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    Chapter 30

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    Chapter 31
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    CHAPTER XXX - HOME AT LAST

    'The saddest birds a season find to sing.'

    SOUTHWELL.

    'Never to fold the robe o'er secret pain,

    Never, weighed down by memory's clouds again,

    To bow thy head! Thou art gone home!'

    MRS. HEMANS.

    Mrs. Thornton came to see Mrs. Hale the next morning. She was
    much worse. One of those sudden changes--those great visible
    strides towards death, had been taken in the night, and her own
    family were startled by the gray sunken look her features had
    assumed in that one twelve hours of suffering. Mrs. Thornton--who
    had not seen her for weeks--was softened all at once. She had
    come because her son asked it from her as a personal favour, but
    with all the proud bitter feelings of her nature in arms against
    that family of which Margaret formed one. She doubted the reality
    of Mrs. Hale's illness; she doubted any want beyond a momentary
    fancy on that lady's part, which should take her out of her
    previously settled course of employment for the day. She told her
    son that she wished they had never come near the place; that he
    had never got acquainted with them; that there had been no such
    useless languages as Latin and Greek ever invented. He bore all
    this pretty silently; but when she had ended her invective
    against the dead languages, he quietly returned to the short,
    curt, decided expression of his wish that she should go and see
    Mrs. Hale at the time appointed, as most likely to be convenient
    to the invalid. Mrs. Thornton submitted with as bad a grace as
    she could to her son's desire, all the time liking him the better
    for having it; and exaggerating in her own mind the same notion
    that he had of extraordinary goodness on his part in so
    perseveringly keeping up with the Hales.

    His goodness verging on weakness (as all the softer virtues did
    in her mind), and her own contempt for Mr. and Mrs. Hale, and
    positive dislike to Margaret, were the ideas which occupied Mrs.
    Thornton, till she was struck into nothingness before the dark
    shadow of the wings of the angel of death. There lay Mrs. Hale--a
    mother like herself--a much younger woman than she was,--on the
    bed from which there was no sign of hope that she might ever rise
    again No more variety of light and shade for her in that darkened
    room; no power of action, scarcely change of movement; faint
    alternations of whispered sound and studious silence; and yet
    that monotonous life seemed almost too much! When Mrs. Thornton,
    strong and prosperous with life, came in, Mrs. Hale lay still,
    although from the look on her face she was evidently conscious of
    who it was. But she did not even open her eyes for a minute or
    two. The heavy moisture of tears stood on the eye-lashes before
    she looked up, then with her hand groping feebly over the
    bed-clothes, for the touch of Mrs. Thornton's large firm fingers,
    she said, scarcely above her breath--Mrs. Thornton had to stoop
    from her erectness to listen,--

    'Margaret--you have a daughter--my sister is in Italy. My child
    will be without a mother;--in a strange place,--if I die--will
    you'----

    And her filmy wandering eyes fixed themselves with an intensity
    of wistfulness on Mrs. Thornton's face For a minute, there was no
    change in its rigidness; it was stern and unmoved;--nay, but that
    the eyes of the sick woman were growing dim with the
    slow-gathering tears, she might have seen a dark cloud cross the
    cold features. And it was no thought of her son, or of her living
    daughter Fanny, that stirred her heart at last; but a sudden
    remembrance, suggested by something in the arrangement of the
    room,--of a little daughter--dead in infancy--long years
    ago--that, like a sudden sunbeam, melted the icy crust, behind
    which there was a real tender woman.

    'You wish me to be a friend to Miss Hale,' said Mrs. Thornton, in
    her measured voice, that would not soften with her heart, but
    came out distinct and clear.

    Mrs. Hale, her eyes still fixed on Mrs. Thornton's face, pressed
    the hand that lay below hers on the coverlet. She could not
    speak. Mrs. Thornton sighed, 'I will. be a true friend, if
    circumstances require it Not a tender friend. That I cannot
    be,'--('to her,' she was on the point of adding, but she relented
    at the sight of that poor, anxious face.)--'It is not my nature
    to show affection even where I feel it, nor do I volunteer advice
    in general. Still, at your request,--if it will be any comfort to
    you, I will promise you.' Then came a pause. Mrs. Thornton was
    too conscientious to promise what she did not mean to perform;
    and to perform any-thing in the way of kindness on behalf of
    Margaret, more disliked at this moment than ever, was difficult;
    almost impossible.

