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North And South - Chapter L - CHANGES AT MILTON Post by :dollarware Category :Long Stories Author :Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Date :January 2011 Read :1158

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North And South - Chapter L - CHANGES AT MILTON

CHAPTER L - CHANGES AT MILTON

'Here we go up, up, up;

And here we go down, down, downee!'

NURSERY SONG.

Meanwhile, at Milton the chimneys smoked, the ceaseless roar and
mighty beat, and dizzying whirl of machinery, struggled and
strove perpetually. Senseless and purposeless were wood and iron
and steam in their endless labours; but the persistence of their
monotonous work was rivalled in tireless endurance by the strong
crowds, who, with sense and with purpose, were busy and restless
in seeking after--What? In the streets there were few
loiterers,--none walking for mere pleasure; every man's face was
set in lines of eagerness or anxiety; news was sought for with
fierce avidity; and men jostled each other aside in the Mart and
in the Exchange, as they did in life, in the deep selfishness of
competition. There was gloom over the town. Few came to buy, and
those who did were looked at suspiciously by the sellers; for
credit was insecure, and the most stable might have their
fortunes affected by the sweep in the great neighbouring port
among the shipping houses. Hitherto there had been no failures in
Milton; but, from the immense speculations that had come to light
in making a bad end in America, and yet nearer home, it was known
that some Milton houses of business must suffer so severely that
every day men's faces asked, if their tongues did not, 'What
news? Who is gone? How will it affect me?' And if two or three
spoke together, they dwelt rather on the names of those who were
safe than dared to hint at those likely, in their opinion, to go;
for idle breath may, at such times, cause the downfall of some
who might otherwise weather the storm; and one going down drags
many after. 'Thornton is safe,' say they. 'His business is
large--extending every year; but such a head as he has, and so
prudent with all his daring!' Then one man draws another aside,
and walks a little apart, and, with head inclined into his
neighbour's ear, he says, 'Thornton's business is large; but he
has spent his profits in extending it; he has no capital laid by;
his machinery is new within these two years, and has cost him--we
won't say what!--a word to the wise!' But that Mr. Harrison was a
croaker,--a man who had succeeded to his father's trade-made
fortune, which he had feared to lose by altering his mode of
business to any having a larger scope; yet he grudged every penny
made by others more daring and far-sighted.

But the truth was, Mr. Thornton was hard pressed. He felt it
acutely in his vulnerable point--his pride in the commercial
character which he had established for himself. Architect of his
own fortunes, he attributed this to no special merit or qualities
of his own, but to the power, which he believed that commerce
gave to every brave, honest, and persevering man, to raise
himself to a level from which he might see and read the great
game of worldly success, and honestly, by such far-sightedness,
command more power and influence than in any other mode of life.
Far away, in the East and in the West, where his person would
never be known, his name was to be regarded, and his wishes to be
fulfilled, and his word pass like gold. That was the idea of
merchant-life with which Mr. Thornton had started. 'Her merchants
be like princes,' said his mother, reading the text aloud, as if
it were a trumpet-call to invite her boy to the struggle. He was
but like many others--men, women, and children--alive to distant,
and dead to near things. He sought to possess the influence of a
name in foreign countries and far-away seas,--to become the head
of a firm that should be known for generations; and it had taken
him long silent years to come even to a glimmering of what he
might be now, to-day, here in his own town, his own factory,
among his own people. He and they had led parallel lives--very
close, but never touching--till the accident (or so it seemed) of
his acquaintance with Higgins. Once brought face to face, man to
man, with an individual of the masses around him, and (take
notice) out of the character of master and workman, in the first
instance, they had each begun to recognise that 'we have all of
us one human heart.' It was the fine point of the wedge; and
until now, when the apprehension of losing his connection with
two or three of the workmen whom he had so lately begun to know
as men,--of having a plan or two, which were experiments lying
very close to his heart, roughly nipped off without trial,--gave
a new poignancy to the subtle fear that came over him from time
to time; until now, he had never recognised how much and how deep
was the interest he had grown of late to feel in his position as
manufacturer, simply because it led him into such close contact,
and gave him the opportunity of so much power, among a race of
people strange, shrewd, ignorant; but, above all, full of
character and strong human feeling.

