As soon as the Thorntons leave, Margaret hurries to the Higgins’ house to visit Bessy. Bessy asks to hear about Margaret’s childhood home in the country. Margaret has not spoken of Helstone since she left it, though she often dreams vividly of it. She is happy for the chance to reminisce to Bessy. “I cannot tell you half its beauty,” she tells her, describing the shade of the trees, the tinkling of the brook, the birdsong, and the commanding voice of a faraway farmer, “[reminding] me pleasantly that other people were hard at work in some distant place, while I just sat on the heather and did nothing.”
Margaret’s memories of the beauties of Helstone are shaped by the comparative drear and colorlessness of her new home. Her memory of the commanding farmer also seems a bit tone-deaf in context of a conversation with Bessy, illustrating the fact that Margaret has never had to labor for survival.
Bessy longs for such rest, after experiencing both hard work and, since she got sick, fitful idleness. She also confesses to Margaret that she sometimes fears in the night that there’s no God, that she’s been born “just to work my heart and my life away.” But, when she’s in her right mind, she remembers the book of Revelation by heart and draws comfort from its promises of the next life.
For Bessy, life has always been consumed with work, so she looks to the apocalyptic passages in the Bible to fuel hope in a better life (meaning Heaven) than what she’s known on earth.
When Margaret asks her more about her life, Bessy explains that she has been sick since about the time that her mother died, at which time she began to work in a carding-room, where she inhaled bits of cotton fluff and was gradually sickened by it. She kept working there because she didn’t want to be thought “soft,” and she wanted to keep up Mary’s schooling and her father, Higgins’, love of books and lectures. She mentions that she is 19, and Margaret must hold back her tears, as she realizes the contrast between the two of them, despite the fact that they are the same age.
Bessy is probably suffering from a disease called byssinosis, also known as “mill fever” or “cotton workers’ lung,” contracted in poorly ventilated cotton mills. Gaskell uses Bessy’s sufferings to highlight the problem of dangerous working conditions faced by many millworkers, and the contrast between Bessy’s resignation to death and Margaret’s youthful vitality is stark. Bessy’s motivation to work is also interesting, as it shows how education and learning were valued even among the working class.
From that day forward, Mrs. Hale increasingly becomes an invalid herself. As Margaret thinks back to Edith’s wedding a year ago, she thinks that she would have shrunk from the troubles to come, had she known what was coming. Yet each day, she finds, has been endurable, with sparks of enjoyment amidst sorrow. She also reflects on the new patience she has observed in her mother. Mrs. Hale’s tendency to whine and complain has faded, and she is now “gentle and quiet in intense bodily suffering, almost in proportion as she had been restless and depressed when there had been no real cause for grief.”
Margaret’s character has strengthened as she’s been plunged into circumstances she never expected or sought. Likewise, when faced with legitimate suffering, Mrs. Hale’s complaining character softens into patience and perseverance, showing Gaskell’s conviction that character is malleable even in the late stages of life.
Mr. Hale, however, appears to be willfully blind to Mrs. Hale’s condition, and is even irritated when Margaret expresses anxiety. Nevertheless, he says sadly, “I wish one could do right without sacrificing others.” He maintains that his wife would never conceal from him any serious health complaint. But Margaret hears him pacing worriedly in his bedroom that night.
Whereas Mr. Hale concealed his religious doubts from his wife a year ago, now Mrs. Hale conceals the seriousness of her condition from her husband. To some degree, her condition is a result of Mr. Hale’s act of conscience, showing how costly such dissent could be.