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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesNorth And South - Chapter XLII - ALONE! ALONE!
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North And South - Chapter XLII - ALONE! ALONE! Post by :sticky-bits Category :Long Stories Author :Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Date :January 2011 Read :868

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North And South - Chapter XLII - ALONE! ALONE!

CHAPTER XLII - ALONE! ALONE!

'When some beloved voice that was to you

Both sound and sweetness, faileth suddenly,

And silence, against which you dare not cry,

Aches round you like a strong disease and new--

What hope? what help? what music will undo

That silence to your sense?'

MRS. BROWNING.

The shock had been great. Margaret fell into a state of
prostration, which did not show itself in sobs and tears, or even
find the relief of words. She lay on the sofa, with her eyes
shut, never speaking but when spoken to, and then replying in
whispers. Mr. Bell was perplexed. He dared not leave her; he
dared not ask her to accompany him back to Oxford, which had been
one of the plans he had formed on the journey to Milton, her
physical exhaustion was evidently too complete for her to
undertake any such fatigue--putting the sight that she would have
to encounter out of the question. Mr. Bell sate over the fire,
considering what he had better do. Margaret lay motionless, and
almost breathless by him. He would not leave her, even for the
dinner which Dixon had prepared for him down-stairs, and, with
sobbing hospitality, would fain have tempted him to eat. He had a
plateful of something brought up to him. In general, he was
particular and dainty enough, and knew well each shade of flavour
in his food, but now the devilled chicken tasted like sawdust. He
minced up some of the fowl for Margaret, and peppered and salted
it well; but when Dixon, following his directions, tried to feed
her, the languid shake of head proved that in such a state as
Margaret was in, food would only choke, not nourish her.

Mr. Bell gave a great sigh; lifted up his stout old limbs (stiff
with travelling) from their easy position, and followed Dixon out
of the room.

'I can't leave her. I must write to them at Oxford, to see that
the preparations are made: they can he getting on with these till
I arrive. Can't Mrs. Lennox come to her? I'll write and tell her
she must. The girl must have some woman-friend about her, if only
to talk her into a good fit of crying.'

Dixon was crying--enough for two; but, after wiping her eyes and
steadying her voice, she managed to tell Mr. Bell, that Mrs.
Lennox was too near her confinement to be able to undertake any
journey at present.

'Well! I suppose we must have Mrs. Shaw; she's come back to
England, isn't she?'

'Yes, sir, she's come back; but I don't think she will like to
leave Mrs. Lennox at such an interesting time,' said Dixon, who
did not much approve of a stranger entering the household, to
share with her in her ruling care of Margaret.

'Interesting time be--' Mr. Bell restricted himself to coughing
over the end of his sentence. 'She could be content to be at
Venice or Naples, or some of those Popish places, at the last
"interesting time," which took place in Corfu, I think. And what
does that little prosperous woman's "interesting time" signify,
in comparison with that poor creature there,--that helpless,
homeless, friendless Margaret--lying as still on that sofa as if
it were an altar-tomb, and she the stone statue on it. I tell
you, Mrs. Shaw shall come. See that a room, or whatever she
wants, is got ready for her by to-morrow night. I'll take care
she comes.'

Accordingly Mr. Bell wrote a letter, which Mrs. Shaw declared,
with many tears, to be so like one of the dear general's when he
was going to have a fit of the gout, that she should always value
and preserve it. If he had given her the option, by requesting or
urging her, as if a refusal were possible, she might not have
come--true and sincere as was her sympathy with Margaret. It
needed the sharp uncourteous command to make her conquer her vis
inertiae, and allow herself to be packed by her maid, after the
latter had completed the boxes. Edith, all cap, shawls, and
tears, came out to the top of the stairs, as Captain Lennox was
taking her mother down to the carriage:

'Don't forget, mamma; Margaret must come and live with us. Sholto
will go to Oxford on Wednesday, and you must send word by Mr.
Bell to him when we're to expect you. And if you want Sholto, he
can go on from Oxford to Milton. Don't forget, mamma; you are to
bring back Margaret.'

Edith re-entered the drawing-room. Mr. Henry Lennox was there,
cutting open the pages of a new Review. Without lifting his head,
he said, 'If you don't like Sholto to be so long absent from you,
Edith, I hope you will let me go down to Milton, and give what
assistance I can.'

