A Dark Night's Work, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter VIII.

Still youth prevailed over all. Ellinor got well, as I have said, even when she would fain have died. And the afternoon came when she left her room. Miss Monro would gladly have made a festival of her recovery, and have had her conveyed into the unused drawing-room. But Ellinor begged that she might be taken into the library — into the schoolroom — anywhere (thought she) not looking on the side of the house on the flower-garden, which she had felt in all her illness as a ghastly pressure lying within sight of those very windows, through which the morning sun streamed right upon her bed — like the accusing angel, bringing all hidden things to light.

And when Ellinor was better still, when the Bath-chair had been sent up for her use, by some kindly old maid, out of Hamley, she still petitioned that it might be kept on the lawn or town side of the house, away from the flower-garden.

One day she almost screamed, when, as she was going to the front door, she saw Dixon standing ready to draw her, instead of Fletcher the servant who usually went. But she checked all demonstration of feeling; although it was the first time she had seen him since he and she and one more had worked their hearts out in hard bodily labour.

He looked so stern and ill! Cross, too, which she had never seen him before.

As soon as they were out of immediate sight of the windows, she asked him to stop, forcing herself to speak to him.

“Dixon, you look very poorly,” she said, trembling as she spoke.

“Ay!” said he. “We didn’t think much of it at the time, did we, Miss Nelly? But it’ll be the death on us, I’m thinking. It has aged me above a bit. All my fifty years afore were but as a forenoon of child’s play to that night. Measter, too — I could a-bear a good deal, but measter cuts through the stable-yard, and past me, wi’out a word, as if I was poison, or a stinking foumart. It’s that as is worst, Miss Nelly, it is.”

And the poor man brushed some tears from his eyes with the back of his withered, furrowed hand. Ellinor caught the infection, and cried outright, sobbed like a child, even while she held out her little white thin hand to his grasp. For as soon as he saw her emotion, he was penitent for what he had said.

“Don’t now — don’t,” was all he could think of to say.

“Dixon!” said she at length, “you must not mind it. You must try not to mind it. I see he does not like to be reminded of that, even by seeing me. He tries never to be alone with me. My poor old Dixon, it has spoilt my life for me; for I don’t think he loves me any more.”

She sobbed as if her heart would break; and now it was Dixon’s turn to be comforter.

“Ah, dear, my blessing, he loves you above everything. It’s only he can’t a-bear the sight of us, as is but natural. And if he doesn’t fancy being alone with you, there’s always one as does, and that’s a comfort at the worst of times. And don’t ye fret about what I said a minute ago. I were put out because measter all but pushed me out of his way this morning, without never a word. But I were an old fool for telling ye. And I’ve really forgotten why I told Fletcher I’d drag ye a bit about today. Th’ gardener is beginning for to wonder as you don’t want to see th’ annuals and bedding-out things as you were so particular about in May. And I thought I’d just have a word wi’ ye, and then if you’d let me, we’d go together just once round the flower-garden, just to say you’ve been, you know, and to give them chaps a bit of praise. You’ll only have to look on the beds, my pretty, and it must be done some time. So come along!”

He began to pull resolutely in the direction of the flower-garden. Ellinor bit her lips to keep in the cry of repugnance that rose to them. As Dixon stopped to unlock the door, he said:

“It’s not hardness, nothing like it; I’ve waited till I heerd you were better; but it’s in for a penny in for a pound wi’ us all; and folk may talk; and bless your little brave heart, you’ll stand a deal for your father’s sake, and so will I, though I do feel it above a bit, when he puts out his hand as if to keep me off, and I only going to speak to him about Clipper’s knees; though I’ll own I had wondered many a day when I was to have the good-morrow master never missed sin’ he were a boy till — Well! and now you’ve seen the beds, and can say they looked mighty pretty, and is done all as you wished; and we’re got out again, and breathing fresher air than yon sunbaked hole, with its smelling flowers, not half so wholesome to snuff at as good stable-dung.”

So the good man chatted on; not without the purpose of giving Ellinor time to recover herself; and partly also to drown his own cares, which lay heavier on his heart than he could say. But he thought himself rewarded by Ellinor’s thanks, and warm pressure of his hard hand as she got out at the front door, and bade him good-by.

