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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesNorth And South - Chapter XXXVII - LOOKING SOUTH
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North And South - Chapter XXXVII - LOOKING SOUTH Post by :reflextrading Category :Long Stories Author :Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Date :January 2011 Read :2838

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North And South - Chapter XXXVII - LOOKING SOUTH

CHAPTER XXXVII - LOOKING SOUTH


'A spade! a rake! a hoe!

A pickaxe or a bill!

A hook to reap, or a scythe to mow,

A flail, or what ye will--

And here's a ready hand

To ply the needful tool,

And skill'd enough, by lessons rough,

In Labour's rugged school.'

HOOD.

Higgins's door was locked the next day, when they went to pay
their call on the widow Boucher: but they learnt this time from
an officious neighbour, that he was really from home. He had,
however, been in to see Mrs. Boucher, before starting on his
day's business, whatever that was. It was but an unsatisfactory
visit to Mrs. Boucher; she considered herself as an ill-used
woman by her poor husband's suicide; and there was quite germ of
truth enough in this idea to make it a very difficult one to
refute. Still, it was unsatisfactory to see how completely her
thoughts were turned upon herself and her own position, and this
selfishness extended even to her relations with her children,
whom she considered as incumbrances, even in the very midst of
her somewhat animal affection for them. Margaret tried to make
acquaintances with one or two of them, while her father strove to
raise the widow's thoughts into some higher channel than that of
mere helpless querulousness. She found that the children were
truer and simpler mourners than the widow. Daddy had been a kind
daddy to them; each could tell, in their eager stammering way, of
some tenderness shown some indulgence granted by the lost father.

'Is yon thing upstairs really him? it doesna look like him. I'm
feared on it, and I never was feared o' daddy.'

Margaret's heart bled to hear that the mother, in her selfish
requirement of sympathy, had taken her children upstairs to see
their disfigured father. It was intermingling the coarseness of
horror with the profoundness of natural grief She tried to turn
their thoughts in some other direction; on what they could do for
mother; on what--for this was a more efficacious way of putting
it--what father would have wished them to do. Margaret was more
successful than Mr. Hale in her efforts. The children seeing
their little duties lie in action close around them, began to try
each one to do something that she suggested towards redding up
the slatternly room. But her father set too high a standard, and
too abstract a view, before the indolent invalid. She could not
rouse her torpid mind into any vivid imagination of what her
husband's misery might have been before he had resorted to the
last terrible step; she could only look upon it as it affected
herself; she could not enter into the enduring mercy of the God
who had not specially interposed to prevent the water from
drowning her prostrate husband; and although she was secretly
blaming her husband for having fallen into such drear despair,
and denying that he had any excuse for his last rash act, she was
inveterate in her abuse of all who could by any possibility be
supposed to have driven him to such desperation. The masters--Mr.
Thornton in particular, whose mill had been attacked by Boucher,
and who, after the warrant had been issued for his apprehension
on the charge of rioting, had caused it to be withdrawn,--the
Union, of which Higgins was the representative to the poor
woman,--the children so numerous, so hungry, and so noisy--all
made up one great army of personal enemies, whose fault it was
that she was now a helpless widow.

Margaret heard enough of this unreasonableness to dishearten her;
and when they came away she found it impossible to cheer her
father.

'It is the town life,' said she. 'Their nerves are quickened by
the haste and bustle and speed of everything around them, to say
nothing of the confinement in these pent-up houses, which of
itself is enough to induce depression and worry of spirits. Now
in the country, people live so much more out of doors, even
children, and even in the winter.'

'But people must live in towns. And in the country some get such
stagnant habits of mind that they are almost fatalists.'

'Yes; I acknowledge that. I suppose each mode of life produces
its own trials and its own temptations. The dweller in towns must
find it as difficult to be patient and calm, as the country-bred
man must find it to be active, and equal to unwonted emergencies.
Both must find it hard to realise a future of any kind; the one
because the present is so living and hurrying and close around
him; the other because his life tempts him to revel in the mere
sense of animal existence, not knowing of, and consequently not
caring for any pungency of pleasure for the attainment of which
he can plan, and deny himself and look forward.'

