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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesNorth And South - Chapter XXXIX - MAKING FRIENDS
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North And South - Chapter XXXIX - MAKING FRIENDS Post by :wizard Category :Long Stories Author :Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Date :January 2011 Read :434

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North And South - Chapter XXXIX - MAKING FRIENDS

CHAPTER XXXIX - MAKING FRIENDS


'Nay, I have done; you get no more of me:

And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart,

That thus so clearly I myself am free.'

DRAYTON.

Margaret shut herself up in her own room, after she had quitted
Mrs. Thornton. She began to walk backwards and forwards, in her
old habitual way of showing agitation; but, then, remembering
that in that slightly-built house every step was heard from one
room to another, she sate down until she heard Mrs. Thornton go
safely out of the house. She forced herself to recollect all the
conversation that had passed between them; speech by speech, she
compelled her memory to go through with it. At the end, she rose
up, and said to herself, in a melancholy tone:

'At any rate, her words do not touch me; they fall off from me;
for I am innocent of all the motives she attributes to me. But
still, it is hard to think that any one--any woman--can believe
all this of another so easily. It is hard and sad. Where I have
done wrong, she does not accuse me--she does not know. He never
told her: I might have known he would not!'

She lifted up her head, as if she took pride in any delicacy of
feeling which Mr. Thornton had shown. Then, as a new thought came
across her, she pressed her hands tightly together.

'He, too, must take poor Frederick for some lover.' (She blushed
as the word passed through her mind.) 'I see it now. It is not
merely that he knows of my falsehood, but he believes that some
one else cares for me; and that I----Oh dear!--oh dear! What
shall I do? What do I mean? Why do I care what he thinks, beyond
the mere loss of his good opinion as regards my telling the truth
or not? I cannot tell. But I am very miserable! Oh, how unhappy
this last year has been! I have passed out of childhood into old
age. I have had no youth--no womanhood; the hopes of womanhood
have closed for me--for I shall never marry; and I anticipate
cares and sorrows just as if I were an old woman, and with the
same fearful spirit. I am weary of this continual call upon me
for strength. I could bear up for papa; because that is a
natural, pious duty. And I think I could bear up against--at any
rate, I could have the energy to resent, Mrs. Thornton's unjust,
impertinent suspicions. But it is hard to feel how completely he
must misunderstand me. What has happened to make me so morbid
to-day? I do not know. I only know I cannot help it. I must give
way sometimes. No, I will not, though,' said she, springing to
her feet. 'I will not--I ~will~ not think of myself and my own
position. I won't examine into my own feelings. It would be of no
use now. Some time, if I live to be an old woman, I may sit over
the fire, and, looking into the embers, see the life that might
have been.'

All this time, she was hastily putting on her things to go out,
only stopping from time to time to wipe her eyes, with an
impatience of gesture at the tears that would come, in spite of
all her bravery.

'I dare say, there's many a woman makes as sad a mistake as I
have done, and only finds it out too late. And how proudly and
impertinently I spoke to him that day! But I did not know then.
It has come upon me little by little, and I don't know where it
began. Now I won't give way. I shall find it difficult to behave
in the same way to him, with this miserable consciousness upon
me; but I will be very calm and very quiet, and say very little.
But, to be sure, I may not see him; he keeps out of our way
evidently. That would be worse than all. And yet no wonder that
he avoids me, believing what he must about me.'

She went out, going rapidly towards the country, and trying to
drown reflection by swiftness of motion.

As she stood on the door-step, at her return, her father came up:

'Good girl!' said he. 'You've been to Mrs. Boucher's. I was just
meaning to go there, if I had time, before dinner.'

'No, papa; I have not,' said Margaret, reddening. 'I never
thought about her. But I will go directly after dinner; I will go
while you are taking your nap.

Accordingly Margaret went. Mrs. Boucher was very ill; really
ill--not merely ailing. The kind and sensible neighbour, who had
come in the other day, seemed to have taken charge of everything.
Some of the children were gone to the neighbours. Mary Higgins
had come for the three youngest at dinner-time; and since then
Nicholas had gone for the doctor. He had not come as yet; Mrs.
Boucher was dying; and there was nothing to do but to wait.
Margaret thought that she should like to know his opinion, and
that she could not do better than go and see the Higginses in the
meantime. She might then possibly hear whether Nicholas had been
able to make his application to Mr. Thornton.

