The Moorland Cottage, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter III.

In three weeks, the day came for Edward’s departure. A great cake and a parcel of gingerbread soothed his sorrows on leaving home.

“Don’t cry, Maggie!” said he to her on the last morning; “you see I don’t. Christmas will soon be here, and I dare say I shall find time to write to you now and then. Did Nancy put any citron in the cake?”

Maggie wished she might accompany her mother to Combehurst to see Edward off by the coach; but it was not to be. She went with them, without her bonnet, as far as her mother would allow her; and then she sat down, and watched their progress for a long, long way. She was startled by the sound of a horse’s feet, softly trampling through the long heather. It was Frank Buxton’s.

“My father thought Mrs. Browne would like to see the Woodchester Herald. Is Edward gone?” said he, noticing her sad face.

“Yes! he is just gone down the hill to the coach. I dare say you can see him crossing the bridge, soon. I did so want to have gone with him,” answered she, looking wistfully toward the town.

Frank felt sorry for her, left alone to gaze after her brother, whom, strange as it was, she evidently regretted. After a minute’s silence, he said:

“You liked riding the other day. Would you like a ride now? Rhoda is very gentle, if you can sit on my saddle. Look! I’ll shorten the stirrup. There now; there’s a brave little girl! I’ll lead her very carefully. Why, Erminia durst not ride without a side-saddle! I’ll tell you what; I’ll bring the newspaper every Wednesday till I go to school, and you shall have a ride. Only I wish we had a side-saddle for Rhoda. Or, if Erminia will let me, I’ll bring Abdel–Kadr, the little Shetland you rode the other day.”

“But will Mr. Buxton let you?” asked Maggie, half delighted — half afraid.

“Oh, my father! to be sure he will. I have him in very good order.”

Maggie was rather puzzled by this way of speaking.

“When do you go to school?” asked she.

“Toward the end of August; I don’t know the day.”

“Does Erminia go to school?”

“No. I believe she will soon though, if mamma does not get better.” Maggie liked the change of voice, as he spoke of his mother.

“There, little lady! now jump down. Famous! you’ve a deal of spirit, you little brown mouse.”

Nancy came out, with a wondering look, to receive Maggie.

“It is Mr. Frank Buxton,” said she, by way of an introduction. “He has brought mamma the newspaper.”

“Will you walk in, sir, and rest? I can tie up your horse.”

“No, thank you,” said he, “I must be off. Don’t forget, little mousey, that you are to ready for another ride next Wednesday.” And away he went.

It needed a good deal of Nancy’s diplomacy to procure Maggie this pleasure; although I don’t know why Mrs. Browne should have denied it, for the circle they went was always within sight of the knoll in front of the house, if any one cared enough about the matter to mount it, and look after them. Frank and Maggie got great friends in these rides. Her fearlessness delighted and surprised him, she had seemed so cowed and timid at first. But she was only so with people, as he found out before holidays ended. He saw her shrink from particular looks and inflexions of voice of her mother’s; and learnt to read them, and dislike Mrs. Browne accordingly, notwithstanding all her sugary manner toward himself. The result of his observations he communicated to his mother, and in consequence, he was the bearer of a most civil and ceremonious message from Mrs. Buxton to Mrs. Browne, to the effect that the former would be much obliged to the latter if she would allow Maggie to ride down occasionally with the groom, who would bring the newspapers on the Wednesdays (now Frank was going to school), and to spend the afternoon with Erminia. Mrs. Browne consented, proud of the honor, and yet a little annoyed that no mention was made of herself. When Frank had bid good-bye, and fairly disappeared, she turned to Maggie.

“You must not set yourself up if you go among these fine folks. It is their way of showing attention to your father and myself. And you must mind and work doubly hard on Thursdays to make up for playing on Wednesdays.”