The break to her days of weary monotony was the letters she constantly received from Mr. Corbet. And yet here again lurked the sting. He was all astonishment and indignation at Mr. Dunster’s disappearance, or rather flight, to America. And now that she was growing stronger, he did not scruple to express curiosity respecting the details, never doubting but that she was perfectly acquainted with much that he wanted to know; although he had too much delicacy to question her on the point which was most important of all in his eyes, namely, how far it had affected Mr. Wilkins’s worldly prospects; for the report prevalent in Hamley had reached London, that Mr. Dunster had made away with, or carried off, trust property to a considerable extent, for all which Mr. Wilkins would of course be liable.

It was hard work for Ralph Corbet to keep from seeking direct information on this head from Mr. Ness, or, indeed, from Mr. Wilkins himself. But he restrained himself, knowing that in August he should be able to make all these inquiries personally. Before the end of the long vacation he had hoped to marry Ellinor: that was the time which had been planned by them when they had met in the early spring before her illness and all this misfortune happened. But now, as he wrote to his father, nothing could be definitely arranged until he had paid his visit to Hamley, and seen the state of affairs.

Accordingly one Saturday in August, he came to Ford Bank, this time as a visitor to Ellinor’s home, instead of to his old quarters at Mr. Ness’s.

The house was still as if asleep in the full heat of the afternoon sun, as Mr. Corbet drove up. The window-blinds were down; the front door wide open, great stands of heliotrope and roses and geraniums stood just within the shadow of the hall; but through all the silence his approach seemed to excite no commotion. He thought it strange that he had not been watched for, that Ellinor did not come running out to meet him, that she allowed Fletcher to come and attend to his luggage, and usher him into the library just like any common visitor, any morning-caller. He stiffened himself up into a moment’s indignant coldness of manner. But it vanished in an instant when, on the door being opened, he saw Ellinor standing holding by the table, looking for his appearance with almost panting anxiety. He thought of nothing then but her evident weakness, her changed looks, for which no account of her illness had prepared him. For she was deadly white, lips and all; and her dark eyes seemed unnaturally enlarged, while the caves in which they were set were strangely deep and hollow. Her hair, too, had been cut off pretty closely; she did not usually wear a cap, but with some faint idea of making herself look better in his eye, she had put on one this day, and the effect was that she seemed to be forty years of age; but one instant after he had come in, her pale face was flooded with crimson, and her eyes were full of tears. She had hard work to keep herself from going into hysterics, but she instinctively knew how much he would hate a scene, and she checked herself in time.

“Oh,” she murmured, “I am so glad to see you; it is such a comfort, such an infinite pleasure.” And so she went on, cooing out words over him, and stroking his hair with her thin fingers; while he rather tried to avert his eyes, he was so much afraid of betraying how much he thought her altered.

But when she came down, dressed for dinner, this sense of her change was diminished to him. Her short brown hair had already a little wave, and was ornamented by some black lace; she wore a large black lace shawl — it had been her mother’s of old — over some delicate-coloured muslin dress; her face was slightly flushed, and had the tints of a wild rose; her lips kept pale and trembling with involuntary motion, it is true; and as the lovers stood together, hand in hand, by the window, he was aware of a little convulsive twitching at every noise, even while she seemed gazing in tranquil pleasure on the long smooth slope of the newly-mown lawn, stretching down to the little brook that prattled merrily over the stones on its merry course to Hamley town.

He felt a stronger twitch than ever before; even while his ear, less delicate than hers, could distinguish no peculiar sound. About two minutes after Mr. Wilkins entered the room. He came up to Mr. Corbet with a warm welcome: some of it real, some of it assumed. He talked volubly to him, taking little or no notice of Ellinor, who dropped into the background, and sat down on the sofa by Miss Monro; for on this day they were all to dine together. Ralph Corbet thought that Mr. Wilkins was aged; but no wonder, after all his anxiety of various kinds: Mr. Dunster’s flight and reported defalcations, Ellinor’s illness, of the seriousness of which her lover was now convinced by her appearance.

