North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter 28

Comfort in Sorrow

‘Through cross to crown! — And though thy spirit’s life

Trials untold assail with giant strength,

Good cheer! good cheer! Soon ends the bitter strife,

And thou shalt reign in peace with Christ at length.’

KOSEGARTEN.

‘Ay sooth, we feel too strong in weal, to need Thee on that road;

But woe being come, the soul is dumb, that crieth not on “God.”’

MRS. BROWNING.

That afternoon she walked swiftly to the Higgins’s house. Mary was looking out for her, with a half-distrustful face. Margaret smiled into her eyes to re-assure her. They passed quickly through the house-place, upstairs, and into the quiet presence of the dead. Then Margaret was glad that she had come. The face, often so weary with pain, so restless with troublous thoughts, had now the faint soft smile of eternal rest upon it. The slow tears gathered into Margaret’s eyes, but a deep calm entered into her soul. And that was death! It looked more peaceful than life. All beautiful scriptures came into her mind. ‘They rest from their labours.’ ‘The weary are at rest.’ ‘He giveth His beloved sleep.’

Slowly, slowly Margaret turned away from the bed. Mary was humbly sobbing in the back-ground. They went down stairs without a word.

Resting his hand upon the house-table, Nicholas Higgins stood in the midst of the floor; his great eyes startled open by the news he had heard, as he came along the court, from many busy tongues. His eyes were dry and fierce; studying the reality of her death; bringing himself to understand that her place should know her no more. For she had been sickly, dying so long, that he had persuaded himself she would not die; that she would ‘pull through.’

Margaret felt as if she had no business to be there, familiarly acquainting herself with the surroundings of death which he, the father, had only just learnt. There had been a pause of an instant on the steep crooked stair, when she first saw him; but now she tried to steal past his abstracted gaze, and to leave him in the solemn circle of his household misery.

Mary sat down on the first chair she came to, and throwing her apron over her head, began to cry.

The noise appeared to rouse him. He took sudden hold of Margaret’s arm, and held her till he could gather words to speak seemed dry; they came up thick, and choked, and hoarse:

‘Were yo’ with her? Did yo’ see her die?’

‘No!’ replied Margaret, standing still with the utmost patience, now she found herself perceived. It was some time before he spoke again, but he kept his hold on her arm.

‘All men must die,’ said he at last, with a strange sort of gravity, which first suggested to Margaret the idea that he had been drinking — not enough to intoxicate himself, but enough to make his thoughts bewildered. ‘But she were younger than me.’ Still he pondered over the event, not looking at Margaret, though he grasped her tight. Suddenly, he looked up at her with a wild searching inquiry in his glance. ‘Yo’re sure and certain she’s dead — not in a dwam, a faint? — she’s been so before, often.’

‘She is dead,’ replied Margaret. She felt no fear in speaking to him, though he hurt her arm with his gripe, and wild gleams came across the stupidity of his eyes.

‘She is dead!’ she said.

He looked at her still with that searching look, which seemed to fade out of his eyes as he gazed. Then he suddenly let go his hold of Margaret, and, throwing his body half across the table, he shook it and every piece of furniture in the room, with his violent sobs. Mary came trembling towards him.

‘Get thee gone! — get thee gone!’ he cried, striking wildly and blindly at her. ‘What do I care for thee?’ Margaret took her hand, and held it softly in hers. He tore his hair, he beat his head against the hard wood, then he lay exhausted and stupid. Still his daughter and Margaret did not move. Mary trembled from head to foot.

At last — it might have been a quarter of an hour, it might have been an hour — he lifted himself up. His eyes were swollen and bloodshot, and he seemed to have forgotten that any one was by; he scowled at the watchers when he saw them. He Shook himself heavily, gave them one more sullen look, spoke never a word, but made for the door.

‘Oh, father, father!’ said Mary, throwing herself upon his arm — ‘not to-night! Any night but to-night. Oh, help me! he’s going out to drink again! Father, I’ll not leave yo’. Yo’ may strike, but I’ll not leave yo’. She told me last of all to keep yo’ fro’ drink!’

But Margaret stood in the doorway, silent yet commanding. He looked up at her defyingly.

