Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.

A Dark Night's Work online

. (page 8 of 16)
Online LibraryElizabeth Cleghorn GaskellA Dark Night's Work → online text (page 8 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

consequence, much larger and grander than the majority of country-town
churches. The Ford Bank pew was a square one, downstairs; the Ford Bank
servants sat in a front pew in the gallery, right before their master.
Ellinor was "hardening her heart" not to listen, not to hearken to what
might disturb the wound which was just being skinned over, when she
caught Dixon's face up above. He looked worn, sad, soured, and anxious
to a miserable degree; but he was straining eyes and ears, heart and
soul, to hear the solemn words read from the pulpit, as if in them alone
he could find help in his strait. Ellinor felt rebuked and humbled.

She was in a tumultuous state of mind when they left church; she wished
to do her duty, yet could not ascertain what it was. Who was to help her
with wisdom and advice? Assuredly he to whom her future life was to be
trusted. But the case must be stated in an impersonal form. No one, not
even her husband, must ever know anything against her father from her.
Ellinor was so artless herself, that she had little idea how quickly and
easily some people can penetrate motives, and combine disjointed
sentences. She began to speak to Ralph on their slow, sauntering walk
homewards through the quiet meadows:

"Suppose, Ralph, that a girl was engaged to be married - "

"I can very easily suppose that, with you by me," said he, filling up her

"Oh! but I don't mean myself at all," replied she, reddening. "I am only
thinking of what might happen; and suppose that this girl knew of some
one belonging to her - we will call it a brother - who had done something
wrong, that would bring disgrace upon the whole family if it was
known - though, indeed, it might not have been so very wrong as it seemed,
and as it would look to the world - ought she to break off her engagement
for fear of involving her lover in the disgrace?"

"Certainly not, without telling him her reason for doing so."

"Ah! but suppose she could not. She might not be at liberty to do so."

"I can't answer supposititious cases. I must have the facts - if facts
there are - more plainly before me before I can give an opinion. Who are
you thinking of, Ellinor?" asked he, rather abruptly.

"Oh, of no one," she answered in affright. "Why should I be thinking of
any one? I often try to plan out what I should do, or what I ought to
do, if such and such a thing happened, just as you recollect I used to
wonder if I should have presence of mind in case of fire."

"Then, after all, you yourself are the girl who is engaged, and who has
the imaginary brother who gets into disgrace?"

"Yes, I suppose so," said she, a little annoyed at having betrayed any
personal interest in the affair.

He was silent, meditating.

"There is nothing wrong in it," said she, timidly, "is there?"

"I think you had better tell me fully out what is in your mind," he
replied, kindly. "Something has happened which has suggested these
questions. Are you putting yourself in the place of any one about whom
you have been hearing lately? I know you used to do so formerly, when
you were a little girl."

"No; it was a very foolish question of mine, and I ought not to have said
anything about it. See! here is Mr. Ness overtaking us."

The clergyman joined them on the broad walk that ran by the river-side,
and the talk became general. It was a relief to Ellinor, who had not
attained her end, but who had gone far towards betraying something of her
own individual interest in the question she had asked. Ralph had been
more struck even by her manner than her words. He was sure that
something lurked behind, and had an idea of his own that it was connected
with Dunster's disappearance. But he was glad that Mr. Ness's joining
them gave him leisure to consider a little.

The end of his reflections was, that the next day, Monday, he went into
the town, and artfully learnt all he could hear about Mr Dunster's
character and mode of going on; and with still more skill he extracted
the popular opinion as to the embarrassed nature of Mr. Wilkins's
affairs - embarrassment which was generally attributed to Dunster's
disappearance with a good large sum belonging to the firm in his
possession. But Mr. Corbet thought otherwise; he had accustomed himself
to seek out the baser motives for men's conduct, and to call the result
of these researches wisdom. He imagined that Dunster had been well paid
by Mr. Wilkins for his disappearance, which was an easy way of accounting
for the derangement of accounts and loss of money that arose, in fact,
from Mr. Wilkins's extravagance of habits and growing intemperance.