'And thus both the necessity for engrossment, and the stupid
content in the present, produce the same effects. But this poor
Mrs. Boucher! how little we can do for her.'

'And yet we dare not leave her without our efforts, although they
may seem so useless. Oh papa! it's a hard world to live in!'

'So it is, my child. We feel it so just now, at any rate; but we
have been very happy, even in the midst of our sorrow. What a
pleasure Frederick's visit was!'

'Yes, that it was,' said Margaret; brightly. 'It was such a
charming, snatched, forbidden thing.' But she suddenly stopped
speaking. She had spoiled the remembrance of Frederick's visit to
herself by her own cowardice. Of all faults the one she most
despised in others was the want of bravery; the meanness of heart
which leads to untruth. And here had she been guilty of it! Then
came the thought of Mr. Thornton's cognisance of her falsehood.
She wondered if she should have minded detection half so much
from any one else. She tried herself in imagination with her Aunt
Shaw and Edith; with her father; with Captain and Mr. Lennox;
with Frederick. The thought of the last knowing what she had
done, even in his own behalf, was the most painful, for the
brother and sister were in the first flush of their mutual regard
and love; but even any fall in Frederick's opinion was as nothing
to the shame, the shrinking shame she felt at the thought of
meeting Mr. Thornton again. And yet she longed to see him, to get
it over; to understand where she stood in his opinion. Her cheeks
burnt as she recollected how proudly she had implied an objection
to trade (in the early days of their acquaintance), because it
too often led to the deceit of passing off inferior for superior
goods, in the one branch; of assuming credit for wealth and
resources not possessed, in the other. She remembered Mr.
Thornton's look of calm disdain, as in few words he gave her to
understand that, in the great scheme of commerce, all
dishonourable ways of acting were sure to prove injurious in the
long run, and that, testing such actions simply according to the
poor standard of success, there was folly and not wisdom in all
such, and every kind of deceit in trade, as well as in other
things. She remembered--she, then strong in her own untempted
truth--asking him, if he did not think that buying in the
cheapest and selling in the dearest market proved some want of
the transparent justice which is so intimately connected with the
idea of truth: and she had used the word chivalric--and her
father had corrected her with the higher word, Christian; and so
drawn the argument upon himself, while she sate silent by with a
slight feeling of contempt.

No more contempt for her!--no more talk about the chivalric!
Henceforward she must feel humiliated and disgraced in his sight.
But when should she see him? Her heart leaped up in apprehension
at every ring of the door-bell; and yet when it fell down to
calmness, she felt strangely saddened and sick at heart at each
disappointment. It was very evident that her father expected to
see him, and was surprised that he did not come. The truth was,
that there were points in their conversation the other night on
which they had no time then to enlarge; but it had been
understood that if possible on the succeeding evening--if not
then, at least the very first evening that Mr. Thornton could
command,--they should meet for further discussion. Mr. Hale had
looked forward to this meeting ever since they had parted. He had
not yet resumed the instruction to his pupils, which he had
relinquished at the commencement of his wife's more serious
illness, so he had fewer occupations than usual; and the great
interest of the last day or so (Boucher's suicide) had driven him
back with more eagerness than ever upon his speculations. He was
restless all evening. He kept saying, 'I quite expected to have
seen Mr. Thornton. I think the messenger who brought the book
last night must have had some note, and forgot to deliver it. Do
you think there has been any message left to-day?'

'I will go and inquire, papa,' said Margaret, after the changes
on these sentences had been rung once or twice. 'Stay, there's a
ring!' She sate down instantly, and bent her head attentively
over her work. She heard a step on the stairs, but it was only
one, and she knew it was Dixon's. She lifted up her head and
sighed, and believed she felt glad.

