A Dark Night's Work, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter VII.

Ellinor was awakened by a rapping at her door: it was her maid.

She was fully aroused in a moment, for she had fallen asleep with one clearly defined plan in her mind, only one, for all thoughts and cares having no relation to the terrible event were as though they had never been. All her purpose was to shield her father from suspicion. And to do this she must control herself — heart, mind, and body must be ruled to this one end.

So she said to Mason:

“Let me lie half an hour longer; and beg Miss Monro not to wait breakfast for me; but in half an hour bring me up a cup of strong tea, for I have a bad headache.”

Mason went away. Ellinor sprang up; rapidly undressed herself, and got into bed again, so that when her maid returned with her breakfast, there was no appearance of the night having been passed in any unusual manner.

“How ill you do look, miss!” said Mason. “I am sure you had better not get up yet.”

Ellinor longed to ask if her father had yet shown himself; but this question — so natural at any other time — seemed to her so suspicious under the circumstances, that she could not bring her lips to frame it. At any rate, she must get up and struggle to make the day like all other days. So she rose, confessing that she did not feel very well, but trying to make light of it, and when she could think of anything but the one awe, to say a trivial sentence or two. But she could not recollect how she behaved in general, for her life hitherto had been simple, and led without any consciousness of effect.

Before she was dressed, a message came up to say that Mr. Livingstone was in the drawing-room.

Mr. Livingstone! He belonged to the old life of yesterday! The billows of the night had swept over his mark on the sands of her memory; and it was only by a strong effort that she could remember who he was — what he wanted. She sent Mason down to inquire from the servant who admitted him whom it was that he had asked for.

“He asked for master first. But master has not rung for his water yet, so James told him he was not up. Then he took thought for a while, and asked could he speak to you, he would wait if you were not at liberty but that he wished particular to see either master, or you. So James asked him to sit down in the drawing-room, and he would let you know.”

“I must go,” thought Ellinor. “I will send him away directly; to come, thinking of marriage to a house like this — today, too!”

And she went down hastily, and in a hard unsparing mood towards a man, whose affection for her she thought was like a gourd, grown up in a night, and of no account, but as a piece of foolish, boyish excitement.

She never thought of her own appearance — she had dressed without looking in the glass. Her only object was to dismiss her would-be suitor as speedily as possible. All feelings of shyness, awkwardness, or maiden modesty, were quenched and overcome. In she went.

He was standing by the mantelpiece as she entered. He made a step or two forward to meet her; and then stopped, petrified, as it were, at the sight of her hard white face.

“Miss Wilkins, I am afraid you are ill! I have come too early. But I have to leave Hamley in half an hour, and I thought — Oh, Miss Wilkins! what have I done?”

For she sank into the chair nearest to her, as if overcome by his words; but, indeed, it was by the oppression of her own thoughts: she was hardly conscious of his presence.

He came a step or two nearer, as if he longed to take her in his arms and comfort and shelter her; but she stiffened herself and arose, and by an effort walked towards the fireplace, and there stood, as if awaiting what he would say next. But he was overwhelmed by her aspect of illness. He almost forgot his own wishes, his own suit, in his desire to relieve her from the pain, physical as he believed it, under which she was suffering. It was she who had to begin the subject.

“I received your letter yesterday, Mr. Livingstone. I was anxious to see you today, in order that I might prevent you from speaking to my father. I do not say anything of the kind of affection you can feel for me — me, whom you have only seen once. All I shall say is, that the sooner we both forget what I must call folly, the better.”

She took the airs of a woman considerably older and more experienced than himself. He thought her haughty; she was only miserable.

“You are mistaken,” said he, more quietly and with more dignity than was likely from his previous conduct. “I will not allow you to characterise as folly what might be presumptuous on my part — I had no business to express myself so soon — but which in its foundation was true and sincere. That I can answer for most solemnly. It is possible, though it may not be a usual thing, for a man to feel so strongly attracted by the charms and qualities of a woman, even at first sight, as to feel sure that she, and she alone, can make his happiness. My folly consisted — there you are right — in even dreaming that you could return my feelings in the slightest degree, when you had only seen me once: and I am most truly ashamed of myself. I cannot tell you how sorry I am, when I see how you have compelled yourself to come and speak to me when you are so ill.”

