A Dark Night's Work, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XI.

In a few days Miss Monro obtained a most satisfactory reply to her letter of inquiries as to whether a daily governess could find employment in East Chester. For once the application seemed to have come just at the right time. The canons were most of them married men, with young families; those at present in residence welcomed the idea of such instruction as Miss Monro could offer for their children, and could almost answer for their successors in office. This was a great step gained. Miss Monro, the daughter of a precentor to this very cathedral, had a secret unwillingness to being engaged as a teacher by any wealthy tradesman there; but to be received into the canons’ families, in almost any capacity, was like going home. Moreover, besides the empty honour of the thing, there were many small pieces of patronage in the gift of the Chapter — such as a small house opening on to the Close, which had formerly belonged to the verger, but which was now vacant, and was offered to Miss Monro at a nominal rent.

Ellinor had once more sunk into her old depressed passive state; Mr. Ness and Miss Monro, modest and undecided as they both were in general, had to fix and arrange everything for her. Her great interest seemed to be in the old servant Dixon, and her great pleasure to lie in seeing him, and talking over old times; so her two friends talked about her, little knowing what a bitter, stinging pain her “pleasure” was. In vain Ellinor tried to plan how they could take Dixon with them to East Chester. If he had been a woman it would have been a feasible step; but they were only to keep one servant, and Dixon, capable and versatile as he was, would not do for that servant. All this was what passed through Ellinor’s mind: it is still a question whether Dixon would have felt his love of his native place, with all its associations and remembrances, or his love for Ellinor, the stronger. But he was not put to the proof; he was only told that he must leave, and seeing Ellinor’s extreme grief at the idea of their separation, he set himself to comfort her by every means in his power, reminding her, with tender choice of words, how necessary it was that he should remain on the spot, in Mr. Osbaldistone’s service, in order to frustrate, by any small influence he might have, every project of alteration in the garden that contained the dreadful secret. He persisted in this view, though Ellinor repeated, with pertinacious anxiety, the care which Mr. Johnson had taken, in drawing up the lease, to provide against any change or alteration being made in the present disposition of the house or grounds.

People in general were rather astonished at the eagerness Miss Wilkins showed to sell all the Ford Bank furniture. Even Miss Monro was a little scandalized at this want of sentiment, although she said nothing about it; indeed justified the step, by telling every one how wisely Ellinor was acting, as the large, handsome, tables and chairs would be very much out of place and keeping with the small, oddly-shaped rooms of their future home in East Chester Close. None knew how strong was the instinct of self-preservation, it may almost be called, which impelled Ellinor to shake off, at any cost of present pain, the incubus of a terrible remembrance. She wanted to go into an unhaunted dwelling in a free, unknown country — she felt as if it was her only chance of sanity. Sometimes she thought her senses would not hold together till the time when all these arrangements were ended. But she did not speak to any one about her feelings, poor child; to whom could she speak on the subject but to Dixon? Nor did she define them to herself. All she knew was, that she was as nearly going mad as possible; and if she did, she feared that she might betray her father’s guilt. All this time she never cried, or varied from her dull, passive demeanour. And they were blessed tears of relief that she shed when Miss Monro, herself weeping bitterly, told her to put her head out of the post-chaise window, for at the next turning of the road they would catch the last glimpse of Hamley church spire.

Late one October evening, Ellinor had her first sight of East Chester Close, where she was to pass the remainder of her life. Miss Monro had been backwards and forwards between Hamley and East Chester more than once, while Ellinor remained at the parsonage; so she had not only the pride of proprietorship in the whole of the beautiful city, but something of the desire of hospitably welcoming Ellinor to their joint future home.

“Look! the fly must take us a long round, because of our luggage; but behind these high old walls are the canons’ gardens. That high-pitched roof, with the clumps of stonecrop on the walls near it, is Canon Wilson’s, whose four little girls I am to teach. Hark! the great cathedral clock. How proud I used to be of its great boom when I was a child! I thought all the other church clocks in the town sounded so shrill and poor after that, which I considered mine especially. There are rooks flying home to the elms in the Close. I wonder if they are the same that used to be there when I was a girl. They say the rook is a very long-lived bird, and I feel as if I could swear to the way they are cawing. Ay, you may smile, Ellinor, but I understand now those lines of Gray’s you used to say so prettily —

“I feel the gales that from ye blow.

