North and South

Chapter XIII: A soft breeze in a sultry place

“That doubt and trouble, fear and pain,
And anguish, all, are shadows vain,
That death itself shall not remain;

That weary deserts we may tread,
A dreary labyrinth may thread,
Thro’ dark ways underground be led;

Yet, if we will one Guide obey,
The dreariest path, the darkest way
Shall issue out in heavenly day;

And we, on divers shores now cast,
Shall meet, our perilous voyage past,
All in our Father’s house at last!”
R. C. Trench.

Margaret flew up stairs as soon as their visitors were gone, and put on her bonnet and shawl, to run and inquire how Bessy Higgins was, and sit with her as long as she could before dinner. As she went along the crowded narrow streets, she felt how much of interest they had gained by the simple fact of her having learnt to care for a dweller in them.

Mary Higgins, the slatternly younger sister, had endeavoured as well as she could to tidy up the house for the expected visit. There had been rough-stoning done in the middle of the floor, while the flags under the chairs and table and round the walls retained their dark unwashed appearance. Although the day was hot, there burnt a large fire in the grate, making the whole place feel like an oven. Margaret did not understand that the lavishness of coals was a sign of hospitable welcome to her on Mary’s part, and thought that perhaps the oppressive heat was necessary for Bessy. Bessy herself lay on a squab, or short sofa, placed under the window. She was very much more feeble than on the previous day, and tired with raising herself at every step to look out and see if it was Margaret coming. And now that Margaret was there, and had taken a chair by her, Bessy lay back silent, and content to look at Margaret’s face, and touch her articles of dress, with a childish admiration of their fineness of texture.

“I never knew why folk in the Bible cared for soft raiment afore. But it must be nice to go dressed as yo’ do. It’s different fro’ common. Most fine folk tire my eyes out wi’ their colours; but some how yours rest me. Where did ye get this frock?”

“In London,” said Margaret, much amused.

“London! Have yo’ been in London?”

“Yes! I lived there for some years. But my home was in a forest; in the country.”

“Tell me about it,” said Bessy. “I like to hear speak of the country and trees, and such like things.” She leant back, and shut her eye and crossed her hands over her breast, lying at perfect rest, as if t receive all the ideas Margaret could suggest.

Margaret had never spoken of Helstone since she left it, except just naming the place incidentally. She saw it in dreams more vivid than life, and as she fell away to slumber at nights her memory wandered in all its pleasant places. But her heart was opened to this girl; “Oh, Bessy, I loved the home we have left so dearly! I wish you could see it. I cannot tell you half its beauty. There are great trees standing all about it, with their branches stretching long and level, and making a deep shade of rest even at noonday. And yet, though every leaf may seem still, there is a continual rushing sound of movement all around—not close at hand. Then sometimes the turf is as soft and fine as velvet; and sometimes quite lush with the perpetual moisture of a little, hidden, tinkling brook near at hand. And then in other parts there are billowy ferns—whole stretches of fern; some in the green shadow; some with long streaks of golden sunlight lying on them—just like the sea.”

“I have never seen the sea,” murmured Bessy. “But go on.”

“Then, here and there, there are wide commons, high up as if above the very tops of the trees—”

“I’m glad of that. I felt smothered like down below. When I have gone for an out, I’ve always wanted to get high up and see far away, and take a deep breath o’ fulness in that air. I get smothered enough in Milton, and I think the sound yo’ speak of among the trees, going on for ever and ever, would send me dazed; it’s that made my head ache so in the mill. Now on these commons I reckon there is but little noise?”

“No,” said Margaret; “nothing but here and there a lark high in the air. Sometimes I used to hear a farmer speaking sharp and loud to his servants; but it was so far away that it only reminded me pleasantly that other people were hard at work in some distant place, while I just sat on the heather and did nothing.”

“I used to think once that if I could have a day of doing nothing, to rest me—a day in some quiet place like that yo’ speak on—it would maybe set me up. But now I’ve had many days o’ idleness, and I’m just as weary o’ them as I was o’ my work. Sometimes I’m so tired out I think I cannot enjoy heaven without a piece of rest first. I’m rather afeard o’ going straight there without getting a good sleep in the grave to set me up.”

