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by Charlotte Brontë
The original, squashed down to read in about 30 minutes
Charlotte, who first published under the pseudonym Currer Bell, was one of the novelist daughters of Irish churchman Patrick Brontë, of the romantically wild Haworth parsonage in Yorkshire. "Shirley," Charlotte Brontë's second novel, was published two years after "Jane Eyre" - on October 26, 1849. When the book was begun, her brother, Branwell, and her two sisters, Emily and Anne Brontë, were alive. When it was finished all were dead, and Charlotte was left alone with her aged father.
For more works by the Brontës, see The Index
Released from the business yoke, Robert Moore was, if not lively himself, a willing spectator of the liveliness of Caroline Helstone, his cousin, a complacent listener to her talk, a ready respondent to her questions. Sometimes he was better than this - almost animated, quite gentle and friendly. The drawback was that by the next morning he was frozen up again.
To-night he stood on the kitchen hearth of Hollow's cottage, after his return from Whinbury cloth-market, and Caroline, who had come over to the cottage from the vicarage, stood beside him. Looking down, his glance rested on an uplifted face, flushed, smiling, happy, shaded with silky curls, lit with fine eyes. Moore placed his hand a moment on his young cousin's shoulder, stooped, and left a kiss on her forehead.
"Are you certain, Robert, you are not fretting about your frames and your business, and the war?" she asked.
"Not just now."
"Are you positive you don't feel Hollow's cottage too small for you, and narrow, and dismal?"
"At this moment, no."
"Can you affirm that you are not bitter at heart because rich and great people forget you?"
"No more questions. I am not anxious to curry favour with rich and great people. I only want means - a position - a career."
"Which your own talent and goodness shall win for you. You were made to be great; you shall be great."
"Ah! You judge me with your heart; you should judge me with your head."
It was the dark days of the Napoleonic wars, when the cloth of the West Riding was shut out from the markets of the world, and ruin threatened the manufacturers, while the introduction of machinery so reduced the numbers of the factory hands that desperation was born of misery and famine.
Robert Moore, of Hollow's Mill, was one of the most unpopular of the mill-owners, partly because he haughtily declined to conciliate the working class, and partly because of his foreign demeanour, for he was the son of a Flemish mother, had been educated abroad, and had only come home recently to attempt to retrieve, by modern trading methods, the fallen fortune of the ancient firm of his Yorkshire forefathers.
The last trade outrage of the district had been the destruction on Stilbro' Moor of the new machines that were being brought by night to his mill.
Caroline Helstone was eighteen years old, drawing near the confines of illusive dreams. Elf-land behind her, the shores of Reality in front. To herself she said that night, after Robert had walked home with her to the rectory gate: "I love Robert, and I feel sure that he loves me. I have thought so many a time before; to-day I felt it."
And Robert, leaning later on his own yard gate, with the hushed, dark mill before him, exclaimed: "This won't do. There's weakness - there's downright ruin in all this."
For Caroline Helstone was a fatherless and portionless girl, entirely dependent on her uncle, the vicar of Briarfield.
"Come, child, put away your books. Lock them up! Get your bonnet on; I want you to make a call with me."
"With you, uncle?"
Thus the Rev. Matthewson Helstone, the imperious little vicar of Briarfield, to his niece, who, obeyed his unusual request, asked where they were going.
"To Fieldhead," replied the Rev. Matthewson Helstone. "We are going to see Miss Shirley Keeldar."
"Miss Keeldar! Is she come to Yorkshire?"
"She is; and will reside for a time on her property."
The Keeldars were the lords of the manor, and their property included the mill rented by Mr. Robert Moore.
The visitors were received at Fieldhead by a middle-aged nervous English lady, to whom Caroline at once found it natural to talk with a gentle ease, until Miss Shirley Keeldar, entering the room, introduced them to Mrs. Pryor, who, she added, "was my governess, and is still my friend."
Shirley Keeldar was no ugly heiress. She was agreeable to the eye, gracefully made, and her face, pale, intelligent, and of varied expression, also possessed the charm of grace.
The interview had not proceeded far before Shirley hoped they would often have the presence of Miss Helstone at Fieldhead; a request repeated by Mrs. Pryor.
