the spar, feeling the impossibility of passing his companions, and yet passionately dreading the disgrace of the flogging, threw himself desperately down to catch a rope considerably lower, failed, and fell senseless on deck. He only survived for a few hours afterwards, and the indignation of the ship's crew was at boiling point when young Hale wrote.
'But we did not receive this letter till long, long after we heard of the mutiny. Poor Fred! I dare say it was a comfort to him to write it even though he could not have known how to send it, poor fellow! And then we saw a report in the papers—that's to say, long before Fred's letter reached us—of an atrocious mutiny having broken out on board the Russell, and that the mutineers had remained in possession of the ship, which had gone off, it was supposed, to be a pirate; and that Captain Reid was sent adrift in a boat with some men—officers or something—whose names were all given, for they were picked up by a West-Indian steamer. Oh, Margaret! how your father and I turned sick over that list, when there was no name of Frederick Hale. We thought it must be some mistake; for poor Fred was such a fine fellow, only perhaps rather too passionate; and we hoped that the name of Carr, which was in the list, was a misprint for that of Hale—newspapers are so careless. And towards post-time the next day, papa set off to walk to Southampton to get the papers; and I could not stop at home, so I went to meet him. He was very late—much later than I thought he would have been; and I sat down under the hedge to wait for him. He came at last, his arms hanging loose down, his head sunk, and walking heavily along, as if every step was a labour and a trouble. Margaret, I see him now.'
'Don't go on, mamma. I can understand it all,' said Margaret, leaning up caressingly against her mother's side, and kissing her hand.
'No, you can't, Margaret. No one can who did not see him then. I could hardly lift myself up to go and meet him—everything seemed so to reel around me all at once. And when I got to him, he did not speak, or seem surprised to see me there, more than three miles from home, beside the Oldham beech-tree; but he put my arm in his, and kept stroking my hand, as if he wanted to soothe me to be very quiet under some great heavy blow; and when I trembled so all over that I could not speak, he took me in his arms, and stooped down his head on mine, and began to shake and to cry in a strange muffled, groaning voice, till I, for very fright, stood quite still, and only begged him to tell me what he had heard. And then, with his hand jerking, as if some one else moved it against his will, he gave me a wicked newspaper to read, calling our Frederick a "traitor of the blackest dye," "a base, ungrateful disgrace to his profession." Oh! I cannot tell what bad words they did not use. I took the paper in my hands as soon as I had read it—I tore it up to little bits—I tore it—oh! I believe Margaret, I tore it with my teeth. I did not cry. I could not. My cheeks were as hot as fire, and my very eyes burnt in my head. I saw your father looking grave at me. I said it was a lie, and so it was. Months after, this letter came, and you see what provocation Frederick had. It was not for himself, or his own injuries, he rebelled; but he would speak his mind to Captain Reid, and so it went on from bad to worse; and you see, most of the sailors stuck by Frederick.
'I think, Margaret,' she continued, after a pause, in a weak, trembling, exhausted voice, 'I am glad of it—I am prouder of Frederick standing up against injustice, than if he had been simply a good officer.'
'I am sure I am,' said Margaret, in a firm, decided tone. 'Loyalty and obedience to wisdom and justice are fine; but it is still finer to defy arbitrary power, unjustly and cruelly used-not on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of others more helpless.'
'For all that, I wish I could see Frederick once more—just once. He was my first baby, Margaret.' Mrs. Hale spoke wistfully, and almost as if apologising for the yearning, craving wish, as though it were a depreciation of her remaining child. But such an idea never crossed Margaret's mind. She was thinking how her mother's desire could be fulfilled.
'It is six or seven years ago—would they still prosecute him, mother? If he came and stood his trial, what would be the punishment? Surely, he might bring evidence of his great provocation.'
'It would do no good,' replied Mrs. Hale. 'Some of the sailors who accompanied Frederick were taken, and there was a court-martial held on them on board the Amicia; I believed all they said in their defence, poor fellows, because it just agreed with Frederick's story—but it was of no use,—' and for the first time during the conversation Mrs. Hale began to cry; yet something possessed Margaret to force the information she foresaw, yet dreaded, from her mother.
