The Moorland Cottage, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter V.

Christmas–Day was strange and sad. Mrs. Buxton had always contrived to be in the drawing-room, ready to receive them all after dinner. Mr. Buxton tried to do away with his thoughts of her by much talking; but every now and then he looked wistfully toward the door. Erminia exerted herself to be as lively as she could, in order, if possible, to fill up the vacuum. Edward, who had come over from Woodchester for a walk, had a good deal to say; and was, unconsciously, a great assistance with his never-ending flow of rather clever small-talk. His mother felt proud of her son, and his new waistcoat, which was far more conspicuously of the latest fashion than Frank’s could be said to be. After dinner, when Mr. Buxton and the two young men were left alone, Edward launched out still more. He thought he was impressing Frank with his knowledge of the world, and the world’s ways. But he was doing all in his power to repel one who had never been much attracted toward him. Worldly success was his standard of merit. The end seemed with him to justify the means; if a man prospered, if was not necessary to scrutinize his conduct too closely. The law was viewed in its lowest aspect; and yet with a certain cleverness, which preserved Edward from being intellectually contemptible. Frank had entertained some idea of studying for a barrister himself: not so much as a means of livelihood as to gain some idea of the code which makes and shows a nation’s conscience: but Edward’s details of the ways in which the letter so often baffles the spirit, made him recoil. With some anger against himself, for viewing the profession with disgust, because it was degraded by those who embraced it, instead of looking upon it as what might be ennobled and purified into a vast intelligence by high and pure-minded men, he got up abruptly and left the room.

The girls were sitting over the drawing-room fire, with unlighted candles on the table, talking, he felt, about his mother; but when he came in they rose, and changed their tone. Erminia went to the piano, and sang her newest and choicest French airs. Frank was gloomy and silent; but when she changed into more solemn music his mood was softened, Maggie’s simple and hearty admiration, untinged by the slightest shade of envy for Erminia’s accomplishments, charmed him. The one appeared to him the perfection of elegant art, the other of graceful nature. When he looked at Maggie, and thought of the moorland home from which she had never wandered, the mysteriously beautiful lines of Wordsworth seemed to become sun-clear to him.

“And she shall lean her ear
In many a secret place
Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
And beauty born of murmuring sound
Shall pass into her face.”

Mr. Buxton, in the dining-room, was really getting to take an interest in Edward’s puzzling cases. They were like tricks at cards. A quick motion, and out of the unpromising heap, all confused together, presto! the right card turned up. Edward stated his case, so that there did not seem loophole for the desired verdict; but through some conjuration, it always came uppermost at last. He had a graphic way of relating things; and, as he did not spare epithets in his designation of the opposing party, Mr. Buxton took it upon trust that the defendant or the prosecutor (as it might happen) was a “pettifogging knave,” or a “miserly curmudgeon,” and rejoiced accordingly in the triumph over him gained by the ready wit of “our governor,” Mr. Bish. At last he became so deeply impressed with Edward’s knowledge of law, as to consult him about some cottage property he had in Woodchester.

“I rather think there are twenty-one cottages, and they don’t bring me in four pounds a-year; and out of that I have to pay for collecting. Would there be any chance of selling them? They are in Doughty-street; a bad neighborhood, I fear.”

“Very bad,” was Edward’s prompt reply. “But if you are really anxious to effect a sale, I have no doubt I could find a purchaser in a short time.”

“I should be very much obliged to you,” said Mr. Buxton. “You would be doing me a kindness. If you meet with a purchaser, and can manage the affair, I would rather that you drew out the deeds for the transfer of the property. If would be the beginning of business for you; and I only hope I should bring you good luck.”

Of course Edward could do this; and when they left the table, it was with a feeling on his side that he was a step nearer to the agency which he coveted; and with a happy consciousness on Mr. Buxton’s of having put a few pounds in the way of a deserving and remarkably clever young man.

Since Edward had left home, Maggie had gradually, but surely, been gaining in importance. Her judgment and her untiring unselfishness could not fail to make way. Her mother had some respect for, and great dependence on her; but still it was hardly affection that she felt for her; or if it was it was a dull and torpid kind of feeling, compared with the fond love and exulting pride which she took in Edward. When he came back for occasional holidays, his mother’s face was radiant with happiness, and her manner toward him was even more caressing than he approved of. When Maggie saw him repel the hand that fain would have stroked his hair as in childish days, a longing came into her heart for some of these uncared-for tokens of her mother’s love. Otherwise she meekly sank back into her old secondary place, content to have her judgment slighted and her wishes unasked as long as he stayed. At times she was now beginning to disapprove and regret some things in him; his flashiness of manner jarred against her taste; and a deeper, graver feeling was called out by his evident want of quick moral perception. “Smart and clever,” or “slow and dull,” took with him the place of “right and wrong.” Little as he thought it, he was himself narrow-minded and dull; slow and blind to perceive the beauty and eternal wisdom of simple goodness.