"You are distinguished more than you think," said Shirley, "for Mrs. Pryor often tantalises me by the extreme caution of her judgments. I have entreated her to say what she thinks of my gentleman-tenant, Mr. Moore, but she evades an answer. What are Mr. Moore's politics?"
"Those of a tradesman," returned the rector; "narrow, selfish, and unpatriotic."
"He looks a gentleman, and it pleases me to think he is such."
"And decidedly he is," joined in Caroline, in distinct tones.
"You are his friend, at any rate," said Shirley, flashing a searching glance at the speaker.
"I am both his friend and relative."
"I like that romantic Hollow with all my heart - the old mill, and the white cottage, and the counting-house."
"And the trade?" inquired the rector.
"Half my income comes from the works in that Hollow."
"Don't enter into partnership, that's all."
"You've put it into my head!" she exclaimed, with a joyous laugh. "It will never get out; thank you."
Some days later, the new friends were walking together towards the rectory when the talk turned on the qualities which prove that a man can be trusted.
"Do you know what soothsayers I would consult?" asked Caroline.
"Let me hear."
"Neither man nor woman, elderly nor young; the little Irish beggar that comes barefoot to my door; the mouse that steals out of the cranny in the wainscot; the bird that, in frost and snow, pecks at the window for a crumb. I know somebody to whose knee the black cat loves to climb, against whose shoulder and cheek it loves to purr. The old dog always comes out of his kennel and wags his tail when somebody passes."
"Is it Robert?"
"It is Robert."
"Handsome fellow!" said Shirley, with enthusiasm. "He is both graceful and good."
"I was sure that you would see that he was. When I first looked at your face I knew that you would."
"I was well inclined to him before I saw him; I liked him when I did see him; I admire him now."
When they kissed each other and parted at the rectory gate, Shirley said:
"Caroline Helstone, I have never in my whole life been able to talk to a young lady as I have talked to you this morning."
"This is the worst passage I have come to yet," said Caroline to herself. "Still, I was prepared for it. I gave Robert up to Shirley the first day I heard she was come."
The Whitsuntide school treats were being held, and it was Shirley Keeldar who, at the head of the tea-table, kept a place for Robert Moore, and whose temper became clouded when he was late. When he did come he was hard and preoccupied, and presently the two girls noticed he was shaking hands and renewing a broken friendship with a militant rector in the playing field, and that the more vigorous of their manufacturing neighbours had gathered in a group to talk.
"There is some mystery afloat," said Shirley. "Some event is expected, some preparation to be made; and Robert's secrecy vexes me. See, they are all shaking hands with emphasis, as if ratifying some league."
"We must be on the alert," said Caroline, "and perhaps we shall find a clue."
Later, the rector came to them to mention that he would not sleep at home that night, and Shirley had better stay with Caroline - arrangements which they could not but connect with a glimpse of martial scarlet they had observed on a distant moor earlier in the day, and the passage, by a quiet route, of six cavalry soldiers.
So the girls sat up that night and watched, until, close upon midnight, they heard the tramp of hundreds of marching feet. The mob halted by the rectory for a muttered consultation, and then moved cautiously along towards the Hollow's Mill.
In vain did the two watchers try to cross to the mill by fenced fields and give the alarm. When they reached a point from which they could overlook the mill, the attack had already begun, and the yard-gates were being forced. A volley of stones smashed every window, but the mill remained mute as a mausoleum.
"He cannot be alone," whispered Caroline.
"I would stake all I have that he is as little alone as he is alarmed," responded Shirley.
Shots were discharged by the rioters. Had the defenders waited for this signal? It seemed so. The inert mill woke, and a volley of musketry pealed sharp through the Hollow. It was difficult in the darkness to distinguish what was going on now. The mill yard was full of battle-movement; there was struggling, rushing, trampling, and shouting, and then the rioters, who had never dreamed of encountering an organised defence, fell back defeated, but leaving the premises a blot of desolation on the fresh front of the summer dawn.
Caroline Helstone now fell into a state of depression and physical weakness which she tried in vain to combat.
"It is scarcely living to measure time as I do at the rectory," she confessed one day to Mrs. Pryor, who had become her instructress and friend. "The hours pass, and I get over them somehow, but I do not live I endure existence, but I barely enjoy it. I want to go away from this place and forget it."
