The Moorland Cottage, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter IX.

When she opened the kitchen-door there was the same small, mizzling rain that had obscured the light for weeks, and now it seemed to obscure hope.

She clambered slowly (for indeed she was very feeble) up the Fell–Lane, and threw herself under the leafless thorn, every small branch and twig of which was loaded with rain-drops. She did not see the well-beloved and familiar landscape for her tears, and did not miss the hills in the distance that were hidden behind the rain-clouds, and sweeping showers.

Mrs. Browne and Edward sat over the fire. He told her his own story; making the temptation strong; the crime a mere trifling, venial error, which he had been led into, through his idea that he was to become Mr. Buxton’s agent.

“But if it is only that,” said Mrs. Browne, “surely Mr. Buxton will not think of going to law with you?”

“It’s not merely going to law that he will think of, but trying and transporting me. That Henry he has got for his agent is as sharp as a needle, and as hard as a nether mill-stone. And the fellow has obtained such a hold over Mr. Buxton, that he dare but do what he tells him. I can’t imagine how he had so much free-will left as to come with his proposal to Maggie; unless, indeed, Henry knows of it — or, what is most likely of all, has put him up to it. Between them they have given that poor fool Crayston a pretty dose of it; and I should have come yet worse off if it had not been for Maggie. Let me get clear this time, and I will keep to windward of the law for the future.”

“If we sold the cottage we could repay it,” said Mrs. Browne, meditating. “Maggie and I could live on very little. But you see this property is held in trust for you two.”

“Nay, mother; you must not talk of repaying it. Depend upon it he will be so glad to have Frank free from his engagement, that he won’t think of asking for the money. And if Mr. Henry says anything about it, we can tell him it’s not half the damages they would have had to have given Maggie, if Frank had been extricated in any other way. I wish she would come back; I would prime her a little as to what to say. Keep a look out, mother, lest Mr. Buxton returns and find me here.”

“I wish Maggie would come in too,” said Mrs. Browne. “I’m afraid she’ll catch cold this damp day, and then I shall have two to nurse. You think she’ll give it up, don’t you, Edward? If she does not I’m afraid of harm coming to you. Had you not better keep out of the way?”

“It’s fine talking. Where am I to go out of sight of the police this wet day: without a shilling in the world too? If you’ll give me some money I’ll be off fast enough, and make assurance doubly sure. I’m not much afraid of Maggie. She’s a little yea-nay thing, and I can always bend her round to what we want. She had better take care, too,” said he, with a desperate look on his face, “for by G—— I’ll make her give up all thoughts of Frank, rather than be taken and tried. Why! it’s my chance for all my life; and do you think I’ll have it frustrated for a girl’s whim?”

“I think it’s rather hard upon her too,” pleaded his mother. “She’s very fond of him; and it would have been such a good match for her.”

“Pooh! she’s not nineteen yet, and has plenty of time before her to pick up somebody else; while, don’t you see, if I’m caught and transported, I’m done for life. Besides I’ve a notion Frank had already begun to be tired of the affair; it would have been broken off in a month or two, without her gaining anything by it.”

“Well, if you think so,” replied Mrs. Browne. “But I’m sorry for her. I always told her she was foolish to think so much about him: but I know she’ll fret a deal if it’s given up.”

“Oh! she’ll soon comfort herself with thinking that she has saved me. I wish she’d come. It must be near eleven. I do wish she would come. Hark! is not that the kitchen-door?” said he, turning white, and betaking himself once more to the china-closet. He held it ajar till he heard Maggie stepping softly and slowly across the floor. She opened the parlor-door; and stood looking in, with the strange imperceptive gaze of a sleep-walker. Then she roused herself and saw that he was not there; so she came in a step or two, and sat down in her dripping cloak on a chair near the door.

Edward returned, bold now there was no danger.

“Maggie!” said he, “what have you fixed to say to Mr. Burton?”

She sighed deeply; and then lifted up her large innocent eyes to his face.

“I cannot give up Frank,” said she, in a low, quiet voice.

Mrs. Browne threw up her hands and exclaimed in terror:

“Oh Edward, Edward! go away — I will give you all the plate I have; you can sell it — my darling, go!”

“Not till I have brought Maggie to reason,” said he, in a manner as quiet as her own, but with a subdued ferocity in it, which she saw, but which did not intimidate her.

He went up to her, and spoke below his breath.

“Maggie, we were children together — we two — brother and sister of one blood! Do you give me up to be put in prison — in the hulks — among the basest of criminals — I don’t know where — all for the sake of your own selfish happiness?”

