The Moorland Cottage, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter VI.

It was true of Mr. Buxton, as well as of his son, that he had the seeds of imperiousness in him. His life had not been such as to call them out into view. With more wealth than he required; with a gentle wife, who if she ruled him never showed it, or was conscious of the fact herself; looked up to by his neighbors, a simple affectionate set of people, whose fathers had lived near his father and grandfather in the same kindly relation, receiving benefits cordially given, and requiting them with good will and respectful attention: such had been the circumstances surrounding him; and until his son grew out of childhood, there had not seemed a wish which he had it not in his power to gratify as soon as formed. Again, when Frank was at school and at college, all went on prosperously; he gained honors enough to satisfy a far more ambitious father. Indeed, it was the honors he gained that stimulated his father’s ambition. He received letters from tutors, and headmasters, prophesying that, if Frank chose, he might rise to the “highest honors in church or state;” and the idea thus suggested, vague as it was, remained, and filled Mr. Buxton’s mind; and, for the first time in his life, made him wish that his own career had been such as would have led him to form connections among the great and powerful. But, as it was, his shyness and gêne, from being unaccustomed to society, had made him averse to Frank’s occasional requests that he might bring such and such a school-fellow, or college-chum, home on a visit. Now he regretted this, on account of the want of those connections which might thus have been formed; and, in his visions, he turned to marriage as the best way of remedying this. Erminia was right in saying that her uncle had thought of Lady Adela Castlemayne for an instant; though how the little witch had found it out I cannot say, as the idea had been dismissed immediately from his mind.

He was wise enough to see its utter vanity, as long as his son remained undistinguished. But his hope was this. If Frank married Erminia, their united property (she being her father’s heiress) would justify him in standing for the shire; or if he could marry the daughter of some leading personage in the county, it might lead to the same step; and thus at once he would obtain a position in parliament, where his great talents would have scope and verge enough. Of these two visions, the favorite one (for his sister’s sake) was that of marriage with Erminia.

And, in the midst of all this, fell, like a bombshell, the intelligence of his engagement with Maggie Browne; a good sweet little girl enough, but without fortune or connection — without, as far as Mr. Buxton knew, the least power, or capability, or spirit, with which to help Frank on in his career to eminence in the land! He resolved to consider if as a boyish fancy, easily to be suppressed; and pooh-poohed it down, to Frank, accordingly. He remarked his son’s set lips, and quiet determined brow, although he never spoke in a more respectful tone, than while thus steadily opposing his father. If he had shown more violence of manner, he would have irritated him less; but, as it was, if was the most miserable interview that had ever taken place between the father and son.

Mr. Buxton tried to calm himself down with believing that Frank would change his mind, if he saw more of the world; but, somehow, he had a prophesying distrust of this idea internally. The worst was, there was no fault to be found with Maggie herself, although she might want the accomplishments he desired to see in his son’s wife. Her connections, too, were so perfectly respectable (though humble enough in comparison with Mr. Buxton’s soaring wishes), that there was nothing to be objected to on that score; her position was the great offence. In proportion to his want of any reason but this one, for disapproving of the engagement, was his annoyance under it. He assumed a reserve toward Frank; which was so unusual a restraint upon his open, genial disposition, that it seemed to make him irritable toward all others in contact with him, excepting Erminia. He found it difficult to behave rightly to Maggie. Like all habitually cordial persons, he went into the opposite extreme, when he wanted to show a little coolness. However angry he might be with the events of which she was the cause, she was too innocent and meek to justify him in being more than cool; but his awkwardness was so great, that many a man of the world has met his greatest enemy, each knowing the other’s hatred, with less freezing distance of manner than Mr. Buxton’s to Maggie. While she went simply on in her own path, loving him the more through all, for old kindness’ sake, and because he was Frank’s father, he shunned meeting her with such evident and painful anxiety, that at last she tried to spare him the encounter, and hurried out of church, or lingered behind all, in order to avoid the only chance they now had of being forced to speak; for she no longer went to the dear house in Combehurst, though Erminia came to see her more than ever.

