North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter 4

Doubts and Difficulties

‘Cast me upon some naked shore,

Where I may tracke

Only the print of some sad wracke,

If thou be there, though the seas roare,

I shall no gentler calm implore.’

— HABINGTON.

He was gone. The house was shut up for the evening. No more deep blue skies or crimson and amber tints. Margaret went up to dress for the early tea, finding Dixon in a pretty temper from the interruption which a visitor had naturally occasioned on a busy day. She showed it by brushing away viciously at Margaret’s hair, under pretence of being in a great hurry to go to Mrs. Hale. Yet, after all, Margaret had to wait a long time in the drawing-room before her mother came down. She sat by herself at the fire, with unlighted candles on the table behind her, thinking over the day, the happy walk, happy sketching, cheerful pleasant dinner, and the uncomfortable, miserable walk in the garden.

How different men were to women! Here was she disturbed and unhappy, because her instinct had made anything but a refusal impossible; while he, not many minutes after he had met with a rejection of what ought to have been the deepest, holiest proposal of his life, could speak as if briefs, success, and all its superficial consequences of a good house, clever and agreeable society, were the sole avowed objects of his desires. Oh dear! how she could have loved him if he had but been different, with a difference which she felt, on reflection, to be one that went low — deep down. Then she took it into her head that, after all, his lightness might be but assumed, to cover a bitterness of disappointment which would have been stamped on her own heart if she had loved and been rejected.

Her mother came into the room before this whirl of thoughts was adjusted into anything like order. Margaret had to shake off the recollections of what had been done and said through the day, and turn a sympathising listener to the account of how Dixon had complained that the ironing-blanket had been burnt again; and how Susan Lightfoot had been seen with artificial flowers in her bonnet, thereby giving evidence of a vain and giddy character. Mr. Hale sipped his tea in abstracted silence; Margaret had the responses all to herself. She wondered how her father and mother could be so forgetful, so regardless of their companion through the day, as never to mention his name. She forgot that he had not made them an offer.

After tea Mr. Hale got up, and stood with his elbow on the chimney-piece, leaning his head on his hand, musing over something, and from time to time sighing deeply. Mrs. Hale went out to consult with Dixon about some winter clothing for the poor. Margaret was preparing her mother’s worsted work, and rather shrinking from the thought of the long evening, and wishing bed-time were come that she might go over the events of the day again.

‘Margaret!’ said Mr. Hale, at last, in a sort of sudden desperate way, that made her start. ‘Is that tapestry thing of immediate consequence? I mean, can you leave it and come into my study? I want to speak to you about something very serious to us all.’

‘Very serious to us all.’ Mr. Lennox had never had the opportunity of having any private conversation with her father after her refusal, or else that would indeed be a very serious affair. In the first place, Margaret felt guilty and ashamed of having grown so much into a woman as to be thought of in marriage; and secondly, she did not know if her father might not be displeased that she had taken upon herself to decline Mr. Lennox’s proposal. But she soon felt it was not about anything, which having only lately and suddenly occurred, could have given rise to any complicated thoughts, that her father wished to speak to her. He made her take a chair by him; he stirred the fire, snuffed the candles, and sighed once or twice before he could make up his mind to say — and it came out with a jerk after all —‘Margaret! I am going to leave Helstone.’

‘Leave Helstone, papa! But why?’

Mr. Hale did not answer for a minute or two. He played with some papers on the table in a nervous and confused manner, opening his lips to speak several times, but closing them again without having the courage to utter a word. Margaret could not bear the sight of the suspense, which was even more distressing to her father than to herself.

‘But why, dear papa? Do tell me!’

He looked up at her suddenly, and then said with a slow and enforced calmness:

‘Because I must no longer be a minister in the Church of England.’

Margaret had imagined nothing less than that some of the preferments which her mother so much desired had befallen her father at last — something that would force him to leave beautiful, beloved Helstone, and perhaps compel him to go and live in some of the stately and silent Closes which Margaret had seen from time to time in cathedral towns. They were grand and imposing places, but if, to go there, it was necessary to leave Helstone as a home for ever, that would have been a sad, long, lingering pain. But nothing to the shock she received from Mr. Hale’s last speech. What could he mean? It was all the worse for being so mysterious. The aspect of piteous distress on his face, almost as imploring a merciful and kind judgment from his child, gave her a sudden sickening. Could he have become implicated in anything Frederick had done? Frederick was an outlaw. Had her father, out of a natural love for his son, connived at any —

‘Oh! what is it? do speak, papa! tell me all! Why can you no longer be a clergyman? Surely, if the bishop were told all we know about Frederick, and the hard, unjust —’

‘It is nothing about Frederick; the bishop would have nothing to do with that. It is all myself. Margaret, I will tell you about it. I will answer any questions this once, but after to-night let us never speak of it again. I can meet the consequences of my painful, miserable doubts; but it is an effort beyond me to speak of what has caused me so much suffering.’

