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Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.

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the truth was, after the first few hours of offended displeasure, he had
ceased to think of it at all. She, poor child, by way of proving her
repentance, had tried hard to reform her boisterous tom-boy manners, in
order to show him that, although she would not give up her dear old
friend Dixon, at his or anyone's bidding, she would strive to profit by
his lectures in all things reasonable. The consequence was, that she
suddenly appeared to him as an elegant dignified young lady, instead of
the rough little girl he remembered. Still below her somewhat formal
manners there lurked the old wild spirit, as he could plainly see after a
little more watching; and he began to wish to call this out, and to
strive, by reminding her of old days, and all her childish frolics, to
flavour her subdued manners and speech with a little of the former
originality.

In this he succeeded. No one, neither Mr. Wilkins, nor Miss Monro, nor
Mr. Ness, saw what this young couple were about - they did not know it
themselves; but before the summer was over they were desperately in love
with each other, or perhaps I should rather say, Ellinor was desperately
in love with him - he, as passionately as he could be with anyone; but in
him the intellect was superior in strength to either affections or
passions.

The causes of the blindness of those around them were these: Mr. Wilkins
still considered Ellinor as a little girl, as his own pet, his darling,
but nothing more. Miss Monro was anxious about her own improvement. Mr.
Ness was deep in a new edition of "Horace," which he was going to bring
out with notes. I believe Dixon would have been keener sighted, but
Ellinor kept Mr. Corbet and Dixon apart for obvious reasons - they were
each her dear friends, but she knew that Mr. Corbet did not like Dixon,
and suspected that the feeling was mutual.

The only change of circumstances between this year and the previous one
consisted in this development of attachment between the young people.
Otherwise, everything went on apparently as usual. With Ellinor the
course of the day was something like this: up early and into the garden
until breakfast time, when she made tea for her father and Miss Monro in
the dining-room, always taking care to lay a little nosegay of freshly-
gathered flowers by her father's plate. After breakfast, when the
conversation had been on general and indifferent subjects, Mr. Wilkins
withdrew into the little study so often mentioned. It opened out of a
passage that ran between the dining-room and the kitchen, on the left
hand of the hall. Corresponding to the dining-room on the other side of
the hall was the drawing-room, with its side-window serving as a door
into a conservatory, and this again opened into the library. Old Mr.
Wilkins had added a semicircular projection to the library, which was
lighted by a dome above, and showed off his son's Italian purchases of
sculpture. The library was by far the most striking and agreeable room
in the house; and the consequence was that the drawing-room was seldom
used, and had the aspect of cold discomfort common to apartments rarely
occupied. Mr. Wilkins's study, on the other side of the house, was also
an afterthought, built only a few years ago, and projecting from the
regularity of the outside wall; a little stone passage led to it from the
hall, small, narrow, and dark, and out of which no other door opened.

The study itself was a hexagon, one side window, one fireplace, and the
remaining four sides occupied with doors, two of which have been already
mentioned, another at the foot of the narrow winding stairs which led
straight into Mr. Wilkins's bedroom over the dining-room, and the fourth
opening into a path through the shrubbery to the right of the
flower-garden as you looked from the house. This path led through the
stable-yard, and then by a short cut right into Hamley, and brought you
out close to Mr. Wilkins's office; it was by this way he always went and
returned to his business. He used the study for a smoking and lounging
room principally, although he always spoke of it as a convenient place
for holding confidential communications with such of his clients as did
not like discussing their business within the possible hearing of all the
clerks in his office. By the outer door he could also pass to the
stables, and see that proper care was taken at all times of his favourite
and valuable horses. Into this study Ellinor would follow him of a
morning, helping him on with his great-coat, mending his gloves, talking
an infinite deal of merry fond nothing; and then, clinging to his arm,
she would accompany him in his visits to the stables, going up to the
shyest horses, and petting them, and patting them, and feeding them with
bread all the time that her father held converse with Dixon. When he was
finally gone - and sometimes it was a long time first - she returned to the
schoolroom to Miss Monro, and tried to set herself hard at work on her
lessons. But she had not much time for steady application; if her father
had cared for her progress in anything, she would and could have worked
hard at that study or accomplishment; but Mr. Wilkins, the ease and
pleasure loving man, did not wish to make himself into the pedagogue, as
he would have considered it, if he had ever questioned Ellinor with a
real steady purpose of ascertaining her intellectual progress. It was
quite enough for him that her general intelligence and variety of
desultory and miscellaneous reading made her a pleasant and agreeable
companion for his hours of relaxation.

