The Moorland Cottage, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter VII.

The next day Mr. Henry came. He was a quiet, stern-looking man, of considerable intelligence and refinement, and so much taste for music as to charm Erminia, who had rather dreaded his visit. But all the amenities of life were put aside when he entered Mr. Buxton’s sanctum — his “office,” as he called the room where he received his tenants and business people. Frank thought Mr. Henry was scarce commonly civil in the open evidence of his surprise and contempt for the habits, of which the disorderly books and ledgers were but too visible signs. Mr. Buxton himself felt more like a school-boy, bringing up an imperfect lesson, than he had ever done since he was thirteen.

“The only wonder, my good sir, is that you have any property left; that you have not been cheated out of every farthing.”

“I’ll answer for it,” said Mr. Buxton, in reply, “that you’ll not find any cheating has been going on. They dared not, sir; they know I should make an example of the first rogue I found out.”

Mr. Henry lifted up his eyebrows, but did not speak.

“Besides, sir, most of these men have lived for generations under the Buxtons. I’d give you my life, they would not cheat me.”

Mr. Henry coldly said:

“I imagine a close examination of these books by some accountant will be the best proof of the honesty of these said tenants. If you will allow me, I will write to a clever fellow I know, and desire him to come down and try and regulate this mass of papers.”

“Anything — anything you like,” said Mr. Buxton, only too glad to escape from the lawyer’s cold, contemptuous way of treating the subject.

The accountant came; and he and Mr. Henry were deeply engaged in the office for several days. Mr. Buxton was bewildered by the questions they asked him. Mr. Henry examined him in the worrying way in which an unwilling witness is made to give evidence. Many a time and oft did he heartily wish he had gone on in the old course to the end of his life, instead of putting himself into an agent’s hands; but he comforted himself by thinking that, at any rate, they would be convinced he had never allowed himself to be cheated or imposed upon, although he did not make any parade of exactitude.

What was his dismay when, one morning, Mr. Henry sent to request his presence, and, with a cold, clear voice, read aloud an admirably drawn up statement, informing the poor landlord of the defalcations, nay more, the impositions of those whom he had trusted. If he had been alone, he would have burst into tears, to find how his confidence had been abused. But as it was, he became passionately angry.

“I’ll prosecute them, sir. Not a man shall escape. I’ll make them pay back every farthing, I will. And damages, too. Crayston, did you say, sir? Was that one of the names? Why, that is the very Crayston who was bailiff under my father for years. The scoundrel! And I set him up in my best farm when he married. And he’s been swindling me, has he?”

Mr. Henry ran over the items of the account —“421l, 13s. 4–3/4d. Part of this I fear we cannot recover”——

He was going on, but Mr. Buxton broke in: “But I will recover it. I’ll have every farthing of it. I’ll go to law with the viper. I don’t care for money, but I hate ingratitude.”

“If you like, I will take counsel’s opinion on the case,” said Mr. Henry, coolly.

“Take anything you please, sir. Why this Crayston was the first man that set me on a horse — and to think of his cheating me!”

A few days after this conversation, Frank came on his usual visit to Maggie.

“Can you come up to the thorn-tree, dearest?” said he. “It is a lovely day, and I want the solace of a quiet hour’s talk with you.”

So they went, and sat in silence some time, looking at the calm and still blue air about the summits of the hills, where never tumult of the world came to disturb the peace, and the quiet of whose heights was never broken by the loud passionate cries of men.

“I am glad you like my thorn-tree,” said Maggie.

“I like the view from it. The thought of the solitude which must be among the hollows of those hills pleases me particularly today. Oh, Maggie! it is one of the times when I get depressed about men and the world. We have had such sorrow, and such revelations, and remorse, and passion at home today. Crayston (my father’s old tenant) has come over. It seems — I am afraid there is no doubt of it — he has been peculating to a large amount. My father has been too careless, and has placed his dependents in great temptation; and Crayston — he is an old man, with a large extravagant family — has yielded. He has been served with notice of my father’s intention to prosecute him; and came over to confess all, and ask for forgiveness, and time to pay back what he could. A month ago, my father would have listened to him, I think; but now, he is stung by Mr. Henry’s sayings, and gave way to a furious passion. It has been a most distressing morning. The worst side of everybody seems to have come out. Even Crayston, with all his penitence and appearance of candor, had to be questioned closely by Mr. Henry before he would tell the whole truth. Good God! that money should have such power to corrupt men. It was all for money, and money’s worth, that this degradation has taken place. As for Mr. Henry, to save his client money, and to protect money, he does not care — he does not even perceive — how he induces deterioration of character. He has been encouraging my father in measures which I cannot call anything but vindictive. Crayston is to be made an example of, they say. As if my father had not half the sin on his own head! As if he had rightly discharged his duties as a rich man! Money was as dross to him; but he ought to have remembered how it might be as life itself to many, and be craved after, and coveted, till the black longing got the better of principle, as it has done with this poor Crayston. They say the man was once so truthful, and now his self-respect is gone; and he has evidently lost the very nature of truth. I dread riches. I dread the responsibility of them. At any rate, I wish I had begun life as a poor boy, and worked my way up to competence. Then I could understand and remember the temptations of poverty. I am afraid of my own heart becoming hardened as my father’s is. You have no notion of his passionate severity today, Maggie! It was quite a new thing even to me!”

