Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.

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of the hushed room, where one clear ray of hidden lamp-light shot athwart
the door, where a watcher, breathing softly, sat beside the bed - where
Ellinor's dark head lay motionless on the white pillow, her face almost
as white, her form almost as still. You might have heard a pin fall.
After a while he moved to withdraw. Miss Monro, jealous of every sound,
followed him, with steps all the more heavy because they were taken with
so much care, down the stairs, back into the drawing-room. By the bed-
candle flaring in the draught, she saw that there was the glittering mark
of wet tears on his cheek; and she felt, as she said afterwards, "sorry
for the young man." And yet she urged him to go, for she knew that she
might be wanted upstairs. He took her hand, and wrung it hard.

"Thank you. She looked so changed - oh! she looked as though she were
dead. You will write - Herbert Livingstone, Langham Vicarage, Yorkshire;
you will promise me to write. If I could do anything for her, but I can
but pray. Oh, my darling; my darling! and I have no right to be with

"Go away, there's a good young man," said Miss Monro, all the more
pressing to hurry him out by the front door, because she was afraid of
his emotion overmastering him, and making him noisy in his
demonstrations. "Yes, I will write; I will write, never fear!" and she
bolted the door behind him, and was thankful.

Two minutes afterwards there was a low tap; she undid the fastenings, and
there he stood, pale in the moonlight.

"Please don't tell her I came to ask about her; she might not like it."

"No, no! not I! Poor creature, she's not likely to care to hear anything
this long while. She never roused at Mr. Corbet's name."

"Mr. Corbet's!" said Livingstone, below his breath, and he turned and
went away; this time for good.

But Ellinor recovered. She knew she was recovering, when day after day
she felt involuntary strength and appetite return. Her body seemed
stronger than her will; for that would have induced her to creep into her
grave, and shut her eyes for ever on this world, so full of troubles.

She lay, for the most part, with her eyes closed, very still and quiet;
but she thought with the intensity of one who seeks for lost peace, and
cannot find it. She began to see that if in the mad impulses of that mad
nightmare of horror, they had all strengthened each other, and dared to
be frank and open, confessing a great fault, a greater disaster, a
greater woe - which in the first instance was hardly a crime - their future
course, though sad and sorrowful, would have been a simple and
straightforward one to tread. But it was not for her to undo what was
done, and to reveal the error and shame of a father. Only she, turning
anew to God, in the solemn and quiet watches of the night, made a
covenant, that in her conduct, her own personal individual life, she
would act loyally and truthfully. And as for the future, and all the
terrible chances involved in it, she would leave it in His hands - if,
indeed (and here came in the Tempter), He would watch over one whose life
hereafter must seem based upon a lie. Her only plea, offered "standing
afar off" was, "The lie is said and done and over - it was not for my own
sake. Can filial piety be so overcome by the rights of justice and
truth, as to demand of me that I should reveal my father's guilt."

Her father's severe sharp punishment began. He knew why she suffered,
what made her young strength falter and tremble, what made her life seem
nigh about to be quenched in death. Yet he could not take his sorrow and
care in the natural manner. He was obliged to think how every word and
deed would be construed. He fancied that people were watching him with
suspicious eyes, when nothing was further from their thoughts. For once
let the "public" of any place be possessed by an idea, it is more
difficult to dislodge it than any one imagines who has not tried. If Mr.
Wilkins had gone into Hamley market-place, and proclaimed himself guilty
of the manslaughter of Mr. Dunster - nay, if he had detailed all the
circumstances - the people would have exclaimed, "Poor man, he is crazed
by this discovery of the unworthiness of the man he trusted so; and no
wonder - it was such a thing to have done - to have defrauded his partner
to such an extent, and then have made off to America!"

For many small circumstances, which I do not stop to detail here, went
far to prove this, as we know, unfounded supposition; and Mr. Wilkins,
who was known, from his handsome boyhood, through his comely manhood, up
to the present time, by all the people in Hamley, was an object of
sympathy and respect to every one who saw him, as he passed by, old, and
lorn, and haggard before his time, all through the evil conduct of one,
London-bred, who was as a hard, unlovely stranger to the popular mind of
this little country town.

