North and South/Chapter XXX

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North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter XXX: Home at last
The saddest birds a season find to sing.
SOUTHWELL.

Never to fold the robe o'er secret pain,
Never, weighed down by memory's clouds again,
To bow thy head! Thou art gone home!
MRS. HEMANS.

Mrs. Thornton came to see Mrs. Hale the next morning. She was much worse. One of those sudden changes--those great visible strides towards death, had been taken in the night, and her own family were startled by the gray sunken look her features had assumed in that one twelve hours of suffering. Mrs. Thornton--who had not seen her for weeks--was softened all at once. She had come because her son asked it from her as a personal favour, but with all the proud bitter feelings of her nature in arms against that family of which Margaret formed one. She doubted the reality of Mrs. Hale's illness; she doubted any want beyond a momentary fancy on that lady's part, which should take her out of her previously settled course of employment for the day. She told her son that she wished they had never come near the place; that he had never got acquainted with them; that there had been no such useless languages as Latin and Greek ever invented. He bore all this pretty silently; but when she had ended her invective against the dead languages, he quietly returned to the short, curt, decided expression of his wish that she should go and see Mrs. Hale at the time appointed, as most likely to be convenient to the invalid. Mrs. Thornton submitted with as bad a grace as she could to her son's desire, all the time liking him the better for having it; and exaggerating in her own mind the same notion that he had of extraordinary goodness on his part in so perseveringly keeping up with the Hales.

His goodness verging on weakness (as all the softer virtues did in her mind), and her own contempt for Mr. and Mrs. Hale, and positive dislike to Margaret, were the ideas which occupied Mrs. Thornton, till she was struck into nothingness before the dark shadow of the wings of the angel of death. There lay Mrs. Hale--a mother like herself--a much younger woman than she was,--on the bed from which there was no sign of hope that she might ever rise again No more variety of light and shade for her in that darkened room; no power of action, scarcely change of movement; faint alternations of whispered sound and studious silence; and yet that monotonous life seemed almost too much! When Mrs. Thornton, strong and prosperous with life, came in, Mrs. Hale lay still, although from the look on her face she was evidently conscious of who it was. But she did not even open her eyes for a minute or two. The heavy moisture of tears stood on the eye-lashes before she looked up, then with her hand groping feebly over the bed-clothes, for the touch of Mrs. Thornton's large firm fingers, she said, scarcely above her breath--Mrs. Thornton had to stoop from her erectness to listen,--

'Margaret--you have a daughter--my sister is in Italy. My child will be without a mother;--in a strange place,--if I die--will you'----

And her filmy wandering eyes fixed themselves with an intensity of wistfulness on Mrs. Thornton's face For a minute, there was no change in its rigidness; it was stern and unmoved;--nay, but that the eyes of the sick woman were growing dim with the slow-gathering tears, she might have seen a dark cloud cross the cold features. And it was no thought of her son, or of her living daughter Fanny, that stirred her heart at last; but a sudden remembrance, suggested by something in the arrangement of the room,--of a little daughter--dead in infancy--long years ago--that, like a sudden sunbeam, melted the icy crust, behind which there was a real tender woman.

'You wish me to be a friend to Miss Hale,' said Mrs. Thornton, in her measured voice, that would not soften with her heart, but came out distinct and clear.

Mrs. Hale, her eyes still fixed on Mrs. Thornton's face, pressed the hand that lay below hers on the coverlet. She could not speak. Mrs. Thornton sighed, 'I will be a true friend, if circumstances require it Not a tender friend. That I cannot be,'--('to her,' she was on the point of adding, but she relented at the sight of that poor, anxious face.)--'It is not my nature to show affection even where I feel it, nor do I volunteer advice in general. Still, at your request,--if it will be any comfort to you, I will promise you.' Then came a pause. Mrs. Thornton was too conscientious to promise what she did not mean to perform; and to perform any-thing in the way of kindness on behalf of Margaret, more disliked at this moment than ever, was difficult; almost impossible.

'I promise,' said she, with grave severity; which, after all, inspired the dying woman with faith as in something more stable than life itself,--flickering, flitting, wavering life! 'I promise that in any difficulty in which Miss Hale'----

'Call her Margaret!' gasped Mrs. Hale.

'In which she comes to me for help, I will help her with every power I have, as if she were my own daughter. I also promise that if ever I see her doing what I think is wrong'----

'But Margaret never does wrong--not wilfully wrong,' pleaded Mrs. Hale. Mrs. Thornton went on as before; as if she had not heard:

'If ever I see her doing what I believe to be wrong--such wrong not touching me or mine, in which case I might be supposed to have an interested motive--I will tell her of it, faithfully and plainly, as I should wish my own daughter to be told.'

