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Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.

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had just formed a similar engagement with Lady Maria Brabant, the
daughter of one of the proudest earls in - -shire, who had always
resented Mr. Wilkins's appearance on the field as an insult to the
county, and ignored his presence at every dinner-table where they met.
Lady Maria was visiting the Corbets at the very time when Ralph's letter,
enclosing Mr. Wilkins's, reached the paternal halls, and she merely
repeated her father's opinions when Mrs. Corbet and her daughters
naturally questioned her as to who these Wilkinses were; they remembered
the name in Ralph's letters formerly; the father was some friend of Mr.
Ness's, the clergyman with whom Ralph had read; they believed Ralph used
to dine with these Wilkinses sometimes, along with Mr. Ness.

Lady Maria was a goodnatured girl, and meant no harm in repeating her
father's words; touched up, it is true, by some of the dislike she
herself felt to the intimate alliance proposed, which would make her
sister-in-law to the daughter of an "upstart attorney," "not received in
the county," "always trying to push his way into the set above him,"
"claiming connection with the De Wintons of - - Castle, who, as she well
knew, only laughed when he was spoken of, and said they were more rich in
relations than they were aware of" - "not people papa would ever like her
to know, whatever might be the family connection."

These little speeches told in a way which the girl who uttered them did
not intend they should. Mrs. Corbet and her daughters set themselves
violently against this foolish entanglement of Ralph's; they would not
call it an engagement. They argued, and they urged, and they pleaded,
till the squire, anxious for peace at any price, and always more under
the sway of the people who were with him, however unreasonable they might
be, than of the absent, even though these had the wisdom of Solomon or
the prudence and sagacity of his son Ralph, wrote an angry letter, saying
that, as Ralph was of age, of course he had a right to please himself,
therefore all his father could say was, that the engagement was not at
all what either he or Ralph's mother had expected or hoped; that it was a
degradation to the family just going to ally themselves with a peer of
James the First's creation; that of course Ralph must do what he liked,
but that if he married this girl he must never expect to have her
received by the Corbets of Corbet Hall as a daughter. The squire was
rather satisfied with his production, and took it to show it to his wife;
but she did not think it was strong enough, and added a little postscript

"DEAR RALPH,

"Though, as second son, you are entitled to Bromley at my death, yet I
can do much to make the estate worthless. Hitherto, regard for you
has prevented my taking steps as to sale of timber, &c., which would
materially increase your sisters' portions; this just measure I shall
infallibly take if I find you persevere in keeping to this silly
engagement. Your father's disapproval is always a sufficient reason
to allege."

Ralph was annoyed at the receipt of these letters, though he only smiled
as he locked them up in his desk.

"Dear old father! how he blusters! As to my mother, she is reasonable
when I talk to her. Once give her a definite idea of what Ellinor's
fortune will be, and let her, if she chooses, cut down her timber - a
threat she has held over me ever since I knew what a rocking-horse was,
and which I have known to be illegal these ten years past - and she'll
come round. I know better than they do how Reginald has run up
post-obits, and as for that vulgar high-born Lady Maria they are all so
full of, why, she is a Flanders mare to my Ellinor, and has not a silver
penny to cross herself with, besides! I bide my time, you dear good
people!"

He did not think it necessary to reply to these letters immediately, nor
did he even allude to their contents in his to Ellinor. Mr. Wilkins, who
had been very well satisfied with his own letter to the young man, and
had thought that it must be equally agreeable to every one, was not at
all suspicious of any disapproval, because the fact of a distinct
sanction on the part of Mr. Ralph Corbet's friends to his engagement was
not communicated to him.

As for Ellinor, she trembled all over with happiness. Such a summer for
the blossoming of flowers and ripening of fruit had not been known for
years; it seemed to her as if bountiful loving Nature wanted to fill the
cup of Ellinor's joy to overflowing, and as if everything, animate and
inanimate, sympathised with her happiness. Her father was well, and
apparently content. Miss Monro was very kind. Dixon's lameness was
quite gone off. Only Mr. Dunster came creeping about the house, on
pretence of business, seeking out her father, and disturbing all his
leisure with his dust-coloured parchment-skinned careworn face, and
seeming to disturb the smooth current of her daily life whenever she saw
him.

