North and South/Chapter XI

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North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter XI: First impressions
There's iron, they say, in all our blood,
And a grain or two perhaps is good;
But his, he makes me harshly feel,
Has got a little too much of steel.
ANON.


'Margaret!' said Mr. Hale, as he returned from showing his guest downstairs; 'I could not help watching your face with some anxiety, when Mr. Thornton made his confession of having been a shop-boy. I knew it all along from Mr. Bell; so I was aware of what was coming; but I half expected to see you get up and leave the room.'

'Oh, papa! you don't mean that you thought me so silly? I really liked that account of himself better than anything else he said. Everything else revolted me, from its hardness; but he spoke about himself so simply--with so little of the pretence that makes the vulgarity of shop-people, and with such tender respect for his mother, that I was less likely to leave the room then than when he was boasting about Milton, as if there was not such another place in the world; or quietly professing to despise people for careless, wasteful improvidence, without ever seeming to think it his duty to try to make them different,--to give them anything of the training which his mother gave him, and to which he evidently owes his position, whatever that may be. No! his statement of having been a shop-boy was the thing I liked best of all.'

'I am surprised at you, Margaret,' said her mother. 'You who were always accusing people of being shoppy at Helstone! I don't I think, Mr. Hale, you have done quite right in introducing such a person to us without telling us what he had been. I really was very much afraid of showing him how much shocked I was at some parts of what he said. His father "dying in miserable circumstances." Why it might have been in the workhouse.'

'I am not sure if it was not worse than being in the workhouse,' replied her husband. 'I heard a good deal of his previous life from Mr. Bell before we came here; and as he has told you a part, I will fill up what he left out. His father speculated wildly, failed, and then killed himself, because he could not bear the disgrace. All his former friends shrunk from the disclosures that had to be made of his dishonest gambling--wild, hopeless struggles, made with other people's money, to regain his own moderate portion of wealth. No one came forwards to help the mother and this boy. There was another child, I believe, a girl; too young to earn money, but of course she had to be kept. At least, no friend came forwards immediately, and Mrs. Thornton is not one, I fancy, to wait till tardy kindness comes to find her out. So they left Milton. I knew he had gone into a shop, and that his earnings, with some fragment of property secured to his mother, had been made to keep them for a long time. Mr. Bell said they absolutely lived upon water-porridge for years--how, he did not know; but long after the creditors had given up hope of any payment of old Mr. Thornton's debts (if, indeed, they ever had hoped at all about it, after his suicide,) this young man returned to Milton, and went quietly round to each creditor, paying him the first instalment of the money owing to him. No noise--no gathering together of creditors--it was done very silently and quietly, but all was paid at last; helped on materially by the circumstance of one of the creditors, a crabbed old fellow (Mr. Bell says), taking in Mr. Thornton as a kind of partner.'

'That really is fine,' said Margaret. 'What a pity such a nature should be tainted by his position as a Milton manufacturer.'

'How tainted?' asked her father.

'Oh, papa, by that testing everything by the standard of wealth. When he spoke of the mechanical powers, he evidently looked upon them only as new ways of extending trade and making money. And the poor men around him--they were poor because they were vicious--out of the pale of his sympathies because they had not his iron nature, and the capabilities that it gives him for being rich.'

'Not vicious; he never said that. Improvident and self-indulgent were his words.'

Margaret was collecting her mother's working materials, and preparing to go to bed. Just as she was leaving the room, she hesitated--she was inclined to make an acknowledgment which she thought would please her father, but which to be full and true must include a little annoyance. However, out it came.

'Papa, I do think Mr. Thornton a very remarkable man; but personally I don't like him at all.'

'And I do!' said her father laughing. 'Personally, as you call it, and all. I don't set him up for a hero, or anything of that kind. But good night, child. Your mother looks sadly tired to-night, Margaret.'

