The Moorland Cottage, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XI.

Maggie sat on deck, wrapped in her duffel-cloak; the old familiar cloak, which had been her wrap in many a happy walk in the haunts near her moorland home. The weather was not cold for the time of year, but still it was chilly to any one that was stationary. But she wanted to look her last on the shoals of English people, who crowded backward and forward, like ants, on the pier. Happy people! who might stay among their loved ones. The mocking demons gathered round her, as they gather round all who sacrifice self, tempting. A crowd of suggestive doubts pressed upon her. “Was it really necessary that she should go with Edward? Could she do him any real good? Would he be in any way influenced by her?” Then the demon tried another description of doubt. “Had it ever been her duty to go? She was leaving her mother alone. She was giving Frank much present sorrow. It was not even yet too late!” She could not endure longer; and replied to her own tempting heart.

“I was right to hope for Edward; I am right to give him the chance of steadiness which my presence will give. I am doing what my mother earnestly wished me to do; and what to the last she felt relieved by my doing. I know Frank will feel sorrow, because I myself have such an aching heart; but if I had asked him whether I was not right in going, he would have been too truthful not to have said yes. I have tried to do right, and though I may fail, and evil may seem to arise rather than good out of my endeavor, yet still I will submit to my failure, and try and say ‘God’s will be done!’ If only I might have seen Frank once more, and told him all face to face!”

To do away with such thoughts, she determined no longer to sit gazing, and tempted by the shore; and, giving one look to the land which contained her lover, she went down below, and busied herself, even through her blinding tears, in trying to arrange her own cabin, and Edward’s. She heard boat after boat arrive loaded with passengers. She learnt from Edward, who came down to tell her the fact, that there were upwards of two hundred steerage passengers. She felt the tremulous shake which announced that the ship was loosed from her moorings, and being tugged down the river. She wrapped herself up once more, and came on deck, and sat down among the many who were looking their last look at England. The early winter evening was darkening in, and shutting out the Welsh coast, the hills of which were like the hills of home. She was thankful when she became too ill to think and remember.

Exhausted and still, she did not know whether she was sleeping or waking; or whether she had slept since she had thrown herself down on her cot, when suddenly, there was a great rush, and then Edward stood like lightning by her, pulling her up by the arm.

“The ship is on fire — to the deck, Maggie! Fire! Fire!” he shouted, like a maniac, while he dragged her up the stairs — as if the cry of Fire could summon human aid on the great deep. And the cry was echoed up to heaven by all that crowd in an accent of despair.

They stood huddled together, dressed and undressed; now in red lurid light, showing ghastly faces of terror — now in white wreaths of smoke — as far away from the steerage as they could press; for there, up from the hold, rose columns of smoke, and now and then a fierce blaze leaped out, exulting — higher and higher every time; while from each crevice on that part of the deck issued harbingers of the terrible destruction that awaited them.

The sailors were lowering the boats; and above them stood the captain, as calm as if he were on his own hearth at home — his home where he never more should be. His voice was low — was lower; but as clear as a bell in its distinctness; as wise in its directions as collected thought could make it. Some of the steerage passengers were helping; but more were dumb and motionless with affright. In that dead silence was heard a low wail of sorrow, as of numbers whose power was crushed out of them by that awful terror. Edward still held his clutch of Margaret’s arm.

“Be ready!” said he, in a fierce whisper.

The fire sprung up along the main-mast, and did not sink or disappear again. They knew then that all the mad efforts made by some few below to extinguish it were in vain; and then went up the prayers of hundreds, in mortal agony of fear:

“Lord! have mercy upon us!”

Not in quiet calm of village church did ever such a pitiful cry go up to heaven; it was like one voice — like the day of judgment in the presence of the Lord.

And after that there was no more silence; but a confusion of terrible farewells, and wild cries of affright, and purposeless rushes hither and thither.

The boats were down, rocking on the sea. The captain spoke:

“Put the children in first; they are the most helpless.”

One or two stout sailors stood in the boats to receive them. Edward drew nearer and nearer to the gangway, pulling Maggie with him. She was almost pressed to death, and stifled. Close in her ear, she heard a woman praying to herself. She, poor creature, knew of no presence but God’s in that awful hour, and spoke in a low voice to Him.