A momentary bliss bestow,

   And breathe a second spring.”

Now, dear, you must get out. This flagged walk leads to our front-door; but our back rooms, which are the pleasantest, look on to the Close, and the cathedral, and the lime-tree walk, and the deanery, and the rookery.”

It was a mere slip of a house; the kitchen being wisely placed close to the front-door, and so reserving the pretty view for the little dining-room, out of which a glass-door opened into a small walled-in garden, which had again an entrance into the Close. Upstairs was a bedroom to the front, which Miss Monro had taken for herself, because as she said, she had old associations with the back of every house in the High-street, while Ellinor mounted to the pleasant chamber above the tiny drawing-room both of which looked on to the vast and solemn cathedral, and the peaceful dignified Close. East Chester Cathedral is Norman, with a low, massive tower, a grand, majestic nave, and a choir full of stately historic tombs. The whole city is so quiet and decorous a place, that the perpetual daily chants and hymns of praise seemed to sound far and wide over the roofs of the houses. Ellinor soon became a regular attendant at all the morning and evening services. The sense of worship calmed and soothed her aching weary heart, and to be punctual to the cathedral hours she roused and exerted herself, when probably nothing else would have been sufficient to this end.

By-and-by Miss Monro formed many acquaintances; she picked up, or was picked up by, old friends, and the descendants of old friends. The grave and kindly canons, whose children she taught, called upon her with their wives, and talked over the former deans and chapters, of whom she had both a personal and traditional knowledge, and as they walked away and talked about her silent delicate-looking friend Miss Wilkins, and perhaps planned some little present out of their fruitful garden or bounteous stores, which should make Miss Monro’s table a little more tempting to one apparently so frail as Ellinor, for the household was always spoken of as belonging to Miss Monro, the active and prominent person. By-and-by, Ellinor herself won her way to their hearts, not by words or deeds, but by her sweet looks and meek demeanour, as they marked her regular attendance at cathedral service: and when they heard of her constant visits to a certain parochial school, and of her being sometimes seen carrying a little covered basin to the cottages of the poor, they began to try and tempt her, with more urgent words, to accompany Miss Monro in her frequent tea-drinkings at their houses. The old dean, that courteous gentleman and good Christian, had early become great friends with Ellinor. He would watch at the windows of his great vaulted library till he saw her emerge from the garden into the Close, and then open the deanery door, and join her, she softly adjusting the measure of her pace to his. The time of his departure from East Chester became a great blank in her life, although she would never accept, or allow Miss Monro to accept, his repeated invitations to go and pay him a visit at his country-place. Indeed, having once tasted comparative peace again in East Chester Cathedral Close, it seemed as though she was afraid of ever venturing out of those calm precincts. All Mr. Ness’s invitations to visit him at his parsonage at Hamley were declined, although he was welcomed at Miss Monro’s, on the occasion of his annual visit, by every means in their power. He slept at one of the canon’s vacant houses, and lived with his two friends, who made a yearly festivity, to the best of their means, in his honour, inviting such of the cathedral clergy as were in residence: or, if they failed, condescending to the town clergy. Their friends knew well that no presents were so acceptable as those sent while Mr. Ness was with them; and from the dean, who would send them a hamper of choice fruit and flowers from Oxton Park, down to the curate, who worked in the same schools as Ellinor, and who was a great fisher, and caught splendid trout — all did their best to help them to give a welcome to the only visitor they ever had. The only visitor they ever had, as far as the stately gentry knew. There was one, however, who came as often as his master could give him a holiday long enough to undertake a journey to so distant a place; but few knew of his being a guest at Miss Monro’s, though his welcome there was not less hearty than Mr. Ness’s — this was Dixon. Ellinor had convinced him that he could give her no greater pleasure at any time than by allowing her to frank him to and from East Chester. Whenever he came they were together the greater part of the day; she taking him hither and thither to see all the sights that she thought would interest or please him; but they spoke very little to each other during all this companionship. Miss Monro had much more to say to him. She questioned him right and left whenever Ellinor was out of the room. She learnt that the house at Ford Bank was splendidly furnished, and no money spared on the garden; that the eldest Miss Hanbury was very well married; that Brown had succeeded to Jones in the haberdasher’s shop. Then she hesitated a little before making her next inquiry:

“I suppose Mr. Corbet never comes to the Parsonage now?”

