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her, for she is a very precious creature,--a great deal too good for Milton,--only fit for Oxford, in fact. The town, I mean; not the men. I can't match her yet. When I can, I shall bring my young man to stand side by side with your young woman, just as the genie in the Arabian Nights brought Prince Caralmazan to match with the fairy's Princess Badoura.'
'I beg you'll do no such thing. Remember the misfortunes that ensued; and besides, I can't spare Margaret.'
'No; on second thoughts, we'll have her to nurse us ten years hence, when we shall be two cross old invalids. Seriously, Hale! I wish you'd leave Milton; which is a most unsuitable place for you, though it was my recommendation in the first instance. If you would; I'd swallow my shadows of doubts, and take a college living; and you and Margaret should come and live at the parsonage--you to be a sort of lay curate, and take the unwashed off my hands; and she to be our housekeeper--the village Lady Bountiful--by day; and read us to sleep in the evenings. I could be very happy in such a life. What do you think of it?'
'Never!' said Mr. Hale, decidedly. 'My one great change has been made and my price of suffering paid. Here I stay out my life; and here will I be buried, and lost in the crowd.'
'I don't give up my plan yet. Only I won't bait you with it any more just now. Where's the Pearl? Come, Margaret, give me a farewell kiss; and remember, my dear, where you may find a true friend, as far as his capability goes. You are my child, Margaret. Remember that, and 'God bless you!'
So they fell back into the monotony of the quiet life they would henceforth lead. There was no invalid to hope and fear about; even the Higginses--so long a vivid interest--seemed to have receded from any need of immediate thought. The Boucher children, left motherless orphans, claimed what of Margaret's care she could bestow; and she went pretty often to see Mary Higgins, who had charge of them. The two families were living in one house: the elder children were at humble schools, the younger ones were tended, in Mary's absence at her work, by the kind neighbour whose good sense had struck Margaret at the time of Boucher's death. Of course she was paid for her trouble; and indeed, in all his little plans and arrangements for these orphan children, Nicholas showed a sober judgment, and regulated method of thinking, which were at variance with his former more eccentric jerks of action. He was so steady at his work, that Margaret did not often see him during these winter months; but when she did, she saw that he winced away from any reference to the father of those children, whom he had so fully and heartily taken under his care. He did not speak easily of Mr. Thornton.
'To tell the truth,' said he, 'he fairly bamboozles me. He's two chaps. One chap I knowed of old as were measter all o'er. T'other chap hasn't an ounce of measter's flesh about him. How them two chaps is bound up in one body, is a craddy for me to find out. I'll not be beat by it, though. Meanwhile he comes here pretty often; that's how I know the chap that's a man, not a measter. And I reckon he's taken aback by me pretty much as I am by him; for he sits and listens and stares, as if I were some strange beast newly caught in some of the zones. But I'm none daunted. It would take a deal to daunt me in my own house, as he sees. And I tell him some of my mind that I reckon he'd ha' been the better of hearing when he were a younger man.'
'And does he not answer you?' asked Mr. Hale.
'Well! I'll not say th' advantage is all on his side, for all I take credit for improving him above a bit. Sometimes he says a rough thing or two, which is not agreeable to look at at first, but has a queer smack o' truth in it when yo' come to chew it. He'll be coming to-night, I reckon, about them childer's schooling. He's not satisfied wi' the make of it, and wants for t' examine 'em.'
'What are they'--began Mr. Hale; but Margaret, touching his arm, showed him her watch.
'It is nearly seven,' she said. 'The evenings are getting longer now. Come, papa.' She did not breathe freely till they were some distance from the house. Then, as she became more calm, she wished that she had not been in so great a hurry; for, somehow, they saw Mr. Thornton but very seldom now; and he might have come to see Higgins, and for the old friendship's sake she should like to have seen him to-night.
Yes! he came very seldom, even for the dull cold purpose of lessons. Mr. Hale was disappointed in his pupil's lukewarmness about Greek literature, which had but a short time ago so great an interest for him. And now it often happened that a hurried note from Mr. Thornton would arrive, just at the last moment, saying that he was so much engaged that he could not come to read with Mr. Hale that evening. And though other pupils had taken more than his place as to time, no one was like his first scholar in Mr. Hale's heart. He was depressed and sad at this partial cessation of an intercourse which had become dear to him; and he used to sit pondering over the reason that could have occasioned this change.