On the Monday afternoon he said to Ellinor, "Mr. Ness interrupted us
yesterday in a very interesting conversation. Do you remember, love?"

Ellinor reddened and kept her head still more intently bent over a sketch
she was making.

"Yes; I recollect."

"I have been thinking about it. I still think she ought to tell her
lover that such disgrace hung over him - I mean, over the family with whom
he was going to connect himself. Of course, the only effect would be to
make him stand by her still more for her frankness."

"Oh! but, Ralph, it might perhaps be something she ought not to tell,
whatever came of her silence."

"Of course there might be all sorts of cases. Unless I knew more I could
not pretend to judge."

This was said rather more coolly. It had the desired effect. Ellinor
laid down her brush, and covered her face with her hand. After a pause,
she turned towards him and said:

"I will tell you this; and more you must not ask me. I know you are as
safe as can be. I am the girl, you are the lover, and possible shame
hangs over my father, if something - oh, so dreadful" (here she blanched),
"but not so very much his fault, is ever found out."

Though this was nothing more than he expected, though Ralph thought that
he was aware what the dreadful something might be, yet, when it was
acknowledged in words, his heart contracted, and for a moment he forgot
the intent, wistful, beautiful face, creeping close to his to read his
expression aright. But after that his presence of mind came in aid. He
took her in his arms and kissed her; murmuring fond words of sympathy,
and promises of faith, nay, even of greater love than before, since
greater need she might have of that love. But somehow he was glad when
the dressing-bell rang, and in the solitude of his own room he could
reflect on what he had heard; for the intelligence had been a great shock
to him, although he had fancied that his morning's inquiries had prepared
him for it.


Ralph Corbet found it a very difficult thing to keep down his curiosity
during the next few days. It was a miserable thing to have Ellinor's
unspoken secret severing them like a phantom. But he had given her his
word that he would make no further inquiries from her. Indeed, he
thought he could well enough make out the outline of past events; still,
there was too much left to conjecture for his mind not to be always busy
on the subject. He felt inclined to probe Mr. Wilkins in their after-
dinner conversation, in which his host was frank and lax enough on many
subjects. But once touch on the name of Dunster and Mr. Wilkins sank
into a kind of suspicious depression of spirits; talking little, and with
evident caution; and from time to time shooting furtive glances at his
interlocutor's face. Ellinor was resolutely impervious to any attempts
of his to bring his conversation with her back to the subject which more
and more engrossed Ralph Corbet's mind. She had done her duty, as she
understood it; and had received assurances which she was only too glad to
believe fondly with all the tender faith of her heart. Whatever came to
pass, Ralph's love would still be hers; nor was he unwarned of what might
come to pass in some dread future day. So she shut her eyes to what
might be in store for her (and, after all, the chances were immeasurably
in her favour); and she bent herself with her whole strength into
enjoying the present. Day by day Mr. Corbet's spirits flagged. He was,
however, so generally uniform in the tenor of his talk - never very merry,
and always avoiding any subject that might call out deep feeling either
on his own or any one else's part, that few people were aware of his
changes of mood. Ellinor felt them, though she would not acknowledge
them: it was bringing her too much face to face with the great terror of
her life.

One morning he announced the fact of his brother's approaching marriage;
the wedding was hastened on account of some impending event in the duke's
family; and the home letter he had received that day was to bid his
presence at Stokely Castle, and also to desire him to be at home by a
certain time not very distant, in order to look over the requisite legal
papers, and to give his assent to some of them. He gave many reasons why
this unlooked-for departure of his was absolutely necessary; but no one
doubted it. He need not have alleged such reiterated excuses. The truth
was, he was restrained and uncomfortable at Ford Bank ever since
Ellinor's confidence. He could not rightly calculate on the most
desirable course for his own interests, while his love for her was
constantly being renewed by her sweet presence. Away from her, he could
judge more wisely. Nor did he allege any false reasons for his
departure; but the sense of relief to himself was so great at his recall
home, that he was afraid of having it perceived by others; and so took
the very way which, if others had been as penetrating as himself, would
have betrayed him.