Maggie was in a flush of sudden color, and a happy palpitation of her fluttering little heart. She could hardly feel any sorrow that the kind Frank was going away, so brimful was she of the thoughts of seeing his mother; who had grown strangely associated in her dreams, both sleeping and waking, with the still calm marble effigies that lay for ever clasping their hands in prayer on the altar-tombs in Combehurst church. All the week was one happy season of anticipation. She was afraid her mother was secretly irritated at her natural rejoicing; and so she did not speak to her about it, but she kept awake till Nancy came to bed, and poured into her sympathizing ears every detail, real or imaginary, of her past or future intercourse with Mrs. Buxton, and the old servant listened with interest, and fell into the custom of picturing the future with the ease and simplicity of a child.

“Suppose, Nancy! only suppose, you know, that she did die. I don’t mean really die, but go into a trance like death; she looked as if she was in one when I first saw her; I would not leave her, but I would sit by her, and watch her, and watch her.”

“Her lips would be always fresh and red,” interrupted Nancy.

“Yes, I know you’ve told me before how they keep red — I should look at them quite steadily; I would try never to go to sleep.”

“The great thing would be to have air-holes left in the coffin.” But Nancy felt the little girl creep close to her at the grim suggestion, and, with the tact of love, she changed the subject.

“Or supposing we could hear of a doctor who could charm away illness. There were such in my young days; but I don’t think people are so knowledgeable now. Peggy Jackson, that lived near us when I was a girl, was cured of a waste by a charm.”

“What is a waste, Nancy?”

“It is just a pining away. Food does not nourish nor drink strengthen them, but they just fade off, and grow thinner and thinner, till their shadow looks gray instead of black at noonday; but he cured her in no time by a charm.”

“Oh, if we could find him.”

“Lass, he’s dead, and she’s dead, too, long ago!”

While Maggie was in imagination going over moor and fell, into the hollows of the distant mysterious hills, where she imagined all strange beasts and weird people to haunt, she fell asleep.

Such were the fanciful thoughts which were engendered in the little girl’s mind by her secluded and solitary life. It was more solitary than ever, now that Edward was gone to school. The house missed his loud cheerful voice, and bursting presence. There seemed much less to be done, now that his numerous wants no longer called for ministration and attendance. Maggie did her task of work on her own gray rock; but as it was sooner finished, now that he was not there to interrupt and call her off, she used to stray up the Fell Lane at the back of the house; a little steep stony lane, more like stairs cut in the rock than what we, in the level land, call a lane: it reached on to the wide and open moor, and near its termination there was a knotted thorn-tree; the only tree for apparent miles. Here the sheep crouched under the storms, or stood and shaded themselves in the noontide heat. The ground was brown with their cleft round foot-marks; and tufts of wool were hung on the lower part of the stem, like votive offerings on some shrine. Here Maggie used to come and sit and dream in any scarce half-hour of leisure. Here she came to cry, when her little heart was overfull at her mother’s sharp fault-finding, or when bidden to keep out of the way, and not be troublesome. She used to look over the swelling expanse of moor, and the tears were dried up by the soft low-blowing wind which came sighing along it. She forgot her little home griefs to wonder why a brown-purple shadow always streaked one particular part in the fullest sunlight; why the cloud-shadows always seemed to be wafted with a sidelong motion; or she would imagine what lay beyond those old gray holy hills, which seemed to bear up the white clouds of Heaven on which the angels flew abroad. Or she would look straight up through the quivering air, as long as she could bear its white dazzling, to try and see God’s throne in that unfathomable and infinite depth of blue. She thought she should see it blaze forth sudden and glorious, if she were but full of faith. She always came down from the thorn, comforted, and meekly gentle.

But there was danger of the child becoming dreamy, and finding her pleasure in life in reverie, not in action, or endurance, or the holy rest which comes after both, and prepares for further striving or bearing. Mrs. Buxton’s kindness prevented this danger just in time. It was partly out of interest in Maggie, but also partly to give Erminia a companion, that she wished the former to come down to Combehurst.

When she was on these visits, she received no regular instruction; and yet all the knowledge, and most of the strength of her character, was derived from these occasional hours. It is true her mother had given her daily lessons in reading, writing, and arithmetic; but both teacher and taught felt these more as painful duties to be gone through, than understood them as means to an end. The “There! child; now that’s done with,” of relief, from Mrs. Browne, was heartily echoed in Maggie’s breast, as the dull routine was concluded.

