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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Moorland Cottage By Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Characters: 18639

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Summers and winters came and went, with little to mark them, except the

growth of the trees, and the quiet progress of young creatures. Erminia was

sent to school somewhere in France, to receive more regular instruction

than she could have in the house with her invalid aunt. But she came home

once a year, more lovely and elegant and dainty than ever; and Maggie

thought, with truth, that ripening years were softening down her

volatility, and that her aunt's dewlike sayings had quietly sunk deep, and

fertilized the soil. That aunt was fading away. Maggie's devotion added

materially to her happiness; and both she and Maggie never forgot that this

devotion was to be in all things subservient to the duty which she owed to

her mother.

"My love," Mrs. Buxton had more than once said, "you must always recollect

that your first duty is toward your mother. You know how glad I am to see

you; but I shall always understand how it is, if you do not come. She may

often want you when neither you nor I can anticipate it."

Mrs. Browne had no great wish to keep Maggie at home, though she liked to

grumble at her going. Still she felt that it was best, in every way, to

keep on good terms with such valuable friends; and she appreciated, in some

small degree, the advantage which her intimacy at the house was to Maggie.

But yet she could not restrain a few complaints, nor withhold from her, on

her return, a recapitulation of all the things which might have been done

if she had only been at home, and the number of times that she had been

wanted; but when she found that Maggie quietly gave up her next Wednesday's

visit as soon as she was made aware of any necessity for her presence at

home, her mother left off grumbling, and took little or no notice of her

absence.

When the time came for Edward to leave school, he announced that he had no

intention of taking orders, but meant to become an attorney.

"It's such slow work," said he to his mother. "One toils away for four or

five years, and then one gets a curacy of seventy pounds a-year, and no end

of work to do for the money. Now the work is not much harder in a lawyer's

office, and if one has one's wits about one, there are hundreds and

thousands a-year to be picked up with mighty little trouble."

Mrs. Browne was very sorry for this determination. She had a great desire

to see her son a clergyman, like his father. She did not consider whether

his character was fitted for so sacred an office; she rather thought that

the profession itself, when once assumed, would purify the character; but,

in fact, his fitness or unfitness for holy orders entered little into her

mind. She had a respect for the profession, and his father had belonged to

it.

"I had rather see you a curate at seventy pounds a-year, than an attorney

with seven hundred," replied she. "And you know your father was always

asked to dine everywhere--to places where I know they would not have asked

Mr. Bish, of Woodchester, and he makes his thousand a-year. Besides, Mr.

Buxton has the next presentation to Combehurst, and you would stand a good

chance for your father's sake. And in the mean time you should live here,

if your curacy was any way near."

"I dare say! Catch me burying myself here again. My dear mother, it's a

very respectable place for you and Maggie to live in, and I dare say

you don't find it dull; but the idea of my quietly sitting down here is

something too absurd!"

"Papa did, and was very happy," said Maggie.

"Yes! after he had been at Oxford," replied Edward, a little nonplussed by

this reference to one whose memory even the most selfish and thoughtless

must have held in respect.

"Well! and you know you would have to go to Oxford first."

"Maggie! I wish you would not interfere between my mother and me. I want

to have it settled and done with, and that it will never be if you keep

meddling. Now, mother, don't you see how much better it will be for me to

go into Mr. Bish's office? Harry Bish has spoken to his father about it."

Mrs. Browne sighed.

"What will Mr. Buxton say?" asked she, dolefully.

"Say! Why don't you see it was he who first put it into my head, by telling

me that first Christmas holidays, that I should be his agent. That would be

something, would it not? Harry Bish says he thinks a thousand a-year might

ha made of it."

His loud, decided, rapid talking overpowered Mrs. Browne; but she resigned

herself to his wishes with more regrets than she had ever done before. It

was not the first case in which fluent declamation has taken the place of

argument.

Edward was articled to Mr. Bish, and thus gained his point. There was no

one with power to resist his wishes, except his mother and Mr. Buxton. The

former had long acknowledged her son's will as her law; and the latter,

though surprised and almost disappointed at a change of purpose which he

had never anticipated in his plans for Edward's benefit, gave his consent,

and even advanced some of the money requisite for the premium.

Maggie looked upon this change with mingled feelings. She had always from a

child pictured Edward to herself as taking her father's place. When she had

thought of him as a man, it was as contemplative, grave, and gentle, as she

remembered her father. With all a child's deficiency of reasoning power,

she had never considered how impossible it was that a selfish, vain,

and impatient boy could become a meek, humble, and pious man, merely by

adopting a profession in which such qualities are required. But now, at

sixteen, she was beginning to understand all this. Not by any process of

thought, but by something more like a correct feeling, she perceived that

Edward would never be the true minister of Christ. So, more glad and

thankful than sorry, though sorrow mingled with her sentiments, she learned

the decision that he was to be an attorney.

