North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter 50

Changes at Milton

‘Here we go up, up, up;

And here we go down, down, downee!’

NURSERY SONG.

Meanwhile, at Milton the chimneys smoked, the ceaseless roar and mighty beat, and dizzying whirl of machinery, struggled and strove perpetually. Senseless and purposeless were wood and iron and steam in their endless labours; but the persistence of their monotonous work was rivalled in tireless endurance by the strong crowds, who, with sense and with purpose, were busy and restless in seeking after — What? In the streets there were few loiterers — none walking for mere pleasure; every man’s face was set in lines of eagerness or anxiety; news was sought for with fierce avidity; and men jostled each other aside in the Mart and in the Exchange, as they did in life, in the deep selfishness of competition. There was gloom over the town. Few came to buy, and those who did were looked at suspiciously by the sellers; for credit was insecure, and the most stable might have their fortunes affected by the sweep in the great neighbouring port among the shipping houses. Hitherto there had been no failures in Milton; but, from the immense speculations that had come to light in making a bad end in America, and yet nearer home, it was known that some Milton houses of business must suffer so severely that every day men’s faces asked, if their tongues did not, ‘What news? Who is gone? How will it affect me?’ And if two or three spoke together, they dwelt rather on the names of those who were safe than dared to hint at those likely, in their opinion, to go; for idle breath may, at such times, cause the downfall of some who might otherwise weather the storm; and one going down drags many after. ‘Thornton is safe,’ say they. ‘His business is large — extending every year; but such a head as he has, and so prudent with all his daring!’ Then one man draws another aside, and walks a little apart, and, with head inclined into his neighbour’s ear, he says, ‘Thornton’s business is large; but he has spent his profits in extending it; he has no capital laid by; his machinery is new within these two years, and has cost him — we won’t say what! — a word to the wise!’ But that Mr. Harrison was a croaker — a man who had succeeded to his father’s trade-made fortune, which he had feared to lose by altering his mode of business to any having a larger scope; yet he grudged every penny made by others more daring and far-sighted.

But the truth was, Mr. Thornton was hard pressed. He felt it acutely in his vulnerable point — his pride in the commercial character which he had established for himself. Architect of his own fortunes, he attributed this to no special merit or qualities of his own, but to the power, which he believed that commerce gave to every brave, honest, and persevering man, to raise himself to a level from which he might see and read the great game of worldly success, and honestly, by such far-sightedness, command more power and influence than in any other mode of life. Far away, in the East and in the West, where his person would never be known, his name was to be regarded, and his wishes to be fulfilled, and his word pass like gold. That was the idea of merchant-life with which Mr. Thornton had started. ‘Her merchants be like princes,’ said his mother, reading the text aloud, as if it were a trumpet-call to invite her boy to the struggle. He was but like many others — men, women, and children — alive to distant, and dead to near things. He sought to possess the influence of a name in foreign countries and far-away seas — to become the head of a firm that should be known for generations; and it had taken him long silent years to come even to a glimmering of what he might be now, today, here in his own town, his own factory, among his own people. He and they had led parallel lives — very close, but never touching — till the accident (or so it seemed) of his acquaintance with Higgins. Once brought face to face, man to man, with an individual of the masses around him, and (take notice) out of the character of master and workman, in the first instance, they had each begun to recognise that ‘we have all of us one human heart.’ It was the fine point of the wedge; and until now, when the apprehension of losing his connection with two or three of the workmen whom he had so lately begun to know as men — of having a plan or two, which were experiments lying very close to his heart, roughly nipped off without trial — gave a new poignancy to the subtle fear that came over him from time to time; until now, he had never recognised how much and how deep was the interest he had grown of late to feel in his position as manufacturer, simply because it led him into such close contact, and gave him the opportunity of so much power, among a race of people strange, shrewd, ignorant; but, above all, full of character and strong human feeling.

