North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter 19

Angel Visits

‘As angels in some brighter dreams

Call to the soul when man doth sleep,

So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes,

And into glory peep.’

HENRY VAUGHAN.

Mrs. Hale was curiously amused and interested by the idea of the Thornton dinner party. She kept wondering about the details, with something of the simplicity of a little child, who wants to have all its anticipated pleasures described beforehand. But the monotonous life led by invalids often makes them like children, inasmuch as they have neither of them any sense of proportion in events, and seem each to believe that the walls and curtains which shut in their world, and shut out everything else, must of necessity be larger than anything hidden beyond. Besides, Mrs. Hale had had her vanities as a girl; had perhaps unduly felt their mortification when she became a poor clergyman’s wife; — they had been smothered and kept down; but they were not extinct; and she liked to think of seeing Margaret dressed for a party, and discussed what she should wear, with an unsettled anxiety that amused Margaret, who had been more accustomed to society in her one in Harley Street than her mother in five and twenty years of Helstone.

‘Then you think you shall wear your white silk. Are you sure it will fit? It’s nearly a year since Edith was married!’

‘Oh yes, mamma! Mrs. Murray made it, and it’s sure to be right; it may be a straw’s breadth shorter or longer-waisted, according to my having grown fat or thin. But I don’t think I’ve altered in the least.’

‘Hadn’t you better let Dixon see it? It may have gone yellow with lying by.’

‘If you like, mamma. But if the worst comes to the worst, I’ve a very nice pink gauze which aunt Shaw gave me, only two or three months before Edith was married. That can’t have gone yellow.’

‘No! but it may have faded.’

‘Well! then I’ve a green silk. I feel more as if it was the embarrassment of riches.’

‘I wish I knew what you ought to wear,’ said Mrs. Hale, nervously. Margaret’s manner changed instantly. ‘Shall I go and put them on one after another, mamma, and then you could see which you liked best?’

‘But — yes! perhaps that will be best.’

So off Margaret went. She was very much inclined to play some pranks when she was dressed up at such an unusual hour; to make her rich white silk balloon out into a cheese, to retreat backwards from her mother as if she were the queen; but when she found that these freaks of hers were regarded as interruptions to the serious business, and as such annoyed her mother, she became grave and sedate. What had possessed the world (her world) to fidget so about her dress, she could not understand; but that very after noon, on naming her engagement to Bessy Higgins (apropos of the servant that Mrs. Thornton had promised to inquire about), Bessy quite roused up at the intelligence.

‘Dear! and are you going to dine at Thornton’s at Marlborough Mills?’

‘Yes, Bessy. Why are you so surprised?’

‘Oh, I dunno. But they visit wi’ a’ th’ first folk in Milton.’

‘And you don’t think we’re quite the first folk in Milton, eh, Bessy?’ Bessy’s cheeks flushed a little at her thought being thus easily read.

‘Well,’ said she, ‘yo’ see, they thinken a deal o’ money here and I reckon yo’ve not getten much.’

‘No,’ said Margaret, ‘that’s very true. But we are educated people, and have lived amongst educated people. Is there anything so wonderful, in our being asked out to dinner by a man who owns himself inferior to my father by coming to him to be instructed? I don’t mean to blame Mr. Thornton. Few drapers’ assistants, as he was once, could have made themselves what he is.’

‘But can yo’ give dinners back, in yo’r small house? Thornton’s house is three times as big.’

‘Well, I think we could manage to give Mr. Thornton a dinner back, as you call it. Perhaps not in such a large room, nor with so many people. But I don’t think we’ve thought about it at all in that way.’

‘I never thought yo’d be dining with Thorntons,’ repeated I Bessy. ‘Why, the mayor hissel’ dines there; and the members of Parliament and all.’

‘I think I could support the honour of meeting the mayor of Milton.

‘But them ladies dress so grand!’ said Bessy, with an anxious look at Margaret’s print gown, which her Milton eyes appraised at sevenpence a yard. Margaret’s face dimpled up into a merry laugh. ‘Thank You, Bessy, for thinking so kindly about my looking nice among all the smart people. But I’ve plenty of grand gowns — a week ago, I should have said they were far too grand for anything I should ever want again. But as I’m to dine at Mr. Thornton’s, and perhaps to meet the mayor, I shall put on my very best gown, you may be sure.’

‘What win yo’ wear?’ asked Bessy, somewhat relieved.

‘White silk,’ said Margaret. ‘A gown I had for a cousin’s wedding, a year ago.

