Book VII: The Final Rescue
The Return to the Mill
Between four and five o'clock on the afternoon of the fifth day from that on which Stephen and Maggie had left St. Ogg's, Tom Tulliver was standing on the gravel walk outside the old house at Dorlcote Mill. He was master there now; he had half fulfilled his father's dying wish, and by years of steady self-government and energetic work he had brought himself near to the attainment of more than the old respectability which had been the proud inheritance of the Dodsons and Tullivers.
But Tom's face, as he stood in the hot, still sunshine of that summer afternoon, had no gladness, no triumph in it. His mouth wore its bitterest expression, his severe brow its hardest and deepest fold, as he drew down his hat farther over his eyes to shelter them from the sun, and thrusting his hands deep into his pockets, began to walk up and down the gravel. No news of his sister had been heard since Bob Jakin had come back in the steamer from Mudport, and put an end to all improbable suppositions of an accident on the water by stating that he had seen her land from a vessel with Mr. Stephen Guest. Would the next news be that she was married, — or what? Probably that she was not married; Tom's mind was set to the expectation of the worst that could happen, — not death, but disgrace.
As he was walking with his back toward the entrance gate, and his face toward the rushing mill-stream, a tall, dark-eyed figure, that we know well, approached the gate, and paused to look at him with a fast-beating heart. Her brother was the human being of whom she had been most afraid from her childhood upward; afraid with that fear which springs in us when we love one who is inexorable, unbending, unmodifiable, with a mind that we can never mould ourselves upon, and yet that we cannot endure to alienate from us.
That deep-rooted fear was shaking Maggie now; but her mind was unswervingly bent on returning to her brother, as the natural refuge that had been given her. In her deep humiliation under the retrospect of her own weakness, — in her anguish at the injury she had inflicted, — she almost desired to endure the severity of Tom's reproof, to submit in patient silence to that harsh, disapproving judgment against which she had so often rebelled; it seemed no more than just to her now, — who was weaker than she was? She craved that outward help to her better purpose which would come from complete, submissive confession; from being in the presence of those whose looks and words would be a reflection of her own conscience.
Maggie had been kept on her bed at York for a day with that prostrating headache which was likely to follow on the terrible strain of the previous day and night. There was an expression of physical pain still about her brow and eyes, and her whole appearance, with her dress so long unchanged, was worn and distressed. She lifted the latch of the gate and walked in slowly. Tom did not hear the gate; he was just then close upon the roaring dam; but he presently turned, and lifting up his eyes, saw the figure whose worn look and loneliness seemed to him a confirmation of his worst conjectures. He paused, trembling and white with disgust and indignation.
Maggie paused too, three yards before him. She felt the hatred in his face, felt it rushing through her fibres; but she must speak.
"Tom," she began faintly, "I am come back to you, — I am come back home — for refuge — to tell you everything."
"You will find no home with me," he answered, with tremulous rage. "You have disgraced us all. You have disgraced my father's name. You have been a curse to your best friends. You have been base, deceitful; no motives are strong enough to restrain you. I wash my hands of you forever. You don't belong to me."
Their mother had come to the door now. She stood paralyzed by the double shock of seeing Maggie and hearing Tom's words.
"Tom," said Maggie, with more courage, "I am perhaps not so guilty as you believe me to be. I never meant to give way to my feelings. I struggled against them. I was carried too far in the boat to come back on Tuesday. I came back as soon as I could."
"I can't believe in you any more," said Tom, gradually passing from the tremulous excitement of the first moment to cold inflexibility. "You have been carrying on a clandestine relation with Stephen Guest, — as you did before with another. He went to see you at my aunt Moss's; you walked alone with him in the lanes; you must have behaved as no modest girl would have done to her cousin's lover, else that could never have happened. The people at Luckreth saw you pass; you passed all the other places; you knew what you were doing. You have been using Philip Wakem as a screen to deceive Lucy, — the kindest friend you ever had. Go and see the return you have made her. She's ill; unable to speak. My mother can't go near her, lest she should remind her of you."
Maggie was half stunned, — too heavily pressed upon by her anguish even to discern any difference between her actual guilt and her brother's accusations, still less to vindicate herself.
"Tom," she said, crushing her hands together under her cloak, in the effort to speak again, "whatever I have done, I repent it bitterly. I want to make amends. I will endure anything. I want to be kept from doing wrong again."
"What will keep you?" said Tom, with cruel bitterness. "Not religion; not your natural feelings of gratitude and honor. And he — he would deserve to be shot, if it were not — — But you are ten times worse than he is. I loathe your character and your conduct. You struggled with your feelings, you say. Yes! I have had feelings to struggle with; but I conquered them. I have had a harder life than you have had; but I have found my comfort in doing my duty. But I will sanction no such character as yours; the world shall know that I feel the difference between right and wrong. If you are in want, I will provide for you; let my mother know. But you shall not come under my roof. It is enough that I have to bear the thought of your disgrace; the sight of you is hateful to me."
Slowly Maggie was turning away with despair in her heart. But the poor frightened mother's love leaped out now, stronger than all dread.
"My child! I'll go with you. You've got a mother."
Oh, the sweet rest of that embrace to the heart-stricken Maggie! More helpful than all wisdom is one draught of simple human pity that will not forsake us.
Tom turned and walked into the house.
"Come in, my child," Mrs. Tulliver whispered. "He'll let you stay and sleep in my bed. He won't deny that if I ask him."
"No, mother," said Maggie, in a low tone, like a moan. "I will never go in."
"Then wait for me outside. I'll get ready and come with you."
When his mother appeared with her bonnet on, Tom came out to her in the passage, and put money into her hands.
"My house is yours, mother, always," he said. "You will come and let me know everything you want; you will come back to me."
Poor Mrs. Tulliver took the money, too frightened to say anything. The only thing clear to her was the mother's instinct that she would go with her unhappy child.
Maggie was waiting outside the gate; she took her mother's hand and they walked a little way in silence.
"Mother," said Maggie, at last, "we will go to Luke's cottage. Luke will take me in. He was very good to me when I was a little girl."
"He's got no room for us, my dear, now; his wife's got so many children. I don't know where to go, if it isn't to one o' your aunts; and I hardly durst," said poor Mrs. Tulliver, quite destitute of mental resources in this extremity.