'What happened to them, mamma?' asked she.
'They were hung at the yard-arm,' said Mrs. Hale, solemnly. 'And the worst was that the court, in condemning them to death, said they had suffered themselves to be led astray from their duty by their superior officers.'
They were silent for a long time.
'And Frederick was in South America for several years, was he not?'
'Yes. And now he is in Spain. At Cadiz, or somewhere near it. If he comes to England he will be hung. I shall never see his face again—for if he comes to England he will be hung.'
There was no comfort to be given. Mrs. Hale turned her face to the wall, and lay perfectly still in her mother's despair. Nothing could be said to console her. She took her hand out of Margaret's with a little impatient movement, as if she would fain be left alone with the recollection of her son. When Mr. Hale came in, Margaret went out, oppressed with gloom, and seeing no promise of brightness on any side of the horizon.
MASTERS AND MEN
'Thought fights with thought;
out springs a spark of truth
From the collision of the sword and shield.'
W. S. LANDOR.
'Margaret,' said her father, the next day, 'we must return Mrs. Thornton's call. Your mother is not very well, and thinks she cannot walk so far; but you and I will go this afternoon.'
As they went, Mr. Hale began about his wife's health, with a kind of veiled anxiety, which Margaret was glad to see awakened at last.
'Did you consult the doctor, Margaret? Did you send for him?'
'No, papa, you spoke of his corning to see me. Now I was well. But if I only knew of some good doctor, I would go this afternoon, and ask him to come, for I am sure mamma is seriously indisposed.'
She put the truth thus plainly and strongly because her father had so completely shut his mind against the idea, when she had last named her fears. But now the case was changed. He answered in a despondent tone:
'Do you think she has any hidden complaint? Do you think she is really very ill? Has Dixon said anything? Oh, Margaret! I am haunted by the fear that our coming to Milton has killed her. My poor Maria!'
'Oh, papa! don't imagine such things,' said Margaret, shocked. 'She is not well, that is all. Many a one is not well for a time; and with good advice gets better and stronger than ever.'
'But has Dixon said anything about her?'
'No! You know Dixon enjoys making a mystery out of trifles; and she has been a little mysterious about mamma's health, which has alarmed me rather, that is all. Without any reason, I dare say. You know, papa, you said the other day I was getting fanciful.'
'I hope and trust you are. But don't think of what I said then. I like you to be fanciful about your mother's health. Don't be afraid of telling me your fancies. I like to hear them, though, I dare say, I spoke as if I was annoyed. But we will ask Mrs. Thornton if she can tell us of a good doctor. We won't throw away our money on any but some one first-rate. Stay, we turn up this street.' The street did not look as if it could contain any house large enough for Mrs. Thornton's habitation. Her son's presence never gave any impression as to the kind of house he lived in; but, unconsciously, Margaret had imagined that tall, massive, handsomely dressed Mrs. Thornton must live in a house of the same character as herself. Now Marlborough Street consisted of long rows of small houses, with a blank wall here and there; at least that was all they could see from the point at which they entered it.
'He told me he lived in Marlborough Street, I'm sure,' said Mr.
Hale, with a much perplexed air.
'Perhaps it is one of the economies he still practises, to live in a very small house. But here are plenty of people about; let me ask.'
She accordingly inquired of a passer-by, and was informed that Mr. Thornton lived close to the mill, and had the factory lodge-door pointed out to her, at the end of the long dead wall they had noticed.