'It's that Higgins, sir. He wants to see you, or else Miss Hale.
Or it might be Miss Hale first, and then you, sir; for he's in a
strange kind of way.

'He had better come up here, Dixon; and then he can see us both,
and choose which he likes for his listener.'

'Oh! very well, sir. I've no wish to hear what he's got to say,
I'm sure; only, if you could see his shoes, I'm sure you'd say
the kitchen was the fitter place.

'He can wipe them, I suppose, said Mr. Hale. So Dixon flung off,
to bid him walk up-stairs. She was a little mollified, however,
when he looked at his feet with a hesitating air; and then,
sitting down on the bottom stair, he took off the offending
shoes, and without a word walked up-stairs.

'Sarvant, sir!' said he, slicking his hair down when he came into
the room. 'If hoo'l excuse me (looking at Margaret) for being i'
my stockings; I'se been tramping a' day, and streets is none o'
th' cleanest.'

Margaret thought that fatigue might account for the change in his
manner, for he was unusually quiet and subdued; and he had
evidently some difficulty in saying what he came to say.

Mr. Hale's ever-ready sympathy with anything of shyness or
hesitation, or want of self-possession, made him come to his aid.

'We shall have tea up directly, and then you'll take a cup with
us, Mr. Higgins. I am sure you are tired, if you've been out much
this wet relaxing day. Margaret, my dear, can't you hasten tea?'

Margaret could only hasten tea by taking the preparation of it
into her own hands, and so offending Dixon, who was emerging out
of her sorrow for her late mistress into a very touchy, irritable
state. But Martha, like all who came in contact with
Margaret--even Dixon herself, in the long run--felt it a pleasure
and an honour to forward any of her wishes; and her readiness,
and Margaret's sweet forbearance, soon made Dixon ashamed of
herself.

'Why master and you must always be asking the lower classes
up-stairs, since we came to Milton, I cannot understand. Folk at
Helstone were never brought higher than the kitchen; and I've let
one or two of them know before now that they might think it an
honour to be even there.'

Higgins found it easier to unburden himself to one than to two.
After Margaret left the room, he went to the door and assured
himself that it was shut. Then he came and stood close to Mr.
Hale.

'Master,' said he, 'yo'd not guess easy what I've been tramping
after to-day. Special if yo' remember my manner o' talk
yesterday. I've been a seeking work. I have' said he. 'I said to
mysel', I'd keep a civil tongue in my head, let who would say
what 'em would. I'd set my teeth into my tongue sooner nor speak
i' haste. For that man's sake--yo' understand,' jerking his thumb
back in some unknown direction.

'No, I don't,' said Mr. Hale, seeing he waited for some kind of
assent, and completely bewildered as to who 'that man' could be.

'That chap as lies theer,' said he, with another jerk. 'Him as
went and drownded himself, poor chap! I did na' think he'd got it
in him to lie still and let th' water creep o'er him till he
died. Boucher, yo' know.'

'Yes, I know now,' said Mr. Hale. 'Go back to what you were
saying: you'd not speak in haste----'

'For his sake. Yet not for his sake; for where'er he is, and
whate'er, he'll ne'er know other clemming or cold again; but for
the wife's sake, and the bits o' childer.'

'God bless you!' said Mr. Hale, starting up; then, calming down,
he said breathlessly, 'What do you mean? Tell me out.'

'I have telled yo',' said Higgins, a little surprised at Mr.
Hale's agitation. 'I would na ask for work for mysel'; but them's
left as a charge on me. I reckon, I would ha guided Boucher to a
better end; but I set him off o' th' road, and so I mun answer
for him.'

Mr. Hale got hold of Higgins's hand and shook it heartily,
without speaking. Higgins looked awkward and ashamed.

