So the winter was getting on, and the days were beginning to lengthen, without bringing with them any of the brightness of hope which usually accompanies the rays of a February sun. Mrs. Thornton had of course entirely ceased to come to the house. Mr. Thornton came occasionally, but his visits were addressed to her father, and were confined to the study. Mr. Hale spoke of him as always the same; indeed, the very rarity of their intercourse seemed to make Mr. Hale set only the higher value on it. And from what Margaret could gather of what Mr. Thornton had said, there was nothing in the cessation of his visits which could arise from any umbrage or vexation. His business affairs had become complicated during the strike, and required closer attention than he had given to them last winter. Nay, Margaret could even discover that he spoke from time to time of her, and always, as far as she could learn, in the same calm friendly way, never avoiding and never seeking any mention of her name.
She was not in spirits to raise her father's tone of mind. The dreary peacefulness of the present time had been preceded by so long a period of anxiety and care—even intermixed with storms—that her mind had lost its elasticity. She tried to find herself occupation in teaching the two younger Boucher children, and worked hard at goodness; hard, I say most truly, for her heart seemed dead to the end of all her efforts; and though she made them punctually and painfully, yet she stood as far off as ever from any cheerfulness; her life seemed still bleak and dreary. The only thing she did well, was what she did out of unconscious piety, the silent comforting and consoling of her father. Not a mood of his but what found a ready sympathiser in Margaret; not a wish of his that she did not strive to forecast, and to fulfil. They were quiet wishes to be sure, and hardly named without hesitation and apology. All the more complete and beautiful was her meek spirit of obedience. March brought the news of Frederick's marriage. He and Dolores wrote; she in Spanish-English, as was but natural, and he with little turns and inversions of words which proved how far the idioms of his bride's country were infecting him.
On the receipt of Henry Lennox's letter, announcing how little hope there was of his ever clearing himself at a court-martial, in the absence of the missing witnesses, Frederick had written to Margaret a pretty vehement letter, containing his renunciation of England as his country; he wished he could unnative himself, and declared that he would not take his pardon if it were offered him, nor live in the country if he had permission to do so. All of which made Margaret cry sorely, so unnatural did it seem to her at the first opening; but on consideration, she saw rather in such expression the poignancy of the disappointment which had thus crushed his hopes; and she felt that there was nothing for it but patience. In the next letter, Frederick spoke so joyfully of the future that he had no thought for the past; and Margaret found a use in herself for the patience she had been craving for him. She would have to be patient. But the pretty, timid, girlish letters of Dolores were beginning to have a charm for both Margaret and her father. The young Spaniard was so evidently anxious to make a favourable impression upon her lover's English relations, that her feminine care peeped out at every erasure; and the letters announcing the marriage, were accompanied by a splendid black lace mantilla, chosen by Dolores herself for her unseen sister-in-law, whom Frederick had represented as a paragon of beauty, wisdom and virtue. Frederick's worldly position was raised by this marriage on to as high a level as they could desire. Barbour and Co. was one of the most extensive Spanish houses, and into it he was received as a junior partner. Margaret smiled a little, and then sighed as she remembered afresh her old tirades against trade. Here was her preux chevalier of a brother turned merchant, trader! But then she rebelled against herself, and protested silently against the confusion implied between a Spanish merchant and a Milton mill-owner. Well! trade or no trade, Frederick was very, very happy. Dolores must be charming, and the mantilla was exquisite! And then she returned to the present life.
Her father had occasionally experienced a difficulty in breathing this spring, which had for the time distressed him exceedingly. Margaret was less alarmed, as this difficulty went off completely in the intervals; but she still was so desirous of his shaking off the liability altogether, as to make her very urgent that he should accept Mr. Bell's invitation to visit him at Oxford this April. Mr. Bell's invitation included Margaret. Nay more, he wrote a special letter commanding her to come; but she felt as if it would be a greater relief to her to remain quietly at home, entirely free from any responsibility whatever, and so to rest her mind and heart in a manner which she had not been able to do for more than two years past.