She staggered into a chair, for with all her wish for his speedy dismissal, she was obliged to be seated. His hand was upon the bell.

“No, don’t!” she said. “Wait a minute.”

His eyes, bent upon her with a look of deep anxiety, touched her at that moment, and she was on the point of shedding tears; but she checked herself, and rose again.

“I will go,” said he. “It is the kindest thing I can do. Only, may I write? May I venture to write and urge what I have to say more coherently?”

“No!” said she. “Don’t write. I have given you my answer. We are nothing, and can be nothing to each other. I am engaged to be married. I should not have told you if you had not been so kind. Thank you. But go now.”

The poor young man’s face fell, and he became almost as white as she was for the instant. After a moment’s reflection, he took her hand in his, and said:

“May God bless you, and him too, whoever he be! But if you want a friend, I may be that friend, may I not? and try to prove that my words of regard were true, in a better and higher sense than I used them at first.” And kissing her passive hand, he was gone and she was left sitting alone.

But solitude was not what she could bear. She went quickly upstairs, and took a strong dose of sal-volatile, even while she heard Miss Monro calling to her.

“My dear, who was that gentleman that has been closeted with you in the drawing-room all this time?”

And then, without listening to Ellinor’s reply, she went on:

“Mrs. Jackson has been here” (it was at Mrs. Jackson’s house that Mr. Dunster lodged), “wanting to know if we could tell her where Mr. Dunster was, for he never came home last night at all. And you were in the drawing-room with — who did you say he was? — that Mr. Livingstone, who might have come at a better time to bid good-bye; and he had never dined here, had he? so I don’t see any reason he had to come calling, and P. P. C.ing, and your papa not up. So I said to Mrs. Jackson, ‘I’ll send and ask Mr. Wilkins, if you like, but I don’t see any use in it, for I can tell you just as well as anybody, that Mr. Dunster is not in this house, wherever he may be.’ Yet nothing would satisfy her but that some one must go and waken up your papa, and ask if he could tell where Mr. Dunster was.”

“And did papa?” inquired Ellinor, her dry throat huskily forming the inquiry that seemed to be expected from her.

“No! to be sure not. How should Mr. Wilkins know? As I said to Mrs. Jackson, ‘Mr. Wilkins is not likely to know where Mr. Dunster spends his time when he is not in the office, for they do not move in the same rank of life, my good woman; and Mrs. Jackson apologised, but said that yesterday they had both been dining at Mr. Hodgson’s together, she believed; and somehow she had got it into her head that Mr. Dunster might have missed his way in coming along Moor Lane, and might have slipped into the canal; so she just thought she would step up and ask Mr. Wilkins if they had left Mr. Hodgson’s together, or if your papa had driven home. I asked her why she had not told me all these particulars before, for I could have asked your papa myself all about when he last saw Mr. Dunster; and I went up to ask him a second time, but he did not like it at all, for he was busy dressing, and I had to shout my questions through the door, and he could not always hear me at first.”

“What did he say?”

“Oh! he had walked part of the way with Mr. Dunster, and then cut across by the short path through the fields, as far as I could understand him through the door. He seemed very much annoyed to hear that Mr. Dunster had not been at home all night; but he said I was to tell Mrs. Jackson that he would go to the office as soon as he had had his breakfast, which he ordered to be sent up directly into his own room, and he had no doubt it would all turn out right, but that she had better go home at once. And, as I told her, she might find Mr. Dunster there by the time she got there. There, there is your I papa going out! He has not lost any time over his breakfast!”

Ellinor had taken up the Hamley Examiner, a daily paper, which lay on the table, to hide her face in the first instance; but it served a second purpose, as she glanced languidly over the columns of the advertisements.

“Oh! here are Colonel Macdonald’s orchideous plants to be sold. All the stock of hothouse and stove plants at Hartwell Priory. I must send James over to Hartwell to attend the sale. It is to last for three days.”

“But can he be spared for so long?”

“Oh, yes; he had better stay at the little inn there, to be on the spot. Three days,” and as she spoke, she ran out to the gardener, who was sweeping up the newly-mown grass in the front of the house. She gave him hasty and unlimited directions, only seeming intent — if any one had been suspiciously watching her words and actions — to hurry him off to the distant village, where the auction was to take place.