Erminia and Maggie became great friends. Erminia used to beg for Maggie, until she herself put a stop to the practice; as she saw her mother yielded more frequently than was convenient, for the honor of having her daughter a visitor at Mr. Buxton’s, about which she could talk to her few acquaintances who persevered in calling at the cottage. Then Erminia volunteered a visit of some days to Maggie, and Mrs. Browne’s pride was redoubled; but she made so many preparations, and so much fuss, and gave herself so much trouble, that she was positively ill during Erminia’s stay; and Maggie felt that she must henceforward deny herself the pleasure of having her friend for a guest, as her mother could not be persuaded from attempting to provide things in the same abundance and style as that to which Erminia was accustomed at home; whereas, as Nancy shrewdly observed, the young lady did not know if she was eating jelly, or porridge, or whether the plates were common delf or the best China, so long as she was with her dear Miss Maggie. Spring went, and summer came. Frank had gone to and fro between Cambridge and Combehurst, drawn by motives of which he felt the force, but into which he did not care to examine. Edward had sold the property of Mr. Buxton; and he, pleased with the possession of half the purchase money (the remainder of which was to be paid by installments), and happy in the idea that his son came over so frequently to see Erminia, had amply rewarded the young attorney for his services.

One summer’s day, as hot as day could be, Maggie had been busy all morning; for the weather was so sultry that she would not allow either Nancy or her mother to exert themselves much. She had gone down with the old brown pitcher, coeval with herself, to the spring for water; and while it was trickling, and making a tinkling music, she sat down on the ground. The air was so still that she heard the distant wood-pigeons cooing; and round about her the bees were murmuring busily among the clustering heath. From some little touch of sympathy with these low sounds of pleasant harmony, she began to try and hum some of Erminia’s airs. She never sang out loud, or put words to her songs; but her voice was very sweet, and it was a great pleasure to herself to let it go into music. Just as her jug was filled, she was startled by Frank’s sudden appearance. She thought he was at Cambridge, and, from some cause or other, her face, usually so faint in color, became the most vivid scarlet. They were both too conscious to speak. Maggie stooped (murmuring some words of surprise) to take up her pitcher.

“Don’t go yet, Maggie,” said he, putting his hand on hers to stop her; but, somehow, when that purpose was effected, he forgot to take it off again. “I have come all the way from Cambridge to see you. I could not bear suspense any longer. I grew so impatient for certainty of some kind, that I went up to town last night, in order to feel myself on my way to you, even though I knew I could not be here a bit earlier today for doing so. Maggie — dear Maggie! how you are trembling! Have I frightened you? Nancy told me you were here; but it was very thoughtless to come so suddenly upon you.”

It was not the suddenness of his coming; it was the suddenness of her own heart, which leaped up with the feelings called out by his words. She went very white, and sat down on the ground as before. But she rose again immediately, and stood, with drooping, averted head. He had dropped her hand, but now sought to take it again.

“Maggie, darling, may I speak?” Her lips moved, he saw, but he could not hear. A pang of affright ran through him that, perhaps, she did not wish to listen. “May I speak to you?” he asked again, quite timidly. She tried to make her voice sound, but it would not; so she looked round. Her soft gray eyes were eloquent in that one glance. And, happier than his words, passionate and tender as they were, could tell, he spoke till her trembling was changed into bright flashing blushes, and even a shy smile hovered about her lips, and dimpled her cheeks.

The water bubbled over the pitcher unheeded. At last she remembered all the work-a-day world. She lifted up the jug, and would have hurried home, but Frank decidedly took it from her.

“Henceforward,” said he, “I have a right to carry your burdens.” So with one arm round her waist and with the other carrying the water, they climbed the steep turfy slope. Near the top she wanted to take it again.

“Mamma will not like it. Mamma will think if so strange.”

“Why, dearest, if I saw Nancy carrying it up this slope I would take it from her. It would be strange if a man did not carry it for any woman. But you must let me tell your mother of my right to help you. If is your dinner-time is it not? I may come in to dinner as one of the family may not I Maggie?”

“No” she said softly. For she longed to be alone; and she dreaded being overwhelmed by the expression of her mother’s feelings, weak and agitated as she felt herself. “Not today.”