‘Doubts, papa! Doubts as to religion?’ asked Margaret, more shocked than ever.

‘No! not doubts as to religion; not the slightest injury to that.’ He paused. Margaret sighed, as if standing on the verge of some new horror. He began again, speaking rapidly, as if to get over a set task:

‘You could not understand it all, if I told you — my anxiety, for years past, to know whether I had any right to hold my living — my efforts to quench my smouldering doubts by the authority of the Church. Oh! Margaret, how I love the holy Church from which I am to be shut out!’ He could not go on for a moment or two. Margaret could not tell what to say; it seemed to her as terribly mysterious as if her father were about to turn Mahometan.

‘I have been reading today of the two thousand who were ejected from their churches,’— continued Mr. Hale, smiling faintly — ‘trying to steal some of their bravery; but it is of no use — no use — I cannot help feeling it acutely.’

‘But, papa, have you well considered? Oh! it seems so terrible, so shocking,’ said Margaret, suddenly bursting into tears. The one staid foundation of her home, of her idea of her beloved father, seemed reeling and rocking. What could she say? What was to be done? The sight of her distress made Mr. Hale nerve himself, in order to try and comfort her. He swallowed down the dry choking sobs which had been heaving up from his heart hitherto, and going to his bookcase he took down a volume, which he had often been reading lately, and from which he thought he had derived strength to enter upon the course in which he was now embarked.

‘Listen, dear Margaret,’ said he, putting one arm round her waist. She took his hand in hers and grasped it tight, but she could not lift up her head; nor indeed could she attend to what he read, so great was her internal agitation.

‘This is the soliloquy of one who was once a clergyman in a country parish, like me; it was written by a Mr. Oldfield, minister of Carsington, in Derbyshire, a hundred and sixty years ago, or more. His trials are over. He fought the good fight.’ These last two sentences he spoke low, as if to himself. Then he read aloud —

‘When thou canst no longer continue in thy work without dishonour to God, discredit to religion, foregoing thy integrity, wounding conscience, spoiling thy peace, and hazarding the loss of thy salvation; in a word, when the conditions upon which thou must continue (if thou wilt continue) in thy employments are sinful, and unwarranted by the word of God, thou mayest, yea, thou must believe that God will turn thy very silence, suspension, deprivation, and laying aside, to His glory, and the advancement of the Gospel’s interest. When God will not use thee in one kind, yet He will in another. A soul that desires to serve and honour Him shall never want opportunity to do it; nor must thou so limit the Holy One of Israel as to think He hath but one way in which He can glorify Himself by thee. He can do it by thy silence as well as by thy preaching; thy laying aside as well as thy continuance in thy work. It is not pretence of doing God the greatest service, or performing the weightiest duty, that will excuse the least sin, though that sin capacitated or gave us the opportunity for doing that duty. Thou wilt have little thanks, O my soul! if, when thou art charged with corrupting God’s worship, falsifying thy vows, thou pretendest a necessity for it in order to a continuance in the ministry. As he read this, and glanced at much more which he did not read, he gained resolution for himself, and felt as if he too could be brave and firm in doing what he believed to be right; but as he ceased he heard Margaret’s low convulsive sob; and his courage sank down under the keen sense of suffering.

‘Margaret, dear!’ said he, drawing her closer, ‘think of the early martyrs; think of the thousands who have suffered.’

‘But, father,’ said she, suddenly lifting up her flushed, tear-wet face, ‘the early martyrs suffered for the truth, while you — oh! dear, dear papa!’

‘I suffer for conscience’ sake, my child,’ said he, with a dignity that was only tremulous from the acute sensitiveness of his character; ‘I must do what my conscience bids. I have borne long with self-reproach that would have roused any mind less torpid and cowardly than mine.’ He shook his head as he went on. ‘Your poor mother’s fond wish, gratified at last in the mocking way in which over-fond wishes are too often fulfilled — Sodom apples as they are — has brought on this crisis, for which I ought to be, and I hope I am thankful. It is not a month since the bishop offered me another living; if I had accepted it, I should have had to make a fresh declaration of conformity to the Liturgy at my institution. Margaret, I tried to do it; I tried to content myself with simply refusing the additional preferment, and stopping quietly here — strangling my conscience now, as I had strained it before. God forgive me!’

He rose and walked up and down the room, speaking low words of self-reproach and humiliation, of which Margaret was thankful to hear but few. At last he said,

‘Margaret, I return to the old sad burden we must leave Helstone.’