“My heart’s darlings are taken away from me. Faith! faith! Oh, my great God! I will die in peace, if Thou wilt but grant me faith in this terrible hour, to feel that Thou wilt take care of my poor orphans. Hush! dearest Billy,” she cried out shrill to a little fellow in the boat waiting for his mother; and the change in her voice from despair to a kind of cheerfulness, showed what a mother’s love can do. “Mother will come soon. Hide his face, Anne, and wrap your shawl tight round him.” And then her voice sank down again in the same low, wild prayer for faith. Maggie could not turn to see her face, but took the hand which hung near her. The woman clutched at it with the grasp of a vice; but went on praying, as if unconscious. Just then the crowd gave way a little. The captain had said, that the women were to go next; but they were too frenzied to obey his directions, and now pressed backward and forward. The sailors, with mute, stern obedience, strove to follow out the captain’s directions. Edward pulled Maggie, and she kept her hold on the mother. The mate, at the head of the gangway, pushed him back.

“Only women are to go!”

“There are men there.”

“Three, to manage the boat.”

“Come on, Maggie! while there’s room for us,” said he, unheeding. But Maggie drew back, and put the mother’s hand into the mate’s. “Save her first!” said she. The woman did not know of anything, but that her children were there; it was only in after days, and quiet hours, that she remembered the young creature who pushed her forward to join her fatherless children, and, by losing her place in the crowd, was jostled — where, she did not know — but dreamed until her dying day. Edward pressed on, unaware that Maggie was not close behind him. He was deaf to reproaches; and, heedless of the hand stretched out to hold him back, sprang toward the boat. The men there pushed her off — full and more than full as she was; and overboard he fell into the sullen heaving waters.

His last shout had been on Maggie’s name — a name she never thought to hear again on earth, as she was pressed back, sick and suffocating. But suddenly a voice rang out above all confused voices and moaning hungry waves, and above the roaring fire.

“Maggie, Maggie! My Maggie!”

Out of the steerage side of the crowd a tall figure issued forth, begrimed with smoke. She could not see, but she knew. As a tame bird flutters to the human breast of its protector when affrighted by some mortal foe, so Maggie fluttered and cowered into his arms. And, for a moment, there was no more terror or thought of danger in the hearts of those twain, but only infinite and absolute peace. She had no wonder how he came there: it was enough that he was there. He first thought of the destruction that was present with them. He was as calm and composed as if they sat beneath the thorn-tree on the still moorlands, far away. He took her, without a word, to the end of the quarter-deck. He lashed her to a piece of spar. She never spoke:

“Maggie,” he said, “my only chance is to throw you overboard. This spar will keep you floating. At first, you will go down — deep, deep down. Keep your mouth and eyes shut. I shall be there when you come up. By God’s help, I will struggle bravely for you.”

She looked up; and by the flashing light he could see a trusting, loving smile upon her face. And he smiled back at her; a grave, beautiful look, fit to wear on his face in heaven. He helped her to the side of the vessel, away from the falling burning pieces of mast. Then for a moment he paused.

“If — Maggie, I may be throwing you in to death.” He put his hand before his eyes. The strong man lost courage. Then she spoke:

“I am not afraid; God is with us, whether we live or die!” She looked as quiet and happy as a child on its mother’s breast! and so before he lost heart again, he heaved her up, and threw her as far as he could over into the glaring, dizzying water; and straight leaped after her. She came up with an involuntary look of terror on her face; but when she saw him by the red glare of the burning ship, close by her side, she shut her eyes, and looked as if peacefully going to sleep. He swam, guiding the spar.

“I think we are near Llandudno. I know we have passed the little Ormes’ head.” That was all he said; but she did net speak.

He swam out of the heat and fierce blaze of light into the quiet, dark waters; and then into the moon’s path. It might be half an hour before he got into that silver stream. When the beams fell down upon them he looked at Maggie. Her head rested on the spar, quite still. He could not bear it. “Maggie — dear heart! speak!”

With a great effort she was called back from the borders of death by that voice, and opened her filmy eyes, which looked abroad as if she could see nothing nearer than the gleaming lights of Heaven. She let the lids fall softly again. He was as if alone in the wide world with God.

“A quarter of an hour more and all is over,” thought he. “The people at Llandudno must see our burning ship, and will come out in their boats.” He kept in the line of light, although it did not lead him direct to the shore, in order that they might be seen. He swam with desperation. One moment he thought he had heard her last gasp rattle through the rush of the waters; and all strength was gone, and he lay on the waves as if he himself must die, and go with her spirit straight through that purple lift to heaven; the next he heard the splash of oars, and raised himself and cried aloud. The boatmen took them in-and examined her by the lantern — and spoke in Welsh — and shook their heads. Frank threw himself on his knees, and prayed them to take her to land. They did not know his words, but they understood his prayer. He kissed her lips — he chafed her hands — he wrung the water out of her hair — he held her feet against his warm breast.

