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The Moorland Cottage By Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Characters: 28344

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Christmas-Day was strange and sad. Mrs. Buxton had always contrived to be

in the drawing-room, ready to receive them all after dinner. Mr. Buxton

tried to do away with his thoughts of her by much talking; but every now

and then he looked wistfully toward the door. Erminia exerted herself to

be as lively as she could, in order, if possible, to fill up the vacuum.

Edward, who had come over from Woodchester for a walk, had a good deal to

say; and was, unconsciously, a great assistance with his never-ending flow

of rather clever small-talk. His mother felt proud of her son, and his new

waistcoat, which was far more conspicuously of the latest fashion than

Frank's could be said to be. After dinner, when Mr. Buxton and the two

young men were left alone, Edward launched out still more. He thought he

was impressing Frank with his knowledge of the world, and the world's ways.

But he was doing all in his power to repel one who had never been much

attracted toward him. Worldly success was his standard of merit. The end

seemed with him to justify the means; if a man prospered, if was not

necessary to scrutinize his conduct too closely. The law was viewed in its

lowest aspect; and yet with a certain cleverness, which preserved Edward

from being intellectually contemptible. Frank had entertained some idea of

studying for a barrister himself: not so much as a means of livelihood as

to gain some idea of the code which makes and shows a nation's conscience:

but Edward's details of the ways in which the letter so often baffles the

spirit, made him recoil. With some anger against himself, for viewing the

profession with disgust, because it was degraded by those who embraced it,

instead of looking upon it as what might be ennobled and purified into a

vast intelligence by high and pure-minded men, he got up abruptly and left

the room.

The girls were sitting over the drawing-room fire, with unlighted candles

on the table, talking, he felt, about his mother; but when he came in they

rose, and changed their tone. Erminia went to the piano, and sang her

newest and choicest French airs. Frank was gloomy and silent; but when she

changed into more solemn music his mood was softened, Maggie's simple and

hearty admiration, untinged by the slightest shade of envy for Erminia's

accomplishments, charmed him. The one appeared to him the perfection of

elegant art, the other of graceful nature. When he looked at Maggie,

and thought of the moorland home from which she had never wandered, the

mysteriously beautiful lines of Wordsworth seemed to become sun-clear to

him.

"And she shall lean her ear

In many a secret place

Where rivulets dance their wayward round,

And beauty born of murmuring sound

Shall pass into her face."

Mr. Buxton, in the dining-room, was really getting to take an interest in

Edward's puzzling cases. They were like tricks at cards. A quick motion,

and out of the unpromising heap, all confused together, presto! the right

card turned up. Edward stated his case, so that there did not seem loophole

for the desired verdict; but through some conjuration, it always came

uppermost at last. He had a graphic way of relating things; and, as he did

not spare epithets in his designation of the opposing party, Mr. Buxton

took it upon trust that the defendant or the prosecutor (as it might

happen) was a "pettifogging knave," or a "miserly curmudgeon," and rejoiced

accordingly in the triumph over him gained by the ready wit of "our

governor," Mr. Bish. At last he became so deeply impressed with Edward's

knowledge of law, as to consult him about some cottage property he had in

Woodchester.

"I rather think there are twenty-one cottages, and they don't bring me in

four pounds a-year; and out of that I have to pay for collecting. Would

there be any chance of selling them? They are in Doughty-street; a bad

neighborhood, I fear."

"Very bad," was Edward's prompt reply. "But if you are really anxious to

effect a sale, I have no doubt I could find a purchaser in a short time."

"I should be very much obliged to you," said Mr. Buxton. "You would be

doing me a kindness. If you meet with a purchaser, and can manage the

affair, I would rather that you drew out the deeds for the transfer of the

property. If would be the beginning of business for you; and I only hope I

should bring you good luck."

Of course Edward could do this; and when they left the table, it was with

a feeling on his side that he was a step nearer to the agency which he

coveted; and with a happy consciousness on Mr. Buxton's of having put a few

pounds in the way of a deserving and remarkably clever young man.