At twelve o'clock, Ellinor put away her books with joyful eagerness,
kissed Miss Monro, asked her if they should go a regular walk, and was
always rather thankful when it was decided that it would be better to
stroll in the garden - a decision very often come to, for Miss Monro hated
fatigue, hated dirt, hated scrambling, and dreaded rain; all of which are
evils, the chances of which are never far distant from country walks. So
Ellinor danced out into the garden, worked away among her flowers, played
at the old games among the roots of the trees, and, when she could,
seduced Dixon into the flower-garden to have a little consultation as to
the horses and dogs. For it was one of her father's few strict rules
that Ellinor was never to go into the stable-yard unless he were with
her; so these _tete-a-tetes_ with Dixon were always held in the flower-
garden, or bit of forest ground surrounding it. Miss Monro sat and
basked in the sun, close to the dial, which made the centre of the gay
flower-beds, upon which the dining-room and study windows looked.

At one o'clock, Ellinor and Miss Monro dined. An hour was allowed for
Miss Monro's digestion, which Ellinor again spent out of doors, and at
three, lessons began again and lasted till five. At that time they went
to dress preparatory for the schoolroom tea at half-past five. After tea
Ellinor tried to prepare her lessons for the next day; but all the time
she was listening for her father's footstep - the moment she heard that,
she dashed down her book, and flew out of the room to welcome and kiss
him. Seven was his dinner-hour; he hardly ever dined alone; indeed, he
often dined from home four days out of seven, and when he had no
engagement to take him out he liked to have some one to keep him company:
Mr. Ness very often, Mr. Corbet along with him if he was in Hamley, a
stranger friend, or one of his clients. Sometimes, reluctantly, and when
he fancied he could not avoid the attention without giving offence, Mr.
Wilkins would ask Mr. Dunster, and then the two would always follow
Ellinor into the library at a very early hour, as if their subjects for
_tete-a-tete_ conversation were quite exhausted. With all his other
visitors, Mr. Wilkins sat long - yes, and yearly longer; with Mr. Ness,
because they became interested in each other's conversation; with some of
the others, because the wine was good, and the host hated to spare it.

Mr. Corbet used to leave his tutor and Mr. Wilkins and saunter into the
library. There sat Ellinor and Miss Monro, each busy with their
embroidery. He would bring a stool to Ellinor's side, question and tease
her, interest her, and they would become entirely absorbed in each other,
Miss Monro's sense of propriety being entirely set at rest by the
consideration that Mr. Wilkins must know what he was about in allowing a
young man to become thus intimate with his daughter, who, after all, was
but a child.

Mr. Corbet had lately fallen into the habit of walking up to Ford Bank
for _The Times_ every day, near twelve o'clock, and lounging about in the
garden until one; not exactly with either Ellinor or Miss Monro, but
certainly far more at the beck and call of the one than of the other.

Miss Monro used to think he would have been glad to stay and lunch at
their early dinner, but she never gave the invitation, and he could not
well stay without her expressed sanction. He told Ellinor all about his
mother and sisters, and their ways of going on, and spoke of them and of
his father as of people she was one day certain to know, and to know
intimately; and she did not question or doubt this view of things; she
simply acquiesced.

He had some discussion with himself as to whether he should speak to her,
and so secure her promise to be his before returning to Cambridge or not.
He did not like the formality of an application to Mr. Wilkins, which
would, after all, have been the proper and straightforward course to
pursue with a girl of her age - she was barely sixteen. Not that he
anticipated any difficulty on Mr. Wilkins's part; his approval of the
intimacy which at their respective ages was pretty sure to lead to an
attachment, was made as evident as could be by actions without words. But
there would have to be reference to his own father, who had no notion of
the whole affair, and would be sure to treat it as a boyish fancy; as if
at twenty-one Ralph was not a man, as clear and deliberative in knowing
his own mind, as resolute as he ever would be in deciding upon the course
of exertion that should lead him to independence and fame, if such were
to be attained by clear intellect and a strong will.