‘That’ll do!’ said Bessy, falling back in her chair. ‘I should be loth to have yo’ looked down upon.

‘Oh! I’ll be fine enough, if that will save me from being looked down upon in Milton.’

‘I wish I could see you dressed up,’ said Bessy. ‘I reckon, yo’re not what folk would ca’ pretty; yo’ve not red and white enough for that. But dun yo’ know, I ha’ dreamt of yo’, long afore ever I seed yo’.’

‘Nonsense, Bessy!’

‘Ay, but I did. Yo’r very face — looking wi’ yo’r clear steadfast eyes out o’ th’ darkness, wi’ yo’r hair blown off from yo’r brow, and going out like rays round yo’r forehead, which was just as smooth and as straight as it is now — and yo’ always came to give me strength, which I seemed to gather out o’ yo’r deep comforting eyes — and yo’ were drest in shining raiment — just as yo’r going to be drest. So, yo’ see, it was yo’!’

‘Nay, Bessy,’ said Margaret, gently, ‘it was but a dream.’

‘And why might na I dream a dream in my affliction as well as others? Did not many a one i’ the Bible? Ay, and see visions too! Why, even my father thinks a deal o’ dreams! I tell yo’ again, I saw yo’ as plainly, coming swiftly towards me, wi’ yo’r hair blown back wi’ the very swiftness o’ the motion, just like the way it grows, a little standing off like; and the white shining dress on yo’ve getten to wear. Let me come and see yo’ in it. I want to see yo’ and touch yo’ as in very deed yo’ were in my dream.’

‘My dear Bessy, it is quite a fancy of yours.’

‘Fancy or no fancy — yo’ve come, as I knew yo’ would, when I saw yo’r movement in my dream — and when yo’re here about me, I reckon I feel easier in my mind, and comforted, just as a fire comforts one on a dree day. Yo’ said it were on th’ twenty-first; please God, I’ll come and see yo’.’

‘Oh Bessy! you may come and welcome; but don’t talk so — it really makes me sorry. It does indeed.’

‘Then I’ll keep it to mysel’, if I bite my tongue out. Not but what it’s true for all that.’

Margaret was silent. At last she said,

‘Let us talk about it sometimes, if you think it true. But not now. Tell me, has your father turned out?’

‘Ay!’ said Bessy, heavily — in a manner very different from that she had spoken in but a minute or two before. ‘He and many another — all Hamper’s men — and many a one besides. Th’ women are as bad as th’ men, in their savageness, this time. Food is high — and they mun have food for their childer, I reckon. Suppose Thorntons sent ’em their dinner out — th’ same money, spent on potatoes and meal, would keep many a crying babby quiet, and hush up its mother’s heart for a bit!’

‘Don’t speak so!’ said Margaret. ‘You’ll make me feel wicked and guilty in going to this dinner.’

‘No!’ said Bessy. ‘Some’s preelected to sumptuous feasts, and purple and fine linen — may be yo’re one on ’em. Others toil and moil all their lives long — and the very dogs are not pitiful in our days, as they were in the days of Lazarus. But if yo’ ask me to cool yo’r tongue wi’ th’ tip of my finger, I’ll come across the great gulf to yo’ just for th’ thought o’ what yo’ve been to me here.’

‘Bessy! you’re very feverish! I can tell it in the touch of your hand, as well as in what you’re saying. It won’t be division enough, in that awful day, that some of us have been beggars here, and some of us have been rich — we shall not be judged by that poor accident, but by our faithful following of Christ.’ Margaret got up, and found some water and soaking her pocket-handkerchief in it, she laid the cool wetness on Bessy’s forehead, and began to chafe the stone-cold feet. Bessy shut her eyes, and allowed herself to be soothed. At last she said,

‘Yo’d ha’ been deaved out o’ yo’r five wits, as well as me, if yo’d had one body after another coming in to ask for father, and staying to tell me each one their tale. Some spoke o’ deadly hatred, and made my blood run cold wi’ the terrible things they said o’ th’ masters — but more, being women, kept plaining, plaining (wi’ the tears running down their cheeks, and never wiped away, nor heeded), of the price o’ meat, and how their childer could na sleep at nights for th’ hunger.’

‘And do they think the strike will mend this?’ asked Margaret.

