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The only person of his own standing with whom Mr. Wilkins kept up any
intercourse in Hamley was the new clergyman, a bachelor, about his own
age, a learned man, a fellow of his college, whose first claim on Mr.
Wilkins's attention was the fact that he had been travelling-bachelor for
his university, and had consequently been on the Continent about the very
same two years that Mr. Wilkins had been there; and although they had
never met, yet they had many common acquaintances and common
recollections to talk over of this period, which, after all, had been
about the most bright and hopeful of Mr. Wilkins's life.

Mr. Ness had an occasional pupil; that is to say, he never put himself
out of the way to obtain pupils, but did not refuse the entreaties
sometimes made to him that he would prepare a young man for college, by
allowing the said young man to reside and read with him. "Ness's men"
took rather high honours, for the tutor, too indolent to find out work
for himself, had a certain pride in doing well the work that was found
for him.

When Ellinor was somewhere about fourteen, a young Mr. Corbet came to be
pupil to Mr. Ness. Her father always called on the young men reading
with the clergyman, and asked them to his house. His hospitality had in
course of time lost its _recherche_ and elegant character, but was always
generous, and often profuse. Besides, it was in his character to like
the joyous, thoughtless company of the young better than that of the
old - given the same amount of refinement and education in both.

Mr. Corbet was a young man of very good family, from a distant county. If
his character had not been so grave and deliberate, his years would only
have entitled him to be called a boy, for he was but eighteen at the time
when he came to read with Mr. Ness. But many men of five-and-twenty have
not reflected so deeply as this young Mr. Corbet already had. He had
considered and almost matured his plan for life; had ascertained what
objects he desired most to accomplish in the dim future, which is to many
at his age only a shapeless mist; and had resolved on certain steady
courses of action by which such objects were most likely to be secured. A
younger son, his family connections and family interest pre-arranged a
legal career for him; and it was in accordance with his own tastes and
talents. All, however, which his father hoped for him was, that he might
be able to make an income sufficient for a gentleman to live on. Old Mr.
Corbet was hardly to be called ambitious, or, if he were, his ambition
was limited to views for the eldest son. But Ralph intended to be a
distinguished lawyer, not so much for the vision of the woolsack, which I
suppose dances before the imagination of every young lawyer, as for the
grand intellectual exercise, and consequent power over mankind, that
distinguished lawyers may always possess if they choose. A seat in
Parliament, statesmanship, and all the great scope for a powerful and
active mind that lay on each side of such a career - these were the
objects which Ralph Corbet set before himself. To take high honours at
college was the first step to be accomplished; and in order to achieve
this Ralph had, not persuaded - persuasion was a weak instrument which he
despised - but gravely reasoned his father into consenting to pay the
large sum which Mr. Ness expected with a pupil. The good-natured old
squire was rather pressed for ready money, but sooner than listen to an
argument instead of taking his nap after dinner he would have yielded
anything. But this did not satisfy Ralph; his father's reason must be
convinced of the desirability of the step, as well as his weak will give
way. The squire listened, looked wise, sighed; spoke of Edward's
extravagance and the girls' expenses, grew sleepy, and said, "Very true,"
"That is but reasonable, certainly," glanced at the door, and wondered
when his son would have ended his talking and go into the drawing-room;
and at length found himself writing the desired letter to Mr. Ness,
consenting to everything, terms and all. Mr. Ness never had a more
satisfactory pupil; one whom he could treat more as an intellectual
equal.

