North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter 45

Not All a Dream

‘Where are the sounds that swam along

The buoyant air when I was young?

The last vibration now is o’er,

And they who listened are no more;

Ah! let me close my eyes and dream.’

W. S. LANDOR.

The idea of Helstone had been suggested to Mr. Bell’s waking mind by his conversation with Mr. Lennox, and all night long it ran riot through his dreams. He was again the tutor in the college where he now held the rank of Fellow; it was again a long vacation, and he was staying with his newly married friend, the proud husband, and happy Vicar of Helstone. Over babbling brooks they took impossible leaps, which seemed to keep them whole days suspended in the air. Time and space were not, though all other things seemed real. Every event was measured by the emotions of the mind, not by its actual existence, for existence it had none. But the trees were gorgeous in their autumnal leafiness — the warm odours of flower and herb came sweet upon the sense — the young wife moved about her house with just that mixture of annoyance at her position, as regarded wealth, with pride in her handsome and devoted husband, which Mr. Bell had noticed in real life a quarter of a century ago. The dream was so like life that, when he awoke, his present life seemed like a dream. Where was he? In the close, handsomely furnished room of a London hotel! Where were those who spoke to him, moved around him, touched him, not an instant ago? Dead! buried! lost for evermore, as far as earth’s for evermore would extend. He was an old man, so lately exultant in the full strength of manhood. The utter loneliness of his life was insupportable to think about. He got up hastily, and tried to forget what never more might be, in a hurried dressing for the breakfast in Harley Street.

He could not attend to all the lawyer’s details, which, as he saw, made Margaret’s eyes dilate, and her lips grow pale, as one by one fate decreed, or so it seemed, every morsel of evidence which would exonerate Frederick, should fall from beneath her feet and disappear. Even Mr. Lennox’s well-regulated professional voice took a softer, tenderer tone, as he drew near to the extinction of the last hope. It was not that Margaret had not been perfectly aware of the result before. It was only that the details of each successive disappointment came with such relentless minuteness to quench all hope, that she at last fairly gave way to tears. Mr. Lennox stopped reading.

‘I had better not go on,’ said he, in a concerned voice. ‘It was a foolish proposal of mine. Lieutenant Hale,’ and even this giving him the title of the service from which he had so harshly been expelled, was soothing to Margaret, ‘Lieutenant Hale is happy now; more secure in fortune and future prospects than he could ever have been in the navy; and has, doubtless, adopted his wife’s country as his own.’

‘That is it,’ said Margaret. ‘It seems so selfish in me to regret it,’ trying to smile, ‘and yet he is lost to me, and I am so lonely.’ Mr. Lennox turned over his papers, and wished that he were as rich and prosperous as he believed he should be some day. Mr. Bell blew his nose, but, otherwise, he also kept silence; and Margaret, in a minute or two, had apparently recovered her usual composure. She thanked Mr. Lennox very courteously for his trouble; all the more courteously and graciously because she was conscious that, by her behaviour, he might have probably been led to imagine that he had given her needless pain. Yet it was pain she would not have been without.

Mr. Bell came up to wish her good-bye.

‘Margaret!’ said he, as he fumbled with his gloves. ‘I am going down to Helstone tomorrow, to look at the old place. Would you like to come with me? Or would it give you too much pain? Speak out, don’t be afraid.’

‘Oh, Mr. Bell,’ said she — and could say no more. But she took his old gouty hand, and kissed it.

‘Come, come; that’s enough,’ said he, reddening with awkwardness. ‘I suppose your aunt Shaw will trust you with me. We’ll go tomorrow morning, and we shall get there about two o’clock, I fancy. We’ll take a snack, and order dinner at the little inn — the Lennard Arms, it used to be — and go and get an appetite in the forest. Can you stand it, Margaret? It will be a trial, I know, to both of us, but it will be a pleasure to me, at least. And there we’ll dine — it will be but doe-venison, if we can get it at all — and then I’ll take my nap while you go out and see old friends. I’ll give you back safe and sound, barring railway accidents, and I’ll insure your life for a thousand pounds before starting, which may be some comfort to your relations; but otherwise, I’ll bring you back to Mrs. Shaw by lunch-time on Friday. So, if you say yes, I’ll just go up-stairs and propose it.’

‘It’s no use my trying to say how much I shall like it,’ said Margaret, through her tears.

‘Well, then, prove your gratitude by keeping those fountains of yours dry for the next two days. If you don’t, I shall feel queer myself about the lachrymal ducts, and I don’t like that.’

‘I won’t cry a drop,’ said Margaret, winking her eyes to shake the tears off her eye-lashes, and forcing a smile.

‘There’s my good girl. Then we’ll go up-stairs and settle it all.’ Margaret was in a state of almost trembling eagerness, while Mr. Bell discussed his plan with her aunt Shaw, who was first startled, then doubtful and perplexed, and in the end, yielding rather to the rough force of Mr. Bell’s words than to her own conviction; for to the last, whether it was right or wrong, proper or improper, she could not settle to her own satisfaction, till Margaret’s safe return, the happy fulfilment of the project, gave her decision enough to say, ‘she was sure it had been a very kind thought of Mr. Bell’s, and just what she herself had been wishing for Margaret, as giving her the very change which she required, after all the anxious time she had had.’

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