He would fain have spoken more to her during the dinner that ensued, but Mr. Wilkins absorbed all his attention, talking and questioning on subjects that left the ladies out of the conversation almost perpetually. Mr. Corbet recognised his host’s fine tact, even while his persistence in talking annoyed him. He was quite sure that Mr. Wilkins was anxious to spare his daughter any exertion beyond that — to which, indeed, she seemed scarely equal — of sitting at the head of the table. And the more her father talked — so fine an observer was Mr. Corbet — the more silent and depressed Ellinor appeared. But by-and-by he accounted for this inverse ratio of gaiety, as he perceived how quickly Mr. Wilkins had his glass replenished. And here, again, Mr. Corbet drew his conclusions, from the silent way in which, without a word or a sign from his master, Fletcher gave him more wine continually — wine that was drained off at once.

“Six glasses of sherry before dessert,” thought Mr. Corbet to himself. “Bad habit — no wonder Ellinor looks grave.” And when the gentlemen were left alone, Mr. Wilkins helped himself even still more freely; yet without the slightest effect on the clearness and brilliancy of his conversation. He had always talked well and racily, that Ralph knew, and in this power he now recognised a temptation to which he feared that his future father-inlaw had succumbed. And yet, while he perceived that this gift led into temptation, he coveted it for himself; for he was perfectly aware that this fluency, this happy choice of epithets, was the one thing he should fail in when he began to enter into the more active career of his profession. But after some time spent in listening, and admiring, with this little feeling of envy lurking in the background, Mr. Corbet became aware of Mr. Wilkins’s increasing confusion of ideas, and rather unnatural merriment; and, with a sudden revulsion from admiration to disgust, he rose up to go into the library, where Ellinor and Miss Monro were sitting. Mr. Wilkins accompanied him, laughing and talking somewhat loudly. Was Ellinor aware of her father’s state? Of that Mr. Corbet could not be sure. She looked up with grave sad eyes as they came into the room, but with no apparent sensation of surprise, annoyance, or shame. When her glance met her father’s, Mr. Corbet noticed that it seemed to sober the latter immediately. He sat down near the open window, and did not speak, but sighed heavily from time to time. Miss Monro took up a book, in order to leave the young people to themselves; and after a little low murmured conversation, Ellinor went upstairs to put on her things for a stroll through the meadows by the river-side.

They were sometimes sauntering along in the lovely summer twilight, now resting on some grassy hedge-row bank, or standing still, looking at the great barges, with their crimson sails, lazily floating down the river, making ripples on the glassy opal surface of the water. They did not talk very much; Ellinor seemed disinclined for the exertion; and her lover was thinking over Mr. Wilkins’s behaviour, with some surprise and distaste of the habit so evidently growing upon him.

They came home, looking serious and tired: yet they could not account for their fatigue by the length of their walk, and Miss Monro, forgetting Autolycus’s song, kept fidgeting about Ellinor, and wondering how it was she looked so pale, if she had only been as far as the Ash Meadow. To escape from this wonder, Ellinor went early to bed. Mr. Wilkins was gone, no one knew where, and Ralph and Miss Monro were left to a half-hour’s tete-a-tete. He thought he could easily account for Ellinor’s languor, if, indeed, she had perceived as much as he had done of her father’s state, when they had come into the library after dinner. But there were many details which he was anxious to hear from a comparatively indifferent person, and as soon as he could, he passed on from the conversation about Ellinor’s health, to inquiries as to the whole affair of Mr. Dunster’s disappearance.

Next to her anxiety about Ellinor, Miss Monro liked to dilate on the mystery connected with Mr. Dunster’s flight; for that was the word she employed without hesitation, as she gave him the account of the event universally received and believed in by the people of Hamley. How Mr. Dunster had never been liked by any one; how everybody remembered that he could never look them straight in the face; how he always seemed to be hiding something that he did not want to have known; how he had drawn a large sum (exact quantity unknown) out of the county bank only the day before he left Hamley, doubtless in preparation for his escape; how some one had told Mr. Wilkins he had seen a man just like Dunster lurking about the docks at Liverpool, about two days after he had left his lodgings, but that this some one, being in a hurry, had not cared to stop and speak to the man; how that the affairs in the office were discovered to be in such a sad state that it was no wonder that Mr. Dunster had absconded — he that had been so trusted by poor dear Mr. Wilkins. Money gone no one knew how or where.

