North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter 27

Fruit-Piece

‘For never any thing can be amiss

When simpleness and duty tender it.’

MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.

Mr. Thornton went straight and clear into all the interests of the following day. There was a slight demand for finished goods; and as it affected his branch of the trade, he took advantage of it, and drove hard bargains. He was sharp to the hour at the meeting of his brother magistrates — giving them the best assistance of his strong sense, and his power of seeing consequences at a glance, and so coming to a rapid decision. Older men, men of long standing in the town, men of far greater wealth — realised and turned into land, while his was all floating capital, engaged in his trade — looked to him for prompt, ready wisdom. He was the one deputed to see and arrange with the police — to lead in all the requisite steps. And he cared for their unconscious deference no more than for the soft west wind, that scarcely made the smoke from the great tall chimneys swerve in its straight upward course. He was not aware of the silent respect paid to him. If it had been otherwise, he would have felt it as an obstacle in his progress to the object he had in view. As it was, he looked to the speedy accomplishment of that alone. It was his mother’s greedy ears that sucked in, from the women-kind of these magistrates and wealthy men, how highly Mr. This or Mr. That thought of Mr. Thornton; that if he had not been there, things would have gone on very differently — very badly, indeed. He swept off his business right and left that day. It seemed as though his deep mortification of yesterday, and the stunned purposeless course of the hours afterwards, had cleared away all the mists from his intellect. He felt his power and revelled in it. He could almost defy his heart. If he had known it, he could have sang the song of the miller who lived by the river Dee:—

‘I care for nobody — Nobody cares for me.’

The evidence against Boucher, and other ringleaders of the riot, was taken before him; that against the three others, for conspiracy, failed. But he sternly charged the police to be on the watch; for the swift right arm of the law should be in readiness to strike, as soon as they could prove a fault. And then he left the hot reeking room in the borough court, and went out into the fresher, but still sultry street. It seemed as though he gave way all at once; he was so languid that he could not control his thoughts; they would wander to her; they would bring back the scene — not of his repulse and rejection the day before but the looks, the actions of the day before that. He went along the crowded streets mechanically, winding in and out among the people, but never seeing them — almost sick with longing for that one half-hour — that one brief space of time when she clung to him, and her heart beat against his — to come once again.

‘Why, Mr. Thornton you’re cutting me very coolly, I must say. And how is Mrs. Thornton? Brave weather this! We doctors don’t like it, I can tell you!’

‘I beg your pardon, Dr. Donaldson. I really didn’t see you. My mother’s quite well, thank you. It is a fine day, and good for the harvest, I hope. If the wheat is well got in, we shall have a brisk trade next year, whatever you doctors have.’

‘Ay, ay. Each man for himself Your bad weather, and your bad times, are my good ones. When trade is bad, there’s more undermining of health, and preparation for death, going on among you Milton men than you’re aware of.’

‘Not with me, Doctor. I’m made of iron. The news of the worst bad debt I ever had, never made my pulse vary. This strike, which affects me more than any one else in Milton — more than Hamper — never comes near my appetite. You must go elsewhere for a patient, Doctor.’

‘By the way, you’ve recommended me a good patient, poor lady! Not to go on talking in this heartless way, I seriously believe that Mrs. Hale — that lady in Crampton, you know — hasn’t many weeks to live. I never had any hope of cure, as I think I told you; but I’ve been seeing her today, and I think very badly of her.’

Mr. Thornton was silent. The vaunted steadiness of pulse failed him for an instant.

‘Can I do anything, Doctor?’ he asked, in an altered voice. ‘You know — you would see, that money is not very plentiful; are there any comforts or dainties she ought to have?’

‘No,’ replied the Doctor, shaking his head. ‘She craves for fruit — she has a constant fever on her; but jargonelle pears will do as well as anything, and there are quantities of them in the market.’

‘You will tell me, if there is anything I can do, I’m sure, replied Mr. Thornton. ‘I rely upon you.’