'Oh, thank you,' said Edith, 'I dare say old Mr. Bell will do
everything he can, and more help may not be needed. Only one does
not look for much savoir-faire from a resident Fellow. Dear,
darling Margaret! won't it be nice to have her here, again? You
were both great allies, years ago.'

'Were we?' asked he indifferently, with an appearance of being
interested in a passage in the Review.

'Well, perhaps not--I forget. I was so full of Sholto. But
doesn't it fall out well, that if my uncle was to die, it should
be just now, when we are come home, and settled in the old house,
and quite ready to receive Margaret? Poor thing! what a change it
will be to her from Milton! I'll have new chintz for her bedroom,
and make it look new and bright, and cheer her up a little.'

In the same spirit of kindness, Mrs. Shaw journeyed to Milton,
occasionally dreading the first meeting, and wondering how it
would be got over; but more frequently planning how soon she
could get Margaret away from 'that horrid place,' and back into
the pleasant comforts of Harley Street.

'Oh dear!' she said to her maid; 'look at those chimneys! My poor
sister Hale! I don't think I could have rested at Naples, if I
had known what it was! I must have come and fetched her and
Margaret away.' And to herself she acknowledged, that she had
always thought her brother-in-law rather a weak man, but never so
weak as now, when she saw for what a place he had exchanged the
lovely Helstone home.

Margaret had remained in the same state; white, motionless,
speechless, tearless. They had told her that her aunt Shaw was
coming; but she had not expressed either surprise or pleasure, or
dislike to the idea. Mr. Bell, whose appetite had returned, and
who appreciated Dixon's endeavours to gratify it, in vain urged
upon her to taste some sweetbreads stewed with oysters; she shook
her head with the same quiet obstinacy as on the previous day;
and he was obliged to console himself for her rejection, by
eating them all himself But Margaret was the first to hear the
stopping of the cab that brought her aunt from the railway
station. Her eyelids quivered, her lips coloured and trembled.
Mr. Bell went down to meet Mrs. Shaw; and when they came up,
Margaret was standing, trying to steady her dizzy self; and when
she saw her aunt, she went forward to the arms open to receive
her, and first found the passionate relief of tears on her aunt's
shoulder. All thoughts of quiet habitual love, of tenderness for
years, of relationship to the dead,--all that inexplicable
likeness in look, tone, and gesture, that seem to belong to one
family, and which reminded Margaret so forcibly at this moment of
her mother,--came in to melt and soften her numbed heart into the
overflow of warm tears.

Mr. Bell stole out of the room, and went down into the study,
where he ordered a fire, and tried to divert his thoughts by
taking down and examining the different books. Each volume
brought a remembrance or a suggestion of his dead friend. It
might be a change of employment from his two days' work of
watching Margaret, but it was no change of thought. He was glad
to catch the sound of Mr. Thornton's voice, making enquiry at the
door. Dixon was rather cavalierly dismissing him; for with the
appearance of Mrs. Shaw's maid, came visions of former grandeur,
of the Beresford blood, of the 'station' (so she was pleased to
term it) from which her young lady had been ousted, and to which
she was now, please God, to be restored. These visions, which she
had been dwelling on with complacency in her conversation with
Mrs. Shaw's maid (skilfully eliciting meanwhile all the
circumstances of state and consequence connected with the Harley
Street establishment, for the edification of the listening
Martha), made Dixon rather inclined to be supercilious in her
treatment of any inhabitant of Milton; so, though she always
stood rather in awe of Mr. Thornton, she was as curt as she durst
be in telling him that he could see none of the inmates of the
house that night. It was rather uncomfortable to be contradicted
in her statement by Mr. Bell's opening the study-door, and
calling out:

'Thornton! is that you? Come in for a minute or two; I want to
speak to you.' So Mr. Thornton went into the study, and Dixon had
to retreat into the kitchen, and reinstate herself in her own
esteem by a prodigious story of Sir John Beresford's coach and
six, when he was high sheriff.

'I don't know what I wanted to say to you after all. Only it's
dull enough to sit in a room where everything speaks to you of a
dead friend. Yet Margaret and her aunt must have the drawing-room
to themselves!'

'Is Mrs.--is her aunt come?' asked Mr. Thornton.

