Good Luke felt, after the manner of contented hard-working men whose lives have been spent in servitude, that sense of natural fitness in rank which made his master's downfall a tragedy to him. He was urged, in his slow way, to say something that would express his share in the family sorrow; and these words, which he had used over and over again to Tom when he wanted to decline the full payment of his fifty pounds out of the children's money, were the most ready to his tongue. They were just the words to lay the most painful hold on his master's bewildered mind.
"Paid everybody?" he said, with vehement agitation, his face flushing, and his eye lighting up. "Why — what — have they made me a bankrupt? "
"Oh, father, dear father!" said Maggie, who thought that terrible word really represented the fact; "bear it well, because we love you; your children will always love you. Tom will pay them all; he says he will, when he's a man."
She felt her father beginning to tremble; his voice trembled too, as he said, after a few moments:
"Ay, my little wench, but I shall never live twice o'er."
"But perhaps you will live to see me pay everybody, father," said Tom, speaking with a great effort.
"Ah, my lad," said Mr. Tulliver, shaking his head slowly, "but what's broke can never be whole again; it 'ud be your doing, not mine." Then looking up at him, "You're only sixteen; it's an up-hill fight for you, but you mustn't throw it at your father; the raskills have been too many for him. I've given you a good eddication, — that'll start you."
Something in his throat half choked the last words; the flush, which had alarmed his children because it had so often preceded a recurrence of paralysis, had subsided, and his face looked pale and tremulous. Tom said nothing; he was still struggling against his inclination to rush away. His father remained quiet a minute or two, but his mind did not seem to be wandering again.
"Have they sold me up, then?" he said more clamly, as if he were possessed simply by the desire to know what had happened.
"Everything is sold, father; but we don't know all about the mill and the land yet," said Tom, anxious to ward off any question leading to the fact that Wakem was the purchaser.
"You must not be surprised to see the room look very bare downstairs, father," said Maggie; "but there's your chair and the bureau; they're not gone."
"Let us go; help me down, Luke, — I'll go and see everything," said Mr. Tulliver, leaning on his stick, and stretching out his other hand toward Luke.
"Ay, sir," said Luke, as he gave his arm to his master, "you'll make up your mind to't a bit better when you've seen iverything; you'll get used to't. That's what my mother says about her shortness o' breath, — she says she's made friends wi't now, though she fought again' it sore when it just come on."
Maggie ran on before to see that all was right in the dreary parlor, where the fire, dulled by the frosty sunshine, seemed part of the general shabbiness. She turned her father's chair, and pushed aside the table to make an easy way for him, and then stood with a beating heart to see him enter and look round for the first time. Tom advanced before him, carrying the leg-rest, and stood beside Maggie on the hearth. Of those two young hearts Tom's suffered the most unmixed pain, for Maggie, with all her keen susceptibility, yet felt as if the sorrow made larger room for her love to flow in, and gave breathing-space to her passionate nature. No true boy feels that; he would rather go and slay the Nemean lion, or perform any round of heroic labors, than endure perpetual appeals to his pity, for evils over which he can make no conquest.
Mr. Tulliver paused just inside the door, resting on Luke, and looking round him at all the bare places, which for him were filled with the shadows of departed objects, — the daily companions of his life. His faculties seemed to be renewing their strength from getting a footing on this demonstration of the senses.
"Ah!" he said slowly, moving toward his chair, "they've sold me up — they've sold me up."
Then seating himself, and laying down his stick, while Luke left the room, he looked round again.
"They've left the big Bible," he said. "It's got everything in, — when I was born and married; bring it me, Tom."
The quarto Bible was laid open before him at the fly-leaf, and while he was reading with slowly travelling eyes Mrs. Tulliver entered the room, but stood in mute surprise to find her husband down already, and with the great Bible before him.
"Ah," he said, looking at a spot where his finger rested, "my mother was Margaret Beaton; she died when she was forty-seven, — hers wasn't a long-lived family; we're our mother's children, Gritty and me are, — we shall go to our last bed before long."
He seemed to be pausing over the record of his sister's birth and marriage, as if it were suggesting new thoughts to him; then he suddenly looked up at Tom, and said, in a sharp tone of alarm:
"They haven't come upo' Moss for the money as I lent him, have they?"
"No, father," said Tom; "the note was burnt."
Mr. Tulliver turned his eyes on the page again, and presently said:
"Ah — Elizabeth Dodson — it's eighteen year since I married her — — "
"Come next Ladyday," said Mrs. Tulliver, going up to his side and looking at the page.
Her husband fixed his eyes earnestly on her face.
"Poor Bessy," he said, "you was a pretty lass then, — everybody said so, — and I used to think you kept your good looks rarely. But you're sorely aged; don't you bear me ill-will — I meant to do well by you — we promised one another for better or for worse — — "
"But I never thought it 'ud be so for worse as this," said poor Mrs. Tulliver, with the strange, scared look that had come over her of late; "and my poor father gave me away — and to come on so all at once — — "
"Oh, mother!" said Maggie, "don't talk in that way."
"No, I know you won't let your poor mother speak — that's been the way all my life — your father never minded what I said — it 'ud have been o' no use for me to beg and pray — and it 'ud be no use now, not if I was to go down o' my hands and knees — — "
"Don't say so, Bessy," said Mr. Tulliver, whose pride, in these first moments of humiliation, was in abeyance to the sense of some justice in his wife's reproach. "It there's anything left as I could do to make you amends, I wouldn't say you nay."
"Then we might stay here and get a living, and I might keep among my own sisters, — and me been such a good wife to you, and never crossed you from week's end to week's end — and they all say so — they say it 'ud be nothing but right, only you're so turned against Wakem."
"Mother," said Tom, severely, "this is not the time to talk about that."
"Let her be," said Mr. Tulliver. "Say what you mean, Bessy."
"Why, now the mill and the land's all Wakem's, and he's got everything in his hands, what's the use o' setting your face against him, when he says you may stay here, and speaks as fair as can be, and says you may manage the business, and have thirty shillings a-week, and a horse to ride about to market? And where have we got to put our heads? We must go into one o' the cottages in the village, — and me and my children brought down to that, — and all because you must set your mind against folks till there's no turning you."
Mr. Tulliver had sunk back in his chair trembling.
"You may do as you like wi' me, Bessy," he said, in a low voice; "I've been the bringing of you to poverty — this world's too many for me — I'm nought but a bankrupt; it's no use standing up for anything now."
"Father," said Tom, "I don't agree with my mother or my uncles, and I don't think you ought to submit to be under Wakem. I get a pound a-week now, and you can find something else to do when you get well."
"Say no more, Tom, say no more; I've had enough for this day. Give me a kiss, Bessy, and let us bear one another no ill-will; we shall never be young again — this world's been too many for me."