North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter 44

Ease Not Peace

‘A dull rotation, never at a stay,

Yesterday’s face twin image of today.’

COWPER.

‘Of what each one should be, he sees the form and rule,

And till he reach to that, his joy can ne’er be full.’

RUCKERT.

It was very well for Margaret that the extreme quiet of the Harley Street house, during Edith’s recovery from her confinement, gave her the natural rest which she needed. It gave her time to comprehend the sudden change which had taken place in her circumstances within the last two months. She found herself at once an inmate of a luxurious house, where the bare knowledge of the existence of every trouble or care seemed scarcely to have penetrated. The wheels of the machinery of daily life were well oiled, and went along with delicious smoothness. Mrs. Shaw and Edith could hardly make enough of Margaret, on her return to what they persisted in calling her home. And she felt that it was almost ungrateful in her to have a secret feeling that the Helstone vicarage — nay, even the poor little house at Milton, with her anxious father and her invalid mother, and all the small household cares of comparative poverty, composed her idea of home. Edith was impatient to get well, in order to fill Margaret’s bed-room with all the soft comforts, and pretty nick-knacks, with which her own abounded. Mrs. Shaw and her maid found plenty of occupation in restoring Margaret’s wardrobe to a state of elegant variety. Captain Lennox was easy, kind, and gentlemanly; sate with his wife in her dressing-room an hour or two every day; played with his little boy for another hour, and lounged away the rest of his time at his club, when he was not engaged out to dinner. Just before Margaret had recovered from her necessity for quiet and repose — before she had begun to feel her life wanting and dull — Edith came down-stairs and resumed her usual part in the household; and Margaret fell into the old habit of watching, and admiring, and ministering to her cousin. She gladly took all charge of the semblances of duties off Edith’s hands; answered notes, reminded her of engagements, tended her when no gaiety was in prospect, and she was consequently rather inclined to fancy herself ill. But all the rest of the family were in the full business of the London season, and Margaret was often left alone. Then her thoughts went back to Milton, with a strange sense of the contrast between the life there, and here. She was getting surfeited of the eventless ease in which no struggle or endeavour was required. She was afraid lest she should even become sleepily deadened into forgetfulness of anything beyond the life which was lapping her round with luxury. There might be toilers and moilers there in London, but she never saw them; the very servants lived in an underground world of their own, of which she knew neither the hopes nor the fears; they only seemed to start into existence when some want or whim of their master and mistress needed them. There was a strange unsatisfied vacuum in Margaret’s heart and mode of life; and, once when she had dimly hinted this to Edith, the latter, wearied with dancing the night before, languidly stroked Margaret’s cheek as she sat by her in the old attitude — she on a footstool by the sofa where Edith lay.

‘Poor child!’ said Edith. ‘It is a little sad for you to be left, night after night, just at this time when all the world is so gay. But we shall be having our dinner-parties soon — as soon as Henry comes back from circuit — and then there will be a little pleasant variety for you. No wonder it is moped, poor darling!’

Margaret did not feel as if the dinner-parties would be a panacea. But Edith piqued herself on her dinner-parties; ‘so different,’ as she said, ‘from the old dowager dinners under mamma’s regime;’ and Mrs. Shaw herself seemed to take exactly the same kind of pleasure in the very different arrangements and circle of acquaintances which were to Captain and Mrs. Lennox’s taste, as she did in the more formal and ponderous entertainments which she herself used to give. Captain Lennox was always extremely kind and brotherly to Margaret. She was really very fond of him, excepting when he was anxiously attentive to Edith’s dress and appearance, with a view to her beauty making a sufficient impression on the world. Then all the latent Vashti in Margaret was roused, and she could hardly keep herself from expressing her feelings.

