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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesNorth And South - Chapter XLI - THE JOURNEY'S END
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North And South - Chapter XLI - THE JOURNEY'S END Post by :runtonk Category :Long Stories Author :Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Date :January 2011 Read :2964

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North And South - Chapter XLI - THE JOURNEY'S END

CHAPTER XLI - THE JOURNEY'S END

'I see my way as birds their trackless way--

I shall arrive! what time, what circuit first,

I ask not: but unless God send his hail

Or blinding fire-balls, sleet, or stifling snow,

In some time--his good time--I shall arrive;

He guides me and the bird. In His good time!'

BROWNING'S PARACELSUS.

So the winter was getting on, and the days were beginning to
lengthen, without bringing with them any of the brightness of
hope which usually accompanies the rays of a February sun. Mrs.
Thornton had of course entirely ceased to come to the house. Mr.
Thornton came occasionally, but his visits were addressed to her
father, and were confined to the study. Mr. Hale spoke of him as
always the same; indeed, the very rarity of their intercourse
seemed to make Mr. Hale set only the higher value on it. And from
what Margaret could gather of what Mr. Thornton had said, there
was nothing in the cessation of his visits which could arise from
any umbrage or vexation. His business affairs had become
complicated during the strike, and required closer attention than
he had given to them last winter. Nay, Margaret could even
discover that he spoke from time to time of her, and always, as
far as she could learn, in the same calm friendly way, never
avoiding and never seeking any mention of her name.

She was not in spirits to raise her father's tone of mind. The
dreary peacefulness of the present time had been preceded by so
long a period of anxiety and care--even intermixed with
storms--that her mind had lost its elasticity. She tried to find
herself occupation in teaching the two younger Boucher children,
and worked hard at goodness; hard, I say most truly, for her
heart seemed dead to the end of all her efforts; and though she
made them punctually and painfully, yet she stood as far off as
ever from any cheerfulness; her life seemed still bleak and
dreary. The only thing she did well, was what she did out of
unconscious piety, the silent comforting and consoling of her
father. Not a mood of his but what found a ready sympathiser in
Margaret; not a wish of his that she did not strive to forecast,
and to fulfil. They were quiet wishes to be sure, and hardly
named without hesitation and apology. All the more complete and
beautiful was her meek spirit of obedience. March brought the
news of Frederick's marriage. He and Dolores wrote; she in
Spanish-English, as was but natural, and he with little turns and
inversions of words which proved how far the idioms of his
bride's country were infecting him.

On the receipt of Henry Lennox's letter, announcing how little
hope there was of his ever clearing himself at a court-martial,
in the absence of the missing witnesses, Frederick had written to
Margaret a pretty vehement letter, containing his renunciation of
England as his country; he wished he could unnative himself, and
declared that he would not take his pardon if it were offered
him, nor live in the country if he had permission to do so. All
of which made Margaret cry sorely, so unnatural did it seem to
her at the first opening; but on consideration, she saw rather in
such expression the poignancy of the disappointment which had
thus crushed his hopes; and she felt that there was nothing for
it but patience. In the next letter, Frederick spoke so joyfully
of the future that he had no thought for the past; and Margaret
found a use in herself for the patience she had been craving for
him. She would have to be patient. But the pretty, timid, girlish
letters of Dolores were beginning to have a charm for both
Margaret and her father. The young Spaniard was so evidently
anxious to make a favourable impression upon her lover's English
relations, that her feminine care peeped out at every erasure;
and the letters announcing the marriage, were accompanied by a
splendid black lace mantilla, chosen by Dolores herself for her
unseen sister-in-law, whom Frederick had represented as a paragon
of beauty, wisdom and virtue. Frederick's worldly position was
raised by this marriage on to as high a level as they could
desire. Barbour and Co. was one of the most extensive Spanish
houses, and into it he was received as a junior partner. Margaret
smiled a little, and then sighed as she remembered afresh her old
tirades against trade. Here was her preux chevalier of a brother
turned merchant, trader! But then she rebelled against herself,
and protested silently against the confusion implied between a
Spanish merchant and a Milton mill-owner. Well! trade or no
trade, Frederick was very, very happy. Dolores must be charming,
and the mantilla was exquisite! And then she returned to the
present life.

Her father had occasionally experienced a difficulty in breathing
this spring, which had for the time distressed him exceedingly.
Margaret was less alarmed, as this difficulty went off completely
in the intervals; but she still was so desirous of his shaking
off the liability altogether, as to make her very urgent that he
should accept Mr. Bell's invitation to visit him at Oxford this
April. Mr. Bell's invitation included Margaret. Nay more, he
wrote a special letter commanding her to come; but she felt as if
it would be a greater relief to her to remain quietly at home,
entirely free from any responsibility whatever, and so to rest
her mind and heart in a manner which she had not been able to do
for more than two years past.