The lodge-door was like a common garden-door; on one side of it were great closed gates for the ingress and egress of lurries and wagons. The lodge-keeper admitted them into a great oblong yard, on one side of which were offices for the transaction of business; on the opposite, an immense many-windowed mill, whence proceeded the continual clank of machinery and the long groaning roar of the steam-engine, enough to deafen those who lived within the enclosure. Opposite to the wall, along which the street ran, on one of the narrow sides of the oblong, was a handsome stone-coped house,—blackened, to be sure, by the smoke, but with paint, windows, and steps kept scrupulously clean. It was evidently a house which had been built some fifty or sixty years. The stone facings—the long, narrow windows, and the number of them—the flights of steps up to the front door, ascending from either side, and guarded by railing—all witnessed to its age. Margaret only wondered why people who could afford to live in so good a house, and keep it in such perfect order, did not prefer a much smaller dwelling in the country, or even some suburb; not in the continual whirl and din of the factory. Her unaccustomed ears could hardly catch her father's voice, as they stood on the steps awaiting the opening of the door. The yard, too, with the great doors in the dead wall as a boundary, was but a dismal look-out for the sitting-rooms of the house—as Margaret found when they had mounted the old-fashioned stairs, and been ushered into the drawing-room, the three windows of which went over the front door and the room on the right-hand side of the entrance. There was no one in the drawing-room. It seemed as though no one had been in it since the day when the furniture was bagged up with as much care as if the house was to be overwhelmed with lava, and discovered a thousand years hence. The walls were pink and gold; the pattern on the carpet represented bunches of flowers on a light ground, but it was carefully covered up in the centre by a linen drugget, glazed and colourless. The window-curtains were lace; each chair and sofa had its own particular veil of netting, or knitting. Great alabaster groups occupied every flat surface, safe from dust under their glass shades. In the middle of the room, right under the bagged-up chandelier, was a large circular table, with smartly-bound books arranged at regular intervals round the circumference of its polished surface, like gaily-coloured spokes of a wheel. Everything reflected light, nothing absorbed it. The whole room had a painfully spotted, spangled, speckled look about it, which impressed Margaret so unpleasantly that she was hardly conscious of the peculiar cleanliness required to keep everything so white and pure in such an atmosphere, or of the trouble that must be willingly expended to secure that effect of icy, snowy discomfort. Wherever she looked there was evidence of care and labour, but not care and labour to procure ease, to help on habits of tranquil home employment; solely to ornament, and then to preserve ornament from dirt or destruction.
They had leisure to observe, and to speak to each other in low voices, before Mrs. Thornton appeared. They were talking of what all the world might hear; but it is a common effect of such a room as this to make people speak low, as if unwilling to awaken the unused echoes.
At last Mrs. Thornton came in, rustling in handsome black silk, as was her wont; her muslins and laces rivalling, not excelling, the pure whiteness of the muslins and netting of the room. Margaret explained how it was that her mother could not accompany them to return Mrs. Thornton's call; but in her anxiety not to bring back her father's fears too vividly, she gave but a bungling account, and left the impression on Mrs. Thornton's mind that Mrs. Hale's was some temporary or fanciful fine-ladyish indisposition, which might have been put aside had there been a strong enough motive; or that if it was too severe to allow her to come out that day, the call might have been deferred. Remembering, too, the horses to her carriage, hired for her own visit to the Hales, and how Fanny had been ordered to go by Mr. Thornton, in order to pay every respect to them, Mrs. Thornton drew up slightly offended, and gave Margaret no sympathy—indeed, hardly any credit for the statement of her mother's indisposition.
'How is Mr. Thornton?' asked Mr. Hale. 'I was afraid he was not well, from his hurried note yesterday.'
'My son is rarely ill; and when he is, he never speaks about it, or makes it an excuse for not doing anything. He told me he could not get leisure to read with you last night, sir. He regretted it, I am sure; he values the hours spent with you.'
'I am sure they are equally agreeable to me,' said Mr. Hale. 'It makes me feel young again to see his enjoyment and appreciation of all that is fine in classical literature.'
'I have no doubt the classics are very desirable for people who have leisure. But, I confess, it was against my judgment that my son renewed his study of them. The time and place in which he lives, seem to me to require all his energy and attention. Classics may do very well for men who loiter away their lives in the country or in colleges; but Milton men ought to have their thoughts and powers absorbed in the work of to-day. At least, that is my opinion.' This last clause she gave out with 'the pride that apes humility.'
'But, surely, if the mind is too long directed to one object only, it will get stiff and rigid, and unable to take in many interests,' said Margaret.
