North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter 31

‘Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot?’

‘Show not that manner, and these features all,

The serpent’s cunning, and the sinner’s fall?’

CRABBE.

The chill, shivery October morning came; not the October morning of the country, with soft, silvery mists, clearing off before the sunbeams that bring out all the gorgeous beauty of colouring, but the October morning of Milton, whose silver mists were heavy fogs, and where the sun could only show long dusky streets when he did break through and shine. Margaret went languidly about, assisting Dixon in her task of arranging the house. Her eyes were continually blinded by tears, but she had no time to give way to regular crying. The father and brother depended upon her; while they were giving way to grief, she must be working, planning, considering. Even the necessary arrangements for the funeral seemed to devolve upon her.

When the fire was bright and crackling — when everything was ready for breakfast, and the tea-kettle was singing away, Margaret gave a last look round the room before going to summon Mr. Hale and Frederick. She wanted everything to look as cheerful as possible; and yet, when it did so, the contrast between it and her own thoughts forced her into sudden weeping. She was kneeling by the sofa, hiding her face in the cushions that no one might hear her cry, when she was touched on the shoulder by Dixon.

‘Come, Miss Hale — come, my dear! You must not give way, or where shall we all be? There is not another person in the house fit to give a direction of any kind, and there is so much to be done. There’s who’s to manage the funeral; and who’s to come to it; and where it’s to be; and all to be settled: and Master Frederick’s like one crazed with crying, and master never was a good one for settling; and, poor gentleman, he goes about now as if he was lost. It’s bad enough, my dear, I know; but death comes to us all; and you’re well off never to have lost any friend till now. ‘Perhaps so. But this seemed a loss by itself; not to bear comparison with any other event in the world. Margaret did not take any comfort from what Dixon said, but the unusual tenderness of the prim old servant’s manner touched her to the heart; and, more from a desire to show her gratitude for this than for any other reason, she roused herself up, and smiled in answer to Dixon’s anxious look at her; and went to tell her father and brother that breakfast was ready.

Mr. Hale came — as if in a dream, or rather with the unconscious motion of a sleep-walker, whose eyes and mind perceive other things than what are present. Frederick came briskly in, with a forced cheerfulness, grasped her hand, looked into her eyes, and burst into tears. She had to try and think of little nothings to say all breakfast-time, in order to prevent the recurrence of her companions’ thoughts too strongly to the last meal they had taken together, when there had been a continual strained listening for some sound or signal from the sick-room.

After breakfast, she resolved to speak to her father, about the funeral. He shook his head, and assented to all she proposed, though many of her propositions absolutely contradicted one another. Margaret gained no real decision from him; and was leaving the room languidly, to have a consultation with Dixon, when Mr. Hale motioned her back to his side.

‘Ask Mr. Bell,’ said he in a hollow voice.

‘Mr. Bell!’ said she, a little surprised. ‘Mr. Bell of Oxford?’

‘Mr. Bell,’ he repeated. ‘Yes. He was my groom’s-man.’

Margaret understood the association.

‘I will write today,’ said she. He sank again into listlessness. All morning she toiled on, longing for rest, but in a continual whirl of melancholy business.

Towards evening, Dixon said to her:

‘I’ve done it, miss. I was really afraid for master, that he’d have a stroke with grief. He’s been all this day with poor missus; and when I’ve listened at the door, I’ve heard him talking to her, and talking to her, as if she was alive. When I went in he would be quite quiet, but all in a maze like. So I thought to myself, he ought to be roused; and if it gives him a shock at first, it will, maybe, be the better afterwards. So I’ve been and told him, that I don’t think it’s safe for Master Frederick to be here. And I don’t. It was only on Tuesday, when I was out, that I met-a Southampton man — the first I’ve seen since I came to Milton; they don’t make their way much up here, I think. Well, it was young Leonards, old Leonards the draper’s son, as great a scamp as ever lived — who plagued his father almost to death, and then ran off to sea. I never could abide him. He was in the Orion at the same time as Master Frederick, I know; though I don’t recollect if he was there at the mutiny.’

‘Did he know you?’ said Margaret, eagerly.

