The Moorland Cottage, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter VIII.

After he was gone, there came a November of the most dreary and characteristic kind. There was incessant rain, and closing-in mists, without a gleam of sunshine to light up the drops of water, and make the wet stems and branches of the trees glisten. Every color seemed dimmed and darkened; and the crisp autumnal glory of leaves fell soddened to the ground. The latest flowers rotted away without ever coming to their bloom; and it looked as if the heavy monotonous sky had drawn closer and closer, and shut in the little moorland cottage as with a shroud. In doors, things were no more cheerful. Maggie saw that her mother was depressed, and she thought that Edward’s extravagance must be the occasion. Oftentimes she wondered how far she might speak on the subject; and once or twice she drew near it in conversation; but her mother winced away, and Maggie could not as yet see any decided good to be gained from encountering such pain. To herself it would have been a relief to have known the truth — the worst, as far as her mother knew it; but she was not in the habit of thinking of herself. She only tried, by long tender attention, to cheer and comfort her mother; and she and Nancy strove in every way to reduce the household expenditure, for there was little ready money to meet it. Maggie wrote regularly to Edward; but since the note inquiring about the agency, she had never heard from him. Whether her mother received letters she did not know; but at any rate she did not express anxiety, though her looks and manner betrayed that she was ill at ease. It was almost a relief to Maggie when some change was given to her thoughts by Nancy’s becoming ill. The damp gloomy weather brought on some kind of rheumatic attack, which obliged the old servant to keep her bed. Formerly, in such an emergency, they would have engaged some cottager’s wife to come and do the house-work; but now it seemed tacitly understood that they could not afford it. Even when Nancy grew worse, and required attendance in the night, Maggie still persisted in her daily occupations. She was wise enough to rest when and how she could; and, with a little forethought, she hoped to be able to go through this weary time without any bad effect. One morning (it was on the second of December; and even the change of name in the month, although it brought no change of circumstances or weather, was a relief — December brought glad tidings even in its very name), one morning, dim and dreary, Maggie had looked at the clock on leaving Nancy’s room, and finding it was not yet half-past five, and knowing that her mother and Nancy were both asleep, she determined to lie down and rest for an hour before getting up to light the fires. She did not mean to go to sleep; but she was tired out and fell into a sound slumber. When she awoke it was with a start. It was still dark; but she had a clear idea of being wakened by some distinct, rattling noise. There it was once more — against the window, like a shower of shot. She went to the lattice, and opened it to look out. She had that strange consciousness, not to be described, of the near neighborhood of some human creature, although she neither saw nor heard any one for the first instant. Then Edward spoke in a hoarse whisper, right below the window, standing on the flower-beds.

“Maggie! Maggie! Come down and let me in. For your life, don’t make any noise. No one must know.”

Maggie turned sick. Something was wrong, evidently; and she was weak and weary. However, she stole down the old creaking stairs, and undid the heavy bolt, and let her brother in. She felt that his dress was quite wet, and she led him, with cautious steps, into the kitchen, and shut the door, and stirred the fire, before she spoke. He sank into a chair, as if worn out with fatigue. She stood, expecting some explanation. But when she saw he could not speak, she hastened to make him a cup of tea; and, stooping down, took off his wet boots, and helped him off with his coat, and brought her own plaid to wrap round him. All this time her heart sunk lower and lower. He allowed her to do what she liked, as if he were an automaton; his head and his arms hung loosely down, and his eyes were fixed, in a glaring way, on the fire. When she brought him some tea, he spoke for the first time; she could not hear what he said till he repeated it, so husky was his voice.

“Have you no brandy?”

She had the key of the little wine-cellar, and fetched up some. But as she took a tea-spoon to measure if out, he tremblingly clutched at the bottle, and shook down a quantity into the empty tea-cup, and drank it off at one gulp. He fell back again in his chair; but in a few minutes he roused himself, and seemed stronger.

“Edward, dear Edward, what is the matter?” said Maggie, at last; for he got up, and was staggering toward the outer door, as if he were going once more into the rain, and dismal morning-twilight.

He looked at her fiercely as she laid her hand on his arm.

“Confound you! Don’t touch me. I’ll not be kept here, to be caught and hung!”

For an instant she thought he was mad.

“Caught and hung!” she echoed. “My poor Edward! what do you mean?”

He sat down suddenly on a chair, close by him, and covered his face with his hands. When he spoke, his voice was feeble and imploring.

“The police are after me, Maggie! What must I do? Oh! can you hide me? Can you save me?”

He looked wild, like a hunted creature. Maggie stood aghast. He went on:

“My mother! — Nancy! Where are they? I was wet through and starving, and I came here. Don’t let them take me, Maggie, till I’m stronger, and can give battle.”

“Oh! Edward! Edward! What are you saying?” said Maggie, sitting down on the dresser, in absolute, bewildered despair. “What have you done?”