‘Yes! I see. But when?’

‘I have written to the bishop — I dare say I have told you so, but I forget things just now,’ said Mr. Hale, collapsing into his depressed manner as soon as he came to talk of hard matter-of-fact details, ‘informing him of my intention to resign this vicarage. He has been most kind; he has used arguments and expostulations, all in vain — in vain. They are but what I have tried upon myself, without avail. I shall have to take my deed of resignation, and wait upon the bishop myself, to bid him farewell. That will be a trial, but worse, far worse, will be the parting from my dear people. There is a curate appointed to read prayers — a Mr. Brown. He will come to stay with us tomorrow. Next Sunday I preach my farewell sermon.’

Was it to be so sudden then? thought Margaret; and yet perhaps it was as well. Lingering would only add stings to the pain; it was better to be stunned into numbness by hearing of all these arrangements, which seemed to be nearly completed before she had been told. ‘What does mamma say?’ asked she, with a deep sigh.

To her surprise, her father began to walk about again before he answered. At length he stopped and replied:

‘Margaret, I am a poor coward after all. I cannot bear to give pain. I know so well your mother’s married life has not been all she hoped — all she had a right to expect — and this will be such a blow to her, that I have never had the heart, the power to tell her. She must be told though, now,’ said he, looking wistfully at his daughter. Margaret was almost overpowered with the idea that her mother knew nothing of it all, and yet the affair was so far advanced!

‘Yes, indeed she must,’ said Margaret. ‘Perhaps, after all, she may not — Oh yes! she will, she must be shocked’— as the force of the blow returned upon herself in trying to realise how another would take it. ‘Where are we to go to?’ said she at last, struck with a fresh wonder as to their future plans, if plans indeed her father had.

‘To Milton–Northern,’ he answered, with a dull indifference, for he had perceived that, although his daughter’s love had made her cling to him, and for a moment strive to soothe him with her love, yet the keenness of the pain was as fresh as ever in her mind.

‘Milton–Northern! The manufacturing town in Darkshire?’

‘Yes,’ said he, in the same despondent, indifferent way.

‘Why there, papa?’ asked she.

‘Because there I can earn bread for my family. Because I know no one there, and no one knows Helstone, or can ever talk to me about it.’

‘Bread for your family! I thought you and mamma had’— and then she stopped, checking her natural interest regarding their future life, as she saw the gathering gloom on her father’s brow. But he, with his quick intuitive sympathy, read in her face, as in a mirror, the reflections of his own moody depression, and turned it off with an effort.

‘You shall be told all, Margaret. Only help me to tell your mother. I think I could do anything but that: the idea of her distress turns me sick with dread. If I tell you all, perhaps you could break it to her tomorrow. I am going out for the day, to bid Farmer Dobson and the poor people on Bracy Common good-bye. Would you dislike breaking it to her very much, Margaret?’

Margaret did dislike it, did shrink from it more than from anything she had ever had to do in her life before. She could not speak, all at once. Her father said, ‘You dislike it very much, don’t you, Margaret?’ Then she conquered herself, and said, with a bright strong look on her face:

‘It is a painful thing, but it must be done, and I will do it as well as ever I can. You must have many painful things to do.’

Mr. Hale shook his head despondingly: he pressed her hand in token of gratitude. Margaret was nearly upset again into a burst of crying. To turn her thoughts, she said: ‘Now tell me, papa, what our plans are. You and mamma have some money, independent of the income from the living, have not you? Aunt Shaw has, I know.’

‘Yes. I suppose we have about a hundred and seventy pounds a year of our own. Seventy of that has always gone to Frederick, since he has been abroad. I don’t know if he wants it all,’ he continued in a hesitating manner. ‘He must have some pay for serving with the Spanish army.’

‘Frederick must not suffer,’ said Margaret, decidedly; ‘in a foreign country; so unjustly treated by his own. A hundred is left Could not you, and I, and mamma live on a hundred a year in some very cheap — very quiet part of England? Oh! I think we could.’

‘No!’ said Mr. Hale. ‘That would not answer. I must do something. I must make myself busy, to keep off morbid thoughts. Besides, in a country parish I should be so painfully reminded of Helstone, and my duties here. I could not bear it, Margaret. And a hundred a year would go a very little way, after the necessary wants of housekeeping are met, towards providing your mother with all the comforts she has been accustomed to, and ought to have. No: we must go to Milton. That is settled. I can always decide better by myself, and not influenced by those whom I love,’ said he, as a half apology for having arranged so much before he had told any one of his family of his intentions. ‘I cannot stand objections. They make me so undecided.’