“No, not he. I don’t think as how Mr. Ness would have him; but they write letters to each other by times. Old Job — you’ll recollect old Job, ma’am, he that gardened for Mr Ness, and waited in the parlour when there was company — did say as one day he heerd them speaking about Mr. Corbet; and he’s a grand counsellor now — one of them as goes about at assize-time, and speaks in a wig.”

“A barrister, you mean,” said Miss Monro.

“Ay; and he’s something more than that, though I can’t rightly remember what,”

Ellinor could have told them both. They had The Times lent to them on the second day after publication by one of their friends in the Close, and Ellinor, watching till Miss Monro’s eyes were otherwise engaged, always turned with trembling hands and a beating heart to the reports of the various courts of law. In them she found — at first rarely — the name she sought for, the name she dwelt upon, as if every letter were a study. Mr. Losh and Mr. Duncombe appeared for the plaintiff, Mr. Smythe and Mr. Corbet for the defendant. In a year or two that name appeared more frequently, and generally took the precedence of the other, whatever it might be; then on special occasions his speeches were reported at full length, as if his words were accounted weighty; and by-and-by she saw that he had been appointed a Queen’s counsel. And this was all she ever heard or saw about him; his once familiar name never passed her lips except in hurried whispers to Dixon, when he came to stay with them. Ellinor had had no idea when she parted from Mr. Corbet how total the separation between them was henceforward to be, so much seemed left unfinished, unexplained. It was so difficult, at first, to break herself of the habit of constant mental reference to him; and for many a long year she kept thinking that surely some kind fortune would bring them together again, and all this heart-sickness and melancholy estrangement from each other would then seem to both only as an ugly dream that had passed away in the morning light.

The dean was an old man, but there was a canon who was older still, and whose death had been expected by many, and speculated upon by some, any time for ten years at least. Canon Holdsworth was too old to show active kindness to any one; the good dean’s life was full of thoughtful and benevolent deeds. But he was taken, and the other left. Ellinor looked out at the vacant deanery with tearful eyes, the last thing at night, the first in the morning. But it is pretty nearly the same with church dignitaries as with kings; the dean is dead, long live the dean! A clergyman from a distant county was appointed, and all the Close was astir to learn and hear every particular connected with him. Luckily he came in at the tag-end of one of the noble families in the peerage; so, at any rate, all his future associates could learn with tolerable certainty that he was forty-two years of age, married, and with eight daughters and one son. The deanery, formerly so quiet and sedate a dwelling of the one old man, was now to be filled with noise and merriment. Iron railings were being placed before three windows, evidently to be the nursery. In the summer publicity of open windows and doors, the sound of the busy carpenters was perpetually heard all over the Close: and by-and-by waggon-loads of furniture and carriage-loads of people began to arrive. Neither Miss Monro nor Ellinor felt themselves of sufficient importance or station to call on the new comers, but they were as well acquainted with the proceedings of the family as if they had been in daily intercourse; they knew that the eldest Miss Beauchamp was seventeen, and very pretty, only one shoulder was higher than the other; that she was dotingly fond of dancing, and talked a great deal in a tete-a-tete, but not much if her mamma was by, and never opened her lips at all if the dean was in the room; that the next sister was wonderfully clever, and was supposed to know all the governess could teach her, and to have private lessons in Greek and mathematics from her father; and so on down to the little boy at the preparatory school and the baby-girl in arms. Moreover, Miss Monro, at any rate, could have stood an examination as to the number of servants at the deanery, their division of work, and the hours of their meals. Presently, a very beautiful, haughty-looking young lady made her appearance in the Close, and in the dean’s pew. She was said to be his niece, the orphan daughter of his brother, General Beauchamp, come to East Chester to reside for the necessary time before her marriage, which was to be performed in the cathedral by her uncle, the new dignitary. But as callers at the deanery did not see this beautiful bride elect, and as the Beauchamps had not as yet fallen into habits of intimacy with any of their new acquaintances, very little was known of the circumstances of this approaching wedding beyond the particulars given above.