She trembled very much; but did not speak or cry, or make any noise.

“You were always selfish. You always thought of yourself. But this time I did think you would have shown how different you could be. But it’s self — self — paramount above all.”

“Oh Maggie! how can you be so hard-hearted and selfish?” echoed Mrs. Browne, crying and sobbing.

“Mother!” said Maggie, “I know that I think too often and too much of myself. But this time I thought only of Frank. He loves me; it would break his heart if I wrote as Mr. Buxton wishes, cutting our lives asunder, and giving no reason for it.”

“He loves you so!” said Edward, tauntingly. “A man’s love break his heart! You’ve got some pretty notions! Who told you that he loved you so desperately? How do you know it?”

“Because I love him so,” said she, in a quiet, earnest voice. “I do not know of any other reason; but that is quite sufficient to me. I believe him when he says he loves me; and I have no right to cause him the infinite — the terrible pain, which my own heart tells me he would feel, if I did what Mr. Buxton wishes me.”

Her manner was so simple and utterly truthful, that it was as quiet and fearless as a child’s; her brother’s fierce looks of anger had no power over her; and his blustering died away before her into something of the frightened cowardliness he had shown in the morning. But Mrs. Browne came up to Maggie; and took her hand between both of hers, which were trembling. “Maggie, you can save Edward. I know I have not loved you as I should have done; but I will love and comfort you forever, if you will but write as Mr. Buxton says. Think! Perhaps Mr. Frank may not take you at your word, but may come over and see you, and all may be right, and yet Edward may be saved. It is only writing this letter; you need not stick to it.”

“No!” said Edward. “A signature, if you can prove compulsion, is not valid. We will all prove that you write this letter under compulsion; and if Frank loves you so desperately, he won’t give you up without a trial to make you change your mind.”

“No!” said Maggie, firmly. “If I write the letter I abide by it. I will not quibble with my conscience. Edward! I will not marry — I will go and live near you, and come to you whenever I may — and give up my life to you if you are sent to prison; my mother and I will go, if need be-I do not know yet what I can do, or cannot do, for you, but all I can I will; but this one thing I cannot.”

“Then I’m off!” said Edward. “On your deathbed may you remember this hour, and how you denied your only brother’s request. May you ask my forgiveness with your dying breath, and may I be there to deny it you.”

“Wait a minute!” said Maggie, springing up, rapidly. “Edward, don’t curse me with such terrible words till all is done. Mother, I implore you to keep him here. Hide him — do what you can to conceal him. I will have one more trial.” She snatched up her bonnet, and was gone, before they had time to think or speak to arrest her.

On she flew along the Combehurst road. As she went, the tears fell like rain down her face, and she talked to herself.

“He should not have said so. No! he should not have said so. We were the only two.” But still she pressed on, over the thick, wet, brown heather. She saw Mr. Buxton coming; and she went still quicker. The rain had cleared off, and a yellow watery gleam of sunshine was struggling out. She stopped or he would have passed her unheeded; little expecting to meet her there.

“I wanted to see you,” said she, all at once resuming her composure, and almost assuming a dignified manner. “You must not go down to our house; we have sorrow enough there. Come under these fir-trees, and let me speak to you.”

“I hope you have thought of what I said, and are willing to do what I asked you.”

“No!” said she. “I have thought and thought. I did not think in a selfish spirit, though they say I did. I prayed first. I could not do that earnestly, and be selfish, I think. I cannot give up Frank. I know the disgrace; and if he, knowing all, thinks fit to give me up, I shall never say a word, but bow my head, and try and live out my appointed days quietly and cheerfully. But he is the judge, not you; nor have I any right to do what you ask me.” She stopped, because the agitation took away her breath.

He began in a cold manner:—“I am very sorry. The law must take its course. I would have saved my son from the pain of all this knowledge, and that which he will of course feel in the necessity of giving up his engagement. I would have refused to appear against your brother, shamefully ungrateful as he has been. Now you cannot wonder that I act according to my agent’s advice, and prosecute your brother as if he were a stranger.”

He turned to go away. He was so cold and determined that for a moment Maggie was timid. But she then laid her hand on his arm.