    'I promise,' said she, with grave severity; which, after all,
    inspired the dying woman with faith as in something more stable
    than life itself,--flickering, flitting, wavering life! 'I
    promise that in any difficulty in which Miss Hale'----

    'Call her Margaret!' gasped Mrs. Hale.

    'In which she comes to me for help, I will help her with every
    power I have, as if she were my own daughter. I also promise that
    if ever I see her doing what I think is wrong'----

    'But Margaret never does wrong--not wilfully wrong,' pleaded Mrs.
    Hale. Mrs. Thornton went on as before; as if she had not heard:

    'If ever I see her doing what I believe to be wrong--such wrong
    not touching me or mine, in which case I might be supposed to
    have an interested motive--I will tell her of it, faithfully and
    plainly, as I should wish my own daughter to be told.'

    There was a long pause. Mrs. Hale felt that this promise did not
    include all; and yet it was much. It had reservations in it which
    she did not understand; but then she was weak, dizzy, and tired.
    Mrs. Thornton was reviewing all the probable cases in which she
    had pledged herself to act. She had a fierce pleasure in the idea
    of telling Margaret unwelcome truths, in the shape of performance
    of duty. Mrs. Hale began to speak:

    'I thank you. I pray God to bless you. I shall never see you
    again in this world. But my last words are, I thank you for your
    promise of kindness to my child.'

    'Not kindness!' testified Mrs. Thornton, ungraciously truthful to
    the last. But having eased her conscience by saying these words,
    she was not sorry that they were not heard. She pressed Mrs.
    Hale's soft languid hand; and rose up and went her way out of the
    house without seeing a creature.

    During the time that Mrs. Thornton was having this interview with
    Mrs. Hale, Margaret and Dixon were laying their heads together,
    and consulting how they should keep Frederick's coming a profound
    secret to all out of the house. A letter from him might now be
    expected any day; and he would assuredly follow quickly on its
    heels. Martha must be sent away on her holiday; Dixon must keep
    stern guard on the front door, only admitting the few visitors
    that ever came to the house into Mr. Hale's room
    down-stairs--Mrs. Hale's extreme illness giving her a good excuse
    for this. If Mary Higgins was required as a help to Dixon in the
    kitchen she was to hear and see as little of Frederick as
    possible; and he was, if necessary to be spoken of to her under
    the name of Mr. Dickinson. But. her sluggish and incurious nature
    was the greatest safeguard of all.

    They resolved that Martha should leave them that very afternoon
    for this visit to her mother. Margaret wished that she had been
    sent away on the previous day, as she fancied it might be thought
    strange to give a servant a holiday when her mistress's state
    required so much attendance.

    Poor Margaret! All that afternoon she had to act the part of a
    Roman daughter, and give strength out of her own scanty stock to
    her father. Mr. hale would hope, would not despair, between the
    attacks of his wife's malady; he buoyed himself up in every
    respite from her pain, and believed that it was the beginning of
    ultimate recovery. And so, when the paroxysms came on, each more
    severe than the last, they were fresh agonies, and greater
    disappointments to him. This afternoon, he sat in the
    drawing-room, unable to bear the solitude of his study, or to
    employ himself in any way. He buried his head in his arms, which
    lay folded on the table. Margaret's heart ached to see him; yet,
    as he did not speak, she did not like to volunteer any attempt at
    comfort. Martha was gone. Dixon sat with Mrs. Hale while she
    slept. The house was very still and quiet, and darkness came on,
    without any movement to procure candles. Margaret sat at the
    window, looking out at the lamps and the street, but seeing
    nothing,--only alive to her father's heavy sighs. She did not
    like to go down for lights, lest the tacit restraint of her
    presence being withdrawn, he might give way to more violent
    emotion, without her being at hand to comfort him. Yet she was
    just thinking that she ought to go and see after the well-doing
    of the kitchen fire, which there was nobody but herself to attend
    to when she heard the muffled door-ring with so violent a pull,
    that the wires jingled all through the house, though the positive
    sound was not great. She started up, passed her father, who had
    never moved at the veiled, dull sound,--returned, and kissed him
    tenderly. And still he never moved, nor took any notice of her
    fond embrace. Then she went down softly, through the dark, to the
    door. Dixon would have put the chain on before she opened it, but
    Margaret had not a thought of fear in her pre-occupied mind. A
    man's tall figure stood between her and the luminous street. He
    was looking away; but at the sound of the latch he turned quickly
    round.

