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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesNorth And South - Chapter XIX - ANGEL VISITS
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North And South - Chapter XIX - ANGEL VISITS Post by :wildfirebiz Category :Long Stories Author :Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Date :January 2011 Read :2042

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North And South - Chapter XIX - ANGEL VISITS

CHAPTER XIX - ANGEL VISITS


'As angels in some brighter dreams

Call to the soul when man doth sleep,

So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes,

And into glory peep.'

HENRY VAUGHAN.

Mrs. Hale was curiously amused and interested by the idea of the
Thornton dinner party. She kept wondering about the details, with
something of the simplicity of a little child, who wants to have
all its anticipated pleasures described beforehand. But the
monotonous life led by invalids often makes them like children,
inasmuch as they have neither of them any sense of proportion in
events, and seem each to believe that the walls and curtains
which shut in their world, and shut out everything else, must of
necessity be larger than anything hidden beyond. Besides, Mrs.
Hale had had her vanities as a girl; had perhaps unduly felt
their mortification when she became a poor clergyman's
wife;--they had been smothered and kept down; but they were not
extinct; and she liked to think of seeing Margaret dressed for a
party, and discussed what she should wear, with an unsettled
anxiety that amused Margaret, who had been more accustomed to
society in her one in Harley Street than her mother in five and
twenty years of Helstone.

'Then you think you shall wear your white silk. Are you sure it
will fit? It's nearly a year since Edith was married!'

'Oh yes, mamma! Mrs. Murray made it, and it's sure to be right;
it may be a straw's breadth shorter or longer-waisted, according
to my having grown fat or thin. But I don't think I've altered in
the least.'

'Hadn't you better let Dixon see it? It may have gone yellow with
lying by.'

'If you like, mamma. But if the worst comes to the worst, I've a
very nice pink gauze which aunt Shaw gave me, only two or three
months before Edith was married. That can't have gone yellow.'

'No! but it may have faded.'

'Well! then I've a green silk. I feel more as if it was the
embarrassment of riches.'

'I wish I knew what you ought to wear,' said Mrs. Hale,
nervously. Margaret's manner changed instantly. 'Shall I go and
put them on one after another, mamma, and then you could see
which you liked best?'

'But--yes! perhaps that will be best.'

So off Margaret went. She was very much inclined to play some
pranks when she was dressed up at such an unusual hour; to make
her rich white silk balloon out into a cheese, to retreat
backwards from her mother as if she were the queen; but when she
found that these freaks of hers were regarded as interruptions to
the serious business, and as such annoyed her mother, she became
grave and sedate. What had possessed the world (her world) to
fidget so about her dress, she could not understand; but that
very after noon, on naming her engagement to Bessy Higgins
(apropos of the servant that Mrs. Thornton had promised to
inquire about), Bessy quite roused up at the intelligence.

'Dear! and are you going to dine at Thornton's at Marlborough
Mills?'

'Yes, Bessy. Why are you so surprised?'

'Oh, I dunno. But they visit wi' a' th' first folk in Milton.'

'And you don't think we're quite the first folk in Milton, eh,
Bessy?' Bessy's cheeks flushed a little at her thought being thus
easily read.

'Well,' said she, 'yo' see, they thinken a deal o' money here and
I reckon yo've not getten much.'

'No,' said Margaret, 'that's very true. But we are educated
people, and have lived amongst educated people. Is there anything
so wonderful, in our being asked out to dinner by a man who owns
himself inferior to my father by coming to him to be instructed?
I don't mean to blame Mr. Thornton. Few drapers' assistants, as
he was once, could have made themselves what he is.'

'But can yo' give dinners back, in yo'r small house? Thornton's
house is three times as big.'

'Well, I think we could manage to give Mr. Thornton a dinner
back, as you call it. Perhaps not in such a large room, nor with
so many people. But I don't think we've thought about it at all
in that way.'

'I never thought yo'd be dining with Thorntons,' repeated I
Bessy. 'Why, the mayor hissel' dines there; and the members of
Parliament and all.'

'I think I could support the honour of meeting the mayor of
Milton.

'But them ladies dress so grand!' said Bessy, with an anxious
look at Margaret's print gown, which her Milton eyes appraised at
sevenpence a yard. Margaret's face dimpled up into a merry laugh.
'Thank You, Bessy, for thinking so kindly about my looking nice
among all the smart people. But I've plenty of grand gowns,--a
week ago, I should have said they were far too grand for anything
I should ever want again. But as I'm to dine at Mr. Thornton's,
and perhaps to meet the mayor, I shall put on my very best gown,
you may be sure.'