Margaret had noticed her mother's jaded appearance with anxiety for some time past, and this remark of her father's sent her up to bed with a dim fear lying like a weight on her heart. The life in Milton was so different from what Mrs. Hale had been accustomed to live in Helstone, in and out perpetually into the fresh and open air; the air itself was so different, deprived of all revivifying principle as it seemed to be here; the domestic worries pressed so very closely, and in so new and sordid a form, upon all the women in the family, that there was good reason to fear that her mother's health might be becoming seriously affected. There were several other signs of something wrong about Mrs. Hale. She and Dixon held mysterious consultations in her bedroom, from which Dixon would come out crying and cross, as was her custom when any distress of her mistress called upon her sympathy. Once Margaret had gone into the chamber soon after Dixon left it, and found her mother on her knees, and as Margaret stole out she caught a few words, which were evidently a prayer for strength and patience to endure severe bodily suffering. Margaret yearned to re-unite the bond of intimate confidence which had been broken by her long residence at her aunt Shaw's, and strove by gentle caresses and softened words to creep into the warmest place in her mother's heart. But though she received caresses and fond words back again, in such profusion as would have gladdened her formerly, yet she felt that there was a secret withheld from her, and she believed it bore serious reference to her mother's health. She lay awake very long this night, planning how to lessen the evil influence of their Milton life on her mother. A servant to give Dixon permanent assistance should be got, if she gave up her whole time to the search; and then, at any rate, her mother might have all the personal attention she required, and had been accustomed to her whole life. Visiting register offices, seeing all manner of unlikely people, and very few in the least likely, absorbed Margaret's time and thoughts for several days. One afternoon she met Bessy Higgins in the street, and stopped to speak to her.

'Well, Bessy, how are you? Better, I hope, now the wind has changed.'

'Better and not better, if yo' know what that means.'

'Not exactly,' replied Margaret, smiling.

'I'm better in not being torn to pieces by coughing o'nights, but I'm weary and tired o' Milton, and longing to get away to the land o' Beulah; and when I think I'm farther and farther off, my heart sinks, and I'm no better; I'm worse.' Margaret turned round to walk alongside of the girl in her feeble progress homeward. But for a minute or two she did not speak. At last she said in a low voice,

'Bessy, do you wish to die?' For she shrank from death herself, with all the clinging to life so natural to the young and healthy.

Bessy was silent in her turn for a minute or two. Then she replied,

'If yo'd led the life I have, and getten as weary of it as I have, and thought at times, "maybe it'll last for fifty or sixty years--it does wi' some,"--and got dizzy and dazed, and sick, as each of them sixty years seemed to spin about me, and mock me with its length of hours and minutes, and endless bits o' time--oh, wench! I tell thee thou'd been glad enough when th' doctor said he feared thou'd never see another winter.'

'Why, Bessy, what kind of a life has yours been?'

'Nought worse than many others, I reckon. Only I fretted again it, and they didn't.'

'But what was it? You know, I'm a stranger here, so perhaps I'm not so quick at understanding what you mean as if I'd lived all my life at Milton.'

'If yo'd ha' come to our house when yo' said yo' would, I could maybe ha' told you. But father says yo're just like th' rest on 'em; it's out o' sight out o' mind wi' you.'

'I don't know who the rest are; and I've been very busy; and, to tell the truth, I had forgotten my promise--'

'Yo' offered it! we asked none of it.'

'I had forgotten what I said for the time,' continued Margaret quietly. 'I should have thought of it again when I was less busy. May I go with you now?' Bessy gave a quick glance at Margaret's face, to see if the wish expressed was really felt. The sharpness in her eye turned to a wistful longing as she met Margaret's soft and friendly gaze.

'I ha' none so many to care for me; if yo' care yo' may come.

So they walked on together in silence. As they turned up into a small court, opening out of a squalid street, Bessy said,

'Yo'll not be daunted if father's at home, and speaks a bit gruffish at first. He took a mind to ye, yo' see, and he thought a deal o' your coming to see us; and just because he liked yo' he were vexed and put about.'

'Don't fear, Bessy.'

But Nicholas was not at home when they entered. A great slatternly girl, not so old as Bessy, but taller and stronger, was busy at the wash-tub, knocking about the furniture in a rough capable way, but altogether making so much noise that Margaret shrunk, out of sympathy with poor Bessy, who had sat down on the first chair, as if completely tired out with her walk. Margaret asked the sister for a cup of water, and while she ran to fetch it (knocking down the fire-irons, and tumbling over a chair in her way), she unloosed Bessy's bonnet strings, to relieve her catching breath.

'Do you think such life as this is worth caring for?' gasped Bessy, at last. Margaret did not speak, but held the water to her lips. Bessy took a long and feverish draught, and then fell back and shut her eyes. Margaret heard her murmur to herself: 'They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.'

Margaret bent over and said, 'Bessy, don't be impatient with your life, whatever it is--or may have been. Remember who gave it you, and made it what it is!' She was startled by hearing Nicholas speak behind her; he had come in without her noticing him.

'Now, I'll not have my wench preached to. She's bad enough as it is, with her dreams and her methodee fancies, and her visions of cities with goulden gates and precious stones. But if it amuses her I let it abe, but I'm none going to have more stuff poured into her.'

'But surely,' said Margaret, facing round, 'you believe in what I said, that God gave her life, and ordered what kind of life it was to be?'