Mr. Wilkins's own servants liked him. The workings of his temptations
were such as they could understand. If he had been hot-tempered he had
also been generous, or I should rather say careless and lavish with his
money. And now that he was cheated and impoverished by his partner's
delinquency, they thought it no wonder that he drank long and deep in the
solitary evenings which he passed at home. It was not that he was
without invitations. Every one came forward to testify their respect for
him by asking him to their houses. He had probably never been so
universally popular since his father's death. But, as he said, he did
not care to go into society while his daughter was so ill - he had no
spirits for company.

But if any one had cared to observe his conduct at home, and to draw
conclusions from it, they could have noticed that, anxious as he was
about Ellinor, he rather avoided than sought her presence, now that her
consciousness and memory were restored. Nor did she ask for, or wish for
him. The presence of each was a burden to the other. Oh, sad and woeful
night of May - overshadowing the coming summer months with gloom and
bitter remorse!


Still youth prevailed over all. Ellinor got well, as I have said, even
when she would fain have died. And the afternoon came when she left her
room. Miss Monro would gladly have made a festival of her recovery, and
have had her conveyed into the unused drawing-room. But Ellinor begged
that she might be taken into the library - into the schoolroom - anywhere
(thought she) not looking on the side of the house on the flower-garden,
which she had felt in all her illness as a ghastly pressure lying within
sight of those very windows, through which the morning sun streamed right
upon her bed - like the accusing angel, bringing all hidden things to

And when Ellinor was better still, when the Bath-chair had been sent up
for her use, by some kindly old maid, out of Hamley, she still petitioned
that it might be kept on the lawn or town side of the house, away from
the flower-garden.

One day she almost screamed, when, as she was going to the front door,
she saw Dixon standing ready to draw her, instead of Fletcher the servant
who usually went. But she checked all demonstration of feeling; although
it was the first time she had seen him since he and she and one more had
worked their hearts out in hard bodily labour.

He looked so stern and ill! Cross, too, which she had never seen him

As soon as they were out of immediate sight of the windows, she asked him
to stop, forcing herself to speak to him.

"Dixon, you look very poorly," she said, trembling as she spoke.

"Ay!" said he. "We didn't think much of it at the time, did we, Miss
Nelly? But it'll be the death on us, I'm thinking. It has aged me above
a bit. All my fifty years afore were but as a forenoon of child's play
to that night. Measter, too - I could a-bear a good deal, but measter
cuts through the stable-yard, and past me, wi'out a word, as if I was
poison, or a stinking foumart. It's that as is worst, Miss Nelly, it

And the poor man brushed some tears from his eyes with the back of his
withered, furrowed hand. Ellinor caught the infection, and cried
outright, sobbed like a child, even while she held out her little white
thin hand to his grasp. For as soon as he saw her emotion, he was
penitent for what he had said.

"Don't now - don't," was all he could think of to say.

"Dixon!" said she at length, "you must not mind it. You must try not to
mind it. I see he does not like to be reminded of that, even by seeing
me. He tries never to be alone with me. My poor old Dixon, it has
spoilt my life for me; for I don't think he loves me any more."

She sobbed as if her heart would break; and now it was Dixon's turn to be

"Ah, dear, my blessing, he loves you above everything. It's only he
can't a-bear the sight of us, as is but natural. And if he doesn't fancy
being alone with you, there's always one as does, and that's a comfort at
the worst of times. And don't ye fret about what I said a minute ago. I
were put out because measter all but pushed me out of his way this
morning, without never a word. But I were an old fool for telling ye.
And I've really forgotten why I told Fletcher I'd drag ye a bit about to-
day. Th' gardener is beginning for to wonder as you don't want to see
th' annuals and bedding-out things as you were so particular about in
May. And I thought I'd just have a word wi' ye, and then if you'd let
me, we'd go together just once round the flower-garden, just to say
you've been, you know, and to give them chaps a bit of praise. You'll
only have to look on the beds, my pretty, and it must be done some time.
So come along!"