There was a long pause. Mrs. Hale felt that this promise did not include all; and yet it was much. It had reservations in it which she did not understand; but then she was weak, dizzy, and tired. Mrs. Thornton was reviewing all the probable cases in which she had pledged herself to act. She had a fierce pleasure in the idea of telling Margaret unwelcome truths, in the shape of performance of duty. Mrs. Hale began to speak:

'I thank you. I pray God to bless you. I shall never see you again in this world. But my last words are, I thank you for your promise of kindness to my child.'

'Not kindness!' testified Mrs. Thornton, ungraciously truthful to the last. But having eased her conscience by saying these words, she was not sorry that they were not heard. She pressed Mrs. Hale's soft languid hand; and rose up and went her way out of the house without seeing a creature.

During the time that Mrs. Thornton was having this interview with Mrs. Hale, Margaret and Dixon were laying their heads together, and consulting how they should keep Frederick's coming a profound secret to all out of the house. A letter from him might now be expected any day; and he would assuredly follow quickly on its heels. Martha must be sent away on her holiday; Dixon must keep stern guard on the front door, only admitting the few visitors that ever came to the house into Mr. Hale's room down-stairs--Mrs. Hale's extreme illness giving her a good excuse for this. If Mary Higgins was required as a help to Dixon in the kitchen she was to hear and see as little of Frederick as possible; and he was, if necessary to be spoken of to her under the name of Mr. Dickinson. But her sluggish and incurious nature was the greatest safeguard of all.

They resolved that Martha should leave them that very afternoon for this visit to her mother. Margaret wished that she had been sent away on the previous day, as she fancied it might be thought strange to give a servant a holiday when her mistress's state required so much attendance.

Poor Margaret! All that afternoon she had to act the part of a Roman daughter, and give strength out of her own scanty stock to her father. Mr. Hale would hope, would not despair, between the attacks of his wife's malady; he buoyed himself up in every respite from her pain, and believed that it was the beginning of ultimate recovery. And so, when the paroxysms came on, each more severe than the last, they were fresh agonies, and greater disappointments to him. This afternoon, he sat in the drawing-room, unable to bear the solitude of his study, or to employ himself in any way. He buried his head in his arms, which lay folded on the table. Margaret's heart ached to see him; yet, as he did not speak, she did not like to volunteer any attempt at comfort. Martha was gone. Dixon sat with Mrs. Hale while she slept. The house was very still and quiet, and darkness came on, without any movement to procure candles. Margaret sat at the window, looking out at the lamps and the street, but seeing nothing,--only alive to her father's heavy sighs. She did not like to go down for lights, lest the tacit restraint of her presence being withdrawn, he might give way to more violent emotion, without her being at hand to comfort him. Yet she was just thinking that she ought to go and see after the well-doing of the kitchen fire, which there was nobody but herself to attend to when she heard the muffled door-ring with so violent a pull, that the wires jingled all through the house, though the positive sound was not great. She started up, passed her father, who had never moved at the veiled, dull sound,--returned, and kissed him tenderly. And still he never moved, nor took any notice of her fond embrace. Then she went down softly, through the dark, to the door. Dixon would have put the chain on before she opened it, but Margaret had not a thought of fear in her pre-occupied mind. A man's tall figure stood between her and the luminous street. He was looking away; but at the sound of the latch he turned quickly round.

'Is this Mr. Hale's?' said he, in a clear, full, delicate voice.

Margaret trembled all over; at first she did not answer. In a moment she sighed out,

'Frederick!' and stretched out both her hands to catch his, and draw him in.

'Oh, Margaret!' said he, holding her off by her shoulders, after they had kissed each other, as if even in that darkness he could see her face, and read in its expression a quicker answer to his question than words could give,--

'My mother! is she alive?'

'Yes, she is alive, dear, dear brother! She--as ill as she can be she is; but alive! She is alive!'

'Thank God!' said he.

'Papa is utterly prostrate with this great grief.'

'You expect me, don't you?'

'No, we have had no letter.'

'Then I have come before it. But my mother knows I am coming?'

'Oh! we all knew you would come. But wait a little! Step in here. Give me your hand. What is this? Oh! your carpet-bag. Dixon has shut the shutters; but this is papa's study, and I can take you to a chair to rest yourself for a few minutes; while I go and tell him.'

