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Authors: Elizabeth Gaskell

A Dark Night's Work

BOOK: A Dark Night's Work
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A Dark Night's Work
From an 1896 edition
ISBN 978-1-62012-286-0
Duke Classics
© 2012 Duke Classics and its licensors. All rights reserved.
While every effort has been used to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information contained in this edition, Duke Classics does not assume liability or responsibility for any errors or omissions in this book. Duke Classics does not accept responsibility for loss suffered as a result of reliance upon the accuracy or currency of information contained in this book.
Chapter I

In the county town of a certain shire there lived (about forty years ago)
one Mr. Wilkins, a conveyancing attorney of considerable standing.

The certain shire was but a small county, and the principal town in it
contained only about four thousand inhabitants; so in saying that Mr.
Wilkins was the principal lawyer in Hamley, I say very little, unless I
add that he transacted all the legal business of the gentry for twenty
miles round. His grandfather had established the connection; his father
had consolidated and strengthened it, and, indeed, by his wise and
upright conduct, as well as by his professional skill, had obtained for
himself the position of confidential friend to many of the surrounding
families of distinction. He visited among them in a way which no mere
lawyer had ever done before; dined at their tables—he alone, not
accompanied by his wife, be it observed; rode to the meet occasionally as
if by accident, although he was as well mounted as any squire among them,
and was often persuaded (after a little coquetting about "professional
engagements," and "being wanted at the office") to have a run with his
clients; nay, once or twice he forgot his usual caution, was first in at
the death, and rode home with the brush. But in general he knew his
place; as his place was held to be in that aristocratic county, and in
those days. Nor let be supposed that he was in any way a toadeater. He
respected himself too much for that. He would give the most unpalatable
advice, if need were; would counsel an unsparing reduction of expenditure
to an extravagant man; would recommend such an abatement of family pride
as paved the way for one or two happy marriages in some instances; nay,
what was the most likely piece of conduct of all to give offence forty
years ago, he would speak up for an unjustly-used tenant; and that with
so much temperate and well-timed wisdom and good feeling, that he more
than once gained his point. He had one son, Edward. This boy was the
secret joy and pride of his father's heart. For himself he was not in
the least ambitious, but it did cost him a hard struggle to acknowledge
that his own business was too lucrative, and brought in too large an
income, to pass away into the hands of a stranger, as it would do if he
indulged his ambition for his son by giving him a college education and
making him into a barrister. This determination on the more prudent side
of the argument took place while Edward was at Eton. The lad had,
perhaps, the largest allowance of pocket-money of any boy at school; and
he had always looked forward to going to Christ Church along with his
fellows, the sons of the squires, his father's employers. It was a
severe mortification to him to find that his destiny was changed, and
that he had to return to Hamley to be articled to his father, and to
assume the hereditary subservient position to lads whom he had licked in
the play-ground, and beaten at learning.

His father tried to compensate him for the disappointment by every
indulgence which money could purchase. Edward's horses were even finer
than those of his father; his literary tastes were kept up and fostered,
by his father's permission to form an extensive library, for which
purpose a noble room was added to Mr. Wilkins's already extensive house
in the suburbs of Hamley. And after his year of legal study in London
his father sent him to make the grand tour, with something very like
carte blanche as to expenditure, to judge from the packages which were
sent home from various parts of the Continent.

At last he came home—came back to settle as his father's partner at
Hamley. He was a son to be proud of, and right down proud was old Mr.
Wilkins of his handsome, accomplished, gentlemanly lad. For Edward was
not one to be spoilt by the course of indulgence he had passed through;
at least, if it had done him an injury, the effects were at present
hidden from view. He had no vulgar vices; he was, indeed, rather too
refined for the society he was likely to be thrown into, even supposing
that society to consist of the highest of his father's employers. He was
well read, and an artist of no mean pretensions. Above all, "his heart
was in the right place," as his father used to observe. Nothing could
exceed the deference he always showed to him. His mother had long been