Mr. Wilkins, too, had begun to feel the restraint of Ralph's grave
watchful presence. Ellinor was not strong enough to be married; nor was
the promised money forthcoming if she had been. And to have a fellow
dawdling about the house all day, sauntering into the flower-garden,
peering about everywhere, and having a kind of right to put all manner of
unexpected questions, was anything but agreeable. It was only Ellinor
that clung to his presence - clung as though some shadow of what might
happen before they met again had fallen on her spirit. As soon as he had
left the house she flew up to a spare bedroom window, to watch for the
last glimpse of the fly which was taking him into the town. And then she
kissed the part of the pane on which his figure, waving an arm out of the
carriage window, had last appeared; and went down slowly to gather
together all the things he had last touched - the pen he had mended, the
flower he had played with, and to lock them up in the little quaint
cabinet that had held her treasures since she was a tiny child.

Miss Monro was, perhaps, very wise in proposing the translation of a
difficult part of Dante for a distraction to Ellinor. The girl went
meekly, if reluctantly, to the task set her by her good governess, and by-
and-by her mind became braced by the exertion.

Ralph's people were not very slow in discovering that something had not
gone on quite smoothly with him at Ford Bank. They knew his ways and
looks with family intuition, and could easily be certain thus far. But
not even his mother's skilfulest wiles, nor his favourite sister's
coaxing, could obtain a word or a hint; and when his father, the squire,
who had heard the opinions of the female part of the family on this head,
began, in his honest blustering way, in their _tete-a-tetes_ after
dinner, to hope that Ralph was thinking better than to run his head into
that confounded Hamley attorney's noose, Ralph gravely required Mr.
Corbet to explain his meaning, which he professed not to understand so
worded. And when the squire had, with much perplexity, put it into the
plain terms of hoping that his son was thinking of breaking off his
engagement to Miss Wilkins, Ralph coolly asked him if he was aware that,
in that case, he should lose all title to being a man of honour, and
might have an action brought against him for breach of promise?

Yet not the less for all this was the idea in his mind as a future

Before very long the Corbet family moved _en masse_ to Stokely Castle for
the wedding. Of course, Ralph associated on equal terms with the
magnates of the county, who were the employers of Ellinor's father, and
spoke of him always as "Wilkins," just as they spoke of the butler as
"Simmons." Here, too, among a class of men high above local gossip, and
thus unaware of his engagement, he learnt the popular opinion respecting
his future father-in-law; an opinion not entirely respectful, though
intermingled with a good deal of personal liking. "Poor Wilkins," as
they called him, "was sadly extravagant for a man in his position; had no
right to spend money, and act as if he were a man of independent
fortune." His habits of life were criticised; and pity, not free from
blame, was bestowed upon him for the losses he had sustained from his
late clerk's disappearance and defalcation. But what could be expected
if a man did not choose to attend to his own business?

The wedding went by, as grand weddings do, without let or hindrance,
according to the approved pattern. A Cabinet minister honoured it with
his presence, and, being a distant relation of the Brabants, remained for
a few days after the grand occasion. During this time he became rather
intimate with Ralph Corbet; many of their tastes were in common. Ralph
took a great interest in the manner of working out political questions;
in the balance and state of parties; and had the right appreciation of
the exact qualities on which the minister piqued himself. In return, the
latter was always on the look-out for promising young men, who, either by
their capability of speech-making or article-writing, might advance the
views of his party. Recognising the powers he most valued in Ralph, he
spared no pains to attach him to his own political set. When they
separated, it was with the full understanding that they were to see a
good deal of each other in London.