She groped her way to the taper and the lucifer matches. She suddenly felt shy, when the little feeble light made them visible. All she could see was, that her brother's face was unusually dark in complexion, and she caught the stealthy look of a pair of remarkably long-cut blue eyes, that suddenly twinkled up with a droll consciousness of their mutual purpose of inspecting each other. But though the brother and sister had an instant of sympathy in their reciprocal glances, they did not exchange a word; only, Margaret felt sure that she should like her brother as a companion as much as she already loved him as a near relation. Her heart was wonderfully lighter as she went up-stairs; the sorrow was no less in reality, but it became less oppressive from having some one in precisely the same relation to it as that in which she stood. Not her father's desponding attitude had power to damp her now. He lay across the table, helpless as ever; but she had the spell by which to rouse him. She used it perhaps too violently in her own great relief.

'Papa,' said she, throwing her arms fondly round his neck; pulling his weary head up in fact with her gentle violence, till it rested in her arms, and she could look into his eyes, and let them gain strength and assurance from hers.

'Papa! guess who is here!'

He looked at her; she saw the idea of the truth glimmer into their filmy sadness, and be dismissed thence as a wild imagination.

He threw himself forward, and hid his face once more in his stretched-out arms, resting upon the table as heretofore. She heard him whisper; she bent tenderly down to listen. 'I don't know. Don't tell me it is Frederick--not Frederick. I cannot bear it,--I am too weak. And his mother is dying!'He began to cry and wail like a child. It was so different to all which Margaret had hoped and expected, that she turned sick with disappointment, and was silent for an instant. Then she spoke again--very differently--not so exultingly, far more tenderly and carefully.

'Papa, it is Frederick! Think of mamma, how glad she will be! And oh, for her sake, how glad we ought to be! For his sake, too,--our poor, poor boy!'

Her father did not change his attitude, but he seemed to be trying to understand the fact.

'Where is he?' asked he at last, his face still hidden in his prostrate arms.

'In your study, quite alone. I lighted the taper, and ran up to tell you. He is quite alone, and will be wondering why--'

'I will go to him,' broke in her father; and he lifted himself up and leant on her arm as on that of a guide.

Margaret led him to the study door, but her spirits were so agitated that she felt she could not bear to see the meeting. She turned away, and ran up-stairs, and cried most heartily. It was the first time she had dared to allow herself this relief for days. The strain had been terrible, as she now felt. But Frederick was come! He, the one precious brother, was there, safe, amongst them again! She could hardly believe it. She stopped her crying, and opened her bedroom door. She heard no sound of voices, and almost feared she might have dreamt. She went down-stairs, and listened at the study door. She heard the buzz of voices; and that was enough. She went into the kitchen, and stirred up the fire, and lighted the house, and prepared for the wanderer's refreshment. How fortunate it was that her mother slept! She knew that she did, from the candle-lighter thrust through the keyhole of her bedroom door. The traveller could be refreshed and bright, and the first excitement of the meeting with his father all be over, before her mother became aware of anything unusual.

When all was ready, Margaret opened the study door, and went in like a serving-maiden, with a heavy tray held in her extended arms. She was proud of serving Frederick. But he, when he saw her, sprang up in a minute, and relieved her of her burden. It was a type, a sign, of all the coming relief which his presence would bring. The brother and sister arranged the table together, saying little, but their hands touching, and their eyes speaking the natural language of expression, so intelligible to those of the same blood. The fire had gone out; and Margaret applied herself to light it, for the evenings had begun to be chilly; and yet it was desirable to make all noises as distant as possible from Mrs. Hale's room.

'Dixon says it is a gift to light a fire; not an art to be acquired.'

'Poeta nascitur, non fit,' murmured Mr. Hale; and Margaret was glad to hear a quotation once more, however languidly given.

'Dear old Dixon! How we shall kiss each other!' said Frederick. 'She used to kiss me, and then look in my face to be sure I was the right person, and then set to again! But, Margaret, what a bungler you are! I never saw such a little awkward, good-for-nothing pair of hands. Run away, and wash them, ready to cut bread-and-butter for me, and leave the fire. I'll manage it. Lighting fires is one of my natural accomplishments.'

So Margaret went away; and returned; and passed in and out of the room, in a glad restlessness that could not be satisfied with sitting still. The more wants Frederick had, the better she was pleased; and he understood all this by instinct. It was a joy snatched in the house of mourning, and the zest of it was all the more pungent, because they knew in the depths of their hearts what irremediable sorrow awaited them.