Mr. Corbet, as Ralph was always called in Hamley, was resolute in his
cultivation of himself, even exceeding what his tutor demanded of him. He
was greedy of information in the hours not devoted to absolute study. Mr.
Ness enjoyed giving information, but most of all he liked the hard tough
arguments on all metaphysical and ethical questions in which Mr. Corbet
delighted to engage him. They lived together on terms of happy equality,
having thus much in common. They were essentially different, however,
although there were so many points of resemblance. Mr. Ness was
unworldly as far as the idea of real unworldliness is compatible with a
turn for self-indulgence and indolence; while Mr. Corbet was deeply,
radically worldly, yet for the accomplishment of his object could deny
himself all the careless pleasures natural to his age. The tutor and
pupil allowed themselves one frequent relaxation, that of Mr. Wilkins's
company. Mr. Ness would stroll to the office after the six hours' hard
reading were over - leaving Mr. Corbet still bent over the table, book
bestrewn - and see what Mr. Wilkins's engagements were. If he had nothing
better to do that evening, he was either asked to dine at the parsonage,
or he, in his careless hospitable way, invited the other two to dine with
him, Ellinor forming the fourth at table, as far as seats went, although
her dinner had been eaten early with Miss Monro. She was little and
slight of her age, and her father never seemed to understand how she was
passing out of childhood. Yet while in stature she was like a child; in
intellect, in force of character, in strength of clinging affection, she
was a woman. There might be much of the simplicity of a child about her,
there was little of the undeveloped girl, varying from day to day like an
April sky, careless as to which way her own character is tending. So the
two young people sat with their elders, and both relished the company
they were thus prematurely thrown into. Mr. Corbet talked as much as
either of the other two gentlemen; opposing and disputing on any side, as
if to find out how much he could urge against received opinions. Ellinor
sat silent; her dark eyes flashing from time to time in vehement
interest - sometimes in vehement indignation if Mr. Corbet, riding a-tilt
at everyone, ventured to attack her father. He saw how this course
excited her, and rather liked pursuing it in consequence; he thought it
only amused him.

Another way in which Ellinor and Mr. Corbet were thrown together
occasionally was this: Mr. Ness and Mr. Wilkins shared the same _Times_
between them; and it was Ellinor's duty to see that the paper was
regularly taken from her father's house to the parsonage. Her father
liked to dawdle over it. Until Mr. Corbet had come to live with him, Mr.
Ness had not much cared at what time it was passed on to him; but the
young man took a strong interest in all public events, and especially in
all that was said about them. He grew impatient if the paper was not
forthcoming, and would set off himself to go for it, sometimes meeting
the penitent breathless Ellinor in the long lane which led from Hamley to
Mr. Wilkins's house. At first he used to receive her eager "Oh! I am so
sorry, Mr. Corbet, but papa has only just done with it," rather gruffly.
After a time he had the grace to tell her it did not signify; and by-and-
by he would turn back with her to give her some advice about her garden,
or her plants - for his mother and sisters were first-rate practical
gardeners, and he himself was, as he expressed it, "a capital consulting
physician for a sickly plant."

All this time his voice, his step, never raised the child's colour one
shade the higher, never made her heart beat the least quicker, as the
slightest sign of her father's approach was wont to do. She learnt to
rely on Mr. Corbet for advice, for a little occasional sympathy, and for
much condescending attention. He also gave her more fault-finding than
all the rest of the world put together; and, curiously enough, she was
grateful to him for it, for she really was humble and wished to improve.
He liked the attitude of superiority which this implied and exercised
right gave him. They were very good friends at present. Nothing more.

All this time I have spoken only of Mr. Wilkins's life as he stood in
relation to his daughter. But there is far more to be said about it.
After his wife's death, he withdrew himself from society for a year or
two in a more positive and decided manner than is common with widowers.
It was during this retirement of his that he riveted his little
daughter's heart in such a way as to influence all her future life.

When he began to go out again, it might have been perceived - had any one
cared to notice - how much the different characters of his father and wife
had influenced him and kept him steady. Not that he broke out into any
immoral conduct, but he gave up time to pleasure, which both old Mr.
Wilkins and Lettice would have quietly induced him to spend in the
office, superintending his business. His indulgence in hunting, and all
field sports, had hitherto been only occasional; they now became
habitual, as far as the seasons permitted. He shared a moor in Scotland
with one of the Holsters one year, persuading himself that the bracing
air was good for Ellinor's health. But the year afterwards he took
another, this time joining with a comparative stranger; and on this moor
there was no house to which it was fit to bring a child and her
attendants. He persuaded himself that by frequent journeys he could make
up for his absences from Hamley. But journeys cost money; and he was
often away from his office when important business required attending to.
There was some talk of a new attorney setting up in Hamley, to be
supported by one or two of the more influential county families, who had
found Wilkins not so attentive as his father. Sir Frank Holster sent for
his relation, and told him of this project, speaking to him, at the same
time, in pretty round terms on the folly of the life he was leading.
Foolish it certainly was, and as such Mr. Wilkins was secretly
acknowledging it; but when Sir Frank, lashing himself, began to talk of
his hearer's presumption in joining the hunt, in aping the mode of life
and amusements of the landed gentry, Edward fired up. He knew how much
Sir Frank was dipped, and comparing it with the round sum his own father
had left him, he said some plain truths to Sir Frank which the latter
never forgave, and henceforth there was no intercourse between Holster
Court and Ford Bank, as Mr. Edward Wilkins had christened his father's
house on his first return from the Continent.