'I do not quite understand what you mean by a mind getting stiff and rigid. Nor do I admire those whirligig characters that are full of this thing to-day, to be utterly forgetful of it in their new interest to-morrow. Having many interests does not suit the life of a Milton manufacturer. It is, or ought to be, enough for him to have one great desire, and to bring all the purposes of his life to bear on the fulfilment of that.'
'And that is—?' asked Mr. Hale.
Her sallow cheek flushed, and her eye lightened, as she answered:
'To hold and maintain a high, honourable place among the merchants of his country—the men of his town. Such a place my son has earned for himself. Go where you will—I don't say in England only, but in Europe—the name of John Thornton of Milton is known and respected amongst all men of business. Of course, it is unknown in the fashionable circles,' she continued, scornfully.
'Idle gentlemen and ladies are not likely to know much of a Milton manufacturer, unless he gets into parliament, or marries a lord's daughter.' Both Mr. Hale and Margaret had an uneasy, ludicrous consciousness that they had never heard of this great name, until Mr. Bell had written them word that Mr. Thornton would be a good friend to have in Milton. The proud mother's world was not their world of Harley Street gentilities on the one hand, or country clergymen and Hampshire squires on the other. Margaret's face, in spite of all her endeavours to keep it simply listening in its expression told the sensitive Mrs. Thornton this feeling of hers.
'You think you never heard of this wonderful son of mine, Miss
Hale. You think I'm an old woman whose ideas are bounded by
Milton, and whose own crow is the whitest ever seen.'
'No,' said Margaret, with some spirit. 'It may be true, that I was thinking I had hardly heard Mr. Thornton's name before I came to Milton. But since I have come here, I have heard enough to make me respect and admire him, and to feel how much justice and truth there is in what you have said of him.'
'Who spoke to you of him?' asked Mrs. Thornton, a little mollified, yet jealous lest any one else's words should not have done him full justice. Margaret hesitated before she replied. She did not like this authoritative questioning. Mr. Hale came in, as he thought, to the rescue.
'It was what Mr. Thornton said himself, that made us know the kind of man he was. Was it not, Margaret?'
Mrs. Thornton drew herself up, and said—
'My son is not the one to tell of his own doings. May I again ask you, Miss Hale, from whose account you formed your favourable opinion of him? A mother is curious and greedy of commendation of her children, you know.'
Margaret replied, 'It was as much from what Mr. Thornton withheld of that which we had been told of his previous life by Mr. Bell,—it was more that than what he said, that made us all feel what reason you have to be proud of him.'
'Mr. Bell! What can he know of John? He, living a lazy life in a drowsy college. But I'm obliged to you, Miss Hale. Many a missy young lady would have shrunk from giving an old woman the pleasure of hearing that her son was well spoken of.'
'Why?' asked Margaret, looking straight at Mrs. Thornton, in bewilderment.
'Why! because I suppose they might have consciences that told them how surely they were making the old mother into an advocate for them, in case they had any plans on the son's heart.'
She smiled a grim smile, for she had been pleased by Margaret's frankness; and perhaps she felt that she had been asking questions too much as if she had a right to catechise. Margaret laughed outright at the notion presented to her; laughed so merrily that it grated on Mrs. Thornton's ear, as if the words that called forth that laugh, must have been utterly and entirely ludicrous. Margaret stopped her merriment as soon as she saw Mrs. Thornton's annoyed look.
'I beg your pardon, madam. But I really am very much obliged to you for exonerating me from making any plans on Mr. Thornton's heart.'
'Young ladies have, before now,' said Mrs. Thornton, stiffly.
'I hope Miss Thornton is well,' put in Mr. Hale, desirous of changing the current of the conversation.
'She is as well as she ever is. She is not strong,' replied Mrs.
'And Mr. Thornton? I suppose I may hope to see him on Thursday?'
'I cannot answer for my son's engagements. There is some uncomfortable work going on in the town; a threatening of a strike. If so, his experience and judgment will make him much consulted by his friends. But I should think he could come on Thursday. At any rate, I am sure he will let you know if he cannot.'
'A strike!' asked Margaret. 'What for? What are they going to strike for?'
