The Moorland Cottage, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter IV.

Summers and winters came and went, with little to mark them, except the growth of the trees, and the quiet progress of young creatures. Erminia was sent to school somewhere in France, to receive more regular instruction than she could have in the house with her invalid aunt. But she came home once a year, more lovely and elegant and dainty than ever; and Maggie thought, with truth, that ripening years were softening down her volatility, and that her aunt’s dewlike sayings had quietly sunk deep, and fertilized the soil. That aunt was fading away. Maggie’s devotion added materially to her happiness; and both she and Maggie never forgot that this devotion was to be in all things subservient to the duty which she owed to her mother.

“My love,” Mrs. Buxton had more than once said, “you must always recollect that your first duty is toward your mother. You know how glad I am to see you; but I shall always understand how it is, if you do not come. She may often want you when neither you nor I can anticipate it.”

Mrs. Browne had no great wish to keep Maggie at home, though she liked to grumble at her going. Still she felt that it was best, in every way, to keep on good terms with such valuable friends; and she appreciated, in some small degree, the advantage which her intimacy at the house was to Maggie. But yet she could not restrain a few complaints, nor withhold from her, on her return, a recapitulation of all the things which might have been done if she had only been at home, and the number of times that she had been wanted; but when she found that Maggie quietly gave up her next Wednesday’s visit as soon as she was made aware of any necessity for her presence at home, her mother left off grumbling, and took little or no notice of her absence.

When the time came for Edward to leave school, he announced that he had no intention of taking orders, but meant to become an attorney.

“It’s such slow work,” said he to his mother. “One toils away for four or five years, and then one gets a curacy of seventy pounds a-year, and no end of work to do for the money. Now the work is not much harder in a lawyer’s office, and if one has one’s wits about one, there are hundreds and thousands a-year to be picked up with mighty little trouble.”

Mrs. Browne was very sorry for this determination. She had a great desire to see her son a clergyman, like his father. She did not consider whether his character was fitted for so sacred an office; she rather thought that the profession itself, when once assumed, would purify the character; but, in fact, his fitness or unfitness for holy orders entered little into her mind. She had a respect for the profession, and his father had belonged to it.

“I had rather see you a curate at seventy pounds a-year, than an attorney with seven hundred,” replied she. “And you know your father was always asked to dine everywhere — to places where I know they would not have asked Mr. Bish, of Woodchester, and he makes his thousand a-year. Besides, Mr. Buxton has the next presentation to Combehurst, and you would stand a good chance for your father’s sake. And in the mean time you should live here, if your curacy was any way near.”

“I dare say! Catch me burying myself here again. My dear mother, it’s a very respectable place for you and Maggie to live in, and I dare say you don’t find it dull; but the idea of my quietly sitting down here is something too absurd!”

“Papa did, and was very happy,” said Maggie.

“Yes! after he had been at Oxford,” replied Edward, a little nonplussed by this reference to one whose memory even the most selfish and thoughtless must have held in respect.

“Well! and you know you would have to go to Oxford first.”

“Maggie! I wish you would not interfere between my mother and me. I want to have it settled and done with, and that it will never be if you keep meddling. Now, mother, don’t you see how much better it will be for me to go into Mr. Bish’s office? Harry Bish has spoken to his father about it.”

Mrs. Browne sighed.

“What will Mr. Buxton say?” asked she, dolefully.

“Say! Why don’t you see it was he who first put it into my head, by telling me that first Christmas holidays, that I should be his agent. That would be something, would it not? Harry Bish says he thinks a thousand a-year might ha made of it.”

His loud, decided, rapid talking overpowered Mrs. Browne; but she resigned herself to his wishes with more regrets than she had ever done before. It was not the first case in which fluent declamation has taken the place of argument.

Edward was articled to Mr. Bish, and thus gained his point. There was no one with power to resist his wishes, except his mother and Mr. Buxton. The former had long acknowledged her son’s will as her law; and the latter, though surprised and almost disappointed at a change of purpose which he had never anticipated in his plans for Edward’s benefit, gave his consent, and even advanced some of the money requisite for the premium.

Maggie looked upon this change with mingled feelings. She had always from a child pictured Edward to herself as taking her father’s place. When she had thought of him as a man, it was as contemplative, grave, and gentle, as she remembered her father. With all a child’s deficiency of reasoning power, she had never considered how impossible it was that a selfish, vain, and impatient boy could become a meek, humble, and pious man, merely by adopting a profession in which such qualities are required. But now, at sixteen, she was beginning to understand all this. Not by any process of thought, but by something more like a correct feeling, she perceived that Edward would never be the true minister of Christ. So, more glad and thankful than sorry, though sorrow mingled with her sentiments, she learned the decision that he was to be an attorney.

