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Transcribed from the 1896 Smith, Elder and Co. "Lizzie Leigh and Other
Tales" edition by David Price, email [email protected]





A DARK NIGHT'S WORK
by Elizabeth Gaskell


CHAPTER I.


In the county town of a certain shire there lived (about forty years ago)
one Mr. Wilkins, a conveyancing attorney of considerable standing.

The certain shire was but a small county, and the principal town in it
contained only about four thousand inhabitants; so in saying that Mr.
Wilkins was the principal lawyer in Hamley, I say very little, unless I
add that he transacted all the legal business of the gentry for twenty
miles round. His grandfather had established the connection; his father
had consolidated and strengthened it, and, indeed, by his wise and
upright conduct, as well as by his professional skill, had obtained for
himself the position of confidential friend to many of the surrounding
families of distinction. He visited among them in a way which no mere
lawyer had ever done before; dined at their tables - he alone, not
accompanied by his wife, be it observed; rode to the meet occasionally as
if by accident, although he was as well mounted as any squire among them,
and was often persuaded (after a little coquetting about "professional
engagements," and "being wanted at the office") to have a run with his
clients; nay, once or twice he forgot his usual caution, was first in at
the death, and rode home with the brush. But in general he knew his
place; as his place was held to be in that aristocratic county, and in
those days. Nor let be supposed that he was in any way a toadeater. He
respected himself too much for that. He would give the most unpalatable
advice, if need were; would counsel an unsparing reduction of expenditure
to an extravagant man; would recommend such an abatement of family pride
as paved the way for one or two happy marriages in some instances; nay,
what was the most likely piece of conduct of all to give offence forty
years ago, he would speak up for an unjustly-used tenant; and that with
so much temperate and well-timed wisdom and good feeling, that he more
than once gained his point. He had one son, Edward. This boy was the
secret joy and pride of his father's heart. For himself he was not in
the least ambitious, but it did cost him a hard struggle to acknowledge
that his own business was too lucrative, and brought in too large an
income, to pass away into the hands of a stranger, as it would do if he
indulged his ambition for his son by giving him a college education and
making him into a barrister. This determination on the more prudent side
of the argument took place while Edward was at Eton. The lad had,
perhaps, the largest allowance of pocket-money of any boy at school; and
he had always looked forward to going to Christ Church along with his
fellows, the sons of the squires, his father's employers. It was a
severe mortification to him to find that his destiny was changed, and
that he had to return to Hamley to be articled to his father, and to
assume the hereditary subservient position to lads whom he had licked in
the play-ground, and beaten at learning.

His father tried to compensate him for the disappointment by every
indulgence which money could purchase. Edward's horses were even finer
than those of his father; his literary tastes were kept up and fostered,
by his father's permission to form an extensive library, for which
purpose a noble room was added to Mr. Wilkins's already extensive house
in the suburbs of Hamley. And after his year of legal study in London
his father sent him to make the grand tour, with something very like
carte blanche as to expenditure, to judge from the packages which were
sent home from various parts of the Continent.

At last he came home - came back to settle as his father's partner at
Hamley. He was a son to be proud of, and right down proud was old Mr.
Wilkins of his handsome, accomplished, gentlemanly lad. For Edward was
not one to be spoilt by the course of indulgence he had passed through;
at least, if it had done him an injury, the effects were at present
hidden from view. He had no vulgar vices; he was, indeed, rather too
refined for the society he was likely to be thrown into, even supposing
that society to consist of the highest of his father's employers. He was
well read, and an artist of no mean pretensions. Above all, "his heart
was in the right place," as his father used to observe. Nothing could
exceed the deference he always showed to him. His mother had long been
dead.