'For the mastership and ownership of other people's property,' said Mrs. Thornton, with a fierce snort. 'That is what they always strike for. If my son's work-people strike, I will only say they are a pack of ungrateful hounds. But I have no doubt they will.'
'They are wanting higher wages, I suppose?' asked Mr. Hale.
'That is the face of the thing. But the truth is, they want to be masters, and make the masters into slaves on their own ground. They are always trying at it; they always have it in their minds and every five or six years, there comes a struggle between masters and men. They'll find themselves mistaken this time, I fancy,—a little out of their reckoning. If they turn out, they mayn't find it so easy to go in again. I believe, the masters have a thing or two in their heads which will teach the men not to strike again in a hurry, if they try it this time.'
'Does it not make the town very rough?' asked Margaret.
'Of course it does. But surely you are not a coward, are you? Milton is not the place for cowards. I have known the time when I have had to thread my way through a crowd of white, angry men, all swearing they would have Makinson's blood as soon as he ventured to show his nose out of his factory; and he, knowing nothing of it, some one had to go and tell him, or he was a dead man, and it needed to be a woman,—so I went. And when I had got in, I could not get out. It was as much as my life was worth. So I went up to the roof, where there were stones piled ready to drop on the heads of the crowd, if they tried to force the factory doors. And I would have lifted those heavy stones, and dropped them with as good an aim as the best man there, but that I fainted with the heat I had gone through. If you live in Milton, you must learn to have a brave heart, Miss Hale.'
'I would do my best,' said Margaret rather pale. 'I do not know whether I am brave or not till I am tried; but I am afraid I should be a coward.'
'South country people are often frightened by what our Darkshire men and women only call living and struggling. But when you've been ten years among a people who are always owing their betters a grudge, and only waiting for an opportunity to pay it off, you'll know whether you are a coward or not, take my word for it.'
Mr. Thornton came that evening to Mr. Hale's. He was shown up into the drawing-room, where Mr. Hale was reading aloud to his wife and daughter.
'I am come partly to bring you a note from my mother, and partly to apologise for not keeping to my time yesterday. The note contains the address you asked for; Dr. Donaldson.'
'Thank you!' said Margaret, hastily, holding out her hand to take the note, for she did not wish her mother to hear that they had been making any inquiry about a doctor. She was pleased that Mr. Thornton seemed immediately to understand her feeling; he gave her the note without another word of explanation. Mr. Hale began to talk about the strike. Mr. Thornton's face assumed a likeness to his mother's worst expression, which immediately repelled the watching Margaret.
'Yes; the fools will have a strike. Let them. It suits us well enough. But we gave them a chance. They think trade is flourishing as it was last year. We see the storm on the horizon and draw in our sails. But because we don't explain our reasons, they won't believe we're acting reasonably. We must give them line and letter for the way we choose to spend or save our money. Henderson tried a dodge with his men, out at Ashley, and failed. He rather wanted a strike; it would have suited his book well enough. So when the men came to ask for the five per cent. they are claiming, he told 'em he'd think about it, and give them his answer on the pay day; knowing all the while what his answer would be, of course, but thinking he'd strengthen their conceit of their own way. However, they were too deep for him, and heard something about the bad prospects of trade. So in they came on the Friday, and drew back their claim, and now he's obliged to go on working. But we Milton masters have to-day sent in our decision. We won't advance a penny. We tell them we may have to lower wages; but can't afford to raise. So here we stand, waiting for their next attack.'
'And what will that be?' asked Mr. Hale.
'I conjecture, a simultaneous strike. You will see Milton without smoke in a few days, I imagine, Miss Hale.'
'But why,' asked she, 'could you not explain what good reason you have for expecting a bad trade? I don't know whether I use the right words, but you will understand what I mean.'
'Do you give your servants reasons for your expenditure, or your economy in the use of your own money? We, the owners of capital, have a right to choose what we will do with it.'
'A human right,' said Margaret, very low.
'I beg your pardon, I did not hear what you said.'
'I would rather not repeat it,' said she; 'it related to a feeling which I do not think you would share.'