When her father had driven off on his way to the railroad, Margaret felt how great and long had been the pressure on her time and her spirits. It was astonishing, almost stunning, to feel herself so much at liberty; no one depending on her for cheering care, if not for positive happiness; no invalid to plan and think for; she might be idle, and silent, and forgetful,—and what seemed worth more than all the other privileges—she might be unhappy if she liked. For months past, all her own personal cares and troubles had had to be stuffed away into a dark cupboard; but now she had leisure to take them out, and mourn over them, and study their nature, and seek the true method of subduing them into the elements of peace. All these weeks she had been conscious of their existence in a dull kind of way, though they were hidden out of sight. Now, once for all she would consider them, and appoint to each of them its right work in her life. So she sat almost motionless for hours in the drawing-room, going over the bitterness of every remembrance with an unwincing resolution. Only once she cried aloud, at the stinging thought of the faithlessness which gave birth to that abasing falsehood.
She now would not even acknowledge the force of the temptation; her plans for Frederick had all failed, and the temptation lay there a dead mockery,—a mockery which had never had life in it; the lie had been so despicably foolish, seen by the light of the ensuing events, and faith in the power of truth so infinitely the greater wisdom!
In her nervous agitation, she unconsciously opened a book of her father's that lay upon the table,—the words that caught her eye in it, seemed almost made for her present state of acute self-abasement:—
'Je ne voudrois pas reprendre mon cœur en ceste sorte: meurs de honte, aveugle, impudent, traistre et desloyal a ton Dieu, et sembables choses; mais je voudrois le corriger par voye de compassion. Or sus, mon pauvre cœur, nous voil� tombez dans la fosse, laquelle nous avions tant resolu d'�schapper. Ah! relevons-nous, et quittons-la pour jamais, reclamons la misericorde de Dieu, et esperons en elle qu'elle nous assistera pour desormais estre plus fermes; et remettons-nous au chemin de l'humilit�. Courage, soyons meshuy sur nos gardes, Dieu nous aydera.'
'The way of humility. Ah,' thought Margaret, 'that is what I have missed! But courage, little heart. We will turn back, and by God's help we may find the lost path.'
So she rose up, and determined at once to set to on some work which should take her out of herself. To begin with, she called in Martha, as she passed the drawing-room door in going up-stairs, and tried to find out what was below the grave, respectful, servant-like manner, which crusted over her individual character with an obedience that was almost mechanical. She found it difficult to induce Martha to speak of any of her personal interests; but at last she touched the right chord, in naming Mrs. Thornton. Martha's whole face brightened, and, on a little encouragement, out came a long story, of how her father had been in early life connected with Mrs. Thornton's husband—nay, had even been in a position to show him some kindness; what, Martha hardly knew, for it had happened when she was quite a little child; and circumstances had intervened to separate the two families until Martha was nearly grown up, when, her father having sunk lower and lower from his original occupation as clerk in a warehouse, and her mother being dead, she and her sister, to use Martha's own expression, would have been 'lost' but for Mrs. Thornton; who sought them out, and thought for them, and cared for them.
'I had had the fever, and was but delicate; and Mrs. Thornton, and Mr. Thornton too, they never rested till they had nursed me up in their own house, and sent me to the sea and all. The doctors said the fever was catching, but they cared none for that—only Miss Fanny, and she went a-visiting these folk that she is going to marry into. So, though she was afraid at the time, it has all ended well.'
'Miss Fanny going to be married!' exclaimed Margaret.
'Yes; and to a rich gentleman, too, only he's a deal older than she is. His name is Watson; and his mills are somewhere out beyond Hayleigh; it's a very good marriage, for all he's got such gray hair.'
At this piece of information, Margaret was silent long enough for Martha to recover her propriety, and, with it, her habitual shortness of answer. She swept up the hearth, asked at what time she should prepare tea, and quitted the room with the same wooden face with which she had entered it. Margaret had to pull herself up from indulging a bad trick, which she had lately fallen into, of trying to imagine how every event that she heard of in relation to Mr. Thornton would affect him: whether he would like it or dislike it.
The next day she had the little Boucher children for their lessons, and took a long walk, and ended by a visit to Mary Higgins. Somewhat to Margaret's surprise, she found Nicholas already come home from his work; the lengthening light had deceived her as to the lateness of the evening. He too seemed, by his manners, to have entered a little more on the way of humility; he was quieter, and less self-asserting.