“Don’t be afraid, Bessy,” said Margaret, laying her hand on the girl’s; “God can give you more perfect rest than even idleness on earth, or the dead sleep of the grave can do.”

Bessy moved uneasily; then she said:

“I wish father would not speak as he does. He means well, as I telled yo’ yesterday, and tell yo’ again and again. But yo’ see, though I don’t believe him a bit by day, yet by night—when I’m in a fever, half-asleep and half-awake—it comes back upon me—oh! so bad! And I think, if this should be th’ end of all, and if all I’ve been born for is just to work my heart and my life away, and to sicken i’ this dree place, wi’ them mill-noises in my ears for ever, until I could scream out for them to stop, and let me have a little piece o’ quiet—and wi’ the fluff filling my lungs, until I thirst to death for one long deep breath o’ the clear air yo’ speak on—and my mother gone, and I never able to tell her again how I loved her, and o’ all my troubles—I think if this life is th’ end, and that there’s no God to wipe away all tears from all eyes—yo’ wench, yo’!” said she, sitting up, and clutching violently, almost fiercely, at Margaret’s hand, “I could go mad, and kill yo’, I could.” She fell back completely worn out with her passion. Margaret knelt down by her.

“Bessy—we have a Father in Heaven.”

“I know it! I know it,” moaned she, turning her head uneasily from side to side.

“I’m very wicked. I’ve spoken very wickedly. Oh! don’t be frightened by me and never come again. I would not harm a hair of your head. And,” opening her eyes, and looking earnestly at Margaret, “I believe, perhaps, more than yo’ do o’ what’s to come. I read the book o’ Revelations until I know it off by heart, and I never doubt when I’m waking, and in my senses, of all the glory I’m to come to.”

“Don’t let us talk of what fancies come into your head when you are feverish. I would rather hear something about what you used to do when you were well.”

“I think I was well when mother died, but I have never been rightly strong sin’ somewhere about that time. I began to work in a carding-room soon after, and the fluff got into my lungs and poisoned me.”

“Fluff?” said Margaret, inquiringly.

“Fluff,” repeated Bessy. “Little bits, as fly off fro’ the cotton, when they’re carding it, and fill the air till it looks all fine white dust. They say it winds round the lungs, and tightens them up. Anyhow, there’s many a one as works in a carding-room, that falls into a waste, coughing and spitting blood, because they’re just poisoned by the fluff.”

“But can’t it be helped?” asked Margaret.

“I dunno. Some folk have a great wheel at one end o’ their carding-rooms to make a draught, and carry off th’ dust; but that wheel costs a deal o’ money—five or six hundred pound, maybe, and brings in no profit; so it’s but a few of th’ masters as will put ’em up; and I’ve heard tell o’ men who didn’t like working places where there was a wheel, because they said as how it made ’em hungry, at after they’d been long used to swallowing fluff, tone go without it, and that their wage ought to be raised if they were to work in such places. So between masters and men th’ wheels fall through. I know I wish there’d been a wheel in our place, though.”

“Did not your father know about it?” asked Margaret.

“Yes! And he were sorry. But our factory were a good one on the whole; and a steady likely set o’ people; and father was afeard of letting me go to a strange place, for though yo’ would na think it now, many a one then used to call me a gradely lass enough. And I did na like to be reckoned nesh and soft, and Mary’s schooling were to be kept up, mother said, and father he were always liking to buy books, and go to lectures o’ one kind or another—all which took money—so I just worked on till I shall ne’er get the whirr out o’ my ears, or the fluff out o’ my throat i’ this world. That’s all.”

“How old are you?” asked Margaret.

“Nineteen, come July.”

“And I too am nineteen.” She thought, more sorrowfully than Bessy did, of the contrast between them. She could not speak for a moment or two for the emotion she was trying to keep down.