“But has he no friends who can explain his proceedings, and account for the missing money, in some way?” asked Mr. Corbet.

“No, none. Mr. Wilkins has written everywhere, right and left, I believe. I know he had a letter from Mr. Dunster’s nearest relation — a tradesman in the City — a cousin, I think, and he could give no information in any way. He knew that about ten years ago Mr. Dunster had had a great fancy for going to America, and had read a great many travels — all just what a man would do before going off to a country.”

“Ten years is a long time beforehand,” said Mr. Corbet, half smiling; “shows malice prepense with a vengeance.” But then, turning grave, he said: “Did he leave Hamley in debt?”

“No; I never heard of that,” said Miss Monro, rather unwillingly, for she considered it as a piece of loyalty to the Wilkinses, whom Mr. Dunster had injured (as she thought) to blacken his character as much as was consistent with any degree of truth.

“It is a strange story,” said Mr. Corbet, musing.

“Not at all,” she replied, quickly; “I am sure, if you had seen the man, with one or two side-locks of hair combed over his baldness, as if he were ashamed of it, and his eyes that never looked at you, and his way of eating with his knife when he thought he was not observed — oh, and numbers of things! — you would not think it strange.”

Mr. Corbet smiled.

“I only meant that he seems to have had no extravagant or vicious habits which would account for his embezzlement of the money that is missing — but, to be sure, money in itself is a temptation — only he, being a partner, was in a fair way of making it without risk to himself. Has Mr. Wilkins taken any steps to have him arrested in America? He might easily do that.”

“Oh, my dear Mr. Ralph, you don’t know our good Mr. Wilkins! He would rather bear the loss, I am sure, and all this trouble and care which it has brought upon him, than be revenged upon Mr. Dunster.”

“Revenged! What nonsense! It is simple justice — justice to himself and to others — to see that villainy is so sufficiently punished as to deter others from entering upon such courses. But I have little doubt Mr. Wilkins has taken the right steps; he is not the man to sit down quietly under such a loss.”

“No, indeed! he had him advertised in the Times and in the county papers, and offered a reward of twenty pounds for information concerning him.”

“Twenty pounds was too little.”

“So I said. I told Ellinor that I would give twenty pounds myself to have him apprehended, and she, poor darling! fell a-trembling, and said, ‘I would give all I have — I would give my life.’ And then she was in such distress, and sobbed so, I promised her I would never name it to her again.”

“Poor child — poor child! she wants change of scene. Her nerves have been sadly shaken by her illness.”

The next day was Sunday; Ellinor was to go to church for the first time since her illness. Her father had decided it for her, or else she would fain have stayed away — she would hardly acknowledge why, even to herself, but it seemed to her as if the very words and presence of God must there search her and find her out.

She went early, leaning on the arm of her lover, and trying to forget the past in the present. They walked slowly along between the rows of waving golden corn ripe for the harvest. Mr. Corbet gathered blue and scarlet flowers, and made up a little rustic nosegay for her. She took and stuck it in her girdle, smiling faintly as she did so.

Hamley Church had, in former days, been collegiate, and was, in consequence, much larger and grander than the majority of country-town churches. The Ford Bank pew was a square one, downstairs; the Ford Bank servants sat in a front pew in the gallery, right before their master. Ellinor was “hardening her heart” not to listen, not to hearken to what might disturb the wound which was just being skinned over, when she caught Dixon’s face up above. He looked worn, sad, soured, and anxious to a miserable degree; but he was straining eyes and ears, heart and soul, to hear the solemn words read from the pulpit, as if in them alone he could find help in his strait. Ellinor felt rebuked and humbled.

She was in a tumultuous state of mind when they left church; she wished to do her duty, yet could not ascertain what it was. Who was to help her with wisdom and advice? Assuredly he to whom her future life was to be trusted. But the case must be stated in an impersonal form. No one, not even her husband, must ever know anything against her father from her. Ellinor was so artless herself, that she had little idea how quickly and easily some people can penetrate motives, and combine disjointed sentences. She began to speak to Ralph on their slow, sauntering walk homewards through the quiet meadows:

“Suppose, Ralph, that a girl was engaged to be married —”

“I can very easily suppose that, with you by me,” said he, filling up her pause.