‘It’s my own house. Stand out o’ the way, wench, or I’ll make yo’!’ He had shaken off Mary with violence; he looked ready to strike Margaret. But she never moved a feature — never took her deep, serious eyes off him. He stared back on her with gloomy fierceness. If she had stirred hand or foot, he would have thrust her aside with even more violence than he had used to his own daughter, whose face was bleeding from her fall against a chair.

‘What are yo’ looking at me in that way for?’ asked he at last, daunted and awed by her severe calm. ‘If yo’ think for to keep me from going what gait I choose, because she loved yo’— and in my own house, too, where I never asked yo’ to come, yo’re mista’en. It’s very hard upon a man that he can’t go to the only comfort left.’

Margaret felt that he acknowledged her power. What could she do next? He had seated himself on a chair, close to the door; half-conquered, half-resenting; intending to go out as soon as she left her position, but unwilling to use the violence he had threatened not five minutes before. Margaret laid her hand on his arm.

‘Come with me,’ she said. ‘Come and see her!’

The voice in which she spoke was very low and solemn; but there was no fear or doubt expressed in it, either of him or of his compliance. He sullenly rose up. He stood uncertain, with dogged irresolution upon his face. She waited him there; quietly and patiently waited for his time to move. He had a strange pleasure in making her wait; but at last he moved towards the stairs.

She and he stood by the corpse.

‘Her last words to Mary were, “Keep my father fro’ drink.”’

‘It canna hurt her now,’ muttered he. ‘Nought can hurt her now.’ Then, raising his voice to a wailing cry, he went on: ‘We may quarrel and fall out — we may make peace and be friends — we may clem to skin and bone — and nought o’ all our griefs will ever touch her more. Hoo’s had her portion on ’em. What wi’ hard work first, and sickness at last, hoo’s led the life of a dog. And to die without knowing one good piece o’ rejoicing in all her days! Nay, wench, whatever hoo said, hoo can know nought about it now, and I mun ha’ a sup o’ drink just to steady me again sorrow.’

‘No,’ said Margaret, softening with his softened manner. ‘You shall not. If her life has been what you say, at any rate she did not fear death as some do. Oh, you should have heard her speak of the life to come — the life hidden with God, that she is now gone to.’

He shook his head, glancing sideways up at Margaret as he did so. His pale, haggard face struck her painfully.

‘You are sorely tired. Where have you been all day — not at work?’

‘Not at work, sure enough,’ said he, with a short, grim laugh. ‘Not at what you call work. I were at the Committee, till I were sickened out wi’ trying to make fools hear reason. I were fetched to Boucher’s wife afore seven this morning. She’s bed-fast, but she were raving and raging to know where her dunder-headed brute of a chap was, as if I’d to keep him — as if he were fit to be ruled by me. The d —— d fool, who has put his foot in all our plans! And I’ve walked my feet sore wi’ going about for to see men who wouldn’t be seen, now the law is raised again us. And I were sore-hearted, too, which is worse than sore-footed; and if I did see a friend who ossed to treat me, I never knew hoo lay a-dying here. Bess, lass, thou’d believe me, thou wouldst — wouldstn’t thou?’ turning to the poor dumb form with wild appeal.

‘I am sure,’ said Margaret, ‘I am sure you did not know: it was quite sudden. But now, you see, it would be different; you do know; you do see her lying there; you hear what she said with her last breath. You will not go?’

No answer. In fact, where was he to look for comfort?

‘Come home with me,’ said she at last, with a bold venture, half trembling at her own proposal as she made it. ‘At least you shall have some comfortable food, which I’m sure you need.’

‘Yo’r father’s a parson?’ asked he, with a sudden turn in his ideas.

‘He was,’ said Margaret, shortly.

‘I’ll go and take a dish o’ tea with him, since yo’ve asked me. I’ve many a thing I often wished to say to a parson, and I’m not particular as to whether he’s preaching now, or not.’

Margaret was perplexed; his drinking tea with her father, who would be totally unprepared for his visitor — her mother so ill — seemed utterly out of the question; and yet if she drew back now, it would be worse than ever — sure to drive him to the gin-shop. She thought that if she could only get him to their own house, it was so great a step gained that she would trust to the chapter of accidents for the next.