Frank Buxton all this time was growing up into a young man. The hopes both of father and mother were bound up in him; and, according to the difference in their characters was the difference in their hopes. It seemed, indeed, probable that Mr. Buxton, who was singularly void of worldliness or ambition for himself, would become worldly and ambitious for his son. His hopes for Frank were all for honor and distinction here. Mrs. Buxton’s hopes were prayers. She was fading away, as light fades into darkness on a summer evening. No one seemed to remark the gradual progress; but she was fully conscious of it herself. The last time that Frank was at home from college before her death, she knew that she should never see him again; and when he gaily left the house, with a cheerfulness, which was partly assumed, she dragged herself with languid steps into a room at the front of the house, from which she could watch him down the long, straggling little street, that led to the inn from which the coach started. As he went along, he turned to look back at his home; and there he saw his mother’s white figure gazing after him. He could not see her wistful eyes, but he made her poor heart give a leap of joy by turning round and running back for one more kiss and one more blessing.

When he next came home, it was at the sudden summons of her death.

His father was as one distracted. He could not speak of the lost angel without sudden bursts of tears, and oftentimes of self-upbraiding, which disturbed the calm, still, holy ideas, which Frank liked to associate with her. He ceased speaking to him, therefore, about their mutual loss; and it was a certain kind of relief to both when he did so; but he longed for some one to whom he might talk of his mother, with the quiet reverence of intense and trustful affection. He thought of Maggie, of whom he had seen but little of late; for when he had been at Combehurst, she had felt that Mrs. Buxton required her presence less, and had remained more at home. Possibly Mrs. Buxton regretted this; but she never said anything. She, far-looking, as one who was near death, foresaw that, probably, if Maggie and her son met often in her sick-room, feelings might arise which would militate against her husband’s hopes and plans, and which, therefore, she ought not to allow to spring up. But she had been unable to refrain from expressing her gratitude to Maggie for many hours of tranquil happiness, and had unconsciously dropped many sentences which made Frank feel, that, in the little brown mouse of former years, he was likely to meet with one who could tell him much of the inner history of his mother in her last days, and to whom he could speak of her without calling out the passionate sorrow which was so little in unison with her memory.

Accordingly, one afternoon, late in the autumn, he rode up to Mrs. Browne’s. The air on the heights was so still that nothing seemed to stir. Now and then a yellow leaf came floating down from the trees, detached from no outward violence, but only because its life had reached its full limit and then ceased. Looking down on the distant sheltered woods, they were gorgeous in orange and crimson, but their splendor was felt to be the sign of the decaying and dying year. Even without an inward sorrow, there was a grand solemnity in the season which impressed the mind, and hushed it into tranquil thought. Frank rode slowly along, and quietly dismounted at the old horse-mount, beside which there was an iron bridle-ring fixed in the gray stone wall. He saw the casement of the parlor-window open, and Maggie’s head bent down over her work. She looked up as he entered the court, and his footsteps sounded on the flag-walk. She came round and opened the door. As she stood in the door-way, speaking, he was struck by her resemblance to some old painting. He had seen her young, calm face, shining out with great peacefulness, and the large, grave, thoughtful eyes, giving the character to the features which otherwise they might, from their very regularity, have wanted. Her brown dress had the exact tint which a painter would have admired. The slanting mellow sunlight fell upon her as she stood; and the vine-leaves, already frost-tinted, made a rich, warm border, as they hung over the old house-door.

“Mamma is not well; she is gone to lie down. How are you? How is Mr. Buxton?”

“We are both pretty well; quite well, in fact, as far as regards health. May I come in? I want to talk to you, Maggie!”

She opened the little parlor-door, and they went in; but for a time they were both silent. They could not speak of her who was with them, present in their thoughts. Maggie shut the casement, and put a log of wood on the fire. She sat down with her back to the window; but as the flame sprang up, and blazed at the touch of the dry wood, Frank saw that her face was wet with quiet tears. Still her voice was even and gentle, as she answered his questions. She seemed to understand what were the very things he would care most to hear. She spoke of his mother’s last days; and without any word of praise (which, indeed, would have been impertinence), she showed such a just and true appreciation of her who was dead and gone, that he felt as if he could listen forever to the sweet-dropping words. They were balm to his sore heart. He had thought it possible that the suddenness of her death might have made her life incomplete, in that she might have departed without being able to express wishes and projects, which would now have the sacred force of commands. But he found that Maggie, though she had never intruded herself as such, had been the depository of many little thoughts and plans; or, if they were not expressed to her, she knew that Mr. Buxton or Dawson was aware of what they were, though, in their violence of early grief, they had forgotten to name them. The flickering brightness of the flame had died away; the gloom of evening had gathered into the room, through the open door of which the kitchen fire sent a ruddy glow, distinctly marked against carpet and wall. Frank still sat, with his head buried in his hands against the table, listening.

“Tell me more,” he said, at every pause.

“I think I have told you all now,” said Maggie, at last. “At least, it is all I recollect at present; but if I think of anything more, I will be sure and tell you.”