The conversation had two consequences besides the immediate one of the
quarrel. Mr. Wilkins advertised for a responsible and confidential clerk
to conduct the business under his own superintendence; and he also wrote
to the Heralds' College to ask if he did not belong to the family bearing
the same name in South Wales - those who have since reassumed their
ancient name of De Winton.

Both applications were favorably answered. A skilful, experienced,
middle-aged clerk was recommended to him by one of the principal legal
firms in London, and immediately engaged to come to Hamley at his own
terms; which were pretty high. But, as Mr. Wilkins said it was worth any
money to pay for the relief from constant responsibility which such a
business as his involved, some people remarked that he had never appeared
to feel the responsibility very much hitherto, as witness his absences in
Scotland, and his various social engagements when at home; it had been
very different (they said) in his father's day. The Heralds' College
held out hopes of affiliating him to the South Wales family, but it would
require time and money to make the requisite inquiries and substantiate
the claim. Now, in many a place there would be none to contest the right
a man might have to assert that he belonged to such and such a family, or
even to assume their arms. But it was otherwise in - -shire. Everyone
was up in genealogy and heraldry, and considered filching a name and a
pedigree a far worse sin than any of those mentioned on the Commandments.
There were those among them who would doubt and dispute even the decision
of the Heralds' College; but with it, if in his favour, Mr. Wilkins
intended to be satisfied, and accordingly he wrote in reply to their
letter to say, that of course he was aware such inquiries would take a
considerable sum of money, but still he wished them to be made, and that
speedily.

Before the end of the year he went up to London to order a brougham to be
built (for Ellinor to drive out in wet weather, he said; but as going in
a closed carriage always made her ill, he used it principally himself in
driving to dinner-parties), with the De Winton Wilkinses' arms neatly
emblazoned on panel and harness. Hitherto he had always gone about in a
dog-cart - the immediate descendant of his father's old-fashioned gig.

For all this, the squires, his employers, only laughed at him and did not
treat him with one whit more respect.

Mr. Dunster, the new clerk, was a quiet, respectable-looking man; you
could not call him a gentleman in manner, and yet no one could say he was
vulgar. He had not much varying expression on his face, but a permanent
one of thoughtful consideration of the subject in hand, whatever it might
be, that would have fitted as well with the profession of medicine as
with that of law, and was quite the right look for either. Occasionally
a bright flash of sudden intelligence lightened up his deep-sunk eyes,
but even this was quickly extinguished as by some inward repression, and
the habitually reflective, subdued expression returned to the face. As
soon as he came into his situation, he first began quietly to arrange the
papers, and next the business of which they were the outer sign, into
more methodical order than they had been in since old Mr. Wilkins's
death. Punctual to a moment himself, he looked his displeased surprise
when the inferior clerks came tumbling in half an hour after the time in
the morning; and his look was more effective than many men's words;
henceforward the subordinates were within five minutes of the appointed
hour for opening the office; but still he was always there before them.
Mr. Wilkins himself winced under his new clerk's order and punctuality;
Mr. Dunster's raised eyebrow and contraction of the lips at some woeful
confusion in the business of the office, chafed Mr. Wilkins more, far
more than any open expression of opinion would have done; for that he
could have met, and explained away as he fancied. A secret respectful
dislike grew up in his bosom against Mr. Dunster. He esteemed him, he
valued him, and he could not bear him. Year after year Mr. Wilkins had
become more under the influence of his feelings, and less under the
command of his reason. He rather cherished than repressed his nervous
repugnance to the harsh measured tones of Mr. Dunster's voice; the latter
spoke with a provincial twang which grated on his employer's sensitive
ear. He was annoyed at a certain green coat which his new clerk brought
with him, and he watched its increasing shabbiness with a sort of
childish pleasure. But by-and-by Mr. Wilkins found out that, from some
perversity of taste, Mr. Dunster always had his coats, Sunday and working-
day, made of this obnoxious colour; and this knowledge did not diminish
his secret irritation. The worst of all, perhaps, was, that Mr. Dunster
was really invaluable in many ways; "a perfect treasure," as Mr. Wilkins
used to term him in speaking of him after dinner; but, for all that, he
came to hate his "perfect treasure," as he gradually felt that Dunster
had become so indispensable to the business that his chief could not do
without him.