The course of Margaret’s day was this; a quiet hour or two before a late breakfast; an unpunctual meal, lazily eaten by weary and half-awake people, but yet at which, in all its dragged-out length, she was expected to be present, because, directly afterwards, came a discussion of plans, at which, although they none of them concerned her, she was expected to give her sympathy, if she could not assist with her advice; an endless number of notes to write, which Edith invariably left to her, with many caressing compliments as to her eloquence du billet; a little play with Sholto as he returned from his morning’s walk; besides the care of the children during the servants’ dinner; a drive or callers; and some dinner or morning engagement for her aunt and cousins, which left Margaret free, it is true, but rather wearied with the inactivity of the day, coming upon depressed spirits and delicate health.

She looked forward with longing, though unspoken interest to the homely object of Dixon’s return from Milton; where, until now, the old servant had been busily engaged in winding up all the affairs of the Hale family. It had appeared a sudden famine to her heart, this entire cessation of any news respecting the people amongst whom she had lived so long. It was true, that Dixon, in her business-letters, quoted, every now and then, an opinion of Mr. Thornton’s as to what she had better do about the furniture, or how act in regard to the landlord of the Crampton Terrace house. But it was only here and there that the name came in, or any Milton name, indeed; and Margaret was sitting one evening, all alone in the Lennoxes’s drawing-room, not reading Dixon’s letters, which yet she held in her hand, but thinking over them, and recalling the days which had been, and picturing the busy life out of which her own had been taken and never missed; wondering if all went on in that whirl just as if she and her father had never been; questioning within herself, if no one in all the crowd missed her, (not Higgins, she was not thinking of him,) when, suddenly, Mr. Bell was announced; and Margaret hurried the letters into her work-basket, and started up, blushing as if she had been doing some guilty thing.

‘Oh, Mr. Bell! I never thought of seeing you!’

‘But you give me a welcome, I hope, as well as that very pretty start of surprise.’

‘Have you dined? How did you come? Let me order you some dinner.’

‘If you’re going to have any. Otherwise, you know, there is no one who cares less for eating than I do. But where are the others? Gone out to dinner? Left you alone?’

‘Oh yes! and it is such a rest. I was just thinking — But will you run the risk of dinner? I don’t know if there is anything in the house.’

‘Why, to tell you the truth, I dined at my club. Only they don’t cook as well as they did, so I thought, if you were going to dine, I might try and make out my dinner. But never mind, never mind! There aren’t ten cooks in England to be trusted at impromptu dinners. If their skill and their fires will stand it, their tempers won’t. You shall make me some tea, Margaret. And now, what were you thinking of? you were going to tell me. Whose letters were those, god-daughter, that you hid away so speedily?’

‘Only Dixon’s,’ replied Margaret, growing very red.

‘Whew! is that all? Who do you think came up in the train with me?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Margaret, resolved against making a guess.

‘Your what d’ye call him? What’s the right name for a cousin-inlaw’s brother?’

‘Mr. Henry Lennox?’ asked Margaret.

‘Yes,’ replied Mr. Bell. ‘You knew him formerly, didn’t you? What sort of a person is he, Margaret?’

‘I liked him long ago,’ said Margaret, glancing down for a moment. And then she looked straight up and went on in her natural manner. ‘You know we have been corresponding about Frederick since; but I have not seen him for nearly three years, and he may be changed. What did you think of him?’

‘I don’t know. He was so busy trying to find out who I was, in the first instance, and what I was in the second, that he never let out what he was; unless indeed that veiled curiosity of his as to what manner of man he had to talk to was not a good piece, and a fair indication of his character. Do you call him good looking, Margaret?’

‘No! certainly not. Do you?’

‘Not I. But I thought, perhaps, you might. Is he a great deal here?’

‘I fancy he is when he is in town. He has been on circuit now since I came. But — Mr. Bell — have you come from Oxford or from Milton?’

‘From Milton. Don’t you see I’m smoke-dried?’

‘Certainly. But I thought that it might be the effect of the antiquities of Oxford.’