Ellinor made her appearance at the Hamley assemblies, but with less
_eclat_ than either her father or her lover expected. Her beauty and
natural grace were admired by those who could discriminate; but to the
greater number there was (what they called) "a want of style" - want of
elegance there certainly was not, for her figure was perfect, and though
she moved shyly, she moved well. Perhaps it was not a good place for a
correct appreciation of Miss Wilkins; some of the old dowagers thought it
a piece of presumption in her to be there at all - but the Lady Holster of
the day (who remembered her husband's quarrel with Mr. Wilkins, and
looked away whenever Ellinor came near) resented this opinion. "Miss
Wilkins is descended from Sir Frank's family, one of the oldest in the
county; the objection might have been made years ago to the father, but
as he had been received, she did not know why Miss Wilkins was to be
alluded to as out of her place." Ellinor's greatest enjoyment in the
evening was to hear her father say, after all was over, and they were
driving home -

"Well, I thought my Nelly the prettiest girl there, and I think I know
some other people who would have said the same if they could have spoken
out."

"Thank you, papa," said Ellinor, squeezing his hand, which she held. She
thought he alluded to the absent Ralph as the person who would have
agreed with him, had he had the opportunity of seeing her; but no, he
seldom thought much of the absent; but had been rather flattered by
seeing Lord Hildebrand take up his glass for the apparent purpose of
watching Ellinor.

"Your pearls, too, were as handsome as any in the room, child - but we
must have them re-set; the sprays are old-fashioned now. Let me have
them to-morrow to send up to Hancock."

"Papa, please, I had rather keep them as they are - as mamma wore them."

He was touched in a minute.

"Very well, darling. God bless you for thinking of it!"

But he ordered her a set of sapphires instead, for the next assembly.

These balls were not such as to intoxicate Ellinor with success, and make
her in love with gaiety. Large parties came from the different country-
houses in the neighbourhood, and danced with each other. When they had
exhausted the resources they brought with them, they had generally a few
dances to spare for friends of the same standing with whom they were most
intimate. Ellinor came with her father, and joined an old card-playing
dowager, by way of a chaperone - the said dowager being under old business
obligations to the firm of Wilkins and Son, and apologizing to all her
acquaintances for her own weak condescension to Mr. Wilkins's foible in
wishing to introduce his daughter into society above her natural sphere.
It was upon this lady, after she had uttered some such speech as the one
I have just mentioned, that Lady Holster had come down with the pedigree
of Ellinor's mother. But though the old dowager had drawn back a little
discomfited at my lady's reply, she was not more attentive to Ellinor in
consequence. She allowed Mr. Wilkins to bring in his daughter and place
her on the crimson sofa beside her; spoke to her occasionally in the
interval that elapsed before the rubbers could be properly arranged in
the card-room; invited the girl to accompany her to that sober amusement,
and on Ellinor's declining, and preferring to remain with her father, the
dowager left her with a sweet smile on her plump countenance, and an
approving conscience somewhere within her portly frame, assuring her that
she had done all that could possibly have been expected from her towards
"that good Wilkins's daughter." Ellinor stood by her father watching the
dances, and thankful for the occasional chance of a dance. While she had
been sitting by her chaperone, Mr. Wilkins had made the tour of the room,
dropping out the little fact of his daughter's being present wherever he
thought the seed likely to bring forth the fruit of partners. And some
came because they liked Mr. Wilkins, and some asked Ellinor because they
had done their duty dances to their own party, and might please
themselves. So that she usually had an average of one invitation to
every three dances; and this principally towards the end of the evening.

But considering her real beauty, and the care which her father always
took about her appearance, she met with far less than her due of
admiration. Admiration she did not care for; partners she did; and
sometimes felt mortified when she had to sit or stand quiet during all
the first part of the evening. If it had not been for her father's
wishes she would much rather have stayed at home; but, nevertheless, she
talked even to the irresponsive old dowager, and fairly chatted to her
father when she got beside him, because she did not like him to fancy
that she was not enjoying herself.