When her father had driven off on his way to the railroad,
Margaret felt how great and long had been the pressure on her
time and her spirits. It was astonishing, almost stunning, to
feel herself so much at liberty; no one depending on her for
cheering care, if not for positive happiness; no invalid to plan
and think for; she might be idle, and silent, and forgetful,--and
what seemed worth more than all the other privileges--she might
be unhappy if she liked. For months past, all her own personal
cares and troubles had had to be stuffed away into a dark
cupboard; but now she had leisure to take them out, and mourn
over them, and study their nature, and seek the true method of
subduing them into the elements of peace. All these weeks she had
been conscious of their existence in a dull kind of way, though
they were hidden out of sight. Now, once for all she would
consider them, and appoint to each of them its right work in her
life. So she sat almost motionless for hours in the drawing-room,
going over the bitterness of every remembrance with an unwincing
resolution. Only once she cried aloud, at the stinging thought of
the faithlessness which gave birth to that abasing falsehood.

She now would not even acknowledge the force of the temptation;
her plans for Frederick had all failed, and the temptation lay
there a dead mockery,--a mockery which had never had life in it;
the lie had been so despicably foolish, seen by the light of the
ensuing events, and faith in the power of truth so infinitely the
greater wisdom!

In her nervous agitation, she unconsciously opened a book of her
father's that lay upon the table,--the words that caught her eye
in it, seemed almost made for her present state of acute
self-abasement:--

*'Je ne voudrois pas reprendre mon coeur en ceste sorte: meurs de
honte, aveugle, impudent, traistre et desloyal a ton Dieu, et
sembables choses; mais je voudrois le corriger par voye de
compassion. Or sus, mon pauvre coeur, nous voila tombez dans la
fosse, laquelle nous avions tant resolu d' eschapper. Ah!
relevons-nous, et quittons-la pour jamais, reclamons la
misericorde de Dieu, et esperons en elle qu'elle nous assistera
pour desormais estre plus fermes; et remettons-nous au chemin de
l'humilite. Courage, soyons meshuy sur nos gardes, Dieu nous
aydera.'

'The way of humility. Ah,' thought Margaret, 'that is what I have
missed! But courage, little heart. We will turn back, and by
God's help we may find the lost path.'

So she rose up, and determined at once to set to on some work
which should take her out of herself. To begin with, she called
in Martha, as she passed the drawing-room door in going
up-stairs, and tried to find out what was below the grave,
respectful, servant-like manner, which crusted over her
individual character with an obedience that was almost
mechanical. She found it difficult to induce Martha to speak of
any of her personal interests; but at last she touched the right
chord, in naming Mrs. Thornton. Martha's whole face brightened,
and, on a little encouragement, out came a long story, of how her
father had been in early life connected with Mrs. Thornton's
husband--nay, had even been in a position to show him some
kindness; what, Martha hardly knew, for it had happened when she
was quite a little child; and circumstances had intervened to
separate the two families until Martha was nearly grown up, when,
her father having sunk lower and lower from his original
occupation as clerk in a warehouse, and her mother being dead,
she and her sister, to use Martha's own expression, would have
been 'lost' but for Mrs. Thornton; who sought them out, and
thought for them, and cared for them.

'I had had the fever, and was but delicate; and Mrs. Thornton,
and Mr. Thornton too, they never rested till they had nursed me
up in their own house, and sent me to the sea and all. The
doctors said the fever was catching, but they cared none for
that--only Miss Fanny, and she went a-visiting these folk that
she is going to marry into. So, though she was afraid at the
time, it has all ended well.'

'Miss Fanny going to be married!' exclaimed Margaret.

'Yes; and to a rich gentleman, too, only he's a deal older than
she is. His name is Watson; and his milk are somewhere out beyond
Hayleigh; it's a very good marriage, for all he's got such gray
hair.'

At this piece of information, Margaret was silent long enough for
Martha to recover her propriety, and, with it, her habitual
shortness of answer. She swept up the hearth, asked at what time
she should prepare tea, and quitted the room with the same wooden
face with which she had entered it. Margaret had to pull herself
up from indulging a bad trick, which she had lately fallen into,
of trying to imagine how every event that she heard of in
relation to Mr. Thornton would affect him: whether he would like
it or dislike it.