‘Come now, be a sensible woman! In Oxford, I could have managed all the landlords in the place, and had my own way, with half the trouble your Milton landlord has given me, and defeated me after all. He won’t take the house off our hands till next June twelvemonth. Luckily, Mr. Thornton found a tenant for it. Why don’t you ask after Mr. Thornton, Margaret? He has proved himself a very active friend of yours, I can tell you. Taken more than half the trouble off my hands.’

‘And how is he? How is Mrs. Thornton?’ asked Margaret hurriedly and below her breath, though she tried to speak out.

‘I suppose they’re well. I’ve been staying at their house till I was driven out of it by the perpetual clack about that Thornton girl’s marriage. It was too much for Thornton himself, though she was his sister. He used to go and sit in his own room perpetually. He’s getting past the age for caring for such things, either as principal or accessory. I was surprised to find the old lady falling into the current, and carried away by her daughter’s enthusiasm for orange-blossoms and lace. I thought Mrs. Thornton had been made of sterner stuff.’

‘She would put on any assumption of feeling to veil her daughter’s weakness,’ said Margaret in a low voice.

‘Perhaps so. You’ve studied her, have you? She doesn’t seem over fond of you, Margaret.’

‘I know it,’ said Margaret. ‘Oh, here is tea at last!’ exclaimed she, as if relieved. And with tea came Mr. Henry Lennox, who had walked up to Harley Street after a late dinner, and had evidently expected to find his brother and sister-inlaw at home. Margaret suspected him of being as thankful as she was at the presence of a third party, on this their first meeting since the memorable day of his offer, and her refusal at Helstone. She could hardly tell what to say at first, and was thankful for all the tea-table occupations, which gave her an excuse for keeping silence, and him an opportunity of recovering himself. For, to tell the truth, he had rather forced himself up to Harley Street this evening, with a view of getting over an awkward meeting, awkward even in the presence of Captain Lennox and Edith, and doubly awkward now that he found her the only lady there, and the person to whom he must naturally and perforce address a great part of his conversation. She was the first to recover her self-possession. She began to talk on the subject which came uppermost in her mind, after the first flush of awkward shyness.

‘Mr. Lennox, I have been so much obliged to you for all you have done about Frederick.’

‘I am only sorry it has been so unsuccessful,’ replied he, with a quick glance towards Mr. Bell, as if reconnoitring how much he might say before him. Margaret, as if she read his thought, addressed herself to Mr. Bell, both including him in the conversation, and implying that he was perfectly aware of the endeavours that had been made to clear Frederick.

‘That Horrocks — that very last witness of all, has proved as unavailing as all the others. Mr. Lennox has discovered that he sailed for Australia only last August; only two months before Frederick was in England, and gave us the names of ——’

‘Frederick in England! you never told me that!’ exclaimed Mr. Bell in surprise.

‘I thought you knew. I never doubted you had been told. Of course, it was a great secret, and perhaps I should not have named it now,’ said Margaret, a little dismayed.

‘I have never named it to either my brother or your cousin,’ said Mr. Lennox, with a little professional dryness of implied reproach.

‘Never mind, Margaret. I am not living in a talking, babbling world, nor yet among people who are trying to worm facts out of me; you needn’t look so frightened because you have let the cat out of the bag to a faithful old hermit like me. I shall never name his having been in England; I shall be out of temptation, for no one will ask me. Stay!’ (interrupting himself rather abruptly) ‘was it at your mother’s funeral?’

‘He was with mamma when she died,’ said Margaret, softly.

‘To be sure! To be sure! Why, some one asked me if he had not been over then, and I denied it stoutly — not many weeks ago — who could it have been? Oh! I recollect!’

But he did not say the name; and although Margaret would have given much to know if her suspicions were right, and it had been Mr. Thornton who had made the enquiry, she could not ask the question of Mr. Bell, much as she longed to do so.