I do not know whether it was Edward's own ambition or his proud father's
wishes that had led him to attend the Hamley assemblies. I should
conjecture the latter, for Edward had of himself too much good taste to
wish to intrude into any society. In the opinion of all the shire, no
society had more reason to consider itself select than that which met at
every full moon in the Hamley assembly-room, an excrescence built on to
the principal inn in the town by the joint subscription of all the county
families. Into those choice and mysterious precincts no towns person was
ever allowed to enter; no professional man might set his foot therein; no
infantry officer saw the interior of that ball, or that card-room. The
old original subscribers would fain have had a man prove his sixteen
quarterings before he might make his bow to the queen of the night; but
the old original founders of the Hamley assemblies were dropping off;
minuets had vanished with them, country dances had died away; quadrilles
were in high vogue—nay, one or two of the high magnates of —shire were
trying to introduce waltzing, as they had seen it in London, where it had
come in with the visit of the allied sovereigns, when Edward Wilkins made
on these boards. He had been at many splendid assemblies
abroad, but still the little old ballroom attached to the George Inn in
his native town was to him a place grander and more awful than the most
magnificent saloons he had seen in Paris or Rome. He laughed at himself
for this unreasonable feeling of awe; but there it was notwithstanding.
He had been dining at the house of one of the lesser gentry, who was
under considerable obligations to his father, and who was the parent of
eight "muckle-mou'ed" daughters, so hardly likely to oppose much
aristocratic resistance to the elder Mr. Wilkins's clearly implied wish
that Edward should be presented at the Hamley assembly-rooms. But many a
squire glowered and looked black at the introduction of Wilkins the
attorney's son into the sacred precincts; and perhaps there would have
been much more mortification than pleasure in this assembly to the young
man, had it not been for an incident that occurred pretty late in the
evening. The lord-lieutenant of the county usually came with a large
party to the Hamley assemblies once in a season; and this night he was
expected, and with him a fashionable duchess and her daughters. But time
wore on, and they did not make their appearance. At last there was a
rustling and a bustling, and in sailed the superb party. For a few
minutes dancing was stopped; the earl led the duchess to a sofa; some of
their acquaintances came up to speak to them; and then the quadrilles
were finished in rather a flat manner. A country dance followed, in
which none of the lord-lieutenant's party joined; then there was a
consultation, a request, an inspection of the dancers, a message to the
orchestra, and the band struck up a waltz; the duchess's daughters flew
off to the music, and some more young ladies seemed ready to follow, but,
alas! there was a lack of gentlemen acquainted with the new-fashioned
dance. One of the stewards bethought him of young Wilkins, only just
returned from the Continent. Edward was a beautiful dancer, and waltzed
to admiration. For his next partner he had one of the Lady —s; for the
duchess, to whom the—shire squires and their little county politics and
contempts were alike unknown, saw no reason why her lovely Lady Sophy
should not have a good partner, whatever his pedigree might be, and
begged the stewards to introduce Mr. Wilkins to her. After this night
his fortune was made with the young ladies of the Hamley assemblies. He
was not unpopular with the mammas; but the heavy squires still looked at
him askance, and the heirs (whom he had licked at Eton) called him an
upstart behind his back.

Chapter II

It was not a satisfactory situation. Mr. Wilkins had given his son an
education and tastes beyond his position. He could not associate with
either profit or pleasure with the doctor or the brewer of Hamley; the
vicar was old and deaf, the curate a raw young man, half frightened at
the sound of his own voice. Then, as to matrimony—for the idea of his
marriage was hardly more present in Edward's mind than in that of his
father—he could scarcely fancy bringing home any one of the young ladies
of Hamley to the elegant mansion, so full of suggestion and association
to an educated person, so inappropriate a dwelling for an ignorant,
uncouth, ill-brought-up girl. Yet Edward was fully aware, if his fond
father was not, that of all the young ladies who were glad enough of him
as a partner at the Hamley assemblies, there was not of them but would
have considered herself affronted by an offer of marriage from an
attorney, the son and grandson of attorneys. The young man had perhaps
received many a slight and mortification pretty quietly during these
years, which yet told upon his character in after life. Even at this
very time they were having their effect. He was of too sweet a
disposition to show resentment, as many men would have done. But
nevertheless he took a secret pleasure in the power which his father's
money gave him. He would buy an expensive horse after five minutes'
conversation as to the price, about which a needy heir of one of the
proud county families had been haggling for three weeks. His dogs were
from the best kennels in England, no matter at what cost; his guns were
the newest and most improved make; and all these were expenses on objects
which were among those of daily envy to the squires and squires' sons
around. They did not much care for the treasures of art, which report
said were being accumulated in Mr. Wilkins's house. But they did covet
the horses and hounds he possessed, and the young man knew that they
coveted, and rejoiced in it.

By-and-by he formed a marriage, which went as near as marriages ever do
towards pleasing everybody. He was desperately in love with Miss
Lamotte, so he was delighted when she consented to be his wife. His
father was delighted in his delight, and, besides, was charmed to
remember that Miss Lamotte's mother had been Sir Frank Holster's younger
sister, and that, although her marriage had been disowned by her family,
as beneath her in rank, yet no one could efface her name out of the
Baronetage, where Lettice, youngest daughter of Sir Mark Holster, born
1772, married H. Lamotte, 1799, died 1810, was duly chronicled. She had
left two children, a boy and a girl, of whom their uncle, Sir Frank, took
charge, as their father was worse than dead—an outlaw whose name was
never mentioned. Mark Lamotte was in the army; Lettice had a dependent
position in her uncle's family; not intentionally made more dependent
than was rendered necessary by circumstances, but still dependent enough
to grate on the feelings of a sensitive girl, whose natural susceptibilty
to slights was redoubled by the constant recollection of her father's
disgrace. As Mr. Wilkins well knew, Sir Frank was considerably involved;
but it was with very mixed feelings that he listened to the suit which
would provide his penniless niece with a comfortable, not to say
luxurious, home, and with a handsome, accomplished young man of
unblemished character for a husband. He said one or two bitter and
insolent things to Mr. Wilkins, even while he was giving his consent to
the match; that was his temper, his proud, evil temper; but he really and
permanently was satisfied with the connection, though he would
occasionally turn round on his nephew-in-law, and sting him with a covert
insult, as to his want of birth, and the inferior position which he held,
forgetting, apparently, that his own brother-in-law and Lettice's father
might be at any moment brought to the bar of justice if he attempted to
re-enter his native country.

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