And, indeed, she had so much happiness in the daily course of this part
of her life, that, on looking back upon it afterwards, she could not
imagine anything brighter than it had been. The delight of receiving her
lover's letters - the anxious happiness of replying to them (always a
little bit fearful lest she should not express herself and her love in
the precisely happy medium becoming a maiden) - the father's love and
satisfaction in her - the calm prosperity of the whole household - was
delightful at the time, and, looking back upon it, it was dreamlike.

Occasionally Mr. Corbet came down to see her. He always slept on these
occasions at Mr. Ness's; but he was at Ford Bank the greater part of the
one day between two nights that he allowed himself for the length of his
visits. And even these short peeps were not frequently taken. He was
working hard at law: fagging at it tooth and nail; arranging his whole
life so as best to promote the ends of his ambition; feeling a delight in
surpassing and mastering his fellows - those who started in the race at
the same time. He read Ellinor's letters over and over again; nothing
else beside law-books. He perceived the repressed love hidden away in
subdued expressions in her communications, with an amused pleasure at the
attempt at concealment. He was glad that her gaieties were not more gay;
he was glad that she was not too much admired, although a little
indignant at the want of taste on the part of the - -shire gentlemen. But
if other admirers had come prominently forward, he would have had to take
some more decided steps to assert his rights than he had hitherto done;
for he had caused Ellinor to express a wish to her father that her
engagement should not be too much talked about until nearer the time when
it would be prudent for him to marry her. He thought that the knowledge
of this, the only imprudently hasty step he ever meant to take in his
life, might go against his character for wisdom, if the fact became known
while he was as yet only a student. Mr. Wilkins wondered a little; but
acceded, as he always did, to any of Ellinor's requests. Mr. Ness was a
confidant, of course, and some of Lady Maria's connections heard of it,
and forgot it again very soon; and, as it happened, no one else was
sufficiently interested in Ellinor to care to ascertain the fact.

All this time, Mr. Ralph Corbet maintained a very quietly decided
attitude towards his own family. He was engaged to Miss Wilkins; and all
he could say was, he felt sorry that they disapproved of it. He was not
able to marry just at present, and before the time for his marriage
arrived, he trusted that his family would take a more reasonable view of
things, and be willing to receive her as his wife with all becoming
respect or affection. This was the substance of what he repeated in
different forms in reply to his father's angry letters. At length, his
invariable determination made way with his father; the paternal
thunderings were subdued to a distant rumbling in the sky; and presently
the inquiry was broached as to how much fortune Miss Wilkins would have;
how much down on her marriage; what were the eventual probabilities. Now
this was a point which Mr. Ralph Corbet himself wished to be informed
upon. He had not thought much about it in making the engagement; he had
been too young, or too much in love. But an only child of a wealthy
attorney ought to have something considerable; and an allowance so as to
enable the young couple to start housekeeping in a moderately good part
of town, would be an advantage to him in his profession. So he replied
to his father, adroitly suggesting that a letter containing certain
modifications of the inquiry which had been rather roughly put in Mr.
Corbet's last, should be sent to him, in order that he might himself
ascertain from Mr. Wilkins what were Ellinor's prospects as regarded
fortune.

The desired letter came; but not in such a form that he could pass it on
to Mr. Wilkins; he preferred to make quotations, and even these
quotations were a little altered and dressed before he sent them on. The
gist of his letter to Mr. Wilkins was this. He stated that he hoped soon
to be in a position to offer Ellinor a home; that he anticipated a steady
progress in his profession, and consequently in his income; but that
contingencies might arise, as his father suggested, which would deprive
him of the power of earning a livelihood, perhaps when it might be more
required than it would be at first; that it was true that, after his
mother's death a small estate in Shropshire would come to him as second
son, and of course Ellinor would receive the benefit of this property,
secured to her legally as Mr. Wilkins thought best - that being a matter
for after discussion - but that at present his father was anxious, as
might be seen from the extract to ascertain whether Mr. Wilkins could
secure him from the contingency of having his son's widow and possible
children thrown upon his hands, by giving Ellinor a dowry; and if so, it
was gently insinuated, what would be the amount of the same.

