فصل 04

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فصل 04

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New Friends

The day after Margaret’s meeting with Higgins and his daughter, Mr Hale nervously informed his wife and daughter that he had invited Mr Thornton to tea that night.

‘Mr Thornton! And tonight! What does the man want to come here for?’ Mrs Hale said, with the expression of pain on her face that had recently become habitual.

But since the invitation had been given, preparations had to be made, and Margaret spent the day ironing in the kitchen, while Dixon made cakes.

When Mrs Hale saw her daughter’s tired face, she was upset. ‘If anyone had told me, when I was Miss Beresford, that a child of mine would have to work in the kitchen like a servant, preparing to entertain a tradesman - ‘ ‘Oh, Mother!’ said Margaret. ‘I don’t mind what kind of work I do, if it’s for you and Father. And poor Mr Thornton can’t help being a tradesman. With his education, I don’t suppose he could do anything else.’

In Mr Thornton’s house a similar, yet different scene was taking place. A large-boned woman in her late sixties, with strong features and a severe expression, sat sewing in an expensively decorated dining-room. She was busy mending a long tablecloth when her son entered the room.

‘John, I thought you were going to tea with that friend of Mr Bell’s.’

‘I am, Mother. I’ve come home to change my clothes.’

‘Change your clothes! Why should you put on your best clothes to have a cup of tea with an old clergyman?’

‘Mr Hale is a gentleman and his wife and daughter are ladies.’

‘You have never mentioned his family before.’

‘I have only met the daughter - and that was for half an hour.’

‘Don’t let her try to catch you, John. You’re a rich man.’

Mr Thornton frowned. ‘Mother, when I met her, she treated me as if she was a queen and I was her servant. You need not worry.’ He left the room.

‘As if she was a queen and he was her servant!’ Mrs Thornton thought aloud. ‘Where could a woman find another man like John? He has the best heart I ever knew! I hate her!’

Mr Thornton arrived at the Hales’ house at exactly half-past seven. Mr Hale greeted him kindly and introduced him to his wife, whose pale face and tired manner suggested that she was not well. It was getting dark and Margaret was lighting the lamp as he entered. Looking around the sitting-room, the mill owner was impressed by its prettiness and style; somehow, it was much more comfortable and attractive than any of the rooms in his own large house.

Margaret was serving the tea, and her movements were so graceful that at first he could not take his eyes off her. But soon he and Mr Hale began discussing a subject that interested them both - the relationship between the mill owners and the workers. Now it was Margaret’s turn to watch Mr Thornton and notice how different he was to her father. While Mr Hale’s expression was soft and dreamy, Mr Thornton’s eyes seemed to want to enter the heart of everything he looked at. He rarely smiled, but when he did, it had the effect of sudden sunlight. Margaret liked Mr Thornton’s smile; it was the first thing she had admired in her father’s new friend.

‘I won’t deny that I am proud of belonging to a manufacturing town,’ said Mr Thornton to Mr Hale. ‘I would rather be a working man here than a rich man in the south, living a dull, lazy life.’

Hearing this, Margaret felt so angry that her face reddened. ‘You do not know anything about the south. There is less trade there but there is also less suffering. I see men in the streets here who work so hard they look ill.’

‘And may I say you do not know the north?’ said Mr Thornton gently, seeing that he had really hurt Margaret. But she did not answer and so he continued the conversation with Mr Hale.

‘At the beginning of this century the mill owners had almost unlimited power. We have much less power now. Now there are more factories, and more men are needed, so the relationship between the mill owners and the workers is more evenly balanced. One cannot say who will win the battle.’

‘Must you call it a battle between the two classes?’ asked Mr Hale.

‘But it is a battle. Those who are successful work harder and behave more wisely than those who are not. And it is an unfortunate truth that lazy and foolish people will always oppose those who are successful.’

‘If I understand you correctly, you consider all those who are not successful in the world, for whatever reason, as your enemies, then,’ said Margaret, in a clear, cold voice.

