Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.

A Dark Night's Work online

. (page 5 of 16)
Online LibraryElizabeth Cleghorn GaskellA Dark Night's Work → online text (page 5 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

the old place into the principal object of an excursion. But a rainy
time came on, when no rides were possible; and whether it was the
influence of the weather, or some other care or trouble that oppressed
him, Mr. Wilkins seemed to lose all wish for much active exercise, and
rather sought a stimulus to his spirits and circulation in wine. But of
this Ellinor was innocently unaware. He seemed dull and weary, and sat
long, drowsing and drinking after dinner. If the servants had not been
so fond of him for much previous generosity and kindness, they would have
complained now, and with reason, of his irritability, for all sorts of
things seemed to annoy him.

"You should get the master to take a ride with you, miss," said Dixon,
one day as he was putting Ellinor on her horse. "He's not looking well,
he's studying too much at the office."

But when Ellinor named it to her father, he rather hastily replied that
it was all very well for women to ride out whenever they liked - men had
something else to do; and then, as he saw her look grave and puzzled, he
softened down his abrupt saying by adding that Dunster had been making a
fuss about his partner's non-attendance, and altogether taking a good
deal upon himself in a very offensive way, so that he thought it better
to go pretty regularly to the office, in order to show him who was
master - senior partner, and head of the business, at any rate.

Ellinor sighed a little over her disappointment at her father's
preoccupation, and then forgot her own little regret in anger at Mr.
Dunster, who had seemed all along to be a thorn in her father's side, and
had latterly gained some power and authority over him, the exercise of
which, Ellinor could not help thinking, was a very impertinent line of
conduct from a junior partner, so lately only a paid clerk, to his
superior. There was a sense of something wrong in the Ford Bank
household for many weeks about this time. Mr. Wilkins was not like
himself, and his cheerful ways and careless genial speeches were missed,
even on the days when he was not irritable, and evidently uneasy with
himself and all about him. The spring was late in coming, and cold rain
and sleet made any kind of out-door exercise a trouble and discomfort
rather than a bright natural event in the course of the day. All sound
of winter gaieties, of assemblies and meets, and jovial dinners, had died
away, and the summer pleasures were as yet unthought of. Still Ellinor
had a secret perennial source of sunshine in her heart; whenever she
thought of Ralph she could not feel much oppression from the present
unspoken and indistinct gloom. He loved her; and oh, how she loved him!
and perhaps this very next autumn - but that depended on his own success
in his profession. After all, if it was not this autumn it would be the
next; and with the letters that she received weekly, and the occasional
visits that her lover ran down to Hamley to pay Mr. Ness, Ellinor felt as
if she would almost prefer the delay of the time when she must leave her
father's for a husband's roof.


At Easter - just when the heavens and earth were looking their dreariest,
for Easter fell very early this year - Mr. Corbet came down. Mr. Wilkins
was too busy to see much of him; they were together even less than usual,
although not less friendly when they did meet. But to Ellinor the visit
was one of unmixed happiness. Hitherto she had always had a little fear
mingled up with her love of Mr. Corbet; but his manners were softened,
his opinions less decided and abrupt, and his whole treatment of her
showed such tenderness, that the young girl basked and revelled in it.
One or two of their conversations had reference to their future married
life in London; and she then perceived, although it did not jar against
her, that her lover had not forgotten his ambition in his love. He tried
to inoculate her with something of his own craving for success in life;
but it was all in vain: she nestled to him, and told him she did not care
to be the Lord Chancellor's wife - wigs and wool-sacks were not in her
line; only if he wished it, she would wish it.