'So th' oud gentleman's away on his travels, is he?' said he. 'Little 'uns telled me so. Eh! but they're sharp 'uns, they are; I a'most think they beat my own wenches for sharpness, though mappen it's wrong to say so, and one on 'em in her grave. There's summut in th' weather, I reckon, as sets folk a-wandering. My measter, him at th' shop yonder, is spinning about th' world somewhere.'
'Is that the reason you're so soon at home to-night?' asked Margaret innocently.
'Thou know'st nought about it, that's all,' said he, contemptuously. 'I'm not one wi' two faces—one for my measter, and t'other for his back. I counted a' th' clocks in the town striking afore I'd leave my work. No! yon Thornton's good enough for to fight wi', but too good for to be cheated. It were you as getten me the place, and I thank yo' for it. Thornton's is not a bad mill, as times go. Stand down, lad, and say yo'r pretty hymn to Miss Margaret. That's right; steady on thy legs, and right arm out as straight as a shewer. One to stop, two to stay, three mak' ready, and four away!'
The little fellow repeated a Methodist hymn, far above his comprehension in point of language, but of which the swinging rhythm had caught his ear, and which he repeated with all the developed cadence of a member of parliament. When Margaret had duly applauded, Nicholas called for another, and yet another, much to her surprise, as she found him thus oddly and unconsciously led to take an interest in the sacred things which he had formerly scouted.
It was past the usual tea-time when she reached home; but she had the comfort of feeling that no one had been kept waiting for her; and of thinking her own thoughts while she rested, instead of anxiously watching another person to learn whether to be grave or gay. After tea she resolved to examine a large packet of letters, and pick out those that were to be destroyed.
Among them she came to four or five of Mr. Henry Lennox's, relating to Frederick's affairs; and she carefully read them over again, with the sole intention, when she began, to ascertain exactly on how fine a chance the justification of her brother hung. But when she had finished the last, and weighed the pros and cons, the little personal revelation of character contained in them forced itself on her notice. It was evident enough, from the stiffness of the wording, that Mr. Lennox had never forgotten his relation to her in any interest he might feel in the subject of the correspondence. They were clever letters; Margaret saw that in a twinkling; but she missed out of them all hearty and genial atmosphere. They were to be preserved, however, as valuable; so she laid them carefully on one side. When this little piece of business was ended, she fell into a reverie; and the thought of her absent father ran strangely in Margaret's head this night. She almost blamed herself for having felt her solitude (and consequently his absence) as a relief; but these two days had set her up afresh, with new strength and brighter hope. Plans which had lately appeared to her in the guise of tasks, now appeared like pleasures. The morbid scales had fallen from her eyes, and she saw her position and her work more truly. If only Mr. Thornton would restore her the lost friendship,—nay, if he would only come from time to time to cheer her father as in former days,—though she should never see him, she felt as if the course of her future life, though not brilliant in prospect, might lie clear and even before her. She sighed as she rose up to go to bed. In spite of the 'One step's enough for me,'—in spite of the one plain duty of devotion to her father,—there lay at her heart an anxiety and a pang of sorrow.
And Mr. Hale thought of Margaret, that April evening, just as strangely and as persistently as she was thinking of him. He had been fatigued by going about among his old friends and old familiar places. He had had exaggerated ideas of the change which his altered opinions might make in his friends' reception of him; but although some of them might have felt shocked or grieved or indignant at his falling off in the abstract, as soon as they saw the face of the man whom they had once loved, they forgot his opinions in himself; or only remembered them enough to give an additional tender gravity to their manner. For Mr. Hale had not been known to many; he had belonged to one of the smaller colleges, and had always been shy and reserved; but those who in youth had cared to penetrate to the delicacy of thought and feeling that lay below his silence and indecision, took him to their hearts, with something of the protecting kindness which they would have shown to a woman. And the renewal of this kindliness, after the lapse of years, and an interval of so much change, overpowered him more than any roughness or expression of disapproval could have done.
'I'm afraid we've done too much,' said Mr. Bell. 'You're suffering now from having lived so long in that Milton air.
'I am tired,' said Mr. Hale. 'But it is not Milton air. I'm fifty-five years of age, and that little fact of itself accounts for any loss of strength.'
'Nonsense! I'm upwards of sixty, and feel no loss of strength, either bodily or mental. Don't let me hear you talking so. Fifty-five! why, you're quite a young man.'