Frank Buxton all this time was growing up into a young man. The hopes both

of father and mother were bound up in him; and, according to the difference

in their characters was the difference in their hopes. It seemed, indeed,

probable that Mr. Buxton, who was singularly void of worldliness or

ambition for himself, would become worldly and ambitious for his son. His

hopes for Frank were all for honor and distinction here. Mrs. Buxton's

hopes were prayers. She was fading away, as light fades into darkness on a

summer evening. No one seemed to remark the gradual progress; but she was

fully conscious of it herself. The last time that Frank was at home from

college before her death, she knew that she should never see him again;

and when he gaily left the house, with a cheerfulness, which was partly

assumed, she dragged herself with languid steps into a room at the front

of the house, from which she could watch him down the long, straggling

little street, that led to the inn from which the coach started. As he

went along, he turned to look back at his home; and there he saw his

mother's white figure gazing after him. He could not see her wistful eyes,

but he made her poor heart give a leap of joy by turning round and running

back for one more kiss and one more blessing.

When he next came home, it was at the sudden summons of her death.

His father was as one distracted. He could not speak of the lost angel

without sudden bursts of tears, and oftentimes of self-upbraiding, which

disturbed the calm, still, holy ideas, which Frank liked to associate with

her. He ceased speaking to him, therefore, about their mutual loss; and it

was a certain kind of relief to both when he did so; but he longed for

some one to whom he might talk of his mother, with the quiet reverence of

intense and trustful affection. He thought of Maggie, of whom he had

seen but little of late; for when he had been at Combehurst, she had

felt that Mrs. Buxton required her presence less, and had remained more at

home. Possibly Mrs. Buxton regretted this; but she never said anything.

She, far-looking, as one who was near death, foresaw that, probably, if

Maggie and her son met often in her sick-room, feelings might arise which

would militate against her husband's hopes and plans, and which, therefore,

she ought not to allow to spring up. But she had been unable to refrain

from expressing her gratitude to Maggie for many hours of tranquil

happiness, and had unconsciously dropped many sentences which made Frank

feel, that, in the little brown mouse of former years, he was likely to

meet with one who could tell him much of the inner history of his mother in

her last days, and to whom he could speak of her without calling out the

passionate sorrow which was so little in unison with her memory.

Accordingly, one afternoon, late in the autumn, he rode up to Mrs.

Browne's. The air on the heights was so still that nothing seemed to stir.

Now and then a yellow leaf came floating down from the trees, detached from

no outward violence, but only because its life had reached its full limit

and then ceased. Lo

oking down on the distant sheltered woods, they were

gorgeous in orange and crimson, but their splendor was felt to be the sign

of the decaying and dying year. Even without an inward sorrow, there was a

grand solemnity in the season which impressed the mind, and hushed it into

tranquil thought. Frank rode slowly along, and quietly dismounted at the

old horse-mount, beside which there was an iron bridle-ring fixed in

the gray stone wall. He saw the casement of the parlor-window open, and

Maggie's head bent down over her work. She looked up as he entered the

court, and his footsteps sounded on the flag-walk. She came round and

opened the door. As she stood in the door-way, speaking, he was struck by

her resemblance to some old painting. He had seen her young, calm face,

shining out with great peacefulness, and the large, grave, thoughtful eyes,

giving the character to the features which otherwise they might, from their

very regularity, have wanted. Her brown dress had the exact tint which a

painter would have admired. The slanting mellow sunlight fell upon her as

she stood; and the vine-leaves, already frost-tinted, made a rich, warm

border, as they hung over the old house-door.

"Mamma is not well; she is gone to lie down. How are you? How is Mr.

Buxton?"

"We are both pretty well; quite well, in fact, as far as regards health.

May I come in? I want to talk to you, Maggie!"

She opened the little parlor-door, and they went in; but for a time they

were both silent. They could not speak of her who was with them, present

in their thoughts. Maggie shut the casement, and put a log of wood on the

fire. She sat down with her back to the window; but as the flame sprang up,

and blazed at the touch of the dry wood, Frank saw that her face was wet

with quiet tears. Still her voice was even and gentle, as she answered his

questions. She seemed to understand what were the very things he would care

most to hear. She spoke of his mother's last days; and without any word of

praise (which, indeed, would have been impertinence), she showed such a

just and true appreciation of her who was dead and gone, that he felt as if

he could listen forever to the sweet-dropping words. They were balm to his

sore heart. He had thought it possible that the suddenness of her death

might have made her life incomplete, in that she might have departed

without being able to express wishes and projects, which would now have the

sacred force of commands. But he found that Maggie, though she had never

intruded herself as such, had been the depository of many little thoughts

and plans; or, if they were not expressed to her, she knew that Mr. Buxton

or Dawson was aware of what they were, though, in their violence of early

grief, they had forgotten to name them. The flickering brightness of the

flame had died away; the gloom of evening had gathered into the room,

through the open door of which the kitchen fire sent a ruddy glow,

distinctly marked against carpet and wall. Frank still sat, with his head

buried in his hands against the table, listening.

"Tell me more," he said, at every pause.