The last two days of his stay the weather changed. Sudden heat burst
forth, as it does occasionally for a few hours even in our chilly English
spring. The grey-brown bushes and trees started almost with visible
progress into the tender green shade which is the forerunner of the
bursting leaves. The sky was of full cloudless blue. Mr. Wilkins was to
come home pretty early from the office to ride out with his daughter and
her lover; but, after waiting some time for him, it grew too late, and
they were obliged to give up the project. Nothing would serve Ellinor,
then, but that she must carry out a table and have tea in the garden, on
the sunny side of the tree, among the roots of which she used to play
when a child. Miss Monro objected a little to this caprice of Ellinor's,
saying that it was too early for out-of-door meals; but Mr. Corbet
overruled all objections, and helped her in her gay preparations. She
always kept to the early hours of her childhood, although she, as then,
regularly sat with her father at his late dinner; and this meal _al
fresco_ was to be a reality to her and Miss Monro. There was a place
arranged for her father, and she seized upon him as he was coming from
the stable-yard, by the shrubbery path, to his study, and with merry
playfulness made him a prisoner, accusing him of disappointing them of
their ride, and drawing him more than half unwilling, to his chair by the
table. But he was silent, and almost sad: his presence damped them all;
they could hardly tell why, for he did not object to anything, though he
seemed to enjoy nothing, and only to force a smile at Ellinor's
occasional sallies. These became more and more rare as she perceived her
father's depression. She watched him anxiously. He perceived it, and
said - shivering in that strange unaccountable manner which is popularly
explained by the expression that some one is passing over the earth that
will one day form your grave - "Ellinor! this is not a day for out-of-door
tea. I never felt so chilly a spot in my life. I cannot keep from
shaking where I sit. I must leave this place, my dear, in spite of all
your good tea."

"Oh, papa! I am so sorry. But look how full that hot sun's rays come on
this turf. I thought I had chosen such a capital spot!"

But he got up and persisted in leaving the table, although he was
evidently sorry to spoil the little party. He walked up and down the
gravel walk, close by them, talking to them as he kept passing by and
trying to cheer them up.

"Are you warmer now, papa?" asked Ellinor.

"Oh, yes! All right. It's only that place that seems so chilly and
damp. I'm as warm as a toast now."

The next morning Mr. Corbet left them. The unseasonably fine weather
passed away too, and all things went back to their rather grey and dreary
aspect; but Ellinor was too happy to feel this much, knowing what absent
love existed for her alone, and from this knowledge unconsciously
trusting in the sun behind the clouds.

I have said that few or none in the immediate neighbourhood of Hamley,
beside their own household and Mr. Ness, knew of Ellinor's engagement. At
one of the rare dinner-parties to which she accompanied her father - it
was at the old lady's house who chaperoned her to the assemblies - she was
taken in to dinner by a young clergyman staying in the neighbourhood. He
had just had a small living given to him in his own county, and he felt
as if this was a great step in his life. He was good, innocent, and
rather boyish in appearance. Ellinor was happy and at her ease, and
chatted away to this Mr. Livingstone on many little points of interest
which they found they had in common: church music, and the difficulty
they had in getting people to sing in parts; Salisbury Cathedral, which
they had both seen; styles of church architecture, Ruskin's works, and
parish schools, in which Mr. Livingstone was somewhat shocked to find
that Ellinor took no great interest. When the gentleman came in from the
dining-room, it struck Ellinor, for the first time in her life, that her
father had taken more wine than was good for him. Indeed, this had
rather become a habit with him of late; but as he always tried to go
quietly off to his own room when such had been the case, his daughter had
never been aware of it before, and the perception of it now made her
cheeks hot with shame. She thought that everyone must be as conscious of
his altered manner and way of speaking as she was, and after a pause of
sick silence, during which she could not say a word, she set to and
talked to Mr. Livingstone about parish schools, anything, with redoubled
vigour and apparent interest, in order to keep one or two of the company,
at least, from noticing what was to her so painfully obvious.

The effect of her behaviour was far more than she had intended. She kept
Mr. Livingstone, it is true, from observing her father, but she also
riveted his attention on herself. He had thought her very pretty and
agreeable during dinner: but after dinner he considered her bewitching,
irresistible. He dreamed of her all night, and wakened up the next
morning to a calculation of how far his income would allow him to furnish
his pretty new parsonage with that crowning blessing, a wife. For a day
or two he did up little sums, and sighed, and thought of Ellinor, her
face listening with admiring interest to his sermons, her arm passed into
his as they went together round the parish; her sweet voice instructing
classes in his schools - turn where he would, in his imagination Ellinor's
presence rose up before him.