He startled Margaret, one evening as she sate at her work, by suddenly asking:
'Margaret! had you ever any reason for thinking that Mr. Thornton cared for you?'
He almost blushed as he put this question; but Mr. Bell's scouted idea recurred to him, and the words were out of his mouth before he well knew what he was about.
Margaret did not answer immediately; but by the bent drooping of her head, he guessed what her reply would be.
'Yes; I believe--oh papa, I should have told you.' And she dropped her work, and hid her face in her hands.
'No, dear; don't think that I am impertinently curious. I am sure you would have told me if you had felt that you could return his regard. Did he speak to you about it?'
No answer at first; but by-and-by a little gentle reluctant 'Yes.'
'And you refused him?'
A long sigh; a more helpless, nerveless attitude, and another 'Yes.' But before her father could speak, Margaret lifted up her face, rosy with some beautiful shame, and, fixing her eyes upon him, said:
'Now, papa, I have told you this, and I cannot tell you more; and then the whole thing is so painful to me; every word and action connected with it is so unspeakably bitter, that I cannot bear to think of it. Oh, papa, I am sorry to have lost you this friend, but I could not help it--but oh! I am very sorry.' She sate down on the ground, and laid her head on his knees.
'I too, am sorry, my dear. Mr. Bell quite startled me when he said, some idea of the kind--'
'Mr. Bell! Oh, did Mr. Bell see it?'
'A little; but he took it into his head that you--how shall I say it?--that you were not ungraciously disposed towards Mr. Thornton. I knew that could never be. I hoped the whole thing was but an imagination; but I knew too well what your real feelings were to suppose that you could ever like Mr. Thornton in that way. But I am very sorry.'
They were very quiet and still for some minutes. But, on stroking her cheek in a caressing way soon after, he was almost shocked to find her face wet with tears. As he touched her, she sprang up, and smiling with forced brightness, began to talk of the Lennoxes with such a vehement desire to turn the conversation, that Mr. Hale was too tender-hearted to try to force it back into the old channel.
'To-morrow--yes, to-morrow they will be back in Harley Street. Oh, how strange it will be! I wonder what room they will make into the nursery? Aunt Shaw will be happy with the baby. Fancy Edith a mamma! And Captain Lennox--I wonder what he will do with himself now he has sold out!'
'I'll tell you what,' said her father, anxious to indulge her in this fresh subject of interest, 'I think I must spare you for a fortnight just to run up to town and see the travellers. You could learn more, by half an hour's conversation with Mr. Henry Lennox, about Frederick's chances, than in a dozen of these letters of his; so it would, in fact, be uniting business with pleasure.'
'No, papa, you cannot spare me, and what's more, I won't be spared.' Then after a pause, she added: 'I am losing hope sadly about Frederick; he is letting us down gently, but I can see that Mr. Lennox himself has no hope of hunting up the witnesses under years and years of time. No,' said she, 'that bubble was very pretty, and very dear to our hearts; but it has burst like many another; and we must console ourselves with being glad that Frederick is so happy, and with being a great deal to each other. So don't offend me by talking of being able to spare me, papa, for I assure you you can't.'
But the idea of a change took root and germinated in Margaret's heart, although not in the way in which her father proposed it at first. She began to consider how desirable something of the kind would be to her father, whose spirits, always feeble, now became too frequently depressed, and whose health, though he never complained, had been seriously affected by his wife's illness and death. There were the regular hours of reading with his pupils, but that all giving and no receiving could no longer be called companion-ship, as in the old days when Mr. Thornton came to study under him. Margaret was conscious of the want under which he was suffering, unknown to himself; the want of a man's intercourse with men. At Helstone there had been perpetual occasions for an interchange of visits with neighbouring clergymen; and the poor labourers in the fields, or leisurely tramping home at eve, or tending their cattle in the forest, were always at liberty to speak or be spoken to. But in Milton every one was too busy for quiet speech, or any ripened intercourse of thought; what they said was about business, very present and actual; and when the tension of mind relating to their daily affairs was over, they sunk into fallow rest until next morning.
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