'Theer, theer, master! Theer's ne'er a man, to call a man,
amongst us, but what would do th' same; ay, and better too; for,
belie' me, I'se ne'er got a stroke o' work, nor yet a sight of
any. For all I telled Hamper that, let alone his pledge--which I
would not sign--no, I could na, not e'en for this--he'd ne'er ha'
such a worker on his mill as I would be--he'd ha' none o' me--no
more would none o' th' others. I'm a poor black feckless
sheep--childer may clem for aught I can do, unless, parson, yo'd
help me?'

'Help you! How? I would do anything,--but what can I do?'

'Miss there'--for Margaret had re-entered the room, and stood
silent, listening--'has often talked grand o' the South, and the
ways down there. Now I dunnot know how far off it is, but I've
been thinking if I could get 'em down theer, where food is cheap
and wages good, and all the folk, rich and poor, master and man,
friendly like; yo' could, may be, help me to work. I'm not
forty-five, and I've a deal o' strength in me, measter.'

'But what kind of work could you do, my man?'

'Well, I reckon I could spade a bit----'

'And for that,' said Margaret, stepping forwards, 'for anything
you could do, Higgins, with the best will in the world, you
would, may be, get nine shillings a week; may be ten, at the
outside. Food is much the same as here, except that you might
have a little garden----'

'The childer could work at that,' said he. 'I'm sick o' Milton
anyways, and Milton is sick o' me.'

'You must not go to the South,' said Margaret, 'for all that. You
could not stand it. You would have to be out all weathers. It
would kill you with rheumatism. The mere bodily work at your time
of life would break you down. The fare is far different to what
you have been accustomed to.'

'I'se nought particular about my meat,' said he, as if offended.

'But you've reckoned on having butcher's meat once a day, if
you're in work; pay for that out of your ten shillings, and keep
those poor children if you can. I owe it to you--since it's my
way of talking that has set you off on this idea--to put it all
clear before you. You would not bear the dulness of the life; you
don't know what it is; it would eat you away like rust. Those
that have lived there all their lives, are used to soaking in the
stagnant waters. They labour on, from day to day, in the great
solitude of steaming fields--never speaking or lifting up their
poor, bent, downcast heads. The hard spade-work robs their brain
of life; the sameness of their toil deadens their imagination;
they don't care to meet to talk over thoughts and speculations,
even of the weakest, wildest kind, after their work is done; they
go home brutishly tired, poor creatures! caring for nothing but
food and rest. You could not stir them up into any companionship,
which you get in a town as plentiful as the air you breathe,
whether it be good or bad--and that I don't know; but I do know,
that you of all men are not one to bear a life among such
labourers. What would be peace to them would be eternal fretting
to you. Think no more of it, Nicholas, I beg. Besides, you could
never pay to get mother and children all there--that's one good
thing.'

'I've reckoned for that. One house mun do for us a', and the
furniture o' t'other would go a good way. And men theer mun have
their families to keep--mappen six or seven childer. God help
'em!' said he, more convinced by his own presentation of the
facts than by all Margaret had said, and suddenly renouncing the
idea, which had but recently formed itself in a brain worn out by
the day's fatigue and anxiety. 'God help 'em! North an' South
have each getten their own troubles. If work's sure and steady
theer, labour's paid at starvation prices; while here we'n rucks
o' money coming in one quarter, and ne'er a farthing th' next.
For sure, th' world is in a confusion that passes me or any other
man to understand; it needs fettling, and who's to fettle it, if
it's as yon folks say, and there's nought but what we see?'

Mr. Hale was busy cutting bread and butter; Margaret was glad of
this, for she saw that Higgins was better left to himself: that
if her father began to speak ever so mildly on the subject of
Higgins's thoughts, the latter would consider himself challenged
to an argument, and would feel himself bound to maintain his own
ground. She and her father kept up an indifferent conversation
until Higgins, scarcely aware whether he ate or not, had made a
very substantial meal. Then he pushed his chair away from the
table, and tried to take an interest in what they were saying;
but it was of no use; and he fell back into dreamy gloom.
Suddenly, Margaret said (she had been thinking of it for some
time, but the words had stuck in her throat), 'Higgins, have you
been to Marlborough Mills to seek for work?'

