North and South (Chapter 5, page 1 of 9)


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Chapter 5

'I ask Thee for a thoughtful love,
Through constant watching wise,
To meet the glad with joyful smiles,
And to wipe the weeping eyes;
And a heart at leisure from itself
To soothe and sympathise.'

ANON.

Margaret made a good listener to all her mother's little plans
for adding some small comforts to the lot of the poorer
parishioners. She could not help listening, though each new
project was a stab to her heart. By the time the frost had set
in, they should be far away from Helstone. Old Simon's rheumatism
might be bad and his eyesight worse; there would be no one to go
and read to him, and comfort him with little porringers of broth
and good red flannel: or if there was, it would be a stranger,
and the old man would watch in vain for her. Mary Domville's
little crippled boy would crawl in vain to the door and look for
her coming through the forest. These poor friends would never
understand why she had forsaken them; and there were many others
besides. 'Papa has always spent the income he derived from his
living in the parish. I am, perhaps, encroaching upon the next
dues, but the winter is likely to be severe, and our poor old
people must be helped.'

'Oh, mamma, let us do all we can,' said Margaret eagerly, not
seeing the prudential side of the question, only grasping at the
idea that they were rendering such help for the last time; 'we
may not be here long.'

'Do you feel ill, my darling?' asked Mrs. Hale, anxiously,
misunderstanding Margaret's hint of the uncertainty of their stay
at Helstone. 'You look pale and tired. It is this soft, damp,
unhealthy air.'

'No--no, mamma, it is not that: it is delicious air. It smells of
the freshest, purest fragrance, after the smokiness of Harley
Street. But I am tired: it surely must be near bedtime.'

'Not far off--it is half-past nine. You had better go to bed at
dear. Ask Dixon for some gruel. I will come and see you as soon
as you are in bed. I am afraid you have taken cold; or the bad
air from some of the stagnant ponds--' 'Oh, mamma,' said Margaret, faintly smiling as she kissed her
mother, 'I am quite well--don't alarm yourself about me; I am
only tired.' Margaret went upstairs. To soothe her mother's anxiety she
submitted to a basin of gruel. She was lying languidly in bed
when Mrs. Hale came up to make some last inquiries and kiss her
before going to her own room for the night. But the instant she
heard her mother's door locked, she sprang out of bed, and
throwing her dressing-gown on, she began to pace up and down the
room, until the creaking of one of the boards reminded her that
she must make no noise. She went and curled herself up on the
window-seat in the small, deeply-recessed window. That morning
when she had looked out, her heart had danced at seeing the
bright clear lights on the church tower, which foretold a fine
and sunny day. This evening--sixteen hours at most had past
by--she sat down, too full of sorrow to cry, but with a dull cold
pain, which seemed to have pressed the youth and buoyancy out of
her heart, never to return. Mr. Henry Lennox's visit--his
offer--was like a dream, a thing beside her actual life. The hard
reality was, that her father had so admitted tempting doubts into
his mind as to become a schismatic--an outcast; all the changes
consequent upon this grouped themselves around that one great
blighting fact.

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