'Come? Yes! maid and all. One would have thought she might have
come by herself at such a time! And now I shall have to turn out
and find my way to the Clarendon.'

'You must not go to the Clarendon. We have five or six empty
bed-rooms at home.'

'Well aired?'

'I think you may trust my mother for that.'

'Then I'll only run up-stairs and wish that wan girl good-night,
and make my bow to her aunt, and go off with you straight.'

Mr. Bell was some time up-stairs. Mr. Thornton began to think it
long, for he was full of business, and had hardly been able to
spare the time for running up to Crampton, and enquiring how Miss
Hale was.

When they had set out upon their walk, Mr. Bell said:

'I was kept by those women in the drawing-room. Mrs. Shaw is
anxious to get home--on account of her daughter, she says--and
wants Margaret to go off with her at once. Now she is no more fit
for travelling than I am for flying. Besides, she says, and very
justly, that she has friends she must see--that she must wish
good-bye to several people; and then her aunt worried her about
old claims, and was she forgetful of old friends? And she said,
with a great burst of crying, she should be glad enough to go
from a place where she had suffered so much. Now I must return to
Oxford to-morrow, and I don't know on which side of the scale to
throw in my voice.'

He paused, as if asking a question; but he received no answer
from his companion, the echo of whose thoughts kept repeating--

'Where she had suffered so much.' Alas! and that was the way in
which this eighteen months in Milton--to him so unspeakably
precious, down to its very bitterness, which was worth all the
rest of life's sweetness--would be remembered. Neither loss of
father, nor loss of mother, dear as she was to Mr. Thornton,
could have poisoned the remembrance of the weeks, the days, the
hours, when a walk of two miles, every step of which was
pleasant, as it brought him nearer and nearer to her, took him to
her sweet presence--every step of which was rich, as each
recurring moment that bore him away from her made him recall some
fresh grace in her demeanour, or pleasant pungency in her
character. Yes! whatever had happened to him, external to his
relation to her, he could never have spoken of that time, when he
could have seen her every day--when he had her within his grasp,
as it were--as a time of suffering. It had been a royal time of
luxury to him, with all its stings and contumelies, compared to
the poverty that crept round and clipped the anticipation of the
future down to sordid fact, and life without an atmosphere of
either hope or fear.

Mrs. Thornton and Fanny were in the dining-room; the latter in a
flutter of small exultation, as the maid held up one glossy
material after another, to try the effect of the wedding-dresses
by candlelight. Her mother really tried to sympathise with her,
but could not. Neither taste nor dress were in her line of
subjects, and she heartily wished that Fanny had accepted her
brother's offer of having the wedding clothes provided by some
first-rate London dressmaker, without the endless troublesome
discussions, and unsettled wavering, that arose out of Fanny's
desire to choose and superintend everything herself. Mr. Thornton
was only too glad to mark his grateful approbation of any
sensible man, who could be captivated by Fanny's second-rate airs
and graces, by giving her ample means for providing herself with
the finery, which certainly rivalled, if it did not exceed, the
lover in her estimation. When her brother and Mr. Bell came in,
Fanny blushed and simpered, and fluttered over the signs of her
employment, in a way which could not have failed to draw
attention from any one else but Mr. Bell. If he thought about her
and her silks and satins at all, it was to compare her and them
with the pale sorrow he had left behind him, sitting motionless,
with bent head and folded hands, in a room where the stillness
was so great that you might almost fancy the rush in your
straining ears was occasioned by the spirits of the dead, yet
hovering round their beloved. For, when Mr. Bell had first gone
up-stairs, Mrs. Shaw lay asleep on the sofa; and no sound broke
the silence.

Mrs. Thornton gave Mr. Bell her formal, hospitable welcome. She
was never so gracious as when receiving her Son's friends in her
son's house; and the more unexpected they were, the more honour
to her admirable housekeeping preparations for comfort.

'How is Miss Hale?' she asked.

'About as broken down by this last stroke as she can be.'

'I am sure it is very well for her that she has such a friend as
you.'

'I wish I were her only friend, madam. I daresay it sounds very
brutal; but here have I been displaced, and turned out of my post
of comforter and adviser by a fine lady aunt; and there are
cousins and what not claiming her in London, as if she were a
lap-dog belonging to them. And she is too weak and miserable to
have a will of her own.'