‘As their own enemies, certainly,’ said Mr Thornton, quickly, hurt by the disapproval in her voice. But he felt that he should explain his meaning more clearly. He knew he could best illustrate what he wanted to say by telling them something about his own life. Feeling a little shy, so that his face went slightly red, he continued: ‘I say this because of my own experiences. Sixteen years ago my father died in very miserable circumstances. I was taken from school and had to become a man in only a few days. Fortunately, I had a very strong and determined mother. We went to live in a small country town. There I found work in a clothes shop, and the money I earned, which was very little, had to support my mother, my sister and myself. My mother taught me to save a little money each week, and in this way I learnt self-control. Now that I can afford to look after her in the way she deserves, I thank her silently for teaching me this valuable lesson. I believe that unsuccessful people have not bothered to learn it, and so I feel contempt for them.’

Margaret did not reply to this speech and soon Mr Thornton got up to leave. He shook hands with Mr and Mrs Hale, then went towards Margaret to shake hands with her too, as was the custom in Milton. But it was not the custom in the south and Margaret just bowed, although, as soon as she saw the hand half extended, then quickly withdrawn, she was sorry she had not been aware of his intention. Mr Thornton, however, did not realise this, and walked off angrily, telling himself that she was the proudest, most unpleasant girl he had ever met.

‘Margaret,’ said Mr Hale, after Mr Thornton had left, ‘I could not help watching your face when Mr Thornton confessed that he had been a shop boy. I was aware of it because Mr Bell had told me, but I half expected you to get up and leave the room.’

‘Oh Father, do you really think I am so silly? I liked the story of his childhood more than anything else he said. Everything else disgusted me - he was so hard! He didn’t seem to realise that other people may not have received the training his mother gave him, or that it was his duty to help the less fortunate. But I did like the way he spoke about himself so simply, and with such love and respect for his mother.’

‘I heard a lot about his early life from Mr Bell before we came here,’ said Mr Hale, ‘and as he has told you part of it, I will tell you the rest. His father lost all his money and then killed himself. After his death, no one offered to help the family. Mr Bell said they had very little to eat for years. But when the young man had made enough money, he visited all the people whom his father owed money to and began to pay them back. It was done very quietly, but finally he paid all his father’s debts. It helped him that Mr Bell, one of the people his father owed money to, invited him to work with him.’

‘That was a very fine thing for Mr Thornton to do,’ said Margaret. ‘It is such a pity, then, that wealth is the only thing that matters to him.’

She was getting up to leave the room as she said this and, just as she was opening the door, she said, ‘Father, I do think that Mr Thornton is a very unusual man. But I don’t like him at all.

‘And I do,’ said her father, laughing, ‘although I don’t see him as a hero or anything like that. But goodnight, child. Your mother looks very tired tonight.’

Margaret had noticed her mother’s unhealthy appearance in recent weeks and it had made her anxious. Realising from her father’s remark that he had noticed it too, she felt even more fearful. There were good reasons to worry about her mother’s health. Their life in Milton was so different from the way they had lived in Helstone, where they had spent much of their time outside, in the fresh country air. In Milton the air was heavy with factory smoke and Mrs Hale did not like going out much. And then there were the financial worries and the difficulty in finding a servant. There were other signs that something was wrong. Margaret sometimes heard her mother and Dixon talking in low voices in the bedroom; Dixon would come out crying, which was the way she behaved when Mrs Hale was very upset about something. Margaret suspected that her mother had some secret about her health that she was not telling her.

That night, she lay awake for hours, planning ways in which she could help. If she could find a servant to help Dixon with her duties, then Dixon could give her mother the attention she had been accustomed to all her life.

Margaret spent the next few days looking for a servant, but without success. One afternoon she met Bessy Higgins in the street and stopped to talk to her.

‘Bessy, how are you? Better, I hope, now that it’s warmer.’

‘Better and not better, if you see what I mean.’

‘Not exactly,’ said Margaret, smiling.

‘I’m not coughing, so I’m better in that way. But I’m tired of Milton and I want to go to a better place.’