He began to pull resolutely in the direction of the flower-garden.
Ellinor bit her lips to keep in the cry of repugnance that rose to them.
As Dixon stopped to unlock the door, he said:

"It's not hardness, nothing like it; I've waited till I heerd you were
better; but it's in for a penny in for a pound wi' us all; and folk may
talk; and bless your little brave heart, you'll stand a deal for your
father's sake, and so will I, though I do feel it above a bit, when he
puts out his hand as if to keep me off, and I only going to speak to him
about Clipper's knees; though I'll own I had wondered many a day when I
was to have the good-morrow master never missed sin' he were a boy
till - Well! and now you've seen the beds, and can say they looked mighty
pretty, and is done all as you wished; and we're got out again, and
breathing fresher air than yon sunbaked hole, with its smelling flowers,
not half so wholesome to snuff at as good stable-dung."

So the good man chatted on; not without the purpose of giving Ellinor
time to recover herself; and partly also to drown his own cares, which
lay heavier on his heart than he could say. But he thought himself
rewarded by Ellinor's thanks, and warm pressure of his hard hand as she
got out at the front door, and bade him good-by.

The break to her days of weary monotony was the letters she constantly
received from Mr. Corbet. And yet here again lurked the sting. He was
all astonishment and indignation at Mr. Dunster's disappearance, or
rather flight, to America. And now that she was growing stronger, he did
not scruple to express curiosity respecting the details, never doubting
but that she was perfectly acquainted with much that he wanted to know;
although he had too much delicacy to question her on the point which was
most important of all in his eyes, namely, how far it had affected Mr.
Wilkins's worldly prospects; for the report prevalent in Hamley had
reached London, that Mr. Dunster had made away with, or carried off,
trust property to a considerable extent, for all which Mr. Wilkins would
of course be liable.

It was hard work for Ralph Corbet to keep from seeking direct information
on this head from Mr. Ness, or, indeed, from Mr. Wilkins himself. But he
restrained himself, knowing that in August he should be able to make all
these inquiries personally. Before the end of the long vacation he had
hoped to marry Ellinor: that was the time which had been planned by them
when they had met in the early spring before her illness and all this
misfortune happened. But now, as he wrote to his father, nothing could
be definitely arranged until he had paid his visit to Hamley, and seen
the state of affairs.

Accordingly one Saturday in August, he came to Ford Bank, this time as a
visitor to Ellinor's home, instead of to his old quarters at Mr. Ness's.

The house was still as if asleep in the full heat of the afternoon sun,
as Mr. Corbet drove up. The window-blinds were down; the front door wide
open, great stands of heliotrope and roses and geraniums stood just
within the shadow of the hall; but through all the silence his approach
seemed to excite no commotion. He thought it strange that he had not
been watched for, that Ellinor did not come running out to meet him, that
she allowed Fletcher to come and attend to his luggage, and usher him
into the library just like any common visitor, any morning-caller. He
stiffened himself up into a moment's indignant coldness of manner. But
it vanished in an instant when, on the door being opened, he saw Ellinor
standing holding by the table, looking for his appearance with almost
panting anxiety. He thought of nothing then but her evident weakness,
her changed looks, for which no account of her illness had prepared him.
For she was deadly white, lips and all; and her dark eyes seemed
unnaturally enlarged, while the caves in which they were set were
strangely deep and hollow. Her hair, too, had been cut off pretty
closely; she did not usually wear a cap, but with some faint idea of
making herself look better in his eye, she had put on one this day, and
the effect was that she seemed to be forty years of age; but one instant
after he had come in, her pale face was flooded with crimson, and her
eyes were full of tears. She had hard work to keep herself from going
into hysterics, but she instinctively knew how much he would hate a
scene, and she checked herself in time.

"Oh," she murmured, "I am so glad to see you; it is such a comfort, such
an infinite pleasure." And so she went on, cooing out words over him,
and stroking his hair with her thin fingers; while he rather tried to
avert his eyes, he was so much afraid of betraying how much he thought
her altered.

But when she came down, dressed for dinner, this sense of her change was
diminished to him. Her short brown hair had already a little wave, and
was ornamented by some black lace; she wore a large black lace shawl - it
had been her mother's of old - over some delicate-coloured muslin dress;
her face was slightly flushed, and had the tints of a wild rose; her lips
kept pale and trembling with involuntary motion, it is true; and as the
lovers stood together, hand in hand, by the window, he was aware of a
little convulsive twitching at every noise, even while she seemed gazing
in tranquil pleasure on the long smooth slope of the newly-mown lawn,
stretching down to the little brook that prattled merrily over the stones
on its merry course to Hamley town.