Mr. Hale shook his head. 'These last few years!' said he. But after a minute's pause, he raised himself from his half recumbent position, in one of Mr. Bell's luxurious easy-chairs, and said with a kind of trembling earnestness:
'Bell! you're not to think, that if I could have foreseen all that would come of my change of opinion, and my resignation of my living—no! not even if I could have known how _she_ would have suffered,—that I would undo it—the act of open acknowledgment that I no longer held the same faith as the church in which I was a priest. As I think now, even if I could have foreseen that cruellest martyrdom of suffering, through the sufferings of one whom I loved, I would have done just the same as far as that step of openly leaving the church went. I might have done differently, and acted more wisely, in all that I subsequently did for my family. But I don't think God endued me with over-much wisdom or strength,' he added, falling back into his old position.
Mr. Bell blew his nose ostentatiously before answering. Then he said:
'He gave you strength to do what your conscience told you was right; and I don't see that we need any higher or holier strength than that; or wisdom either. I know I have not that much; and yet men set me down in their fool's books as a wise man; an independent character; strong-minded, and all that cant. The veriest idiot who obeys his own simple law of right, if it be but in wiping his shoes on a door-mat, is wiser and stronger than I. But what gulls men are!'
There was a pause. Mr. Hale spoke first, in continuation of his thought:
'Well! about Margaret. What then?'
'If I die—— '
'What will become of her—I often think? I suppose the Lennoxes will ask her to live with them. I try to think they will. Her aunt Shaw loved her well in her own quiet way; but she forgets to love the absent.'
'A very common fault. What sort of people are the Lennoxes?'
'He, handsome, fluent, and agreeable. Edith, a sweet little spoiled beauty. Margaret loves her with all her heart, and Edith with as much of her heart as she can spare.'
'Now, Hale; you know that girl of yours has got pretty nearly all my heart. I told you that before. Of course, as your daughter, as my god-daughter, I took great interest in her before I saw her the last time. But this visit that I paid to you at Milton made me her slave. I went, a willing old victim, following the car of the conqueror. For, indeed, she looks as grand and serene as one who has struggled, and may be struggling, and yet has the victory secure in sight. Yes, in spite of all her present anxieties, that was the look on her face. And so, all I have is at her service, if she needs it; and will be hers, whether she will or no, when I die. Moreover, I myself, will be her preux chevalier, sixty and gouty though I be. Seriously, old friend, your daughter shall be my principal charge in life, and all the help that either my wit or my wisdom or my willing heart can give, shall be hers. I don't choose her out as a subject for fretting. Something, I know of old, you must have to worry yourself about, or you wouldn't be happy. But you're going to outlive me by many a long year. You spare, thin men are always tempting and always cheating Death! It's the stout, florid fellows like me, that always go off first.'
If Mr. Bell had had a prophetic eye he might have seen the torch all but inverted, and the angel with the grave and composed face standing very nigh, beckoning to his friend. That night Mr. Hale laid his head down on the pillow on which it never more should stir with life. The servant who entered his room in the morning, received no answer to his speech; drew near the bed, and saw the calm, beautiful face lying white and cold under the ineffaceable seal of death. The attitude was exquisitely easy; there had been no pain—no struggle. The action of the heart must have ceased as he lay down.
Mr. Bell was stunned by the shock; and only recovered when the time came for being angry at every suggestion of his man's.
'A coroner's inquest? Pooh. You don't think I poisoned him! Dr. Forbes says it is just the natural end of a heart complaint. Poor old Hale! You wore out that tender heart of yours before its time. Poor old friend! how he talked of his—— Wallis, pack up a carpet-bag for me in five minutes. Here have I been talking. Pack it up, I say. I must go to Milton by the next train.'
The bag was packed, the cab ordered, the railway reached, in twenty minutes from the moment of this decision. The London train whizzed by, drew back some yards, and in Mr. Bell was hurried by the impatient guard. He threw himself back in his seat, to try, with closed eyes, to understand how one in life yesterday could be dead to-day; and shortly tears stole out between his grizzled eye-lashes, at the feeling of which he opened his keen eyes, and looked as severely cheerful as his set determination could make him. He was not going to blubber before a set of strangers. Not he!