"You know I am at present residing with Miss Keeldar in the capacity of companion," Mrs. Pryor replied. "Should she marry, and that she will marry ere long many circumstances induce me to conclude, I shall cease to be necessary to her. I possess a small independency, arising partly from my own savings and partly from a legacy. Whenever I leave Fieldhead I shall take a house of my own. I have no relations to invite to close intimacy. To you, my dear, I need not say I am attached. With you I am happier than I have been with any living thing. You will come to me then, Caroline?"
"Indeed, I love you," was the reply, "and I should like to live with you."
"All I have I would leave to you."
"But, my dear madam, I have no claim on this generosity - "
Mrs. Pryor now displayed such agitation that it was Caroline who had to become comforter.
The sequel to this scene appeared when Caroline sank into so weak a state that constant nursing was needed, and Mrs. Pryor established herself at the rectory.
One day, when the watchful nurse could not forbear to weep - her full heart overflowing - her patient asked:
"Do you think I shall not get better? I do not feel very ill - only weak."
"But your mind, Caroline; your mind is crushed; your heart is broken; you have been left so desolate."
"I sometimes think if an abundant gush of happiness came on me, I could revive yet."
"You love me, Caroline?"
"Inexpressibly. I sometimes feel as if I could almost grow to your heart."
"Then, if you love me so, it will be neither shock nor pain for you to know that you are my own child."
"Mrs. Pryor! That is - that means - you have adopted me?"
"It means that I am your true mother."
"But Mrs. James Helstone - but my father's wife, whom I do not remember to have seen, she is my mother?"
"She is your mother," Mrs. Pryor assured her. "James Helstone was my husband."
"Is what I hear true? Is it no dream? My own mother! And one I can be so fond of! If you are my mother, the world is all changed to me."
The offspring nestled to the parent, who gathered her to her bosom, covered her with noiseless kisses, and murmured love over her like a cushat fostering its young.
An uncle of Shirley Keeldar, Sympson by name, now came with his family to stay at Feidhead, and accompanying them, as tutor to a crippled son Harry, was Louis Moore, Robert's younger brother.
"Shirley," said Caroline one day as they sat in the summer-house, "you are a singular being. I thought I knew you quite well; I begin to find myself mistaken. Did you know that my cousin Louis was tutor in your uncle's family before the Sympsons came down here?"
"Yes, of course; I knew it well."
"How chanced it that you never mentioned it to me?" asked Caroline. "You knew Mrs. Pryor was my mother, and were silent, and now here again is another secret."
"I never made it a secret; you never asked me who Henry's tutor was, or I would have told you."
"I am puzzled about more things than one in this matter. You don't like poor Louis - why? Do you wish that Robert's brother were more highly placed?"
"Robert's brother, indeed!" was the exclamation in a tone of scorn, and, with a movement of proud impatience, Shirley snatched a rose from a branch peeping through the open lattice. "Robert's brother! Robert's brother is a topic on which you and I shall quarrel if we discuss it often; so drop it henceforth and for ever."
She would have understood the meaning of that outburst better if she had heard a conversation in the schoolroom a few days later between Louis Moore and Shirley.
"For two years," he was saying, "I had once a pupil who grew very dear to me. Henry is dear, but she was dearer. Henry never gives me trouble; she - well - she did. She spilled the draught from my cup; and having taken from me my peace of mind and ease of life, she took from me herself, quite coolly - just as if, when she was gone, the world would be all the same to me. At the end of two years it fell out that we encountered again. She received me haughtily; but then she was inconsistent: she tantalised as before. When I thought of her only as a lofty stranger, she would suddenly show me a glimpse of loving simplicity, warm me with such a beam of reviving sympathy that I could no more shut my heart to her image than I could close that door against her presence. Explain why she distressed me so."
"She could not bear to be quite outcast," was the docile reply.
Caroline would have understood still more could she have read what Louis Moore wrote in his diary that night: "What a child she is sometimes! What an unsophisticated, untaught thing! I worship her perfections; but it is her faults, or at least her foibles, that bring her near to me. If I were a king and she were a housemaid, my eye would recognise her qualities."
