North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter 5

Decision

‘I ask Thee for a thoughtful love,

Through constant watching wise,

To meet the glad with joyful smiles,

And to wipe the weeping eyes;

And a heart at leisure from itself

To soothe and sympathise.’

— ANON.

Margaret made a good listener to all her mother’s little plans for adding some small comforts to the lot of the poorer parishioners. She could not help listening, though each new project was a stab to her heart. By the time the frost had set in, they should be far away from Helstone. Old Simon’s rheumatism might be bad and his eyesight worse; there would be no one to go and read to him, and comfort him with little porringers of broth and good red flannel: or if there was, it would be a stranger, and the old man would watch in vain for her. Mary Domville’s little crippled boy would crawl in vain to the door and look for her coming through the forest. These poor friends would never understand why she had forsaken them; and there were many others besides. ‘Papa has always spent the income he derived from his living in the parish. I am, perhaps, encroaching upon the next dues, but the winter is likely to be severe, and our poor old people must be helped.’

‘Oh, mamma, let us do all we can,’ said Margaret eagerly, not seeing the prudential side of the question, only grasping at the idea that they were rendering such help for the last time; ‘we may not be here long.’

‘Do you feel ill, my darling?’ asked Mrs. Hale, anxiously, misunderstanding Margaret’s hint of the uncertainty of their stay at Helstone. ‘You look pale and tired. It is this soft, damp, unhealthy air.’

‘No — no, mamma, it is not that: it is delicious air. It smells of the freshest, purest fragrance, after the smokiness of Harley Street. But I am tired: it surely must be near bedtime.’

‘Not far off — it is half-past nine. You had better go to bed at dear. Ask Dixon for some gruel. I will come and see you as soon as you are in bed. I am afraid you have taken cold; or the bad air from some of the stagnant ponds —’

‘Oh, mamma,’ said Margaret, faintly smiling as she kissed her mother, ‘I am quite well — don’t alarm yourself about me; I am only tired.’

Margaret went upstairs. To soothe her mother’s anxiety she submitted to a basin of gruel. She was lying languidly in bed when Mrs. Hale came up to make some last inquiries and kiss her before going to her own room for the night. But the instant she heard her mother’s door locked, she sprang out of bed, and throwing her dressing-gown on, she began to pace up and down the room, until the creaking of one of the boards reminded her that she must make no noise. She went and curled herself up on the window-seat in the small, deeply-recessed window. That morning when she had looked out, her heart had danced at seeing the bright clear lights on the church tower, which foretold a fine and sunny day. This evening — sixteen hours at most had past by — she sat down, too full of sorrow to cry, but with a dull cold pain, which seemed to have pressed the youth and buoyancy out of her heart, never to return. Mr. Henry Lennox’s visit — his offer — was like a dream, a thing beside her actual life. The hard reality was, that her father had so admitted tempting doubts into his mind as to become a schismatic — an outcast; all the changes consequent upon this grouped themselves around that one great blighting fact.

She looked out upon the dark-gray lines of the church tower, square and straight in the centre of the view, cutting against the deep blue transparent depths beyond, into which she gazed, and felt that she might gaze for ever, seeing at every moment some farther distance, and yet no sign of God! It seemed to her at the moment, as if the earth was more utterly desolate than if girt in by an iron dome, behind which there might be the ineffaceable peace and glory of the Almighty: those never-ending depths of space, in their still serenity, were more mocking to her than any material bounds could be-shutting in the cries of earth’s sufferers, which now might ascend into that infinite splendour of vastness and be lost — lost for ever, before they reached His throne. In this mood her father came in unheard. The moonlight was strong enough to let him see his daughter in her unusual place and attitude. He came to her and touched her shoulder before she was aware that he was there.

‘Margaret, I heard you were up. I could not help coming in to ask you to pray with me — to say the Lord’s Prayer; that will do good to both of us.’

Mr. Hale and Margaret knelt by the window-seat — he looking up, she bowed down in humble shame. God was there, close around them, hearing her father’s whispered words. Her father might be a heretic; but had not she, in her despairing doubts not five minutes before, shown herself a far more utter sceptic? She spoke not a word, but stole to bed after her father had left her, like a child ashamed of its fault. If the world was full of perplexing problems she would trust, and only ask to see the one step needful for the hour. Mr. Lennox — his visit, his proposal — the remembrance of which had been so rudely pushed aside by the subsequent events of the day — haunted her dreams that night. He was climbing up some tree of fabulous height to reach the branch whereon was slung her bonnet: he was falling, and she was struggling to save him, but held back by some invisible powerful hand. He was dead. And yet, with a shifting of the scene, she was once more in the Harley Street drawing-room, talking to him as of old, and still with a consciousness all the time that she had seen him killed by that terrible fall.