‘Why, that’s the worst of it. I don’t believe he would have known me but for my being such a fool as to call out his name. He were a Southampton man, in a strange place, or else I should never have been so ready to call cousins with him, a nasty, good-for-nothing fellow. Says he, “Miss Dixon! who would ha’ thought of seeing you here? But perhaps I mistake, and you’re Miss Dixon no longer?” So I told him he might still address me as an unmarried lady, though if I hadn’t been so particular, I’d had good chances of matrimony. He was polite enough: “He couldn’t look at me and doubt me.” But I were not to be caught with such chaff from such a fellow as him, and so I told him; and, by way of being even, I asked him after his father (who I knew had turned him out of doors), as if they was the best friends as ever was. So then, to spite me — for you see we were getting savage, for all we were so civil to each other — he began to inquire after Master Frederick, and said, what a scrape he’d got into (as if Master Frederick’s scrapes would ever wash George Leonards’ white, or make ’em look otherwise than nasty, dirty black), and how he’d be hung for mutiny if ever he were caught, and how a hundred pound reward had been offered for catching him, and what a disgrace he had been to his family — all to spite me, you see, my dear, because before now I’ve helped old Mr. Leonards to give George a good rating, down in Southampton. So I said, there were other families be thankful if they could think they were earning an honest living as I knew, who had far more cause to blush for their sons, and to far away from home. To which he made answer, like the impudent chap he is, that he were in a confidential situation, and if I knew of any young man who had been so unfortunate as to lead vicious courses, and wanted to turn steady, he’d have no objection to lend him his patronage. He, indeed! Why, he’d corrupt a saint. I’ve not felt so bad myself for years as when I were standing talking to him the other day. I could have cried to think I couldn’t spite him better, for he kept smiling in my face, as if he took all my compliments for earnest; and I couldn’t see that he minded what I said in the least, while I was mad with all his speeches.’

‘But you did not tell him anything about us — about Frederick?’

‘Not I,’ said Dixon. ‘He had never the grace to ask where I was staying; and I shouldn’t have told him if he had asked. Nor did I ask him what his precious situation was. He was waiting for a bus, and just then it drove up, and he hailed it. But, to plague me to the last, he turned back before he got in, and said, “If you can help me to trap Lieutenant Hale, Miss Dixon, we’ll go partners in the reward. I know you’d like to be my partner, now wouldn’t you? Don’t be shy, but say yes.” And he jumped on the bus, and I saw his ugly face leering at me with a wicked smile to think how he’d had the last word of plaguing.’

Margaret was made very uncomfortable by this account of Dixon’s.

‘Have you told Frederick?’ asked she.

‘No,’ said Dixon. ‘I were uneasy in my mind at knowing that bad Leonards was in town; but there was so much else to think about that I did not dwell on it at all. But when I saw master sitting so stiff, and with his eyes so glazed and sad, I thought it might rouse him to have to think of Master Frederick’s safety a bit. So I told him all, though I blushed to say how a young man had been speaking to me. And it has done master good. And if we’re to keep Master Frederick in hiding, he would have to go, poor fellow, before Mr. Bell came.’

‘Oh, I’m not afraid of Mr. Bell; but I am afraid of this Leonards. I must tell Frederick. What did Leonards look like?’

‘A bad-looking fellow, I can assure you, miss. Whiskers such as I should be ashamed to wear — they are so red. And for all he said he’d got a confidential situation, he was dressed in fustian just like a working-man.’

It was evident that Frederick must go. Go, too, when he had so completely vaulted into his place in the family, and promised to be such a stay and staff to his father and sister. Go, when his cares for the living mother, and sorrow for the dead, seemed to make him one of those peculiar people who are bound to us by a fellow-love for them that are taken away. Just as Margaret was thinking all this, sitting over the drawing-room fire — her father restless and uneasy under the pressure of this newly-aroused fear, of which he had not as yet spoken — Frederick came in, his brightness dimmed, but the extreme violence of his grief passed away. He came up to Margaret, and kissed her forehead.

‘How wan you look, Margaret!’ said he in a low voice. ‘You have been thinking of everybody, and no one has thought of you. Lie on this sofa — there is nothing for you to do.’

‘That is the worst,’ said Margaret, in a sad whisper. But she went and lay down, and her brother covered her feet with a shawl, and then sate on the ground by her side; and the two began to talk in a subdued tone.

Margaret told him all that Dixon had related of her interview with young Leonards. Frederick’s lips closed with a long whew of dismay.

‘I should just like to have it out with that young fellow. A worse sailor was never on board ship — nor a much worse man either. I declare, Margaret — you know the circumstances of the whole affair?’

‘Yes, mamma told me.’

‘Well, when all the sailors who were good for anything were indignant with our captain, this fellow, to curry favour — pah! And to think of his being here! Oh, if he’d a notion I was within twenty miles of him, he’d ferret me out to pay off old grudges. I’d rather anybody had the hundred pounds they think I am worth than that rascal. What a pity poor old Dixon could not be persuaded to give me up, and make a provision for her old age!’

‘Oh, Frederick, hush! Don’t talk so.’

Mr. Hale came towards them, eager and trembling. He had overheard what they were saying. He took Frederick’s hand in both of his:

‘My boy, you must go. It is very bad — but I see you must. You have done all you could — you have been a comfort to her.’

‘Oh, papa, must he go?’ said Margaret, pleading against her own conviction of necessity.