No; to Mr. Wilkins he would not speak for another year or two.

But should he tell Ellinor in direct terms of his love - his intention to
marry her?

Again he inclined to the more prudent course of silence. He was not
afraid of any change in his own inclinations: of them he was sure. But
he looked upon it in this way: If he made a regular declaration to her
she would be bound to tell it to her father. He should not respect her
or like her so much if she did not. And yet this course would lead to
all the conversations, and discussions, and references to his own father,
which made his own direct appeal to Mr. Wilkins appear a premature step
to him.

Whereas he was as sure of Ellinor's love for him as if she had uttered
all the vows that women ever spoke; he knew even better than she did how
fully and entirely that innocent girlish heart was his own. He was too
proud to dread her inconstancy for an instant; "besides," as he went on
to himself, as if to make assurance doubly sure, "whom does she see?
Those stupid Holsters, who ought to be only too proud of having such a
girl for their cousin, ignore her existence, and spoke slightingly of her
father only the very last time I dined there. The country people in this
precisely Boeotian - -shire clutch at me because my father goes up to the
Plantagenets for his pedigree - not one whit for myself - and neglect
Ellinor; and only condescend to her father because old Wilkins was nobody-
knows-who's son. So much the worse for them, but so much the better for
me in this case. I'm above their silly antiquated prejudices, and shall
be only too glad when the fitting time comes to make Ellinor my wife.
After all, a prosperous attorney's daughter may not be considered an
unsuitable match for me - younger son as I am. Ellinor will make a
glorious woman three or four years hence; just the style my father
admires - such a figure, such limbs. I'll be patient, and bide my time,
and watch my opportunities, and all will come right."

So he bade Ellinor farewell in a most reluctant and affectionate manner,
although his words might have been spoken out in Hamley market-place, and
were little different from what he said to Miss Monro. Mr. Wilkins half
expected a disclosure to himself of the love which he suspected in the
young man; and when that did not come, he prepared himself for a
confidence from Ellinor. But she had nothing to tell him, as he very
well perceived from the child's open unembarrassed manner when they were
left alone together after dinner. He had refused an invitation, and
shaken off Mr. Ness, in order to have this confidential _tete-a-tete_
with his motherless girl; and there was nothing to make confidence of. He
was half inclined to be angry; but then he saw that, although sad, she
was so much at peace with herself and with the world, that he, always an
optimist, began to think the young man had done wisely in not tearing
open the rosebud of her feelings too prematurely.

The next two years passed over in much the same way - or a careless
spectator might have thought so. I have heard people say, that if you
look at a regiment advancing with steady step over a plain on a review-
day, you can hardly tell that they are not merely marking time on one
spot of ground, unless you compare their position with some other object
by which to mark their progress, so even is the repetition of the
movement. And thus the sad events of the future life of this father and
daughter were hardly perceived in their steady advance, and yet over the
monotony and flat uniformity of their days sorrow came marching down upon
them like an armed man. Long before Mr. Wilkins had recognised its
shape, it was approaching him in the distance - as, in fact, it is
approaching all of us at this very time; you, reader, I, writer, have
each our great sorrow bearing down upon us. It may be yet beyond the
dimmest point of our horizon, but in the stillness of the night our
hearts shrink at the sound of its coming footstep. Well is it for those
who fall into the hands of the Lord rather than into the hands of men;
but worst of all is it for him who has hereafter to mingle the gall of
remorse with the cup held out to him by his doom.