Since Edward had left home, Maggie had gradually, but surely, been gaining

in importance. Her judgment and her untiring unselfishness could not fail

to make way. Her mother had some respect for, and great dependence on her;

but still it was hardly affection that she felt for her; or if it was it

was a dull and torpid kind of feeling, compared with the fond love and

exulting pride which she took in Edward. When he came back for occasional

holidays, his mother's face was radiant with happiness, and her manner

toward him was even more caressing than he approved of. When Maggie saw him

repel the hand that fain would have stroked his hair as in childish days,

a longing came into her heart for some of these uncared-for tokens of her

mother's love. Otherwise she meekly sank back into her old secondary place,

content to have her judgment slighted and her wishes unasked as long as he

stayed. At times she was now beginning to disapprove and regret some things

in him; his flashiness of manner jarred against her taste; and a deeper,

graver feeling was called out by his evident want of quick moral

perception. "Smart and clever," or "slow and dull," took with him the place

of "right and wrong." Little as he thought it, he was himself narrow-minded

and dull; slow and blind to perceive the beauty and eternal wisdom of

simple goodness.

Erminia and Maggie became great friends. Erminia used to beg for Maggie,

until she herself put a stop to the practice; as she saw her mother yielded

more frequently than was convenient, for the honor of having her daughter

a visitor at Mr. Buxton's, about which she could talk to her few

acquaintances who persevered in calling at the cottage. Then Erminia

volunteered a visit of some days to Maggie, and Mrs. Browne's pride was

redoubled; but she made so many preparations, and so much fuss, and gave

herself so much trouble, that she was positively ill during Erminia's stay;

and Maggie felt that she must henceforward deny herself the pleasure of

having her friend for a guest, as her mother could not be persuaded from

attempting to provide things in the same abundance and style as that to

which Erminia was accustomed at home; whereas, as Nancy shrewdly observed,

the young lady did not know if she was eating jelly, or porridge, or

whether the plates were common delf or the best China, so long as she was

with her dear Miss Maggie. Spring went, and summer came. Frank had gone to

and fro between Cambridge and Combehurst, drawn by motives of which he felt

the force, but into which he did not care to examine. Edward had sold the

property of Mr. Buxton; and he, pleased with the possession of half the

purchase money (the remainder of which was to be paid by installments), and

happy in the idea that his son came over so frequently to see Erminia, had

amply rewarded the young attorney for his services.

One summer's day, as hot as day could be, Maggie had been busy all morning;

for the weather was so sultry that she would not allow either Nancy or

her mother to exert themselves much. She had gone down with the old brown

pitcher, coeval with herself, to the spring for water; and while it was

trickling, and making a tinkling music, she sat down on the ground. The

air was so still that she heard the distant wood-pigeons cooing; and round

about her the bees were murmuring busily among the clustering heath. From

some little touch of sympathy with these low sounds of pleasant harmony,

she began to try and hum some of Erminia's airs. She never sang out loud,

or put words to her songs; but her voice was very sweet, and it was a great

pleasure to herself to let it go into music. Just as her jug was filled,

she was startled by Frank's sudden appearance. She thought he was at

Cambridge, and, from some cause or other, her face, usually so faint in

color, became the most vivid scarlet. They were both too conscious to

speak. Maggie stooped (murmuring some words of surprise) to take up her

pitcher.

"Don't go yet, Maggie," said he, putting his hand on hers to stop her; but,

somehow, when that purpose was effected, he forgot to take it off again. "I

have come all the way from Cambridge to see you. I could not bear suspense

any longer. I grew so impatient for certainty of some kind, that I went up

to town last night, in order to feel myself on my way to you, even though

I knew I could not be here a bit earlier to-day for doing so. Maggie--dear

Maggie! how you are trembling! Have I frightened you? Nancy told me you

were here; but it was very thoughtless to come so suddenly upon you."