‘Oh! never fear! I’ll not spare your purse — I know it’s deep enough. I wish you’d give me carte-blanche for all my patients, and all their wants.’

But Mr. Thornton had no general benevolence — no universal philanthropy; few even would have given him credit for strong affections. But he went straight to the first fruit-shop in Milton, and chose out the bunch of purple grapes with the most delicate bloom upon them — the richest-coloured peaches — the freshest vine-leaves. They were packed into a basket, and the shopman awaited the answer to his inquiry, ‘Where shall we send them to, sir?’

There was no reply. ‘To Marlborough Mills, I suppose, sir?’

‘No!’ Mr. Thornton said. ‘Give the basket to me — I’ll take it.’

It took up both his hands to carry it; and he had to pass through the busiest part of the town for feminine shopping. Many a young lady of his acquaintance turned to look after him, and thought it strange to see him occupied just like a porter or an errand-boy.

He was thinking, ‘I will not be daunted from doing as I choose by the thought of her. I like to take this fruit to the poor mother, and it is simply right that I should. She shall never scorn me out of doing what I please. A pretty joke, indeed, if, for fear of a haughty girl, I failed in doing a kindness to a man I liked I do it for Mr. Hale; I do it in defiance of her.’

He went at an unusual pace, and was soon at Crampton. He went upstairs two steps at a time, and entered the drawing-room before Dixon could announce him — his face flushed, his eyes shining with kindly earnestness. Mrs. Hale lay on the sofa, heated with fever. Mr. Hale was reading aloud. Margaret was working on a low stool by her mother’s side. Her heart fluttered, if his did not, at this interview. But he took no notice of her, hardly of Mr. Hale himself; he went up straight with his basket to Mrs. Hale, and said, in that subdued and gentle tone, which is so touching when used by a robust man in full health, speaking to a feeble invalid —

‘I met Dr. Donaldson, ma’am, and as he said fruit would be good for you, I have taken the liberty — the great liberty of bringing you some that seemed to me fine.’ Mrs. Hale was excessively surprised; excessively pleased; quite in a tremble of eagerness. Mr. Hale with fewer words expressed a deeper gratitude.

‘Fetch a plate, Margaret — a basket — anything.’ Margaret stood up by the table, half afraid of moving or making any noise to arouse Mr. Thornton into a consciousness of her being in the room. She thought it would be awkward for both to be brought into conscious collision; and fancied that, from her being on a low seat at first, and now standing behind her father, he had overlooked her in his haste. As if he did not feel the consciousness of her presence all over, though his eyes had never rested on her!

‘I must go,’ said he, ‘I cannot stay. If you will forgive this liberty — my rough ways — too abrupt, I fear — but I will be more gentle next time. You will allow me the pleasure of bringing you some fruit again, if I should see any that is tempting. Good afternoon, Mr. Hale. Good-bye, ma’am.’

He was gone. Not one word: not one look to Margaret. She believed that he had not seen her. She went for a plate in silence, and lifted the fruit out tenderly, with the points of her delicate taper fingers. It was good of him to bring it; and after yesterday too!

‘Oh! it is so delicious!’ said Mrs. Hale, in a feeble voice. ‘How kind of him to think of me! Margaret love, only taste these grapes! Was it not good of him?’

‘Yes!’ said Margaret, quietly.

‘Margaret!’ said Mrs. Hale, rather querulously, ‘you won’t like anything Mr. Thornton does. I never saw anybody so prejudiced.’

Mr. Hale had been peeling a peach for his wife; and, cutting off a small piece for himself, he said:

‘If I had any prejudices, the gift of such delicious fruit as this would melt them all away. I have not tasted such fruit — no! not even in Hampshire — since I was a boy; and to boys, I fancy, all fruit is good. I remember eating sloes and crabs with a relish. Do you remember the matted-up currant bushes, Margaret, at the corner of the west-wall in the garden at home?’