“It will only be for a short time,” said she. “He must be much grieved about this man.”

“If I thought I could ever grow as hard and different to the abject entreaties of a criminal as my father has been this morning — one whom he has helped to make, too — I would go off to Australia at once. Indeed, Maggie, I think it would be the best thing we could do. My heart aches about the mysterious corruptions and evils of an old state of society such as we have in England. — What do you say Maggie? Would you go?”

She was silent — thinking.

“I would go with you directly, if it were right,” said she, at last. “But would it be? I think it would be rather cowardly. I feel what you say; but don’t you think it would be braver to stay, and endure much depression and anxiety of mind, for the sake of the good those always can do who see evils clearly. I am speaking all this time as if neither you nor I had any home duties, but were free to do as me liked.”

“What can you or I do? We are less than drops in the ocean, as far as our influence can go to model a nation?”

“As for that,” said Maggie, laughing, “I can’t remodel Nancy’s old-fashioned ways; so I’ve never yet planned how to remodel a nation.”

“Then what did you mean by the good those always can do who see evils clearly? The evils I see are those of a nation whose god is money.”

“That is just because you have come away from a distressing scene. To-morrow you will hear or read of some heroic action meeting with a nation’s sympathy, and you will rejoice and be proud of your country.”

“Still I shall see the evils of her complex state of society keenly; and where is the good I can do?”

“Oh! I can’t tell in a minute. But cannot you bravely face these evils, and learn their nature and causes; and then has God given you no powers to apply to the discovery of their remedy? Dear Frank, think! It may be very little you can do — and you may never see the effect of it, any more than the widow saw the world-wide effect of her mite. Then if all the good and thoughtful men run away from us to some new country, what are we to do with our poor dear Old England?”

“Oh, you must run away with the good, thoughtful men —(I mean to consider that as a compliment to myself, Maggie!) Will you let me wish I had been born poor, if I am to stay in England? I should not then be liable to this fault into which I see the rich men fall, of forgetting the trials of the poor.”

“I am not sure whether, if you had been poor, you might not have fallen into an exactly parallel fault, and forgotten the trials of the rich. It is so difficult to understand the errors into which their position makes all men liable to fall. Do you remember a story in ‘Evenings at Home,’ called the Transmigrations of Indra? Well! when I was a child, I used to wish I might be transmigrated (is that the right word?) into an American slave-owner for a little while, just that I might understand how he must suffer, and be sorely puzzled, and pray and long to be freed from his odious wealth, till at last he grew hardened to its nature; — and since then, I have wished to be the Emperor of Russia, for the same reason. Ah! you may laugh; but that is only because I have not explained myself properly.”

“I was only smiling to think how ambitious any one might suppose you were who did not know you.”

“I don’t see any ambition in it — I don’t think of the station — I only want sorely to see the ‘What’s resisted’ of Burns, in order that I may have more charity for those who seem to me to have been the cause of such infinite woe and misery.”

“‘What’s done we partly may compute;
But know not what’s resisted,’”

repeated Frank musingly. After some time he began again:

“But, Maggie, I don’t give up this wish of mine to go to Australia — Canada, if you like it better — anywhere where there is a newer and purer state of society.”

“The great objection seems to be your duty, as an only child, to your father. It is different to the case of one out of a large family.”

“I wish I were one in twenty, then I might marry where I liked tomorrow.”

“It would take two people’s consent to such a rapid measure,” said Maggie, laughing. “But now I am going to wish a wish, which it won’t require a fairy godmother to gratify. Look, Frank, do you see in the middle of that dark brown purple streak of moor a yellow gleam of light? It is a pond, I think, that at this time of the year catches a slanting beam of the sun. It cannot be very far off. I have wished to go to it every autumn. Will you go with me now? We shall have time before tea.”

Frank’s dissatisfaction with the stern measures that, urged on by Mr. Henry, his father took against all who had imposed upon his carelessness as a landlord, increased rather than diminished. He spoke warmly to him on the subject, but without avail. He remonstrated with Mr. Henry, and told him how he felt that, had his father controlled his careless nature, and been an exact, vigilant landlord, these tenantry would never have had the great temptation to do him wrong; and that therefore he considered some allowance should be made for them, and some opportunity given them to redeem their characters, which would be blasted and hardened for ever by the publicity of a law-suit. But Mr. Henry only raised his eyebrows and made answer:

“I like to see these notions in a young man, sir. I had them myself at your age. I believe I had great ideas then, on the subject of temptation and the force of circumstances; and was as Quixotic as any one about reforming rogues. But my experience has convinced me that roguery is innate. Nothing but outward force can control it, and keep it within bounds. The terrors of the law must be that outward force. I admire your kindness of heart; and in three-and-twenty we do not look for the wisdom and experience of forty or fifty.”

Frank was indignant at being set aside as an unripe youth. He disapproved so strongly of all these measures, and of so much that was now going on at home under Mr. Henry’s influence that he determined to pay his long promised visit to Scotland; and Maggie, sad at heart to see how he was suffering, encouraged him in his determination.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gaskell/elizabeth/moorland/chapter7.html

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