‘Goodbye, ou’d wench! We’ve parted company at last, we have! But thou’st been a blessin’ to thy father ever sin’ thou wert born. Bless thy white lips, lass — they’ve a smile on ’em now! and I’m glad to see it once again, though I’m lone and forlorn for evermore.’

He stooped down and fondly kissed his daughter; covered up her face, and turned to follow Margaret. She had hastily gone down stairs to tell Mary of the arrangement; to say it was the only way she could think of to keep him from the gin-palace; to urge Mary to come too, for her heart smote her at the idea of leaving the poor affectionate girl alone. But Mary had friends among the neighbours, she said, who would come in and sit a bit with her, it was all right; but father —

He was there by them as she would have spoken more. He had shaken off his emotion, as if he was ashamed of having ever given way to it; and had even o’erleaped himself so much that he assumed a sort of bitter mirth, like the crackling of thorns under a pot.

‘I’m going to take my tea wi’ her father, I am!’

But he slouched his cap low down over his brow as he went out into the street, and looked neither to the right nor to the left, while he tramped along by Margaret’s side; he feared being upset by the words, still more the looks, of sympathising neighbours. So he and Margaret walked in silence.

As he got near the street in which he knew she lived, he looked down at his clothes, his hands, and shoes.

‘I should m’appen ha’ cleaned mysel’, first?’

It certainly would have been desirable, but Margaret assured him he should be allowed to go into the yard, and have soap and towel provided; she could not let him slip out of her hands just then.

While he followed the house-servant along the passage, and through the kitchen, stepping cautiously on every dark mark in the pattern of the oil-cloth, in order to conceal his dirty foot-prints, Margaret ran upstairs. She met Dixon on the landing.

‘How is mamma? — where is papa?’

Missus was tired, and gone into her own room. She had wanted to go to bed, but Dixon had persuaded her to lie down on the sofa, and have her tea brought to her there; it would be better than getting restless by being too long in bed.

So far, so good. But where was Mr. Hale? In the drawing-room. Margaret went in half breathless with the hurried story she had to tell. Of course, she told it incompletely; and her father was rather ‘taken aback’ by the idea of the drunken weaver awaiting him in his quiet study, with whom he was expected to drink tea, and on whose behalf Margaret was anxiously pleading. The meek, kind-hearted Mr. Hale would have readily tried to console him in his grief, but, unluckily, the point Margaret dwelt upon most forcibly was the fact of his having been drinking, and her having brought him home with her as a last expedient to keep him from the gin-shop. One little event had come out of another so naturally that Margaret was hardly conscious of what she had done, till she saw the slight look of repugnance on her father’s face.

‘Oh, papa! he really is a man you will not dislike — if you won’t be shocked to begin with.’

‘But, Margaret, to bring a drunken man home — and your mother so ill!’

Margaret’s countenance fell. ‘I am sorry, papa. He is very quiet — he is not tipsy at all. He was only rather strange at first, but that might be the shock of poor Bessy’s death.’ Margaret’s eyes filled with tears. Mr. Hale took hold of her sweet pleading face in both his hands, and kissed her forehead.

‘It is all right, dear. I’ll go and make him as comfortable as I can, and do you attend to your mother. Only, if you can come in and make a third in the study, I shall be glad.’

‘Oh, yes — thank you.’ But as Mr. Hale was leaving the room, she ran after him:

‘Papa — you must not wonder at what he says: he’s an —— I mean he does not believe in much of what we do.’

‘Oh dear! a drunken infidel weaver!’ said Mr. Hale to himself, in dismay. But to Margaret he only said, ‘If your mother goes to sleep, be sure you come directly.’

Margaret went into her mother’s room. Mrs. Hale lifted herself up from a doze.

‘When did you write to Frederick, Margaret? Yesterday, or the day before?’

‘Yesterday, mamma.’

‘Yesterday. And the letter went?’

‘Yes. I took it myself’

‘Oh, Margaret, I’m so afraid of his coming! If he should be recognised! If he should be taken! If he should be executed, after all these years that he has kept away and lived in safety! I keep falling asleep and dreaming that he is caught and being tried.’

