The Moorland Cottage, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter X.

The more Maggie thought, the more she felt sure that the impulse on which she had acted in proposing to go with her brother was right. She feared there was little hope for his character, whatever there might be for his worldly fortune, if he were thrown, in the condition of mind in which he was now, among the set of adventurous men who are continually going over to America in search of an El Dorado to be discovered by their wits. She knew she had but little influence over him at present; but she would not doubt or waver in her hope that patience and love might work him right at last. She meant to get some employment — in teaching — in needlework — in a shop — no matter how humble — and be no burden to him, and make him a happy home, from which he should feel no wish to wander. Her chief anxiety was about her mother. She did not dwell more than she could help on her long absence from Frank; it was too sad, and yet too necessary. She meant to write and tell him all about herself and Edward. The only thing which she would keep for some happy future should be the possible revelation of the proposal which Mr. Buxton had made, that she should give up her engagement as a condition of his not prosecuting Edward.

There was much sorrowful bustle in the moorland cottage that day. Erminia brought up a portion of the money Mr. Buxton was to advance, with an entreaty that Edward would not show himself out of his home; and an account of a letter from Mr. Henry, stating that the Woodchester police believed him to be in London, and that search was being made for him there.

Erminia looked very grave and pale. She gave her message to Mrs. Browne, speaking little beyond what was absolutely necessary. Then she took Maggie aside, and suddenly burst into tears.

“Maggie, darling — what is this going to America? You’ve always and always been sacrificing yourself to your family, and now you’re setting off, nobody knows where, in some vain hope of reforming Edward. I wish he was not your brother, that I might speak of him as I should like.”

“He has been doing what is very wrong,” said Maggie. “But you — none of you — know his good points — nor how he has been exposed to all sorts of bad influences, I am sure; and never had the advantage of a father’s training and friendship, which are so inestimable to a son. O, Minnie! when I remember how we two used to kneel down in the evenings at my father’s knee, and say our prayers; and then listen in awe-struck silence to his earnest blessing, which grew more like a prayer for us as his life waned away, I would do anything for Edward rather than that wrestling agony of supplication should have been in vain. I think of him as the little innocent boy, whose arm was round me as if to support me in the Awful Presence, whose true name of Love we had not learned. Minnie! he has had no proper training — no training, I mean, to enable him to resist temptation — and he has been thrown into it without warning or advice. Now he knows what it is; and I must try, though I am but an unknowing girl, to warn and to strengthen him. Don’t weaken my faith. Who can do right if we lose faith in them?”

“And Frank!” said Erminia, after a pause. “Poor Frank!”

“Dear Frank!” replied Maggie, looking up, and trying to smile; but, in spite of herself, her eyes filled with tears. “If I could have asked him, I know he would approve of what I am going to do. He would feel it to be right that I should make every effort — I don’t mean,” said she, as the tears would fall down her cheeks in spite of her quivering effort at a smile, “that I should not have liked to have seen him. But it is no use talking of what one would have liked. I am writing a long letter to him at every pause of leisure.”

“And I’m keeping you all this time,” said Erminia, getting up, yet loth to go. “When do you intend to come back? Let us feel there is a fixed time. America! Why, it’s thousands of miles away. Oh, Maggie! Maggie!”

“I shall come back the next autumn, I trust,” said Maggie, comforting her friend with many a soft caress. “Edward will be settled then, I hope. You were longer in France, Minnie. Frank was longer away that time he wintered in Italy with Mr. Monro.”

Erminia went slowly to the door. Then she turned, right facing Maggie.

“Maggie! tell the truth. Has my uncle been urging you to go? Because if he has, don’t trust him; it is only to break off your engagement.”

“No, he has not, indeed. It was my own thought at first. Then in a moment I saw the relief it was to my mother — my poor mother! Erminia, the thought of her grief at Edward’s absence is the trial; for my sake, you will come often and often, and comfort her in every way you can.”

“Yes! that I will; tell me everything I can do for you.” Kissing each other, with long lingering delay they parted.