Miserable, unresting night! Ill preparation for the coming day! She awoke with a start, unrefreshed, and conscious of some reality worse even than her feverish dreams. It all came back upon her; not merely the sorrow, but the terrible discord in the sorrow. Where, to what distance apart, had her father wandered, led by doubts which were to her temptations of the Evil One? She longed to ask, and yet would not have heard for all the world.

The fine Crisp morning made her mother feel particularly well and happy at breakfast-time. She talked on, planning village kindnesses, unheeding the silence of her husband and the monosyllabic answers of Margaret. Before the things were cleared away, Mr. Hale got up; he leaned one hand on the table, as if to support himself:

‘I shall not be at home till evening. I am going to Bracy Common, and will ask Farmer Dobson to give me something for dinner. I shall be back to tea at seven.’ He did not look at either of them, but Margaret knew what he meant. By seven the announcement must be made to her mother. Mr. Hale would have delayed making it till half-past six, but Margaret was of different stuff. She could not bear the impending weight on her mind all the day long: better get the worst over; the day would be too short to comfort her mother. But while she stood by the window, thinking how to begin, and waiting for the servant to have left the room, her mother had gone up-stairs to put on her things to go to the school. She came down ready equipped, in a brisker mood than usual.

‘Mother, come round the garden with me this morning; just one turn,’ said Margaret, putting her arm round Mrs. Hale’s waist.

They passed through the open window. Mrs. Hale spoke — said something — Margaret could not tell what. Her eye caught on a bee entering a deep-belled flower: when that bee flew forth with his spoil she would begin — that should be the sign. Out he came.

‘Mamma! Papa is going to leave Helstone!’ she blurted forth. ‘He’s going to leave the Church, and live in Milton–Northern.’ There were the three hard facts hardly spoken.

‘What makes you say so?’ asked Mrs. Hale, in a surprised incredulous voice. ‘Who has been telling you such nonsense?’

‘Papa himself,’ said Margaret, longing to say something gentle and consoling, but literally not knowing how. They were close to a garden-bench. Mrs. Hale sat down, and began to cry.

‘I don’t understand you,’ she said. ‘Either you have made some great mistake, or I don’t quite understand you.’

‘No, mother, I have made no mistake. Papa has written to the bishop, saying that he has such doubts that he cannot conscientiously remain a priest of the Church of England, and that he must give up Helstone. He has also consulted Mr. Bell — Frederick’s godfather, you know, mamma; and it is arranged that we go to live in Milton–Northern.’ Mrs. Hale looked up in Margaret’s face all the time she was speaking these words: the shadow on her countenance told that she, at least, believed in the truth of what she said.

‘I don’t think it can be true,’ said Mrs. Hale, at length. ‘He would surely have told me before it came to this.’

It came strongly upon Margaret’s mind that her mother ought to have been told: that whatever her faults of discontent and repining might have been, it was an error in her father to have left her to learn his change of opinion, and his approaching change of life, from her better-informed child. Margaret sat down by her mother, and took her unresisting head on her breast, bending her own soft cheeks down caressingly to touch her face.

‘Dear, darling mamma! we were so afraid of giving you pain. Papa felt so acutely — you know you are not strong, and there must have been such terrible suspense to go through.’

‘When did he tell you, Margaret?’

‘Yesterday, only yesterday,’ replied Margaret, detecting the jealousy which prompted the inquiry. ‘Poor papa!’— trying to divert her mother’s thoughts into compassionate sympathy for all her father had gone through. Mrs. Hale raised her head.

‘What does he mean by having doubts?’ she asked. ‘Surely, he does not mean that he thinks differently — that he knows better than the Church.’ Margaret shook her head, and the tears came into her eyes, as her mother touched the bare nerve of her own regret.

‘Can’t the bishop set him right?’ asked Mrs. Hale, half impatiently.

‘I’m afraid not,’ said Margaret. ‘But I did not ask. I could not bear to hear what he might answer. It is all settled at any rate. He is going to leave Helstone in a fortnight. I am not sure if he did not say he had sent in his deed of resignation.’

‘In a fortnight!’ exclaimed Mrs. Hale, ‘I do think this is very strange — not at all right. I call it very unfeeling,’ said she, beginning to take relief in tears. ‘He has doubts, you say, and gives up his living, and all without consulting me. I dare say, if he had told me his doubts at the first I could have nipped them in the bud.’

