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    Book 4 - Chapter 2

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    Chapter 31
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    The Torn Nest Is Pierced by the Thorns

    There is something sustaining in the very agitation that accompanies
    the first shocks of trouble, just as an acute pain is often a
    stimulus, and produces an excitement which is transient strength. It
    is in the slow, changed life that follows; in the time when sorrow has
    become stale, and has no longer an emotive intensity that counteracts
    its pain; in the time when day follows day in dull, unexpectant
    sameness, and trial is a dreary routine,--it is then that despair
    threatens; it is then that the peremptory hunger of the soul is felt,
    and eye and ear are strained after some unlearned secret of our
    existence, which shall give to endurance the nature of satisfaction.

    This time of utmost need was come to Maggie, with her short span of
    thirteen years. To the usual precocity of the girl, she added that
    early experience of struggle, of conflict between the inward impulse
    and outward fact, which is the lot of every imaginative and passionate
    nature; and the years since she hammered the nails into her wooden
    Fetish among the worm-eaten shelves of the attic had been filled with
    so eager a life in the triple world of Reality, Books, and Waking
    Dreams, that Maggie was strangely old for her years in everything
    except in her entire want of that prudence and self-command which were
    the qualities that made Tom manly in the midst of his intellectual
    boyishness. And now her lot was beginning to have a still, sad
    monotony, which threw her more than ever on her inward self. Her
    father was able to attend to business again, his affairs were settled,
    and he was acting as Wakem's manager on the old spot. Tom went to and
    fro every morning and evening, and became more and more silent in the
    short intervals at home; what was there to say? One day was like
    another; and Tom's interest in life, driven back and crushed on every
    other side, was concentrating itself into the one channel of ambitious
    resistance to misfortune. The peculiarities of his father and mother
    were very irksome to him, now they were laid bare of all the softening
    accompaniments of an easy, prosperous home; for Tom had very clear,
    prosaic eyes, not apt to be dimmed by mists of feeling or imagination.
    Poor Mrs. Tulliver, it seemed, would never recover her old self, her
    placid household activity; how could she? The objects among which her
    mind had moved complacently were all gone,--all the little hopes and
    schemes and speculations, all the pleasant little cares about her
    treasures which had made the world quite comprehensible to her for a
    quarter of a century, since she had made her first purchase of the
    sugar-tongs, had been suddenly snatched away from her, and she
    remained bewildered in this empty life. Why that should have happened
    to her which had not happened to other women remained an insoluble
    question by which she expressed her perpetual ruminating comparison of
    the past with the present. It was piteous to see the comely woman
    getting thinner and more worn under a bodily as well as mental
    restlessness, which made her often wander about the empty house after
    her work was done, until Maggie, becoming alarmed about her, would
    seek her, and bring her down by telling her how it vexed Tom that she
    was injuring her health by never sitting down and resting herself. Yet
    amidst this helpless imbecility there was a touching trait of humble,
    self-devoting maternity, which made Maggie feel tenderly toward her
    poor mother amidst all the little wearing griefs caused by her mental
    feebleness. She would let Maggie do none of the work that was heaviest
    and most soiling to the hands, and was quite peevish when Maggie
    attempted to relieve her from her grate-brushing and scouring: "Let it
    alone, my dear; your hands 'ull get as hard as hard," she would say;
    "it's your mother's place to do that. I can't do the sewing--my eyes
    fail me." And she would still brush and carefully tend Maggie's hair,
    which she had become reconciled to, in spite of its refusal to curl,
    now it was so long and massy. Maggie was not her pet child, and, in
    general, would have been much better if she had been quite different;
    yet the womanly heart, so bruised in its small personal desires, found
    a future to rest on in the life of this young thing, and the mother
    pleased herself with wearing out her own hands to save the hands that
    had so much more life in them.

    But the constant presence of her mother's regretful bewilderment was
    less painful to Maggie than that of her father's sullen,
    incommunicative depression. As long as the paralysis was upon him, and
    it seemed as if he might always be in a childlike condition of
    dependence,--as long as he was still only half awakened to his
    trouble,--Maggie had felt the strong tide of pitying love almost as an
    inspiration, a new power, that would make the most difficult life easy
    for his sake; but now, instead of childlike dependence, there had come
    a taciturn, hard concentration of purpose, in strange contrast with
    his old vehement communicativeness and high spirit; and this lasted
    from day to day, and from week to week, the dull eye never brightening
    with any eagerness or any joy. It is something cruelly incomprehensible
    to youthful natures, this sombre sameness in middle-aged and elderly
    people, whose life has resulted in disappointment and discontent, to
    whose faces a smile becomes so strange that the sad lines all about
    the lips and brow seem to take no notice of it, and it hurries away
    again for want of a welcome. "Why will they not kindle up and be
    glad sometimes?" thinks young elasticity. "It would be so easy if they
    only liked to do it." And these leaden clouds that never part are apt
    to create impatience even in the filial affection that streams forth in
    nothing but tenderness and pity in the time of more obvious affliction.