In the middle, they heard Dixon's foot on the stairs. Mr. Hale started from his languid posture in his great armchair, from which he had been watching his children in a dreamy way, as if they were acting some drama of happiness, which it was pretty to look at, but which was distinct from reality, and in which he had no part. He stood up, and faced the door, showing such a strange, sudden anxiety to conceal Frederick from the sight of any person entering, even though it were the faithful Dixon, that a shiver came over Margaret's heart: it reminded her of the new fear in their lives. She caught at Frederick's arm, and clutched it tight, while a stern thought compressed her brows, and caused her to set her teeth. And yet they knew it was only Dixon's measured tread. They heard her walk the length of the passage, into the kitchen. Margaret rose up.

I will go to her, and tell her. And I shall hear how mamma is.' Mrs. Hale was awake. She rambled at first; but after they had given her some tea she was refreshed, though not disposed to talk. It was better that the night should pass over before she was told of her son's arrival. Dr. Donaldson's appointed visit would bring nervous excitement enough for the evening; and he might tell them how to prepare her for seeing Frederick. He was there, in the house; could be summoned at any moment.

Margaret could not sit still. It was a relief to her to aid Dixon in all her preparations for 'Master Frederick.' It seemed as though she never could be tired again. Each glimpse into the room where he sate by his father, conversing with him, about, she knew not what, nor cared to know,--was increase of strength to her. Her own time for talking and hearing would come at last, and she was too certain of this to feel in a hurry to grasp it now. She took in his appearance and liked it. He had delicate features, redeemed from effeminacy by the swarthiness of his complexion, and his quick intensity of expression. His eyes were generally merry-looking, but at times they and his mouth so suddenly changed, and gave her such an idea of latent passion, that it almost made her afraid. But this look was only for an instant; and had in it no doggedness, no vindictiveness; it was rather the instantaneous ferocity of expression that comes over the countenances of all natives of wild or southern countries--a ferocity which enhances the charm of the childlike softness into which such a look may melt away. Margaret might fear the violence of the impulsive nature thus occasionally betrayed, but there was nothing in it to make her distrust, or recoil in the least, from the new-found brother. On the contrary, all their intercourse was peculiarly charming to her from the very first. She knew then how much responsibility she had had to bear, from the exquisite sensation of relief which she felt in Frederick's presence. He understood his father and mother--their characters and their weaknesses, and went along with a careless freedom, which was yet most delicately careful not to hurt or wound any of their feelings. He seemed to know instinctively when a little of the natural brilliancy of his manner and conversation would not jar on the deep depression of his father, or might relieve his mother's pain. Whenever it would have been out of tune, and out of time, his patient devotion and watchfulness came into play, and made him an admirable nurse. Then Margaret was almost touched into tears by the allusions which he often made to their childish days in the New Forest; he had never forgotten her--or Helstone either--all the time he had been roaming among distant countries and foreign people. She might talk to him of the old spot, and never fear tiring him. She had been afraid of him before he came, even while she had longed for his coming; seven or eight years had, she felt, produced such great changes in herself that, forgetting how much of the original Margaret was left, she had reasoned that if her tastes and feelings had so materially altered, even in her stay-at-home life, his wild career, with which she was but imperfectly acquainted, must have almost substituted another Frederick for the tall stripling in his middy's uniform, whom she remembered looking up to with such admiring awe. But in their absence they had grown nearer to each other in age, as well as in many other things. And so it was that the weight, this sorrowful time, was lightened to Margaret. Other light than that of Frederick's presence she had none. For a few hours, the mother rallied on seeing her son. She sate with his hand in hers; she would not part with it even while she slept; and Margaret had to feed him like a baby, rather than that he should disturb her mother by removing a finger. Mrs. Hale wakened while they were thus engaged; she slowly moved her head round on the pillow, and smiled at her children, as she understood what they were doing, and why it was done.

'I am very selfish,' said she; 'but it will not be for long.' Frederick bent down and kissed the feeble hand that imprisoned his.

This state of tranquillity could not endure for many days, nor perhaps for many hours; so Dr. Donaldson assured Margaret. After the kind doctor had gone away, she stole down to Frederick, who, during the visit, had been adjured to remain quietly concealed in the back parlour, usually Dixon's bedroom, but now given up to him.

Margaret told him what Dr. Donaldson said.

'I don't believe it,' he exclaimed. 'She is very ill; she may be dangerously ill, and in immediate danger, too; but I can't imagine that she could be as she is, if she were on the point of death. Margaret! she should have some other advice--some London doctor. Have you never thought of that?'