He felt a stronger twitch than ever before; even while his ear, less
delicate than hers, could distinguish no peculiar sound. About two
minutes after Mr. Wilkins entered the room. He came up to Mr. Corbet
with a warm welcome: some of it real, some of it assumed. He talked
volubly to him, taking little or no notice of Ellinor, who dropped into
the background, and sat down on the sofa by Miss Monro; for on this day
they were all to dine together. Ralph Corbet thought that Mr. Wilkins
was aged; but no wonder, after all his anxiety of various kinds: Mr.
Dunster's flight and reported defalcations, Ellinor's illness, of the
seriousness of which her lover was now convinced by her appearance.

He would fain have spoken more to her during the dinner that ensued, but
Mr. Wilkins absorbed all his attention, talking and questioning on
subjects that left the ladies out of the conversation almost perpetually.
Mr. Corbet recognised his host's fine tact, even while his persistence in
talking annoyed him. He was quite sure that Mr. Wilkins was anxious to
spare his daughter any exertion beyond that - to which, indeed, she seemed
scarely equal - of sitting at the head of the table. And the more her
father talked - so fine an observer was Mr. Corbet - the more silent and
depressed Ellinor appeared. But by-and-by he accounted for this inverse
ratio of gaiety, as he perceived how quickly Mr. Wilkins had his glass
replenished. And here, again, Mr. Corbet drew his conclusions, from the
silent way in which, without a word or a sign from his master, Fletcher
gave him more wine continually - wine that was drained off at once.

"Six glasses of sherry before dessert," thought Mr. Corbet to himself.
"Bad habit - no wonder Ellinor looks grave." And when the gentlemen were
left alone, Mr. Wilkins helped himself even still more freely; yet
without the slightest effect on the clearness and brilliancy of his
conversation. He had always talked well and racily, that Ralph knew, and
in this power he now recognised a temptation to which he feared that his
future father-in-law had succumbed. And yet, while he perceived that
this gift led into temptation, he coveted it for himself; for he was
perfectly aware that this fluency, this happy choice of epithets, was the
one thing he should fail in when he began to enter into the more active
career of his profession. But after some time spent in listening, and
admiring, with this little feeling of envy lurking in the background, Mr.
Corbet became aware of Mr. Wilkins's increasing confusion of ideas, and
rather unnatural merriment; and, with a sudden revulsion from admiration
to disgust, he rose up to go into the library, where Ellinor and Miss
Monro were sitting. Mr. Wilkins accompanied him, laughing and talking
somewhat loudly. Was Ellinor aware of her father's state? Of that Mr.
Corbet could not be sure. She looked up with grave sad eyes as they came
into the room, but with no apparent sensation of surprise, annoyance, or
shame. When her glance met her father's, Mr. Corbet noticed that it
seemed to sober the latter immediately. He sat down near the open
window, and did not speak, but sighed heavily from time to time. Miss
Monro took up a book, in order to leave the young people to themselves;
and after a little low murmured conversation, Ellinor went upstairs to
put on her things for a stroll through the meadows by the river-side.

They were sometimes sauntering along in the lovely summer twilight, now
resting on some grassy hedge-row bank, or standing still, looking at the
great barges, with their crimson sails, lazily floating down the river,
making ripples on the glassy opal surface of the water. They did not
talk very much; Ellinor seemed disinclined for the exertion; and her
lover was thinking over Mr. Wilkins's behaviour, with some surprise and
distaste of the habit so evidently growing upon him.

They came home, looking serious and tired: yet they could not account for
their fatigue by the length of their walk, and Miss Monro, forgetting
Autolycus's song, kept fidgeting about Ellinor, and wondering how it was
she looked so pale, if she had only been as far as the Ash Meadow. To
escape from this wonder, Ellinor went early to bed. Mr. Wilkins was
gone, no one knew where, and Ralph and Miss Monro were left to a half-
hour's _tete-a-tete_. He thought he could easily account for Ellinor's
languor, if, indeed, she had perceived as much as he had done of her
father's state, when they had come into the library after dinner. But
there were many details which he was anxious to hear from a comparatively
indifferent person, and as soon as he could, he passed on from the
conversation about Ellinor's health, to inquiries as to the whole affair
of Mr. Dunster's disappearance.