Mrs. Buxton did not make a set labor of teaching; I suppose she felt that much was learned from her superintendence, but she never thought of doing or saying anything with a latent idea of its indirect effect upon the little girls, her companions. She was simply herself; she even confessed (where the confession was called for) to short-comings, to faults, and never denied the force of temptations, either of those which beset little children, or of those which occasionally assailed herself. Pure, simple, and truthful to the heart’s core, her life, in its uneventful hours and days, spoke many homilies. Maggie, who was grave, imaginative, and somewhat quaint, took pains in finding words to express the thoughts to which her solitary life had given rise, secure of Mrs. Buxton’s ready understanding and sympathy.

“You are so like a cloud,” said she to Mrs. Buxton. “Up at the Thorn-tree, it was quite curious how the clouds used to shape themselves, just according as I was glad or sorry. I have seen the same clouds, that, when I came up first, looked like a heap of little snow-hillocks over babies’ graves, turn, as soon as I grew happier, to a sort of long bright row of angels. And you seem always to have had some sorrow when I am sad, and turn bright and hopeful as soon as I grow glad. Dear Mrs. Buxton! I wish Nancy knew you.”

The gay, volatile, willful, warm-hearted Erminia was less earnest in all things. Her childhood had been passed amid the distractions of wealth; and passionately bent upon the attainment of some object at one moment, the next found her angry at being reminded of the vanished anxiety she had shown but a moment before. Her life was a shattered mirror; every part dazzling and brilliant, but wanting the coherency and perfection of a whole. Mrs. Buxton strove to bring her to a sense of the beauty of completeness, and the relation which qualities and objects bear to each other; but in all her striving she retained hold of the golden clue of sympathy. She would enter into Erminia’s eagerness, if the object of it varied twenty times a day; but by-and-by, in her own mild, sweet, suggestive way, she would place all these objects in their right and fitting places, as they were worthy of desire. I do not know how it was, but all discords, and disordered fragments, seemed to fall into harmony and order before her presence.

She had no wish to make the two little girls into the same kind of pattern character. They were diverse as the lily and the rose. But she tried to give stability and earnestness to Erminia; while she aimed to direct Maggie’s imagination, so as to make it a great minister to high ends, instead of simply contributing to the vividness and duration of a reverie.

She told her tales of saints and martyrs, and all holy heroines, who forgot themselves, and strove only to be “ministers of Him, to do His pleasure.” The tears glistened in the eyes of hearer and speaker, while she spoke in her low, faint voice, which was almost choked at times when she came to the noblest part of all.

But when she found that Maggie was in danger of becoming too little a dweller in the present, from the habit of anticipating the occasion for some great heroic action, she spoke of other heroines. She told her how, though the lives of these women of old were only known to us through some striking glorious deed, they yet must have built up the temple of their perfection by many noiseless stories; how, by small daily offerings laid on the altar, they must have obtained their beautiful strength for the crowning sacrifice. And then she would turn and speak of those whose names will never be blazoned on earth — some poor maid-servant, or hard-worked artisan, or weary governess — who have gone on through life quietly, with holy purposes in their hearts, to which they gave up pleasure and ease, in a soft, still, succession of resolute days. She quoted those lines of George Herbert’s:

“All may have,
If they dare choose, a glorious life, or grave.”

And Maggie’s mother was disappointed because Mrs. Buxton had never offered to teach her “to play on the piano,” which was to her the very head and front of a genteel education. Maggie, in all her time of yearning to become Joan of Arc, or some great heroine, was unconscious that she herself showed no little heroism, in bearing meekly what she did every day from her mother. It was hard to be questioned about Mrs. Buxton, and then to have her answers turned into subjects for contempt, and fault-finding with that sweet lady’s ways.

When Ned came home for the holidays, he had much to tell. His mother listened for hours to his tales; and proudly marked all that she could note of his progress in learning. His copy-books and writing-flourishes were a sight to behold; and his account-books contained towers and pyramids of figures.