“Not today!” said he reproachfully. “You are very hard upon me. Let me come to tea. If you will, I will leave you now. Let me come to early tea. I must speak to my father. He does not know I am here. I may come to tea. At what time is it? Three o’clock. Oh, I know you drink tea at some strange early hour; perhaps it is at two. I will take care to be in time.”

“Don’t come till five, please. I must tell mamma; and I want some time to think. It does seem so like a dream. Do go, please.”

“Well! if I must, I must. But I don’t feel as if I were in a dream, but in some real blessed heaven so long as I see you.”

At last he went. Nancy was awaiting Maggie, the side-gate.

“Bless us and save us, bairn! what a time it has taken thee to get the water. Is the spring dry with the hot weather?”

Maggie ran past her. All dinner-time she heard her mother’s voice in long-continued lamentation about something. She answered at random, and startled her mother by asserting that she thought “it” was very good; the said “it” being milk turned sour by thunder. Mrs. Browne spoke quite sharply, “No one is so particular as you, Maggie. I have known you drink water, day after day, for breakfast, when you were a little girl, because your cup of milk had a drowned fly in it; and now you tell me you don’t care for this, and don’t mind that, just as if you could eat up all the things which are spoiled by the heat. I declare my head aches so, I shall go and lie down as soon as ever dinner is over.”

If this was her plan, Maggie thought she had no time to lose in making her confession. Frank would be here before her mother got up again to tea. But she dreaded speaking about her happiness; it seemed as yet so cobweb-like, as if a touch would spoil its beauty.

“Mamma, just wait a minute. Just sit down in your chair while I tell you something. Please, dear mamma.” She took a stool, and sat at her mother’s feet; and then she began to turn the wedding-ring on Mrs. Browne’s hand, looking down and never speaking, till the latter became impatient.

“What is if you have got to say, child? Do make haste, for I want to go up-stairs.”

With a great jerk of resolution, Maggie said:

“Mamma, Frank Buxton has asked me to marry him.”

She hid her face in her mother’s lap for an instant; and then she lifted it up, as brimful of the light of happiness as is the cup of a water-lily of the sun’s radiance.

“Maggie — you don’t say so,” said her mother, half incredulously. “It can’t be, for he’s at Cambridge, and it’s not post-day. What do you mean?”

“He came this morning, mother, when I was down at the well; and we fixed that I was to speak to you; and he asked if he might come again for tea.”

“Dear! dear! and the milk all gone sour? We should have had milk of our own, if Edward had not persuaded me against buying another cow.”

“I don’t think Mr. Buxton will mind it much,” said Maggie, dimpling up, as she remembered, half unconsciously, how little he had seemed to care for anything but herself.

“Why, what a thing it is for you!” said Mrs. Browne, quite roused up from her languor and her head-ache. “Everybody said he was engaged to Miss Erminia. Are you quite sure you made no mistake, child? What did he say? Young men are so fond of making fine speeches; and young women are so silly in fancying they mean something. I once knew a girl who thought that a gentleman who sent her mother a present of a sucking-pig, did it as a delicate way of making her an offer. Tell me his exact words.”

But Maggie blushed, and either would not or could not. So Mrs. Browne began again:

“Well, if you’re sure, you’re sure. I wonder how he brought his father round. So long as he and Erminia have been planned for each other! That very first day we ever dined there after your father’s death, Mr. Buxton as good as told me all about it. I fancied they were only waiting till they were out of mourning.”

All this was news to Maggie. She had never thought that either Erminia or Frank was particularly fond of the other; still less had she had any idea of Mr. Buxton’s plans for them. Her mother’s surprise at her engagement jarred a little upon her too: it had become so natural, even in these last two hours, to feel that she belonged to him. But there were more discords to come. Mrs. Browne began again, half in soliloquy:

“I should think he would have four thousand a-year. He did not tell you, love, did he, if they had still that bad property in the canal, that his father complained about? But he will have four thousand. Why, you’ll have your carriage, Maggie. Well! I hope Mr. Buxton has taken it kindly, because he’ll have a deal to do with the settlements. I’m sure I thought he was engaged to Erminia.”

Ringing changes on these subjects all the afternoon, Mrs. Browne sat with Maggie. She occasionally wandered off to speak about Edward, and how favorably his future prospects would be advanced by the engagement.

“Let me see — there’s the house in Combehurst: the rent of that would be a hundred and fifty a-year, but we’ll not reckon that. But there’s the quarries” (she was reckoning upon her fingers in default of a slate, for which she had vainly searched), “we’ll call them two hundred a-year, for I don’t believe Mr. Buxton’s stories about their only bringing him in seven-pence; and there’s Newbridge, that’s certainly thirteen hundred — where had I got to, Maggie?”