‘Oh, mamma, don’t be afraid. There will be some risk no doubt; but we will lessen it as much as ever we can. And it is so little! Now, if we were at Helstone, there would be twenty — a hundred times as much. There, everybody would remember him and if there was a stranger known to be in the house, they would be sure to guess it was Frederick; while here, nobody knows or cares for us enough to notice what we do. Dixon will keep the door like a dragon — won’t you, Dixon — while he is here?’

‘They’ll be clever if they come in past me!’ said Dixon, showing her teeth at the bare idea.

‘And he need not go out, except in the dusk, poor fellow!’

‘Poor fellow!’ echoed Mrs. Hale. ‘But I almost wish you had not written. Would it be too late to stop him if you wrote again, Margaret?’

‘I’m afraid it would, mamma,’ said Margaret, remembering the urgency with which she had entreated him to come directly, if he wished to see his mother alive.

‘I always dislike that doing things in such a hurry,’ said Mrs. Hale.

Margaret was silent.

‘Come now, ma am,’ said Dixon, with a kind of cheerful authority, ‘you know seeing Master Frederick is just the very thing of all others you’re longing for. And I’m glad Miss Margaret wrote off straight, without shilly-shallying. I’ve had a great mind to do it myself. And we’ll keep him snug, depend upon it. There’s only Martha in the house that would not do a good deal to save him on a pinch; and I’ve been thinking she might go and see her mother just at that very time. She’s been saying once or twice she should like to go, for her mother has had a stroke since she came here, only she didn’t like to ask. But I’ll see about her being safe off, as soon as we know when he comes, God bless him! So take your tea, ma’am, in comfort, and trust to me.’

Mrs. Hale did trust in Dixon more than in Margaret. Dixon’s words quieted her for the time. Margaret poured out the tea in silence, trying to think of something agreeable to say; but her thoughts made answer something like Daniel O’Rourke, when the man-inthe-moon asked him to get off his reaping-hook. ‘The more you ax us, the more we won’t stir.’ The more she tried to think of something anything besides the danger to which Frederick would be exposed — the more closely her imagination clung to the unfortunate idea presented to her. Her mother prattled with Dixon, and seemed to have utterly forgotten the possibility of Frederick being tried and executed — utterly forgotten that at her wish, if by Margaret’s deed, he was summoned into this danger. Her mother was one of those who throw out terrible possibilities, miserable probabilities, unfortunate chances of all kinds, as a rocket throws out sparks; but if the sparks light on some combustible matter, they smoulder first, and burst out into a frightful flame at last. Margaret was glad when, her filial duties gently and carefully performed, she could go down into the study. She wondered how her father and Higgins had got on.

In the first place, the decorous, kind-hearted, simple, old-fashioned gentleman, had unconsciously called out, by his own refinement and courteousness of manner, all the latent courtesy in the other.

Mr. Hale treated all his fellow-creatures alike: it never entered into his head to make any difference because of their rank. He placed a chair for Nicholas stood up till he, at Mr. Hale’s request, took a seat; and called him, invariably, ‘Mr. Higgins,’ instead of the curt ‘Nicholas’ or ‘Higgins,’ to which the ‘drunken infidel weaver’ had been accustomed. But Nicholas was neither an habitual drunkard nor a thorough infidel. He drank to drown care, as he would have himself expressed it: and he was infidel so far as he had never yet found any form of faith to which he could attach himself, heart and soul.

Margaret was a little surprised, and very much pleased, when she found her father and Higgins in earnest conversation — each speaking with gentle politeness to the other, however their opinions might clash. Nicholas — clean, tidied (if only at the pump-trough), and quiet spoken — was a new creature to her, who had only seen him in the rough independence of his own hearthstone. He had ‘slicked’ his hair down with the fresh water; he had adjusted his neck-handkerchief, and borrowed an odd candle-end to polish his clogs with and there he sat, enforcing some opinion on her father, with a strong Darkshire accent, it is true, but with a lowered voice, and a good, earnest composure on his face. Her father, too, was interested in what his companion was saying. He looked round as she came in, smiled, and quietly gave her his chair, and then sat down afresh as quickly as possible, and with a little bow of apology to his guest for the interruption. Higgins nodded to her as a sign of greeting; and she softly adjusted her working materials on the table, and prepared to listen.