“Mr. Buxton,” said she, “you will not do what you threaten. I know you better. Think! My father was your old friend. That claim is, perhaps, done away with by Edward’s conduct. But I do not believe you can forget it always. If you did fulfill the menace you uttered just now, there would come times as you grew older, and life grew fainter and fainter before you — quiet times of thought, when you remembered the days of your youth, and the friends you then had and knew; — you would recollect that one of them had left an only son, who had done wrong — who had sinned — sinned against you in his weakness — and you would think then — you could not help it — how you had forgotten mercy in justice — and, as justice required he should be treated as a felon, you threw him among felons — where every glimmering of goodness was darkened for ever. Edward is, after all, more weak than wicked; — but he will become wicked if you put him in prison, and have him transported. God is merciful — we cannot tell or think how merciful. Oh, sir, I am so sure you will be merciful, and give my brother — my poor sinning brother — a chance, that I will tell you all. I will throw myself upon your pity. Edward is even now at home — miserable and desperate; — my mother is too much stunned to understand all our wretchedness — for very wretched we are in our shame.”

As she spoke the wind arose and shivered in the wiry leaves of the fir-trees, and there was a moaning sound as of some Ariel imprisoned in the thick branches that, tangled overhead, made a shelter for them. Either the noise or Mr. Buxton’s fancy called up an echo to Maggie’s voice — a pleading with her pleading — a sad tone of regret, distinct yet blending with her speech, and a falling, dying sound, as her voice died away in miserable suspense.

It might be that, formed as she was by Mrs. Buxton’s care and love, her accents and words were such as that lady, now at rest from all sorrow, would have used; — somehow, at any rate, the thought flashed into Mr. Buxton’s mind, that as Maggie spoke, his dead wife’s voice was heard, imploring mercy in a clear, distinct tone, though faint, as if separated from him by an infinite distance of space. At least, this is the account Mr. Buxton would have given of the manner in which the idea of his wife became present to him, and what she would have wished him to do a powerful motive in his conduct. Words of hers, long ago spoken, and merciful, forgiving expressions made use of in former days to soften him in some angry mood, were clearly remembered while Maggie spoke; and their influence was perceptible in the change of his tone, and the wavering of his manner henceforward.

“And yet you will not save Frank from being involved in your disgrace,” said he; but more as if weighing and deliberating on the case than he had ever spoken before.

“If Frank wishes it, I will quietly withdraw myself out of his sight forever; — I give you my promise, before God, to do so. I shall not utter one word of entreaty or complaint. I will try not to wonder or feel surprise; — I will bless him in every action of his future life — but think how different would be the disgrace he would voluntarily incur to my poor mother’s shame, when she wakens up to know what her child has done! Her very torper about it now is more painful than words can tell.”

“What could Edward do?” asked Mr. Buxton. “Mr. Henry won’t hear of my passing over any frauds.”

“Oh, you relent!” said Maggie, taking his hand, and pressing it. “What could he do? He could do the same, whatever it was, as you thought of his doing, if I had written that terrible letter.”

“And you’ll be willing to give it up, if Frank wishes, when he knows all?” asked Mr. Buxton.

She crossed her hands and drooped her head, but answered steadily.

“Whatever Frank wishes, when he knows all, I will gladly do. I will speak the truth. I do not believe that any shame surrounding me, and not in me, will alter Frank’s love one title.”

“We shall see,” said Mr. Buxton. “But what I thought of Edward’s doing, in case — Well never mind! (seeing how she shrunk back from all mention of the letter he had asked her to write,)— was to go to America, out of the way. Then Mr. Henry would think he had escaped, and need never be told of my coenivance. I think he would throw up the agency, if he were; and he’s a very clever man. If Ned is in England, Mr. Henry will ferret him out. And, besides, this affair is so blown, I don’t think he could return to his profession. What do you say to this, Maggie?”

“I will tell my mother. I must ask her. To me it seems most desirable. Only, I fear he is very ill; and it seems lonely; but never mind! We ought to be thankful to you forever. I cannot tell you how I hope and trust he will live to show you what your goodness has made him.”

“But you must lose no time. If Mr. Henry traces him; I can’t answer for myself. I shall have no good reason to give, as I should have had, if I could have told him that Frank and you were to be as strangers to each other. And even then I should have been afraid, he is such a determined fellow; but uncommonly clever. Stay!” said he, yielding to a sudden and inexplicable desire to see Edward, and discover if his criminality had in any way changed his outward appearance. “I’ll go with you. I can hasten things. If Edward goes, he must be off, as soon as possible, to Liverpool, and leave no trace. The next packet sails the day after tomorrow. I noted it down from the Times.”