“Dear mamma, do go and lie down for a little; you look quite flushed,” said Maggie, softly.

Was this the manner to view her betrothal with such a man as Frank? Her mother’s remarks depressed her more than she could have thought it possible; the excitement of the morning was having its reaction, and she longed to go up to the solitude under the thorn-tree, where she had hoped to spend a quiet, thoughtful afternoon.

Nancy came in to replace glasses and spoons in the cupboard. By some accident, the careful old servant broke one of the former. She looked up quickly at her mistress, who usually visited all such offences with no small portion of rebuke.

“Never mind, Nancy,” said Mrs. Browne. “It’s only an old tumbler; and Maggie’s going to be married, and we must buy a new set for the wedding-dinner.”

Nancy looked at both, bewildered; at last a light dawned into her mind, and her face looked shrewdly and knowingly back at Mrs. Browne. Then she said, very quietly:

“I think I’ll take the next pitcher to the well myself, and try my luck. To think how sorry I was for Miss Maggie this morning! ‘Poor thing,’ says I to myself, ‘to be kept all this time at that confounded well’ (for I’ll not deny that I swear a bit to myself at times — it sweetens the blood), ‘and she so tired.’ I e’en thought I’d go help her; but I reckon she’d some other help. May I take a guess at the young man?”

“Four thousand a-year! Nancy;” said Mrs. Browne, exultingly.

“And a blithe look, and a warm, kind heart — and a free step — and a noble way with him to rich and poor — aye, aye, I know the name. No need to alter all my neat M.B.‘s, done in turkey-red cotton. Well, well! every one’s turn comes sometime, but mine’s rather long a-coming.”

The faithful old servant came up to Maggie, and put her hand caressingly on her shoulder. Maggie threw her arms round her neck, and kissed the brown, withered face.

“God bless thee, bairn,” said Nancy, solemnly. It brought the low music of peace back into the still recesses of Maggie’s heart. She began to look out for her lover; half-hidden behind the muslin window curtain, which waved gently to and fro in the afternoon breezes. She heard a firm, buoyant step, and had only time to catch one glimpse of his face, before moving away. But that one glance made her think that the hours which had elapsed since she saw him had not been serene to him any more than to her.

When he entered the parlor, his face was glad and bright. He went up in a frank, rejoicing way to Mrs. Browne; who was evidently rather puzzled how to receive him — whether as Maggie’s betrothed, or as the son of the greatest man of her acquaintance.

“I am sure, sir,” said she, “we are all very much obliged to you for the honor you have done our family!”

He looked rather perplexed as to the nature of the honor which he had conferred without knowing it; but as the light dawned upon him, he made answer in a frank, merry way, which was yet full of respect for his future mother-inlaw:

“And I am sure I am truly grateful for the honor one of your family has done me.”

When Nancy brought in tea she was dressed in her fine-weather Sunday gown; the first time it had ever been worn out of church, and the walk to and fro.

After tea, Frank asked Maggie if she would walk out with him; and accordingly they climbed the Fell–Lane and went out upon the moors, which seemed vast and boundless as their love.

“Have you told your father?” asked Maggie; a dim anxiety lurking in her heart.

“Yes,” said Frank. He did not go on; and she feared to ask, although she longed to know, how Mr. Buxton had received the intelligence.

“What did he say?” at length she inquired.

“Oh! it was evidently a new idea to him that I was attached to you; and he does not take up a new idea speedily. He has had some notion, it seems, that Erminia and I were to make a match of it; but she and I agreed, when we talked it over, that we should never have fallen in love with each other if there had not been another human being in the world. Erminia is a little sensible creature, and says she does not wonder at any man falling in love with you. Nay, Maggie, don’t hang your head so down; let me have a glimpse of your face.”

“I am sorry your father does not like it,” said Maggie, sorrowfully.

“So am I. But we must give him time to get reconciled. Never fear but he will like it in the long run; he has too much good taste and good feeling. He must like you.”

Frank did not choose to tell even Maggie how violently his father had set himself against their engagement. He was surprised and annoyed at first to find how decidedly his father was possessed with the idea that he was to marry his cousin, and that she, at any rate, was attached to him, whatever his feelings might be toward her; but after he had gone frankly to Erminia and told her all, he found that she was as ignorant of her uncle’s plans for her as he had been; and almost as glad at any event which should frustrate them.

Indeed she came to the moorland cottage on the following day, after Frank had returned to Cambridge. She had left her horse in charge of the groom, near the fir-trees on the heights, and came running down the slope in her habit. Maggie went out to meet her, with just a little wonder at her heart if what Frank had said could possibly be true; and that Erminia, living in the house with him, could have remained indifferent to him. Erminia threw her arms round her neck, and they sat down together on the court-steps.