He reviewed his position as a Milton manufacturer. The strike a
year and a half ago,--or more, for it was now untimely wintry
weather, in a late spring,--that strike, when he was young, and
he now was old--had prevented his completing some of the large
orders he had then on hand. He had locked up a good deal of his
capital in new and expensive machinery, and he had also bought
cotton largely, for the fulfilment of these orders, taken under
contract. That he had not been able to complete them, was owing
in some degree to the utter want of skill on the part of the
Irish hands whom he had imported; much of their work was damaged
and unfit to be sent forth by a house which prided itself on
turning out nothing but first-rate articles. For many months, the
embarrassment caused by the strike had been an obstacle in Mr.
Thornton's way; and often, when his eye fell on Higgins, he could
have spoken angrily to him without any present cause, just from
feeling how serious was the injury that had arisen from this
affair in which he was implicated. But when he became conscious
of this sudden, quick resentment, he resolved to curb it. It
would not satisfy him to avoid Higgins; he must convince himself
that he was master over his own anger, by being particularly
careful to allow Higgins access to him, whenever the strict rules
of business, or Mr. Thornton's leisure permitted. And by-and-bye,
he lost all sense of resentment in wonder how it was, or could
be, that two men like himself and Higgins, living by the same
trade, working in their different ways at the same object, could
look upon each other's position and duties in so strangely
different a way. And thence arose that intercourse, which though
it might not have the effect of preventing all future clash of
opinion and action, when the occasion arose, would, at any rate,
enable both master and man to look upon each other with far more
charity and sympathy, and bear with each other more patiently and
kindly. Besides this improvement of feeling, both Mr. Thornton
and his workmen found out their ignorance as to positive matters
of fact, known heretofore to one side, but not to the other.

But now had come one of those periods of bad trade, when the
market falling brought down the value of all large stocks; Mr.
Thornton's fell to nearly half. No orders were coming in; so he
lost the interest of the capital he had locked up in machinery;
indeed, it was difficult to get payment for the orders completed;
yet there was the constant drain of expenses for working the
business. Then the bills became due for the cotton he had
purchased; and money being scarce, he could only borrow at
exorbitant interest, and yet he could not realise any of his
property. But he did not despair; he exerted himself day and
night to foresee and to provide for all emergencies; he was as
calm and gentle to the women in his home as ever; to the workmen
in his mill he spoke not many words, but they knew him by this
time; and many a curt, decided answer was received by them rather
with sympathy for the care they saw pressing upon him, than with
the suppressed antagonism which had formerly been smouldering,
and ready for hard words and hard judgments on all occasions.
'Th' measter's a deal to potter him,' said Higgins, one day, as
he heard Mr. Thornton's short, sharp inquiry, why such a command
had not been obeyed; and caught the sound of the suppressed sigh
which he heaved in going past the room where some of the men were
working. Higgins and another man stopped over-hours that night,
unknown to any one, to get the neglected piece of work done; and
Mr. Thornton never knew but that the overlooker, to whom he had
given the command in the first instance, had done it himself

'Eh! I reckon I know who'd ha' been sorry for to see our measter
sitting so like a piece o' grey calico! Th' ou'd parson would ha'
fretted his woman's heart out, if he'd seen the woeful looks I
have seen on our measter's face,' thought Higgins, one day, as he
was approaching Mr. Thornton in Marlborough Street.

'Measter,' said he, stopping his employer in his quick resolved
walk, and causing that gentleman to look up with a sudden annoyed
start, as if his thoughts had been far away.

'Have yo' heerd aught of Miss Marget lately?'

'Miss--who?' replied Mr. Thornton.

'Miss Marget--Miss Hale--th' oud parson's daughter--yo known who
I mean well enough, if yo'll only think a bit--' (there was
nothing disrespectful in the tone in which this was said).

'Oh yes!' and suddenly, the wintry frost-bound look of care had
left Mr. Thornton's face, as if some soft summer gale had blown
all anxiety away from his mind; and though his mouth was as much
compressed as before, his eyes smiled out benignly on his
questioner.

'She's my landlord now, you know, Higgins. I hear of her through
her agent here, every now and then. She's well and among
friends--thank you, Higgins.' That 'thank you' that lingered
after the other words, and yet came with so much warmth of
feeling, let in a new light to the acute Higgins. It might be but
a will-o'-th'-wisp, but he thought he would follow it and
ascertain whither it would lead him.

'And she's not getten married, measter?'

