North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter 51

Meeting Again

‘Bear up, brave heart! we will be calm and strong;

Sure, we can master eyes, or cheek, or tongue,

Nor let the smallest tell-tale sign appear

She ever was, and is, and will be dear.’

RHYMING PLAY.

It was a hot summer’s evening. Edith came into Margaret’s bedroom, the first time in her habit, the second ready dressed for dinner. No one was there at first; the next time Edith found Dixon laying out Margaret’s dress on the bed; but no Margaret. Edith remained to fidget about.

‘Oh, Dixon! not those horrid blue flowers to that dead gold-coloured gown. What taste! Wait a minute, and I will bring you some pomegranate blossoms.’

‘It’s not a dead gold-colour, ma’am. It’s a straw-colour. And blue always goes with straw-colour.’ But Edith had brought the brilliant scarlet flowers before Dixon had got half through her remonstrance.

‘Where is Miss Hale?’ asked Edith, as soon as she had tried the effect of the garniture. ‘I can’t think,’ she went on, pettishly, ‘how my aunt allowed her to get into such rambling habits in Milton! I’m sure I’m always expecting to hear of her having met with something horrible among all those wretched places she pokes herself into. I should never dare to go down some of those streets without a servant. They’re not fit for ladies.’

Dixon was still huffed about her despised taste; so she replied, rather shortly:

‘It’s no wonder to my mind, when I hear ladies talk such a deal about being ladies — and when they’re such fearful, delicate, dainty ladies too — I say it’s no wonder to me that there are no longer any saints on earth ——’

‘Oh, Margaret! here you are! I have been so wanting you. But how your cheeks are flushed with the heat, poor child! But only think what that tiresome Henry has done; really, he exceeds brother-inlaw’s limits. Just when my party was made up so beautifully — fitted in so precisely for Mr. Colthurst — there has Henry come, with an apology it is true, and making use of your name for an excuse, and asked me if he may bring that Mr. Thornton of Milton — your tenant, you know — who is in London about some law business. It will spoil my number, quite.’

‘I don’t mind dinner. I don’t want any,’ said Margaret, in a low voice. ‘Dixon can get me a cup of tea here, and I will be in the drawing-room by the time you come up. I shall really be glad to lie down.’

‘No, no! that will never do. You do look wretchedly white, to be sure; but that is just the heat, and we can’t do without you possibly. (Those flowers a little lower, Dixon. They look glorious flames, Margaret, in your black hair.) You know we planned you to talk about Milton to Mr. Colthurst. Oh! to be sure! and this man comes from Milton. I believe it will be capital, after all. Mr. Colthurst can pump him well on all the subjects in which he is interested, and it will be great fun to trace out your experiences, and this Mr. Thornton’s wisdom, in Mr. Colthurst’s next speech in the House. Really, I think it is a happy hit of Henry’s. I asked him if he was a man one would be ashamed of; and he replied, “Not if you’ve any sense in you, my little sister.” So I suppose he Is able to sound his h’s, which is not a common Darkshire accomplishment — eh, Margaret?’

‘Mr. Lennox did not say why Mr. Thornton was come up to town? Was it law business connected with the property?’ asked Margaret, in a constrained voice.

‘Oh! he’s failed, or something of the kind, that Henry told you of that day you had such a headache — what was it? (There, that’s capital, Dixon. Miss Hale does us credit, does she not?) I wish I was as tall as a queen, and as brown as a gipsy, Margaret.’

‘But about Mr. Thornton?’

‘Oh I really have such a terrible head for law business. Henry will like nothing better than to tell you all about it. I know the impression he made upon me was, that Mr. Thornton is very badly off, and a very respectable man, and that I’m to be very civil to him; and as I did not know how, I came to you to ask you to help me. And now come down with me, and rest on the sofa for a quarter of an hour.’

The privileged brother-inlaw came early and Margaret reddening as she spoke, began to ask him the questions she wanted to hear answered about Mr. Thornton.