'I believe what I see, and no more. That's what I believe, young woman. I don't believe all I hear--no! not by a big deal. I did hear a young lass make an ado about knowing where we lived, and coming to see us. And my wench here thought a deal about it, and flushed up many a time, when hoo little knew as I was looking at her, at the sound of a strange step. But hoo's come at last,--and hoo's welcome, as long as hoo'll keep from preaching on what hoo knows nought about.' Bessy had been watching Margaret's face; she half sate up to speak now, laying her hand on Margaret's arm with a gesture of entreaty. 'Don't be vexed wi' him--there's many a one thinks like him; many and many a one here. If yo' could hear them speak, yo'd not be shocked at him; he's a rare good man, is father--but oh!' said she, falling back in despair, 'what he says at times makes me long to die more than ever, for I want to know so many things, and am so tossed about wi' wonder.'

'Poor wench--poor old wench,--I'm loth to vex thee, I am; but a man mun speak out for the truth, and when I see the world going all wrong at this time o' day, bothering itself wi' things it knows nought about, and leaving undone all the things that lie in disorder close at its hand--why, I say, leave a' this talk about religion alone, and set to work on what yo' see and know. That's my creed. It's simple, and not far to fetch, nor hard to work.'

But the girl only pleaded the more with Margaret.

'Don't think hardly on him--he's a good man, he is. I sometimes think I shall be moped wi' sorrow even in the City of God, if father is not there.' The feverish colour came into her cheek, and the feverish flame into her eye. 'But you will be there, father! you shall! Oh! my heart!' She put her hand to it, and became ghastly pale.

Margaret held her in her arms, and put the weary head to rest upon her bosom. She lifted the thin soft hair from off the temples, and bathed them with water. Nicholas understood all her signs for different articles with the quickness of love, and even the round-eyed sister moved with laborious gentleness at Margaret's 'hush!' Presently the spasm that foreshadowed death had passed away, and Bessy roused herself and said,--

'I'll go to bed,--it's best place; but,' catching at Margaret's gown, 'yo'll come again,--I know yo' will--but just say it!'

'I will come to-morrow, said Margaret.

Bessy leant back against her father, who prepared to carry her upstairs; but as Margaret rose to go, he struggled to say something: 'I could wish there were a God, if it were only to ask Him to bless thee.'

Margaret went away very sad and thoughtful.

She was late for tea at home. At Helstone unpunctuality at meal-times was a great fault in her mother's eyes; but now this, as well as many other little irregularities, seemed to have lost their power of irritation, and Margaret almost longed for the old complainings.

'Have you met with a servant, dear?'

'No, mamma; that Anne Buckley would never have done.'

'Suppose I try,' said Mr. Hale. 'Everybody else has had their turn at this great difficulty. Now let me try. I may be the Cinderella to put on the slipper after all.'

Margaret could hardly smile at this little joke, so oppressed was she by her visit to the Higginses.

'What would you do, papa? How would you set about it?'

'Why, I would apply to some good house-mother to recommend me one known to herself or her servants.'

'Very good. But we must first catch our house-mother.'

'You have caught her. Or rather she is coming into the snare, and you will catch her to-morrow, if you're skilful.'

'What do you mean, Mr. Hale?' asked his wife, her curiosity aroused.

'Why, my paragon pupil (as Margaret calls him), has told me that his mother intends to call on Mrs. and Miss Hale to-morrow.'

'Mrs. Thornton!' exclaimed Mrs. Hale.

'The mother of whom he spoke to us?' said Margaret.

'Mrs. Thornton; the only mother he has, I believe,' said Mr. Hale quietly.

'I shall like to see her. She must be an uncommon person, her mother added.

'Perhaps she may have a relation who might suit us, and be glad of our place. She sounded to be such a careful economical person, that I should like any one out of the same family.'

'My dear,' said Mr. Hale alarmed. 'Pray don't go off on that idea. I fancy Mrs. Thornton is as haughty and proud in her way, as our little Margaret here is in hers, and that she completely ignores that old time of trial, and poverty, and economy, of which he speaks so openly. I am sure, at any rate, she would not like strangers to know anything about It.'

'Take notice that is not my kind of haughtiness, papa, if I have any at all; which I don't agree to, though you're always accusing me of it.'

'I don't know positively that it is hers either; but from little things I have gathered from him, I fancy so.'

They cared too little to ask in what manner her son had spoken about her. Margaret only wanted to know if she must stay in to receive this call, as it would prevent her going to see how Bessy was, until late in the day, since the early morning was always occupied in household affairs; and then she recollected that her mother must not be left to have the whole weight of entertaining her visitor.