'What win yo' wear?' asked Bessy, somewhat relieved.

'White silk,' said Margaret. 'A gown I had for a cousin's
wedding, a year ago.

'That'll do!' said Bessy, falling back in her chair. 'I should be
loth to have yo' looked down upon.

'Oh! I'll be fine enough, if that will save me from being looked
down upon in Milton.'

'I wish I could see you dressed up,' said Bessy. 'I reckon, yo're
not what folk would ca' pretty; yo've not red and white enough
for that. But dun yo' know, I ha' dreamt of yo', long afore ever
I seed yo'.'

'Nonsense, Bessy!'

'Ay, but I did. Yo'r very face,--looking wi' yo'r clear steadfast
eyes out o' th' darkness, wi' yo'r hair blown off from yo'r brow,
and going out like rays round yo'r forehead, which was just as
smooth and as straight as it is now,--and yo' always came to give
me strength, which I seemed to gather out o' yo'r deep comforting
eyes,--and yo' were drest in shining raiment--just as yo'r going
to be drest. So, yo' see, it was yo'!'

'Nay, Bessy,' said Margaret, gently, 'it was but a dream.'

'And why might na I dream a dream in my affliction as well as
others? Did not many a one i' the Bible? Ay, and see visions too!
Why, even my father thinks a deal o' dreams! I tell yo' again, I
saw yo' as plainly, coming swiftly towards me, wi' yo'r hair
blown back wi' the very swiftness o' the motion, just like the
way it grows, a little standing off like; and the white shining
dress on yo've getten to wear. Let me come and see yo' in it. I
want to see yo' and touch yo' as in very deed yo' were in my
dream.'

'My dear Bessy, it is quite a fancy of yours.'

'Fancy or no fancy,--yo've come, as I knew yo' would, when I saw
yo'r movement in my dream,--and when yo're here about me, I
reckon I feel easier in my mind, and comforted, just as a fire
comforts one on a dree day. Yo' said it were on th' twenty-first;
please God, I'll come and see yo'.'

'Oh Bessy! you may come and welcome; but don't talk so--it really
makes me sorry. It does indeed.'

'Then I'll keep it to mysel', if I bite my tongue out. Not but
what it's true for all that.'

Margaret was silent. At last she said,

'Let us talk about it sometimes, if you think it true. But not
now. Tell me, has your father turned out?'

'Ay!' said Bessy, heavily--in a manner very different from that
she had spoken in but a minute or two before. 'He and many
another,--all Hamper's men,--and many a one besides. Th' women
are as bad as th' men, in their savageness, this time. Food is
high,--and they mun have food for their childer, I reckon.
Suppose Thorntons sent 'em their dinner out,--th' same money,
spent on potatoes and meal, would keep many a crying babby quiet,
and hush up its mother's heart for a bit!'

'Don't speak so!' said Margaret. 'You'll make me feel wicked and
guilty in going to this dinner.'

'No!' said Bessy. 'Some's pre-elected to sumptuous feasts, and
purple and fine linen,--may be yo're one on 'em. Others toil and
moil all their lives long--and the very dogs are not pitiful in
our days, as they were in the days of Lazarus. But if yo' ask me
to cool yo'r tongue wi' th' tip of my finger, I'll come across
the great gulf to yo' just for th' thought o' what yo've been to
me here.'

'Bessy! you're very feverish! I can tell it in the touch of your
hand, as well as in what you're saying. It won't be division
enough, in that awful day, that some of us have been beggars
here, and some of us have been rich,--we shall not be judged by
that poor accident, but by our faithful following of Christ.'
Margaret got up, and found some water and soaking her
pocket-handkerchief in it, she laid the cool wetness on Bessy's
forehead, and began to chafe the stone-cold feet. Bessy shut her
eyes, and allowed herself to be soothed. At last she said,

'Yo'd ha' been deaved out o' yo'r five wits, as well as me, if
yo'd had one body after another coming in to ask for father, and
staying to tell me each one their tale. Some spoke o' deadly
hatred, and made my blood run cold wi' the terrible things they
said o' th' masters,--but more, being women, kept plaining,
plaining (wi' the tears running down their cheeks, and never
wiped away, nor heeded), of the price o' meat, and how their
childer could na sleep at nights for th' hunger.'

'And do they think the strike will mend this?' asked Margaret.