There was no set of strangers, only one sitting far from him on the same side. By and bye Mr. Bell peered at him, to discover what manner of man it was that might have been observing his emotion; and behind the great sheet of the outspread 'Times,' he recognised Mr. Thornton.
'Why, Thornton! is that you?' said he, removing hastily to a closer proximity. He shook Mr. Thornton vehemently by the hand, until the gripe ended in a sudden relaxation, for the hand was wanted to wipe away tears. He had last seen Mr. Thornton in his friend Hale's company.
'I'm going to Milton, bound on a melancholy errand. Going to break to Hale's daughter the news of his sudden death!'
'Death! Mr. Hale dead!'
'Ay; I keep saying it to myself, "Hale is dead!" but it doesn't make it any the more real. Hale is dead for all that. He went to bed well, to all appearance, last night, and was quite cold this morning when my servant went to call him.'
'Where? I don't understand!'
'At Oxford. He came to stay with me; hadn't been in Oxford this seventeen years—and this is the end of it.'
Not one word was spoken for above a quarter of an hour. Then Mr. Thornton said:
'And she!' and stopped full short.
'Margaret you mean. Yes! I am going to tell her. Poor fellow! how full his thoughts were of her all last night! Good God! Last night only. And how immeasurably distant he is now! But I take Margaret as my child for his sake. I said last night I would take her for her own sake. Well, I take her for both.'
Mr. Thornton made one or two fruitless attempts to speak, before he could get out the words:
'What will become of her!'
'I rather fancy there will be two people waiting for her: myself for one. I would take a live dragon into my house to live, if, by hiring such a chaperon, and setting up an establishment of my own, I could make my old age happy with having Margaret for a daughter. But there are those Lennoxes!'
'Who are they?' asked Mr. Thornton with trembling interest.
'Oh, smart London people, who very likely will think they've the best right to her. Captain Lennox married her cousin—the girl she was brought up with. Good enough people, I dare say. And there's her aunt, Mrs. Shaw. There might be a way open, perhaps, by my offering to marry that worthy lady! but that would be quite a pis aller. And then there's that brother!'
'What brother? A brother of her aunt's?'
'No, no; a clever Lennox, (the captain's a fool, you must understand) a young barrister, who will be setting his cap at Margaret. I know he has had her in his mind this five years or more: one of his chums told me as much; and he was only kept back by her want of fortune. Now that will be done away with.'
'How?' asked Mr. Thornton, too earnestly curious to be aware of the impertinence of his question.
'Why, she'll have my money at my death. And if this Henry Lennox is half good enough for her, and she likes him—well! I might find another way of getting a home through a marriage. I'm dreadfully afraid of being tempted, at an unguarded moment, by the aunt.'
Neither Mr. Bell nor Mr. Thornton was in a laughing humour; so the oddity of any of the speeches which the former made was unnoticed by them. Mr. Bell whistled, without emitting any sound beyond a long hissing breath; changed his seat, without finding comfort or rest while Mr. Thornton sat immoveably still, his eyes fixed on one spot in the newspaper, which he had taken up in order to give himself leisure to think.
'Where have you been?' asked Mr. Bell, at length.
'To Havre. Trying to detect the secret of the great rise in the price of cotton.'
'Ugh! Cotton, and speculations, and smoke, well-cleansed and well-cared-for machinery, and unwashed and neglected hands. Poor old Hale! Poor old Hale! If you could have known the change which it was to him from Helstone. Do you know the New Forest at all?'
'Yes.' (Very shortly).
'Then you can fancy the difference between it and Milton. What part were you in? Were you ever at Helstone? a little picturesque village, like some in the Odenwald? You know Helstone?'
'I have seen it. It was a great change to leave it and come to Milton.'
He took up his newspaper with a determined air, as if resolved to avoid further conversation; and Mr. Bell was fain to resort to his former occupation of trying to find out how he could best break the news to Margaret.
She was at an up-stairs window; she saw him alight; she guessed the truth with an instinctive flash. She stood in the middle of the drawing-room, as if arrested in her first impulse to rush downstairs, and as if by the same restraining thought she had been turned to stone; so white and immoveable was she.
'Oh! don't tell me! I know it from your face! You would have sent—you would not have left him—if he were alive! Oh papa, papa!'