He reviewed his position as a Milton manufacturer. The strike a year and a half ago — or more, for it was now untimely wintry weather, in a late spring — that strike, when he was young, and he now was old — had prevented his completing some of the large orders he had then on hand. He had locked up a good deal of his capital in new and expensive machinery, and he had also bought cotton largely, for the fulfilment of these orders, taken under contract. That he had not been able to complete them, was owing in some degree to the utter want of skill on the part of the Irish hands whom he had imported; much of their work was damaged and unfit to be sent forth by a house which prided itself on turning out nothing but first-rate articles. For many months, the embarrassment caused by the strike had been an obstacle in Mr. Thornton’s way; and often, when his eye fell on Higgins, he could have spoken angrily to him without any present cause, just from feeling how serious was the injury that had arisen from this affair in which he was implicated. But when he became conscious of this sudden, quick resentment, he resolved to curb it. It would not satisfy him to avoid Higgins; he must convince himself that he was master over his own anger, by being particularly careful to allow Higgins access to him, whenever the strict rules of business, or Mr. Thornton’s leisure permitted. And by-and-bye, he lost all sense of resentment in wonder how it was, or could be, that two men like himself and Higgins, living by the same trade, working in their different ways at the same object, could look upon each other’s position and duties in so strangely different a way. And thence arose that intercourse, which though it might not have the effect of preventing all future clash of opinion and action, when the occasion arose, would, at any rate, enable both master and man to look upon each other with far more charity and sympathy, and bear with each other more patiently and kindly. Besides this improvement of feeling, both Mr. Thornton and his workmen found out their ignorance as to positive matters of fact, known heretofore to one side, but not to the other.

But now had come one of those periods of bad trade, when the market falling brought down the value of all large stocks; Mr. Thornton’s fell to nearly half. No orders were coming in; so he lost the interest of the capital he had locked up in machinery; indeed, it was difficult to get payment for the orders completed; yet there was the constant drain of expenses for working the business. Then the bills became due for the cotton he had purchased; and money being scarce, he could only borrow at exorbitant interest, and yet he could not realise any of his property. But he did not despair; he exerted himself day and night to foresee and to provide for all emergencies; he was as calm and gentle to the women in his home as ever; to the workmen in his mill he spoke not many words, but they knew him by this time; and many a curt, decided answer was received by them rather with sympathy for the care they saw pressing upon him, than with the suppressed antagonism which had formerly been smouldering, and ready for hard words and hard judgments on all occasions. ‘Th’ measter’s a deal to potter him,’ said Higgins, one day, as he heard Mr. Thornton’s short, sharp inquiry, why such a command had not been obeyed; and caught the sound of the suppressed sigh which he heaved in going past the room where some of the men were working. Higgins and another man stopped over-hours that night, unknown to any one, to get the neglected piece of work done; and Mr. Thornton never knew but that the overlooker, to whom he had given the command in the first instance, had done it himself.

‘Eh! I reckon I know who’d ha’ been sorry for to see our measter sitting so like a piece o’ grey calico! Th’ ou’d parson would ha’ fretted his woman’s heart out, if he’d seen the woeful looks I have seen on our measter’s face,’ thought Higgins, one day, as he was approaching Mr. Thornton in Marlborough Street.

‘Measter,’ said he, stopping his employer in his quick resolved walk, and causing that gentleman to look up with a sudden annoyed start, as if his thoughts had been far away.

‘Have yo’ heerd aught of Miss Marget lately?’

‘Miss — who?’ replied Mr. Thornton.

‘Miss Marget — Miss Hale — th’ oud parson’s daughter — yo known who I mean well enough, if yo’ll only think a bit —’ (there was nothing disrespectful in the tone in which this was said).

‘Oh yes!’ and suddenly, the wintry frost-bound look of care had left Mr. Thornton’s face, as if some soft summer gale had blown all anxiety away from his mind; and though his mouth was as much compressed as before, his eyes smiled out benignly on his questioner.

‘She’s my landlord now, you know, Higgins. I hear of her through her agent here, every now and then. She’s well and among friends — thank you, Higgins.’ That ‘thank you’ that lingered after the other words, and yet came with so much warmth of feeling, let in a new light to the acute Higgins. It might be but a will-o’-th’-wisp, but he thought he would follow it and ascertain whither it would lead him.

‘And she’s not getten married, measter?’

‘Not yet.’ The face was cloudy once more. ‘There is some talk of it, as I understand, with a connection of the family.’

‘Then she’ll not be for coming to Milton again, I reckon.’

‘No!’

