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Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.

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he was a mighty plaguey chap while he'd breath in him. But what I'm
thinking is this: it'll maybe go awkward with you, sir, if he's found
here. One can't say. But don't you think, miss, as he's neither kith
nor kin to miss him, we might just bury him away before morning,
somewhere? There's better nor four hours of dark. I wish we could put
him i' the churchyard, but that can't be; but, to my mind, the sooner we
set about digging a place for him to lie in, poor fellow, the better
it'll be for us all in the end. I can pare a piece of turf up where
it'll never be missed, and if master'll take one spade, and I another,
why we'll lay him softly down, and cover him up, and no one'll be the
wiser."

There was no reply from either for a minute or so. Then Mr. Wilkins
said:

"If my father could have known of my living to this! Why, they will try
me as a criminal; and you, Ellinor? Dixon, you are right. We must
conceal it, or I must cut my throat, for I never could live through it.
One minute of passion, and my life blasted!"

"Come along, sir," said Dixon; "there's no time to lose." And they went
out in search of tools; Ellinor following them, shivering all over, but
begging that she might be with them, and not have to remain in the study
with -

She would not be bidden into her own room; she dreaded inaction and
solitude. She made herself busy with carrying heavy baskets of turf, and
straining her strength to the utmost; fetching all that was wanted, with
soft swift steps.

Once, as she passed near the open study door, she thought that she heard
a rustling, and a flash of hope came across her. Could he be reviving?
She entered, but a moment was enough to undeceive her; it had only been a
night rustle among the trees. Of hope, life, there was none.

They dug the hole deep and well; working with fierce energy to quench
thought and remorse. Once or twice her father asked for brandy, which
Ellinor, reassured by the apparently good effect of the first dose,
brought to him without a word; and once at her father's suggestion she
brought food, such as she could find in the dining-room without
disturbing the household, for Dixon.

When all was ready for the reception of the body in its unblessed grave,
Mr. Wilkins bade Ellinor go up to her own room - she had done all she
could to help them; the rest must be done by them alone. She felt that
it must; and indeed both her nerves and her bodily strength were giving
way. She would have kissed her father, as he sat wearily at the head of
the grave - Dixon had gone in to make some arrangement for carrying the
corpse - but he pushed her away quietly, but resolutely -

"No, Nelly, you must never kiss me again; I am a murderer."

"But I will, my own darling papa," said she, throwing her arms
passionately round his neck, and covering his face with kisses. "I love
you, and I don't care what you are, if you were twenty times a murderer,
which you are not; I am sure it was only an accident."

"Go in, my child, go in, and try to get some rest. But go in, for we
must finish as fast as we can. The moon is down; it will soon be
daylight. What a blessing there are no rooms on one side of the house.
Go, Nelly." And she went; straining herself up to move noiselessly, with
eyes averted, through the room which she shuddered at as the place of
hasty and unhallowed death.

Once in her own room she bolted the door on the inside, and then stole to
the window, as if some fascination impelled her to watch all the
proceedings to the end. But her aching eyes could hardly penetrate
through the thick darkness, which, at the time of the year of which I am
speaking, so closely precedes the dawn. She could discern the tops of
the trees against the sky, and could single out the well-known one, at a
little distance from the stem of which the grave was made, in the very
piece of turf over which so lately she and Ralph had had their merry
little tea-making; and where her father, as she now remembered, had
shuddered and shivered, as if the ground on which his seat had then been
placed was fateful and ominous to him.

Those below moved softly and quietly in all they did; but every sound had
a significant and terrible interpretation to Ellinor's ears. Before they
had ended, the little birds had begun to pipe out their gay _reveillee_
to the dawn. Then doors closed, and all was profoundly still.

Ellinor threw herself, in her clothes, on the bed; and was thankful for
the intense weary physical pain which took off something of the anguish
of thought - anguish that she fancied from time to time was leading to
insanity.

By-and-by the morning cold made her instinctively creep between the
blankets; and, once there, she fell into a dead heavy sleep.




CHAPTER VII.


Ellinor was awakened by a rapping at her door: it was her maid.

She was fully aroused in a moment, for she had fallen asleep with one
clearly defined plan in her mind, only one, for all thoughts and cares
having no relation to the terrible event were as though they had never
been. All her purpose was to shield her father from suspicion. And to
do this she must control herself - heart, mind, and body must be ruled to
this one end.