I do not know whether it was Edward's own ambition or his proud father's
wishes that had led him to attend the Hamley assemblies. I should
conjecture the latter, for Edward had of himself too much good taste to
wish to intrude into any society. In the opinion of all the shire, no
society had more reason to consider itself select than that which met at
every full moon in the Hamley assembly-room, an excrescence built on to
the principal inn in the town by the joint subscription of all the county
families. Into those choice and mysterious precincts no towns person was
ever allowed to enter; no professional man might set his foot therein; no
infantry officer saw the interior of that ball, or that card-room. The
old original subscribers would fain have had a man prove his sixteen
quarterings before he might make his bow to the queen of the night; but
the old original founders of the Hamley assemblies were dropping off;
minuets had vanished with them, country dances had died away; quadrilles
were in high vogue - nay, one or two of the high magnates of - -shire were
trying to introduce waltzing, as they had seen it in London, where it had
come in with the visit of the allied sovereigns, when Edward Wilkins made
his _debut_ on these boards. He had been at many splendid assemblies
abroad, but still the little old ballroom attached to the George Inn in
his native town was to him a place grander and more awful than the most
magnificent saloons he had seen in Paris or Rome. He laughed at himself
for this unreasonable feeling of awe; but there it was notwithstanding.
He had been dining at the house of one of the lesser gentry, who was
under considerable obligations to his father, and who was the parent of
eight "muckle-mou'ed" daughters, so hardly likely to oppose much
aristocratic resistance to the elder Mr. Wilkins's clearly implied wish
that Edward should be presented at the Hamley assembly-rooms. But many a
squire glowered and looked black at the introduction of Wilkins the
attorney's son into the sacred precincts; and perhaps there would have
been much more mortification than pleasure in this assembly to the young
man, had it not been for an incident that occurred pretty late in the
evening. The lord-lieutenant of the county usually came with a large
party to the Hamley assemblies once in a season; and this night he was
expected, and with him a fashionable duchess and her daughters. But time
wore on, and they did not make their appearance. At last there was a
rustling and a bustling, and in sailed the superb party. For a few
minutes dancing was stopped; the earl led the duchess to a sofa; some of
their acquaintances came up to speak to them; and then the quadrilles
were finished in rather a flat manner. A country dance followed, in
which none of the lord-lieutenant's party joined; then there was a
consultation, a request, an inspection of the dancers, a message to the
orchestra, and the band struck up a waltz; the duchess's daughters flew
off to the music, and some more young ladies seemed ready to follow, but,
alas! there was a lack of gentlemen acquainted with the new-fashioned
dance. One of the stewards bethought him of young Wilkins, only just
returned from the Continent. Edward was a beautiful dancer, and waltzed
to admiration. For his next partner he had one of the Lady - -s; for the
duchess, to whom the - shire squires and their little county politics and
contempts were alike unknown, saw no reason why her lovely Lady Sophy
should not have a good partner, whatever his pedigree might be, and
begged the stewards to introduce Mr. Wilkins to her. After this night
his fortune was made with the young ladies of the Hamley assemblies. He
was not unpopular with the mammas; but the heavy squires still looked at
him askance, and the heirs (whom he had licked at Eton) called him an
upstart behind his back.




CHAPTER II.


It was not a satisfactory situation. Mr. Wilkins had given his son an
education and tastes beyond his position. He could not associate with
either profit or pleasure with the doctor or the brewer of Hamley; the
vicar was old and deaf, the curate a raw young man, half frightened at
the sound of his own voice. Then, as to matrimony - for the idea of his
marriage was hardly more present in Edward's mind than in that of his
father - he could scarcely fancy bringing home any one of the young ladies
of Hamley to the elegant mansion, so full of suggestion and association
to an educated person, so inappropriate a dwelling for an ignorant,
uncouth, ill-brought-up girl. Yet Edward was fully aware, if his fond
father was not, that of all the young ladies who were glad enough of him
as a partner at the Hamley assemblies, there was not of them but would
have considered herself affronted by an offer of marriage from an
attorney, the son and grandson of attorneys. The young man had perhaps
received many a slight and mortification pretty quietly during these
years, which yet told upon his character in after life. Even at this
very time they were having their effect. He was of too sweet a
disposition to show resentment, as many men would have done. But
nevertheless he took a secret pleasure in the power which his father's
money gave him. He would buy an expensive horse after five minutes'
conversation as to the price, about which a needy heir of one of the
proud county families had been haggling for three weeks. His dogs were
from the best kennels in England, no matter at what cost; his guns were
the newest and most improved make; and all these were expenses on objects
which were among those of daily envy to the squires and squires' sons
around. They did not much care for the treasures of art, which report
said were being accumulated in Mr. Wilkins's house. But they did covet
the horses and hounds he possessed, and the young man knew that they
coveted, and rejoiced in it.