'They say so,' replied Bessy. 'They do say trade has been good
for long, and the masters has made no end o' money; how much
father doesn't know, but, in course, th' Union does; and, as is
natural, they wanten their share o' th' profits, now that food is
getting dear; and th' Union says they'll not be doing their duty
if they don't make the masters give 'em their share. But masters
has getten th' upper hand somehow; and I'm feared they'll keep it
now and evermore. It's like th' great battle o' Armageddon, the
way they keep on, grinning and fighting at each other, till even
while they fight, they are picked off into the pit.' Just then,
Nicholas Higgins came in. He caught his daughter's last words.

'Ay! and I'll fight on too; and I'll get it this time. It'll not
take long for to make 'em give in, for they've getten a pretty
lot of orders, all under contract; and they'll soon find out
they'd better give us our five per cent than lose the profit
they'll gain; let alone the fine for not fulfilling the contract.
Aha, my masters! I know who'll win.'

Margaret fancied from his manner that he must have been drinking,
not so much from what he said, as from the excited way in which
he spoke; and she was rather confirmed in this idea by the
evident anxiety Bessy showed to hasten her departure. Bessy said
to her,--

'The twenty-first--that's Thursday week. I may come and see yo'
dressed for Thornton's, I reckon. What time is yo'r dinner?'

Before Margaret could answer, Higgins broke out,

'Thornton's! Ar' t' going to dine at Thornton's? Ask him to give
yo' a bumper to the success of his orders. By th' twenty-first, I
reckon, he'll be pottered in his brains how to get 'em done in
time. Tell him, there's seven hundred'll come marching into
Marlborough Mills, the morning after he gives the five per cent,
and will help him through his contract in no time. You'll have
'em all there. My master, Hamper. He's one o' th' oud-fashioned
sort. Ne'er meets a man bout an oath or a curse; I should think
he were going to die if he spoke me civil; but arter all, his
bark's waur than his bite, and yo' may tell him one o' his
turn-outs said so, if yo' like. Eh! but yo'll have a lot of prize
mill-owners at Thornton's! I should like to get speech o' them,
when they're a bit inclined to sit still after dinner, and could
na run for the life on 'em. I'd tell 'em my mind. I'd speak up
again th' hard way they're driving on us!'

'Good-bye!' said Margaret, hastily. 'Good-bye, Bessy! I shall
look to see you on the twenty-first, if you're well enough.'

The medicines and treatment which Dr. Donaldson had ordered for
Mrs. Hale, did her so much good at first that not only she
herself, but Margaret, began to hope that he might have been
mistaken, and that she could recover permanently. As for Mr.
Hale, although he had never had an idea of the serious nature of
their apprehensions, he triumphed over their fears with an
evident relief, which proved how much his glimpse into the nature
of them had affected him. Only Dixon croaked for ever into
Margaret's ear. However, Margaret defied the raven, and would
hope.