When he was once gone she breathed more freely. Now, no one but the three cognisant of the terrible reason of the disturbance of the turf under the trees in a certain spot in the belt round the flower-garden, would be likely to go into the place. Miss Monro might wander round with a book in her hand; but she never noticed anything, and was short-sighted into the bargain. Three days of this moist, warm, growing weather, and the green grass would spring, just as if life — was what it had been twenty-four hours before.

When all this was done and said, it seemed as if Ellinor’s strength and spirit sank down at once. Her voice became feeble, her aspect wan; and although she told Miss Monro that nothing was the matter, yet it was impossible for any one who loved her not to perceive that she was far from well. The kind governess placed her pupil on the sofa, covered her feet up warmly, darkened the room, and then stole out on tiptoe, fancying that Ellinor would sleep. Her eyes were, indeed, shut; but try as much as she would to be quiet, she was up in less than five minutes after Miss Monro had left the room, and walking up and down in all the restless agony of body that arises from an overstrained mind. But soon Miss Monro reappeared, bringing with her a dose of soothing medicine of her own concocting, for she was great in domestic quackery. What the medicine was Ellinor did not care to know; she drank it without any sign of her usual merry resistance to physic of Miss Monro’s ordering; and as the latter took up a book, and showed a set purpose of remaining with her patient, Ellinor was compelled to lie still, and presently fell asleep.

She awakened late in the afternoon with a start. Her father was standing over her, listening to Miss Monro’s account of her indisposition. She only caught one glimpse of his strangely altered countenance, and hid her head in the cushions — hid it from memory, not from him. For in an instant she must have conjectured the interpretation he was likely to put upon her shrinking action, and she had turned towards him, and had thrown her arms round his neck, and was kissing his cold, passive face. Then she fell back. But all this time their sad eyes never met — they dreaded the look of recollection that must be in each other’s gaze.

“There, my dear!” said Miss Monro. “Now you must lie still till I fetch you a little broth. You are better now, are not you?”

“You need not go for the broth, Miss Monro,” said Mr. Wilkins, ringing the bell. “Fletcher can surely bring it.” He dreaded the being left alone with his daughter — nor did she fear it less. She heard the strange alteration in her father’s voice, hard and hoarse, as if it was an effort to speak. The physical signs of his suffering cut her to the heart; and yet she wondered how it was that they could both be alive, or, if alive, they were not rending their garments and crying aloud. Mr. Wilkins seemed to have lost the power of careless action and speech, it is true. He wished to leave the room now his anxiety about his daughter was relieved, but hardly knew how to set about it. He was obliged to think about the veriest trifle, in order that by an effort of reason he might understand how he should have spoken or acted if he had been free from blood-guiltiness. Ellinor understood all by intuition. But henceforward the unspoken comprehension of each other’s hidden motions made their mutual presence a burdensome anxiety to each. Miss Monro was a relief; they were glad of her as a third person, unconscious of the secret which constrained them. This afternoon her unconsciousness gave present pain, although on after reflection each found in her speeches a cause of rejoicing.

“And Mr. Dunster, Mr. Wilkins, has he come home yet?”

A moment’s pause, in which Mr. Wilkins pumped the words out of his husky throat:

“I have not heard. I have been riding. I went on business to Mr. Estcourt’s. Perhaps you will be so kind as to send and inquire at Mrs. Jackson’s.”

Ellinor sickened at the words. She had been all her life a truthful plain-spoken girl. She held herself high above deceit. Yet, here came the necessity for deceit — a snare spread around her. She had not revolted so much from the deed which brought unpremeditated death, as she did from these words of her father’s. The night before, in her mad fever of affright, she had fancied that to conceal the body was all that would be required; she had not looked forward to the long, weary course of small lies, to be done and said, involved in that one mistaken action. Yet, while her father’s words made her soul revolt, his appearance melted her heart, as she caught it, half turned away from her, neither looking straight at Miss Monro, nor at anything materially visible. His hollow sunken eye seemed to Ellinor to have a vision of the dead man before it. His cheek was livid and worn, and its healthy colouring gained by years of hearty out-door exercise, was all gone into the wanness of age. His hair, even to Ellinor, seemed greyer for the past night of wretchedness. He stooped, and looked dreamily earthward, where formerly he had stood erect. It needed all the pity called forth by such observation to quench Ellinor’s passionate contempt for the course on which she and her father were embarked, when she heard him repeat his words to the servant who came with her broth.