    'Is this Mr. Hale's?' said he, in a clear, full, delicate voice.

    Margaret trembled all over; at first she did not answer. In a
    moment she sighed out,

    'Frederick!' and stretched out both her hands to Catch his, and
    draw him in.

    'Oh, Margaret!' said he, holding her off by her shoulders, after
    they had kissed each other, as if even in that darkness he could
    see her face, and read in its expression a quicker answer to his
    question than words could give,--

    'My mother! is she alive?'

    'Yes, she is alive, dear, dear brother! She--as ill as she can be
    she is; but alive! She is alive!'

    'Thank God!' said he.

    'Papa is utterly prostrate with this great grief.'

    'You expect me, don't you?'

    'No, we have had no letter.'

    'Then I have come before it. But my mother knows I am coming?'

    'Oh! we all knew you would come. But wait a little! Step in here.
    Give me your hand. What is this? Oh! your carpet-bag. Dixon has
    shut the shutters; but this is papa's study, and I can take you
    to a chair to rest yourself for a few minutes; while I go and
    tell him.'

    She groped her way to the taper and the lucifer matches. She
    suddenly felt shy, when the little feeble light made them
    visible. All she could see was, that her brother's face was
    unusually dark in complexion, and she caught the stealthy look of
    a pair of remarkably long-cut blue eyes, that suddenly twinkled
    up with a droll consciousness of their mutual purpose of
    inspecting each other. But though the brother and sister had an
    instant of sympathy in their reciprocal glances, they did not
    exchange a word; only, Margaret felt sure that she should like
    her brother as a companion as much as she already loved him as a
    near relation. Her heart was wonderfully lighter as she went
    up-stairs; the sorrow was no less in reality, but it became less
    oppressive from having some one in precisely the same relation to
    it as that in which she stood. Not her father's desponding
    attitude had power to damp her now. He lay across the table,
    helpless as ever; but she had the spell by which to rouse him.
    She used it perhaps too violently in her own great relief.

    'Papa,' said she, throwing her arms fondly round his neck;
    pulling his weary head up in fact with her gentle violence, till
    it rested in her arms, and she could look into his eyes, and let
    them gain strength and assurance from hers.

    'Papa! guess who is here!'

    He looked at her; she saw the idea of the truth glimmer into
    their filmy sadness, and be dismissed thence as a wild
    imagination.

    He threw himself forward, and hid his face once more in his
    stretched-out arms, resting upon the table as heretofore. She
    heard him whisper; she bent tenderly down to listen. 'I don't
    know. Don't tell me it is Frederick--not Frederick. I cannot bear
    it,--I am too weak. And his mother is dying!'He began to cry and
    wail like a child. It was so different to all which Margaret had
    hoped and expected, that she turned sick with disappointment, and
    was silent for an instant. Then she spoke again--very
    differently--not so exultingly, far more tenderly and carefully.

    'Papa, it is Frederick! Think of mamma, how glad she will be! And
    oh, for her sake, how glad we ought to be! For his sake,
    too,--our poor, poor boy!'

    Her father did not change his attitude, but he seemed to be
    trying to understand the fact.

    'Where is he?' asked he at last, his face still hidden in his
    prostrate arms.

    'In your study, quite alone. I lighted the taper, and ran up to
    tell you. He is quite alone, and will be wondering why--'

    'I will go to him,' broke in her father; and he lifted himself up
    and leant on her arm as on that of a guide.