“She is not dead,” he kept saying to the men, as he saw their sorrowful, pitying looks.

The kind people at Llandudno had made ready their own humble beds, with every appliance of comfort they could think of, as soon as they understood the nature of the calamity which had befallen the ship on their coasts. Frank walked, dripping, bareheaded, by the body of his Margaret, which was borne by some men along the rocky sloping shore.

“She is not dead!” he said. He stopped at the first house they came to. It belonged to a kind-hearted woman. They laid Maggie in her bed, and got the village doctor to come and see her.

“There is life still,” said he, gravely.

“I knew it,” said Frank. But it felled him to the ground. He sank first in prayer, and then in insensibility. The doctor did everything. All that night long he passed to and fro from house to house; for several had swum to Llandudno. Others, it was thought, had gone to Abergele.

In the morning Frank was recovered enough to write to his father, by Maggie’s bedside. He sent the letter off to Conway by a little bright-looking Welsh boy. Late in the afternoon she awoke.

In a moment or two she looked eagerly round her, as if gathering in her breath; and then she covered her head and sobbed.

“Where is Edward?” asked she.

“We do not know,” said Frank, gravely. “I have been round the village, and seen every survivor here; he is not among them, but he may be at some other place along the coast.”

She was silent, reading in his eyes his fears — his belief.

At last she asked again.

“I cannot understand it. My head is not clear. There are such rushing noises in it. How came you there?” She shuddered involuntarily as she recalled the terrible where.

For an instant he dreaded, for her sake, to recall the circumstances of the night before; but then he understood how her mind would dwell upon them until she was satisfied.

“You remember writing to me, love, telling me all. I got your letter — I don’t know how long ago — yesterday, I think. Yes! in the evening. You could not think, Maggie, I would let you go alone to America. I won’t speak against Edward, poor fellow! but we must both allow that he was not the person to watch over you as such a treasure should be watched over. I thought I would go with you. I hardly know if I meant to make myself known to you all at once, for I had no wish to have much to do with your brother. I see now that it was selfish in me. Well! there was nothing to be done, after receiving your letter, but to set off for Liverpool straight, and join you. And after that decision was made, my spirits rose, for the old talks about Canada and Australia came to my mind, and this seemed like a realization of them. Besides, Maggie, I suspected — I even suspect now — that my father had something to do with your going with Edward?”

“Indeed, Frank!” said she, earnestly, “you are mistaken; I cannot tell you all now; but he was so good and kind at last. He never urged me to go; though, I believe, he did tell me it would be the saving of Edward.”

“Don’t agitate yourself, love. I trust there will be time enough, some happy day at home, to tell me all. And till then, I will believe that my father did not in any way suggest this voyage. But you’ll allow that, after all that has passed, it was not unnatural in me to suppose so. I only told Middleton I was obliged to leave him by the next train. It was not till I was fairly off, that I began to reckon up what money I had with me. I doubt even if I was sorry to find it was so little. I should have to put forth my energies and fight my way, as I had often wanted to do. I remember, I thought how happy you and I would be, striving together as poor people ‘in that new world which is the old.’ Then you had told me you were going in the steerage; and that was all suitable to my desires for myself.”

“It was Erminia’s kindness that prevented our going there. She asked your father to take us cabin places unknown to me.”

“Did she? dear Erminia! it is just like her. I could almost laugh to remember the eagerness with which I doffed my signs of wealth, and put on those of poverty. I sold my watch when I got into Liverpool — yesterday, I believe — but it seems like months ago. And I rigged myself out at a slop-shop with suitable clothes for a steerage passenger. Maggie! you never told me the name of the vessel you were going to sail in!”

“I did not know it till I got to Liverpool. All Mr. Buxton said was, that some ship sailed on the 15th.”

“I concluded it must be the Anna–Maria, (poor Anna–Maria!) and I had no time to lose. She had just heaved her anchor when I came on board. Don’t you recollect a boat hailing her at the last moment? There were three of us in her.”

“No! I was below in my cabin — trying not to think,” said she, coloring a little.