The consequence was that he wrote an offer, which he found a far more
perplexing piece of composition than a sermon; a real hearty expression
of love, going on, over all obstacles, to a straightforward explanation
of his present prospects and future hopes, and winding up with the
information that on the succeeding morning he would call to know whether
he might speak to Mr. Wilkins on the subject of this letter. It was
given to Ellinor in the evening, as she was sitting with Miss Monro in
the library. Mr. Wilkins was dining out, she hardly knew where, as it
was a sudden engagement, of which he had sent word from the office - a
gentleman's dinner-party, she supposed, as he had dressed in Hamley
without coming home. Ellinor turned over the letter when it was brought
to her, as some people do when they cannot recognise the handwriting, as
if to discover from paper or seal what two moments would assure them of,
if they opened the letter and looked at the signature. Ellinor could not
guess who had written it by any outward sign; but the moment she saw the
name "Herbert Livingstone," the meaning of the letter flashed upon her
and she coloured all over. She put the letter away, unread, for a few
minutes, and then made some excuse for leaving the room and going
upstairs. When safe in her bed-chamber, she read the young man's eager
words with a sense of self-reproach. How must she, engaged to one man,
have been behaving to another, if this was the result of a single
evening's interview? The self-reproach was unjustly bestowed; but with
that we have nothing to do. She made herself very miserable; and at last
went down with a heavy heart to go on with Dante, and rummage up words in
the dictionary. All the time she seemed to Miss Monro to be plodding on
with her Italian more diligently and sedately than usual, she was
planning in her own mind to speak to her father as soon as he returned
(and he had said that he should not be late), and beg him to undo the
mischief she had done by seeing Mr. Livingstone the next morning, and
frankly explaining the real state of affairs to him. But she wanted to
read her letter again, and think it all over in peace; and so, at an
early hour, she wished Miss Monro good-night, and went up into her own
room above the drawing-room, and overlooking the flower-garden and
shrubbery-path to the stable-yard, by which her father was sure to
return. She went upstairs and studied her letter well, and tried to
recall all her speeches and conduct on that miserable evening - as she
thought it then - not knowing what true misery was. Her head ached, and
she put out the candle, and went and sat on the window-seat, looking out
into the moonlit garden, watching for her father. She opened the window;
partly to cool her forehead, partly to enable her to call down softly
when she should see him coming along. By-and-by the door from the stable-
yard into the shrubbery clicked and opened, and in a moment she saw Mr.
Wilkins moving through the bushes; but not alone, Mr. Dunster was with
him, and the two were talking together in rather excited tones,
immediately lost to hearing, however, as they entered Mr. Wilkins's study
by the outer door.

"They have been dining together somewhere. Probably at Mr. Hanbury's"
(the Hamley brewer), thought Ellinor. "But how provoking that he should
have come home with papa this night of all nights!"

Two or three times before Mr. Dunster had called on Mr. Wilkins in the
evening, as Ellinor knew; but she was not quite aware of the reason for
such late visits, and had never put together the two facts - (as cause and
consequence) - that on such occasions her father had been absent from the
office all day, and that there might be necessary business for him to
transact, the urgency of which was the motive for Mr. Dunster's visits.
Mr. Wilkins always seemed to be annoyed by his coming at so late an hour,
and spoke of it, resenting the intrusion upon his leisure; and Ellinor,
without consideration, adopted her father's mode of speaking and thinking
on the subject, and was rather more angry than he was whenever the
obnoxious partner came on business in the evening. This night was, of
all nights, the most ill-purposed time (so Ellinor thought) for a _tete-a-
tete_ with her father! However, there was no doubt in her mind as to
what she had to do. So late as it was, the unwelcome visitor could not
stop long; and then she would go down and have her little confidence with
her father, and beg him to see Mr. Livingstone when he came next morning,
and dismiss him as gently as might be.