‘They say so,’ replied Bessy. ‘They do say trade has been good for long, and the masters has made no end o’ money; how much father doesn’t know, but, in course, th’ Union does; and, as is natural, they wanten their share o’ th’ profits, now that food is getting dear; and th’ Union says they’ll not be doing their duty if they don’t make the masters give ’em their share. But masters has getten th’ upper hand somehow; and I’m feared they’ll keep it now and evermore. It’s like th’ great battle o’ Armageddon, the way they keep on, grinning and fighting at each other, till even while they fight, they are picked off into the pit.’ Just then, Nicholas Higgins came in. He caught his daughter’s last words.

‘Ay! and I’ll fight on too; and I’ll get it this time. It’ll not take long for to make ’em give in, for they’ve getten a pretty lot of orders, all under contract; and they’ll soon find out they’d better give us our five per cent than lose the profit they’ll gain; let alone the fine for not fulfilling the contract. Aha, my masters! I know who’ll win.’

Margaret fancied from his manner that he must have been drinking, not so much from what he said, as from the excited way in which he spoke; and she was rather confirmed in this idea by the evident anxiety Bessy showed to hasten her departure. Bessy said to her —

‘The twenty-first — that’s Thursday week. I may come and see yo’ dressed for Thornton’s, I reckon. What time is yo’r dinner?’

Before Margaret could answer, Higgins broke out,

‘Thornton’s! Ar’ t’ going to dine at Thornton’s? Ask him to give yo’ a bumper to the success of his orders. By th’ twenty-first, I reckon, he’ll be pottered in his brains how to get ’em done in time. Tell him, there’s seven hundred’ll come marching into Marlborough Mills, the morning after he gives the five per cent, and will help him through his contract in no time. You’ll have ’em all there. My master, Hamper. He’s one o’ th’ oud-fashioned sort. Ne’er meets a man bout an oath or a curse; I should think he were going to die if he spoke me civil; but arter all, his bark’s waur than his bite, and yo’ may tell him one o’ his turn-outs said so, if yo’ like. Eh! but yo’ll have a lot of prize mill-owners at Thornton’s! I should like to get speech o’ them, when they’re a bit inclined to sit still after dinner, and could na run for the life on ’em. I’d tell ’em my mind. I’d speak up again th’ hard way they’re driving on us!’

‘Good-bye!’ said Margaret, hastily. ‘Good-bye, Bessy! I shall look to see you on the twenty-first, if you’re well enough.’

The medicines and treatment which Dr. Donaldson had ordered for Mrs. Hale, did her so much good at first that not only she herself, but Margaret, began to hope that he might have been mistaken, and that she could recover permanently. As for Mr. Hale, although he had never had an idea of the serious nature of their apprehensions, he triumphed over their fears with an evident relief, which proved how much his glimpse into the nature of them had affected him. Only Dixon croaked for ever into Margaret’s ear. However, Margaret defied the raven, and would hope.