'She must indeed be weak,' said Mrs. Thornton, with an implied
meaning which her son understood well. 'But where,' continued
Mrs. Thornton, 'have these relations been all this time that Miss
Hale has appeared almost friendless, and has certainly had a good
deal of anxiety to bear?' But she did not feel interest enough in
the answer to her question to wait for it. She left the room to
make her household arrangements.

'They have been living abroad. They have some kind of claim upon
her. I will do them that justice. The aunt brought her up, and
she and the cousin have been like sisters. The thing vexing me,
you see, is that I wanted to take her for a child of my own; and
I am jealous of these people, who don't seem to value the
privilege of their right. Now it would be different if Frederick
claimed her.'

'Frederick!' exclaimed Mr. Thornton. 'Who is he? What right--?'
Me stopped short in his vehement question.

'Frederick,' said Mr. Bell in surprise. 'Why don't you know? He's
her brother. Have you not heard--'

'I never heard his name before. Where is he? Who is he?'

'Surely I told you about him, when the family first came to
Milton--the son who was concerned in that mutiny.'

'I never heard of him till this moment. Where does he live?'

'In Spain. He's liable to be arrested the moment he sets foot on
English ground. Poor fellow! he will grieve at not being able to
attend his father's funeral. We must be content with Captain
Lennox; for I don't know of any other relation to summon.'

'I hope I may be allowed to go?'

'Certainly; thankfully. You're a good fellow, after all,
Thornton. Hale liked you. He spoke to me, only the other day,
about you at Oxford. He regretted he had seen so little of you
lately. I am obliged to you for wishing to show him respect.'

'But about Frederick. Does he never come to England?'

'Never.'

'He was not over here about the time of Mrs. Hale's death?'

'No. Why, I was here then. I hadn't seen Hale for years and years
and, if you remember, I came--No, it was some time after that
that I came. But poor Frederick Hale was not here then. What made
you think he was?'

'I saw a young man walking with Miss Hale one day,' replied Mr.
Thornton, 'and I think it was about that time.'

'Oh, that would be this young Lennox, the Captain's brother. He's
a lawyer, and they were in pretty constant correspondence with
him; and I remember Mr. Hale told me he thought he would come
down. Do you know,' said Mr. Bell, wheeling round, and shutting
one eye, the better to bring the forces of the other to bear with
keen scrutiny on Mr. Thornton's face, 'that I once fancied you
had a little tenderness for Margaret?'

No answer. No change of countenance.

'And so did poor Hale. Not at first, and not till I had put it
into his head.'

'I admired Miss Hale. Every one must do so. She is a beautiful
creature,' said Mr. Thornton, driven to bay by Mr. Bell's
pertinacious questioning.

'Is that all! You can speak of her in that measured way, as
simply a "beautiful creature"--only something to catch the eye. I
did hope you had had nobleness enough in you to make you pay her
the homage of the heart. Though I believe--in fact I know, she
would have rejected you, still to have loved her without return
would have lifted you higher than all those, be they who they
may, that have never known her to love. "Beautiful creature"
indeed! Do you speak of her as you would of a horse or a dog?'

Mr. Thornton's eyes glowed like red embers.

'Mr. Bell,' said he, 'before you speak so, you should remember
that all men are not as free to express what they feel as you
are. Let us talk of something else.' For though his heart leaped
up, as at a trumpet-call, to every word that Mr. Bell had said,
and though he knew that what he had said would henceforward bind
the thought of the old Oxford Fellow closely up with the most
precious things of his heart, yet he would not be forced into any
expression of what he felt towards Margaret. He was no
mocking-bird of praise, to try because another extolled what he
reverenced and passionately loved, to outdo him in laudation. So
he turned to some of the dry matters of business that lay between
Mr. Bell and him, as landlord and tenant.

'What is that heap of brick and mortar we came against in the
yard? Any repairs wanted?'

'No, none, thank you.'

'Are you building on your own account? If you are, I'm very much
obliged to you.'

'I'm building a dining-room--for the men I mean--the hands.'

'I thought you were hard to please, if this room wasn't good
enough to satisfy you, a bachelor.'