She sat on in the window-seat; dreaming waking dreams of future
happiness. She kept losing herself in such thoughts, and became almost
afraid of forgetting why she sat there. Presently she felt cold, and got
up to fetch a shawl, in which she muffled herself and resumed her place.
It seemed to her growing very late; the moonlight was coming fuller and
fuller into the garden and the blackness of the shadow was more
concentrated and stronger. Surely Mr. Dunster could not have gone away
along the dark shrubbery-path so noiselessly but what she must have heard
him? No! there was the swell of voices coming up through the window from
her father's study: angry voices they were; and her anger rose
sympathetically, as she knew that her father was being irritated. There
was a sudden movement, as of chairs pushed hastily aside, and then a
mysterious unaccountable noise - heavy, sudden; and then a slight movement
as of chairs again; and then a profound stillness. Ellinor leaned her
head against the side of the window to listen more intently, for some
mysterious instinct made her sick and faint. No sound - no noise. Only
by-and-by she heard, what we have all heard at such times of intent
listening, the beating of the pulses of her heart, and then the whirling
rush of blood through her head. How long did this last? She never knew.
By-and-by she heard her father's hurried footstep in his bedroom, next to
hers; but when she ran thither to speak to him, and ask him what was
amiss - if anything had been - if she might come to him now about Mr.
Livingstone's letter, she found that he had gone down again to his study,
and almost at the same moment she heard the little private outer door of
that room open; some one went out, and then there were hurried footsteps
along the shrubbery-path. She thought, of course, that it was Mr.
Dunster leaving the house; and went back for Mr. Livingstone's letter.
Having found it, she passed through her father's room to the private
staircase, thinking that if she went by the more regular way, she would
have run the risk of disturbing Miss Monro, and perhaps of being
questioned in the morning. Even in passing down this remote staircase,
she trod softly for fear of being overheard. When she entered the room,
the full light of the candles dazzled her for an instant, coming out of
the darkness. They were flaring wildly in the draught that came in
through the open door, by which the outer air was admitted; for a moment
there seemed no one in the room, and then she saw, with strange sick
horror, the legs of some one lying on the carpet behind the table. As if
compelled, even while she shrank from doing it, she went round to see who
it was that lay there, so still and motionless as never to stir at her
sudden coming. It was Mr. Dunster; his head propped on chair-cushions,
his eyes open, staring, distended. There was a strong smell of brandy
and hartshorn in the room; a smell so powerful as not to be neutralized
by the free current of night air that blew through the two open doors.
Ellinor could not have told whether it was reason or instinct that made
her act as she did during this awful night. In thinking of it
afterwards, with shuddering avoidance of the haunting memory that would
come and overshadow her during many, many years of her life, she grew to
believe that the powerful smell of the spilt brandy absolutely
intoxicated her - an unconscious Rechabite in practice. But something
gave her a presence of mind and a courage not her own. And though she
learnt to think afterwards that she had acted unwisely, if not wrongly
and wickedly, yet she marvelled, in recalling that time, how she could
have then behaved as she did. First of all she lifted herself up from
her fascinated gaze at the dead man, and went to the staircase door, by
which she had entered the study, and shut it softly. Then she went
back - looked again; took the brandy-bottle, and knelt down, and tried to
pour some into the mouth; but this she found she could not do. Then she
wetted her handkerchief with the spirit, and moistened the lips; all to
no purpose; for, as I have said before, the man was dead - killed by
rupture of a vessel of the brain; how occasioned I must tell by-and-by.
Of course, all Ellinor's little cares and efforts produced no effect; her
father had tried them before - vain endeavours all, to bring back the
precious breath of life! The poor girl could not bear the look of those
open eyes, and softly, tenderly, tried to close them, although
unconscious that in so doing she was rendering the pious offices of some
beloved hand to a dead man. She was sitting by the body on the floor
when she heard steps coming with rushing and yet cautious tread, through
the shrubbery; she had no fear, although it might be the tread of robbers
and murderers. The awfulness of the hour raised her above common fears;
though she did not go through the usual process of reasoning, and by it
feel assured that the feet which were coming so softly and swiftly along
were the same which she had heard leaving the room in like manner only a
quarter of an hour before.

Her father entered, and started back, almost upsetting some one behind
him by his recoil, on seeing his daughter in her motionless attitude by
the dead man.

"My God, Ellinor! what has brought you here?" he said, almost fiercely.

But she answered as one stupefied, "I don't know. Is he dead?"

"Hush, hush, child; it cannot be helped."

She raised her eyes to the solemn, pitying, awe-stricken face behind her
father's - the countenance of Dixon.

"Is he dead?" she asked of him.