“Ay, ay!” said Mr. Buxton, when they were shown to him; “this is grand! when I was a boy I could make a flying eagle with one stroke of my pen, but I never could do all this. And yet I thought myself a fine fellow, I warrant you. And these sums! why man! I must make you my agent. I need one, I’m sure; for though I get an accountant every two or three years to do up my books, they somehow have the knack of getting wrong again. Those quarries, Mrs. Browne, which every one says are so valuable, and for the stone out of which receive orders amounting to hundreds of pounds, what d’ye think was the profit I made last year, according to my books?”

“I’m sure I don’t know, sir; something very great, I’ve no doubt.”

“Just seven-pence three farthings,” said he, bursting into a fit of merry laughter, such as another man would have kept for the announcement of enormous profits. “But I must manage things differently soon. Frank will want money when he goes to Oxford, and he shall have it. I’m but a rough sort of fellow, but Frank shall take his place as a gentleman. Aha, Miss Maggie! and where’s my gingerbread? There you go, creeping up to Mrs. Buxton on a Wednesday, and have never taught Cook how to make gingerbread yet. Well, Ned! and how are the classics going on? Fine fellow, that Virgil! Let me see, how does it begin?

‘Arma, virumque cano, Trojae qui primus ab oris.’

That’s pretty well, I think, considering I’ve never opened him since I left school thirty years ago. To be sure, I spent six hours a day at it when I was there. Come now, I’ll puzzle you. Can you construe this?

“Infir dealis, inoak noneis; inmud eelis, inclay noneis.”

“To be sure I can,” said Edward, with a little contempt in his tone. “Can you do this, sir?

“Apud in is almi des ire,
Mimis tres i neve require,
Alo veri findit a gestis,
His miseri ne ver at restis.”

But though Edward had made much progress, and gained three prizes, his moral training had been little attended to. He was more tyrannical than ever, both to his mother and Maggie. It was a drawn battle between him and Nancy, and they kept aloof from each other as much as possible. Maggie fell into her old humble way of submitting to his will, as long as it did not go against her conscience; but that, being daily enlightened by her habits of pious aspiring thought, would not allow her to be so utterly obedient as formerly. In addition to his imperiousness, he had learned to affix the idea of cleverness to various artifices and subterfuges which utterly revolted her by their meanness.

“You are so set up, by being intimate with Erminia, that you won’t do a thing I tell you; you are as selfish and self-willed as”— he made a pause. Maggie was ready to cry.

“I will do anything, Ned, that is right.”

“Well! and I tell you this is right.”

“How can it be?” said she, sadly, almost wishing to be convinced.

“How — why it is, and that’s enough for you. You must always have a reason for everything now. You are not half so nice as you were. Unless one chops logic with you, and convinces you by a long argument, you’ll do nothing. Be obedient, I tell you. That is what a woman has to be.”

“I could be obedient to some people, without knowing their reasons, even though they told me to do silly things,” said Maggie, half to herself.

“I should like to know to whom,” said Edward, scornfully.

“To Don Quixote,” answered she, seriously; for, indeed, he was present in her mind just then, and his noble, tender, melancholy character had made a strong impression there.

Edward stared at her for a moment, and then burst into a loud fit of laughter. It had the good effect of restoring him to a better frame of mind. He had such an excellent joke against his sister, that he could not be angry with her. He called her Sancho Panza all the rest of the holidays, though she protested against it, saying she could not bear the Squire, and disliked being called by his name.

Frank and Edward seemed to have a mutual antipathy to each other, and the coldness between them was rather increased than diminished by all Mr. Buxton’s efforts to bring them together. “Come, Frank, my lad!” said he, “don’t be so stiff with Ned. His father was a dear friend of mine, and I’ve set my heart on seeing you friends. You’ll have it in your power to help him on in the world.”

But Frank answered, “He is not quite honorable, sir. I can’t bear a boy who is not quite honorable. Boys brought up at those private schools are so full of tricks!”

“Nay, my lad, there thou’rt wrong. I was brought up at a private school, and no one can say I ever dirtied my hands with a trick in my life. Good old Mr. Thompson would have flogged the life out of a boy who did anything mean or underhand.”

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