Maggie and he sped along the road. He spoke his thoughts aloud:

“I wonder if he will be grateful to me for this. Not that I ever mean to look for gratitude again. I mean to try, not to care for anybody but Frank. ‘Govern men by outward force,’ says Mr. Henry. He is an uncommonly clever man, and he says, the longer he lives, the more he is convinced of the badness of men. He always looks for it now, even in those who are the best, apparently.”

Maggie was too anxious to answer, or even to attend to him. At the top of the slope she asked him to wait while she ran down and told the result of her conversation with him. Her mother was alone, looking white and sick. She told her that Edward had gone into the hay-loft, above the old, disused shippon.

Maggie related the substance of her interview with Mr. Buxton, and his wish that Edward should go to America.

“To America!” said Mrs. Browne. “Why that’s as far as Botany Bay. It’s just like transporting him. I thought you’d done something for us, you looked so glad.”

“Dearest mother, it is something. He is not to be subjected to imprisonment or trial. I must go and tell him, only I must beckon to Mr. Buxton first. But when he comes, do show him how thankful we are for his mercy to Edward.”

Mrs. Browne’s murmurings, whatever was their meaning, were lost upon Maggie. She ran through the court, and up the slope, with the lightness of a lawn; for though she was tired in body to an excess she had never been before in her life, the opening beam of hope in the dark sky made her spirit conquer her flesh for the time.

She did not stop to speak, but turned again as soon as she had signed to Mr. Buxton to follow her. She left the house-door open for his entrance, and passed out again through the kitchen into the space behind, which was partly an uninclosed yard, and partly rocky common. She ran across the little green to the shippon, and mounted the ladder into the dimly-lighted loft. Up in a dark corner Edward stood, with an old rake in his hand.

“I thought it was you, Maggie!” said he, heaving a deep breath of relief. “What have you done? Have you agreed to write the letter? You’ve done something for me, I see by your looks.”

“Yes! I have told Mr. Buxton all. He is waiting for you in the parlor. Oh! I knew he could not be so hard!” She was out of breath.

“I don’t understand you!” said he. “You’ve never been such a fool as to go and tell him where I am?”

“Yes, I have. I felt I might trust him. He has promised not to prosecute you. The worst is, he says you must go to America. But come down, Ned, and speak to him. You owe him thanks, and he wants to see you.”

“I can’t go through a scene. I’m not up to it. Besides, are you sure he is not entrapping me to the police? If I had a farthing of money I would not trust him, but be off to the moors.”

“Oh, Edward! How do you think he would do anything so treacherous and mean? I beg you not to lose time in distrust. He says himself, if Mr. Henry comes before you are off, he does not know what will be the consequence. The packet sails for America in two days. It is sad for you to have to go. Perhaps even yet he may think of something better, though I don’t know how we can ask or expect it.”

“I don’t want anything better,” replied he, “than that I should have money enough to carry me to America. I’m in more scrapes than this (though none so bad) in England; and in America there’s many an opening to fortune.” He followed her down the steps while he spoke. Once in the yellow light of the watery day, she was struck by his ghastly look. Sharp lines of suspicion and cunning seemed to have been stamped upon his face, making it look older by many years than his age warranted. His jaunty evening dress, all weather-stained and dirty, added to his forlorn and disreputable appearance; but most of all — deepest of all — was the impression she received that he was not long for this world; and oh! how unfit for the next! Still, if time was given — if he were placed far away from temptation, she thought that her father’s son might yet repent, and be saved. She took his hand, for he was hanging back as they came near the parlor-door, and led him in. She looked like some guardian angel, with her face that beamed out trust, and hope, and thankfulness. He, on the contrary, hung his head in angry, awkward shame; and half wished he had trusted to his own wits, and tried to evade the police, rather than have been forced into this interview.

His mother came to him; for she loved him all the more fondly, now he seemed degraded and friendless. She could not, or would not, comprehend the extent of his guilt; and had upbraided Mr. Buxton to the top of her bent for thinking of sending him away to America. There was a silence when he came in which was insupportable to him. He looked up with clouded eyes, that dared not meet Mr. Buxton’s.

“I am here, sir, to learn what you wish me to do. Maggie says I am to go to America; if that is where you want to send me, I’m ready.”

Mr. Buxton wished himself away as heartily as Edward. Mrs. Browne’s upbraidings, just when he felt that he had done a kind action, and yielded, against his judgment, to Maggie’s entreaties, had made him think himself very ill used. And now here was Edward speaking in a sullen, savage kind of way, instead of showing any gratitude. The idea of Mr. Henry’s stern displeasure loomed in the background.