“Thank you; do.” He was silent for some time.

“Erminia is coming home at Christmas. She is not to go back to Paris again. She will live with us. I hope you and she will be great friends, Maggie.”

“Oh yes,” replied she. “I think we are already. At least we were last Christmas. You know it is a year since I have seen her.”

“Yes; she went to Switzerland with Mademoiselle Michel, instead of coming home the last time. Maggie, I must go, now. My father will be waiting dinner for me.”

“Dinner! I was going to ask if you would not stay to tea. I hear mamma stirring about in her room. And Nancy is getting things ready, I see. Let me go and tell mamma. She will not be pleased unless she sees you. She has been very sorry for you all,” added she, dropping her voice.

Before he could answer, she ran up stairs.

Mrs. Browne came down.

“Oh, Mr. Frank! Have you been sitting in the dark? Maggie, you ought to have rung for candles! Ah! Mr. Frank, you’ve had a sad loss since I saw you here — let me see — in the last week of September. But she was always a sad invalid; and no doubt your loss is her gain. Poor Mr. Buxton, too! How is he? When one thinks of him, and of her years of illness, it seems like a happy release.”

She could have gone on for any length of time, but Frank could not bear this ruffling up of his soothed grief, and told her that his father was expecting him home to dinner.

“Ah! I am sure you must not disappoint him. He’ll want a little cheerful company more than ever now. You must not let him dwell on it, Mr. Frank, but turn his thoughts another way by always talking of other things. I am sure if I had some one to speak to me in a cheerful, pleasant way, when poor dear Mr. Browne died, I should never have fretted after him as I did; but the children were too young, and there was no one to come and divert me with any news. If I’d been living in Combehurst, I am sure I should not have let my grief get the better of me as I did. Could you get up a quiet rubber in the evenings, do you think?”

But Frank had shaken hands and was gone. As he rode home he thought much of sorrow, and the different ways of bearing it. He decided that it was sent by God for some holy purpose, and to call out into existence some higher good; and he thought that if it were faithfully taken as His decree there would be no passionate, despairing resistance to it; nor yet, if it were trustfully acknowledged to have some wise end, should we dare to baulk it, and defraud it by putting it on one side, and, by seeking the distractions of worldly things, not let it do its full work. And then he returned to his conversation with Maggie. That had been real comfort to him. What an advantage it would be to Erminia to have such a girl for a friend and companion!

It was rather strange that, having this thought, and having been struck, as I said, with Maggie’s appearance while she stood in the door-way (and I may add that this impression of her unobtrusive beauty had been deepened by several succeeding interviews), he should reply as he did to Erminia’s remark, on first seeing Maggie after her return from France.

“How lovely Maggie is growing! Why, I had no idea she would ever turn out pretty. Sweet-looking she always was; but now her style of beauty makes her positively distinguished. Frank! speak! is not she beautiful?”

“Do you think so?” answered he, with a kind of lazy indifference, exceedingly gratifying to his father, who was listening with some eagerness to his answer. That day, after dinner, Mr. Buxton began to ask his opinion of Erminia’s appearance.

Frank answered at once:

“She is a dazzling little creature. Her complexion looks as if it were made of cherries and milk; and, it must be owned, the little lady has studied the art of dress to some purpose in Paris.”

Mr. Buxton was nearer happiness at this reply than he had ever been since his wife’s death; for the only way he could devise to satisfy his reproachful conscience towards his neglected and unhappy sister, was to plan a marriage between his son and her child. He rubbed his hands and drank two extra glasses of wine.

“We’ll have the Brownes to dinner, as usual, next Thursday,” said he, “I am sure your mother would have been hurt if we had omitted it; it is now nine years since they began to come, and they have never missed one Christmas since. Do you see any objection, Frank?”

“None at all, sir,” answered he. “I intend to go up to town soon after Christmas, for a week or ten days, on my way to Cambridge. Can I do anything for you?”

“Well, I don’t know. I think I shall go up myself some day soon. I can’t understand all these lawyer’s letters, about the purchase of the Newbridge estate; and I fancy I could make more sense out of it all, if I saw Mr. Hodgson.”

“I wish you would adopt my plan, of having an agent, sir. Your affairs are really so complicated now, that they would take up the time of an expert man of business. I am sure all those tenants at Dumford ought to be seen after.”

“I do see after them. There’s never a one that dares cheat me, or that would cheat me if they could. Most of them have lived under the Buxtons for generations. They know that if they dared to take advantage of me, I should come down upon them pretty smartly.”

“Do you rely upon their attachment to your family — or on their idea of your severity?”

“On both. They stand me instead of much trouble in account-keeping, and those eternal lawyers’ letters some people are always dispatching to their tenants. When I’m cheated, Frank, I give you leave to make me have an agent, but not till then. There’s my little Erminia singing away, and nobody to hear her.”

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