The next day she had the little Boucher children for their
lessons, and took a long walk, and ended by a visit to Mary
Higgins. Somewhat to Margaret's surprise, she found Nicholas
already come home from his work; the lengthening light had
deceived her as to the lateness of the evening. He too seemed, by
his manners, to have entered a little more on the way of
humility; he was quieter, and less self-asserting.

'So th' oud gentleman's away on his travels, is he?' said he.
'Little 'uns telled me so. Eh! but they're sharp 'uns, they are;
I a'most think they beat my own wenches for sharpness, though
mappen it's wrong to say so, and one on 'em in her grave. There's
summut in th' weather, I reckon, as sets folk a-wandering. My
measter, him at th' shop yonder, is spinning about th' world
somewhere.'

'Is that the reason you're so soon at home to-night?' asked
Margaret innocently.

'Thou know'st nought about it, that's all,' said he,
contemptuously. 'I'm not one wi' two faces--one for my measter,
and t'other for his back. I counted a' th' clocks in the town
striking afore I'd leave my work. No! yon Thornton's good enough
for to fight wi', but too good for to be cheated. It were you as
getten me the place, and I thank yo' for it. Thornton's is not a
bad mill, as times go. Stand down, lad, and say yo'r pretty hymn
to Miss Margaret. That's right; steady on thy legs, and right arm
out as straight as a shewer. One to stop, two to stay, three mak'
ready, and four away!'

The little fellow repeated a Methodist hymn, far above his
comprehension in point of language, but of which the swinging
rhythm had caught his ear, and which he repeated with all the
developed cadence of a member of parliament. When Margaret had
duly applauded, Nicholas called for another, and yet another,
much to her surprise, as she found him thus oddly and
unconsciously led to take an interest in the sacred things which
he had formerly scouted.

It was past the usual tea-time when she reached home; but she had
the comfort of feeling that no one had been kept waiting for her;
and of thinking her own thoughts while she rested, instead of
anxiously watching another person to learn whether to be grave or
gay. After tea she resolved to examine a large packet of letters,
and pick out those that were to be destroyed.

Among them she came to four or five of Mr. Henry Lennox's,
relating to Frederick's affairs; and she carefully read them over
again, with the sole intention, when she began, to ascertain
exactly on how fine a chance the justification of her brother
hung. But when she had finished the last, and weighed the pros
and cons, the little personal revelation of character contained
in them forced itself on her notice. It was evident enough, from
the stiffness of the wording, that Mr. Lennox had never forgotten
his relation to her in any interest he might feel in the subject
of the correspondence. They were clever letters; Margaret saw
that in a twinkling; but she missed out of them all hearty and
genial atmosphere. They were to be preserved, however, as
valuable; so she laid them carefully on one side. When this
little piece of business was ended, she fell into a reverie; and
the thought of her absent father ran strangely in Margaret's head
this night. She almost blamed herself for having felt her
solitude (and consequently his absence) as a relief; but these
two days had set her up afresh, with new strength and brighter
hope. Plans which had lately appeared to her in the guise of
tasks, now appeared like pleasures. The morbid scales had fallen
from her eyes, and she saw her position and her work more truly.
If only Mr. Thornton would restore her the lost friendship,--nay,
if he would only come from time to time to cheer her father as in
former days,--though she should never see him, she felt as if the
course of her future life, though not brilliant in prospect,
might lie clear and even before her. She sighed as she rose up to
go to bed. In spite of the 'One step's enough for me,'--in spite
of the one plain duty of devotion to her father,--there lay at
her heart an anxiety and a pang of sorrow.

And Mr. Hale thought of Margaret, that April evening, just as
strangely and as persistently as she was thinking of him. He had
been fatigued by going about among his old friends and old
familiar places. He had had exaggerated ideas of the change which
his altered opinions might make in his friends' reception of him;
but although some of them might have felt shocked or grieved or
indignant at his falling off in the abstract, as soon as they saw
the face of the man whom they had once loved, they forgot his
opinions in himself; or only remembered them enough to give an
additional tender gravity to their manner. For Mr. Hale had not
been known to many; he had belonged to one of the smaller
colleges, and had always been shy and reserved; but those who in
youth had cared to penetrate to the delicacy of thought and
feeling that lay below his silence and indecision, took him to
their hearts, with something of the protecting kindness which
they would have shown to a woman. And the renewal of this
kindliness, after the lapse of years, and an interval of so much
change, overpowered him more than any roughness or expression of
disapproval could have done.

'I'm afraid we've done too much,' said Mr. Bell. 'You're
suffering now from having lived so long in that Milton air.