Mrs. Browne was perplexed and annoyed beyond measure. She upbraided Mr. Buxton to every one but Maggie. To her she said —“Any one in their senses might have foreseen what had happened, and would have thought well about it, before they went and fell in love with a young man of such expectations as Mr. Frank Buxton.”

In the middle of all this dismay, Edward came over from Woodchester for a day or two. He had been told of the engagement, in a letter from Maggie herself; but if was too sacred a subject for her to enlarge upon to him; and Mrs. Browne was no letter writer. So this was his first greeting to Maggie; after kissing her:

“Well, Sancho, you’ve done famously for yourself. As soon as I got your letter I said to Harry Bish —‘Still waters run deep; here’s my little sister Maggie, as quiet a creature as ever lived, has managed to catch young Buxton, who has five thousand a-year if he’s a penny.’ Don’t go so red, Maggie. Harry was sure to hear of if soon from some one, and I see no use in keeping it secret, for it gives consequence to us all.”

“Mr. Buxton is quite put out about it,” said Mrs. Brown, querulously; “and I’m sure he need not be, for he’s enough of money, if that’s what he wants; and Maggie’s father was a clergyman, and I’ve seen ‘yeoman,’ with my own eyes, on old Mr. Buxton’s (Mr. Lawrence’s father’s) carts; and a clergyman is above a yeoman any day. But if Maggie had had any thought for other people, she’d never have gone and engaged herself, when she might have been sure it would give offence. We are never asked down to dinner now. I’ve never broken bread there since last Christmas.”

“Whew!” said Edward to this. It was a disappointed whistle; but he soon cheered up. “I thought I could have lent a hand in screwing old Buxton up about the settlements; but I see it’s not come to that yet. Still I’ll go and see the old gentleman. I’m a bit of a favorite of his, and I doubt I can turn him round.”

“Pray, Edward, don’t go,” said Maggie. “Frank and I are content to wait; and I’m sure we would rather not have any one speak to Mr. Buxton, upon a subject which evidently gives him so much pain; please, Edward, don’t!”

“Well, well. Only I must go about this property of his. Besides, I don’t mean to get into disgrace; so I shan’t seem to know anything about it, if it would make him angry. I want to keep on good terms, because of the agency. So, perhaps, I shall shake my head, and think it great presumption in you, Maggie, to have thought of becoming his daughter-inlaw. If I can do you no good, I may as well do myself some.”

“I hope you won’t mention me at all,” she replied.

One comfort (and almost the only one arising from Edward’s visit) was, that she could now often be spared to go up to the thorn-tree, and calm down her anxiety, and bring all discords into peace, under the sweet influences of nature. Mrs. Buxton had tried to teach her the force of the lovely truth, that the “melodies of the everlasting chime” may abide in the hearts of those who ply their daily task in towns, and crowded populous places; and that solitude is not needed by the faithful for them to feel the immediate presence of God; nor utter stillness of human sound necessary, before they can hear the music of His angels’ footsteps; but, as yet, her soul was a young disciple; and she felt it easier to speak to Him, and come to Him for help, sitting lonely, with wild moors swelling and darkening around her, and not a creature in sight but the white specks of distant sheep, and the birds that shun the haunts of men, floating in the still mid-air.

She sometimes longed to go to Mr. Buxton and tell him how much she could sympathize with him, if his dislike to her engagement arose from thinking her unworthy of his son. Frank’s character seemed to her grand in its promise. With vehement impulses and natural gifts, craving worthy employment, his will sat supreme over all, like a young emperor calmly seated on his throne, whose fiery generals and wise counsellors stand alike ready to obey him. But if marriage were to be made by due measurement and balance of character, and if others, with their scales, were to be the judges, what would become of all the beautiful services rendered by the loyalty of true love? Where would be the raising up of the weak by the strong? or the patient endurance? or the gracious trust of her:

“Whose faith is fixt and cannot move;
She darkly feels him great and wise,
She dwells on him with faithful eyes,
‘I cannot understand: I love.’”