    Margaret led him to the study door, but her spirits were so
    agitated that she felt she could not bear to see the meeting. She
    turned away, and ran up-stairs, and cried most heartily. It was
    the first time she had dared to allow herself this relief for
    days. The strain had been terrible, as she now felt. But
    Frederick was come! He, the one precious brother, was there,
    safe, amongst them again! She could hardly believe it. She
    stopped her crying, and opened her bedroom door. She heard no
    sound of voices, and almost feared she might have dreamt. She
    went down-stairs, and listened at the study door. She heard the
    buzz of voices; and that was enough. She went into the kitchen,
    and stirred up the fire, and lighted the house, and prepared for
    the wanderer's refreshment. How fortunate it was that her mother
    slept! She knew that she did, from the candle-lighter thrust
    through the keyhole of her bedroom door. The traveller could be
    refreshed and bright, and the first excitement of the meeting
    with his father all be over, before her mother became aware of
    anything unusual.

    When all was ready, Margaret opened the study door, and went in
    like a serving-maiden, with a heavy tray. held in her extended
    arms. She was proud of serving Frederick. But he, when he saw
    her, sprang up in a minute, and relieved her of her burden. It
    was a type, a sign, of all the coming relief which his presence
    would bring. The brother and sister arranged the table together,
    saying little, but their hands touching, and their eyes speaking
    the natural language of expression, so intelligible to those of
    the same blood. The fire had gone out; and Margaret applied
    herself to light it, for the evenings had begun to be chilly; and
    yet it was desirable to make all noises as distant as possible
    from Mrs. Hale's room.

    'Dixon says it is a gift to light a fire; not an art to be
    acquired.'

    'Poeta nascitur, non fit,' murmured Mr. Hale; and Margaret was
    glad to hear a quotation once more, however languidly given.

    'Dear old Dixon! How we shall kiss each other!' said Frederick.
    'She used to kiss me, and then look in my face to be sure I was
    the right person, and then set to again! But, Margaret, what a
    bungler you are! I never saw such a little awkward,
    good-for-nothing pair of hands. Run away, and wash them, ready to
    cut bread-and-butter for me, and leave the fire. I'll manage it.
    Lighting fires is one of my natural accomplishments.'

    So Margaret went away; and returned; and passed in and out of the
    room, in a glad restlessness that could not be satisfied with
    sitting still. The more wants Frederick had, the better she was
    pleased; and he understood all this by instinct. It was a joy
    snatched in the house of mourning, and the zest of it was all the
    more pungent, because they knew in the depths of their hearts
    what irremediable sorrow awaited them.

    In the middle, they heard Dixon's foot on the stairs. Mr. Hale
    started from his languid posture in his great armchair, from
    which he had been watching his children in a dreamy way, as if
    they were acting some drama of happiness, which it was pretty to
    look at, but which was distinct from reality, and in which he had
    no part. He stood up, and faced the door, showing such a strange,
    sudden anxiety to conceal Frederick from the sight of any person
    entering, even though it were the faithful Dixon, that a shiver
    came over Margaret's heart: it reminded her of the new fear in
    their lives. She caught at Frederick's arm, and clutched it
    tight, while a stern thought compressed her brows, and caused her
    to set her teeth. And yet they knew it was only Dixon's measured
    tread. They heard her walk the length of the passage, into the
    kitchen. Margaret rose up.

    I will go to her, and tell her. And I shall hear how mamma is.'
    Mrs. Hale was awake. She rambled at first; but after they had
    given her some tea she was refreshed, though not disposed to
    talk. It was better that the night should pass over before she
    was told of her son's arrival. Dr. Donaldson's appointed visit
    would bring nervous excitement enough for the evening; and he
    might tell them how to prepare her for seeing Frederick. He was
    there, in the house; could be summoned at any moment.