“Oh! but I don’t mean myself at all,” replied she, reddening. “I am only thinking of what might happen; and suppose that this girl knew of some one belonging to her — we will call it a brother — who had done something wrong, that would bring disgrace upon the whole family if it was known — though, indeed, it might not have been so very wrong as it seemed, and as it would look to the world — ought she to break off her engagement for fear of involving her lover in the disgrace?”

“Certainly not, without telling him her reason for doing so.”

“Ah! but suppose she could not. She might not be at liberty to do so.”

“I can’t answer supposititious cases. I must have the facts — if facts there are — more plainly before me before I can give an opinion. Who are you thinking of, Ellinor?” asked he, rather abruptly.

“Oh, of no one,” she answered in affright. “Why should I be thinking of any one? I often try to plan out what I should do, or what I ought to do, if such and such a thing happened, just as you recollect I used to wonder if I should have presence of mind in case of fire.”

“Then, after all, you yourself are the girl who is engaged, and who has the imaginary brother who gets into disgrace?”

“Yes, I suppose so,” said she, a little annoyed at having betrayed any personal interest in the affair.

He was silent, meditating.

“There is nothing wrong in it,” said she, timidly, “is there?”

“I think you had better tell me fully out what is in your mind,” he replied, kindly. “Something has happened which has suggested these questions. Are you putting yourself in the place of any one about whom you have been hearing lately? I know you used to do so formerly, when you were a little girl.”

“No; it was a very foolish question of mine, and I ought not to have said anything about it. See! here is Mr. Ness overtaking us.”

The clergyman joined them on the broad walk that ran by the river-side, and the talk became general. It was a relief to Ellinor, who had not attained her end, but who had gone far towards betraying something of her own individual interest in the question she had asked. Ralph had been more struck even by her manner than her words. He was sure that something lurked behind, and had an idea of his own that it was connected with Dunster’s disappearance. But he was glad that Mr. Ness’s joining them gave him leisure to consider a little.

The end of his reflections was, that the next day, Monday, he went into the town, and artfully learnt all he could hear about Mr Dunster’s character and mode of going on; and with still more skill he extracted the popular opinion as to the embarrassed nature of Mr. Wilkins’s affairs — embarrassment which was generally attributed to Dunster’s disappearance with a good large sum belonging to the firm in his possession. But Mr. Corbet thought otherwise; he had accustomed himself to seek out the baser motives for men’s conduct, and to call the result of these researches wisdom. He imagined that Dunster had been well paid by Mr. Wilkins for his disappearance, which was an easy way of accounting for the derangement of accounts and loss of money that arose, in fact, from Mr. Wilkins’s extravagance of habits and growing intemperance.

On the Monday afternoon he said to Ellinor, “Mr. Ness interrupted us yesterday in a very interesting conversation. Do you remember, love?”

Ellinor reddened and kept her head still more intently bent over a sketch she was making.

“Yes; I recollect.”

“I have been thinking about it. I still think she ought to tell her lover that such disgrace hung over him — I mean, over the family with whom he was going to connect himself. Of course, the only effect would be to make him stand by her still more for her frankness.”

“Oh! but, Ralph, it might perhaps be something she ought not to tell, whatever came of her silence.”

“Of course there might be all sorts of cases. Unless I knew more I could not pretend to judge.”

This was said rather more coolly. It had the desired effect. Ellinor laid down her brush, and covered her face with her hand. After a pause, she turned towards him and said:

“I will tell you this; and more you must not ask me. I know you are as safe as can be. I am the girl, you are the lover, and possible shame hangs over my father, if something — oh, so dreadful” (here she blanched), “but not so very much his fault, is ever found out.”

Though this was nothing more than he expected, though Ralph thought that he was aware what the dreadful something might be, yet, when it was acknowledged in words, his heart contracted, and for a moment he forgot the intent, wistful, beautiful face, creeping close to his to read his expression aright. But after that his presence of mind came in aid. He took her in his arms and kissed her; murmuring fond words of sympathy, and promises of faith, nay, even of greater love than before, since greater need she might have of that love. But somehow he was glad when the dressing-bell rang, and in the solitude of his own room he could reflect on what he had heard; for the intelligence had been a great shock to him, although he had fancied that his morning’s inquiries had prepared him for it.

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