By-and-by he formed a marriage, which went as near as marriages ever do
towards pleasing everybody. He was desperately in love with Miss
Lamotte, so he was delighted when she consented to be his wife. His
father was delighted in his delight, and, besides, was charmed to
remember that Miss Lamotte's mother had been Sir Frank Holster's younger
sister, and that, although her marriage had been disowned by her family,
as beneath her in rank, yet no one could efface her name out of the
Baronetage, where Lettice, youngest daughter of Sir Mark Holster, born
1772, married H. Lamotte, 1799, died 1810, was duly chronicled. She had
left two children, a boy and a girl, of whom their uncle, Sir Frank, took
charge, as their father was worse than dead - an outlaw whose name was
never mentioned. Mark Lamotte was in the army; Lettice had a dependent
position in her uncle's family; not intentionally made more dependent
than was rendered necessary by circumstances, but still dependent enough
to grate on the feelings of a sensitive girl, whose natural susceptibilty
to slights was redoubled by the constant recollection of her father's
disgrace. As Mr. Wilkins well knew, Sir Frank was considerably involved;
but it was with very mixed feelings that he listened to the suit which
would provide his penniless niece with a comfortable, not to say
luxurious, home, and with a handsome, accomplished young man of
unblemished character for a husband. He said one or two bitter and
insolent things to Mr. Wilkins, even while he was giving his consent to
the match; that was his temper, his proud, evil temper; but he really and
permanently was satisfied with the connection, though he would
occasionally turn round on his nephew-in-law, and sting him with a covert
insult, as to his want of birth, and the inferior position which he held,
forgetting, apparently, that his own brother-in-law and Lettice's father
might be at any moment brought to the bar of justice if he attempted to
re-enter his native country.

Edward was annoyed at all this; Lettice resented it. She loved her
husband dearly, and was proud of him, for she had discernment enough to
see how superior he was in every way to her cousins, the young Holsters,
who borrowed his horses, drank his wines, and yet had caught their
father's habit of sneering at his profession. Lettice wished that Edward
would content himself with a purely domestic life, would let himself drop
out of the company of the - -shire squirearchy, and find his relaxation
with her, in their luxurious library, or lovely drawing-room, so full of
white gleaming statues, and gems of pictures. But, perhaps, this was too
much to expect of any man, especially of one who felt himself fitted in
many ways to shine in society, and who was social by nature. Sociality
in that county at that time meant conviviality. Edward did not care for
wine, and yet he was obliged to drink - and by-and-by he grew to pique
himself on his character as a judge of wine. His father by this time was
dead; dead, happy old man, with a contented heart - his affairs
flourishing, his poorer neighbours loving him, his richer respecting him,
his son and daughter-in-law, the most affectionate and devoted that ever
man had, and his healthy conscience at peace with his God.