    Margaret could not sit still. It was a relief to her to aid Dixon
    in all her preparations for 'Master Frederick.' It seemed as
    though she never could be tired again. Each glimpse into the room
    where he sate by his father, conversing with him, about, she knew
    not what, nor cared to know,--was increase of strength to her.
    Her own time for talking and hearing would come at last, and she
    was too certain of this to feel in a hurry to grasp it now. She
    took in his appearance and liked it. He had delicate features,
    redeemed from effeminacy by the swarthiness of his complexion,
    and his quick intensity of expression. His eyes were generally
    merry-looking, but at times they and his mouth so suddenly
    changed, and gave her such an idea of latent passion, that it
    almost made her afraid. But this look was only for an instant;
    and had in it no doggedness, no vindictiveness; it was rather the
    instantaneous ferocity of expression that comes over the
    countenances of all natives of wild or southern countries--a
    ferocity which enhances the charm of the childlike softness into
    which such a look may melt away. Margaret might fear the violence
    of the impulsive nature thus occasionally betrayed, but there was
    nothing in it to make her distrust, or recoil in the least, from
    the new-found brother. On the contrary, all their intercourse was
    peculiarly charming to her from the very first. She knew then how
    much responsibility she had had to bear, from the exquisite
    sensation of relief which she felt in Frederick's presence. He
    understood his father and mother--their characters and their
    weaknesses, and went along with a careless freedom, which was yet
    most delicately careful not to hurt or wound any of their
    feelings. He seemed to know instinctively when a little of the
    natural brilliancy of his manner and conversation would not jar
    on the deep depression of his father, or might relieve his
    mother's pain. Whenever it would have been out of tune, and out
    of time, his patient devotion and watchfulness came into play,
    and made him an admirable nurse. Then Margaret was almost touched
    into tears by the allusions which he often made to their childish
    days in the New Forest; he had never forgotten her--or Helstone
    either--all the time he had been roaming among distant countries
    and foreign people. She might talk to him of the old spot, and
    never fear tiring him. She had been afraid of him before he came,
    even while she had longed for his coming; seven or eight years
    had, she felt, produced such great changes in herself that,
    forgetting how much of the original Margaret was left, she had
    reasoned that if her tastes and feelings had so materially
    altered, even in her stay-at-home life, his wild career, with
    which she was but imperfectly acquainted, must have almost
    substituted another Frederick for the tall stripling in his
    middy's uniform, whom she remembered looking up to with such
    admiring awe. But in their absence they had grown nearer to each
    other in age, as well as in many other things. And so it was that
    the weight, this sorrowful time, was lightened to Margaret. Other
    light than that of Frederick's presence she had none. For a few
    hours, the mother rallied on seeing her son. She sate with his
    hand in hers; she would not part with it even while she slept;
    and Margaret had to feed him like a baby, rather than that he
    should disturb her mother by removing a finger. Mrs. Hale wakened
    while they were thus engaged; she slowly moved her head round on
    the pillow, and smiled at her children, as she understood what
    they were doing, and why it was done.

    'I am very selfish,' said she; 'but it will not be for long.'
    Frederick bent down and kissed the feeble hand that imprisoned
    his.

    This state of tranquillity could not endure for many days, nor
    perhaps for many hours; so Dr. Donaldson assured Margaret. After
    the kind doctor had gone away, she stole down to Frederick, who,
    during the visit, had been adjured to remain quietly concealed in
    the back parlour, usually Dixon's bedroom, but now given up to
    him.

    Margaret told him what Dr. Donaldson said.

    'I don't believe it,' he exclaimed. 'She is very ill; she may be
    dangerously ill, and in immediate danger, too; but I can't
    imagine that she could be as she is, if she were on the point of
    death. Margaret! she should have some other advice--some London
    doctor. Have you never thought of that?'

    'Yes,' said Margaret, 'more than once. But I don't believe it
    would do any good. And, you know, we have not the money to bring
    any great London surgeon down, and I am sure Dr. Donaldson is
    only second in skill to the very best,--if, indeed, he is to
    them.'

    Frederick began to walk up and down the room impatiently.

    'I have credit in Cadiz,' said he, 'but none here, owing to this
    wretched change of name. Why did my father leave Helstone? That
    was the blunder.'

    'It was no blunder,' said Margaret gloomily. 'And above all
    possible chances, avoid letting papa hear anything like what you
    have just been saying. I can see that he is tormenting himself
    already with the idea that mamma would never have been ill if we
    had stayed at Helstone, and you don't know papa's agonising power
    of self-reproach!'