“Yes!” said he, “I’m glad to find you come into the idea of going to America. It’s the only place for you. The sooner you can go, and the better.”

“I can’t go without money,” said Edward, doggedly. “If I had had money, I need not have come here.”

“Oh, Ned! would you have gone without seeing me?” said Mrs. Browne, bursting into tears. “Mr. Buxton, I cannot let him go to America. Look how ill he is. He’ll die if you send him there.”

“Mother, don’t give way so,” said Edward, kindly, taking her hand. “I’m not ill, at least not to signify. Mr. Buxton is right: America is the only place for me. To tell the truth, even if Mr. Buxton is good enough” (he said this as if unwilling to express any word of thankfulness) “not to prosecute me, there are others who may — and will. I’m safer out of the country. Give me money enough to get to Liverpool and pay my passage, and I’ll be off this minute.”

“You shall not,” said Mrs. Browne, holding him tightly. “You told me this morning you were led into temptation, and went wrong because you had no comfortable home, nor any one to care for you, and make you happy. It will be worse in America. You’ll get wrong again, and be away from all who can help you. Or you’ll die all by yourself, in some backwood or other. Maggie! you might speak and help me — how can you stand so still, and let him go to America without a word!”

Maggie looked up bright and steadfast, as if she saw something beyond the material present. Here was the opportunity for self-sacrifice of which Mrs. Buxton had spoken to her in her childish days — the time which comes to all, but comes unheeded and unseen to those whose eyes are not trained to watching.

“Mother! could you do without me for a time? If you could, and it would make you easier, and help Edward to”— The word on her lips died away; for it seemed to imply a reproach on one who stood in his shame among them all.

“You would go!” said Mrs. Browne, catching at the unfinished sentence. “Oh! Maggie, that’s the best thing you’ve ever said or done since you were born. Edward, would not you like to have Maggie with you?”

“Yes,” said he, “well enough. It would be far better for me than going all alone; though I dare say I could make my way pretty well after a time. If she went, she might stay till I felt settled, and had made some friends, and then she could come back.”

Mr. Buxton was astonished at first by this proposal of Maggie’s. He could not all at once understand the difference between what she now offered to do, and what he had urged upon her only this very morning. But as he thought about it, he perceived that what was her own she was willing to sacrifice; but that Frank’s heart, once given into her faithful keeping, she was answerable for it to him and to God. This light came down upon him slowly; but when he understood, he admired with almost a wondering admiration. That little timid girl brave enough to cross the ocean and go to a foreign land, if she could only help to save her brother!

“I’m sure Maggie,” said he, turning towards her, “you are a good, thoughtful little creature. It may be the saving of Edward — I believe it will. I think God will bless you for being so devoted.”

“The expense will be doubled,” said Edward.

“My dear boy! never mind the money. I can get it advanced upon this cottage.”

“As for that, I’ll advance it,” said Mr. Buxton.

“Could we not,” said Maggie, hesitating from her want of knowledge, “make over the furniture — papa’s books, and what little plate we have, to Mr. Buxton — something like pawning them — if he would advance the requisite money? He, strange as it may seem, is the only person you can ask in this great strait.”

And so it was arranged, after some demur on Mr. Buxton’s part. But Maggie kept steadily to her point as soon as she found that it was attainable; and Mrs. Browne was equally inflexible, though from a different feeling. She regarded Mr. Buxton as the cause of her son’s banishment, and refused to accept of any favor from him. If there had been time, indeed, she would have preferred obtaining the money in the same manner from any one else. Edward brightened up a little when he heard the sum could be procured; he was almost indifferent how; and, strangely callous, as Maggie thought, he even proposed to draw up a legal form of assignment. Mr. Buxton only thought of hurrying on the departure; but he could not refrain from expressing his approval and admiration of Maggie whenever he came near her. Before he went, he called her aside.

“My dear, I’m not sure if Frank can do better than marry you, after all. Mind! I’ve not given it as much thought as I should like. But if you come back as we plan, next autumn, and he is steady to you till then — and Edward is going on well —(if he can but keep good, he’ll do, for he is very sharp — yon is a knowing paper he drew up)— why, I’ll think about it. Only let Frank see a bit of the world first. I’d rather you did not tell him I’ve any thoughts of coming round, that he may have a fair trial; and I’ll keep it from Erminia if I can, or she will let it all out to him. I shall see you tomorrow at the coach. God bless you, my girl, and keep you on the great wide sea.” He was absolutely in tears when he went away — tears of admiring regret over Maggie.

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