“I durst not ride down that hill; and Jem is holding my horse, so I may not stay very long; now begin, Maggie, at once, and go into a rhapsody about Frank. Is not he a charming fellow? Oh! I am so glad. Now don’t sit smiling and blushing there to yourself; but tell me a great deal about it. I have so wanted to know somebody that was in love, that I might hear what it was like; and the minute I could, I came off here. Frank is only just gone. He has had another long talk with my uncle, since he came back from you this morning; but I am afraid he has not made much way yet.”

Maggie sighed. “I don’t wonder at his not thinking me good enough for Frank.

“No! the difficulty would be to find any one he did think fit for his paragon of a son.”

“He thought you were, dearest Erminia.”

“So Frank has told you that, has he? I suppose we shall have no more family secrets now,” said Erminia, laughing. “But I can assure you I had a strong rival in lady Adela Castlemayne, the Duke of Wight’s daughter; she was the most beautiful lady my uncle had ever seen (he only saw her in the Grand Stand at Woodchester races, and never spoke a word to her in his life). And if she would have had Frank, my uncle would still have been dissatisfied as long as the Princess Victoria was unmarried; none would have been good enough while a better remained. But Maggie,” said she, smiling up into her friend’s face, “I think it would have made you laugh, for all you look as if a kiss would shake the tears out of your eyes, if you could have seen my uncle’s manner to me all day. He will have it that I am suffering from an unrequited attachment; so he watched me and watched me over breakfast; and at last, when I had eaten a whole nest-full of eggs, and I don’t know how many pieces of toast, he rang the bell and asked for some potted charr. I was quite unconscious that it was for me, and I did not want it when it came; so he sighed in a most melancholy manner, and said, ‘My poor Erminia!’ If Frank had not been there, and looking dreadfully miserable, I am sure I should have laughed out.”

“Did Frank look miserable?” said Maggie, anxiously.

“There now! you don’t care for anything but the mention of his name.”

“But did he look unhappy?” persisted Maggie.

“I can’t say he looked happy, dear Mousey; but it was quite different when he came back from seeing you. You know you always had the art of stilling any person’s trouble. You and my aunt Buxton are the only two I ever knew with that gift.”

“I am so sorry he has any trouble to be stilled,” said Maggie.

“And I think it will do him a world of good. Think how successful his life has been! the honors he got at Eton! his picture taken, and I don’t know what! and at Cambridge just the same way of going on. He would be insufferably imperious in a few years, if he did not meet with a few crosses.”

“Imperious! — oh Erminia, how can you say so?”

“Because it’s the truth. He happens to have very good dispositions; and therefore his strong will is not either disagreeable, or offensive; but once let him become possessed by a wrong wish, and you would then see how vehement and imperious he would be. Depend upon it, my uncle’s resistance is a capital thing for him. As dear sweet Aunt Buxton would have said, ‘There is a holy purpose in it;’ and as Aunt Buxton would not have said, but as I, a ‘fool, rush in where angels fear to tread,’ I decide that the purpose is to teach Master Frank patience and submission.”

“Erminia — how could you help”— and there Maggie stopped.

“I know what you mean; how could I help falling in love with him? I think he has not mystery and reserve enough for me. I should like a man with some deep, impenetrable darkness around him; something one could always keep wondering about. Besides, think what clashing of wills there would have been! My uncle was very short-sighted in his plan; but I don’t think he thought so much about the fitness of our characters and ways, as the fitness of our fortunes!”

“For shame, Erminia! No one cares less for money than Mr. Buxton!”

“There’s a good little daughter-inlaw elect! But seriously, I do think he is beginning to care for money; not in the least for himself, but as a means of aggrandizement for Frank. I have observed, since I came home at Christmas, a growing anxiety to make the most of his property; a thing he never cared about before. I don’t think he is aware of it himself, but from one or two little things I have noticed, I should not wonder if he ends in being avaricious in his old age.” Erminia sighed.

Maggie had almost a sympathy with the father, who sought what he imagined to be for the good of his son, and that son, Frank. Although she was as convinced as Erminia, that money could not really help any one to happiness, she could not at the instant resist saying:

“Oh! how I wish I had a fortune! I should so like to give it all to him.”

“Now Maggie! don’t be silly! I never heard you wish for anything different from what was before, so I shall take this opportunity of lecturing you on your folly. No! I won’t either, for you look sadly tired with all your agitation; and besides I must go, or Jem will be wondering what has become of me. Dearest cousin-inlaw, I shall come very often to see you; and perhaps I shall give you my lecture yet.”

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