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_Elizabeth Gaskell_


(_Household Words_, Christmas 1858)

Mr and Mrs Openshaw came from Manchester to settle in London. He
had been, what is called in Lancashire, a salesman for a large
manufacturing firm, who were extending their business, and opening a
warehouse in the city; where Mr Openshaw was now to superintend their
affairs. He rather enjoyed the change; having a kind of curiosity
about London, which he had never yet been able to gratify in his brief
visits to the metropolis. At the same time, he had an odd, shrewd
contempt for the inhabitants, whom he always pictured to himself as
fine, lazy people, caring nothing but for fashion and aristocracy, and
lounging away their days in Bond Street, and such places; ruining good
English, and ready in their turn to despise him as a provincial. The
hours that the men of business kept in the city scandalized him too,
accustomed as he was to the early dinners of Manchester folk and
the consequently far longer evenings. Still, he was pleased to go to
London, though he would not for the world have confessed it, even to
himself, and always spoke of the step to his friends as one demanded
of him by the interests of his employers, and sweetened to him by a
considerable increase of salary. This, indeed, was so liberal that he
might have been justified in taking a much larger house than the
one he did, had he not thought himself bound to set an example to
Londoners of how little a Manchester man of business cared for show.
Inside, however, he furnished it with an unusual degree of comfort,
and, in the winter-time, he insisted on keeping up as large fires as
the grates would allow, in every room where the temperature was in
the least chilly. Moreover, his northern sense of hospitality was such
that, if he were at home, he could hardly suffer a visitor to leave
the house without forcing meat and drink upon him. Every servant in
the house was well warmed, well fed, and kindly treated; for their
master scorned all petty saving in aught that conduced to comfort;
while he amused himself by following out all his accustomed habits and
individual ways, in defiance of what any of his new neighbours might

His wife was a pretty, gentle woman, of suitable age and character. He
was forty-two, she thirty-five. He was loud and decided; she soft and
yielding. They had two children; or rather, I should say, she had two;
for the elder, a girl of eleven, was Mrs Openshaw's child by Frank
Wilson, her first husband. The younger was a little boy, Edwin, who
could just prattle, and to whom his father delighted to speak in the
broadest and most unintelligible Lancashire dialect, in order to keep
up what he called the true Saxon accent.

Mrs Openshaw's Christian name was Alice, and her first husband had
been her own cousin. She was the orphan niece of a sea-captain
in Liverpool; a quiet, grave little creature, of great personal
attraction when she was fifteen or sixteen, with regular features and
a blooming complexion. But she was very shy, and believed herself to
be very stupid and awkward; and was frequently scolded by her aunt,
her own uncle's second wife. So when her cousin, Frank Wilson, came
home from a long absence at sea, and first was kind and protective to
her; secondly, attentive; and thirdly, desperately in love with her,
she hardly knew how to be grateful enough to him. It is true, she
would have preferred his remaining in the first or second stages of
behaviour; for his violent love puzzled and frightened her. Her uncle
neither helped nor hindered the love affair, though it was going on
under his own eyes. Frank's stepmother had such a variable temper,
that there was no knowing whether what she liked one day she would
like the next, or not. At length she went to such extremes of
crossness that Alice was only too glad to shut her eyes and rush
blindly at the chance of escape from domestic tyranny offered her by
a marriage with her cousin; and, liking him better than any one in the
world, except her uncle (who was at this time at sea), she went off
one morning and was married to him, her only bridesmaid being the
housemaid at her aunt's. The consequence was that Frank and his wife
went into lodgings, and Mrs Wilson refused to see them, and turned
away Norah, the warm-hearted housemaid, whom they accordingly took
into their service. When Captain Wilson returned from his voyage he
was very cordial with the young couple, and spent many an evening at
their lodgings, smoking his pipe and sipping his grog; but he told
them, for quietness' sake, he could not ask them to his own house; for
his wife was bitter against them. They were not, however, very unhappy
about this.