Ellinor and Miss Monro sat at their drawing-room window, a little shaded by the muslin curtains, watching the busy preparations for the marriage, which was to take place the next day. All morning long, hampers of fruit and flowers, boxes from the railway — for by this time East Chester had got a railway — shop messengers, hired assistants, kept passing backwards and forwards in the busy Close. Towards afternoon the bustle subsided, the scaffolding was up, the materials for the next day’s feast carried out of sight. It was to be concluded that the bride elect was seeing to the packing of her trousseau, helped by the merry multitude of cousins, and that the servants were arranging the dinner for the day, or the breakfast for the morrow. So Miss Monro had settled it, discussing every detail and every probability as though she were a chief actor, instead of only a distant, uncared-for spectator of the coming event. Ellinor was tired, and now that there was nothing interesting going on, she had fallen back to her sewing, when she was startled by Miss Memo’s exclamation:

“Look, look! here are two gentlemen coming along the lime-tree walk! it must be the bridegroom and his friend.” Out of much sympathy, and some curiosity, Ellinor bent forward, and saw, just emerging from the shadow of the trees on to the full afternoon sunlit pavement, Mr. Corbet and another gentleman; the former changed, worn, aged, though with still the same fine intellectual face, leaning on the arm of the younger taller man, and talking eagerly. The other gentleman was doubtless the bridegroom, Ellinor said to herself; and yet her prophetic heart did not believe her words. Even before the bright beauty at the deanery looked out of the great oriel window of the drawing-room, and blushed, and smiled, and kissed her hand — a gesture replied to by Mr. Corbet with much empressement, while the other man only took off his hat, almost as if he saw her there for the first time — Ellinor’s greedy eyes watched him till he was hidden from sight in the deanery, unheeding Miss Monro’s eager incoherent sentences, in turn entreating, apologising, comforting, and upbraiding. Then she slowly turned her painful eyes upon Miss Monro’s face, and moved her lips without a sound being heard, and fainted dead away. In all her life she had never done so before, and when she came round she was not like herself; in all probability the persistence and wilfulness she, who was usually so meek and docile, showed during the next twenty-four hours, was the consequence of fever. She resolved to be present at the wedding; numbers were going; she would be unseen, unnoticed in the crowd; but whatever befell, go she would, and neither the tears nor the prayers of Miss Monro could keep her back. She gave no reason for this determination; indeed, in all probability she had none to give; so there was no arguing the point. She was inflexible to entreaty, and no one had any authority over her, except, perhaps, distant Mr. Ness. Miss Monro had all sorts of forebodings as to the possible scenes that might come to pass. But all went on as quietly as though the fullest sympathy pervaded every individual of the great numbers assembled. No one guessed that the muffled, veiled figure, sitting in the shadow behind one of the great pillars, was that of one who had once hoped to stand at the altar with the same bridegroom, who now cast tender looks at the beautiful bride; her veil white and fairy-like, Ellinor’s black and shrouding as that of any nun.

Already Mr. Corbet’s name was known through the country as that of a great lawyer; people discussed his speeches and character far and wide; and the well-informed in legal gossip spoke of him as sure to be offered a judgeship at the next vacancy. So he, though grave, and middle-aged, and somewhat grey, divided attention and remark with his lovely bride, and her pretty train of cousin bridesmaids. Miss Monro need not have feared for Ellinor: she saw and heard all things as in a mist — a dream; as something she had to go through, before she could waken up to a reality of brightness in which her youth, and the hopes of her youth, should be restored, and all these weary years of dreaminess and woe should be revealed as nothing but the nightmare of a night. She sat motionless enough, still enough, Miss Monro by her, watching her as intently as a keeper watches a madman, and with the same purpose — to prevent any outburst even by bodily strength, if such restraint be needed. When all was over; when the principal personages of the ceremony had filed into the vestry to sign their names; when the swarm of townspeople were going out as swiftly as their individual notions of the restraints of the sacred edifice permitted; when the great chords of the “Wedding March” clanged out from the organ, and the loud bells pealed overhead — Ellinor laid her hand in Miss Monro’s. “Take me home,” she said softly. And Miss Monro led her home as one leads the blind.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:18