'Won't you try me?' pleaded he; his thoughts suddenly bent upon learning what she had said. She was displeased with his pertinacity, but did not choose to affix too much importance to her words.
'I said you had a human right. I meant that there seemed no reason but religious ones, why you should not do what you like with your own.
'I know we differ in our religious opinions; but don't you give me credit for having some, though not the same as yours?'
He was speaking in a subdued voice, as if to her alone. She did not wish to be so exclusively addressed. She replied out in her usual tone:
'I do not think that I have any occasion to consider your special religious opinions in the affair. All I meant to say is, that there is no human law to prevent the employers from utterly wasting or throwing away all their money, if they choose; but that there are passages in the Bible which would rather imply—to me at least—that they neglected their duty as stewards if they did so. However I know so little about strikes, and rate of wages, and capital, and labour, that I had better not talk to a political economist like you.'
'Nay, the more reason,' said he, eagerly. 'I shall only be too glad to explain to you all that may seem anomalous or mysterious to a stranger; especially at a time like this, when our doings are sure to be canvassed by every scribbler who can hold a pen.'
'Thank you,' she answered, coldly. 'Of course, I shall apply to my father in the first instance for any information he can give me, if I get puzzled with living here amongst this strange society.'
'You think it strange. Why?'
'I don't know—I suppose because, on the very face of it, I see two classes dependent on each other in every possible way, yet each evidently regarding the interests of the other as opposed to their own; I never lived in a place before where there were two sets of people always running each other down.'
'Who have you heard running the masters down? I don't ask who you have heard abusing the men; for I see you persist in misunderstanding what I said the other day. But who have you heard abusing the masters?'
Margaret reddened; then smiled as she said,
'I am not fond of being catechised. I refuse to answer your question. Besides, it has nothing to do with the fact. You must take my word for it, that I have heard some people, or, it may be, only someone of the workpeople, speak as though it were the interest of the employers to keep them from acquiring money—that it would make them too independent if they had a sum in the savings' bank.'
'I dare say it was that man Higgins who told you all this,' said Mrs Hale. Mr. Thornton did not appear to hear what Margaret evidently did not wish him to know. But he caught it, nevertheless.
'I heard, moreover, that it was considered to the advantage of the masters to have ignorant workmen—not hedge-lawyers, as Captain Lennox used to call those men in his company who questioned and would know the reason for every order.' This latter part of her sentence she addressed rather to her father than to Mr. Thornton. Who is Captain Lennox? asked Mr. Thornton of himself, with a strange kind of displeasure, that prevented him for the moment from replying to her! Her father took up the conversation.
'You never were fond of schools, Margaret, or you would have seen and known before this, how much is being done for education in Milton.'
'No!' said she, with sudden meekness. 'I know I do not care enough about schools. But the knowledge and the ignorance of which I was speaking, did not relate to reading and writing,—the teaching or information one can give to a child. I am sure, that what was meant was ignorance of the wisdom that shall guide men and women. I hardly know what that is. But he—that is, my informant—spoke as if the masters would like their hands to be merely tall, large children—living in the present moment—with a blind unreasoning kind of obedience.'
'In short, Miss Hale, it is very evident that your informant found a pretty ready listener to all the slander he chose to utter against the masters,' said Mr. Thornton, in an offended tone.
Margaret did not reply. She was displeased at the personal character Mr. Thornton affixed to what she had said.
Mr. Hale spoke next:
'I must confess that, although I have not become so intimately acquainted with any workmen as Margaret has, I am very much struck by the antagonism between the employer and the employed, on the very surface of things. I even gather this impression from what you yourself have from time to time said.'
Mr. Thornton paused awhile before he spoke. Margaret had just left the room, and he was vexed at the state of feeling between himself and her. However, the little annoyance, by making him cooler and more thoughtful, gave a greater dignity to what he said:
'My theory is, that my interests are identical with those of my workpeople and vice-versa. Miss Hale, I know, does not like to hear men called 'hands,' so I won't use that word, though it comes most readily to my lips as the technical term, whose origin, whatever it was, dates before my time. On some future day—in some millennium—in Utopia, this unity may be brought into practice—just as I can fancy a republic the most perfect form of government.'
