John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter V

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John Halifax, Gentleman by Dinah Craik
Chapter V

Summers and winters slipped by lazily enough, as the years seemed always to crawl round at Norton Bury. How things went in the outside world I little knew or cared. My father lived his life, mechanical and steady as clock-work, and we two, John Halifax and Phineas Fletcher, lived our lives—the one so active and busy, the other so useless and dull. Neither of us counted the days, nor looked backwards or forwards.

One June morning I woke to the consciousness that I was twenty years old, and that John Halifax was—a man: the difference between us being precisely as I have expressed it.

Our birthdays fell within a week of each other, and it was in remembering his—the one which advanced him to the dignity of eighteen—that I called to mind my own. I say, "advanced him to the dignity"—but in truth that is an idle speech; for any dignity which the maturity of eighteen may be supposed to confer he had already in possession. Manhood had come to him, both in character and demeanour, not as it comes to most young lads, an eagerly-desired and presumptuously-asserted claim, but as a rightful inheritance, to be received humbly, and worn simply and naturally. So naturally, that I never seemed to think of him as anything but a boy, until this one June Sunday, when, as before stated, I myself became twenty years old.

I was talking over that last fact, in a rather dreamy mood, as he and I sat in our long-familiar summer seat, the clematis arbour by the garden wall.

"It seems very strange, John, but so it is—I am actually twenty."

"Well, and what of that?"

I sat looking down into the river, which flowed on, as my years were flowing, monotonous, dark, and slow,—as they must flow on for ever. John asked me what I was thinking of.

"Of myself: what a fine specimen of the noble genus homo I am."

I spoke bitterly, but John knew how to meet that mood. Very patient he was with it and with every ill mood of mine. And I was grateful, with that deep gratitude we feel to those who bear with us, and forgive us, and laugh at us, and correct us,—all alike for love.

"Self-investigation is good on birthdays. Phineas, here goes for a catalogue of your qualities, internal and external."

"John, don't be foolish."

"I will, if I like; though perhaps not quite so foolish as some other people; so listen:—'Imprimis,' as saith Shakspeare—Imprimis, height, full five feet four; a stature historically appertaining to great men, including Alexander of Macedon and the First Consul."

"Oh, oh!" said I, reproachfully; for this was our chief bone of contention—I hating, he rather admiring, the great ogre of the day, Napoleon Bonaparte.

"Imprimis, of a slight, delicate person, but not lame as once was."

"No, thank God!"

"Thin, rather-"

"Very—a mere skeleton!"

"Face elongated and pale-"

"Sallow, John, decidedly sallow."

"Be it so, sallow. Big eyes, much given to observation, which means hard staring. Take them off me, Phineas, or I'll not lie on the grass a minute longer. Thank you. To return: Imprimis and finis (I'm grand at Latin now, you see)—long hair, which, since the powder tax, has resumed its original blackness, and is—any young damsel would say, only we count not a single one among our acquaintance— exceedingly bewitching."

I smiled, feeling myself colour a little too, weak invalid as I was. I was, nevertheless, twenty years old; and although Jael and Sally were the only specimens of the other sex which had risen on my horizon, yet once or twice, since I had read Shakspeare, I had had a boy's lovely dreams of the divinity of womanhood. They began, and ended—mere dreams. Soon dawned the bare, hard truth, that my character was too feeble and womanish to be likely to win any woman's reverence or love. Or, even had this been possible, one sickly as I was, stricken with hereditary disease, ought never to seek to perpetuate it by marriage. I therefore put from me, at once and for ever, every feeling of that kind; and during my whole life—I thank God!—have never faltered in my resolution. Friendship was given me for love—duty for happiness. So best, and I was satisfied.

This conviction, and the struggle succeeding it—for, though brief, it was but natural that it should have been a hard struggle—was the only secret that I had kept from John. It had happened some months now, and was quite over and gone, so that I could smile at his fun, and shake at him my "bewitching" black locks, calling him a foolish boy. And while I said it, the notion slowly dawning during the long gaze he had complained of, forced itself upon me, clear as daylight, that he was not a "boy" any longer.

"Now let me turn the tables. How old are YOU, John?"

"You know. Eighteen next week."

"And how tall?"