Mistaken as Margaret felt her father’s conduct to have been, she could not bear to hear it blamed by her mother. She knew that his very reserve had originated in a tenderness for her, which might be cowardly, but was not unfeeling.

‘I almost hoped you might have been glad to leave Helstone, mamma,’ said she, after a pause. ‘You have never been well in this air, you know.’

‘You can’t think the smoky air of a manufacturing town, all chimneys and dirt like Milton–Northern, would be better than this air, which is pure and sweet, if it is too soft and relaxing. Fancy living in the middle of factories, and factory people! Though, of course, if your father leaves the Church, we shall not be admitted into society anywhere. It will be such a disgrace to us! Poor dear Sir John! It is well he is not alive to see what your father has come to! Every day after dinner, when I was a girl, living with your aunt Shaw, at Beresford Court, Sir John used to give for the first toast —“Church and King, and down with the Rump.”’

Margaret was glad that her mother’s thoughts were turned away from the fact of her husband’s silence to her on the point which must have been so near his heart. Next to the serious vital anxiety as to the nature of her father’s doubts, this was the one circumstance of the case that gave Margaret the most pain.

‘You know, we have very little society here, mamma. The Gormans, who are our nearest neighbours (to call society — and we hardly ever see them), have been in trade just as much as these Milton–Northern people.’

‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Hale, almost indignantly, ‘but, at any rate, the Gormans made carriages for half the gentry of the county, and were brought into some kind of intercourse with them; but these factory people, who on earth wears cotton that can afford linen?’

‘Well, mamma, I give up the cotton-spinners; I am not standing up for them, any more than for any other trades-people. Only we shall have little enough to do with them.’

‘Why on earth has your father fixed on Milton–Northern to live in?’

‘Partly,’ said Margaret, sighing, ‘because it is so very different from Helstone — partly because Mr. Bell says there is an opening there for a private tutor.’

‘Private tutor in Milton! Why can’t he go to Oxford, and be a tutor to gentlemen?’

‘You forget, mamma! He is leaving the Church on account of his opinions — his doubts would do him no good at Oxford.’

Mrs. Hale was silent for some time, quietly crying. At last she said:—

‘And the furniture — How in the world are we to manage the removal? I never removed in my life, and only a fortnight to think about it!’

Margaret was inexpressibly relieved to find that her mother’s anxiety and distress was lowered to this point, so insignificant to herself, and on which she could do so much to help. She planned and promised, and led her mother on to arrange fully as much as could be fixed before they knew somewhat more definitively what Mr. Hale intended to do. Throughout the day Margaret never left her mother; bending her whole soul to sympathise in all the various turns her feelings took; towards evening especially, as she became more and more anxious that her father should find a soothing welcome home awaiting him, after his return from his day of fatigue and distress. She dwelt upon what he must have borne in secret for long; her mother only replied coldly that he ought to have told her, and that then at any rate he would have had an adviser to give him counsel; and Margaret turned faint at heart when she heard her father’s step in the hall. She dared not go to meet him, and tell him what she had done all day, for fear of her mother’s jealous annoyance. She heard him linger, as if awaiting her, or some sign of her; and she dared not stir; she saw by her mother’s twitching lips, and changing colour, that she too was aware that her husband had returned. Presently he opened the room-door, and stood there uncertain whether to come in. His face was gray and pale; he had a timid, fearful look in his eyes; something almost pitiful to see in a man’s face; but that look of despondent uncertainty, of mental and bodily languor, touched his wife’s heart. She went to him, and threw herself on his breast, crying out —

‘Oh! Richard, Richard, you should have told me sooner!’

And then, in tears, Margaret left her, as she rushed up-stairs to throw herself on her bed, and hide her face in the pillows to stifle the hysteric sobs that would force their way at last, after the rigid self-control of the whole day. How long she lay thus she could not tell. She heard no noise, though the housemaid came in to arrange the room. The affrighted girl stole out again on tip-toe, and went and told Mrs. Dixon that Miss Hale was crying as if her heart would break: she was sure she would make herself deadly ill if she went on at that rate. In consequence of this, Margaret felt herself touched, and started up into a sitting posture; she saw the accustomed room, the figure of Dixon in shadow, as the latter stood holding the candle a little behind her, for fear of the effect on Miss Hale’s startled eyes, swollen and blinded as they were.