‘Stop a minute, measter.’ Then going up confidentially close, he said, ‘Is th’ young gentleman cleared?’ He enforced the depth of his intelligence by a wink of the eye, which only made things more mysterious to Mr. Thornton.

‘Th’ young gentleman, I mean — Master Frederick, they ca’ad him — her brother as was over here, yo’ known.’

‘Over here.’

‘Ay, to be sure, at th’ missus’s death. Yo’ need na be feared of my telling; for Mary and me, we knowed it all along, only we held our peace, for we got it through Mary working in th’ house.’

‘And he was over. It was her brother!’

‘Sure enough, and I reckoned yo’ knowed it or I’d never ha’ let on. Yo’ knowed she had a brother?’

‘Yes, I know all about him. And he was over at Mrs. Hale’s death?’

‘Nay! I’m not going for to tell more. I’ve maybe getten them into mischief already, for they kept it very close. I nobbut wanted to know if they’d getten him cleared?’

‘Not that I know of. I know nothing. I only hear of Miss Hale, now, as my landlord, and through her lawyer.’

He broke off from Higgins, to follow the business on which he had been bent when the latter first accosted him; leaving Higgins baffled in his endeavour.

‘It was her brother,’ said Mr. Thornton to himself. ‘I am glad. I may never see her again; but it is a comfort — a relief — to know that much. I knew she could not be unmaidenly; and yet I yearned for conviction. Now I am glad!’

It was a little golden thread running through the dark web of his present fortunes; which were growing ever gloomier and more gloomy. His agent had largely trusted a house in the American trade, which went down, along with several others, just at this time, like a pack of cards, the fall of one compelling other failures. What were Mr. Thornton’s engagements? Could he stand?

Night after night he took books and papers into his own private room, and sate up there long after the family were gone to bed. He thought that no one knew of this occupation of the hours he should have spent in sleep. One morning, when daylight was stealing in through the crevices of his shutters, and he had never been in bed, and, in hopeless indifference of mind, was thinking that he could do without the hour or two of rest, which was all that he should be able to take before the stir of daily labour began again, the door of his room opened, and his mother stood there, dressed as she had been the day before. She had never laid herself down to slumber any more than he. Their eyes met. Their faces were cold and rigid, and wan, from long watching.

‘Mother! why are not you in bed?’

‘Son John,’ said she, ‘do you think I can sleep with an easy mind, while you keep awake full of care? You have not told me what your trouble is; but sore trouble you have had these many days past.’

‘Trade is bad.’

‘And you dread —’

‘I dread nothing,’ replied he, drawing up his head, and holding it erect. ‘I know now that no man will suffer by me. That was my anxiety.’

‘But how do you stand? Shall you — will it be a failure?’ her steady voice trembling in an unwonted manner.

‘Not a failure. I must give up business, but I pay all men. I might redeem myself — I am sorely tempted —’

‘How? Oh, John! keep up your name — try all risks for that. How redeem it?’

‘By a speculation offered to me, full of risk; but, if successful, placing me high above water-mark, so that no one need ever know the strait I am in. Still, if it fails —’

‘And if it fails,’ said she, advancing, and laying her hand on his arm, her eyes full of eager light. She held her breath to hear the end of his speech.

‘Honest men are ruined by a rogue,’ said he gloomily. ‘As I stand now, my creditors, money is safe — every farthing of it; but I don’t know where to find my own — it may be all gone, and I penniless at this moment. Therefore, it is my creditors’ money that I should risk.’

‘But if it succeeded, they need never know. Is it so desperate a speculation? I am sure it is not, or you would never have thought of it. If it succeeded —’

‘I should be a rich man, and my peace of conscience would be gone!’

‘Why! You would have injured no one.’

‘No; but I should have run the risk of ruining many for my own paltry aggrandisement. Mother, I have decided! You won’t much grieve over our leaving this house, shall you, dear mother?’

‘No! but to have you other than what you are will break my heart. What can you do?’

‘Be always the same John Thornton in whatever circumstances; endeavouring to do right, and making great blunders; and then trying to be brave in setting to afresh. But it is hard, mother. I have so worked and planned. I have discovered new powers in my situation too late — and now all is over. I am too old to begin again with the same heart. It is hard, mother.’