She found Nicholas busily engaged in making a penny spin on the
dresser, for the amusement of three little children, who were
clinging to him in a fearless manner. He, as well as they, was
smiling at a good long spin; and Margaret thought, that the happy
look of interest in his occupation was a good sign. When the
penny stopped spinning, 'lile Johnnie' began to cry.

'Come to me,' said Margaret, taking him off the dresser, and
holding him in her arms; she held her watch to his ear, while she
asked Nicholas if he had seen Mr. Thornton.

The look on his face changed instantly.

'Ay!' said he. 'I've seen and heerd too much on him.'

'He refused you, then?' said Margaret, sorrowfully.

'To be sure. I knew he'd do it all long. It's no good expecting
marcy at the hands o' them measters. Yo're a stranger and a
foreigner, and aren't likely to know their ways; but I knowed
it.'

'I am sorry I asked you. Was he angry? He did not speak to you as
Hamper did, did he?'

'He weren't o'er-civil!' said Nicholas, spinning the penny again,
as much for his own amusement as for that of the children. 'Never
yo' fret, I'm only where I was. I'll go on tramp to-morrow. I
gave him as good as I got. I telled him, I'd not that good
opinion on him that I'd ha' come a second time of mysel'; but
yo'd advised me for to come, and I were beholden to yo'.'

'You told him I sent you?'

'I dunno' if I ca'd yo' by your name. I dunnot think I did. I
said, a woman who knew no better had advised me for to come and
see if there was a soft place in his heart.'

'And he--?' asked Margaret.

'Said I were to tell yo' to mind yo'r own business.--That's the
longest spin yet, my lads.--And them's civil words to what he
used to me. But ne'er mind. We're but where we was; and I'll
break stones on th' road afore I let these little uns clem.'

Margaret put the struggling Johnnie out of her arms, back into
his former place on the dresser.

'I am sorry I asked you to go to Mr. Thornton's. I am
disappointed in him.'

There was a slight noise behind her. Both she and Nicholas turned
round at the same moment, and there stood Mr. Thornton, with a
look of displeased surprise upon his face. Obeying her swift
impulse, Margaret passed out before him, saying not a word, only
bowing low to hide the sudden paleness that she felt had come
over her face. He bent equally low in return, and then closed the
door after her. As she hurried to Mrs. Boucher's, she heard the
clang, and it seemed to fill up the measure of her mortification.
He too was annoyed to find her there. He had tenderness in his
heart--'a soft place,' as Nicholas Higgins called it; but he had
some pride in concealing it; he kept it very sacred and safe, and
was jealous of every circumstance that tried to gain admission.
But if he dreaded exposure of his tenderness, he was equally
desirous that all men should recognise his justice; and he felt
that he had been unjust, in giving so scornful a hearing to any
one who had waited, with humble patience, for five hours, to
speak to him. That the man had spoken saucily to him when he had
the opportunity, was nothing to Mr. Thornton. He rather liked him
for it; and he was conscious of his own irritability of temper at
the time, which probably made them both quits. It was the five
hours of waiting that struck Mr. Thornton. He had not five hours
to spare himself; but one hour--two hours, of his hard
penetrating intellectual, as well as bodily labour, did he give
up to going about collecting evidence as to the truth of
Higgins's story, the nature of his character, the tenor of his
life. He tried not to be, but was convinced that all that Higgins
had said. was true. And then the conviction went in, as if by
some spell, and touched the latent tenderness of his heart; the
patience of the man, the simple generosity of the motive (for he
had learnt about the quarrel between Boucher and Higgins), made
him forget entirely the mere reasonings of justice, and overleap
them by a diviner instinct. He came to tell Higgins he would give
him work; and he was more annoyed to find Margaret there than by
hearing her last words, for then he understood that she was the
woman who had urged Higgins to come to him; and he dreaded the
admission of any thought of her, as a motive to what he was doing
solely because it was right.

'So that was the lady you spoke of as a woman?' said he
indignantly to Higgins. 'You might have told me who she was.

'And then, maybe, yo'd ha' spoken of her more civil than yo' did;
yo'd getten a mother who might ha' kept yo'r tongue in check when
yo' were talking o' women being at the root o' all the plagues.'

'Of course you told that to Miss Hale?'