‘Oh, Dixon! I did not hear you come into the room!’ said Margaret, resuming her trembling self-restraint. ‘Is it very late?’ continued she, lifting herself languidly off the bed, yet letting her feet touch the ground without fairly standing down, as she shaded her wet ruffled hair off her face, and tried to look as though nothing were the matter; as if she had only been asleep.

‘I hardly can tell what time it is,’ replied Dixon, in an aggrieved tone of voice. ‘Since your mamma told me this terrible news, when I dressed her for tea, I’ve lost all count of time. I’m sure I don’t know what is to become of us all. When Charlotte told me just now you were sobbing, Miss Hale, I thought, no wonder, poor thing! And master thinking of turning Dissenter at his time of life, when, if it is not to be said he’s done well in the Church, he’s not done badly after all. I had a cousin, miss, who turned Methodist preacher after he was fifty years of age, and a tailor all his life; but then he had never been able to make a pair of trousers to fit, for as long as he had been in the trade, so it was no wonder; but for master! as I said to missus, “What would poor Sir John have said? he never liked your marrying Mr. Hale, but if he could have known it would have come to this, he would have sworn worse oaths than ever, if that was possible!”’

Dixon had been so much accustomed to comment upon Mr. Hale’s proceedings to her mistress (who listened to her, or not, as she was in the humour), that she never noticed Margaret’s flashing eye and dilating nostril. To hear her father talked of in this way by a servant to her face!

‘Dixon,’ she said, in the low tone she always used when much excited, which had a sound in it as of some distant turmoil, or threatening storm breaking far away. ‘Dixon! you forget to whom you are speaking.’ She stood upright and firm on her feet now, confronting the waiting-maid, and fixing her with her steady discerning eye. ‘I am Mr. Hale’s daughter. Go! You have made a strange mistake, and one that I am sure your own good feeling will make you sorry for when you think about it.’

Dixon hung irresolutely about the room for a minute or two. Margaret repeated, ‘You may leave me, Dixon. I wish you to go.’ Dixon did not know whether to resent these decided words or to cry; either course would have done with her mistress: but, as she said to herself, ‘Miss Margaret has a touch of the old gentleman about her, as well as poor Master Frederick; I wonder where they get it from?’ and she, who would have resented such words from any one less haughty and determined in manner, was subdued enough to say, in a half humble, half injured tone:

‘Mayn’t I unfasten your gown, miss, and do your hair?’

‘No! not to-night, thank you.’ And Margaret gravely lighted her out of the room, and bolted the door. From henceforth Dixon obeyed and admired Margaret. She said it was because she was so like poor Master Frederick; but the truth was, that Dixon, as do many others, liked to feel herself ruled by a powerful and decided nature.

Margaret needed all Dixon’s help in action, and silence in words; for, for some time, the latter thought it her duty to show her sense of affront by saying as little as possible to her young lady; so the energy came out in doing rather than in speaking A fortnight was a very short time to make arrangements for so serious a removal; as Dixon said, ‘Any one but a gentleman — indeed almost any other gentleman —’ but catching a look at Margaret’s straight, stern brow just here, she coughed the remainder of the sentence away, and meekly took the horehound drop that Margaret offered her, to stop the ‘little tickling at my chest, miss.’ But almost any one but Mr. Hale would have had practical knowledge enough to see, that in so short a time it would be difficult to fix on any house in Milton–Northern, or indeed elsewhere, to which they could remove the furniture that had of necessity to be taken out of Helstone vicarage. Mrs. Hale, overpowered by all the troubles and necessities for immediate household decisions that seemed to come upon her at once, became really ill, and Margaret almost felt it as a relief when her mother fairly took to her bed, and left the management of affairs to her. Dixon, true to her post of body-guard, attended most faithfully to her mistress, and only emerged from Mrs. Hale’s bed-room to shake her head, and murmur to herself in a manner which Margaret did not choose to hear. For, the one thing clear and straight before her, was the necessity for leaving Helstone. Mr. Hale’s successor in the living was appointed; and, at any rate, after her father’s decision; there must be no lingering now, for his sake, as well as from every other consideration. For he came home every evening more and more depressed, after the necessary leave-taking which he had resolved to have with every individual parishioner. Margaret, inexperienced as she was in all the necessary matter-of-fact business to be got through, did not know to whom to apply for advice. The cook and Charlotte worked away with willing arms and stout hearts at all the moving and packing; and as far as that went, Margaret’s admirable sense enabled her to see what was best, and to direct how it should be done. But where were they to go to? In a week they must be gone. Straight to Milton, or where? So many arrangements depended on this decision that Margaret resolved to ask her father one evening, in spite of his evident fatigue and low spirits. He answered:

‘My dear! I have really had too much to think about to settle this. What does your mother say? What does she wish? Poor Maria!’