The seed of future unhappiness lay rather in Frank's vehement,
passionate disposition, which led him to resent his wife's shyness and
want of demonstrativeness as failures in conjugal duty. He was already
tormenting himself, and her too in a slighter degree, by apprehensions
and imaginations of what might befall her during his approaching
absence at sea. At last, he went to his father and urged him to
insist upon Alice's being once more received under his roof; the more
especially as there was now a prospect of her confinement while her
husband was away on his voyage. Captain Wilson was, as he himself
expressed it, 'breaking up', and unwilling to undergo the excitement
of a scene; yet he felt that what his son said was true. So he went to
his wife. And before Frank set sail, he had the comfort of seeing his
wife installed in her old little garret in his father's house. To have
placed her in the one best spare room was a step beyond Mrs Wilson's
powers of submission or generosity. The worst part about it, however,
was that the faithful Norah had to be dismissed. Her place as
housemaid had been filled up; and, even if it had not, she had
forfeited Mrs Wilson's good opinion for ever. She comforted her young
master and mistress by pleasant prophecies of the time when they would
have a household of their own; of which, whatever service she might
be in meanwhile, she should be sure to form a part. Almost the last
action Frank did, before setting sail, was going with Alice to see
Norah once more at her mother's house; and then he went away.

Alice's father-in-law grew more and more feeble as winter advanced.
She was of great use to her stepmother in nursing and amusing him;
and although there was anxiety enough in the household, there was,
perhaps, more of peace than there had been for years, for Mrs Wilson
had not a bad heart, and was softened by the visible approach of death
to one whom she loved, and touched by the lonely condition of the
young creature expecting her first confinement in her husband's
absence. To this relenting mood Norah owed the permission to come
and nurse Alice when her baby was born, and to remain and attend on
Captain Wilson.

Before one letter had been received from Frank (who had sailed for
the East Indies and China), his father died. Alice was always glad to
remember that he had held her baby in his arms, and kissed and blessed
it before his death. After that, and the consequent examination into
the state of his affairs, it was found that he had left far less
property than people had been led by his style of living to expect;
and what money there was, was settled all upon his wife, and at her
disposal after her death. This did not signify much to Alice, as Frank
was now first mate of his ship, and, in another voyage or two, would
be captain. Meanwhile he had left her rather more than two hundred
pounds (all his savings) in the bank.

It became time for Alice to hear from her husband. One letter from the
Cape she had already received. The next was to announce his arrival in
India. As week after week passed over, and no intelligence of the ship
having got there reached the office of the owners, and the captain's
wife was in the same state of ignorant suspense as Alice herself, her
fears grew most oppressive. At length the day came when, in reply to
her inquiry at the shipping office, they told her that the owners had
given up hope of ever hearing more of the _Betsy-Jane_ and had sent in
their claim upon the underwriters. Now that he was gone for ever,
she first felt a yearning, longing love for the kind cousin, the
dear friend, the sympathizing protector, whom she should never see
again;--first felt a passionate desire to show him his child, whom
she had hitherto rather craved to have all to herself--her own sole
possession. Her grief was, however, noiseless and quiet--rather to the
scandal of Mrs Wilson who bewailed her stepson as if he and she had
always lived together in perfect harmony, and who evidently thought
it her duty to burst into fresh tears at every strange face she
saw; dwelling on his poor young widow's desolate state, and the
helplessness of the fatherless child, with an unction as if she liked
the excitement of the sorrowful story.

So passed away the first days of Alice's widowhood. By and by things
subsided into their natural and tranquil course. But, as if the young
creature was always to be in some heavy trouble, her ewe-lamb began to
be ailing, pining, and sickly. The child's mysterious illness turned
out to be some affection of the spine, likely to affect health but not
to shorten life--at least, so the doctors said. But the long, dreary
suffering of one whom a mother loves as Alice loved her only child,
is hard to look forward to. Only Norah guessed what Alice suffered; no
one but God knew.

And so it fell out, that when Mrs Wilson, the elder, came to her one
day, in violent distress, occasioned by a very material diminution in
the value of the property that her husband had left her--a diminution
which made her income barely enough to support herself, much less
Alice--the latter could hardly understand how anything which did not
touch health or life could cause such grief; and she received the
intelligence with irritating composure.

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