It was not the suddenness of his coming; it was the suddenness of her own

heart, which leaped up with the feelings called out by his words. She

went very white, and sat down on the ground as before. But she rose again

immediately, and stood, with drooping, averted head. He had dropped her

hand, but now sought to take it again.

"Maggie, darling, may I speak?" Her lips moved, he saw, but he could not

hear. A pang of affright ran through him that, perhaps, she did not wish to

listen. "May I speak to you?" he asked again, quite timidly. She tried to

make her voice sound, but it would not; so she looked round. Her soft

gray eyes were eloquent in that one glance. And, happier than his words,

passionate and tender as they were, could tell, he spoke till her trembling

was changed into bright flashing blushes, and even a shy smile hovered

about her lips, and dimpled her cheeks.

The water bubbled over the pitcher unheeded. At last she remembered all the

work-a-day world. She lifted up the jug, and would have hurried home, but

Frank decidedly took it from her.

"Henceforward," said he, "I have a right to carry your burdens." So with

one arm round her waist and with the other carrying the water, they climbed

the steep turfy slope. Near the top she wanted to take it again.

"Mamma will not like it. Mamma will think if so strange."

"Why, dearest, if I saw Nancy carrying it up this slope I would take it

from her. It would be strange if a man did not carry it for any woman.

But you must let me tell your mother of my right to help you. If is your

dinner-time is it not? I may come in to dinner as one of the family may not

I Maggie?"

"No" she said softly. For she longed to be alone; and she dreaded being

overwhelmed by the expression of her mother's feelings, weak and agitated

as she felt herself. "Not to-day."

"Not to-day!" said he reproachfully. "You are very hard upon me. Let me

come to tea. If you will, I will leave you now. Let me come to early tea. I

must speak to my father. He does not know I am here. I may come to tea. At

what time is it? Three o'clock. Oh, I know you drink tea at some strange

early hour; perhaps it is at two. I will take care to be in time."

"Don't come till five, please. I must tell mamma; and I want some time to

think. It does seem so like a dream. Do go, please."

"Well! if I must, I must. But I don't feel as if I were in a dream, but in

some real blessed heaven so long as I see you."

At last he went. Nancy was awaiting Maggie, the side-gate.

"Bless us and save us, bairn! what a time it has taken thee to get the

water. Is the spring dry with the hot weather?"

Maggie ran past her. All dinner-time she heard her mother's voice in

long-continued lamentation about something. She answered at random, and

startled her mother by asserting that she thought "it" was very good;

the said "it" being milk turned sour by thunder. Mrs. Browne spoke quite

sharply, "No one is so particular as you, Maggie. I have known you drink

water, day after day, for breakfast, when you were a little girl, because

your cup of milk had a drowned fly in it; and now you tell me you don't

care for this, and don't mind that, just as if you could eat up all the

things which are spoiled by the heat. I declare my head aches so, I shall

go and lie down as soon as ever dinner is over."

If this was her plan, Maggie thought she had no time to lose in making her

confession. Frank would be here before her mother got up again to tea. But

she dreaded speaking about her happiness; it seemed as yet so cobweb-like,

as if a touch would spoil its beauty.

"Mamma, just wait a minute. Just sit down in your chair while I tell you

something. Please, dear mamma." She took a stool, and sat at her mother's

feet; and then she began to turn the wedding-ring on Mrs. Browne's hand,

looking down and never speaking, till the latter became impatient.

"What is if you have got to say, child? Do make haste, for I want to go

up-stairs."

With a great jerk of resolution, Maggie said:

"Mamma, Frank Buxton has asked me to marry him."

She hid her face in her mother's lap for an instant; and then she lifted it

up, as brimful of the light of happiness as is the cup of a water-lily of

the sun's radiance.

"Maggie--you don't say so," said her mother, half incredulously. "It can't

be, for he's at Cambridge, and it's not post-day. What do you mean?"

"He came this morning, mother, when I was down at th

e well; and we fixed

that I was to speak to you; and he asked if he might come again for tea."