‘As I was a-sayin, sir, I reckon yo’d not ha’ much belief in yo’ if yo’ lived here — if yo’d been bred here. I ax your pardon if I use wrong words; but what I mean by belief just now, is a-thinking on sayings and maxims and promises made by folk yo’ never saw, about the things and the life, yo’ never saw, nor no one else. Now, yo’ say these are true things, and true sayings, and a true life. I just say, where’s the proof? There’s many and many a one wiser, and scores better learned than I am around me — folk who’ve had time to think on these things — while my time has had to be gi’en up to getting my bread. Well, I sees these people. Their lives is pretty much open to me. They’re real folk. They don’t believe i’ the Bible — not they. They may say they do, for form’s sake; but Lord, sir, d’ye think their first cry i’ th’ morning is, “What shall I do to get hold on eternal life?” or “What shall I do to fill my purse this blessed day? Where shall I go? What bargains shall I strike?” The purse and the gold and the notes is real things; things as can be felt and touched; them’s realities; and eternal life is all a talk, very fit for — I ax your pardon, sir; yo’r a parson out o’ work, I believe. Well! I’ll never speak disrespectful of a man in the same fix as I’m in mysel’. But I’ll just ax yo another question, sir, and I dunnot want yo to answer it, only to put in yo’r pipe, and smoke it, afore yo’ go for to set down us, who only believe in what we see, as fools and noddies. If salvation, and life to come, and what not, was true — not in men’s words, but in men’s hearts’ core — dun yo’ not think they’d din us wi’ it as they do wi’ political ‘conomy? They’re mighty anxious to come round us wi’ that piece o’ wisdom; but t’other would be a greater convarsion, if it were true.’

‘But the masters have nothing to do with your religion. All that they are connected with you in is trade — so they think — and all that it concerns them, therefore, to rectify your opinions in is the science of trade.’

‘I’m glad, sir,’ said Higgins, with a curious wink of his eye, ‘that yo’ put in, “so they think.” I’d ha’ thought yo’ a hypocrite, I’m afeard, if yo’ hadn’t, for all yo’r a parson, or rayther because yo’r a parson. Yo’ see, if yo’d spoken o’ religion as a thing that, if it was true, it didn’t concern all men to press on all men’s attention, above everything else in this ‘varsal earth, I should ha’ thought yo’ a knave for to be a parson; and I’d rather think yo’ a fool than a knave. No offence, I hope, sir.’

‘None at all. You consider me mistaken, and I consider you far more fatally mistaken. I don’t expect to convince you in a day — not in one conversation; but let us know each other, and speak freely to each other about these things, and the truth will prevail. I should not believe in God if I did not believe that. Mr. Higgins, I trust, whatever else you have given up, you believe’—(Mr. Hale’s voice dropped low in reverence)—‘you believe in Him.’

Nicholas Higgins suddenly stood straight, stiff up. Margaret started to her feet — for she thought, by the working of his face, he was going into convulsions. Mr. Hale looked at her dismayed. At last Higgins found words:

‘Man! I could fell yo’ to the ground for tempting me. Whatten business have yo’ to try me wi’ your doubts? Think o’ her lying theere, after the life hoo’s led and think then how yo’d deny me the one sole comfort left — that there is a God, and that He set her her life. I dunnot believe she’ll ever live again,’ said he, sitting down, and drearily going on, as if to the unsympathising fire. ‘I dunnot believe in any other life than this, in which she dreed such trouble, and had such never-ending care; and I cannot bear to think it were all a set o’ chances, that might ha’ been altered wi’ a breath o’ wind. There’s many a time when I’ve thought I didna believe in God, but I’ve never put it fair out before me in words, as many men do. I may ha’ laughed at those who did, to brave it out like — but I have looked round at after, to see if He heard me, if so be there was a He; but today, when I’m left desolate, I wunnot listen to yo’ wi’ yo’r questions, and yo’r doubts. There’s but one thing steady and quiet i’ all this reeling world, and, reason or no reason, I’ll cling to that. It’s a’ very well for happy folk’——

Margaret touched his arm very softly. She had not spoken before, nor had he heard her rise.

‘Nicholas, we do not want to reason; you misunderstand my father. We do not reason — we believe; and so do you. It is the one sole comfort in such times.’