“Fletcher! go to Mrs. Jackson’s and inquire if Mr. Dunster is come home yet. I want to speak to him.”

“To him!” lying dead where he had been laid; killed by the man who now asked for his presence. Ellinor shut her eyes, and lay back in despair. She wished she might die, and be out of this horrible tangle of events.

Two minutes after, she was conscious of her father and Miss Monro stealing softly out of the room. They thought that she slept.

She sprang off the sofa and knelt down.

“Oh, God,” she prayed, “Thou knowest! Help me! There is none other help but Thee!”

I suppose she fainted. For, an hour or more afterwards Miss Monro, coming in, found her lying insensible by the side of the sofa.

She was carried to bed. She was not delirious, she was only in a stupor, which they feared might end in delirium. To obviate this, her father sent far and wide for skilful physicians, who tended her, almost at the rate of a guinea the minute.

People said how hard it was upon Mr. Wilkins, that scarcely had that wretch Dunster gone off, with no one knows how much out of the trusts of the firm, before his only child fell ill. And, to tell the truth, he himself looked burnt and scared with affliction. He had a startled look, they said, as if he never could tell, after such experience, from which side the awful proofs of the uncertainty of earth would appear, the terrible phantoms of unforeseen dread. Both rich and poor, town and country, sympathised with him. The rich cared not to press their claims, or their business, at such a time; and only wondered, in their superficial talk after dinner, how such a good fellow as Wilkins could ever have been deceived by a man like Dunster. Even Sir Frank Holster and his lady forgot their old quarrel, and came to inquire after Ellinor, and sent her hothouse fruit by the bushel.

Mr. Corbet behaved as an anxious lover should do. He wrote daily to Miss Monro to beg for the most minute bulletins; he procured everything in town that any doctor even fancied might be of service, he came down as soon as there was the slightest hint of permission that Ellinor might see him. He overpowered her with tender words and caresses, till at last she shrank away from them, as from something too bewildering, and past all right comprehension.

But one night before this, when all windows and doors stood open to admit the least breath that stirred the sultry July air, a servant on velvet tiptoe had stolen up to Ellinor’s open door, and had beckoned out of the chamber of the sleeper the ever watchful nurse, Miss Monro.

“A gentleman wants you,” were all the words the housemaid dared to say so close to the bedroom. And softly, softly Miss Monro stepped down the stairs, into the drawing-room; and there she saw Mr. Livingstone. But she did not know him; she had never seen him before.

“I have travelled all day. I heard she was ill — was dying. May I just have one more look at her? I will not speak; I will hardly breathe. Only let me see her once again!”

“I beg your pardon, sir, but I don’t know who you are; and if you mean Miss Wilkins, by ‘her,’ she is very ill, but we hope not dying. She was very ill, indeed, yesterday; very dangerously ill, I may say, but she is having a good sleep, in consequence of a soporific medicine, and we are really beginning to hope —”

But just here Miss Monro’s hand was taken, and, to her infinite surprise, was kissed before she could remember how improper such behaviour was.

“God bless you, madam, for saying so. But if she sleeps, will you let me see her? it can do no harm, for I will tread as if on egg shells; and I have come so far — if I might just look on her sweet face. Pray, madam, let me just have one sight of her. I will not ask for more.”

But he did ask for more after he had had his wish. He stole upstairs after Miss Monro, who looked round reproachfully at him if even a nightingale sang, or an owl hooted in the trees outside the open windows, yet who paused to say herself, outside Mr. Wilkins’s chamber door,

“Her father’s room; he has not been in bed for six nights, till to-night; pray do not make a noise to waken him.” And on into the deep stillness of the hushed room, where one clear ray of hidden lamp-light shot athwart the door, where a watcher, breathing softly, sat beside the bed — where Ellinor’s dark head lay motionless on the white pillow, her face almost as white, her form almost as still. You might have heard a pin fall. After a while he moved to withdraw. Miss Monro, jealous of every sound, followed him, with steps all the more heavy because they were taken with so much care, down the stairs, back into the drawing-room. By the bed-candle flaring in the draught, she saw that there was the glittering mark of wet tears on his cheek; and she felt, as she said afterwards, “sorry for the young man.” And yet she urged him to go, for she knew that she might be wanted upstairs. He took her hand, and wrung it hard.