Edward’s manners and conduct caused her more real anxiety than anything else. Indeed, no other thoughtfulness could be called anxiety compared to this. His faults, she could not but perceive, were strengthening with his strength, and growing with his growth. She could not help wondering whence he obtained the money to pay for his dress, which she thought was of a very expensive kind. She heard him also incidentally allude to “runs up to town,” of which, at the time, neither she nor her mother had been made aware. He seemed confused when she questioned him about these, although he tried to laugh it off; and asked her how she, a country girl, cooped up among one set of people, could have any idea of the life it was necessary for a man to lead who “had any hope of getting on in the world.” He must have acquaintances and connections, and see something of life, and make an appearance. She was silenced, but not satisfied. Nor was she at ease with regard to his health. He looked ill, and worn; and, when he was not rattling and laughing, his face fell into a shape of anxiety and uneasiness, which was new to her in it. He reminded her painfully of an old German engraving she had seen in Mrs. Buxton’s portfolio, called, “Pleasure digging a Grave;” Pleasure being represented by a ghastly figure of a young man, eagerly industrious over his dismal work.

A few days after he went away, Nancy came to her in her bed-room.

“Miss Maggie,” said she, “may I just speak a word?” But when the permission was given, she hesitated.

“It’s none of my business, to be sure,” said she at last: “only, you see, I’ve lived with your mother ever since she was married; and I care a deal for both you and Master Edward. And I think he drains Missus of her money; and it makes me not easy in my mind. You did not know of it, but he had his father’s old watch when he was over last time but one; I thought he was of an age to have a watch, and that it was all natural. But, I reckon he’s sold it, and got that gimcrack one instead. That’s perhaps natural too. Young folks like young fashions. But, this time, I think he has taken away your mother’s watch; at least, I’ve never seen it since he went. And this morning she spoke to me about my wages. I’m sure I’ve never asked for them, nor troubled her; but I’ll own it’s now near on to twelve months since she paid me; and she was as regular as clock-work till then. Now, Miss Maggie don’t look so sorry, or I shall wish I had never spoken. Poor Missus seemed sadly put about, and said something as I did not try to hear; for I was so vexed she should think I needed apologies, and them sort of things. I’d rather live with you without wages than have her look so shame-faced as she did this morning. I don’t want a bit for money, my dear; I’ve a deal in the Bank. But I’m afeard Master Edward is spending too much, and pinching Missus.”

Maggie was very sorry indeed. Her mother had never told her anything of all this, so it was evidently a painful subject to her; and Maggie determined (after lying awake half the night) that she would write to Edward, and remonstrate with him; and that in every personal and household expense, she would be, more than ever, rigidly economical.

The full, free, natural intercourse between her lover and herself, could not fail to be checked by Mr. Buxton’s aversion to the engagement. Frank came over for some time in the early autumn. He had left Cambridge, and intended to enter himself at the Temple as soon as the vacation was ended. He had not been very long at home before Maggie was made aware, partly through Erminia, who had no notion of discreet silence on any point, and partly by her own observation, of the increasing estrangement between father and son. Mr. Buxton was reserved with Frank for the first time in his life; and Frank was depressed and annoyed at his father’s obstinate repetition of the same sentence, in answer to all his arguments in favor of his engagement — arguments which were overwhelming to himself and which it required an effort of patience on his part to go over and recapitulate, so obvious was the conclusion; and then to have the same answer forever, the same words even:

“Frank! it’s no use talking. I don’t approve of the engagement; and never shall.”

He would snatch up his hat, and hurry off to Maggie to be soothed. His father knew where he was gone without being told; and was jealous of her influence over the son who had long been his first and paramount object in life.