“About Mary,” said Bessy. “I wanted to ask yo’ to be a friend to her. She’s seventeen, but she’s th’ last on us. And I don’t want her to go to th’ mill, and yet I dunno what she’s fit for.”

“She could not do”—Margaret glanced unconsciously at the uncleaned corners of the room—”She could hardly undertake a servant’s place, could she? We have an old faithful servant, almost a friend, who wants help, but who is very particular; and it would not be right to plague her with giving her any assistance that would really be an annoyance and an irritation.”

“No, I see. I reckon yo’re right. Our Mary’s a good wench; but who has she had to teach her what to do about a house? No mother, and me at the mill till I were good for nothing but scolding her for doing badly what I didn’t know how to do a bit. But I wish she could ha’ lived wi’ yo’, for all that.”

“But even though she may not be exactly fitted to come and live with us as a servant—and I don’t know about that—I will always try and be a friend to her for your sake, Bessy. And now I must go. I will come again as soon as I can; but if it should not be to-morrow, or the next day, or even a week or a fortnight hence, don’t think I’ve forgotten you. I may be busy.”

“I’ll know yo’ won’t forget me again. I’ll not mistrust yo’ no more. But remember, in a week or a fortnight I may be dead and buried!”

“I’ll come as soon as I can, Bessy,” said Margaret, squeezing her hand tight.

“But you’ll let me know if you are worse.”

“Ay, that will I,” said Bessy, returning the pressure.

From that day forwards Mrs. Hale became more and more of a suffering invalid. It was now drawing near to the anniversary of Edith’s marriage, and looking back upon the year’s accumulated heap of troubles, Margaret wondered how they had been borne. If she could have anticipated them, how she would have shrunk away and hid herself from the coming time! And yet day by day had, of itself, and by itself, been very endurable—small, keen, bright little spots of positive enjoyment having come sparkling into the very middle of sorrows. A year ago, or when she first went to Helstone, and first became silently conscious of the querulousness in her mother’s temper, she would have groaned bitterly over the idea of a long illness to be borne in a strange, desolate, noisy, busy place, with diminished comforts on every side of the home life. But with the increase of serious and just ground of complaint, a new kind of patience had sprung up in her mother’s mind. She was gentle and quiet in intense bodily suffering, almost in proportion as she had been restless and depressed when there had been no real cause for grief. Mr. Hale was in exactly that stage of apprehension which, in men of his stamp, takes the shape of wilful blindness. He was more irritated than Margaret had ever known him at his daughter’s expressed anxiety.

“Indeed, Margaret, you are growing fanciful! God knows I should be the first to take the alarm if your mother were really ill; we always saw when she had her headaches at Helstone, even without her telling us. She looks quite pale and white when she is ill; and now she has a bright healthy colour in her cheeks, just as she used to have when I first knew her.”

“But, papa,” said Margaret, with hesitation, “do you know, I think that is the flush of pain.”

“Nonsense, Margaret. I tell you, you are too fanciful. You are the person not well, I think. Send for the doctor to-morrow for yourself; and then, if it will make your mind easier, he can see your mother.”

“Thank you, dear papa. It will make me happier, indeed.” And she went up to him to kiss him. But he pushed her away—gently enough, but still as if she had suggested unpleasant ideas, which he should be glad to get rid of as readily as he could of her presence. He walked uneasily up and down the room.

“Poor Maria!” said he, half soliloquising, “I wish one could do right without sacrificing others. I shall hate this town, and myself too, if she—— Pray, Margaret, does your mother often talk to you of the old places of Helstone, I mean?”

“No, papa,” said Margaret, sadly.

“Then, you see, she can’t be fretting after them, eh? It has always been a comfort to me to think that your mother was so simple and open that I knew every little grievance she had. She never would conceal anything seriously affecting her health from me: would she, eh, Margaret? I am quite sure she would not. So don’t let me hear of these foolish morbid ideas. Come, give me a kiss, and run off to bed.”

But she heard him pacing about (racooning, as she and Edith used to call it) long after her slow and languid undressing was finished—long after she began to listen as she lay in bed.


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