Did she not? Did she not remember every weather-stain on the old stone wall; the gray and yellow lichens that marked it like a map; the little crane’s-bill that grew in the crevices? She had been shaken by the events of the last two days; her whole life just now was a strain upon her fortitude; and, somehow, these careless words of her father’s, touching on the remembrance of the sunny times of old, made her start up, and, dropping her sewing on the ground, she went hastily out of the room into her own little chamber. She had hardly given way to the first choking sob, when she became aware of Dixon standing at her drawers, and evidently searching for something.

‘Bless me, miss! How you startled me! Missus is not worse, is she? Is anything the matter?’

‘No, nothing. Only I’m silly, Dixon, and want a glass of water. What are you looking for? I keep my muslins in that drawer.’

Dixon did not speak, but went on rummaging. The scent of lavender came out and perfumed the room.

At last Dixon found what she wanted; what it was Margaret could not see. Dixon faced round, and spoke to her:

‘Now I don’t like telling you what I wanted, because you’ve fretting enough to go through, and I know you’ll fret about this. I meant to have kept it from you till night, may be, or such times as that.’

‘What is the matter? Pray, tell me, Dixon, at once.’

‘That young woman you go to see — Higgins, I mean.’

‘Well?’

‘Well! she died this morning, and her sister is here — come to beg a strange thing. It seems, the young woman who died had a fancy for being buried in something of yours, and so the sister’s come to ask for it — and I was looking for a night-cap that wasn’t too good to give away.’

‘Oh! let me find one,’ said Margaret, in the midst of her tears. ‘Poor Bessy! I never thought I should not see her again.’

‘Why, that’s another thing. This girl down-stairs wanted me to ask you, if you would like to see her.’

‘But she’s dead!’ said Margaret, turning a little pale. ‘I never saw a dead person. No! I would rather not.’

‘I should never have asked you, if you hadn’t come in. I told her you wouldn’t.’

‘I will go down and speak to her,’ said Margaret, afraid lest Dixon’s harshness of manner might wound the poor girl. So, taking the cap in her hand, she went to the kitchen. Mary’s face was all swollen with crying, and she burst out afresh when she saw Margaret.

‘Oh, ma’am, she loved yo’, she loved yo’, she did indeed!’ And for a long time, Margaret could not get her to say anything more than this. At last, her sympathy, and Dixon’s scolding, forced out a few facts. Nicholas Higgins had gone out in the morning, leaving Bessy as well as on the day before. But in an hour she was taken worse; some neighbour ran to the room where Mary was working; they did not know where to find her father; Mary had only come in a few minutes before she died.

‘It were a day or two ago she axed to be buried in somewhat o’ yourn. She were never tired o’ talking o’ yo’. She used to say yo’ were the prettiest thing she’d ever clapped eyes on. She loved yo’ dearly Her last words were, “Give her my affectionate respects; and keep father fro’ drink.” Yo’ll come and see her, ma’am. She would ha’ thought it a great compliment, I know.’

Margaret shrank a little from answering.

‘Yes, perhaps I may. Yes, I will. I’ll come before tea. But where’s your father, Mary?’

Mary shook her head, and stood up to be going.

‘Miss Hale,’ said Dixon, in a low voice, ‘where’s the use o’ your going to see the poor thing laid out? I’d never say a word against it, if it could do the girl any good; and I wouldn’t mind a bit going myself, if that would satisfy her. They’ve just a notion, these common folks, of its being a respect to the departed. Here,’ said she, turning sharply round, ‘I’ll come and see your sister. Miss Hale is busy, and she can’t come, or else she would.’

The girl looked wistfully at Margaret. Dixon’s coming might be a compliment, but it was not the same thing to the poor sister, who had had her little pangs of jealousy, during Bessy’s lifetime, at the intimacy between her and the young lady.

‘No, Dixon!’ said Margaret with decision. ‘I will go. Mary, you shall see me this afternoon.’ And for fear of her own cowardice, she went away, in order to take from herself any chance of changing her determination.

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