Mr. Wilkins took his ease and his pleasure yet more and more every year
of his life; nor did the quality of his ease and his pleasure improve; it
seldom does with self-indulgent people. He cared less for any books that
strained his faculties a little - less for engravings and
sculptures - perhaps more for pictures. He spent extravagantly on his
horses; "thought of eating and drinking." There was no open vice in all
this, so that any awful temptation to crime should come down upon him,
and startle him out of his mode of thinking and living; half the people
about him did much the same, as far as their lives were patent to his
unreflecting observation. But most of his associates had their duties to
do, and did them with a heart and a will, in the hours when he was not in
their company. Yes! I call them duties, though some of them might be
self-imposed and purely social; they were engagements they had entered
into, either tacitly or with words, and that they fulfilled. From Mr.
Hetherington, the Master of the Hounds, who was up at - no one knows what
hour, to go down to the kennel and see that the men did their work well
and thoroughly, to stern old Sir Lionel Playfair, the upright magistrate,
the thoughtful, conscientious landlord - they did their work according to
their lights; there were few laggards among those with whom Mr. Wilkins
associated in the field or at the dinner-table. Mr. Ness - though as a
clergyman he was not so active as he might have been - yet even Mr. Ness
fagged away with his pupils and his new edition of one of the classics.
Only Mr. Wilkins, dissatisfied with his position, neglected to fulfil the
duties thereof. He imitated the pleasures, and longed for the fancied
leisure of those about him; leisure that he imagined would be so much
more valuable in the hands of a man like himself, full of intellectual
tastes and accomplishments, than frittered away by dull boors of
untravelled, uncultivated squires - whose company, however, be it said by
the way, he never refused.

And yet daily Mr. Wilkins was sinking from the intellectually to the
sensually self-indulgent man. He lay late in bed, and hated Mr. Dunster
for his significant glance at the office-clock when he announced to his
master that such and such a client had been waiting more than an hour to
keep an appointment. "Why didn't you see him yourself, Dunster? I'm
sure you would have done quite as well as me," Mr. Wilkins sometimes
replied, partly with a view of saying something pleasant to the man whom
he disliked and feared. Mr. Dunster always replied, in a meek matter-of-
fact tone, "Oh, sir, they wouldn't like to talk over their affairs with a
subordinate."

And every time he said this, or some speech of the same kind, the idea
came more and more clearly into Mr. Wilkins's head, of how pleasant it
would be to himself to take Dunster into partnership, and thus throw all
the responsibility of the real work and drudgery upon his clerk's
shoulders. Importunate clients, who would make appointments at
unseasonable hours and would keep to them, might confide in the partner,
though they would not in the clerk. The great objections to this course
were, first and foremost, Mr. Wilkins's strong dislike to Mr. Dunster - his
repugnance to his company, his dress, his voice, his ways - all of which
irritated his employer, till his state of feeling towards Dunster might
be called antipathy; next, Mr. Wilkins was fully aware of the fact that
all Mr. Dunster's actions and words were carefully and thoughtfully pre-
arranged to further the great unspoken desire of his life - that of being
made a partner where he now was only a servant. Mr. Wilkins took a
malicious pleasure in tantalizing Mr. Dunster by such speeches as the one
I have just mentioned, which always seemed like an opening to the desired
end, but still for a long time never led any further. Yet all the while
that end was becoming more and more certain, and at last it was reached.

Mr. Dunster always suspected that the final push was given by some
circumstance from without; some reprimand for neglect - some threat of
withdrawal of business which his employer had received; but of this he
could not be certain; all he knew was, that Mr. Wilkins proposed the
partnership to him in about as ungracious a way as such an offer could be
made; an ungraciousness which, after all, had so little effect on the
real matter in hand, that Mr. Dunster could pass over it with a private
sneer, while taking all possible advantage of the tangible benefit it was
now in his power to accept.

Mr. Corbet's attachment to Ellinor had been formally disclosed to her
just before this time. He had left college, entered at the Middle
Temple, and was fagging away at law, and feeling success in his own
power; Ellinor was to "come out" at the next Hamley assemblies; and her
lover began to be jealous of the possible admirers her striking
appearance and piquant conversation might attract, and thought it a good
time to make the success of his suit certain by spoken words and
promises.

He needed not have alarmed himself even enough to make him take this
step, if he had been capable of understanding Ellinor's heart as fully as
he did her appearance and conversation. She never missed the absence of
formal words and promises. She considered herself as fully engaged to
him, as much pledged to marry him and no one else, before he had asked
the final question, as afterwards. She was rather surprised at the
necessity for those decisive words,

"Ellinor, dearest, will you - can you marry me?" and her reply was - given
with a deep blush I must record, and in a soft murmuring tone -

"Yes - oh, yes - I never thought of anything else."