'We will read Plato's Republic as soon as we have finished
'Well, in the Platonic year, it may fall out that we are all—men women, and children—fit for a republic: but give me a constitutional monarchy in our present state of morals and intelligence. In our infancy we require a wise despotism to govern us. Indeed, long past infancy, children and young people are the happiest under the unfailing laws of a discreet, firm authority. I agree with Miss Hale so far as to consider our people in the condition of children, while I deny that we, the masters, have anything to do with the making or keeping them so. I maintain that despotism is the best kind of government for them; so that in the hours in which I come in contact with them I must necessarily be an autocrat. I will use my best discretion—from no humbug or philanthropic feeling, of which we have had rather too much in the North—to make wise laws and come to just decisions in the conduct of my business—laws and decisions which work for my own good in the first instance—for theirs in the second; but I will neither be forced to give my reasons, nor flinch from what I have once declared to be my resolution. Let them turn out! I shall suffer as well as they: but at the end they will find I have not bated nor altered one jot.'
Margaret had re-entered the room and was sitting at her work; but she did not speak. Mr. Hale answered—
'I dare say I am talking in great ignorance; but from the little I know, I should say that the masses were already passing rapidly into the troublesome stage which intervenes between childhood and manhood, in the life of the multitude as well as that of the individual. Now, the error which many parents commit in the treatment of the individual at this time is, insisting on the same unreasoning obedience as when all he had to do in the way of duty was, to obey the simple laws of "Come when you're called" and "Do as you're bid!" But a wise parent humours the desire for independent action, so as to become the friend and adviser when his absolute rule shall cease. If I get wrong in my reasoning, recollect, it is you who adopted the analogy.'
'Very lately,' said Margaret, 'I heard a story of what happened in Nuremberg only three or four years ago. A rich man there lived alone in one of the immense mansions which were formerly both dwellings and warehouses. It was reported that he had a child, but no one knew of it for certain. For forty years this rumour kept rising and falling—never utterly dying away. After his death it was found to be true. He had a son—an overgrown man with the unexercised intellect of a child, whom he had kept up in that strange way, in order to save him from temptation and error. But, of course, when this great old child was turned loose into the world, every bad counsellor had power over him. He did not know good from evil. His father had made the blunder of bringing him up in ignorance and taking it for innocence; and after fourteen months of riotous living, the city authorities had to take charge of him, in order to save him from starvation. He could not even use words effectively enough to be a successful beggar.'
'I used the comparison (suggested by Miss Hale) of the position of the master to that of a parent; so I ought not to complain of your turning the simile into a weapon against me. But, Mr. Hale, when you were setting up a wise parent as a model for us, you said he humoured his children in their desire for independent action. Now certainly, the time is not come for the hands to have any independent action during business hours; I hardly know what you would mean by it then. And I say, that the masters would be trenching on the independence of their hands, in a way that I, for one, should not feel justified in doing, if we interfered too much with the life they lead out of the mills. Because they labour ten hours a-day for us, I do not see that we have any right to impose leading-strings upon them for the rest of their time. I value my own independence so highly that I can fancy no degradation greater than that of having another man perpetually directing and advising and lecturing me, or even planning too closely in any way about my actions. He might be the wisest of men, or the most powerful—I should equally rebel and resent his interference I imagine this is a stronger feeling in the North of England that in the South.'
'I beg your pardon, but is not that because there has been none of the equality of friendship between the adviser and advised classes? Because every man has had to stand in an unchristian and isolated position, apart from and jealous of his brother-man: constantly afraid of his rights being trenched upon?'
'I only state the fact. I am sorry to say, I have an appointment at eight o'clock, and I must just take facts as I find them to-night, without trying to account for them; which, indeed, would make no difference in determining how to act as things stand—the facts must be granted.'
'But,' said Margaret in a low voice, 'it seems to me that it makes all the difference in the world—.' Her father made a sign to her to be silent, and allow Mr. Thornton to finish what he had to say. He was already standing up and preparing to go.