“I hardly know. I’m in a horrid dream. I see you think I’m mad. I wish I were. Won’t Nancy come down soon? You must hide me.”

“Poor Nancy is ill in bed!” said Maggie.

“Thank God,” said he. “There’s one less. But my mother will be up soon, will she not?”

“Not yet,” replied Maggie. “Edward, dear, do try and tell me what you have done. Why should the police be after you?”

“Why, Maggie,” said he with a kind of forced, unnatural laugh, “they say I’ve forged.”

“And have you?” asked Maggie, in a still, low tone of quiet agony.

He did not answer for some time, but sat, looking on the floor with unwinking eyes. At last he said, as if speaking to himself:

“If I have, it’s no more than others have done before, and never been found out. I was but borrowing money. I meant to repay it. If I had asked Mr. Buxton, he would have lent it me.”

“Mr. Buxton!” said Maggie.

“Yes!” answered he, looking sharply and suddenly up at her. “Your future father-inlaw. My father’s old friend. It is he that is hunting me to death! No need to look so white and horror-struck, Maggie! It’s the way of the world, as I might have known, if I had not been a blind fool.”

“Mr. Buxton!” she whispered, faintly.

“Oh, Maggie!” said he, suddenly throwing himself at her feet, “save me! You can do it. Write to Frank, and make him induce his father to let me off. I came to see you, my sweet, merciful sister! I knew you would save me. Good God! What noise is that? There are steps in the yard!”

And before she could speak, he had rushed into the little china closet, which opened out of the parlor, and crouched down in the darkness. It was only the man who brought their morning’s supply of milk from a neighboring farm. But when Maggie opened the kitchen door, she saw how the cold, pale light of a winter’s day had filled the air.

“You’re late with your shutters today, miss,” said the man. “I hope Nancy has not been giving you all a bad night. Says I to Thomas, who came with me to the gate, ‘It’s many a year since I saw them parlor shutters barred up at half-past eight.’”

Maggie went, as soon as he was gone, and opened all the low windows, in order that they might look as usual. She wondered at her own outward composure, while she felt so dead and sick at heart. Her mother would soon get up; must she be told? Edward spoke to her now and then from his hiding-place. He dared not go back into the kitchen, into which the few neighbors they had were apt to come, on their morning’s way to Combehurst, to ask if they could do any errands there for Mrs. Browne or Nancy. Perhaps a quarter of an hour or so had elapsed since the first alarm, when, as Maggie was trying to light the parlor fire, in order that the doctor, when he came, might find all as usual, she heard the click of the garden gate, and a man’s step coming along the walk. She ran up stairs to wash away the traces of the tears which had been streaming down her face as she went about her work, before she opened the door. There, against the watery light of the rainy day without, stood Mr. Buxton. He hardly spoke to her, but pushed past her, and entered the parlor. He sat down, looking as if he did not know what he was doing. Maggie tried to keep down her shivering alarm. It was long since she had seen him; and the old idea of his kind, genial disposition, had been sadly disturbed by what she had heard from Frank, of his severe proceedings against his unworthy tenantry; and now, if he was setting the police in search of Edward, he was indeed to be dreaded; and with Edward so close at hand, within earshot! If the china fell! He would suspect nothing from that; it would only be her own terror. If her mother came down! But, with all these thoughts, she was very still, outwardly, as she sat waiting for him to speak.

“Have you heard from your brother lately?” asked he, looking up in an angry and disturbed manner. “But I’ll answer for it he has not been writing home for some time. He could not, with the guilt he has had on his mind. I’ll not believe in gratitude again. There perhaps was such a thing once; but now-a-days the more you do for a person, the surer they are to turn against you, and cheat you. Now, don’t go white and pale. I know you’re a good girl in the main; and I’ve been lying awake all night, and I’ve a deal to say to you. That scoundrel of a brother of yours!”

Maggie could not ask (as would have been natural, if she had been ignorant) what Edward had done. She knew too well. But Mr. Buxton was too full of his own thoughts and feelings to notice her much.

“Do you know he has been like the rest? Do you know he has been cheating me — forging my name? I don’t know what besides. It’s well for him that they’ve altered the laws, and he can’t be hung for it” (a dead heavy weight was removed from Maggie’s mind), “but Mr. Henry is going to transport him. It’s worse than Crayston. Crayston only ploughed up the turf, and did not pay rent, and sold the timber, thinking I should never miss it. But your brother has gone and forged my name He had received all the purchase-money, while he only gave me half, and said the rest was to come afterward. And the ungrateful scoundrel has gone and given a forged receipt! You might have knocked me down with a straw when Mr. Henry told me about it all last night. ‘Never talk to me of virtue and such humbug again,’ I said, ‘I’ll never believe in them. Every one is for what he can get.’ However, Mr. Henry wrote to the superintendent of police at Woodchester; and has gone over himself this morning to see after it. But to think of your father having such a son!”