He needed not have been jealous. However angry and indignant Frank was when he went up to the moorland cottage, Maggie almost persuaded him, before half an hour had elapsed, that his father was but unreasonable from his extreme affection. Still she saw that such frequent differences would weaken the bond between father and son; and, accordingly, she urged Frank to accept an invitation into Scotland.

“You told me,” said she, “that Mr. Buxton will have it, it is but a boy’s attachment; and that when you have seen other people, you will change your mind; now do try how far you can stand the effects of absence.” She said it playfully, but he was in a humor to be vexed.

“What nonsense, Maggie! You don’t care for all this delay yourself; and you take up my father’s bad reasons as if you believed them.”

“I don’t believe them; but still they may be true.”

“How should you like it, Maggie, if I urged you to go about and see something of society, and try if you could not find some one you liked better? It is more probable in your case than in mine; for you have never been from home, and I have been half over Europe.”

“You are very much afraid, are not you, Frank?” said she, her face bright with blushes, and her gray eyes smiling up at him. “I have a great idea that if I could see that Harry Bish that Edward is always talking about, I should be charmed. He must wear such beautiful waistcoats! Don’t you think I had better see him before our engagement is quite, quite final?”

But Frank would not smile. In fact, like all angry persons, he found fresh matter for offence in every sentence. She did not consider the engagement as quite final: thus he chose to understand her playful speech. He would not answer. She spoke again:

“Dear Frank, you are not angry with me, are you? It is nonsense to think that we are to go about the world, picking and choosing men and women as if they were fruit and we were to gather the best; as if there was not something in our own hearts which, if we listen to it conscientiously, will tell us at once when we have met the one of all others. There now, am I sensible? I suppose I am, for your grim features are relaxing into a smile. That’s right. But now listen to this. I think your father would come round sooner, if he were not irritated every day by the knowledge of your visits to me. If you went away, he would know that we should write to each other yet he would forget the exact time when; but now he knows as well as I do where you are when you are up here; and I fancy, from what Erminia says, it makes him angry the whole time you are away.”

Frank was silent. At last he said: “It is rather provoking to be obliged to acknowledge that there is some truth in what you say. But even if I would, I am not sure that I could go. My father does not speak to me about his affairs, as he used to do; so I was rather surprised yesterday to hear him say to Erminia (though I’m sure he meant the information for me), that he had engaged an agent.”

“Then there will be the less occasion for you to be at home. He won’t want your help in his accounts.”

“I’ve given him little enough of that. I have long wanted him to have somebody to look after his affairs. They are very complicated and he is very careless. But I believe my signature will be wanted for some new leases; at least he told me so.”

“That need not take you long,” said Maggie.

“Not the mere signing. But I want to know something more about the property, and the proposed tenants. I believe this Mr. Henry that my father has engaged, is a very hard sort of man. He is what is called scrupulously honest and honorable; but I fear a little too much inclined to drive hard bargains for his client. Now I want to be convinced to the contrary, if I can, before I leave my father in his hands. So you cruel judge, you won’t transport me yet, will you?”

“No” said Maggie, overjoyed at her own decision, and blushing her delight that her reason was convinced it was right for Frank to stay a little longer.

The next day’s post brought her a letter from Edward. There was not a word in it about her inquiry or remonstrance; it might never have been written, or never received; but a few hurried anxious lines, asking her to write by return of post, and say if it was really true that Mr. Buxton had engaged an agent. “It’s a confounded shabby trick if he has, after what he said to me long ago. I cannot tell you how much I depend on your complying with my request. Once more, write directly. If Nancy cannot take the letter to the post, run down to Combehurst with it yourself. I must have an answer tomorrow, and every particular as to who — when to be appointed, &c. But I can’t believe the report to be true.”

Maggie asked Frank if she might name what he had told her the day before to her brother. He said:

“Oh, yes, certainly, if he cares to know. Of course, you will not say anything about my own opinion of Mr. Henry. He is coming tomorrow, and I shall be able to judge how far I am right.”

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