'I've got acquainted with a strange kind of chap, and I put one
or two children in whom he is interested to school. So, as I
happened to be passing near his house one day, I just went there
about some trifling payment to be made; and I saw such a
miserable black frizzle of a dinner--a greasy cinder of meat, as
first set me a-thinking. But it was not till provisions grew so
high this winter that I bethought me how, by buying things
wholesale, and cooking a good quantity of provisions together,
much money might be saved, and much comfort gained. So I spoke to
my friend--or my enemy--the man I told you of--and he found fault
with every detail of my plan; and in consequence I laid it aside,
both as impracticable, and also because if I forced it into
operation I should be interfering with the independence of my
men; when, suddenly, this Higgins came to me and graciously
signified his approval of a scheme so nearly the same as mine,
that I might fairly have claimed it; and, moreover, the approval
of several of his fellow-workmen, to whom he had spoken. I was a
little "riled," I confess, by his manner, and thought of throwing
the whole thing overboard to sink or swim. But it seemed childish
to relinquish a plan which I had once thought wise and well-laid,
just because I myself did not receive all the honour and
consequence due to the originator. So I coolly took the part
assigned to me, which is something like that of steward to a
club. I buy in the provisions wholesale, and provide a fitting
matron or cook.'

'I hope you give satisfaction in your new capacity. Are you a
good judge of potatoes and onions? But I suppose Mrs. Thornton
assists you in your marketing.'

'Not a bit,' replied Mr. Thornton. 'She disapproves of the whole
plan, and now we never mention it to each other. But I manage
pretty well, getting in great stocks from Liverpool, and being
served in butcher's meat by our own family butcher. I can assure
you, the hot dinners the matron turns out are by no means to be
despised.'

'Do you taste each dish as it goes in, in virtue of your office?
I hope you have a white wand.'

'I was very scrupulous, at first, in confining myself to the mere
purchasing part, and even in that I rather obeyed the men's
orders conveyed through the housekeeper, than went by my own
judgment. At one time, the beef was too large, at another the
mutton was not fat enough. I think they saw how careful I was to
leave them free, and not to intrude my own ideas upon them; so,
one day, two or three of the men--my friend Higgins among
them--asked me if I would not come in and take a snack. It was a
very busy day, but I saw that the men would be hurt if, after
making the advance, I didn't meet them half-way, so I went in,
and I never made a better dinner in my life. I told them (my next
neighbours I mean, for I'm no speech-maker) how much I'd enjoyed
it; and for some time, whenever that especial dinner recurred in
their dietary, I was sure to be met by these men, with a "Master,
there's hot-pot for dinner to-day, win yo' come?" If they had not
asked me, I would no more have intruded on them than I'd have
gone to the mess at the barracks without invitation.'

'I should think you were rather a restraint on your hosts'
conversation. They can't abuse the masters while you're there. I
suspect they take it out on non-hot-pot days.'

'Well! hitherto we've steered clear of all vexed questions. But
if any of the old disputes came up again, I would certainly speak
out my mind next hot-pot day. But you are hardly acquainted with
our Darkshire fellows, for all you're a Darkshire man yourself
They have such a sense of humour, and such a racy mode of
expression! I am getting really to know some of them now, and
they talk pretty freely before me.'

'Nothing like the act of eating for equalising men. Dying is
nothing to it. The philosopher dies sententiously--the pharisee
ostentatiously--the simple-hearted humbly--the poor idiot
blindly, as the sparrow falls to the ground; the philosopher and
idiot, publican and pharisee, all eat after the same
fashion--given an equally good digestion. There's theory for
theory for you!'

'Indeed I have no theory; I hate theories.'

'I beg your pardon. To show my penitence, will you accept a ten
pound note towards your marketing, and give the poor fellows a
feast?'

'Thank you; but I'd rather not. They pay me rent for the oven and
cooking-places at the back of the mill: and will have to pay more
for the new dining-room. I don't want it to fall into a charity.
I don't want donations. Once let in the principle, and I should
have people going, and talking, and spoiling the simplicity of
the whole thing.'

'People will talk about any new plan. You can't help that.'

'My enemies, if I have any, may make a philanthropic fuss about
this dinner-scheme; but you are a friend, and I expect you will
pay my experiment the respect of silence. It is but a new broom
at present, and sweeps clean enough. But by-and-by we shall meet
with plenty of stumbling-blocks, no doubt.'

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