For a minute or two Margaret did not speak, then she said in a low voice, ‘Bessy, do you really wish to die?’

Bessy replied, ‘If you’d lived the life I’ve lived, and been as sick as I have, then you’d be glad enough when the doctor said he feared you’d never see another winter.’

‘Why, Bessy? What kind of a life have you had?’

‘If you’d come to my house when you said you would, I could maybe have told you.’

‘I have been very busy,’ said Margaret quietly. ‘But may I go home with you now?’

Seeing from Margaret’s soft, friendly expression that she was sincere, Bessy said, ‘You may come if you want.’

They walked together in silence until they reached a narrow, dirty street. When they entered the house, Margaret saw that a girl, younger than Bessy but taller, was washing clothes in a rough, capable way, making a lot of noise as she did so. Bessy sat down, breathless and exhausted, and closed her eyes. Margaret asked the sister, who was called Mary, to fetch a glass of water, and Bessy drank it and felt better. She asked Margaret where she had lived before Milton, and Margaret described Helstone to her, doing her best to describe its beauty.

‘I used to think once that if I could have a day of doing nothing - a day in some quiet place like the one you described - I would feel better,’ Bessy said. ‘But now I’ve had so many days of doing nothing, and I’m just as tired as when I was at work. I was well until mother died, but soon after that I got sick. It was when I began to work in a part of the factory where the air was filled with white dust from the cotton. They say the dust gets into your lungs, and you start coughing blood.’

‘But can’t they do something about it?’ asked Margaret, shocked.

‘There’s a great wheel they can use to blow away the dust, but it costs a lot of money. They didn’t have one at our factory.’

‘How old are you?’ asked Margaret.

‘Nineteen in July.’

‘And I too am nineteen.’ Thinking of the contrast between them, Margaret could not speak for a moment. Then, seeing that Bessy was becoming even more tired, she said, ‘I must go. I will come again as soon as I can. But if I don’t come for a week or two, don’t think I’ve forgotten you. I may be busy.’

‘I know you’ll come again. But remember - in a week or two, I may be dead and buried.’

‘I’ll come as soon as I can,’ said Margaret, holding Bessy’s hand in hers for a moment.

From that day, Mrs Hale seemed to become more and more unwell. It was about ten months now since Edith’s marriage and, looking back, Margaret saw so many difficulties; but there had been moments of real pleasure, and it was a comfort to her that she and her mother were becoming closer at last.

One evening, when Mr Hale was away, Mrs Hale began to talk about Frederick. She explained that he had taken the name of Dickinson so that he would not be recognised. She told Margaret to go to her desk and open a drawer, where she would find his letters. Margaret carried the yellow, sea-stained letters to her mother, who untied the string that held them together with trembling fingers. She gave them to Margaret to read, and at the same time told her the story of the mutiny, as she had learnt it from Frederick.

Captain Reid, the captain of the Russell, Frederick’s ship, had been a cruel man who treated his men so badly that one of them had died. The men had mutinied and put Captain Reid off the Russell, sending him out in a boat with some of his officers; the boat had been found some days later by a West Indian ship. Frederick, who was one of the most senior officers, had been among those who had mutinied. Reporting the incident, the English newspapers had named him as one of those responsible for the mutiny, and said that he ought to be hung by the neck.

‘He fought injustice and I am proud of him,’ said Mrs Hale in a weak voice. ‘But I wish I could see him once more.’

‘It is seven years ago - would they still hang him, Mother?’

‘Some of the sailors who mutinied were captured and tried in court. They were hanged. And the worst thing was that the court said that their superior officers had encouraged them to mutiny.’

The two women were silent for a long time.

‘And Frederick was in South America for several years?’

‘Yes. And now he is in Spain, somewhere near Cadiz. If he comes to England he will be hanged. I shall never see his face again.’

Mrs Hale turned her face to the wall and lay very still; nothing could be said to comfort her. When her father came in, Margaret left the room, seeing no promise of brightness anywhere.

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