So she said to Mason:

"Let me lie half an hour longer; and beg Miss Monro not to wait breakfast
for me; but in half an hour bring me up a cup of strong tea, for I have a
bad headache."

Mason went away. Ellinor sprang up; rapidly undressed herself, and got
into bed again, so that when her maid returned with her breakfast, there
was no appearance of the night having been passed in any unusual manner.

"How ill you do look, miss!" said Mason. "I am sure you had better not
get up yet."

Ellinor longed to ask if her father had yet shown himself; but this
question - so natural at any other time - seemed to her so suspicious under
the circumstances, that she could not bring her lips to frame it. At any
rate, she must get up and struggle to make the day like all other days.
So she rose, confessing that she did not feel very well, but trying to
make light of it, and when she could think of anything but the one awe,
to say a trivial sentence or two. But she could not recollect how she
behaved in general, for her life hitherto had been simple, and led
without any consciousness of effect.

Before she was dressed, a message came up to say that Mr. Livingstone was
in the drawing-room.

Mr. Livingstone! He belonged to the old life of yesterday! The billows
of the night had swept over his mark on the sands of her memory; and it
was only by a strong effort that she could remember who he was - what he
wanted. She sent Mason down to inquire from the servant who admitted him
whom it was that he had asked for.

"He asked for master first. But master has not rung for his water yet,
so James told him he was not up. Then he took thought for a while, and
asked could he speak to you, he would wait if you were not at liberty but
that he wished particular to see either master, or you. So James asked
him to sit down in the drawing-room, and he would let you know."

"I must go," thought Ellinor. "I will send him away directly; to come,
thinking of marriage to a house like this - to-day, too!"

And she went down hastily, and in a hard unsparing mood towards a man,
whose affection for her she thought was like a gourd, grown up in a
night, and of no account, but as a piece of foolish, boyish excitement.

She never thought of her own appearance - she had dressed without looking
in the glass. Her only object was to dismiss her would-be suitor as
speedily as possible. All feelings of shyness, awkwardness, or maiden
modesty, were quenched and overcome. In she went.

He was standing by the mantelpiece as she entered. He made a step or two
forward to meet her; and then stopped, petrified, as it were, at the
sight of her hard white face.

"Miss Wilkins, I am afraid you are ill! I have come too early. But I
have to leave Hamley in half an hour, and I thought - Oh, Miss Wilkins!
what have I done?"

For she sank into the chair nearest to her, as if overcome by his words;
but, indeed, it was by the oppression of her own thoughts: she was hardly
conscious of his presence.

He came a step or two nearer, as if he longed to take her in his arms and
comfort and shelter her; but she stiffened herself and arose, and by an
effort walked towards the fireplace, and there stood, as if awaiting what
he would say next. But he was overwhelmed by her aspect of illness. He
almost forgot his own wishes, his own suit, in his desire to relieve her
from the pain, physical as he believed it, under which she was suffering.
It was she who had to begin the subject.

"I received your letter yesterday, Mr. Livingstone. I was anxious to see
you to-day, in order that I might prevent you from speaking to my father.
I do not say anything of the kind of affection you can feel for me - me,
whom you have only seen once. All I shall say is, that the sooner we
both forget what I must call folly, the better."

She took the airs of a woman considerably older and more experienced than
himself. He thought her haughty; she was only miserable.

"You are mistaken," said he, more quietly and with more dignity than was
likely from his previous conduct. "I will not allow you to characterise
as folly what might be presumptuous on my part - I had no business to
express myself so soon - but which in its foundation was true and sincere.
That I can answer for most solemnly. It is possible, though it may not
be a usual thing, for a man to feel so strongly attracted by the charms
and qualities of a woman, even at first sight, as to feel sure that she,
and she alone, can make his happiness. My folly consisted - there you are
right - in even dreaming that you could return my feelings in the
slightest degree, when you had only seen me once: and I am most truly
ashamed of myself. I cannot tell you how sorry I am, when I see how you
have compelled yourself to come and speak to me when you are so ill."

She staggered into a chair, for with all her wish for his speedy
dismissal, she was obliged to be seated. His hand was upon the bell.