The clients re-echoed Mr. Wilkins's words, and spoke of Mr. Dunster as
invaluable to his master; a thorough treasure, the very saving of the
business. They had not been better attended to, not even in old Mr.
Wilkins's days; such a clear head, such a knowledge of law, such a
steady, upright fellow, always at his post. The grating voice, the
drawling accent, the bottle-green coat, were nothing to them; far less
noticed, in fact, than Wilkins's expensive habits, the money he paid for
his wine and horses, and the nonsense of claiming kin with the Welsh
Wilkinses, and setting up his brougham to drive about - -shire lanes, and
be knocked to pieces over the rough round paving-stones thereof.

All these remarks did not come near Ellinor to trouble her life. To her,
her dear father was the first of human beings; so sweet, so good, so
kind, so charming in conversation, so full of accomplishment and
information! To her healthy, happy mind every one turned their bright
side. She loved Miss Monro - all the servants - especially Dixon, the
coachman. He had been her father's playfellow as a boy, and, with all
his respect and admiration for his master, the freedom of intercourse
that had been established between them then had never been quite lost.
Dixon was a fine, stalwart old fellow, and was as harmonious in his ways
with his master as Mr. Dunster was discordant; accordingly he was a great
favourite, and could say many a thing which might have been taken as
impertinent from another servant.

He was Ellinor's great confidant about many of her little plans and
projects; things that she dared not speak of to Mr. Corbet, who, after
her father and Dixon, was her next best friend. This intimacy with Dixon
displeased Mr. Corbet. He once or twice insinuated that he did not think
it was well to talk so familiarly as Ellinor did with a servant - one out
of a completely different class - such as Dixon. Ellinor did not easily
take hints; every one had spoken plain out to her hitherto; so Mr. Corbet
had to say his meaning plain out at last. Then, for the first time, he
saw her angry; but she was too young, too childish, to have words at will
to express her feelings; she only could say broken beginnings of
sentences, such as "What a shame! Good, dear Dixon, who is as loyal and
true and kind as any nobleman. I like him far better than you, Mr.
Corbet, and I shall talk to him." And then she burst into tears and ran
away, and would not come to wish Mr. Corbet good-bye, though she knew she
should not see him again for a long time, as he was returning the next
day to his father's house, from whence he would go to Cambridge.

He was annoyed at this result of the good advice he had thought himself
bound to give to a motherless girl, who had no one to instruct her in the
proprieties in which his own sisters were brought up; he left Hamley both
sorry and displeased. As for Ellinor, when she found out the next day
that he really was gone - gone without even coming to Ford Bank again to
see if she were not penitent for her angry words - gone without saying or
hearing a word of good-bye - she shut herself up in her room, and cried
more bitterly than ever, because anger against herself was mixed with her
regret for his loss. Luckily, her father was dining out, or he would
have inquired what was the matter with his darling; and she would have
had to try to explain what could not be explained. As it was, she sat
with her back to the light during the schoolroom tea, and afterwards,
when Miss Monro had settled down to her study of the Spanish language,
Ellinor stole out into the garden, meaning to have a fresh cry over her
own naughtiness and Mr. Corbet's departure; but the August evening was
still and calm, and put her passionate grief to shame, hushing her up, as
it were, with the other young creatures, who were being soothed to rest
by the serene time of day, and the subdued light of the twilight sky.