'Not yet.' The face was cloudy once more. 'There is some talk of
it, as I understand, with a connection of the family.'

'Then she'll not be for coming to Milton again, I reckon.'

'No!'

'Stop a minute, measter.' Then going up confidentially close, he
said, 'Is th' young gentleman cleared?' He enforced the depth of
his intelligence by a wink of the eye, which only made things
more mysterious to Mr. Thornton.

'Th' young gentleman, I mean--Master Frederick, they ca'ad
him--her brother as was over here, yo' known.'

'Over here.'

'Ay, to be sure, at th' missus's death. Yo' need na be feared of
my telling; for Mary and me, we knowed it all along, only we held
our peace, for we got it through Mary working. in th' house.'

'And he was over. It was her brother!'

'Sure enough, and I reckoned yo' knowed it or I'd never ha' let
on. Yo' knowed she had a brother?'

'Yes, I know all about him. And he was over at Mrs. Hale's
death?'

'Nay! I'm not going for to tell more. I've maybe getten them into
mischief already, for they kept it very close. I nobbut wanted to
know if they'd getten him cleared?'

'Not that I know of. I know nothing. I only hear of Miss Hale,
now, as my landlord, and through her lawyer.'

He broke off from Higgins, to follow the business on which he had
been bent when the latter first accosted him; leaving Higgins
baffled in his endeavour.

'It was her brother,' said Mr. Thornton to himself. 'I am glad. I
may never see her again; but it is a comfort--a relief--to know
that much. I knew she could not be unmaidenly; and yet I yearned
for conviction. Now I am glad!'

It was a little golden thread running through the dark web of his
present fortunes; which were growing ever gloomier and more
gloomy. His agent had largely trusted a house in the American
trade, which went down, along with several others, just at this
time, like a pack of cards, the fall of one compelling other
failures. What were Mr. Thornton's engagements? Could he stand?

Night after night he took books and papers into his own private
room, and sate up there long after the family were gone to bed.
He thought that no one knew of this occupation of the hours he
should have spent in sleep. One morning, when daylight was
stealing in through the crevices of his shutters, and he had
never been in bed, and, in hopeless indifference of mind, was
thinking that he could do without the hour or two of rest, which
was all that he should be able to take before the stir of daily
labour began again, the door of his room opened, and his mother
stood there, dressed as she had been the day before. She had
never laid herself down to slumber any more than he. Their eyes
met. Their faces were cold and rigid, and wan, from long
watching.

'Mother! why are not you in bed?'

'Son John,' said she, 'do you think I can sleep with an easy
mind, while you keep awake full of care? You have not told me
what your trouble is; but sore trouble you have had these many
days past.'

'Trade is bad.'

'And you dread----'

'I dread nothing,' replied he, drawing up his head, and holding
it erect. 'I know now that no man will suffer by me. That was my
anxiety.'

'But how do you stand? Shall you--will it be a failure?' her
steady voice trembling in an unwonted manner.

'Not a failure. I must give up business, but I pay all men. I
might redeem myself--I am sorely tempted--'

'How? Oh, John! keep up your name--try all risks for that. How
redeem it?'

'By a speculation offered to me, full of risk; but, if
successful, placing me high above water-mark, so that no one need
ever know the strait I am in. Still, if it fails--'

'And if it fails,' said she, advancing, and laying her hand on
his arm, her eyes full of eager light. She held her breath to
hear the end of his speech.

'Honest men are ruined by a rogue,' said he gloomily. 'As I stand
now, my creditors, money is safe--every farthing of it; but I
don't know where to find my own--it may be all gone, and I
penniless at this moment. Therefore, it is my creditors' money
that I should risk.'

'But if it succeeded, they need never know. Is it so desperate a
speculation? I am sure it is not, or you would never have thought
of it. If it succeeded--'

'I should be a rich man, and my peace of conscience would be
gone!'

'Why! You would have injured no one.'

'No; but I should have run the risk of ruining many for my own
paltry aggrandisement. Mother, I have decided! You won't much
grieve over our leaving this house, shall you, dear mother?'

'No! but to have you other than what you are will break my heart.
What can you do?'

'Be always the same John Thornton in whatever circumstances;
endeavouring to do right, and making great blunders; and then
trying to be brave in setting to afresh. But it is hard, mother.
I have so worked and planned. I have discovered new powers in my
situation too late--and now all is over. I am too old to begin
again with the same heart. It is hard, mother.'