They needed this gleam of brightness in-doors, for out-of-doors,
even to their uninstructed eyes, there was a gloomy brooding
appearance of discontent. Mr. Hale had his own acquaintances
among the working men, and was depressed with their earnestly
told tales of suffering and long-endurance. They would have
scorned to speak of what they had to bear to any one who might,
from his position, have understood it without their words. But
here was this man, from a distant county, who was perplexed by
the workings of the system into the midst of which he was thrown,
and each was eager to make him a judge, and to bring witness of
his own causes for irritation. Then Mr. Hale brought all his
budget of grievances, and laid it before Mr. Thornton, for him,
with his experience as a master, to arrange them, and explain
their origin; which he always did, on sound economical
principles; showing that, as trade was conducted, there must
always be a waxing and waning of commercial prosperity; and that
in the waning a certain number of masters, as well as of men,
must go down into ruin, and be no more seen among the ranks of
the happy and prosperous. He spoke as if this consequence were so
entirely logical, that neither employers nor employed had any
right to complain if it became their fate: the employer to turn
aside from the race he could no longer run, with a bitter sense
of incompetency and failure--wounded in the struggle--trampled
down by his fellows in their haste to get rich--slighted where he
once was honoured--humbly asking for, instead of bestowing,
employment with a lordly hand. Of course, speaking so of the fate
that, as a master, might be his own in the fluctuations of
commerce, he was not likely to have more sympathy with that of
the workmen, who were passed by in the swift merciless
improvement or alteration who would fain lie down and quietly die
out of the world that needed them not, but felt as if they could
never rest in their graves for the clinging cries of the beloved
and helpless they would leave behind; who envied the power of the
wild bird, that can feed her young with her very heart's blood.
Margaret's whole soul rose up against him while he reasoned in
this way--as if commerce were everything and humanity nothing.
She could hardly, thank him for the individual kindness, which
brought him that very evening to offer her--for the delicacy
which made him understand that he must offer her privately--every
convenience for illness that his own wealth or his mother's
foresight had caused them to accumulate in their household, and
which, as he learnt from Dr. Donaldson, Mrs. Hale might possibly
require. His presence, after the way he had spoken--his bringing
before her the doom, which she was vainly trying to persuade
herself might yet be averted from her mother--all conspired to
set Margaret's teeth on edge, as she looked at him, and listened
to him. What business had he to be the only person, except Dr.
Donaldson and Dixon, admitted to the awful secret, which she held
shut up in the most dark and sacred recess of her heart--not
daring to look at it, unless she invoked heavenly strength to
bear the sight--that, some day soon, she should cry aloud for her
mother, and no answer would come out of the blank, dumb darkness?
Yet he knew all. She saw it in his pitying eyes. She heard it in
his grave and tremulous voice. How reconcile those eyes, that
voice, with the hard-reasoning, dry, merciless way in which he
laid down axioms of trade, and serenely followed them out to
their full consequences? The discord jarred upon her
inexpressibly. The more because of the gathering woe of which she
heard from Bessy. To be sure, Nicholas Higgins, the father, spoke
differently. He had been appointed a committee-man, and said that
he knew secrets of which the exoteric knew nothing. He said this
more expressly and particularly, on the very day before Mrs.
Thornton's dinner-party, when Margaret, going in to speak to
Bessy, found him arguing the point with Boucher, the neighbour of
whom she had frequently heard mention, as by turns exciting
Higgins's compassion, as an unskilful workman with a large family
depending upon him for support, and at other times enraging his
more energetic and sanguine neighbour by his want of what the
latter called spirit. It was very evident that Higgins was in a
passion when Margaret entered. Boucher stood, with both hands on
the rather high mantel-piece, swaying himself a little on the
support which his arms, thus placed, gave him, and looking wildly
into the fire, with a kind of despair that irritated Higgins,
even while it went to his heart. Bessy was rocking herself
violently backwards and forwards, as was her wont (Margaret knew
by this time) when she was agitated, Her sister Mary was tying on
her bonnet (in great clumsy bows, as suited her great clumsy
fingers), to go to her fustian-cutting, blubbering out loud the
while, and evidently longing to be away from a scene that
distressed her. Margaret came in upon this scene. She stood for a
moment at the door--then, her finger on her lips, she stole to a
seat on the squab near Bessy. Nicholas saw her come in, and
greeted her with a gruff, but not unfriendly nod. Mary hurried
out of the house catching gladly at the open door, and crying
aloud when she got away from her father's presence. It was only
John Boucher that took no notice whatever who came in and who
went out.

'It's no use, Higgins. Hoo cannot live long a' this'n. Hoo's just
sinking away--not for want o' meat hersel'--but because hoo
cannot stand th' sight o' the little ones clemming. Ay, clemming!
Five shilling a week may do well enough for thee, wi' but two
mouths to fill, and one on 'em a wench who can welly earn her own
meat. But it's clemming to us. An' I tell thee plain--if hoo dies
as I'm 'feard hoo will afore we've getten th' five per cent, I'll
fling th' money back i' th' master's face, and say, "Be domned to
yo'; be domned to th' whole cruel world o' yo'; that could na
leave me th' best wife that ever bore childer to a man!" An' look
thee, lad, I'll hate thee, and th' whole pack o' th' Union. Ay,
an' chase yo' through heaven wi' my hatred,--I will, lad! I
will,--if yo're leading me astray i' this matter. Thou saidst,
Nicholas, on Wednesday sennight--and it's now Tuesday i' th'
second week--that afore a fortnight we'd ha' the masters coming
a-begging to us to take back our' work, at our own wage--and
time's nearly up,--and there's our lile Jack lying a-bed, too
weak to cry, but just every now and then sobbing up his heart for
want o' food,--our lile Jack, I tell thee, lad! Hoo's never
looked up sin' he were born, and hoo loves him as if he were her
very life,--as he is,--for I reckon he'll ha' cost me that
precious price,--our lile Jack, who wakened me each morn wi'
putting his sweet little lips to my great rough fou' face,
a-seeking a smooth place to kiss,--an' he lies clemming.' Here
the deep sobs choked the poor man, and Nicholas looked up, with
eyes brimful of tears, to Margaret, before he could gain courage
to speak.