“Well! as soon as I got on board it began to grow dark, or, perhaps, it was the fog on the river; at any rate, instead of being able to single out your figure at once, Maggie — it is one among a thousand — I had to go peering into every woman’s face; and many were below. I went between decks, and by-and-by I was afraid I had mistaken the vessel; I sat down — I had no spirit to stand; and every time the door opened I roused up and looked — but you never came. I was thinking what to do; whether to be put on shore in Ireland, or to go on to New York, and wait for you there; — if was the worst time of all, for I had nothing to do; and the suspense was horrible. I might have known,” said he, smiling, “my little Emperor of Russia was not one to be a steerage passenger.”

But Maggie was too much shaken to smile; and the thought of Edward lay heavy upon her mind.

“Then the fire broke out; how, or why, I suppose will never be ascertained. It was at our end of the vessel. I thanked God, then, that you were not there. The second mate wanted some one to go down with him to bring up the gunpowder, and throw it overboard. I had nothing to do, and I went. We wrapped it up in wet sails, but it was a ticklish piece of work, and took time. When we had got it overboard, the flames were gathering far and wide. I don’t remember what I did until I heard Edward’s voice speaking your name.”

It was decided that the next morning they should set off homeward, striving on their way to obtain tidings of Edward. Frank would have given his only valuable, (his mother’s diamond-guard, which he wore constantly,)as a pledge for some advance of money; but the kind Welsh people would not have it. They had not much spare cash, but what they had they readily lent to the survivors of the Anna–Maria. Dressed in the homely country garb of the people, Frank and Maggie set off in their car. If was a clear, frosty morning; the first that winter. The road soon lay high up on the cliffs along the coast. They looked down on the sea rocking below. At every village they stopped, and Frank inquired, and made the driver inquire in Welsh; but no tidings gained they of Edward; though here and there Maggie watched Frank into some cottage or other, going to see a dead body, beloved by some one: and when he came out, solemn and grave, their sad eyes met, and she knew it was not he they sought, without needing words.

At Abergele they stopped to rest; and because, being a larger place, it would need a longer search, Maggie lay down on the sofa, for she was very weak, and shut her eyes, and tried not to see forever and ever that mad struggling crowd lighted by the red flames.

Frank came back in an hour or so; and soft behind him — laboriously treading on tiptoe — Mr. Buxton followed. He was evidently choking down his sobs; but when he saw the white wan figure of Maggie, he held out his arms.

“My dear! my daughter!” he said, “God bless you!” He could not speak more — he was fairly crying; but he put her hand in Frank’s and kept holding them both.

“My father,” said Frank, speaking in a husky voice, while his eyes filled with tears, “had heard of it before he received my letter. I might have known that the lighthouse signals would take it fast to Liverpool. I had written a few lines to him saying I was going to you; happily they never reached — that was spared to my dear father.”

Maggie saw the look of restored confidence that passed between father and son.

“My mother?” said she at last.

“She is here,” said they both at once, with sad solemnity.

“Oh, where? Why did not you tell me?” exclaimed she, starting up. But their faces told her why.

“Edward is drowned — is dead,” said she, reading their looks.

There was no answer.

“Let me go to my mother.”

“Maggie, she is with him. His body was washed ashore last night. My father and she heard of it as they came along. Can you bear to see her? She will not leave him.”

“Take me to her,” Maggie answered.

They led her into a bed-room. Stretched on the bed lay Edward, but now so full of hope and worldly plans.

Mrs. Browne looked round, and saw Maggie. She did not get up from her place by his head; nor did she long avert her gaze from his poor face. But she held Maggie’s hand, as the girl knelt by her, and spoke to her in a hushed voice, undisturbed by tears. Her miserable heart could not find that relief.

“He is dead! — he is gone! — he will never come back again! If he had gone to America — it might have been years first — but he would have come back to me. But now he will never come back again; — never — never!”

Her voice died away, as the wailings of the night-wind die in the distance; and there was silence — silence more sad and hopeless than any passionate words of grief.

And to this day it is the same. She prizes her dead son more than a thousand living daughters, happy and prosperous as is Maggie now — rich in the love of many. If Maggie did not show such reverence to her mother’s faithful sorrows, others might wonder at her refusal to be comforted by that sweet daughter. But Maggie treats her with such tender sympathy, never thinking of herself or her own claims, that Frank, Erminia, Mr. Buxton, Nancy, and all, are reverent and sympathizing too.

Over both old and young the memory of one who is dead broods like a dove — of one who could do but little during her lifetime — who was doomed only to “stand and wait”— who was meekly content to be gentle, holy, patient, and undefiled — the memory of the invalid Mrs. Buxton.


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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

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