They needed this gleam of brightness indoors, for out-of-doors, even to their uninstructed eyes, there was a gloomy brooding appearance of discontent. Mr. Hale had his own acquaintances among the working men, and was depressed with their earnestly told tales of suffering and long-endurance. They would have scorned to speak of what they had to bear to any one who might, from his position, have understood it without their words. But here was this man, from a distant county, who was perplexed by the workings of the system into the midst of which he was thrown, and each was eager to make him a judge, and to bring witness of his own causes for irritation. Then Mr. Hale brought all his budget of grievances, and laid it before Mr. Thornton, for him, with his experience as a master, to arrange them, and explain their origin; which he always did, on sound economical principles; showing that, as trade was conducted, there must always be a waxing and waning of commercial prosperity; and that in the waning a certain number of masters, as well as of men, must go down into ruin, and be no more seen among the ranks of the happy and prosperous. He spoke as if this consequence were so entirely logical, that neither employers nor employed had any right to complain if it became their fate: the employer to turn aside from the race he could no longer run, with a bitter sense of incompetency and failure — wounded in the struggle — trampled down by his fellows in their haste to get rich — slighted where he once was honoured — humbly asking for, instead of bestowing, employment with a lordly hand. Of course, speaking so of the fate that, as a master, might be his own in the fluctuations of commerce, he was not likely to have more sympathy with that of the workmen, who were passed by in the swift merciless improvement or alteration who would fain lie down and quietly die out of the world that needed them not, but felt as if they could never rest in their graves for the clinging cries of the beloved and helpless they would leave behind; who envied the power of the wild bird, that can feed her young with her very heart’s blood. Margaret’s whole soul rose up against him while he reasoned in this way — as if commerce were everything and humanity nothing. She could hardly, thank him for the individual kindness, which brought him that very evening to offer her — for the delicacy which made him understand that he must offer her privately — every convenience for illness that his own wealth or his mother’s foresight had caused them to accumulate in their household, and which, as he learnt from Dr. Donaldson, Mrs. Hale might possibly require. His presence, after the way he had spoken — his bringing before her the doom, which she was vainly trying to persuade herself might yet be averted from her mother — all conspired to set Margaret’s teeth on edge, as she looked at him, and listened to him. What business had he to be the only person, except Dr. Donaldson and Dixon, admitted to the awful secret, which she held shut up in the most dark and sacred recess of her heart — not daring to look at it, unless she invoked heavenly strength to bear the sight — that, some day soon, she should cry aloud for her mother, and no answer would come out of the blank, dumb darkness? Yet he knew all. She saw it in his pitying eyes. She heard it in his grave and tremulous voice. How reconcile those eyes, that voice, with the hard-reasoning, dry, merciless way in which he laid down axioms of trade, and serenely followed them out to their full consequences? The discord jarred upon her inexpressibly. The more because of the gathering woe of which she heard from Bessy. To be sure, Nicholas Higgins, the father, spoke differently. He had been appointed a committee-man, and said that he knew secrets of which the exoteric knew nothing. He said this more expressly and particularly, on the very day before Mrs. Thornton’s dinner-party, when Margaret, going in to speak to Bessy, found him arguing the point with Boucher, the neighbour of whom she had frequently heard mention, as by turns exciting Higgins’s compassion, as an unskilful workman with a large family depending upon him for support, and at other times enraging his more energetic and sanguine neighbour by his want of what the latter called spirit. It was very evident that Higgins was in a passion when Margaret entered. Boucher stood, with both hands on the rather high mantel-piece, swaying himself a little on the support which his arms, thus placed, gave him, and looking wildly into the fire, with a kind of despair that irritated Higgins, even while it went to his heart. Bessy was rocking herself violently backwards and forwards, as was her wont (Margaret knew by this time) when she was agitated, Her sister Mary was tying on her bonnet (in great clumsy bows, as suited her great clumsy fingers), to go to her fustian-cutting, blubbering out loud the while, and evidently longing to be away from a scene that distressed her. Margaret came in upon this scene. She stood for a moment at the door — then, her finger on her lips, she stole to a seat on the squab near Bessy. Nicholas saw her come in, and greeted her with a gruff, but not unfriendly nod. Mary hurried out of the house catching gladly at the open door, and crying aloud when she got away from her father’s presence. It was only John Boucher that took no notice whatever who came in and who went out.

‘It’s no use, Higgins. Hoo cannot live long a’ this’n. Hoo’s just sinking away — not for want o’ meat hersel’— but because hoo cannot stand th’ sight o’ the little ones clemming. Ay, clemming! Five shilling a week may do well enough for thee, wi’ but two mouths to fill, and one on ’em a wench who can welly earn her own meat. But it’s clemming to us. An’ I tell thee plain — if hoo dies as I’m ‘feard hoo will afore we’ve getten th’ five per cent, I’ll fling th’ money back i’ th’ master’s face, and say, “Be domned to yo’; be domned to th’ whole cruel world o’ yo’; that could na leave me th’ best wife that ever bore childer to a man!” An’ look thee, lad, I’ll hate thee, and th’ whole pack o’ th’ Union. Ay, an’ chase yo’ through heaven wi’ my hatred — I will, lad! I will — if yo’re leading me astray i’ this matter. Thou saidst, Nicholas, on Wednesday sennight — and it’s now Tuesday i’ th’ second week — that afore a fortnight we’d ha’ the masters coming a-begging to us to take back our’ work, at our own wage — and time’s nearly up — and there’s our lile Jack lying a-bed, too weak to cry, but just every now and then sobbing up his heart for want o’ food — our lile Jack, I tell thee, lad! Hoo’s never looked up sin’ he were born, and hoo loves him as if he were her very life — as he is — for I reckon he’ll ha’ cost me that precious price — our lile Jack, who wakened me each morn wi’ putting his sweet little lips to my great rough fou’ face, a-seeking a smooth place to kiss — an’ he lies clemming.’ Here the deep sobs choked the poor man, and Nicholas looked up, with eyes brimful of tears, to Margaret, before he could gain courage to speak.