'Hou'd up, man. Thy lile Jack shall na' clem. I ha' getten brass,
and we'll go buy the chap a sup o' milk an' a good four-pounder
this very minute. What's mine's thine, sure enough, i' thou'st i'
want. Only, dunnot lose heart, man!' continued he, as he fumbled
in a tea-pot for what money he had. 'I lay yo' my heart and soul
we'll win for a' this: it's but bearing on one more week, and yo
just see th' way th' masters 'll come round, praying on us to
come back to our mills. An' th' Union,--that's to say, I--will
take care yo've enough for th' childer and th' missus. So dunnot
turn faint-heart, and go to th' tyrants a-seeking work.'

The man turned round at these words,--turned round a face so
white, and gaunt, and tear-furrowed, and hopeless, that its very
calm forced Margaret to weep. 'Yo' know well, that a worser
tyrant than e'er th' masters were says "Clem to death, and see
'em a' clem to death, ere yo' dare go again th' Union." Yo' know
it well, Nicholas, for a' yo're one on 'em. Yo' may be kind
hearts, each separate; but once banded together, yo've no more
pity for a man than a wild hunger-maddened wolf.'

Nicholas had his hand on the lock of the door--he stopped and
turned round on Boucher, close following:

'So help me God! man alive--if I think not I'm doing best for
thee, and for all on us. If I'm going wrong when I think I'm
going right, it's their sin, who ha' left me where I am, in my
ignorance. I ha' thought till my brains ached,--Beli' me, John, I
have. An' I say again, there's no help for us but having faith i'
th' Union. They'll win the day, see if they dunnot!'

Not one word had Margaret or Bessy spoken. They had hardly
uttered the sighing, that the eyes of each called to the other to
bring up from the depths of her heart. At last Bessy said,

'I never thought to hear father call on God again. But yo' heard
him say, "So help me God!"'

'Yes!' said Margaret. 'Let me bring you what money I can
spare,--let me bring you a little food for that poor man's
children. Don't let them know it comes from any one but your
father. It will be but little.'

Bessy lay back without taking any notice of what Margaret said.
She did not cry--she only quivered up her breath,

'My heart's drained dry o' tears,' she said. 'Boucher's been in
these days past, a telling me of his fears and his troubles. He's
but a weak kind o' chap, I know, but he's a man for a' that; and
tho' I've been angry, many a time afore now, wi' him an' his
wife, as knew no more nor him how to manage, yet, yo' see, all
folks isn't wise, yet God lets 'em live--ay, an' gives 'em some
one to love, and be loved by, just as good as Solomon. An', if
sorrow comes to them they love, it hurts 'em as sore as e'er it
did Solomon. I can't make it out. Perhaps it's as well such a one
as Boucher has th' Union to see after him. But I'd just like for
to see th' mean as make th' Union, and put 'em one by one face to
face wi' Boucher. I reckon, if they heard him, they'd tell him
(if I cotched 'em one by one), he might go back and get what he
could for his work, even if it weren't so much as they ordered.'

Margaret sat utterly silent. How was she ever to go away into
comfort and forget that man's voice, with the tone of unutterable
agony, telling more by far than his words of what he had to
suffer? She took out her purse; she had not much in it of what
she could call her own, but what she had she put into Bessy's
hand without speaking.

'Thank yo'. There's many on 'em gets no more, and is not so bad
off,--leastways does not show it as he does. But father won't let
'em want, now he knows. Yo' see, Boucher's been pulled down wi'
his childer,--and her being so cranky, and a' they could pawn has
gone this last twelvemonth. Yo're not to think we'd ha' letten
'em clem, for all we're a bit pressed oursel'; if neighbours
doesn't see after neighbours, I dunno who will.' Bessy seemed
almostafraid lest Margaret should think they had not the will,
and, to a certain degree, the power of helping one whom she
evidently regarded as having a claim upon them. 'Besides,' she
went on, 'father is sure and positive the masters must give in
within these next few days,--that they canna hould on much
longer. But I thank yo' all the same,--I thank yo' for mysel', as
much as for Boucher, for it just makes my heart warm to yo' more
and more.'

Bessy seemed much quieter to-day, but fearfully languid a
exhausted. As she finished speaking, she looked so faint and
weary that Margaret became alarmed.

'It's nout,' said Bessy. 'It's not death yet. I had a fearfu'
night wi' dreams--or somewhat like dreams, for I were wide
awake--and I'm all in a swounding daze to-day,--only yon poor
chap made me alive again. No! it's not death yet, but death is
not far off. Ay! Cover me up, and I'll may be sleep, if th' cough
will let me. Good night--good afternoon, m'appen I should
say--but th' light is dim an' misty to-day.'

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