'In coorse I did. Leastways, I reckon I did. I telled her she
weren't to meddle again in aught that concerned yo'.'

'Whose children are those--yours?' Mr. Thornton had a pretty good
notion whose they were, from what he had heard; but he felt
awkward in turning the conversation round from this unpromising
beginning.

'They're not mine, and they are mine.'

'They are the children you spoke of to me this morning?'

'When yo' said,' replied Higgins, turning round, with
ill-smothered fierceness, 'that my story might be true or might
not, bur it were a very unlikely one. Measter, I've not
forgetten.'

Mr. Thornton was silent for a moment; then he said: 'No more have
I. I remember what I said. I spoke to you about those children in
a way I had no business to do. I did not believe you. I could not
have taken care of another man's children myself, if he had acted
towards me as I hear Boucher did towards you. But I know now that
you spoke truth. I beg your pardon.'

Higgins did not turn round, or immediately respond to this. But
when he did speak, it was in a softened tone, although the words
were gruff enough.

'Yo've no business to go prying into what happened between
Boucher and me. He's dead, and I'm sorry. That's enough.'

'So it is. Will you take work with me? That's what I came to
ask.'

Higgins's obstinacy wavered, recovered strength, and stood firm.
He would not speak. Mr. Thornton would not ask again. Higgins's
eye fell on the children.

'Yo've called me impudent, and a liar, and a mischief-maker, and
yo' might ha' said wi' some truth, as I were now and then given
to drink. An' I ha' called you a tyrant, an' an oud bull-dog, and
a hard, cruel master; that's where it stands. But for th'
childer. Measter, do yo' think we can e'er get on together?'

'Well!' said Mr. Thornton, half-laughing, 'it was not my proposal
that we should go together. But there's one comfort, on your own
showing. We neither of us can think much worse of the other than
we do now.'

'That's true,' said Higgins, reflectively. 'I've been thinking,
ever sin' I saw you, what a marcy it were yo' did na take me on,
for that I ne'er saw a man whom I could less abide. But that's
maybe been a hasty judgment; and work's work to such as me. So,
measter, I'll come; and what's more, I thank yo'; and that's a
deal fro' me,' said he, more frankly, suddenly turning round and
facing Mr. Thornton fully for the first time.

'And this is a deal from me,' said Mr. Thornton, giving Higgins's
hand a good grip. 'Now mind you come sharp to your time,'
continued he, resuming the master. 'I'll have no laggards at my
mill. What fines we have, we keep pretty sharply. And the first
time I catch you making mischief, off you go. So now you know
where you are.'

'Yo' spoke of my wisdom this morning. I reckon I may bring it wi'
me; or would yo' rayther have me 'bout my brains?'

''Bout your brains if you use them for meddling with my business;
with your brains if you can keep them to your own.'

'I shall need a deal o' brains to settle where my business ends
and yo'rs begins.'

'Your business has not begun yet, and mine stands still for me.
So good afternoon.'

Just before Mr. Thornton came up to Mrs. Boucher's door, Margaret
came out of it. She did not see him; and he followed her for
several yards, admiring her light and easy walk, and her tall and
graceful figure. But, suddenly, this simple emotion of pleasure
was tainted, poisoned by jealousy. He wished to overtake her, and
speak to her, to see how she would receive him, now she must know
he was aware of some other attachment. He wished too, but of this
wish he was rather ashamed, that she should know that he had
justified her wisdom in sending Higgins to him to ask for work;
and had repented him of his morning's decision. He came up to
her. She started.

'Allow me to say, Miss Hale, that you were rather premature in
expressing your disappointment. I have taken Higgins on.'

'I am glad of it,' said she, coldly.

'He tells me, he repeated to you, what I said this morning
about--' Mr. Thornton hesitated. Margaret took it up:

'About women not meddling. You had a perfect right to express
your opinion, which was a very correct one, I have no doubt.
But,' she went on a little more eagerly, 'Higgins did not quite
tell you the exact truth.' The word 'truth,' reminded her of her
own untruth, and she stopped short, feeling exceedingly
uncomfortable.

Mr. Thornton at first was puzzled to account for her silence; and
then he remembered the lie she had told, and all that was
foregone. 'The exact truth!' said he. 'Very few people do speak
the exact truth. I have given up hoping for it. Miss Hale, have
you no explanation to give me? You must perceive what I cannot
but think.'