He turned away from her, and covered his face with his hands.

‘I can’t think,’ said she, with gloomy defiance in her tone, ‘how it comes about. Here is my boy — good son, just man, tender heart — and he fails in all he sets his mind upon: he finds a woman to love, and she cares no more for his affection than if he had been any common man; he labours, and his labour comes to nought. Other people prosper and grow rich, and hold their paltry names high and dry above shame.’

‘Shame never touched me,’ said he, in a low tone: but she went on.

‘I sometimes have wondered where justice was gone to, and now I don’t believe there is such a thing in the world — now you are come to this; you, my own John Thornton, though you and I may be beggars together — my own dear son!’

She fell upon his neck, and kissed him through her tears.

‘Mother!’ said he, holding her gently in his arms, ‘who has sent me my lot in life, both of good and of evil?’

She shook her head. She would have nothing to do with religion just then.

‘Mother,’ he went on, seeing that she would not speak, ‘I, too, have been rebellious; but I am striving to be so no longer. Help me, as you helped me when I was a child. Then you said many good words — when my father died, and we were sometimes sorely short of comforts — which we shall never be now; you said brave, noble, trustful words then, mother, which I have never forgotten, though they may have lain dormant. Speak to me again in the old way, mother. Do not let us have to think that the world has too much hardened our hearts. If you would say the old good words, it would make me feel something of the pious simplicity of my childhood. I say them to myself, but they would come differently from you, remembering all the cares and trials you have had to bear.’

‘I have had a many,’ said she, sobbing, ‘but none so sore as this. To see you cast down from your rightful place! I could say it for myself, John, but not for you. Not for you! God has seen fit to be very hard on you, very.’

She shook with the sobs that come so convulsively when an old person weeps. The silence around her struck her at last; and she quieted herself to listen. No sound. She looked. Her son sate by the table, his arms thrown half across it, his head bent face downwards.

‘Oh, John!’ she said, and she lifted his face up. Such a strange, pallid look of gloom was on it, that for a moment it struck her that this look was the forerunner of death; but, as the rigidity melted out of the countenance and the natural colour returned, and she saw that he was himself once again, all worldly mortification sank to nothing before the consciousness of the great blessing that he himself by his simple existence was to her. She thanked God for this, and this alone, with a fervour that swept away all rebellious feelings from her mind.

He did not speak readily; but he went and opened the shutters, and let the ruddy light of dawn flood the room. But the wind was in the east; the weather was piercing cold, as it had been for weeks; there would be no demand for light summer goods this year. That hope for the revival of trade must utterly be given up.

It was a great comfort to have had this conversation with his mother; and to feel sure that, however they might henceforward keep silence on all these anxieties, they yet understood each other’s feelings, and were, if not in harmony, at least not in discord with each other, in their way of viewing them. Fanny’s husband was vexed at Thornton’s refusal to take any share in the speculation which he had offered to him, and withdrew from any possibility of being supposed able to assist him with the ready money, which indeed the speculator needed for his own venture.

There was nothing for it at last, but that which Mr. Thornton had dreaded for many weeks; he had to give up the business in which he had been so long engaged with so much honour and success; and look out for a subordinate situation. Marlborough Mills and the adjacent dwelling were held under a long lease; they must, if possible, be relet. There was an immediate choice of situations offered to Mr. Thornton. Mr. Hamper would have been only too glad to have secured him as a steady and experienced partner for his son, whom he was setting up with a large capital in a neighbouring town; but the young man was half-educated as regarded information, and wholly uneducated as regarded any other responsibility than that of getting money, and brutalised both as to his pleasures and his pains. Mr. Thornton declined having any share in a partnership, which would frustrate what few plans he had that survived the wreck of his fortunes. He would sooner consent to be only a manager, where he could have a certain degree of power beyond the mere money-getting part, than have to fall in with the tyrannical humours of a moneyed partner with whom he felt sure that he should quarrel in a few months.

So he waited, and stood on one side with profound humility, as the news swept through the Exchange, of the enormous fortune which his brother-inlaw had made by his daring speculation. It was a nine days’ wonder. Success brought with it its worldly consequence of extreme admiration. No one was considered so wise and far-seeing as Mr. Watson.

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