"No, don't!" she said. "Wait a minute."

His eyes, bent upon her with a look of deep anxiety, touched her at that
moment, and she was on the point of shedding tears; but she checked
herself, and rose again.

"I will go," said he. "It is the kindest thing I can do. Only, may I
write? May I venture to write and urge what I have to say more
coherently?"

"No!" said she. "Don't write. I have given you my answer. We are
nothing, and can be nothing to each other. I am engaged to be married. I
should not have told you if you had not been so kind. Thank you. But go
now."

The poor young man's face fell, and he became almost as white as she was
for the instant. After a moment's reflection, he took her hand in his,
and said:

"May God bless you, and him too, whoever he be! But if you want a
friend, I may be that friend, may I not? and try to prove that my words
of regard were true, in a better and higher sense than I used them at
first." And kissing her passive hand, he was gone and she was left
sitting alone.

But solitude was not what she could bear. She went quickly upstairs, and
took a strong dose of sal-volatile, even while she heard Miss Monro
calling to her.

"My dear, who was that gentleman that has been closeted with you in the
drawing-room all this time?"

And then, without listening to Ellinor's reply, she went on:

"Mrs. Jackson has been here" (it was at Mrs. Jackson's house that Mr.
Dunster lodged), "wanting to know if we could tell her where Mr. Dunster
was, for he never came home last night at all. And you were in the
drawing-room with - who did you say he was? - that Mr. Livingstone, who
might have come at a better time to bid good-bye; and he had never dined
here, had he? so I don't see any reason he had to come calling, and P. P.
C.-ing, and your papa _not_ up. So I said to Mrs. Jackson, 'I'll send
and ask Mr. Wilkins, if you like, but I don't see any use in it, for I
can tell you just as well as anybody, that Mr. Dunster is not in this
house, wherever he may be.' Yet nothing would satisfy her but that some
one must go and waken up your papa, and ask if he could tell where Mr.
Dunster was."

"And did papa?" inquired Ellinor, her dry throat huskily forming the
inquiry that seemed to be expected from her.

"No! to be sure not. How should Mr. Wilkins know? As I said to Mrs.
Jackson, 'Mr. Wilkins is not likely to know where Mr. Dunster spends his
time when he is not in the office, for they do not move in the same rank
of life, my good woman; and Mrs. Jackson apologised, but said that
yesterday they had both been dining at Mr. Hodgson's together, she
believed; and somehow she had got it into her head that Mr. Dunster might
have missed his way in coming along Moor Lane, and might have slipped
into the canal; so she just thought she would step up and ask Mr. Wilkins
if they had left Mr. Hodgson's together, or if your papa had driven home.
I asked her why she had not told me all these particulars before, for I
could have asked your papa myself all about when he last saw Mr. Dunster;
and I went up to ask him a second time, but he did not like it at all,
for he was busy dressing, and I had to shout my questions through the
door, and he could not always hear me at first."

"What did he say?"

"Oh! he had walked part of the way with Mr. Dunster, and then cut across
by the short path through the fields, as far as I could understand him
through the door. He seemed very much annoyed to hear that Mr. Dunster
had not been at home all night; but he said I was to tell Mrs. Jackson
that he would go to the office as soon as he had had his breakfast, which
he ordered to be sent up directly into his own room, and he had no doubt
it would all turn out right, but that she had better go home at once.
And, as I told her, she might find Mr. Dunster there by the time she got
there. There, there is your papa going out! He has not lost any time
over his breakfast!"

Ellinor had taken up the _Hamley Examiner_, a daily paper, which lay on
the table, to hide her face in the first instance; but it served a second
purpose, as she glanced languidly over the columns of the advertisements.

"Oh! here are Colonel Macdonald's orchideous plants to be sold. All the
stock of hothouse and stove plants at Hartwell Priory. I must send James
over to Hartwell to attend the sale. It is to last for three days."

"But can he be spared for so long?"

"Oh, yes; he had better stay at the little inn there, to be on the spot.
Three days," and as she spoke, she ran out to the gardener, who was
sweeping up the newly-mown grass in the front of the house. She gave him
hasty and unlimited directions, only seeming intent - if any one had been
suspiciously watching her words and actions - to hurry him off to the
distant village, where the auction was to take place.