‘I declare, I’ve a good mind to face it out, and stand my trial. If I could only pick up my evidence! I cannot endure the thought of being in the power of such a blackguard as Leonards. I could almost have enjoyed — in other circumstances — this stolen visit: it has had all the charm which the French-woman attributed to forbidden pleasures.’

‘One of the earliest things I can remember,’ said Margaret, ‘was your being in some great disgrace, Fred, for stealing apples. We had plenty of our own — trees loaded with them; but some one had told you that stolen fruit tasted sweetest, which you took au pied de la lettre, and off you went a-robbing. You have not changed your feelings much since then.’

‘Yes — you must go,’ repeated Mr. Hale, answering Margaret’s question, which she had asked some time ago. His thoughts were fixed on one subject, and it was an effort to him to follow the zig-zag remarks of his children — an effort which ho did not make.

Margaret and Frederick looked at each other. That quick momentary sympathy would be theirs no longer if he went away. So much was understood through eyes that could not be put into words. Both coursed the same thought till it was lost in sadness. Frederick shook it off first:

‘Do you know, Margaret, I was very nearly giving both Dixon and myself a good fright this afternoon. I was in my bedroom; I had heard a ring at the front door, but I thought the ringer must have done his business and gone away long ago; so I was on the point of making my appearance in the passage, when, as I opened my room door, I saw Dixon coming downstairs; and she frowned and kicked me into hiding again. I kept the door open, and heard a message given to some man that was in my father’s study, and that then went away. Who could it have been? Some of the shopmen?’

‘Very likely,’ said Margaret, indifferently. ‘There was a little quiet man who came up for orders about two o’clock.’

‘But this was not a little man — a great powerful fellow; and it was past four when he was here.’

‘It was Mr. Thornton,’ said Mr. Hale. They were glad to have drawn him into the conversation.

‘Mr. Thornton!’ said Margaret, a little surprised. ‘I thought ——’

‘Well, little one, what did you think?’ asked Frederick, as she did not finish her sentence.

‘Oh, only,’ said she, reddening and looking straight at him, ‘I fancied you meant some one of a different class, not a gentleman; somebody come on an errand.’

‘He looked like some one of that kind,’ said Frederick, carelessly. ‘I took him for a shopman, and he turns out a manufacturer.’

Margaret was silent. She remembered how at first, before she knew his character, she had spoken and thought of him just as Frederick was doing. It was but a natural impression that was made upon him, and yet she was a little annoyed by it. She was unwilling to speak; she wanted to make Frederick understand what kind of person Mr. Thornton was — but she was tongue-tied.

Mr. Hale went on. ‘He came to offer any assistance in his power, I believe. But I could not see him. I told Dixon to ask him if he would like to see you — I think I asked her to find you, and you would go to him. I don’t know what I said.’

‘He has been a very agreeable acquaintance, has he not?’ asked Frederick, throwing the question like a ball for any one to catch who chose.

‘A very kind friend,’ said Margaret, when her father did not answer.

Frederick was silent for a time. At last he spoke:

‘Margaret, it is painful to think I can never thank those who have shown you kindness. Your acquaintances and mine must be separate. Unless, indeed, I run the chances of a court-martial, or unless you and my father would come to Spain.’ He threw out this last suggestion as a kind of feeler; and then suddenly made the plunge. ‘You don’t know how I wish you would. I have a good position — the chance of a better,’ continued he, reddening like a girl. ‘That Dolores Barbour that I was telling you of, Margaret — I only wish you knew her; I am sure you would like — no, love is the right word, like is so poor — you would love her, father, if you knew her. She is not eighteen; but if she is in the same mind another year, she is to be my wife. Mr. Barbour won’t let us call it an engagement. But if you would come, you would find friends everywhere, besides Dolores. Think of it, father. Margaret, be on my side.’

‘No — no more removals for me,’ said Mr. Hale. ‘One removal has cost me my wife. No more removals in this life. She will be here; and here will I stay out my appointed time.’

‘Oh, Frederick,’ said Margaret, ‘tell us more about her. I never thought of this; but I am so glad. You will have some one to love and care for you out there. Tell us all about it.’

‘In the first place, she is a Roman Catholic. That’s the only objection I anticipated. But my father’s change of opinion — nay, Margaret, don’t sigh.’

Margaret had reason to sigh a little more before the conversation ended. Frederick himself was Roman Catholic in fact, though not in profession as yet. This was, then, the reason why his sympathy in her extreme distress at her father’s leaving the Church had been so faintly expressed in his letters. She had thought it was the carelessness of a sailor; but the truth was, that even then he was himself inclined to give up the form of religion into which he had been baptised, only that his opinions were tending in exactly the opposite direction to those of his father. How much love had to do with this change not even Frederick himself could have told. Margaret gave up talking about this branch of the subject at last; and, returning to the fact of the engagement, she began to consider it in some fresh light:

‘But for her sake, Fred, you surely will try and clear yourself of the exaggerated charges brought against you, even if the charge of mutiny itself be true. If there were to be a court-martial, and you could find your witnesses, you might, at any rate, show how your disobedience to authority was because that authority was unworthily exercised.’