Next to her anxiety about Ellinor, Miss Monro liked to dilate on the
mystery connected with Mr. Dunster's flight; for that was the word she
employed without hesitation, as she gave him the account of the event
universally received and believed in by the people of Hamley. How Mr.
Dunster had never been liked by any one; how everybody remembered that he
could never look them straight in the face; how he always seemed to be
hiding something that he did not want to have known; how he had drawn a
large sum (exact quantity unknown) out of the county bank only the day
before he left Hamley, doubtless in preparation for his escape; how some
one had told Mr. Wilkins he had seen a man just like Dunster lurking
about the docks at Liverpool, about two days after he had left his
lodgings, but that this some one, being in a hurry, had not cared to stop
and speak to the man; how that the affairs in the office were discovered
to be in such a sad state that it was no wonder that Mr. Dunster had
absconded - he that had been so trusted by poor dear Mr. Wilkins. Money
gone no one knew how or where.

"But has he no friends who can explain his proceedings, and account for
the missing money, in some way?" asked Mr. Corbet.

"No, none. Mr. Wilkins has written everywhere, right and left, I
believe. I know he had a letter from Mr. Dunster's nearest relation - a
tradesman in the City - a cousin, I think, and he could give no
information in any way. He knew that about ten years ago Mr. Dunster had
had a great fancy for going to America, and had read a great many
travels - all just what a man would do before going off to a country."

"Ten years is a long time beforehand," said Mr. Corbet, half smiling;
"shows malice prepense with a vengeance." But then, turning grave, he
said: "Did he leave Hamley in debt?"

"No; I never heard of that," said Miss Monro, rather unwillingly, for she
considered it as a piece of loyalty to the Wilkinses, whom Mr. Dunster
had injured (as she thought) to blacken his character as much as was
consistent with any degree of truth.

"It is a strange story," said Mr. Corbet, musing.

"Not at all," she replied, quickly; "I am sure, if you had seen the man,
with one or two side-locks of hair combed over his baldness, as if he
were ashamed of it, and his eyes that never looked at you, and his way of
eating with his knife when he thought he was not observed - oh, and
numbers of things! - you would not think it strange."

Mr. Corbet smiled.

"I only meant that he seems to have had no extravagant or vicious habits
which would account for his embezzlement of the money that is
missing - but, to be sure, money in itself is a temptation - only he, being
a partner, was in a fair way of making it without risk to himself. Has
Mr. Wilkins taken any steps to have him arrested in America? He might
easily do that."

"Oh, my dear Mr. Ralph, you don't know our good Mr. Wilkins! He would
rather bear the loss, I am sure, and all this trouble and care which it
has brought upon him, than be revenged upon Mr. Dunster."

"Revenged! What nonsense! It is simple justice - justice to himself and
to others - to see that villainy is so sufficiently punished as to deter
others from entering upon such courses. But I have little doubt Mr.
Wilkins has taken the right steps; he is not the man to sit down quietly
under such a loss."

"No, indeed! he had him advertised in the _Times_ and in the county
papers, and offered a reward of twenty pounds for information concerning

"Twenty pounds was too little."

"So I said. I told Ellinor that I would give twenty pounds myself to
have him apprehended, and she, poor darling! fell a-trembling, and said,
'I would give all I have - I would give my life.' And then she was in
such distress, and sobbed so, I promised her I would never name it to her

"Poor child - poor child! she wants change of scene. Her nerves have been
sadly shaken by her illness."

The next day was Sunday; Ellinor was to go to church for the first time
since her illness. Her father had decided it for her, or else she would
fain have stayed away - she would hardly acknowledge why, even to herself,
but it seemed to her as if the very words and presence of God must there
search her and find her out.

She went early, leaning on the arm of her lover, and trying to forget the
past in the present. They walked slowly along between the rows of waving
golden corn ripe for the harvest. Mr. Corbet gathered blue and scarlet
flowers, and made up a little rustic nosegay for her. She took and stuck
it in her girdle, smiling faintly as she did so.

Hamley Church had, in former days, been collegiate, and was, in

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Online LibraryElizabeth Cleghorn GaskellA Dark Night's Work → online text (page 7 of 16)