"Dear! dear! and the milk all gone sour? We should have had milk of our

own, if Edward had not persuaded me against buying another cow."

"I don't think Mr. Buxton will mind it much," said Maggie, dimpling up, as

she remembered, half unconsciously, how little he had seemed to care for

anything but herself.

"Why, what a thing it is for you!" said Mrs. Browne, quite roused up from

her languor and her head-ache. "Everybody said he was engaged to Miss

Erminia. Are you quite sure you made no mistake, child? What did he say?

Young men are so fond of making fine speeches; and young women are so silly

in fancying they mean something. I once knew a girl who thought that a

gentleman who sent her mother a present of a sucking-pig, did it as a

delicate way of making her an offer. Tell me his exact words."

But Maggie blushed, and either would not or could not. So Mrs. Browne began

again:

"Well, if you're sure, you're sure. I wonder how he brought his father

round. So long as he and Erminia have been planned for each other! That

very first day we ever dined there after your father's death, Mr. Buxton as

good as told me all about it. I fancied they were only waiting till they

were out of mourning."

All this was news to Maggie. She had never thought that either Erminia or

Frank was particularly fond of the other; still less had she had any idea

of Mr. Buxton's plans for them. Her mother's surprise at her engagement

jarred a little upon her too: it had become so natural, even in these last

two hours, to feel that she belonged to him. But there were more discords

to come. Mrs. Browne began again, half in soliloquy:

"I should think he would have four thousand a-year. He did not tell you,

love, did he, if they had still that bad property in the canal, that his

father complained about? But he will have four thousand. Why, you'll have

your carriage, Maggie. Well! I hope Mr. Buxton has taken it kindly, because

he'll have a deal to do with the settlements. I'm sure I thought he was

engaged to Erminia."

Ringing changes on these subjects all the afternoon, Mrs. Browne sat with

Maggie. She occasionally wandered off to speak about Edward, and how

favorably his future prospects would be advanced by the engagement.

"Let me see--there's the house in Combehurst: the rent of that would be

a hundred and fifty a-year, but we'll not reckon that. But there's the

quarries" (she was reckoning upon her fingers in default of a slate, for

which she had vainly searched), "we'll call them two hundred a-year, for

I don't believe Mr. Buxton's stories about their only bringing him

in seven-pence; and there's Newbridge, that's certainly thirteen

hundred--where had I got to, Maggie?"

"Dear mamma, do go and lie down for a little; you look quite flushed," said

Maggie, softly.

Was this the manner to view her betrothal with such a man as Frank?

Her mother's remarks depressed her more than she could have thought it

possible; the excitement of the morning was having its reaction, and she

longed to go up to the solitude under the thorn-tree, where she had hoped

to spend a quiet, thoughtful afternoon.

Nancy came in to replace glasses and spoons in the cupboard. By some

accident, the careful old servant broke one of the former. She looked up

quickly at her mistress, who usually visited all such offences with no

small portion of rebuke.

"Never mind, Nancy," said Mrs. Browne. "It's only an old tumbler;

and Maggie's going to be married, and we must buy a new set for the

wedding-dinner."

Nancy looked at both, bewildered; at last a light dawned into her mind, and

her face looked shrewdly and knowingly back at Mrs. Browne. Then she said,

very quietly:

"I think I'll take the next pitcher to the well myself, and try my luck. To

think how sorry I was for Miss Maggie this morning! 'Poor thing,' says I to

myself, 'to be kept all this time at that confounded well' (for I'll not

deny that I swear a bit to myself at times--it sweetens the blood), 'and

she so tired.' I e'en thought I'd go help her; but I reckon she'd some

other help. May I take a guess at the young man?"

"Four thousand a-year! Nancy;" said Mrs. Browne, exultingly.

"And a blithe look, and a warm, kind heart--and a free step--and a noble

way with him to rich and poor--aye, aye, I know the name. No need to alter

all my neat M.B.'s, done in turkey-red cotton. Well, well! every one's turn

comes sometime, but mine's rather long a-coming."