Mr. Hale roused himself up to listen to his son’s answer.

‘In the first place, Margaret, who is to hunt up my witnesses? All of them are sailors, drafted off to other ships, except those whose evidence would go for very little, as they took part, or sympathised in the affair. In the next place, allow me to tell you, you don’t know what a court-martial is, and consider it as an assembly where justice is administered, instead of what it really is — a court where authority weighs nine-tenths in the balance, and evidence forms only the other tenth. In such cases, evidence itself can hardly escape being influenced by the prestige of authority.’

‘But is it not worth trying, to see how much evidence might be discovered and arrayed on your behalf? At present, all those who knew you formerly, believe you guilty without any shadow of excuse. You have never tried to justify yourself, and we have never known where to seek for proofs of your justification. Now, for Miss Barbour’s sake, make your conduct as clear as you can in the eye of the world. She may not care for it; she has, I am sure, that trust in you that we all have; but you ought not to let her ally herself to one under such a serious charge, without showing the world exactly how it is you stand. You disobeyed authority — that was bad; but to have stood by, without word or act, while the authority was brutally used, would have been infinitely worse. People know what you did; but not the motives that elevate it out of a crime into an heroic protection of the weak. For Dolores’ sake, they ought to know.’

‘But how must I make them know? I am not sufficiently sure of the purity and justice of those who would be my judges, to give myself up to a court-martial, even if I could bring a whole array of truth-speaking witnesses. I can’t send a bellman about, to cry aloud and proclaim in the streets what you are pleased to call my heroism. No one would read a pamphlet of self-justification so long after the deed, even if I put one out.’

‘Will you consult a lawyer as to your chances of exculpation?’ asked Margaret, looking up, and turning very red.

‘I must first catch my lawyer, and have a look at him, and see how I like him, before I make him into my confidant. Many a briefless barrister might twist his conscience into thinking, that he could earn a hundred pounds very easily by doing a good action — in giving me, a criminal, up to justice.’

‘Nonsense, Frederick! — because I know a lawyer on whose honour I can rely; of whose cleverness in his profession people speak very highly; and who would, I think, take a good deal of trouble for any of — of Aunt Shaw’s relations Mr. Henry Lennox, papa.’

‘I think it is a good idea,’ said Mr. Hale. ‘But don’t propose anything which will detain Frederick in England. Don’t, for your mother’s sake.’

‘You could go to London tomorrow evening by a night-train,’ continued Margaret, warming up into her plan. ‘He must go tomorrow, I’m afraid, papa,’ said she, tenderly; ‘we fixed that, because of Mr. Bell, and Dixon’s disagreeable acquaintance.’

‘Yes; I must go tomorrow,’ said Frederick decidedly.

Mr. Hale groaned. ‘I can’t bear to part with you, and yet I am miserable with anxiety as long as you stop here.’

‘Well then,’ said Margaret, ‘listen to my plan. He gets to London on Friday morning. I will — you might — no! it would be better for me to give him a note to Mr. Lennox. You will find him at his chambers in the Temple.’

‘I will write down a list of all the names I can remember on board the Orion. I could leave it with him to ferret them out. He is Edith’s husband’s brother, isn’t he? I remember your naming him in your letters. I have money in Barbour’s hands. I can pay a pretty long bill, if there is any chance of success Money, dear father, that I had meant for a different purpose; so I shall only consider it as borrowed from you and Margaret.’

‘Don’t do that,’ said Margaret. ‘You won’t risk it if you do. And it will be a risk only it is worth trying. You can sail from London as well as from Liverpool?’

‘To be sure, little goose. Wherever I feel water heaving under a plank, there I feel at home. I’ll pick up some craft or other to take me off, never fear. I won’t stay twenty-four hours in London, away from you on the one hand, and from somebody else on the other.’

It was rather a comfort to Margaret that Frederick took it into his head to look over her shoulder as she wrote to Mr. Lennox. If she had not been thus compelled to write steadily and concisely on, she might have hesitated over many a word, and been puzzled to choose between many an expression, in the awkwardness of being the first to resume the intercourse of which the concluding event had been so unpleasant to both sides. However, the note was taken from her before she had even had time to look it over, and treasured up in a pocket-book, out of which fell a long lock of black hair, the sight of which caused Frederick’s eyes to glow with pleasure.

‘Now you would like to see that, wouldn’t you?’ said he. ‘No! you must wait till you see her herself She is too perfect to be known by fragments. No mean brick shall be a specimen of the building of my palace.’

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