The holiday Ralph allowed himself was passing rapidly away; but, before
he returned to his chambers and his hard work, he had promised to spend a
few more days with Ellinor; and it suited him to go straight from the
duke's to Ford Bank. He left the castle soon after breakfast - the
luxurious, elegant breakfast, served by domestics who performed their
work with the accuracy and perfection of machines. He arrived at Ford
Bank before the man-servant had quite finished the dirtier part of his
morning's work, and he came to the glass-door in his striped cotton
jacket, a little soiled, and rolling up his working apron. Ellinor was
not yet strong enough to get up and go out and gather flowers for the
rooms, so those left from yesterday were rather faded; in short, the
contrast from entire completeness and exquisite freshness of arrangement
struck forcibly upon Ralph's perceptions, which were critical rather than
appreciative; and, as his affections were always subdued to his
intellect, Ellinor's lovely face and graceful figure flying to meet him
did not gain his full approval, because her hair was dressed in an old-
fashioned way, her waist was either too long or too short, her sleeves
too full or too tight for the standard of fashion to which his eye had
been accustomed while scanning the bridesmaids and various highborn
ladies at Stokely Castle.

But, as he had always piqued himself upon being able to put on one side
all superficial worldliness in his chase after power, it did not do for
him to shrink from seeing and facing the incompleteness of moderate
means. Only marriage upon moderate means was gradually becoming more
distasteful to him.

Nor did his subsequent intercourse with Lord Bolton, the Cabinet minister
before mentioned, tend to reconcile him to early matrimony. At Lord
Bolton's house he met polished and intellectual society, and all that
smoothness in ministering to the lower wants in eating and drinking which
seems to provide that the right thing shall always be at the right place
at the right time, so that the want of it shall never impede for an
instant the feast of wit or reason; while, if he went to the houses of
his friends, men of the same college and standing as himself, who had
been seduced into early marriages, he was uncomfortably aware of numerous
inconsistencies and hitches in their _menages_. Besides, the idea of the
possible disgrace that might befall the family with which he thought of
allying himself haunted him with the tenacity and also with the
exaggeration of a nightmare, whenever he had overworked himself in his
search after available and profitable knowledge, or had a fit of
indigestion after the exquisite dinners he was learning so well to

Christmas was, of course, to be devoted to his own family; it was an
unavoidable necessity, as he told Ellinor, while, in reality, he was
beginning to find absence from his betrothed something of a relief. Yet
the wranglings and folly of his home, even blessed by the presence of a
Lady Maria, made him look forward to Easter at Ford Bank with something
of the old pleasure.

Ellinor, with the fine tact which love gives, had discovered his
annoyance at various little incongruities in the household at the time of
his second visit in the previous autumn, and had laboured to make all as
perfect as she could before his return. But she had much to struggle
against. For the first time in her life there was a great want of ready
money; she could scarcely obtain the servants' wages; and the bill for
the spring seeds was a heavy weight on her conscience. For Miss Monro's
methodical habits had taught her pupil great exactitude as to all money

Then her father's temper had become very uncertain. He avoided being
alone with her whenever he possibly could; and the consciousness of this,
and of the terrible mutual secret which was the cause of this
estrangement, were the reasons why Ellinor never recovered her pretty
youthful bloom after her illness. Of course it was to this that the
outside world attributed her changed appearance. They would shake their
heads and say, "Ah, poor Miss Wilkins! What a lovely creature she was
before that fever!"

But youth is youth, and will assert itself in a certain elasticity of
body and spirits; and at times Ellinor forgot that fearful night for
several hours together. Even when her father's averted eye brought it
all once more before her, she had learnt to form excuses and palliations,
and to regard Mr. Dunster's death as only the consequence of an
unfortunate accident. But she tried to put the miserable remembrance
entirely out of her mind; to go on from day to day thinking only of the
day, and how to arrange it so as to cause the least irritation to her
father. She would so gladly have spoken to him on the one subject which
overshadowed all their intercourse; she fancied that by speaking she
might have been able to banish the phantom, or reduce its terror to what
she believed to be the due proportion. But her father was evidently
determined to show that he was never more to be spoken to on that
subject; and all she could do was to follow his lead on the rare
occasions that they fell into something like the old confidential
intercourse. As yet, to her, he had never given way to anger; but before
her he had often spoken in a manner which both pained and terrified her.
Sometimes his eye in the midst of his passion caught on her face of
affright and dismay, and then he would stop, and make such an effort to
control himself as sometimes ended in tears. Ellinor did not understand
that both these phases were owing to his increasing habit of drinking
more than he ought to have done. She set them down as the direct effects
of a sorely burdened conscience; and strove more and more to plan for his
daily life at home, how it should go on with oiled wheels, neither a jerk
nor a jar. It was no wonder she looked wistful, and careworn, and old.
Miss Monro was her great comfort; the total unconsciousness on that
lady's part of anything below the surface, and yet her full and delicate
recognition of all the little daily cares and trials, made her sympathy
most valuable to Ellinor, while there was no need to fear that it would
ever give Miss Monro that power of seeing into the heart of things which
it frequently confers upon imaginative people, who are deeply attached to
some one in sorrow.