'I am tired,' said Mr. Hale. 'But it is not Milton air. I'm
fifty-five years of age, and that little fact of itself accounts
for any loss of strength.'

'Nonsense! I'm upwards of sixty, and feel no loss of strength,
either bodily or mental. Don't let me hear you talking so.
Fifty-five! why, you're quite a young man.'

Mr. Hale shook his head. 'These last few years!' said he. But
after a minute's pause, he raised himself from his half recumbent
position, in one of Mr. Bell's luxurious easy-chairs, and said
with a kind of trembling earnestness:

'Bell! you're not to think, that if I could have foreseen all
that would come of my change of opinion, and my resignation of my
living--no! not even if I could have known how ~she~ would have
suffered,--that I would undo it--the act of open acknowledgment
that I no longer held the same faith as the church in which I was
a priest. As I think now, even if I could have foreseen that
cruellest martyrdom of suffering, through the sufferings of one
whom I loved, I would have done just the same as far as that step
of openly leaving the church went. I might have done differently,
and acted more wisely, in all that I subsequently did for my
family. But I don't think God endued me with over-much wisdom or
strength,' he added, falling hack into his old position.

Mr. Bell blew his nose ostentatiously before answering. Then he
said:

'He gave you strength to do what your conscience told you was
right; and I don't see that we need any higher or holier strength
than that; or wisdom either. I know I have not that much; and yet
men set me down in their fool's books as a wise man; an
independent character; strong-minded, and all that cant. The
veriest idiot who obeys his own simple law of right, if it be but
in wiping his shoes on a door-mat, is wiser and stronger than I.
But what gulls men are!'

There was a pause. Mr. Hale spoke first, in continuation of his
thought:

'About Margaret.'

'Well! about Margaret. What then?'

'If I die----'

'Nonsense!'

'What will become of her--I often think? I suppose the Lennoxes
will ask her to live with them. I try to think they will. Her
aunt Shaw loved her well in her own quiet way; but she forgets to
love the absent.'

'A very common fault. What sort of people are the Lennoxes?'

'He, handsome, fluent, and agreeable. Edith, a sweet little
spoiled beauty. Margaret loves her with all her heart, and Edith
with as much of her heart as she can spare.'

'Now, Hale; you know that girl of yours has got pretty nearly all
my heart. I told you that before. Of course, as your daughter, as
my god-daughter, I took great interest in her before I saw her
the last time. But this visit that I paid to you at Milton made
me her slave. I went, a willing old victim, following the car of
the conqueror. For, indeed, she looks as grand and serene as one
who has struggled, and may be struggling, and yet has the victory
secure in sight. Yes, in spite of all her present anxieties, that
was the look on her face. And so, all I have is at her service,
if she needs it; and will be hers, whether she will or no, when I
die. Moreover, I myself, will be her preux chevalier, sixty and
gouty though I be. Seriously, old friend, your daughter shall be
my principal charge in life, and all the help that either my wit
or my wisdom or my willing heart can give, shall be hers. I don't
choose her out as a subject for fretting. Something, I know of
old, you must have to worry yourself about, or you wouldn't be
happy. But you're going to outlive me by many a long year. You
spare, thin men are always tempting and always cheating Death!
It's the stout, florid fellows like me, that always go off
first.'

If Mr. Bell had had a prophetic eye he might have seen the torch
all but inverted, and the angel with the grave and composed face
standing very nigh, beckoning to his friend. That night Mr. Hale
laid his head down on the pillow on which it never more should
stir with life. The servant who entered his room in the morning,
received no answer to his speech; drew near the bed, and saw the
calm, beautiful face lying white and cold under the ineffaceable
seal of death. The attitude was exquisitely easy; there had been
no pain--no struggle. The action of the heart must have ceased as
he lay down.

Mr. Bell was stunned by the shock; and only recovered when the
time came for being angry at every suggestion of his man's.

'A coroner's inquest? Pooh. You don't think I poisoned him! Dr.
Forbes says it is just the natural end of a heart complaint. Poor
old Hale! You wore out that tender heart of yours before its
time. Poor old friend! how he talked of his----Wallis, pack up a
carpet-bag for me in five minutes. Here have I been talking. Pack
it up, I say. I must go to Milton by the next train.'

The bag was packed, the cab ordered, the railway reached, in
twenty minutes from the moment of this decision. The London train
whizzed by, drew back some yards, and in Mr. Bell was hurried by
the impatient guard. He threw himself back in his seat, to try,
with closed eyes, to understand how one in life yesterday could
be dead to-day; and shortly tears stole out between his grizzled
eye-lashes, at the feeling of which he opened his keen eyes, and
looked as severely cheerful as his set determination could make
him. He was not going to blubber before a set of strangers. Not
he!