The faithful old servant came up to Maggie, and put her hand caressingly on

her shoulder. Maggie threw her arms round her neck, and kissed the brown,

withered face.

"God bless thee, bairn," said Nancy, solemnly. It brought the low music of

peace back into the still recesses of Maggie's heart. She began to look out

for her lover; half-hidden behind the muslin window curtain, which waved

gently to and fro in the afternoon breezes. She heard a firm, buoyant step,

and had only time to catch one glimpse of his face, before moving away. But

that one glance made her think that the hours which had elapsed since she

saw him had not been serene to him any more than to her.

When he entered the parlor, his face was glad and bright. He went up in a

frank, rejoicing way to Mrs. Browne; who was evidently rather puzzled

how to receive him--whether as Maggie's betrothed, or as the son of the

greatest man of her acquaintance.

"I am sure, sir," said she, "we are all very much obliged to you for the

honor you have done our family!"

He looked rather perplexed as to the nature of the honor which he had

conferred without knowing it; but as the light dawned upon him, he made

answer in a frank, merry way, which was yet full of respect for his future

mother-in-law:

"And I am sure I am truly grateful for the honor one of your family has

done me."

When Nancy brought in tea she was dressed in her fine-weather Sunday gown;

the first time it had ever been worn out of church, and the walk to and

fro.

After tea, Frank asked Maggie if she would walk out with him; and

accordingly they climbed the Fell-Lane and went out upon the moors, which

seemed vast and boundless as their love.

"Have you told your father?" asked Maggie; a dim anxiety lurking in her

heart.

"Yes," said Frank. He did not go on; and she feared to ask, although she

longed to know, how Mr. Buxton had received the intelligence.

"What did he say?" at length she inquired.

"Oh! it was evidently a new idea to him that I was attached to you; and he

does not take up a new idea speedily. He has had some notion, it seems,

that Erminia and I were to make a match of it; but she and I agreed, when

we talked it over, that we should never have fallen in love with each other

if there had not been another human being in the world. Erminia is a little

sensible creature, and says she does not wonder at any man falling in love

with you. Nay, Maggie, don't hang your head so down; let me have a glimpse

of your face."

"I am sorry your father does not like it," said Maggie, sorrowfully.

"So am I. But we must give him time to get reconciled. Never fear but he

will like it in the long run; he has too much good taste and good feeling.

He must like you."

Frank did not choose to tell even Maggie how violently his father had set

himself against their engagement. He was surprised and annoyed at first to

find how decidedly his father was possessed with the idea that he was to

marry his cousin, and that she, at any rate, was attached to him, whatever

his feelings might be toward her; but after he had gone frankly to Erminia

and told her all, he found that she was as ignorant of her uncle's plans

for her as he had been; and almost as glad at any event which should

frustrate them.

Indeed she came to the moorland cottage on the following day, after Frank

had returned to Cambridge. She had left her horse in charge of the groom,

near the fir-trees on the heights, and came running down the slope in her

habit. Maggie went out to meet her, with just a little wonder at her heart

if what Frank had said could possibly be true; and that Erminia, living in

the house with him, could have remained indifferent to him. Erminia threw

her arms round her neck, and they sat down together on the court-steps.

"I durst not ride down that hill; and Jem is holding my horse, so I may not

stay very long; now begin, Maggie, at once, and go into a rhapsody about

Frank. Is not he a charming fellow? Oh! I am so glad. Now don't sit smiling

and blushing there to yourself; but tell me a great deal about it. I have

so wanted to know somebody that was in love, that I might hear what it was

like; and the minute I could, I came off here. Frank is only just gone. He

has had another long talk with my uncle, since he came back from you this

morning; but I am afraid he has not made much way yet."

Maggie sighed. "I don't wonder at his not thinking me good enough for

Frank.

"No! the difficulty would be to find any one he did think fit for his

paragon of a son."