The man stepped forwards, respectfully pushing his master on one side as
he did so. He bent down over the corpse, and looked, and listened and
then reaching a candle off the table, he signed Mr. Wilkins to close the
door. And Mr. Wilkins obeyed, and looked with an intensity of eagerness
almost amounting to faintness on the experiment, and yet he could not
hope. The flame was steady - steady and pitilessly unstirred, even when
it was adjusted close to mouth and nostril; the head was raised up by one
of Dixon's stalwart arms, while he held the candle in the other hand.
Ellinor fancied that there was some trembling on Dixon's part, and
grasped his wrist tightly in order to give it the requisite motionless

All in vain. The head was placed again on the cushions, the servant rose
and stood by his master, looked sadly on the dead man, whom, living, none
of them had liked or cared for, and Ellinor sat on, quiet and tearless,
as one in a trance.

"How was it, father?" at length she asked.

He would fain have had her ignorant of all, but so questioned by her
lips, so adjured by her eyes in the very presence of death, he could not
choose but speak the truth; he spoke it in convulsive gasps, each
sentence an effort:

"He taunted me - he was insolent, beyond my patience - I could not bear it.
I struck him - I can't tell how it was. He must have hit his head in
falling. Oh, my God! one little hour a go I was innocent of this man's
blood!" He covered his face with his hands.

Ellinor took the candle again; kneeling behind Mr. Dunster's head, she
tried the futile experiment once more.

"Could not a doctor do some good?" she asked of Dixon, in a hopeless

"No!" said he, shaking his head, and looking with a sidelong glance at
his master, who seemed to shrivel up and to shrink away at the bare
suggestion. "Doctors can do nought, I'm afeard. All that a doctor could
do, I take it, would be to open a vein, and that I could do along with
the best of them, if I had but my fleam here." He fumbled in his pockets
as he spoke, and, as chance would it, the "fleam" (or cattle lancet) was
somewhere about his dress. He drew it out, smoothed and tried it on his
finger. Ellinor tried to bare the arm, but turned sick as she did so.
Her father started eagerly forwards, and did what was necessary with
hurried trembling hands. If they had cared less about the result, they
might have been more afraid of the consequences of the operation in the
hands of one so ignorant as Dixon. But, vein or artery, it signified
little; no living blood gushed out; only a little watery moisture
followed the cut of the fleam. They laid him back on his strange sad
death-couch. Dixon spoke next.

"Master Ned!" said he - for he had known Mr. Wilkins in his days of bright
careless boyhood, and almost was carried back to them by the sense of
charge and protection which the servant's presence of mind and sharpened
senses gave him over his master on this dreary night - "Master Ned! we
must do summut."

No one spoke. What was to be done?

"Did any folk see him come here?" Dixon asked, after a time. Ellinor
looked up to hear her father's answer, a wild hope coming into her mind
that all might be concealed somehow; she did not know how, nor did she
think of any consequences except saving her father from the vague dread,
trouble, and punishment that she was aware would await him if all were

Mr. Wilkins did not seem to hear; in fact, he did not hear anything but
the unspoken echo of his own last words, that went booming through his
heart: "An hour ago I was innocent of this man's blood! Only an hour

Dixon got up and poured out half a tumblerful of raw spirit from the
brandy-bottle that stood on the table.

"Drink this, Master Ned!" putting it to his master's lips. "Nay" - to
Ellinor - "it will do him no harm; only bring back his senses, which, poor
gentleman, are scared away. We shall need all our wits. Now, sir,
please answer my question. Did anyone see Measter Dunster come here?"

"I don't know," said Mr. Wilkins, recovering his speech. "It all seems
in a mist. He offered to walk home with me; I did not want him. I was
almost rude to him to keep him off. I did not want to talk of business;
I had taken too much wine to be very clear and some things at the office
were not quite in order, and he had found it out. If anyone heard our
conversation, they must know I did not want him to come with me. Oh! why
would he come? He was as obstinate - he would come - and here it has been
his death!"

"Well, sir, what's done can't be undone, and I'm sure we'd any of us
bring him back to life if we could, even by cutting off our hands, though

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryElizabeth Cleghorn GaskellA Dark Night's Work → online text (page 5 of 16)