There was a piece of ground surrounding the flower-garden, which was not
shrubbery, nor wood, nor kitchen garden - only a grassy bit, out of which
a group of old forest trees sprang. Their roots were heaved above
ground; their leaves fell in autumn so profusely that the turf was ragged
and bare in spring; but, to make up for this, there never was such a
place for snowdrops.

The roots of these old trees were Ellinor's favourite play-place; this
space between these two was her doll's kitchen, that its drawing-room,
and so on. Mr. Corbet rather despised her contrivances for doll's
furniture, so she had not often brought him here; but Dixon delighted in
them, and contrived and planned with the eagerness of six years old
rather than forty. To-night Ellinor went to this place, and there were
all a new collection of ornaments for Miss Dolly's sitting-room made out
of fir-bobs, in the prettiest and most ingenious way. She knew it was
Dixon's doing and rushed off in search of him to thank him.

"What's the matter with my pretty?" asked Dixon, as soon as the pleasant
excitement of thanking and being thanked was over, and he had leisure to
look at her tear-stained face.

"Oh, I don't know! Never mind," said she, reddening.

Dixon was silent for a minute or two, while she tried to turn off his
attention by her hurried prattle.

"There's no trouble afoot that I can mend?" asked he, in a minute or two.

"Oh, no! It's really nothing - nothing at all," said she. "It's only
that Mr. Corbet went away without saying good-bye to me, that's all." And
she looked as if she should have liked to cry again.

"That was not manners," said Dixon, decisively.

"But it was my fault," replied Ellinor, pleading against the
condemnation.

Dixon looked at her pretty sharply from under his ragged bushy eyebrows.

"He had been giving me a lecture, and saying I didn't do what his sisters
did - just as if I were to be always trying to be like somebody else - and
I was cross and ran away."

"Then it was Missy who wouldn't say good-bye. That was not manners in
Missy."

"But, Dixon, I don't like being lectured!"

"I reckon you don't get much of it. But, indeed, my pretty, I daresay
Mr. Corbet was in the right; for, you see, master is busy, and Miss Monro
is so dreadful learned, and your poor mother is dead and gone, and you
have no one to teach you how young ladies go on; and by all accounts Mr.
Corbet comes of a good family. I've heard say his father had the best
stud-farm in all Shropshire, and spared no money upon it; and the young
ladies his sisters will have been taught the best of manners; it might be
well for my pretty to hear how they go on."

"You dear old Dixon, you don't know anything about my lecture, and I'm
not going to tell you. Only I daresay Mr. Corbet might be a little bit
right, though I'm sure he was a great deal wrong."

"But you'll not go on a-fretting - you won't now, there's a good young
lady - for master won't like it, and it'll make him uneasy, and he's
enough of trouble without your red eyes, bless them."

"Trouble - papa, trouble! Oh, Dixon! what do you mean?" exclaimed
Ellinor, her face taking all a woman's intensity of expression in a
minute.


"Nay, I know nought," said Dixon, evasively. "Only that Dunster fellow
is not to my mind, and I think he potters the master sadly with his fid-
fad ways."

"I hate Mr. Dunster!" said Ellinor, vehemently. "I won't speak a word to
him the next time he comes to dine with papa."

"Missy will do what papa likes best," said Dixon, admonishingly; and with
this the pair of "friends" parted,




CHAPTER IV.


The summer afterwards Mr. Corbet came again to read with Mr. Ness. He
did not perceive any alteration in himself, and indeed his early-matured
character had hardly made progress during the last twelve months whatever
intellectual acquirements he might have made. Therefore it was
astonishing to him to see the alteration in Ellinor Wilkins. She had
shot up from a rather puny girl to a tall, slight young lady, with
promise of great beauty in the face, which a year ago had only been
remarkable for the fineness of the eyes. Her complexion was clear now,
although colourless - twelve months ago he would have called it sallow - her
delicate cheek was smooth as marble, her teeth were even and white, and
her rare smiles called out a lovely dimple.

She met her former friend and lecturer with a grave shyness, for she
remembered well how they had parted, and thought he could hardly have
forgiven, much less forgotten, her passionate flinging away from him. But


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Online LibraryElizabeth Cleghorn GaskellA Dark Night's Work → online text (page 2 of 16)