He turned round and caught her hand. ‘Ay! it is, it is —(brushing away the tears with the back of his hand). —‘But yo’ know, she’s lying dead at home and I’m welly dazed wi’ sorrow, and at times I hardly know what I’m saying. It’s as if speeches folk ha’ made — clever and smart things as I’ve thought at the time — come up now my heart’s welly brossen. Th’ strike’s failed as well; dun yo’ know that, miss? I were coming whoam to ask her, like a beggar as I am, for a bit o’ comfort i’ that trouble; and I were knocked down by one who telled me she were dead — just dead That were all; but that were enough for me.

Mr. Hale blew his nose, and got up to snuff the candles in order to conceal his emotion. ‘He’s not an infidel, Margaret; how could you say so?’ muttered he reproachfully ‘I’ve a good mind to read him the fourteenth chapter of Job.’

‘Not yet, papa, I think. Perhaps not at all. Let us ask him about the strike, and give him all the sympathy he needs, and hoped to have from poor Bessy.’

So they questioned and listened. The workmen’s calculations were based (like too many of the masters’) on false premises. They reckoned on their fellow-men as if they possessed the calculable powers of machines, no more, no less; no allowance for human passions getting the better of reason, as in the case of Boucher and the rioters; and believing that the representations of their injuries would have the same effect on strangers far away, as the injuries (fancied or real) had upon themselves. They were consequently surprised and indignant at the poor Irish, who had allowed themselves to be imported and brought over to take their places. This indignation was tempered, in some degree, by contempt for ‘them Irishers,’ and by pleasure at the idea of the bungling way in which they would set to work, and perplex their new masters with their ignorance and stupidity, strange exaggerated stories of which were already spreading through the town. But the most cruel cut of all was that of the Milton workmen, who had defied and disobeyed the commands of the Union to keep the peace, whatever came; who had originated discord in the camp, and spread the panic of the law being arrayed against them.

‘And so the strike is at an end,’ said Margaret.

‘Ay, miss. It’s save as save can. Th’ factory doors will need open wide tomorrow to let in all who’ll be axing for work; if it’s only just to show they’d nought to do wi’ a measure, which if we’d been made o’ th’ right stuff would ha’ brought wages up to a point they’n not been at this ten year.’

‘You’ll get work, shan’t you?’ asked Margaret. ‘You’re a famous workman, are not you?’

‘Hamper’ll let me work at his mill, when he cuts off his right hand — not before, and not after,’ said Nicholas, quietly. Margaret was silenced and sad.

‘About the wages,’ said Mr. Hale. ‘You’ll not be offended, but I think you make some sad mistakes. I should like to read you some remarks in a book I have.’ He got up and went to his book-shelves.

‘Yo’ needn’t trouble yoursel’, sir,’ said Nicholas. ‘Their book-stuff goes in at one ear and out at t’other. I can make nought on’t. Afore Hamper and me had this split, th’ overlooker telled him I were stirring up the men to ask for higher wages; and Hamper met me one day in th’ yard. He’d a thin book i’ his hand, and says he, “Higgins, I’m told you’re one of those damned fools that think you can get higher wages for asking for ’em; ay, and keep ’em up too, when you’ve forced ’em up. Now, I’ll give yo’ a chance and try if yo’ve any sense in yo’. Here’s a book written by a friend o’ mine, and if yo’ll read it yo’ll see how wages find their own level, without either masters or men having aught to do with them; except the men cut their own throats wi’ striking, like the confounded noodles they are.” Well, now, sir, I put it to yo’, being a parson, and having been in th’ preaching line, and having had to try and bring folk o’er to what yo’ thought was a right way o’ thinking — did yo’ begin by calling ’em fools and such like, or didn’t yo’ rayther give ’em some kind words at first, to make ’em ready for to listen and be convinced, if they could; and in yo’r preaching, did yo’ stop every now and then, and say, half to them and half to yo’rsel’, “But yo’re such a pack o’ fools, that I’ve a strong notion it’s no use my trying to put sense into yo’?” I were not i’ th’ best state, I’ll own, for taking in what Hamper’s friend had to say — I were so vexed at the way it were put to me; — but I thought, “Come, I’ll see what these chaps has got to say, and try if it’s them or me as is th’ noodle.” So I took th’ book and tugged at it; but, Lord bless yo’, it went on about capital and labour, and labour and capital, till it fair sent me off to sleep. I ne’er could rightly fix i’ my mind which was which; and it spoke on ’em as if they was vartues or vices; and what I wanted for to know were the rights o’ men, whether they were rich or poor — so be they only were men.’