"Then I may speak to your father, may not I, darling?"

"He knows; I am sure he knows; and he likes you so much. Oh, how happy I
am!"

"But still I must speak to him before I go. When can I see him, my
Ellinor? I must go back to town at four o'clock."

"I heard his voice in the stable-yard only just before you came. Let me
go and find out if he is gone to the office yet."

No! to be sure he was not gone. He was quietly smoking a cigar in his
study, sitting in an easy-chair near the open window, and leisurely
glancing at all the advertisements in _The Times_. He hated going to the
office more and more since Dunster had become a partner; that fellow gave
himself such airs of investigation and reprehension.

He got up, took the cigar out of his mouth, and placed a chair for Mr.
Corbet, knowing well why he had thus formally prefaced his entrance into
the room with a -

"Can I have a few minutes' conversation with you, Mr. Wilkins?"

"Certainly, my dear fellow. Sit down. Will you have a cigar?"

"No! I never smoke." Mr. Corbet despised all these kinds of
indulgences, and put a little severity into his refusal, but quite
unintentionally; for though he was thankful he was not as other men, he
was not at all the person to trouble himself unnecessarily with their
reformation.

"I want to speak to you about Ellinor. She says she thinks you must be
aware of our mutual attachment."

"Well," said Mr. Wilkins - he had resumed his cigar, partly to conceal his
agitation at what he knew was coming - "I believe I have had my
suspicions. It is not very long since I was young myself." And he
sighed over the recollection of Lettice, and his fresh, hopeful youth.

"And I hope, sir, as you have been aware of it, and have never manifested
any disapprobation of it, that you will not refuse your consent - a
consent I now ask you for - to our marriage."

Mr. Wilkins did not speak for a little while - a touch, a thought, a word
more would have brought him to tears; for at the last he found it hard to
give the consent which would part him from his only child. Suddenly he
got up, and putting his hand into that of the anxious lover (for his
silence had rendered Mr. Corbet anxious up to a certain point of
perplexity - he could not understand the implied he would and he would
not), Mr. Wilkins said,

"Yes! God bless you both! I will give her to you, some day - only it
must be a long time first. And now go away - go back to her - for I can't
stand this much longer."

Mr. Corbet returned to Ellinor. Mr. Wilkins sat down and buried his head
in his hands, then went to his stable, and had Wildfire saddled for a
good gallop over the country. Mr. Dunster waited for him in vain at the
office, where an obstinate old country gentleman from a distant part of
the shire would ignore Dunster's existence as a partner, and
pertinaciously demanded to see Mr. Wilkins on important business.




CHAPTER V.


A few days afterwards, Ellinor's father bethought himself that same
further communication ought to take place between him and his daughter's
lover regarding the approval of the family of the latter to the young
man's engagement, and he accordingly wrote a very gentlemanly letter,
saying that of course he trusted that Ralph had informed his father of
his engagement; that Mr. Corbet was well known to Mr. Wilkins by
reputation, holding the position which he did in Shropshire, but that as
Mr. Wilkins did not pretend to be in the same station of life, Mr. Corbet
might possibly never even have heard of his name, although in his own
county it was well known as having been for generations that of the
principal conveyancer and land-agent of - -shire; that his wife had been
a member of the old knightly family of Holsters, and that he himself was
descended from a younger branch of the South Wales De Wintons, or
Wilkins; that Ellinor, as his only child, would naturally inherit all his
property, but that in the meantime, of course, some settlement upon her
would be made, the nature of which might be decided nearer the time of
the marriage.

It was a very good straightforward letter and well fitted for the purpose
to which Mr. Wilkins knew it would be applied - of being forwarded to the
young man's father. One would have thought that it was not an engagement
so disproportionate in point of station as to cause any great opposition
on that score; but, unluckily, Captain Corbet, the heir and eldest son,


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Online LibraryElizabeth Cleghorn GaskellA Dark Night's Work → online text (page 3 of 16)