‘He came up about this sub-letting the property — Marlborough Mills, and the house and premises adjoining, I mean. He is unable to keep it on; and there are deeds and leases to be looked over, and agreements to be drawn up. I hope Edith will receive him properly; but she was rather put out, as I could see, by the liberty I had taken in begging for an invitation for him. But I thought you would like to have some attention shown him: and one would be particularly scrupulous in paying every respect to a man who is going down in the world.’ He had dropped his voice to speak to Margaret, by whom he was sitting; but as he ended he sprang up, and introduced Mr. Thornton, who had that moment entered, to Edith and Captain Lennox.

Margaret looked with an anxious eye at Mr. Thornton while he was thus occupied. It was considerably more than a year since she had seen him; and events had occurred to change him much in that time. His fine figure yet bore him above the common height of men; and gave him a distinguished appearance, from the ease of motion which arose out of it, and was natural to him; but his face looked older and care-worn; yet a noble composure sate upon it, which impressed those who had just been hearing of his changed position, with a sense of inherent dignity and manly strength. He was aware, from the first glance he had given round the room, that Margaret was there; he had seen her intent look of occupation as she listened to Mr. Henry Lennox; and he came up to her with the perfectly regulated manner of an old friend. With his first calm words a vivid colour flashed into her cheeks, which never left them again during the evening. She did not seem to have much to say to him. She disappointed him by the quiet way in which she asked what seemed to him to be the merely necessary questions respecting her old acquaintances, in Milton; but others came in-more intimate in the house than he — and he fell into the background, where he and Mr. Lennox talked together from time to time.

‘You think Miss Hale looking well,’ said Mr. Lennox, ‘don’t you? Milton didn’t agree with her, I imagine; for when she first came to London, I thought I had never seen any one so much changed. To-night she is looking radiant. But she is much stronger. Last autumn she was fatigued with a walk of a couple of miles. On Friday evening we walked up to Hampstead and back. Yet on Saturday she looked as well as she does now.

‘We!’ Who? They two alone?

Mr. Colthurst was a very clever man, and a rising member of parliament. He had a quick eye at discerning character, and was struck by a remark which Mr. Thornton made at dinner-time. He enquired from Edith who that gentleman was; and, rather to her surprise, she found, from the tone of his ‘Indeed!’ that Mr. Thornton of Milton was not such an unknown name to him as she had imagined it would be. Her dinner was going off well. Henry was in good humour, and brought out his dry caustic wit admirably. Mr. Thornton and Mr. Colthurst found one or two mutual subjects of interest, which they could only touch upon then, reserving them for more private after-dinner talk. Margaret looked beautiful in the pomegranate flowers; and if she did lean back in her chair and speak but little, Edith was not annoyed, for the conversation flowed on smoothly without her. Margaret was watching Mr. Thornton’s face. He never looked at her; so she might study him unobserved, and note the changes which even this short time had wrought in him. Only at some unexpected mot of Mr. Lennox’s, his face flashed out into the old look of intense enjoyment; the merry brightness returned to his eyes, the lips just parted to suggest the brilliant smile of former days; and for an instant, his glance instinctively sought hers, as if he wanted her sympathy. But when their eyes met, his whole countenance changed; he was grave and anxious once more; and he resolutely avoided even looking near her again during dinner.

There were only two ladies besides their own party, and as these were occupied in conversation by her aunt and Edith, when they went up into the drawing-room, Margaret languidly employed herself about some work. Presently the gentlemen came up, Mr. Colthurst and Mr. Thornton in close conversation. Mr. Lennox drew near to Margaret, and said in a low voice:

‘I really think Edith owes me thanks for my contribution to her party. You’ve no idea what an agreeable, sensible fellow this tenant of yours is. He has been the very man to give Colthurst all the facts he wanted coaching in. I can’t conceive how he contrived to mismanage his affairs.’

‘With his powers and opportunities you would have succeeded,’ said Margaret. He did not quite relish the tone in which she spoke, although the words but expressed a thought which had passed through his own mind. As he was silent, they caught a swell in the sound of conversation going on near the fire-place between Mr. Colthurst and Mr. Thornton.

‘I assure you, I heard it spoken of with great interest — curiosity as to its result, perhaps I should rather say. I heard your name frequently mentioned during my short stay in the neighbourhood.’ Then they lost some words; and when next they could hear Mr. Thornton was speaking.