"He thought you were, dearest Erminia."

"So Frank has told you that, has he? I suppose we shall have no more family

secrets now," said Erminia, laughing. "But I can assure you I had a strong

rival in lady Adela Castlemayne, the Duke of Wight's daughter; she was the

most beautiful lady my uncle had ever seen (he only saw her in the Grand

Stand at Woodchester races, and never spoke a word to her in his life). And

if she would have had Frank, my uncle would still have been dissatisfied

as long as the Princess Victoria was unmarried; none would have been good

enough while a better remained. But Maggie," said she, smiling up into her

friend's face, "I think it would have made you laugh, for all you look as

if a kiss would shake the tears out of your eyes, if you could have seen my

uncle's manner to me all day. He will have it that I am suffering from an

unrequited attachment; so he watched me and watched me over breakfast; and

at last, when I had eaten a whole nest-full of eggs, and I don't know how

many pieces of toast, he rang the bell and asked for some potted charr. I

was quite unconscious that it was for me, and I did not want it when

it came; so he sighed in a most melancholy manner, and said, 'My poor

Erminia!' If Frank had not been there, and looking dreadfully miserable, I

am sure I should have laughed out."

"Did Frank look miserable?" said Maggie, anxiously.

"There now! you don't care for anything but the mention of his name."

"But did he look unhappy?" persisted Maggie.

"I can't say he looked happy, dear Mousey; but it was quite different when

he came back from seeing you. You know you always had the art of stilling

any person's trouble. You and my aunt Buxton are the only two I ever knew

with that gift."

"I am so sorry he has any trouble to be stilled," said Maggie.

"And I think it will do him a world of good. Think how successful his life

has been! the honors he got at Eton! his picture taken, and I don't

know what! and at Cambridge just the same way of going on. He would be

insufferably imperious in a few years, if he did not meet with a few

crosses."

"Imperious!--oh Erminia, how can you say so?"

"Because it's the truth. He happens to have very good dispositions; and

therefore his strong will is not either disagreeable, or offensive; but

once let him become possessed by a wrong wish, and you would then see how

vehement and imperious he would be. Depend upon it, my uncle's resistance

is a capital thing for him. As dear sweet Aunt Buxton would have said,

'There is a holy purpose in it;' and as Aunt Buxton would not have said,

but as I, a 'fool, rush in where angels fear to tread,' I decide that the

purpose is to teach Master Frank patience and submission."

"Erminia--how could you help"--and there Maggie stopped.

"I know what you mean; how could I help falling in love with him? I think

he has not mystery and reserve enough for me. I should like a man with some

deep, impenetrable darkness around him; something one could always keep

wondering about. Besides, think what clashing of wills there would have

been! My uncle was very short-sighted in his plan; but I don't think he

thought so much about the fitness of our characters and ways, as the

fitness of our fortunes!"

"For shame, Erminia! No one cares less for money than Mr. Buxton!"

"There's a good little daughter-in-law elect! But seriously, I do think

he is beginning to care for money; not in the least for himself, but as a

means of aggrandizement for Frank. I have observed, since I came home at

Christmas, a growing anxiety to make the most of his property; a thing he

never cared about before. I don't think he is aware of it himself, but from

one or two little things I have noticed, I should not wonder if he ends in

being avaricious in his old age." Erminia sighed.

Maggie had almost a sympathy with the father, who sought what he imagined

to be for the good of his son, and that son, Frank. Although she was

as convinced as Erminia, that money could not really help any one to

happiness, she could not at the instant resist saying:

"Oh! how I wish I had a fortune! I should so like to give it all to him."

"Now Maggie! don't be silly! I never heard you wish for anything different

from what was before, so I shall take this opportunity of lecturing you

on your folly. No! I won't either, for you look sadly tired with all your

agitation; and besides I must go, or Jem will be wondering what has become

of me. Dearest cousin-in-law, I shall come very often to see you; and

perhaps I shall give you my lecture yet."

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