'You must grant me this one point. Given a strong feeling of independence in every Darkshire man, have I any right to obtrude my views, of the manner in which he shall act, upon another (hating it as I should do most vehemently myself), merely because he has labour to sell and I capital to buy?'
'Not in the least,' said Margaret, determined just to say this one thing; 'not in the least because of your labour and capital positions, whatever they are, but because you are a man, dealing with a set of men over whom you have, whether you reject the use of it or not, immense power, just because your lives and your welfare are so constantly and intimately interwoven. God has made us so that we must be mutually dependent. We may ignore our own dependence, or refuse to acknowledge that others depend upon us in more respects than the payment of weekly wages; but the thing must be, nevertheless. Neither you nor any other master can help yourselves. The most proudly independent man depends on those around him for their insensible influence on his character—his life. And the most isolated of all your Darkshire Egos has dependants clinging to him on all sides; he cannot shake them off, any more than the great rock he resembles can shake off—'
'Pray don't go into similes, Margaret; you have led us off once already,' said her father, smiling, yet uneasy at the thought that they were detaining Mr. Thornton against his will, which was a mistake; for he rather liked it, as long as Margaret would talk, although what she said only irritated him.
'Just tell me, Miss Hale, are you yourself ever influenced—no, that is not a fair way of putting it;—but if you are ever conscious of being influenced by others, and not by circumstances, have those others been working directly or indirectly? Have they been labouring to exhort, to enjoin, to act rightly for the sake of example, or have they been simple, true men, taking up their duty, and doing it unflinchingly, without a thought of how their actions were to make this man industrious, that man saving? Why, if I were a workman, I should be twenty times more impressed by the knowledge that my master, was honest, punctual, quick, resolute in all his doings (and hands are keener spies even than valets), than by any amount of interference, however kindly meant, with my ways of going on out of work-hours. I do not choose to think too closely on what I am myself; but, I believe, I rely on the straightforward honesty of my hands, and the open nature of their opposition, in contra-distinction to the way in which the turnout will be managed in some mills, just because they know I scorn to take a single dishonourable advantage, or do an underhand thing myself It goes farther than a whole course of lectures on "Honesty is the Best Policy"—life diluted into words. No, no! What the master is, that will the men be, without over-much taking thought on his part.'
'That is a great admission,' said Margaret, laughing. 'When I see men violent and obstinate in pursuit of their rights, I may safely infer that the master is the same that he is a little ignorant of that spirit which suffereth long, and is kind, and seeketh not her own.'
'You are just like all strangers who don't understand the working of our system, Miss Hale,' said he, hastily. 'You suppose that our men are puppets of dough, ready to be moulded into any amiable form we please. You forget we have only to do with them for less than a third of their lives; and you seem not to perceive that the duties of a manufacturer are far larger and wider than those merely of an employer of labour: we have a wide commercial character to maintain, which makes us into the great pioneers of civilisation.'
'It strikes me,' said Mr. Hale, smiling, 'that you might pioneer a little at home. They are a rough, heathenish set of fellows, these Milton men of yours.'
'They are that,' replied Mr. Thornton. 'Rosewater surgery won't do for them. Cromwell would have made a capital mill-owner, Miss Hale. I wish we had him to put down this strike for us.'
'Cromwell is no hero of mine,' said she, coldly. 'But I am trying to reconcile your admiration of despotism with your respect for other men's independence of character.'
He reddened at her tone. 'I choose to be the unquestioned and irresponsible master of my hands, during the hours that they labour for me. But those hours past, our relation ceases; and then comes in the same respect for their independence that I myself exact.'
He did not speak again for a minute, he was too much vexed. But he shook it off, and bade Mr. and Mrs. Hale good night. Then, drawing near to Margaret, he said in a lower voice—
'I spoke hastily to you once this evening, and I am afraid, rather rudely. But you know I am but an uncouth Milton manufacturer; will you forgive me?'
'Certainly,' said she, smiling up in his face, the expression of which was somewhat anxious and oppressed, and hardly cleared away as he met her sweet sunny countenance, out of which all the north-wind effect of their discussion had entirely vanished. But she did not put out her hand to him, and again he felt the omission, and set it down to pride.