    Mr. Tulliver lingered nowhere away from home; he hurried away from
    market, he refused all invitations to stay and chat, as in old times,
    in the houses where he called on business. He could not be reconciled
    with his lot. There was no attitude in which his pride did not feel
    its bruises; and in all behavior toward him, whether kind or cold, he
    detected an allusion to the change in his circumstances. Even the days
    on which Wakem came to ride round the land and inquire into the
    business were not so black to him as those market-days on which he had
    met several creditors who had accepted a composition from him. To save
    something toward the repayment of those creditors was the object
    toward which he was now bending all his thoughts and efforts; and
    under the influence of this all-compelling demand of his nature, the
    somewhat profuse man, who hated to be stinted or to stint any one else
    in his own house, was gradually metamorphosed into the keen-eyed
    grudger of morsels. Mrs. Tulliver could not economize enough to
    satisfy him, in their food and firing; and he would eat nothing
    himself but what was of the coarsest quality. Tom, though depressed
    and strongly repelled by his father's sullenness, and the dreariness
    of home, entered thoroughly into his father's feelings about paying
    the creditors; and the poor lad brought his first quarter's money,
    with a delicious sense of achievement, and gave it to his father to
    put into the tin box which held the savings. The little store of
    sovereigns in the tin box seemed to be the only sight that brought a
    faint beam of pleasure into the miller's eyes,--faint and transient,
    for it was soon dispelled by the thought that the time would be
    long--perhaps longer than his life,--before the narrow savings could
    remove the hateful incubus of debt. A deficit of more than five
    hundred pounds, with the accumulating interest, seemed a deep pit to
    fill with the savings from thirty shillings a-week, even when Tom's
    probable savings were to be added. On this one point there was entire
    community of feeling in the four widely differing beings who sat round
    the dying fire of sticks, which made a cheap warmth for them on the
    verge of bedtime. Mrs. Tulliver carried the proud integrity of the
    Dodsons in her blood, and had been brought up to think that to wrong
    people of their money, which was another phrase for debt, was a sort
    of moral pillory; it would have been wickedness, to her mind, to have
    run counter to her husband's desire to "do the right thing," and
    retrieve his name. She had a confused, dreamy notion that, if the
    creditors were all paid, her plate and linen ought to come back to
    her; but she had an inbred perception that while people owed money
    they were unable to pay, they couldn't rightly call anything their
    own. She murmured a little that Mr. Tulliver so peremptorily refused
    to receive anything in repayment from Mr. and Mrs. Moss; but to all
    his requirements of household economy she was submissive to the point
    of denying herself the cheapest indulgences of mere flavor; her only
    rebellion was to smuggle into the kitchen something that would make
    rather a better supper than usual for Tom.

    These narrow notions about debt, held by the old fashioned Tullivers,
    may perhaps excite a smile on the faces of many readers in these days
    of wide commercial views and wide philosophy, according to which
    everything rights itself without any trouble of ours. The fact that my
    tradesman is out of pocket by me is to be looked at through the serene
    certainty that somebody else's tradesman is in pocket by somebody
    else; and since there must be bad debts in the world, why, it is mere
    egoism not to like that we in particular should make them instead of
    our fellow-citizens. I am telling the history of very simple people,
    who had never had any illuminating doubts as to personal integrity and
    honor.

    Under all this grim melancholy and narrowing concentration of desire,
    Mr. Tulliver retained the feeling toward his "little wench" which made
    her presence a need to him, though it would not suffice to cheer him.
    She was still the desire of his eyes; but the sweet spring of fatherly
    love was now mingled with bitterness, like everything else. When
    Maggie laid down her work at night, it was her habit to get a low
    stool and sit by her father's knee, leaning her cheek against it. How
    she wished he would stroke her head, or give some sign that he was
    soothed by the sense that he had a daughter who loved him! But now she
    got no answer to her little caresses, either from her father or from
    Tom,--the two idols of her life. Tom was weary and abstracted in the
    short intervals when he was at home, and her father was bitterly
    preoccupied with the thought that the girl was growing up, was
    shooting up into a woman; and how was she to do well in life? She had
    a poor chance for marrying, down in the world as they were. And he
    hated the thought of her marrying poorly, as her aunt Gritty had done;
    _that_ would be a thing to make him turn in his grave,--the little
    wench so pulled down by children and toil, as her aunt Moss was. When
    uncultured minds, confined to a narrow range of personal experience,
    are under the pressure of continued misfortune, their inward life is
    apt to become a perpetually repeated round of sad and bitter thoughts;
    the same words, the same scenes, are revolved over and over again, the
    same mood accompanies them; the end of the year finds them as much
    what they were at the beginning as if they were machines set to a
    recurrent series of movements.

    The sameness of the days was broken by few visitors. Uncles and aunts
    paid only short visits now; of course, they could not stay to meals,
    and the constraint caused by Mr. Tulliver's savage silence, which
    seemed to add to the hollow resonance of the bare, uncarpeted room
    when the aunts were talking, heightened the unpleasantness of these
    family visits on all sides, and tended to make them rare. As for other
    acquaintances, there is a chill air surrounding those who are down in
    the world, and people are glad to get away from them, as from a cold
    room; human beings, mere men and women, without furniture, without
    anything to offer you, who have ceased to count as anybody, present an
    embarrassing negation of reasons for wishing to see them, or of
    subjects on which to converse with them. At that distant day, there
    was a dreary isolation in the civilized Christian society of these
    realms for families that had dropped below their original level,
    unless they belonged to a sectarian church, which gets some warmth of
    brotherhood by walling in the sacred fire.
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