When Mr. Wilkins received this letter it startled him out of a happy day-
dream. He liked Ralph Corbet and the whole connection quite well enough
to give his consent to an engagement; and sometimes even he was glad to
think that Ellinor's future was assured, and that she would have a
protector and friends after he was dead and gone. But he did not want
them to assume their responsibilities so soon. He had not distinctly
contemplated her marriage as an event likely to happen before his death.
He could not understand how his own life would go on without her: or
indeed why she and Ralph Corbet could not continue just as they were at
present. He came down to breakfast with the letter in his hand. By
Ellinor's blushes, as she glanced at the handwriting, he knew that she
had heard from her lover by the same post; by her tender
caresses - caresses given as if to make up for the pain which the prospect
of her leaving him was sure to cause him - he was certain that she was
aware of the contents of the letter. Yet he put it in his pocket, and
tried to forget it.

He did this not merely from his reluctance to complete any arrangements
which might facilitate Ellinor's marriage. There was a further annoyance
connected with the affair. His money matters had been for some time in
an involved state; he had been living beyond his income, even reckoning
that, as he always did, at the highest point which it ever touched. He
kept no regular accounts, reasoning with himself - or, perhaps, I should
rather say persuading himself - that there was no great occasion for
regular accounts, when he had a steady income arising from his
profession, as well as the interest of a good sum of money left him by
his father; and when, living in his own house near a country town where
provisions were cheap, his expenditure for his small family - only one
child - could never amount to anything like his incomings from the above-
mentioned sources. But servants and horses, and choice wines and rare
fruit-trees, and a habit of purchasing any book or engraving that may
take the fancy, irrespective of the price, run away with money, even
though there be but one child. A year or two ago, Mr. Wilkins had been
startled into a system of exaggerated retrenchment - retrenchment which
only lasted about six weeks - by the sudden bursting of a bubble
speculation in which he had invested a part of his father's savings. But
as soon as the change in his habits, necessitated by his new economies,
became irksome, he had comforted himself for his relapse into his former
easy extravagance of living by remembering the fact that Ellinor was
engaged to the son of a man of large property: and that though Ralph was
only the second son, yet his mother's estate must come to him, as Mr.
Ness had already mentioned, on first hearing of her engagement.

Mr. Wilkins did not doubt that he could easily make Ellinor a fitting
allowance, or even pay down a requisite dowry; but the doing so would
involve an examination into the real state of his affairs, and this
involved distasteful trouble. He had no idea how much more than mere
temporary annoyance would arise out of the investigation. Until it was
made, he decided in his own mind that he would not speak to Ellinor on
the subject of her lover's letter. So for the next few days she was kept
in suspense, seeing little of her father; and during the short times she
was with him she was made aware that he was nervously anxious to keep the
conversation engaged on general topics rather than on the one which she
had at heart. As I have already said, Mr. Corbet had written to her by
the same post as that on which he sent the letter to her father, telling
her of its contents, and begging her (in all those sweet words which
lovers know how to use) to urge her father to compliance for his
sake - his, her lover's - who was pining and lonely in all the crowds of
London, since her loved presence was not there. He did not care for
money, save as a means of hastening their marriage; indeed, if there were
only some income fixed, however small - some time for their marriage
fixed, however distant - he could be patient. He did not want superfluity
of wealth; his habits were simple, as she well knew; and money enough
would be theirs in time, both from her share of contingencies, and the
certainty of his finally possessing Bromley.