When he was once gone she breathed more freely. Now, no one but the
three cognisant of the terrible reason of the disturbance of the turf
under the trees in a certain spot in the belt round the flower-garden,
would be likely to go into the place. Miss Monro might wander round with
a book in her hand; but she never noticed anything, and was short-sighted
into the bargain. Three days of this moist, warm, growing weather, and
the green grass would spring, just as if life - was what it had been
twenty-four hours before.

When all this was done and said, it seemed as if Ellinor's strength and
spirit sank down at once. Her voice became feeble, her aspect wan; and
although she told Miss Monro that nothing was the matter, yet it was
impossible for any one who loved her not to perceive that she was far
from well. The kind governess placed her pupil on the sofa, covered her
feet up warmly, darkened the room, and then stole out on tiptoe, fancying
that Ellinor would sleep. Her eyes were, indeed, shut; but try as much
as she would to be quiet, she was up in less than five minutes after Miss
Monro had left the room, and walking up and down in all the restless
agony of body that arises from an overstrained mind. But soon Miss Monro
reappeared, bringing with her a dose of soothing medicine of her own
concocting, for she was great in domestic quackery. What the medicine
was Ellinor did not care to know; she drank it without any sign of her
usual merry resistance to physic of Miss Monro's ordering; and as the
latter took up a book, and showed a set purpose of remaining with her
patient, Ellinor was compelled to lie still, and presently fell asleep.

She awakened late in the afternoon with a start. Her father was standing
over her, listening to Miss Monro's account of her indisposition. She
only caught one glimpse of his strangely altered countenance, and hid her
head in the cushions - hid it from memory, not from him. For in an
instant she must have conjectured the interpretation he was likely to put
upon her shrinking action, and she had turned towards him, and had thrown
her arms round his neck, and was kissing his cold, passive face. Then
she fell back. But all this time their sad eyes never met - they dreaded
the look of recollection that must be in each other's gaze.

"There, my dear!" said Miss Monro. "Now you must lie still till I fetch
you a little broth. You are better now, are not you?"

"You need not go for the broth, Miss Monro," said Mr. Wilkins, ringing
the bell. "Fletcher can surely bring it." He dreaded the being left
alone with his daughter - nor did she fear it less. She heard the strange
alteration in her father's voice, hard and hoarse, as if it was an effort
to speak. The physical signs of his suffering cut her to the heart; and
yet she wondered how it was that they could both be alive, or, if alive,
they were not rending their garments and crying aloud. Mr. Wilkins
seemed to have lost the power of careless action and speech, it is true.
He wished to leave the room now his anxiety about his daughter was
relieved, but hardly knew how to set about it. He was obliged to think
about the veriest trifle, in order that by an effort of reason he might
understand how he should have spoken or acted if he had been free from
blood-guiltiness. Ellinor understood all by intuition. But henceforward
the unspoken comprehension of each other's hidden motions made their
mutual presence a burdensome anxiety to each. Miss Monro was a relief;
they were glad of her as a third person, unconscious of the secret which
constrained them. This afternoon her unconsciousness gave present pain,
although on after reflection each found in her speeches a cause of
rejoicing.

"And Mr. Dunster, Mr. Wilkins, has he come home yet?"

A moment's pause, in which Mr. Wilkins pumped the words out of his husky
throat:

"I have not heard. I have been riding. I went on business to Mr.
Estcourt's. Perhaps you will be so kind as to send and inquire at Mrs.
Jackson's."

Ellinor sickened at the words. She had been all her life a truthful
plain-spoken girl. She held herself high above deceit. Yet, here came
the necessity for deceit - a snare spread around her. She had not
revolted so much from the deed which brought unpremeditated death, as she
did from these words of her father's. The night before, in her mad fever
of affright, she had fancied that to conceal the body was all that would
be required; she had not looked forward to the long, weary course of
small lies, to be done and said, involved in that one mistaken action.
Yet, while her father's words made her soul revolt, his appearance melted
her heart, as she caught it, half turned away from her, neither looking
straight at Miss Monro, nor at anything materially visible. His hollow
sunken eye seemed to Ellinor to have a vision of the dead man before it.
His cheek was livid and worn, and its healthy colouring gained by years
of hearty out-door exercise, was all gone into the wanness of age. His
hair, even to Ellinor, seemed greyer for the past night of wretchedness.
He stooped, and looked dreamily earthward, where formerly he had stood
erect. It needed all the pity called forth by such observation to quench
Ellinor's passionate contempt for the course on which she and her father
were embarked, when she heard him repeat his words to the servant who
came with her broth.