'Yes,' said Margaret, 'more than once. But I don't believe it would do any good. And, you know, we have not the money to bring any great London surgeon down, and I am sure Dr. Donaldson is only second in skill to the very best,--if, indeed, he is to them.'

Frederick began to walk up and down the room impatiently.

'I have credit in Cadiz,' said he, 'but none here, owing to this wretched change of name. Why did my father leave Helstone? That was the blunder.'

'It was no blunder,' said Margaret gloomily. 'And above all possible chances, avoid letting papa hear anything like what you have just been saying. I can see that he is tormenting himself already with the idea that mamma would never have been ill if we had stayed at Helstone, and you don't know papa's agonising power of self-reproach!'

Frederick walked away as if he were on the quarter-deck. At last he stopped right opposite to Margaret, and looked at her drooping and desponding attitude for an instant.

'My little Margaret!' said he, caressing her. 'Let us hope as long as we can. Poor little woman! what! is this face all wet with tears? I will hope. I will, in spite of a thousand doctors. Bear up, Margaret, and be brave enough to hope!'

Margaret choked in trying to speak, and when she did it was very low.

'I must try to be meek enough to trust. Oh, Frederick! mamma was getting to love me so! And I was getting to understand her. And now comes death to snap us asunder!'

'Come, come, come! Let us go up-stairs, and do something, rather than waste time that may be so precious. Thinking has, many a time, made me sad, darling; but doing never did in all my life. My theory is a sort of parody on the maxim of "Get money, my son, honestly if you can; but get money." My precept is, "Do something, my sister, do good if you can; but, at any rate, do something."'

'Not excluding mischief,' said Margaret, smiling faintly through her tears.

'By no means. What I do exclude is the remorse afterwards. Blot your misdeeds out (if you are particularly conscientious), by a good deed, as soon as you can; just as we did a correct sum at school on the slate, where an incorrect one was only half rubbed out. It was better than wetting our sponge with our tears; both less loss of time where tears had to be waited for, and a better effect at last.'

If Margaret thought Frederick's theory rather a rough one at first, she saw how he worked it out into continual production of kindness in fact. After a bad night with his mother (for he insisted on taking his turn as a sitter-up) he was busy next morning before breakfast, contriving a leg-rest for Dixon, who was beginning to feel the fatigues of watching. At breakfast-time, he interested Mr. Hale with vivid, graphic, rattling accounts of the wild life he had led in Mexico, South America, and elsewhere. Margaret would have given up the effort in despair to rouse Mr. Hale out of his dejection; it would even have affected herself and rendered her incapable of talking at all. But Fred, true to his theory, did something perpetually; and talking was the only thing to be done, besides eating, at breakfast.

Before the night of that day, Dr. Donaldson's opinion was proved to be too well founded. Convulsions came on; and when they ceased, Mrs. Hale was unconscious. Her husband might lie by her shaking the bed with his sobs; her son's strong arms might lift her tenderly up into a comfortable position; her daughter's hands might bathe her face; but she knew them not. She would never recognise them again, till they met in Heaven.

Before the morning came all was over.

Then Margaret rose from her trembling and despondency, and became as a strong angel of comfort to her father and brother. For Frederick had broken down now, and all his theories were of no use to him. He cried so violently when shut up alone in his little room at night, that Margaret and Dixon came down in affright to warn him to be quiet: for the house partitions were but thin, and the next-door neighbours might easily hear his youthful passionate sobs, so different from the slower trembling agony of after-life, when we become inured to grief, and dare not be rebellious against the inexorable doom, knowing who it is that decrees.

Margaret sate with her father in the room with the dead. If he had cried, she would have been thankful. But he sate by the bed quite quietly; only, from time to time, he uncovered the face, and stroked it gently, making a kind of soft inarticulate noise, like that of some mother-animal caressing her young. He took no notice of Margaret's presence. Once or twice she came up to kiss him; and he submitted to it, giving her a little push away when she had done, as if her affection disturbed him from his absorption in the dead. He started when he heard Frederick's cries, and shook his head:--'Poor boy! poor boy!' he said, and took no more notice. Margaret's heart ached within her. She could not think of her own loss in thinking of her father's case. The night was wearing away, and the day was at hand, when, without a word of preparation, Margaret's voice broke upon the stillness of the room, with a clearness of sound that startled even herself: 'Let not your heart be troubled,' it said; and she went steadily on through all that chapter of unspeakable consolation.