Lettice could have lived to herself and her husband and children. Edward
daily required more and more the stimulus of society. His wife wondered
how he could care to accept dinner invitations from people who treated
him as "Wilkins the attorney, a very good sort of fellow," as they
introduced him to strangers who might be staying in the country, but who
had no power to appreciate the taste, the talents, the impulsive artistic
nature which she held so dear. She forgot that by accepting such
invitations Edward was occasionally brought into contact with people not
merely of high conventional, but of high intellectual rank; that when a
certain amount of wine had dissipated his sense of inferiority of rank
and position, he was a brilliant talker, a man to be listened to and
admired even by wandering London statesmen, professional diners-out, or
any great authors who might find themselves visitors in a - -shire
country-house. What she would have had him share from the pride of her
heart, she should have warned him to avoid from the temptations to sinful
extravagance which it led him into. He had begun to spend more than he
ought, not in intellectual - though that would have been wrong - but in
purely sensual things. His wines, his table, should be such as no
squire's purse or palate could command. His dinner-parties - small in
number, the viands rare and delicate in quality, and sent up to table by
an Italian cook - should be such as even the London stars should notice
with admiration. He would have Lettice dressed in the richest materials,
the most delicate lace; jewellery, he said, was beyond their means;
glancing with proud humility at the diamonds of the elder ladies, and the
alloyed gold of the younger. But he managed to spend as much on his
wife's lace as would have bought many a set of inferior jewellery.
Lettice well became it all. If as people said, her father had been
nothing but a French adventurer, she bore traces of her nature in her
grace, her delicacy, her fascinating and elegant ways of doing all
things. She was made for society; and yet she hated it. And one day she
went out of it altogether and for evermore. She had been well in the
morning when Edward went down to his office in Hamley. At noon he was
sent for by hurried trembling messengers. When he got home breathless
and uncomprehending, she was past speech. One glance from her lovely
loving black eyes showed that she recognised him with the passionate
yearning that had been one of the characteristics of her love through
life. There was no word passed between them. He could not speak, any
more than could she. He knelt down by her. She was dying; she was dead;
and he knelt on immovable. They brought him his eldest child, Ellinor,
in utter despair what to do in order to rouse him. They had no thought
as to the effect on her, hitherto shut up in the nursery during this busy
day of confusion and alarm. The child had no idea of death, and her
father, kneeling and tearless, was far less an object of surprise or
interest to her than her mother, lying still and white, and not turning
her head to smile at her darling.

"Mamma! mamma!" cried the child, in shapeless terror. But the mother
never stirred; and the father hid his face yet deeper in the bedclothes,
to stifle a cry as if a sharp knife had pierced his heart. The child
forced her impetuous way from her attendants, and rushed to the bed.
Undeterred by deadly cold or stony immobility, she kissed the lips and
stroked the glossy raven hair, murmuring sweet words of wild love, such
as had passed between the mother and child often and often when no
witnesses were by; and altogether seemed so nearly beside herself in an
agony of love and terror, that Edward arose, and softly taking her in his
arms, bore her away, lying back like one dead (so exhausted was she by
the terrible emotion they had forced on her childish heart), into his
study, a little room opening out of the grand library, where on happy
evenings, never to come again, he and his wife were wont to retire to
have coffee together, and then perhaps stroll out of the glass-door into
the open air, the shrubbery, the fields - never more to be trodden by
those dear feet. What passed between father and child in this seclusion
none could tell. Late in the evening Ellinor's supper was sent for, and
the servant who brought it in saw the child lying as one dead in her
father's arms, and before he left the room watched his master feeding
her, the girl of six years of age, with as tender care as if she had been
a baby of six months.




CHAPTER III.


From that time the tie between father and daughter grew very strong and
tender indeed. Ellinor, it is true, divided her affection between her
baby sister and her papa; but he, caring little for babies, had only a
theoretic regard for his younger child, while the elder absorbed all his
love. Every day that he dined at home Ellinor was placed opposite to him
while he ate his late dinner; she sat where her mother had done during
the meal, although she had dined and even supped some time before on the
more primitive nursery fare. It was half pitiful, half amusing, to see
the little girl's grave, thoughtful ways and modes of speech, as if
trying to act up to the dignity of her place as her father's companion,
till sometimes the little head nodded off to slumber in the middle of
lisping some wise little speech. "Old-fashioned," the nurses called her,
and prophesied that she would not live long in consequence of her old-
fashionedness. But instead of the fulfilment of this prophecy, the fat
bright baby was seized with fits, and was well, ill, and dead in a day!
Ellinor's grief was something alarming, from its quietness and
concealment. She waited till she was left - as she thought - alone at
nights, and then sobbed and cried her passionate cry for "Baby, baby,
come back to me - come back;" till every one feared for the health of the
frail little girl whose childish affections had had to stand two such
shocks. Her father put aside all business, all pleasure of every kind,
to win his darling from her grief. No mother could have done more, no
tenderest nurse done half so much as Mr. Wilkins then did for Ellinor.