Nancy would be informed of the cause of the commotion in the house; and when she had in some degree ascertained its nature, she wasted no time in asking further questions, but quietly got up and dressed herself; and appeared among them, weak and trembling, indeed, but so calm and thoughtful, that her presence was an infinite help to Maggie.

When day closed in, Edward stole down to the house once more. He was haggard enough to have been in anxiety and concealment for a month. But when his body was refreshed, his spirits rose in a way inconceivable to Maggie. The Spaniards who went out with Pizarro were not lured on by more fantastic notions of the wealth to be acquired in the New World than he was. He dwelt on these visions in so brisk and vivid a manner, that he even made his mother cease her weary weeping (which had lasted the livelong day, despite all Maggie’s efforts) to look up and listen to him.

“I’ll answer for it,” said he: “before long I’ll be an American judge with miles of cotton plantations.”

“But in America,” sighed out his mother.

“Never mind, mother!” said he, with a tenderness which made Maggie’s heart glad. “If you won’t come over to America to me, why, I’ll sell them all, and come back to live in England. People will forget the scrapes that the rich American got into in his youth.”

“You can pay back Mr. Buxton then,” said his mother.

“Oh, yes — of course,” replied he, as if falling into a new and trivial idea.

Thus the evening whiled away. The mother and son sat, hand in hand, before the little glinting blazing parlor fire, with the unlighted candles on the table behind. Maggie, busy in preparations, passed softly in and out. And when all was done that could be done before going to Liverpool, where she hoped to have two days to prepare their outfit more completely, she stole back to her mother’s side. But her thoughts would wander off to Frank, “working his way south through all the hunting-counties,” as he had written her word. If she had not urged his absence, he would have been here for her to see his noble face once more; but then, perhaps, she might never have had the strength to go.

Late, late in the night they separated. Maggie could not rest, and stole into her mother’s room. Mrs. Browne had cried herself to sleep, like a child. Maggie stood and looked at her face, and then knelt down by the bed and prayed. When she arose, she saw that her mother was awake, and had been looking at her.

“Maggie dear! you’re a good girl, and I think God will hear your prayer whatever it was for. I cannot tell you what a relief it is to me to think you’re going with him. It would have broken my heart else. If I’ve sometimes not been as kind as I might have been, I ask your forgiveness, now, my dear; and I bless you and thank you for going out with him; for I’m sure he’s not well and strong, and will need somebody to take care of him. And you shan’t lose with Mr. Frank, for as sure as I see him I’ll tell him what a good daughter and sister you’ve been; and I shall say, for all he is so rich, I think he may look long before he finds a wife for him like our Maggie. I do wish Ned had got that new greatcoat, he says he left behind him at Woodchester.” Her mind reverted to her darling son; but Maggie took her short slumber by her mother’s side, with her mother’s arms around her; and awoke and felt that her sleep had been blessed. At the coach-office the next morning they met Mr. Buxton all ready as if for a journey, but glancing about him as if in fear of some coming enemy.

“I’m going with you to Liverpool,” said he. “Don’t make any ado about it, please. I shall like to see you off; and I may be of some use to you, and Erminia begged it of me; and, besides, it will keep me out of Mr. Henry’s way for a little time, and I’m afraid he will find it all out, and think me very weak; but you see he made me too hard upon Crayston, so I may take it out in a little soft-heartedness toward the son of an old friend.”

Just at this moment Erminia came running through the white morning mist all glowing with haste.

“Maggie,” said she, “I’m come to take care of your mother. My uncle says she and Nancy must come to us for a long, long visit. Or if she would rather go home, I’ll go with her till she feels able to come to us, and do anything I can think of for her. I will try to be a daughter till you come back, Maggie; only don’t be long, or Frank and I shall break our hearts.”

Maggie waited till her mother had ended her long clasping embrace of Edward, who was subdued enough this morning; and then, with something like Esau’s craving for a blessing, she came to bid her mother good-bye, and received the warm caress she had longed for for years. In another moment the coach was away; and before half an hour had elapsed, Combehurst church-spire had been lost in a turn of the road.