“Thank you. She looked so changed — oh! she looked as though she were dead. You will write — Herbert Livingstone, Langham Vicarage, Yorkshire; you will promise me to write. If I could do anything for her, but I can but pray. Oh, my darling; my darling! and I have no right to be with her.”

“Go away, there’s a good young man,” said Miss Monro, all the more pressing to hurry him out by the front door, because she was afraid of his emotion overmastering him, and making him noisy in his demonstrations. “Yes, I will write; I will write, never fear!” and she bolted the door behind him, and was thankful.

Two minutes afterwards there was a low tap; she undid the fastenings, and there he stood, pale in the moonlight.

“Please don’t tell her I came to ask about her; she might not like it.”

“No, no! not I! Poor creature, she’s not likely to care to hear anything this long while. She never roused at Mr. Corbet’s name.”

“Mr. Corbet’s!” said Livingstone, below his breath, and he turned and went away; this time for good.

But Ellinor recovered. She knew she was recovering, when day after day she felt involuntary strength and appetite return. Her body seemed stronger than her will; for that would have induced her to creep into her grave, and shut her eyes for ever on this world, so full of troubles.

She lay, for the most part, with her eyes closed, very still and quiet; but she thought with the intensity of one who seeks for lost peace, and cannot find it. She began to see that if in the mad impulses of that mad nightmare of horror, they had all strengthened each other, and dared to be frank and open, confessing a great fault, a greater disaster, a greater woe — which in the first instance was hardly a crime — their future course, though sad and sorrowful, would have been a simple and straightforward one to tread. But it was not for her to undo what was done, and to reveal the error and shame of a father. Only she, turning anew to God, in the solemn and quiet watches of the night, made a covenant, that in her conduct, her own personal individual life, she would act loyally and truthfully. And as for the future, and all the terrible chances involved in it, she would leave it in His hands — if, indeed (and here came in the Tempter), He would watch over one whose life hereafter must seem based upon a lie. Her only plea, offered “standing afar off” was, “The lie is said and done and over — it was not for my own sake. Can filial piety be so overcome by the rights of justice and truth, as to demand of me that I should reveal my father’s guilt.”

Her father’s severe sharp punishment began. He knew why she suffered, what made her young strength falter and tremble, what made her life seem nigh about to be quenched in death. Yet he could not take his sorrow and care in the natural manner. He was obliged to think how every word and deed would be construed. He fancied that people were watching him with suspicious eyes, when nothing was further from their thoughts. For once let the “public” of any place be possessed by an idea, it is more difficult to dislodge it than any one imagines who has not tried. If Mr. Wilkins had gone into Hamley market-place, and proclaimed himself guilty of the manslaughter of Mr. Dunster — nay, if he had detailed all the circumstances — the people would have exclaimed, “Poor man, he is crazed by this discovery of the unworthiness of the man he trusted so; and no wonder — it was such a thing to have done — to have defrauded his partner to such an extent, and then have made off to America!”

For many small circumstances, which I do not stop to detail here, went far to prove this, as we know, unfounded supposition; and Mr. Wilkins, who was known, from his handsome boyhood, through his comely manhood, up to the present time, by all the people in Hamley, was an object of sympathy and respect to every one who saw him, as he passed by, old, and lorn, and haggard before his time, all through the evil conduct of one, London-bred, who was as a hard, unlovely stranger to the popular mind of this little country town.

Mr. Wilkins’s own servants liked him. The workings of his temptations were such as they could understand. If he had been hot-tempered he had also been generous, or I should rather say careless and lavish with his money. And now that he was cheated and impoverished by his partner’s delinquency, they thought it no wonder that he drank long and deep in the solitary evenings which he passed at home. It was not that he was without invitations. Every one came forward to testify their respect for him by asking him to their houses. He had probably never been so universally popular since his father’s death. But, as he said, he did not care to go into society while his daughter was so ill — he had no spirits for company.

But if any one had cared to observe his conduct at home, and to draw conclusions from it, they could have noticed that, anxious as he was about Ellinor, he rather avoided than sought her presence, now that her consciousness and memory were restored. Nor did she ask for, or wish for him. The presence of each was a burden to the other. Oh, sad and woeful night of May — overshadowing the coming summer months with gloom and bitter remorse!

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