‘But for all that,’ said Mr. Hale, ‘and granting to the full the offensiveness, the folly, the unchristianness of Mr. Hamper’s way of speaking to you in recommending his friend’s book, yet if it told you what he said it did, that wages find their own level, and that the most successful strike can only force them up for a moment, to sink in far greater proportion afterwards, in consequence of that very strike, the book would have told you the truth.’

‘Well, sir,’ said Higgins, rather doggedly; ‘it might, or it might not. There’s two opinions go to settling that point. But suppose it was truth double strong, it were no truth to me if I couldna take it in. I daresay there’s truth in yon Latin book on your shelves; but it’s gibberish and not truth to me, unless I know the meaning o’ the words. If yo’, sir, or any other knowledgable, patient man come to me, and says he’ll larn me what the words mean, and not blow me up if I’m a bit stupid, or forget how one thing hangs on another — why, in time I may get to see the truth of it; or I may not. I’ll not be bound to say I shall end in thinking the same as any man. And I’m not one who think truth can be shaped out in words, all neat and clean, as th’ men at th’ foundry cut out sheet-iron. Same bones won’t go down wi’ every one. It’ll stick here i’ this man’s throat, and there i’ t’other’s. Let alone that, when down, it may be too strong for this one, too weak for that. Folk who sets up to doctor th’ world wi’ their truth, mun suit different for different minds; and be a bit tender in th’ way of giving it too, or th’ poor sick fools may spit it out i’ their faces. Now Hamper first gi’es me a box on my ear, and then he throws his big bolus at me, and says he reckons it’ll do me no good, I’m such a fool, but there it is.’

‘I wish some of the kindest and wisest of the masters would meet some of you men, and have a good talk on these things; it would, surely, be the best way of getting over your difficulties, which, I do believe, arise from your ignorance — excuse me, Mr. Higgins — on subjects which it is for the mutual interest of both masters and men should be well understood by both. I wonder’—(half to his daughter), ‘if Mr. Thornton might not be induced to do such a thing?’

‘Remember, papa,’ said she in a very low voice, ‘what he said one day — about governments, you know.’ She was unwilling to make any clearer allusion to the conversation they had held on the mode of governing work-people — by giving men intelligence enough to rule themselves, or by a wise despotism on the part of the master — for she saw that Higgins had caught Mr. Thornton s name, if not the whole of the speech: indeed, he began to speak of him.

‘Thornton! He’s the chap as wrote off at once for these Irishers; and led to th’ riot that ruined th’ strike. Even Hamper wi’ all his bullying, would ha’ waited a while — but it’s a word and a blow wi’ Thornton. And, now, when th’ Union would ha’ thanked him for following up th’ chase after Boucher, and them chaps as went right again our commands, it’s Thornton who steps forrard and coolly says that, as th’ strike’s at an end, he, as party injured, doesn’t want to press the charge again the rioters. I thought he’d had more pluck. I thought he’d ha’ carried his point, and had his revenge in an open way; but says he (one in court telled me his very words) “they are well known; they will find the natural punishment of their conduct, in the difficulty they will meet wi’ in getting employment. That will be severe enough.” I only wish they’d cotched Boucher, and had him up before Hamper. I see th’ oud tiger setting on him! would he ha’ let him off? Not he!’

‘Mr. Thornton was right,’ said Margaret. You are angry against Boucher, Nicholas; or else you would be the first to see, that where the natural punishment would be severe enough for the offence, any farther punishment would be something like revenge.

‘My daughter is no great friend of Mr. Thornton’s,’ said Mr. Hale, smiling at Margaret; while she, as red as any carnation, began to work with double diligence, ‘but I believe what she says is the truth. I like him for it.’

‘Well, sir, this strike has been a weary piece o’ business to me; and yo’ll not wonder if I’m a bit put out wi’ seeing it fail, just for a few men who would na suffer in silence, and hou’d out, brave and firm.’