He turned away from her, and covered his face with his hands.

'I can't think,' said she, with gloomy defiance in her tone, 'how
it comes about. Here is my boy--good son, just man, tender
heart--and he fails in all he sets his mind upon: he finds a
woman to love, and she cares no more for his affection than if he
had been any common man; he labours, and his labour comes to
nought. Other people prosper and grow rich, and hold their paltry
names high and dry above shame.'

'Shame never touched me,' said he, in a low tone: but she went
on.

'I sometimes have wondered where justice was gone to, and now I
don't believe there is such a thing in the world,--now you are
come to this; you, my own John Thornton, though you and I may be
beggars together--my own dear son!'

She fell upon his neck, and kissed him through her tears.

'Mother!' said he, holding her gently in his arms, 'who has sent
me my lot in life, both of good and of evil?'

She shook her head. She would have nothing to do with religion
just then.

'Mother,' he went on, seeing that she would not speak, 'I, too,
have been rebellious; but I am striving to be so no longer. Help
me, as you helped me when I was a child. Then you said many good
words--when my father died, and we were sometimes sorely short of
comforts--which we shall never be now; you said brave, noble,
trustful words then, mother, which I have never forgotten, though
they may have lain dormant. Speak to me again in the old way,
mother. Do not let us have to think that the world has too much
hardened our hearts. If you would say the old good words, it
would make me feel something of the pious simplicity of my
childhood. I say them to myself, but they would come differently
from you, remembering all the cares and trials you have had to
bear.'

'I have had a many,' said she, sobbing, 'but none so sore as
this. To see you cast down from your rightful place! I could say
it for myself, John, but not for you. Not for you! God has seen
fit to be very hard on you, very.'

She shook with the sobs that come so convulsively when an old
person weeps. The silence around her struck her at last; and she
quieted herself to listen. No sound. She looked. Her son sate by
the table, his arms thrown half across it, his head bent face
downwards.

'Oh, John!' she said, and she lifted his face up. Such a strange,
pallid look of gloom was on it, that for a moment it struck her
that this look was the forerunner of death; but, as the rigidity
melted out of the countenance and the natural colour returned,
and she saw that he was himself once again, all worldly
mortification sank to nothing before the consciousness of the
great blessing that he himself by his simple existence was to
her. She thanked God for this, and this alone, with a fervour
that swept away all rebellious feelings from her mind.

He did not speak readily; but he went and opened the shutters,
and let the ruddy light of dawn flood the room. But the wind was
in the east; the weather was piercing cold, as it had been for
weeks; there would be no demand for light summer goods this year.
That hope for the revival of trade must utterly be given up.

It was a great comfort to have had this conversation with his
mother; and to feel sure that, however they might henceforward
keep silence on all these anxieties, they yet understood each
other's feelings, and were, if not in harmony, at least not in
discord with each other, in their way of viewing them. Fanny's
husband was vexed at Thornton's refusal to take any share in the
speculation which he had offered to him, and withdrew from any
possibility of being supposed able to assist him with the ready
money, which indeed the speculator needed for his own venture.

There was nothing for it at last, but that which Mr. Thornton had
dreaded for many weeks; he had to give up the business in which
he had been so long engaged with so much. honour and success; and
look out for a subordinate situation. Marlborough Mills and the
adjacent dwelling were held under a long lease; they must, if
possible, be relet. There was an immediate choice of situations
offered to Mr. Thornton. Mr. Hamper would have been only too glad
to have secured him as a steady and experienced partner for his
son, whom he was setting up with a large capital in a
neighbouring town; but the young man was half-educated as
regarded information, and wholly uneducated as regarded any other
responsibility than that of getting money, and brutalised both as
to his pleasures and his pains. Mr. Thornton declined having any
share in a partnership, which would frustrate what few plans he
had that survived the wreck of his fortunes. He would sooner
consent to be only a manager, where he could have a certain
degree of power beyond the mere money-getting part, than have to
fall in with the tyrannical humours of a moneyed partner with
whom he felt sure that he should quarrel in a few months.

So he waited, and stood on one side with profound humility, as
the news swept through the Exchange, of the enormous fortune
which his brother-in-law had made by his daring speculation. It
was a nine days' wonder. Success brought with it its worldly
consequence of extreme admiration. No one was considered so wise
and far-seeing as Mr. Watson.

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