Margaret resolved to keep silence. After all, what did it signify where they went, compared to the one terrible change?

Mr. Hale continued: ‘A few months ago, when my misery of doubt became more than I could bear without speaking, I wrote to Mr. Bell — you remember Mr. Bell, Margaret?’

‘No; I never saw him, I think. But I know who he is. Frederick’s godfather — your old tutor at Oxford, don’t you mean?’

‘Yes. He is a Fellow of Plymouth College there. He is a native of Milton–Northern, I believe. At any rate, he has property there, which has very much increased in value since Milton has become such a large manufacturing town. Well, I had reason to suspect — to imagine — I had better say nothing about it, however. But I felt sure of sympathy from Mr. Bell. I don’t know that he gave me much strength. He has lived an easy life in his college all his days. But he has been as kind as can be. And it is owing to him we are going to Milton.’

‘How?’ said Margaret.

‘Why he has tenants, and houses, and mills there; so, though he dislikes the place — too bustling for one of his habits — he is obliged to keep up some sort of connection; and he tells me that he hears there is a good opening for a private tutor there.’

‘A private tutor!’ said Margaret, looking scornful: ‘What in the world do manufacturers want with the classics, or literature, or the accomplishments of a gentleman?’

‘Oh,’ said her father, ‘some of them really seem to be fine fellows, conscious of their own deficiencies, which is more than many a man at Oxford is. Some want resolutely to learn, though they have come to man’s estate. Some want their children to be better instructed than they themselves have been. At any rate, there is an opening, as I have said, for a private tutor. Mr. Bell has recommended me to a Mr. Thornton, a tenant of his, and a very intelligent man, as far as I can judge from his letters. And in Milton, Margaret, I shall find a busy life, if not a happy one, and people and scenes so different that I shall never be reminded of Helstone.’

There was the secret motive, as Margaret knew from her own feelings. It would be different. Discordant as it was — with almost a detestation for all she had ever heard of the North of England, the manufacturers, the people, the wild and bleak country — there was this one recommendation — it would be different from Helstone, and could never remind them of that beloved place.

‘When do we go?’ asked Margaret, after a short silence.

‘I do not know exactly. I wanted to talk it over with you. You see, your mother knows nothing about it yet: but I think, in a fortnight; — after my deed of resignation is sent in, I shall have no right to remain.

Margaret was almost stunned.

‘In a fortnight!’

‘No — no, not exactly to a day. Nothing is fixed,’ said her father, with anxious hesitation, as he noticed the filmy sorrow that came over her eyes, and the sudden change in her complexion. But she recovered herself immediately.

‘Yes, papa, it had better be fixed soon and decidedly, as you say. Only mamma to know nothing about it! It is that that is the great perplexity.’

‘Poor Maria!’ replied Mr. Hale, tenderly. ‘Poor, poor Maria! Oh, if I were not married — if I were but myself in the world, how easy it would be! As it is — Margaret, I dare not tell her!’

‘No,’ said Margaret, sadly, ‘I will do it. Give me till tomorrow evening to choose my time Oh, papa,’ cried she, with sudden passionate entreaty, ‘say — tell me it is a night-mare — a horrid dream — not the real waking truth! You cannot mean that you are really going to leave the Church — to give up Helstone — to be for ever separate from me, from mamma — led away by some delusion — some temptation! You do not really mean it!’

Mr. Hale sat in rigid stillness while she spoke.

Then he looked her in the face, and said in a slow, hoarse, measured way —‘I do mean it, Margaret. You must not deceive yourself into doubting the reality of my words — my fixed intention and resolve.’ He looked at her in the same steady, stony manner, for some moments after he had done speaking. She, too, gazed back with pleading eyes before she would believe that it was irrevocable. Then she arose and went, without another word or look, towards the door. As her fingers were on the handle he called her back. He was standing by the fireplace, shrunk and stooping; but as she came near he drew himself up to his full height, and, placing his hands on her head, he said, solemnly:

‘The blessing of God be upon thee, my child!’

‘And may He restore you to His Church,’ responded she, out of the fulness of her heart. The next moment she feared lest this answer to his blessing might be irreverent, wrong — might hurt him as coming from his daughter, and she threw her arms round his neck. He held her to him for a minute or two. She heard him murmur to himself, ‘The martyrs and confessors had even more pain to bear — I will not shrink.’

They were startled by hearing Mrs. Hale inquiring for her daughter. They started asunder in the full consciousness of all that was before them. Mr. Hale hurriedly said —‘Go, Margaret, go. I shall be out all tomorrow. Before night you will have told your mother.’

‘Yes,’ she replied, and she returned to the drawing-room in a stunned and dizzy state.

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