"I think I have told you all now," said Maggie, at last. "At least, it is

all I recollect at present; but if I think of anything more, I will be sure

and tell you."

"Thank you; do." He was silent for some time.

"Erminia is coming home at Christmas. She is not to go back to Paris again.

She will live with us. I hope you and she will be great friends, Maggie."

"Oh yes," replied she. "I think we are already. At least we were last

Christmas. You know it is a year since I have seen her."

"Yes; she went to Switzerland with Mademoiselle Michel, instead of coming

home the last time. Maggie, I must go, now. My father will be waiting

dinner for me."

"Dinner! I was going to ask if you would not stay to tea. I hear mamma

stirring about in her room. And Nancy is getting things ready, I see. Let

me go and tell mamma. She will not be pleased unless she sees you. She has

been very sorry for you all," added she, dropping her voice.

Before he could answer, she ran up stairs.

Mrs. Browne came down.

"Oh, Mr. Frank! Have you been sitting in the dark? Maggie, you ought to

have rung for candles! Ah! Mr. Frank, you've had a sad loss since I saw you

here--let me see--in the last week of September. But she was always a sad

invalid; and no doubt your loss is her gain. Poor Mr. Buxton, too! How is

he? When one thinks of him, and of her years of illness, it seems like a

happy release."

She could have gone on for any length of time, but Frank could not bear

this ruffling up of his soothed grief, and told her that his father was

expecting him home to dinner.

"Ah! I am sure you must not disappoint him. He'll want a little cheerful

company more than ever now. You must not let him dwell on it, Mr. Frank,

but turn his thoughts another way by always talking of other things. I am

sure if I had some one to speak to me in a cheerful, pleasant way, when

poor dear Mr. Browne died, I should never have fretted after him as I did;

but the children were too young, and there was no one to come and divert

me with any news. If I'd been living in Combehurst, I am sure I should not

have let my grief get the better of me as I did. Could you get up a quiet

rubber in the evenings, do you think?"

But Frank had shaken hands and was gone. As he rode home he thought much of

sorrow, and the different ways of bearing it. He decided that it was sent

by God for some holy purpose, and to call out into existence some higher

good; and he thought that if it were faithfully taken as His decree there

would be no passionate, despairing resistance to it; nor yet, if it were

trustfully acknowledged to have some wise end, should we dare to baulk it,

and defraud it by putting it on one side, and, by seeking the distractions

of worldly things, not let it do its full work. And then he returned to

his conversation with Maggie. That had been real comfort to him. What an

advantage it would be to Erminia to have such a girl for a friend and

companion!

It was rather strange that, having this thought, and having been struck, as

I said, with Maggie's appearance while she stood in the door-way (and I may

add that this impression of her unobtrusive beauty had been deepened by

several succeeding interviews), he should reply as he did to Erminia's

remark, on first seeing Maggie after her return from France.

"How lovely Maggie is growing! Why, I had no idea she would ever turn out

pretty. Sweet-looking she always was; but now her style of beauty makes her

positively distinguished. Frank! speak! is not she beautiful?"

"Do you think so?" answered he, with a kind of lazy indifference,

exceedingly gratifying to his father, who was listening with some eagerness

to his answer. That day, after dinner, Mr. Buxton began to ask his opinion

of Erminia's appearance.

Frank answered at once:

"She is a dazzling little creature. Her complexion looks as if it were made

of cherries and milk; and, it must be owned, the little lady has studied

the art of dress to some purpose in Paris."

Mr. Buxton was nearer happiness at this reply than he had ever been

since his wife's death; for the only way he could devise to satisfy his

reproachful conscience towards his neglected and unhappy sister, was to

plan a marriage between his son and her child. He rubbed his hands and

drank two extra glasses of wine.

"We'll have the Brownes to dinner, as usual, next Thursday," said he, "I am

sure your mother would have been hurt if we had omitted it; it is now nine

years since they began to come, and they have never missed one Christmas

since. Do you see any objection, Frank?"

"None at all, sir," answered he. "I intend to go up to town soon after

Christmas, for a week or ten days, on my way to Cambridge. Can I do

anything for you?"

"Well, I don't know. I think I shall go up myself some day soon. I can't

understand all these lawyer's letters, about the purchase of the Newbridge

estate; and I fancy I could make more sense out of it all, if I saw Mr.

Hodgson."

"I wish you would adopt my plan, of having an agent, sir. Your affairs are

really so complicated now, that they would take up the time of an expert

man of business. I am sure all those tenants at Dumford ought to be seen

after."

"I do see after them. There's never a one that dares cheat me, or that

would cheat me if they could. Most of them have lived under the Buxtons for

generations. They know that if they dared to take advantage of me, I should

come down upon them pretty smartly."

"Do you rely upon their attachment to your family--or on their idea of your

severity?"

"On both. They stand me instead of much trouble in account-keeping, and

those eternal lawyers' letters some people are always dispatching to their

tenants. When I'm cheated, Frank, I give you leave to make me have an

agent, but not till then. There's my little Erminia singing away, and

nobody to hear her."

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