"Fletcher! go to Mrs. Jackson's and inquire if Mr. Dunster is come home
yet. I want to speak to him."

"To him!" lying dead where he had been laid; killed by the man who now
asked for his presence. Ellinor shut her eyes, and lay back in despair.
She wished she might die, and be out of this horrible tangle of events.

Two minutes after, she was conscious of her father and Miss Monro
stealing softly out of the room. They thought that she slept.

She sprang off the sofa and knelt down.

"Oh, God," she prayed, "Thou knowest! Help me! There is none other help
but Thee!"

I suppose she fainted. For, an hour or more afterwards Miss Monro,
coming in, found her lying insensible by the side of the sofa.

She was carried to bed. She was not delirious, she was only in a stupor,
which they feared might end in delirium. To obviate this, her father
sent far and wide for skilful physicians, who tended her, almost at the
rate of a guinea the minute.

People said how hard it was upon Mr. Wilkins, that scarcely had that
wretch Dunster gone off, with no one knows how much out of the trusts of
the firm, before his only child fell ill. And, to tell the truth, he
himself looked burnt and scared with affliction. He had a startled look,
they said, as if he never could tell, after such experience, from which
side the awful proofs of the uncertainty of earth would appear, the
terrible phantoms of unforeseen dread. Both rich and poor, town and
country, sympathised with him. The rich cared not to press their claims,
or their business, at such a time; and only wondered, in their
superficial talk after dinner, how such a good fellow as Wilkins could
ever have been deceived by a man like Dunster. Even Sir Frank Holster
and his lady forgot their old quarrel, and came to inquire after Ellinor,
and sent her hothouse fruit by the bushel.

Mr. Corbet behaved as an anxious lover should do. He wrote daily to Miss
Monro to beg for the most minute bulletins; he procured everything in
town that any doctor even fancied might be of service, he came down as
soon as there was the slightest hint of permission that Ellinor might see
him. He overpowered her with tender words and caresses, till at last she
shrank away from them, as from something too bewildering, and past all
right comprehension.

But one night before this, when all windows and doors stood open to admit
the least breath that stirred the sultry July air, a servant on velvet
tiptoe had stolen up to Ellinor's open door, and had beckoned out of the
chamber of the sleeper the ever watchful nurse, Miss Monro.

"A gentleman wants you," were all the words the housemaid dared to say so
close to the bedroom. And softly, softly Miss Monro stepped down the
stairs, into the drawing-room; and there she saw Mr. Livingstone. But
she did not know him; she had never seen him before.

"I have travelled all day. I heard she was ill - was dying. May I just
have one more look at her? I will not speak; I will hardly breathe. Only
let me see her once again!"

"I beg your pardon, sir, but I don't know who you are; and if you mean
Miss Wilkins, by 'her,' she is very ill, but we hope not dying. She was
very ill, indeed, yesterday; very dangerously ill, I may say, but she is
having a good sleep, in consequence of a soporific medicine, and we are
really beginning to hope - "

But just here Miss Monro's hand was taken, and, to her infinite surprise,
was kissed before she could remember how improper such behaviour was.

"God bless you, madam, for saying so. But if she sleeps, will you let me
see her? it can do no harm, for I will tread as if on egg shells; and I
have come so far - if I might just look on her sweet face. Pray, madam,
let me just have one sight of her. I will not ask for more."

But he did ask for more after he had had his wish. He stole upstairs
after Miss Monro, who looked round reproachfully at him if even a
nightingale sang, or an owl hooted in the trees outside the open windows,
yet who paused to say herself, outside Mr. Wilkins's chamber door,

"Her father's room; he has not been in bed for six nights, till to-night;
pray do not make a noise to waken him." And on into the deep stillness


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Online LibraryElizabeth Cleghorn GaskellA Dark Night's Work → online text (page 6 of 16)