‘I have not the elements for popularity — if they spoke of me in that way, they were mistaken. I fall slowly into new projects; and I find it difficult to let myself be known, even by those whom I desire to know, and with whom I would fain have no reserve. Yet, even with all these drawbacks, I felt that I was on the right path, and that, starting from a kind of friendship with one, I was becoming acquainted with many. The advantages were mutual: we were both unconsciously and consciously teaching each other.’

‘You say “were.” I trust you are intending to pursue the same course?’

‘I must stop Colthurst,’ said Henry Lennox, hastily. And by an abrupt, yet apropos question, he turned the current of the conversation, so as not to give Mr. Thornton the mortification of acknowledging his want of success and consequent change of position. But as soon as the newly-started subject had come to a close, Mr. Thornton resumed the conversation just where it had been interrupted, and gave Mr. Colthurst the reply to his inquiry.

‘I have been unsuccessful in business, and have had to give up my position as a master. I am on the look out for a situation in Milton, where I may meet with employment under some one who will be willing to let me go along my own way in such matters as these. I can depend upon myself for having no go-ahead theories that I would rashly bring into practice. My only wish is to have the opportunity of cultivating some intercourse with the hands beyond the mere “cash nexus.” But it might be the point Archimedes sought from which to move the earth, to judge from the importance attached to it by some of our manufacturers, who shake their heads and look grave as soon as I name the one or two experiments that I should like to try.’

‘You call them “experiments” I notice,’ said Mr. Colthurst, with a delicate increase of respect in his manner.

‘Because I believe them to be such. I am not sure of the consequences that may result from them. But I am sure they ought to be tried. I have arrived at the conviction that no mere institutions, however wise, and however much thought may have been required to organise and arrange them, can attach class to class as they should be attached, unless the working out of such institutions bring the individuals of the different classes into actual personal contact. Such intercourse is the very breath of life. A working man can hardly be made to feel and know how much his employer may have laboured in his study at plans for the benefit of his workpeople. A complete plan emerges like a piece of machinery, apparently fitted for every emergency. But the hands accept it as they do machinery, without understanding the intense mental labour and forethought required to bring it to such perfection. But I would take an idea, the working out of which would necessitate personal intercourse; it might not go well at first, but at every hitch interest would be felt by an increasing number of men, and at last its success in working come to be desired by all, as all had borne a part in the formation of the plan; and even then I am sure that it would lose its vitality, cease to be living, as soon as it was no longer carried on by that sort of common interest which invariably makes people find means and ways of seeing each other, and becoming acquainted with each others’ characters and persons, and even tricks of temper and modes of speech. We should understand each other better, and I’ll venture to say we should like each other more.’

‘And you think they may prevent the recurrence of strikes?’

‘Not at all. My utmost expectation only goes so far as this — that they may render strikes not the bitter, venomous sources of hatred they have hitherto been. A more hopeful man might imagine that a closer and more genial intercourse between classes might do away with strikes. But I am not a hopeful man.’

Suddenly, as if a new idea had struck him, he crossed over to where Margaret was sitting, and began, without preface, as if he knew she had been listening to all that had passed:

‘Miss Hale, I had a round-robin from some of my men — I suspect in Higgins’ handwriting — stating their wish to work for me, if ever I was in a position to employ men again on my own behalf. That was good, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes. Just right. I am glad of it,’ said Margaret, looking up straight into his face with her speaking eyes, and then dropping them under his eloquent glance. He gazed back at her for a minute, as if he did not know exactly what he was about. Then sighed; and saying, ‘I knew you would like it,’ he turned away, and never spoke to her again until he bid her a formal ‘good night.’

As Mr. Lennox took his departure, Margaret said, with a blush that she could not repress, and with some hesitation,

‘Can I speak to you tomorrow? I want your help about — something.’

‘Certainly. I will come at whatever time you name. You cannot give me a greater pleasure than by making me of any use. At eleven? Very well.’

His eye brightened with exultation. How she was learning to depend upon him! It seemed as if any day now might give him the certainty, without having which he had determined never to offer to her again.

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