Margaret was silent. She was wondering whether an explanation of
any kind would be consistent with her loyalty to Frederick.

'Nay,' said he, 'I will ask no farther. I may be putting
temptation in your way. At present, believe me, your secret is
safe with me. But you run great risks, allow me to say, in being
so indiscreet. I am now only speaking as a friend of your
father's: if I had any other thought or hope, of course that is
at an end. I am quite disinterested.'

'I am aware of that,' said Margaret, forcing herself to speak in
an indifferent, careless way. 'I am aware of what I must appear
to you, but the secret is another person's, and I cannot explain
it without doing him harm.'

'I have not the slightest wish to pry into the gentleman's
secrets,' he said, with growing anger. 'My own interest in you
is--simply that of a friend. You may not believe me, Miss Hale,
but it is--in spite of the persecution I'm afraid I threatened
you with at one time--but that is all given up; all passed away.
You believe me, Miss Hale?'

'Yes,' said Margaret, quietly and sadly.

'Then, really, I don't see any occasion for us to go on walking
together. I thought, perhaps you might have had something to say,
but I see we are nothing to each other. If you're quite
convinced, that any foolish passion on my part is entirely over,
I will wish you good afternoon.' He walked off very hastily.

'What can he mean?' thought Margaret,--'what could he mean by
speaking so, as if I were always thinking that he cared for me,
when I know he does not; he cannot. His mother will have said all
those cruel things about me to him. But I won't care for him. I
surely am mistress enough of myself to control this wild,
strange, miserable feeling, which tempted me even to betray my
own dear Frederick, so that I might but regain his good
opinion--the good opinion of a man who takes such pains to tell
me that I am nothing to him. Come poor little heart! be cheery
and brave. We'll be a great deal to one another, if we are thrown
off and left desolate.'

Her father was almost startled by her merriment this afternoon.
She talked incessantly, and forced her natural humour to an
unusual pitch; and if there was a tinge of bitterness in much of
what she said; if her accounts of the old Harley Street set were
a little sarcastic, her father could not bear to check her, as he
would have done at another time--for he was glad to see her shake
off her cares. In the middle of the evening, she was called down
to speak to Mary Higgins; and when she came back, Mr. Hale
imagined that he saw traces of tears on her cheeks. But that
could not be, for she brought good news--that Higgins had got
work at Mr. Thornton's mill. Her spirits were damped, at any
rate, and she found it very difficult to go on talking at all,
much more in the wild way that she had done. For some days her
spirits varied strangely; and her father was beginning to be
anxious about her, when news arrived from one or two quarters
that promised some change and variety for her. Mr. Hale received
a letter from Mr. Bell, in which that gentleman volunteered a
visit to them; and Mr. Hale imagined that the promised society of
his old Oxford friend would give as agreeable a turn to
Margaret's ideas as it did to his own. Margaret tried to take an
interest in what pleased her father; but she was too languid to
care about any Mr. Bell, even though he were twenty times her
godfather. She was more roused by a letter from Edith, full of
sympathy about her aunt's death; full of details about herself,
her husband, and child; and at the end saying, that as the
climate did not suit, the baby, and as Mrs. Shaw was talking of
returning to England, she thought it probable that Captain Lennox
might sell out, and that they might all go and live again in the
old Harley Street house; which, however, would seem very
incomplete with-out Margaret. Margaret yearned after that old
house, and the placid tranquillity of that old well-ordered,
monotonous life. She had found it occasionally tiresome while it
lasted; but since then she had been buffeted about, and felt so
exhausted by this recent struggle with herself, that she thought
that even stagnation would be a rest and a refreshment. So she
began to look towards a long visit to the Lennoxes, on their
return to England, as to a point--no, not of hope--but of
leisure, in which she could regain her power and command over
herself. At present it seemed to her as if all subjects tended
towards Mr. Thornton; as if she could not for-get him with all
her endeavours. If she went to see the Higginses, she heard of
him there; her father had resumed their readings together, and
quoted his opinions perpetually; even Mr. Bell's visit brought
his tenant's name upon the tapis; for he wrote word that he
believed he must be occupied some great part of his time with Mr.
Thornton, as a new lease was in preparation, and the terms of it
must be agreed upon.

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