There was no set of strangers, only one sitting far from him on
the same side. By and bye Mr. Bell peered at him, to discover
what manner of man it was that might have been observing his
emotion; and behind the great sheet of the outspread 'Times,' he
recognised Mr. Thornton.

'Why, Thornton! is that you?' said he, removing hastily to a
closer proximity. He shook Mr. Thornton vehemently by the hand,
until the gripe ended in a sudden relaxation, for the hand was
wanted to wipe away tears. He had last seen Mr. Thornton in his
friend Hale's company.

'I'm going to Milton, bound on a melancholy errand. Going to
break to Hale's daughter the news of his sudden death!'

'Death! Mr. Hale dead!'

'Ay; I keep saying it to myself, "Hale is dead!" but it doesn't
make it any the more real. Hale is dead for all that. He went to
bed well, to all appearance, last night, and was quite cold this
morning when my servant went to call him.'

'Where? I don't understand!'

'At Oxford. He came to stay with me; hadn't been in Oxford this
seventeen years--and this is the end of it.'

Not one word was spoken for above a quarter of an hour. Then Mr.
Thornton said:

'And she!' and stopped full short.

'Margaret you mean. Yes! I am going to tell her. Poor fellow! how
full his thoughts were of her all last night! Good God! Last
night only. And how immeasurably distant he is now! But I take
Margaret as my child for his sake. I said last night I would take
her for her own sake. Well, I take her for both.'

Mr. Thornton made one or two fruitless attempts to speak, before
he could get out the words:

'What will become of her!'

'I rather fancy there will be two people waiting for her: myself
for one. I would take a live dragon into my house to live, if, by
hiring such a chaperon, and setting up an establishment of my
own, I could make my old age happy with having Margaret for a
daughter. But there are those Lennoxes!'

'Who are they?' asked Mr. Thornton with trembling interest.

'Oh, smart London people, who very likely will think they've the
best right to her. Captain Lennox married her cousin--the girl
she was brought up with. Good enough people, I dare say. And
there's her aunt, Mrs. Shaw. There might be a way open, perhaps,
by my offering to marry that worthy lady! but that would be quite
a pis aller. And then there's that brother!'

'What brother? A brother of her aunt's?'

'No, no; a clever Lennox, (the captain's a fool, you must
understand) a young barrister, who will be setting his cap at
Margaret. I know he has had her in his mind this five years or
more: one of his chums told me as much; and he was only kept back
by her want of fortune. Now that will be done away with.'

'How?' asked Mr. Thornton, too earnestly curious to be aware of
the impertinence of his question.

'Why, she'll have my money at my death. And if this Henry Lennox
is half good enough for her, and she likes him--well! I might
find another way of getting a home through a marriage. I'm
dreadfully afraid of being tempted, at an unguarded moment, by
the aunt.'

Neither Mr. Bell nor Mr. Thornton was in a laughing humour; so
the oddity of any of the speeches which the former made was
unnoticed by them. Mr. Bell whistled, without emitting any sound
beyond a long hissing breath; changed his seat, without finding
comfort or rest while Mr. Thornton sat immoveably still, his eyes
fixed on one spot in the newspaper, which he had taken up in
order to give himself leisure to think.

'Where have you been?' asked Mr. Bell, at length.

'To Havre. Trying to detect the secret of the great rise in the
price of cotton.'

'Ugh! Cotton, and speculations, and smoke, well-cleansed and
well-cared-for machinery, and unwashed and neglected hands. Poor
old Hale! Poor old Hale! If you could have known the change which
it was to him from Helstone. Do you know the New Forest at all?'

'Yes.' (Very shortly).

'Then you can fancy the difference between it and Milton. What
part were you in? Were you ever at Helstone? a little picturesque
village, like some in the Odenwald? You know Helstone?'

'I have seen it. It was a great change to leave it and come to
Milton.'

He took up his newspaper with a determined air, as if resolved to
avoid further conversation; and Mr. Bell was fain to resort to
his former occupation of trying to find out how he could best
break the news to Margaret.

She was at an up-stairs window; she saw him alight; she guessed
the truth with an instinctive flash. She stood in the middle of
the drawing-room, as if arrested in her first impulse to rush
downstairs, and as if by the same restraining thought she had
been turned to stone; so white and immoveable was she.

'Oh! don't tell me! I know it from your face! You would have
sent--you would not have left him--if he were alive! Oh papa,
papa!'

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