“Oh my poor father!” sobbed out Maggie. “How glad I am you are dead before this disgrace came upon us!”

“You may well say disgrace. You’re a good girl yourself, Maggie. I have always said that. How Edward has turned out as he has done, I cannot conceive. But now, Maggie, I’ve something to say to you.” He moved uneasily about, as if he did not know how to begin. Maggie was standing leaning her head against the chimney-piece, longing for her visitor to go, dreading the next minute, and wishing to shrink into some dark corner of oblivion where she might forget all for a time, till she regained a small portion of the bodily strength that had been sorely tried of late. Mr. Buxton saw her white look of anguish, and read it in part, but not wholly. He was too intent on what he was going to say.

“I’ve been lying awake all night, thinking. You see the disgrace it is to you, though you are innocent; and I’m sure you can’t think of involving Frank in it.”

Maggie went to the little sofa, and, kneeling down by it, hid her face in the cushions. He did not go on, for he thought she was not listening to him. At last he said:

“Come now, be a sensible girl, and face it out. I’ve a plan to propose.”

“I hear,” said she, in a dull veiled voice.

“Why, you know how against this engagement I have always been. Frank is but three-and-twenty, and does not know his own mind, as I tell him. Besides, he might marry any one he chose.”

“He has chosen me,” murmured Maggie.

“Of course, of course. But you’ll not think of keeping him to it, after what has passed. You would not have such a fine fellow as Frank pointed at as the brother-inlaw of a forger, would you? It was far from what I wished for him before; but now! Why you’re glad your father is dead, rather than he should have lived to see this day; and rightly too, I think. And you’ll not go and disgrace Frank. From what Mr. Henry hears, Edward has been a discredit to you in many ways. Mr. Henry was at Woodchester yesterday, and he says if Edward has been fairly entered as an attorney, his name may be struck off the Rolls for many a thing he has done. Think of my Frank having his bright name tarnished by any connection with such a man! Mr. Henry says, even in a court of law what has come out about Edward would be excuse enough for a breach of promise of marriage.”

Maggie lifted up her wan face; the pupils of her eyes were dilated, her lips were dead white. She looked straight at Mr. Buxton with indignant impatience:

“Mr. Henry! Mr. Henry! What has Mr. Henry to do with me?”

Mr. Buxton was staggered by the wild, imperious look, so new upon her mild, sweet face. But he was resolute for Frank’s sake, and returned to the charge after a moment’s pause.

“Mr. Henry is a good friend of mine, who has my interest at heart. He has known what a subject of regret your engagement has been to me; though really my repugnance to it was without cause formerly, compared to what it is now. Now be reasonable, my dear. I’m willing to do something for you if you will do something for me. You must see what a stop this sad affair has put to any thoughts between you and Frank. And you must see what cause I have to wish to punish Edward for his ungrateful behavior, to say nothing of the forgery. Well now! I don’t know what Mr. Henry will say to me, but I have thought of this. If you’ll write a letter to Frank, just saying distinctly that, for reasons which must for ever remain a secret . . . ”

“Remain a secret from Frank?” said Maggie, again lifting up her head. “Why?”

“Why? my dear! You startle me with that manner of yours — just let me finish out my sentence. If you’ll say that, for reasons which must forever remain a secret, you decidedly and unchangeably give up all connection, all engagement with him (which, in fact, Edward’s conduct has as good as put an end to), I’ll go over to Woodchester and tell Mr. Henry and the police that they need not make further search after Edward, for that I won’t appear against him. You can save your brother; and you’ll do yourself no harm by writing this letter, for of course you see your engagement is broken off. For you never would wish to disgrace Frank.”

He paused, anxiously awaiting her reply. She did not speak.

“I’m sure, if I appear against him, he is as good as transported,” he put in, after a while.

Just at this time there was a little sound of displaced china in the closet. Mr. Buxton did not attend to it, but Maggie heard it. She got up, and stood quite calm before Mr. Buxton.

“You must go,” said she. “I know you; and I know you are not aware of the cruel way in which you have spoken to me, while asking me to give up the very hope and marrow of my life”— she could not go on for a moment; she was choked up with anguish.

“It was the truth, Maggie,” said he, somewhat abashed.

“It was the truth that made the cruelty of it. But you did not mean to speak cruelly to me, I know. Only it is hard all at once to be called upon to face the shame and blasted character of one who was once an innocent child at the same father’s knee.”

“I may have spoken too plainly,” said Mr. Buxton, “but it was necessary to set the plain truth before you, for my son’s sake. You will write the letter I ask?”

Her look was wandering and uncertain. Her attention was distracted by sounds which to him had no meaning; and her judgment she felt was wavering and disturbed.