Edward and Mr. Buxton did not speak to each other, and Maggie was nearly silent. They reached Liverpool in the afternoon; and Mr. Buxton, who had been there once or twice before, took them directly to some quiet hotel. He was far more anxious that Edward should not expose himself to any chance of recognition than Edward himself. He went down to the Docks to secure berths in the vessel about to sail the next day, and on his return he took Maggie out to make the requisite purchases.

“Did you pay for us, sir?” said Maggie, anxious to ascertain the amount of money she had left, after defraying the passage.

“Yes,” replied he, rather confused. “Erminia begged me not to tell you about it, but I can’t manage a secret well. You see she did not like the idea of your going as steerage-passengers as you meant to do; and she desired me to take you cabin places for her. It is no doing of mine, my dear. I did not think of it; but now I have seen how crowded the steerage is, I am very glad Erminia had so much thought. Edward might have roughed it well enough there, but it would never have done for you.”

“It was very kind of Erminia,” said Maggie, touched at this consideration of her friend; “but . . . ”

“Now don’t ‘but’ about it,” interrupted he. “Erminia is very rich, and has more money than she knows what to do with. I’m only vexed I did not think of if myself. For Maggie, though I may have my own ways of thinking on some points, I can’t be blind to your goodness.”

All evening Mr. Buxton was busy, and busy on their behalf. Even Edward, when he saw the attention that was being paid to his physical comfort, felt a kind of penitence; and after choking once or twice in the attempt, conquered his pride (such I call it for want of a better word) so far as to express some regret for his past conduct, and some gratitude for Mr. Buxton’s present kindness. He did it awkwardly enough, but it pleased Mr. Buxton.

“Well — well — that’s all very right,” said he, reddening from his own uncomfortableness of feeling. “Now don’t say any more about it, but do your best in America; don’t let me feel I’ve been a fool in letting you off. I know Mr. Henry will think me so. And, above all, take care of Maggie. Mind what she says, and you’re sure to go right.”

He asked them to go on board early the next day, as he had promised Erminia to see them there, and yet wished to return as soon as he could. It was evident that he hoped, by making his absence as short as possible, to prevent Mr. Henry’s ever knowing that he had left home, or in any way connived at Edward’s escape.

So, although the vessel was not to sail till the afternoon’s tide, they left the hotel soon after breakfast, and went to the “Anna–Maria.” They were among the first passengers on board. Mr. Buxton took Maggie down to her cabin. She then saw the reason of his business the evening before. Every store that could be provided was there. A number of books lay on the little table — books just suited to Maggie’s taste. “There!” said he, rubbing his hands. “Don’t thank me. It’s all Erminia’s doing. She gave me the list of books. I’ve not got all; but I think they’ll be enough. Just write me one line, Maggie, to say I’ve done my best.”

Maggie wrote with tears in her eyes — tears of love toward the generous Erminia. A few minutes more and Mr. Buxton was gone. Maggie watched him as long as she could see him; and as his portly figure disappeared among the crowd on the pier, her heart sank within her.

Edward’s, on the contrary, rose at his absence. The only one, cognisant of his shame and ill-doing, was gone. A new life lay before him, the opening of which was made agreeable to him, by the position in which he found himself placed, as a cabin-passenger; with many comforts provided for him; for although Maggie’s wants had been the principal object of Mr. Buxton’s attention, Edward was not forgotten.

He was soon among the sailors, talking away in a rather consequential manner. He grew acquainted with the remainder of the cabin-passengers, at least those who arrived before the final bustle began; and kept bringing his sister such little pieces of news as he could collect.

“Maggie, they say we are likely to have a good start, and a fine moonlight night.” Away again he went.

“I say, Maggie, that’s an uncommonly pretty girl come on board, with those old people in black. Gone down into the cabin, now; I wish you would scrape up an acquaintance with her, and give me a chance.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55