'Thornton's?' asked he. 'Ay, I've been at Thornton's.'

'And what did he say?'

'Such a chap as me is not like to see the measter. Th' o'erlooker
bid me go and be d----d.'

'I wish you had seen Mr. Thornton,' said Mr. Hale. 'He might not
have given you work, but he would not have used such language.'

'As to th' language, I'm welly used to it; it dunnot matter to
me. I'm not nesh mysel' when I'm put out. It were th' fact that I
were na wanted theer, no more nor ony other place, as I minded.'

'But I wish you had seen Mr. Thornton,' repeated Margaret. 'Would
you go again--it's a good deal to ask, I know--but would you go
to-morrow and try him? I should be so glad if you would.'

'I'm afraid it would be of no use,' said Mr. Hale, in a low
voice. 'It would be better to let me speak to him.' Margaret
still looked at Higgins for his answer. Those grave soft eyes of
hers were difficult to resist. He gave a great sigh.

'It would tax my pride above a bit; if it were for mysel', I
could stand a deal o' clemming first; I'd sooner knock him down
than ask a favour from him. I'd a deal sooner be flogged mysel';
but yo're not a common wench, axing yo'r pardon, nor yet have yo'
common ways about yo'. I'll e'en make a wry face, and go at it
to-morrow. Dunna yo' think that he'll do it. That man has it in
him to be burnt at the stake afore he'll give in. I do it for
yo'r sake, Miss Hale, and it's first time in my life as e'er I
give way to a woman. Neither my wife nor Bess could e'er say that
much again me.'

'All the more do I thank you,' said Margaret, smiling. 'Though I
don't believe you: I believe you have just given way to wife and
daughter as much as most men.'

'And as to Mr. Thornton,' said Mr. Hale, 'I'll give you a note to
him, which, I think I may venture to say, will ensure you a
hearing.'

'I thank yo' kindly, sir, but I'd as lief stand on my own bottom.
I dunnot stomach the notion of having favour curried for me, by
one as doesn't know the ins and outs of the quarrel. Meddling
'twixt master and man is liker meddling 'twixt husband and wife
than aught else: it takes a deal o' wisdom for to do ony good.
I'll stand guard at the lodge door. I'll stand there fro' six in
the morning till I get speech on him. But I'd liefer sweep th'
streets, if paupers had na' got hold on that work. Dunna yo'
hope, miss. There'll be more chance o' getting milk out of a
flint. I wish yo' a very good night, and many thanks to yo'.'

'You'll find your shoe's by the kitchen fire; I took them there
to dry,' said Margaret.

He turned round and looked at her steadily, and then he brushed
his lean hand across his eyes and went his way.

'How proud that man is!' said her father, who was a little
annoyed at the manner in which Higgins had declined his
intercession with Mr. Thornton.

'He is,' said Margaret; 'but what grand makings of a man there
are in him, pride and all.'

'It's amusing to see how he evidently respects the part in Mr.
Thornton's character which is like his own.'

'There's granite in all these northern people, papa, is there
not?'

'There was none in poor Boucher, I am afraid; none in his wife
either.'

'I should guess from their tones that they had Irish blood in
them. I wonder what success he'll have to-morrow. If he and Mr.
Thornton would speak out together as man to man--if Higgins would
forget that Mr. Thornton was a master, and speak to him as he
does to us--and if Mr. Thornton would be patient enough to listen
to him with his human heart, not with his master's ears--'

'You are getting to do Mr. Thornton justice at last, Margaret,'
said her father, pinching her ear.

Margaret had a strange choking at her heart, which made her
unable to answer. 'Oh!' thought she, 'I wish I were a man, that I
could go and force him to express his disapprobation, and tell
him honestly that I knew I deserved it. It seems hard to lose him
as a friend just when I had begun to feel his value. How tender
he was with dear mamma! If it were only for her sake, I wish he
would come, and then at least I should know how much I was abased
in his eyes.'

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