There was a pause for a moment or two. Then Mr. Lennox said, addressing himself to Margaret, ‘I suppose as Mr. Bell is now acquainted with all the circumstances attending your brother’s unfortunate dilemma, I cannot do better than inform him exactly how the research into the evidence we once hoped to produce in his favour stands at present. So, if he will do me the honour to breakfast with me tomorrow, we will go over the names of these missing gentry.’

‘I should like to hear all the particulars, if I may. Cannot you come here? I dare not ask you both to breakfast, though I am sure you would be welcome. But let me know all I can about Frederick, even though there may be no hope at present.’

‘I have an engagement at half-past eleven. But I will certainly come if you wish it,’ replied Mr. Lennox, with a little afterthought of extreme willingness, which made Margaret shrink into herself, and almost wish that she had not proposed her natural request. Mr. Bell got up and looked around him for his hat, which had been removed to make room for tea.

‘Well!’ said he, ‘I don’t know what Mr. Lennox is inclined to do, but I’m disposed to be moving off homewards. I’ve been a journey today, and journeys begin to tell upon my sixty and odd years.’

‘I believe I shall stay and see my brother and sister,’ said Mr. Lennox, making no movement of departure. Margaret was seized with a shy awkward dread of being left alone with him. The scene on the little terrace in the Helstone garden was so present to her, that she could hardly help believing it was so with him.

‘Don’t go yet, please, Mr. Bell,’ said she, hastily. ‘I want you to see Edith; and I want Edith to know you. Please!’ said she, laying a light but determined hand on his arm. He looked at her, and saw the confusion stirring in her countenance; he sate down again, as if her little touch had been possessed of resistless strength.

‘You see how she overpowers me, Mr. Lennox,’ said he. ‘And I hope you noticed the happy choice of her expressions; she wants me to “see” this cousin Edith, who, I am told, is a great beauty; but she has the honesty to change her word when she comes to me — Mrs. Lennox is to “know” me. I suppose I am not much to “see,” eh, Margaret?’

He joked, to give her time to recover from the slight flutter which he had detected in her manner on his proposal to leave; and she caught the tone, and threw the ball back. Mr. Lennox wondered how his brother, the Captain, could have reported her as having lost all her good looks. To be sure, in her quiet black dress, she was a contrast to Edith, dancing in her white crape mourning, and long floating golden hair, all softness and glitter. She dimpled and blushed most becomingly when introduced to Mr. Bell, conscious that she had her reputation as a beauty to keep up, and that it would not do to have a Mordecai refusing to worship and admire, even in the shape of an old Fellow of a College, which nobody had ever heard of. Mrs. Shaw and Captain Lennox, each in their separate way, gave Mr. Bell a kind and sincere welcome, winning him over to like them almost in spite of himself, especially when he saw how naturally Margaret took her place as sister and daughter of the house.

‘What a shame that we were not at home to receive you,’ said Edith. ‘You, too, Henry! though I don’t know that we should have stayed at home for you. And for Mr. Bell! for Margaret’s Mr. Bell ——’

‘There is no knowing what sacrifices you would not have made,’ said her brother-inlaw. ‘Even a dinner-party! and the delight of wearing this very becoming dress.’

Edith did not know whether to frown or to smile. But it did not suit Mr. Lennox to drive her to the first of these alternatives; so he went on.

‘Will you show your readiness to make sacrifices tomorrow morning, first by asking me to breakfast, to meet Mr. Bell, and secondly, by being so kind as to order it at half-past nine, instead of ten o’clock? I have some letters and papers that I want to show to Miss Hale and Mr. Bell.’

‘I hope Mr. Bell will make our house his own during his stay in London,’ said Captain Lennox. ‘I am only so sorry we cannot offer him a bed-room.’