He met with an echo even louder than his sigh. Dixon had just come into the room for another cup of tea for Mrs. Hale, and catching Mr. Hale’s last words, and protected by his presence from Margaret’s upbraiding eyes, made bold to say, ‘My poor mistress!’

‘You don’t think her worse today,’ said Mr. Hale, turning hastily.

‘I’m sure I can’t say, sir. It’s not for me to judge. The illness seems so much more on the mind than on the body.’

Mr. Hale looked infinitely distressed.

‘You had better take mamma her tea while it is hot, Dixon,’ said Margaret, in a tone of quiet authority.

‘Oh! I beg your pardon, miss! My thoughts was otherwise occupied in thinking of my poor —— of Mrs. Hale.’

‘Papa!’ said Margaret, ‘it is this suspense that is bad for you both. Of course, mamma must feel your change of opinions: we can’t help that,’ she continued, softly; ‘but now the course is clear, at least to a certain point. And I think, papa, that I could get mamma to help me in planning, if you could tell me what to plan for. She has never expressed any wish in any way, and only thinks of what can’t be helped. Are we to go straight to Milton? Have you taken a house there?’

‘No,’ he replied. ‘I suppose we must go into lodgings, and look about for a house.

‘And pack up the furniture so that it can be left at the railway station, till we have met with one?’

‘I suppose so. Do what you think best. Only remember, we shall have much less money to spend.’

They had never had much superfluity, as Margaret knew. She felt that it was a great weight suddenly thrown upon her shoulders. Four months ago, all the decisions she needed to make were what dress she would wear for dinner, and to help Edith to draw out the lists of who should take down whom in the dinner parties at home. Nor was the household in which she lived one that called for much decision. Except in the one grand case of Captain Lennox’s offer, everything went on with the regularity of clockwork. Once a year, there was a long discussion between her aunt and Edith as to whether they should go to the Isle of Wight, abroad, or to Scotland; but at such times Margaret herself was secure of drifting, without any exertion of her own, into the quiet harbour of home. Now, since that day when Mr. Lennox came, and startled her into a decision, every day brought some question, momentous to her, and to those whom she loved, to be settled.

Her father went up after tea to sit with his wife. Margaret remained alone in the drawing-room. Suddenly she took a candle and went into her father’s study for a great atlas, and lugging it back into the drawing-room, she began to pore over the map of England. She was ready to look up brightly when her father came down stairs.

‘I have hit upon such a beautiful plan. Look here — in Darkshire, hardly the breadth of my finger from Milton, is Heston, which I have often heard of from people living in the north as such a pleasant little bathing-place. Now, don’t you think we could get mamma there with Dixon, while you and I go and look at houses, and get one all ready for her in Milton? She would get a breath of sea air to set her up for the winter, and be spared all the fatigue, and Dixon would enjoy taking care of her.’

‘Is Dixon to go with us?’ asked Mr. Hale, in a kind of helpless dismay.

‘Oh, yes!’ said Margaret. ‘Dixon quite intends it, and I don’t know what mamma would do without her.’

‘But we shall have to put up with a very different way of living, I am afraid. Everything is so much dearer in a town. I doubt if Dixon can make herself comfortable. To tell you the truth Margaret, I sometimes feel as if that woman gave herself airs.’

‘To be sure she does, papa,’ replied Margaret; ‘and if she has to put up with a different style of living, we shall have to put up with her airs, which will be worse. But she really loves us all, and would be miserable to leave us, I am sure — especially in this change; so, for mamma’s sake, and for the sake of her faithfulness, I do think she must go.’

‘Very well, my dear. Go on. I am resigned. How far is Heston from Milton? The breadth of one of your fingers does not give me a very clear idea of distance.’

‘Well, then, I suppose it is thirty miles; that is not much!’

‘Not in distance, but in-. Never mind! If you really think it will do your mother good, let it be fixed so.’

This was a great step. Now Margaret could work, and act, and plan in good earnest. And now Mrs. Hale could rouse herself from her languor, and forget her real suffering in thinking of the pleasure and the delight of going to the sea-side. Her only regret was that Mr. Hale could not be with her all the fortnight she was to be there, as he had been for a whole fortnight once, when they were engaged, and she was staying with Sir John and Lady Beresford at Torquay.

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