If it had not been for him she would have just died of her grief. As it
was, she overcame it - but slowly, wearily - hardly letting herself love
anyone for some time, as if she instinctively feared lest all her strong
attachments should find a sudden end in death. Her love - thus dammed up
into a small space - at last burst its banks, and overflowed on her
father. It was a rich reward to him for all his care of her, and he took
delight - perhaps a selfish delight - in all the many pretty ways she
perpetually found of convincing him, if he had needed conviction, that he
was ever the first object with her. The nurse told him that half an hour
or so before the earliest time at which he could be expected home in the
evenings, Miss Ellinor began to fold up her doll's things and lull the
inanimate treasure to sleep. Then she would sit and listen with an
intensity of attention for his footstep. Once the nurse had expressed
some wonder at the distance at which Ellinor could hear her father's
approach, saying that she had listened and could not hear a sound, to
which Ellinor had replied:

"Of course you cannot; he is not your papa!"

Then, when he went away in the morning, after he had kissed her, Ellinor
would run to a certain window from which she could watch him up the lane,
now hidden behind a hedge, now reappearing through an open space, again
out of sight, till he reached a great old beech-tree, where for an
instant more she saw him. And then she would turn away with a sigh,
sometimes reassuring her unspoken fears by saying softly to herself,

"He will come again to-night."

Mr. Wilkins liked to feel his child dependent on him for all her
pleasures. He was even a little jealous of anyone who devised a treat or
conferred a present, the first news of which did not come from or through
him.

At last it was necessary that Ellinor should have some more instruction
than her good old nurse could give. Her father did not care to take upon
himself the office of teacher, which he thought he foresaw would
necessitate occasional blame, an occasional exercise of authority, which
might possibly render him less idolized by his little girl; so he
commissioned Lady Holster to choose out one among her many _protegees_
for a governess to his daughter. Now, Lady Holster, who kept a sort of
amateur county register-office, was only too glad to be made of use in
this way; but when she inquired a little further as to the sort of person
required, all she could extract from Mr. Wilkins was:

"You know the kind of education a lady should have, and will, I am sure,
choose a governess for Ellinor better than I could direct you. Only,
please, choose some one who will not marry me, and who will let Ellinor
go on making my tea, and doing pretty much what she likes, for she is so
good they need not try to make her better, only to teach her what a lady
should know."

Miss Monro was selected - a plain, intelligent, quiet woman of forty - and
it was difficult to decide whether she or Mr. Wilkins took the most pains
to avoid each other, acting with regard to Ellinor, pretty much like the
famous Adam and Eve in the weather-glass: when the one came out the other
went in. Miss Monro had been tossed about and overworked quite enough in
her life not to value the privilege and indulgence of her evenings to
herself, her comfortable schoolroom, her quiet cozy teas, her book, or
her letter-writing afterwards. By mutual agreement she did not interfere
with Ellinor and her ways and occupations on the evenings when the girl
had not her father for companion; and these occasions became more and
more frequent as years passed on, and the deep shadow was lightened which
the sudden death that had visited his household had cast over him. As I
have said before, he was always a popular man at dinner-parties. His
amount of intelligence and accomplishment was rare in - -shire, and if it
required more wine than formerly to bring his conversation up to the
desired point of range and brilliancy, wine was not an article spared or
grudged at the county dinner-tables. Occasionally his business took him
up to London. Hurried as these journeys might be, he never returned
without a new game, a new toy of some kind, to "make home pleasant to his
little maid," as he expressed himself.

He liked, too, to see what was doing in art, or in literature; and as he
gave pretty extensive orders for anything he admired, he was almost sure
to be followed down to Hamley by one or two packages or parcels, the
arrival and opening of which began soon to form the pleasant epochs in
Ellinor's grave though happy life.


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