‘Thank you. I am much obliged to you. You would only think me a churl if you had, for I should decline it, I believe, in spite of all the temptations of such agreeable company,’ said Mr. Bell, bowing all round, and secretly congratulating himself on the neat turn he had given to his sentence, which, if put into plain language, would have been more to this effect: ‘I couldn’t stand the restraints of such a proper-behaved and civil-spoken set of people as these are: it would be like meat without salt. I’m thankful they haven’t a bed. And how well I rounded my sentence! I am absolutely catching the trick of good manners.’

His self-satisfaction lasted him till he was fairly out in the streets, walking side by side with Henry Lennox. Here he suddenly remembered Margaret’s little look of entreaty as she urged him to stay longer, and he also recollected a few hints given him long ago by an acquaintance of Mr. Lennox’s, as to his admiration of Margaret. It gave a new direction to his thoughts. ‘You have known Miss Hale for a long time, I believe. How do you think her looking? She strikes me as pale and ill.’

‘I thought her looking remarkably well. Perhaps not when I first came in-now I think of it. But certainly, when she grew animated, she looked as well as ever I saw her do.’

‘She has had a great deal to go through,’ said Mr. Bell.

‘Yes! I have been sorry to hear of all she has had to bear; not merely the common and universal sorrow arising from death, but all the annoyance which her father’s conduct must have caused her, and then ——’

‘Her father’s conduct!’ said Mr. Bell, in an accent of surprise. ‘You must have heard some wrong statement. He behaved in the most conscientious manner. He showed more resolute strength than I should ever have given him credit for formerly.’

‘Perhaps I have been wrongly informed. But I have been told, by his successor in the living — a clever, sensible man, and a thoroughly active clergyman — that there was no call upon Mr. Hale to do what he did, relinquish the living, and throw himself and his family on the tender mercies of private teaching in a manufacturing town; the bishop had offered him another living, it is true, but if he had come to entertain certain doubts, he could have remained where he was, and so had no occasion to resign. But the truth is, these country clergymen live such isolated lives — isolated, I mean, from all intercourse with men of equal cultivation with themselves, by whose minds they might regulate their own, and discover when they were going either too fast or too slow — that they are very apt to disturb themselves with imaginary doubts as to the articles of faith, and throw up certain opportunities of doing good for very uncertain fancies of their own.’

‘I differ from you. I do not think they are very apt to do as my poor friend Hale did.’ Mr. Bell was inwardly chafing.

‘Perhaps I used too general an expression, in saying “very apt.” But certainly, their lives are such as very often to produce either inordinate self-sufficiency, or a morbid state of conscience,’ replied Mr. Lennox with perfect coolness.

‘You don’t meet with any self-sufficiency among the lawyers, for instance?’ asked Mr. Bell. ‘And seldom, I imagine, any cases of morbid conscience.’ He was becoming more and more vexed, and forgetting his lately-caught trick of good manners. Mr. Lennox saw now that he had annoyed his companion; and as he had talked pretty much for the sake of saying something, and so passing the time while their road lay together, he was very indifferent as to the exact side he took upon the question, and quietly came round by saying: ‘To be sure, there is something fine in a man of Mr. Hale’s age leaving his home of twenty years, and giving up all settled habits, for an idea which was probably erroneous — but that does not matter — an untangible thought. One cannot help admiring him, with a mixture of pity in one’s admiration, something like what one feels for Don Quixote. Such a gentleman as he was too! I shall never forget the refined and simple hospitality he showed to me that last day at Helstone.’

Only half mollified, and yet anxious, in order to lull certain qualms of his own conscience, to believe that Mr. Hale’s conduct had a tinge of Quixotism in it, Mr. Bell growled out —‘Aye! And you don’t know Milton. Such a change from Helstone! It is years since I have been at Helstone — but I’ll answer for it, it is standing there yet — every stick and every stone as it has done for the last century, while Milton! I go there every four or five years — and I was born there — yet I do assure you, I often lose my way — aye, among the very piles of warehouses that are built upon my father’s orchard. Do we part here? Well, good night, sir; I suppose we shall meet in Harley Street tomorrow morning.’

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