Robert Moore had long been absent from Briarfield, and no one knew why he stayed away. It could not be that he was afraid, for he had shown the utmost fearlessness in bringing to justice and transportation the four ringleaders in the attack on the mill. He had now returned, and one day as he rode over Rushedge Moore from Stilbro' market with a bluff neighbour, he unbosomed himself of the reason why he had remained thus long from home.
"I certainly believed she loved me," he said. "I have seen her eyes sparkle when she found me out in a crowd. When my name was uttered she changed countenance; I knew she did. She was cordial to me; she took an interest in me; she was anxious about me. I saw power in her; I owed her gratitude. She aided me substantially and effectively with a loan of five thousand pounds. Could I believe she loved me? With an admiration dedicated entirely to myself I smiled at her being the first to love and to show it. That whip of yours seems to have a good heavy handle. Knock me out of the saddle with it if you choose, for I never felt as if nature meant her to be my other and better self. Yet I walked up to Fieldhead and in a hard, firm fashion offered myself - my fine person - with all my debts, of course, as a settlement. There was no misunderstanding her aspect and voice as she indignantly ejaculated: 'God bless me!' Her eyes lightened as she said: 'You have pained me; you have outraged me; you have deceived me. I did respect, I did admire, I did like you, and you would immolate me to that mill - your Moloch!' I was obliged to say, 'Forgive me!' To which she replied, 'I could if there was not myself to forgive too, but to mislead a sagacious man so far I must have done wrong.' She added, 'I am sorry for what has happened.' So was I, God knows."
It was after this talk that Moore was shot down by a concealed assassin.
On the very night that Robert Moore arrived at his cottage in the Hollow, after being nursed back to life in the house of the neighbour who was with him when he was shot by a fanatical revolutionist, he scribbled a note to ask his cousin Caroline to call, as was her wont before the days of misunderstanding.
"Caroline, you look as if you had heard good tidings," said Robert. "What is the source of the sunshine I perceive about you?"
"For one thing, I am happy in mamma. I love her more tenderly every day. And I am glad you are better, and that we are friends."
"Cary, I mean to tell you some day a thing about myself that is not to my credit. I cannot bear that you should think better of me than I deserve."
"But I believe I know all about it. I inferred something, gathered more from rumour, and made out the rest by instinct."
"I wanted to marry Shirley for the sake of her money, and she refused me scornfully; you needn't prick your fingers with your needle, that is the plain truth - and I had not an emotion of tenderness for her."
"Then, Robert, it was very wicked in you to want to marry her."
"And very mean, my little pastor; but, Cary, I had no love to give - no heart that I could call my own."
It is Louis who is once more speaking to Shirley in the schoolroom.
"For the first time, Shirley, I stand before you - myself. I fling off the tutor and introduce you to the man. My pupil."
"My master," was the low answer.
"I have to tell you that for five years you have been growing into your tutor's heart, and that you are rooted there now. I have to declare that you have bewitched me, in spite of sense and experience, and difference of station and estate, and that I love you with all my life and strength."
"Dear Louis, be faithful to me; never leave me. I don't care for life unless I pass it at your side." She looked up with a sweet, open, earnest countenance. "Teach me and help me to be good. Show me how to sustain my part. Your judgment is well-balanced; your heart is kind; I know you are wise. Be my companion through life, my guide where I am ignorant, my master where I am faulty."
The Orders in Council are repealed, the blockaded ports are thrown open, and the ringers in Briarfield belfry crack a bell that remains dissonant to this day. Caroline Helstone is in the garden listening to this call to be gay when a hand steals quietly round her waist.
"Caroline," says a manly voice. "I have sought you for an audience. The repeal of the Orders in Council saves me. Now I shall not turn bankrupt, now I shall be no longer poor, now I can pay my debts; now all the cloth I have in my warehouses will be taken off my hands. This day lays my fortune on a foundation on which for the first time I can securely build."
"Your heavy difficulties are lifted?"
"They are lifted; I breathe; I can act. Now I can take more workmen, give better wages, be less selfish. Now, Caroline, I can have a home that is truly mine, and seek a wife. Will Caroline forget all I have made her suffer; forget my poor ambition; my sordid schemes? Will she let me prove I can love faithfully? Is Caroline mine?"
His hand was in hers still, and a gentle pressure answered him, "Caroline is yours."
"I love you, Robert," she said simply, and mutely offered a kiss, an offer of which he took unfair advantage.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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