‘You forget!’ said Margaret. ‘I don’t know much of Boucher; but the only time I saw him it was not his own sufferings he spoke of, but those of his sick wife — his little children.’

‘True! but he were not made of iron himsel’. He’d ha’ cried out for his own sorrows, next. He were not one to bear.’

‘How came he into the Union?’ asked Margaret innocently. ‘You don’t seem to have much respect for him; nor gained much good from having him in.’

Higgins’s brow clouded. He was silent for a minute or two. Then he said, shortly enough:

‘It’s not for me to speak o’ th’ Union. What they does, they does. Them that is of a trade mun hang together; and if they’re not willing to take their chance along wi’ th’ rest, th’ Union has ways and means.’

Mr. Hale saw that Higgins was vexed at the turn the conversation had taken, and was silent. Not so Margaret, though she saw Higgins’s feeling as clearly as he did. By instinct she felt, that if he could but be brought to express himself in plain words, something clear would be gained on which to argue for the right and the just.

‘And what are the Union’s ways and means?’

He looked up at her, as if on’ the point of dogged resistance to her wish for information. But her calm face, fixed on his, patient and trustful, compelled him to answer.

‘Well! If a man doesn’t belong to th’ Union, them as works next looms has orders not to speak to him — if he’s sorry or ill it’s a’ the same; he’s out o’ bounds; he’s none o’ us; he comes among us, he works among us, but he’s none o’ us. I’ some places them’s fined who speaks to him. Yo’ try that, miss; try living a year or two among them as looks away if yo’ look at ’em; try working within two yards o’ crowds o’ men, who, yo’ know, have a grinding grudge at yo’ in their hearts — to whom if yo’ say yo’r glad, not an eye brightens, nor a lip moves — to whom if your heart’s heavy, yo’ can never say nought, because they’ll ne’er take notice on your sighs or sad looks (and a man ‘s no man who’ll groan out loud ‘bout folk asking him what ‘s the matter?)— just yo’ try that, miss — ten hours for three hundred days, and yo’ll know a bit what th’ Union is.’

‘Why!’ said Margaret, ‘what tyranny this is! Nay, Higgins, I don’t care one straw for your anger. I know you can’t be angry with me if you would, and I must tell you the truth: that I never read, in all the history I have read, of a more slow, lingering torture than this. And you belong to the Union! And you talk of the tyranny of the masters!’

‘Nay,’ said Higgins, ‘yo’ may say what yo’ like! The dead stand between yo and every angry word o’ mine. D’ ye think I forget who’s lying there, and how hoo loved yo’? And it’s th’ masters as has made us sin, if th’ Union is a sin. Not this generation maybe, but their fathers. Their fathers ground our fathers to the very dust; ground us to powder! Parson! I reckon, I’ve heerd my mother read out a text, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and th’ children’s teeth are set on edge.” It’s so wi’ them. In those days of sore oppression th’ Unions began; it were a necessity. It’s a necessity now, according to me. It’s a withstanding of injustice, past, present, or to come. It may be like war; along wi’ it come crimes; but I think it were a greater crime to let it alone. Our only chance is binding men together in one common interest; and if some are cowards and some are fools, they mun come along and join the great march, whose only strength is in numbers.’

‘Oh!’ said Mr. Hale, sighing, ‘your Union in itself would be beautiful, glorious — it would be Christianity itself — if it were but for an end which affected the good of all, instead of that of merely one class as opposed to another.’

‘I reckon it’s time for me to be going, sir,’ said Higgins, as the clock struck ten.

‘Home?’ said Margaret very softly. He understood her, and took her offered hand. ‘Home, miss. Yo’ may trust me, tho’ I am one o’ th’ Union.’

‘I do trust you most thoroughly, Nicholas.’

‘Stay!’ said Mr. Hale, hurrying to the book-shelves. ‘Mr. Higgins! I’m sure you’ll join us in family prayer?’

Higgins looked at Margaret, doubtfully. Hey grave sweet eyes met his; there was no compulsion, only deep interest in them. He did not speak, but he kept his place.

Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gaskell/elizabeth/north/chapter28.html

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