“I cannot tell. Give me time to think; you will do that, I’m sure. Go now, and leave me alone. If it is right, God will give me strength to do it, and perhaps He will comfort me in my desolation. But I do not know — I cannot tell. I must have time to think. Go now, if you please, sir,” said she, imploringly.

“I am sure you will see it is a right thing I ask of you,” he persisted.

“Go now,” she repeated.

“Very well. In two hours, I will come back again; for your sake, time is precious. Even while we speak he may be arrested. At eleven, I will come back.”

He went away, leaving her sick and dizzy with the effort to be calm and collected enough to think. She had forgotten for the moment how near Edward was; and started when she saw the closet-door open, and his face put out.

“Is he gone? I thought he never would go. What a time you kept him, Maggie! I was so afraid, once, you might sit down to write the letter in this room; and then I knew he would stop and worry you with interruptions and advice, so that it would never be ended; and my back was almost broken. But you sent him off famously. Why, Maggie! Maggie! — you’re not going to faint, surely!”

His sudden burst out of a whisper into a loud exclamation of surprise, made her rally; but she could not stand. She tried to smile, for he really looked frightened.

“I have been sitting up for many nights — and now this sorrow!” Her smile died away into a wailing, feeble cry.

“Well, well! it’s over now, you see. I was frightened enough myself this morning, I own; and then you were brave and kind. But I knew you could save me, all along.”

At this moment the door opened, and Mrs. Browne came in.

“Why, Edward, dear! who would have thought of seeing you! This is good of you; what a pleasant surprise! I often said, you might come over for a day from Woodchester. What’s the matter, Maggie, you look so fagged? She’s losing all her beauty, is not she, Edward? Where’s breakfast? I thought I should find all ready. What’s the matter? Why don’t you speak?” said she, growing anxious at their silence. Maggie left the explanation to Edward.

“Mother,” said he, “I’ve been rather a naughty boy, and got into some trouble; but Maggie is going to help me out of it, like a good sister.”

“What is it?” said Mrs. Browne, looking bewildered and uneasy.

“Oh — I took a little liberty with our friend Mr. Buxton’s name; and wrote it down to a receipt — that was all.”

Mrs. Browne’s face showed that the light came but slowly into her mind.

“But that’s forgery — is not it?” asked she at length, in terror.

“People call it so,” said Edward; “I call it borrowing from an old friend, who was always willing to lend.”

“Does he know? — is he angry?” asked Mrs. Browne.

“Yes, he knows; and he blusters a deal. He was working himself up grandly at first. Maggie! I was getting rarely frightened, I can tell you.”

“Has he been here?” said Mrs. Browne, in bewildered fright.

“Oh, yes! he and Maggie have been having a long talk, while I was hid in the china-closet. I would not go over that half-hour again for any money. However, he and Maggie came to terms, at last.”

“No, Edward, we did not!” said Maggie, in a low quivering voice.

“Very nearly. She’s to give up her engagement, and then he will let me off.”

“Do you mean that Maggie is to give up her engagement to Mr. Frank Buxton?” asked his mother.

“Yes. It would never have come to anything, one might see that. Old Buxton would have held out against it till doomsday. And, sooner or later, Frank would have grown weary. If Maggie had had any spirit, she might have worked him up to marry her before now; and then I should have been spared even this fright, for they would never have set the police after Mrs. Frank Buxton’s brother.”

“Why, dearest, Edward, the police are not after you, are they?” said Mrs. Browne, for the first time alive to the urgency of the case.

“I believe they are though,” said Edward. “But after what Mr. Buxton promised this morning, it does not signify.”

“He did not promise anything,” said Maggie.

Edward turned sharply to her, and looked at her. Then he went and took hold of her wrists with no gentle grasp, and spoke to her through his set teeth.

“What do you mean, Maggie? — what do you mean?” (giving her a little shake.) “Do you mean that you’ll stick to your lover through thick and thin, and leave your brother to be transported? Speak, can’t you?”

She looked up at him, and tried to speak, but no words came out of her dry throat. At last she made a strong effort.

“You must give me time to think. I will do what is right, by God’s help.”

“As if it was not right — and such can’t — to save your brother,” said he, throwing her hands away in a passionate manner.

“I must be alone,” said Maggie, rising, and trying to stand steadily in the reeling room. She heard her mother and Edward speaking, but their words gave her no meaning, and she went out. She was leaving the house by the kitchen-door, when she remembered Nancy, left alone and helpless all through this long morning; and, ill as she could endure detention from the solitude she longed to seek, she patiently fulfilled her small duties, and sought out some breakfast for the poor old woman.

When she carried it up stairs, Nancy said:

“There’s something up. You’ve trouble in your sweet face, my darling. Never mind telling me — only don’t sob so. I’ll pray for you, bairn: and God will help you.”

“Thank you, Nancy. Do!” and she left the room.

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