There was a strong bond between Ellinor and Dixon, although they scarcely
ever exchanged a word save on the most common-place subjects; but their
silence was based on different feelings from that which separated Ellinor
from her father. Ellinor and Dixon could not speak freely, because their
hearts were full of pity for the faulty man whom they both loved so well,
and tried so hard to respect.

This was the state of the household to which Ralph Corbet came down at
Easter. He might have been known in London as a brilliant diner-out by
this time; but he could not afford to throw his life away in fireworks;
he calculated his forces, and condensed their power as much as might be,
only visiting where he was likely to meet men who could help in his
future career. He had been invited to spend the Easter vacation at a
certain country house which would be full of such human stepping-stones;
and he declined in order to keep his word to Ellinor, and go to Ford
Bank. But he could not help looking upon himself a little in the light
of a martyr to duty; and perhaps this view of his own merits made him
chafe under his future father-in-law's irritability of manner, which now
showed itself even to him. He found himself distinctly regretting that
he had suffered himself to be engaged so early in life; and having become
conscious of the temptation and not having repelled it at once, of course
it returned and returned, and gradually obtained the mastery over him.
What was to be gained by keeping to his engagement with Ellinor? He
should have a delicate wife to look after, and even more than the common
additional expenses of married life. He should have a father-in-law
whose character at best had had only a local and provincial
respectability, which it was now daily losing by habits which were both
sensual and vulgarising; a man, too, who was strangely changing from
joyous geniality into moody surliness. Besides, he doubted if, in the
evident change in the prosperity of the family, the fortune to be paid
down on the occasion of his marriage to Ellinor could be forthcoming. And
above all, and around all, there hovered the shadow of some unrevealed
disgrace, which might come to light at any time and involve him in it. He
thought he had pretty well ascertained the nature of this possible shame,
and had little doubt it would turn out to be that Dunster's
disappearance, to America or elsewhere, had been an arranged plan with
Mr. Wilkins. Although Mr. Ralph Corbet was capable of suspecting him of
this mean crime (so far removed from the impulsive commission of the past
sin which was dragging him daily lower and lower down), it was of a kind
that was peculiarly distasteful to the acute lawyer, who foresaw how such
base conduct would taint all whose names were ever mentioned, even by
chance, in connection with it. He used to lie miserably tossing on his
sleepless bed, turning over these things in the night season. He was
tormented by all these thoughts; he would bitterly regret the past events
that connected him with Ellinor, from the day when he first came to read
with Mr. Ness up to the present time. But when he came down in the
morning, and saw the faded Ellinor flash into momentary beauty at his
entrance into the dining-room, and when she blushingly drew near with the
one single flower freshly gathered, which it had been her custom to place
in his button-hole when he came down to breakfast, he felt as if his
better self was stronger than temptation, and as if he must be an honest
man and honourable lover, even against his wish.

As the day wore on the temptation gathered strength. Mr. Wilkins came
down, and while he was on the scene Ellinor seemed always engrossed by
her father, who apparently cared little enough for all her attentions.
Then there was a complaining of the food, which did not suit the sickly
palate of a man who had drunk hard the night before; and possibly these
complaints were extended to the servants, and their incompleteness or
incapacity was thus brought prominently before the eyes of Ralph, who
would have preferred to eat a dry crust in silence, or to have gone

1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryElizabeth Cleghorn GaskellA Dark Night's Work → online text (page 8 of 16)