Ellinor delayed replying to this letter until her father should have
spoken to her on the subject. But as she perceived that he avoided all
such conversation, the young girl's heart failed her. She began to blame
herself for wishing to leave him, to reproach herself for being accessory
to any step which made him shun being alone with her, and look distressed
and full of care as he did now. It was the usual struggle between father
and lover for the possession of love, instead of the natural and graceful
resignation of the parent to the prescribed course of things; and, as
usual, it was the poor girl who bore the suffering for no fault of her
own: although she blamed herself for being the cause of the disturbance
in the previous order of affairs. Ellinor had no one to speak to
confidentially but her father and her lover, and when they were at issue
she could talk openly to neither, so she brooded over Mr. Corbet's
unanswered letter, and her father's silence, and became pale and
dispirited. Once or twice she looked up suddenly, and caught her
father's eye gazing upon her with a certain wistful anxiety; but the
instant she saw this he pulled himself up, as it were, and would begin
talking gaily about the small topics of the day.

At length Mr. Corbet grew impatient at not hearing either from Mr.
Wilkins or Ellinor, and wrote urgently to the former, making known to him
a new proposal suggested to him by his father, which was, that a certain
sum should be paid down by Mr. Wilkins to be applied, under the
management of trustees, to the improvement of the Bromley estate, out of
the profits of which, or other sources in the elder Mr. Corbet's hands, a
heavy rate of interest should be paid on this advance, which would secure
an income to the young couple immediately, and considerably increase the
value of the estate upon which Ellinor's settlement was to be made. The
terms offered for this laying down of ready money were so advantageous,
that Mr. Wilkins was strongly tempted to accede to them at once; as
Ellinor's pale cheek and want of appetite had only that very morning
smote upon his conscience, and this immediate transfer of ready money was
as a sacrifice, a soothing balm to his self-reproach, and laziness and
dislike to immediate unpleasantness of action had its counterbalancing
weakness in imprudence. Mr. Wilkins made some rough calculations on a
piece of paper - deeds, and all such tests of accuracy, being down at the
office; discovered that he could pay down the sum required; wrote a
letter agreeing to the proposal, and before he sealed it called Ellinor
into his study, and bade her read what he had been writing and tell him
what she thought of it. He watched the colour come rushing into her
white face, her lips quiver and tremble, and even before the letter was
ended she was in his arms kissing him, and thanking him with blushing
caresses rather than words.

"There, there!" said he, smiling and sighing; "that will do. Why, I do
believe you took me for a hard-hearted father, just like a heroine's
father in a book. You've looked as woe-begone this week past as Ophelia.
One can't make up one's mind in a day about such sums of money as this,
little woman; and you should have let your old father have time to
consider."

"Oh, papa; I was only afraid you were angry."

"Well, if I was a bit perplexed, seeing you look so ill and pining was
not the way to bring me round. Old Corbet, I must say, is trying to make
a good bargain for his son. It is well for me that I have never been an
extravagant man."

"But, papa, we don't want all this much."

"Yes, yes! it is all right. You shall go into their family as a well-
portioned girl, if you can't go as a Lady Maria. Come, don't trouble
your little head any more about it. Give me one more kiss, and then
we'll go and order the horses, and have a ride together, by way of
keeping holiday. I deserve a holiday, don't I, Nelly?"

Some country people at work at the roadside, as the father and daughter
passed along, stopped to admire their bright happy looks, and one spoke
of the hereditary handsomeness of the Wilkins family (for the old man,
the present Mr. Wilkins's father, had been fine-looking in his drab
breeches and gaiters, and usual assumption of a yeoman's dress). Another
said it was easy for the rich to be handsome; they had always plenty to
eat, and could ride when they were tired of walking, and had no care for
the morrow to keep them from sleeping at nights. And, in sad
acquiescence with their contrasted lot, the men went on with their
hedging and ditching in silence.

And yet, if they had known - if the poor did know - the troubles and
temptations of the rich; if those men had foreseen the lot darkening over
the father, and including the daughter in its cloud; if Mr. Wilkins
himself had even imagined such a future possible . . . Well, there was
truth in the old heathen saying, "Let no man be envied till his death."

Ellinor had no more rides with her father; no, not ever again; though
they had stopped that afternoon at the summit of a breezy common, and
looked at a ruined hall, not so very far off; and discussed whether they
could reach it that day, and decided that it was too far away for
anything but a hurried inspection, and that some day soon they would make


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Online LibraryElizabeth Cleghorn GaskellA Dark Night's Work → online text (page 4 of 16)