‘Hou’d up, man. Thy lile Jack shall na’ clem. I ha’ getten brass, and we’ll go buy the chap a sup o’ milk an’ a good four-pounder this very minute. What’s mine’s thine, sure enough, i’ thou’st i’ want. Only, dunnot lose heart, man!’ continued he, as he fumbled in a tea-pot for what money he had. ‘I lay yo’ my heart and soul we’ll win for a’ this: it’s but bearing on one more week, and yo just see th’ way th’ masters ‘ll come round, praying on us to come back to our mills. An’ th’ Union — that’s to say, I— will take care yo’ve enough for th’ childer and th’ missus. So dunnot turn faint-heart, and go to th’ tyrants a-seeking work.’

The man turned round at these words — turned round a face so white, and gaunt, and tear-furrowed, and hopeless, that its very calm forced Margaret to weep. ‘Yo’ know well, that a worser tyrant than e’er th’ masters were says “Clem to death, and see ’em a’ clem to death, ere yo’ dare go again th’ Union.” Yo’ know it well, Nicholas, for a’ yo’re one on ’em. Yo’ may be kind hearts, each separate; but once banded together, yo’ve no more pity for a man than a wild hunger-maddened wolf.’

Nicholas had his hand on the lock of the door — he stopped and turned round on Boucher, close following:

‘So help me God! man alive — if I think not I’m doing best for thee, and for all on us. If I’m going wrong when I think I’m going right, it’s their sin, who ha’ left me where I am, in my ignorance. I ha’ thought till my brains ached — Beli’ me, John, I have. An’ I say again, there’s no help for us but having faith i’ th’ Union. They’ll win the day, see if they dunnot!’

Not one word had Margaret or Bessy spoken. They had hardly uttered the sighing, that the eyes of each called to the other to bring up from the depths of her heart. At last Bessy said,

‘I never thought to hear father call on God again. But yo’ heard him say, “So help me God!”’

‘Yes!’ said Margaret. ‘Let me bring you what money I can spare — let me bring you a little food for that poor man’s children. Don’t let them know it comes from any one but your father. It will be but little.’

Bessy lay back without taking any notice of what Margaret said. She did not cry — she only quivered up her breath,

‘My heart’s drained dry o’ tears,’ she said. ‘Boucher’s been in these days past, a telling me of his fears and his troubles. He’s but a weak kind o’ chap, I know, but he’s a man for a’ that; and tho’ I’ve been angry, many a time afore now, wi’ him an’ his wife, as knew no more nor him how to manage, yet, yo’ see, all folks isn’t wise, yet God lets ’em live — ay, an’ gives ’em some one to love, and be loved by, just as good as Solomon. An’, if sorrow comes to them they love, it hurts ’em as sore as e’er it did Solomon. I can’t make it out. Perhaps it’s as well such a one as Boucher has th’ Union to see after him. But I’d just like for to see th’ mean as make th’ Union, and put ’em one by one face to face wi’ Boucher. I reckon, if they heard him, they’d tell him (if I cotched ’em one by one), he might go back and get what he could for his work, even if it weren’t so much as they ordered.’

Margaret sat utterly silent. How was she ever to go away into comfort and forget that man’s voice, with the tone of unutterable agony, telling more by far than his words of what he had to suffer? She took out her purse; she had not much in it of what she could call her own, but what she had she put into Bessy’s hand without speaking.

‘Thank yo’. There’s many on ’em gets no more, and is not so bad off — leastways does not show it as he does. But father won’t let ’em want, now he knows. Yo’ see, Boucher’s been pulled down wi’ his childer — and her being so cranky, and a’ they could pawn has gone this last twelvemonth. Yo’re not to think we’d ha’ letten ’em clem, for all we’re a bit pressed oursel’; if neighbours doesn’t see after neighbours, I dunno who will.’ Bessy seemed almost afraid lest Margaret should think they had not the will, and, to a certain degree, the power of helping one whom she evidently regarded as having a claim upon them. ‘Besides,’ she went on, ‘father is sure and positive the masters must give in within these next few days — that they canna hould on much longer. But I thank yo’ all the same — I thank yo’ for mysel’, as much as for Boucher, for it just makes my heart warm to yo’ more and more.’

Bessy seemed much quieter today, but fearfully languid a exhausted. As she finished speaking, she looked so faint and weary that Margaret became alarmed.

‘It’s nout,’ said Bessy. ‘It’s not death yet. I had a fearfu’ night wi’ dreams — or somewhat like dreams, for I were wide awake — and I’m all in a swounding daze today — only yon poor chap made me alive again. No! it’s not death yet, but death is not far off. Ay! Cover me up, and I’ll may be sleep, if th’ cough will let me. Good night — good afternoon, m’appen I should say — but th’ light is dim an’ misty today.’

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17