    Frederick walked away as if he were on the quarter-deck. At last
    he stopped right opposite to Margaret, and looked at her drooping
    and desponding attitude for an instant.

    'My little Margaret!' said he, caressing her. 'Let us hope as
    long as we can. Poor little woman! what! is this face all wet
    with tears? I will hope. I will, in spite of a thousand doctors.
    Bear up, Margaret, and be brave enough to hope!'

    Margaret choked in trying to speak, and when she did it was very
    low.

    'I must try to be meek enough to trust. Oh, Frederick! mamma was
    getting to love me so! And I was getting to understand her. And
    now comes death to snap us asunder!'

    'Come, come, come! Let us go up-stairs, and do something, rather
    than waste time that may be so precious. Thinking has, many a
    time, made me sad, darling; but doing never did in all my life.
    My theory is a sort of parody on the maxim of "Get money, my son,
    honestly if you can; but get money." My precept is, "Do something,
    my sister, do good if you can; but, at any rate, do something."'

    'Not excluding mischief,' said Margaret, smiling faintly through
    her tears.

    'By no means. What I do exclude is the remorse afterwards. Blot
    your misdeeds out (if you are particularly conscientious), by a
    good deed, as soon as you can; just as we did a correct sum at
    school on the slate, where an incorrect one was only half rubbed
    out. It was better than wetting our sponge with our tears; both
    less loss of time where tears had to be waited for, and a better
    effect at last.'

    If Margaret thought Frederick's theory rather a rough one at
    first, she saw how he worked it out into continual production of
    kindness in fact. After a bad night with his mother (for he
    insisted on taking his turn as a sitter-up) he was busy next
    morning before breakfast, contriving a leg-rest for Dixon, who
    was beginning to feel the fatigues of watching. At
    breakfast-time, he interested Mr. Hale with vivid, graphic,
    rattling accounts of the wild life he had led in Mexico, South
    America, and elsewhere. Margaret would have given up the effort
    in despair to rouse Mr. Hale out of his dejection; it would even
    have affected herself and rendered her incapable of talking at
    all. But Fred, true to his theory, did something perpetually; and
    talking was the only thing to be done, besides eating, at
    breakfast.

    Before the night of that day, Dr. Donaldson's opinion was proved
    to be too well founded. Convulsions came on; and when they
    ceased, Mrs. Hale was unconscious. Her husband might lie by her
    shaking the bed with his sobs; her son's strong arms might lift
    her tenderly up into a comfortable position; her daughter's hands
    might bathe her face; but she knew them not. She would never
    recognise them again, till they met in Heaven.

    Before the morning came all was over.

    Then Margaret rose from her trembling and despondency, and became
    as a strong angel of comfort to her father and brother. For
    Frederick had broken down now, and all his theories were of no
    use to him. He cried so violently when shut up alone in his
    little room at night, that Margaret and Dixon came down in
    affright to warn him to be quiet: for the house partitions were
    but thin, and the next-door neighbours might easily hear his
    youthful passionate sobs, so different from the slower trembling
    agony of after-life, when we become inured to grief, and dare not
    be rebellious against the inexorable doom, knowing who it is that
    decrees.

    Margaret sate with her father in the room with the dead. If he
    had cried, she would have been thankful. But he sate by the bed
    quite quietly; only, from time to time, he uncovered the face,
    and stroked it gently, making a kind of soft inarticulate noise,
    like that of some mother-animal caressing her young. He took no
    notice of Margaret's presence. Once or twice she came up to kiss
    him; and he submitted to it, giving her a little push away when
    she had done, as if her affection disturbed him from his
    absorption in the dead. He started when he heard Frederick's
    cries, and shook his head:--'Poor boy! poor boy!' he said, and
    took no more notice. Margaret's heart ached within her. She could
    not think of her own loss in thinking of her father's case. The
    night was wearing away, and the day was at hand, when, without a
    word of preparation, Margaret's voice broke upon the stillness of
    the room, with a clearness of sound that startled even herself:
    'Let not your heart be troubled,' it said; and she went steadily
    on through all that chapter of unspeakable consolation.
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    Chapter 31
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