"Five feet eleven inches and a half." And, rising, he exhibited to its full advantage that very creditable altitude, more tall perhaps than graceful, at present; since, like most youths, he did not as yet quite know what to do with his legs and arms. But he was—

I cannot describe what he was. I could not then. I only remember that when I looked at him, and began jocularly "Imprimis," my heart came up into my throat and choked me.

It was almost with sadness that I said, "Ah! David, you are quite a young man now."

He smiled, of course only with pleasure, looking forward to the new world into which he was going forth; the world into which, as I knew well, I could never follow him.

"I am glad I look rather old for my years," said he, when, after a pause, he had again flung himself down on the grass. "It tells well in the tan-yard. People would be slow to trust a clerk who looked a mere boy. Still, your father trusts me."

"He does, indeed. You need never have any doubt of that. It was only yesterday he said to me that now he was no longer dissatisfied with your working at all sorts of studies, in leisure hours, since it made you none the worse man of business."

"No, I hope not, or I should be much ashamed. It would not be doing my duty to myself any more than to my master, if I shirked his work for my own. I am glad he does not complain now, Phineas."

"On the contrary; I think he intends to give you a rise this Midsummer. But oh!" I cried, recurring to a thought which would often come when I looked at the lad, though he always combated it so strongly, that I often owned my prejudices were unjust: "how I wish you were something better than a clerk in a tan-yard. I have a plan, John."

But what that plan was, was fated to remain unrevealed. Jael came to us in the garden, looking very serious. She had been summoned, I knew, to a long conference with her master the day before—the subject of which she would not tell me, though she acknowledged it concerned myself. Ever since she had followed me about, very softly, for her, and called me more than once, as when I was a child, "my dear." She now came with half-dolorous, half-angry looks, to summon me to an interview with my father and Doctor Jessop.

I caught her parting mutterings, as she marched behind me: "Kill or cure, indeed,"—"No more fit than a baby,"—"Abel Fletcher be clean mad,"—"Hope Thomas Jessop will speak out plain, and tell him so," and the like. From these, and from her strange fit of tenderness, I guessed what was looming in the distance—a future which my father constantly held in terrorem over me, though successive illness had kept it in abeyance. Alas! I knew that my poor father's hopes and plans were vain! I went into his presence with a heavy heart.

There is no need to detail that interview. Enough, that after it he set aside for ever his last lingering hope of having a son able to assist, and finally succeed him in his business, and that I set aside every dream of growing up to be a help and comfort to my father. It cost something on both our parts; but after that day's discussion we tacitly covered over the pain, and referred to it no more.

I came back into the garden, and told John Halifax all. He listened with his hand on my shoulder, and his grave, sweet look—dearer sympathy than any words! Though he added thereto a few, in his own wise way; then he and I, also, drew the curtain over an inevitable grief, and laid it in the peaceful chamber of silence.

When my father, Dr. Jessop, John Halifax, and I, met at dinner, the subject had passed into seeming oblivion, and was never afterwards revived.

But dinner being over, and the chatty little doctor gone, while Abel Fletcher sat mutely smoking his pipe, and we two at the window maintained that respectful and decorous silence which in my young days was rigidly exacted by elders and superiors, I noticed my father's eyes frequently resting, with keen observance, upon John Halifax. Could it be that there had recurred to him a hint of mine, given faintly that morning, as faintly as if it had only just entered my mind, instead of having for months continually dwelt there, until a fitting moment should arrive?—Could it be that this hint, which he had indignantly scouted at the time, was germinating in his acute brain, and might bear fruit in future days? I hoped so—I earnestly prayed so. And to that end I took no notice, but let it silently grow.

The June evening came and went. The service-bell rang out and ceased. First, deep shadows, and then a bright star, appeared over the Abbey-tower. We watched it from the garden, where, Sunday after Sunday, in fine weather, we used to lounge, and talk over all manner of things in heaven and in earth, chiefly ending with the former, as on Sunday nights, with stars over our head, was natural and fit we should do.

"Phineas," said John, sitting on the grass with his hands upon his knees, and the one star, I think it was Jupiter, shining down into his eyes, deepening them into that peculiar look, worth any so-called "handsome eyes;"—"Phineas, I wonder how soon we shall have to rise up from this quiet, easy life, and fight our battles in the world? Also, I wonder if we are ready for it?"

"I think you are."

"I don't know. I'm not clear how far I could resist doing anything wrong, if it were pleasant. So many wrong things are pleasant—just now, instead of rising to-morrow, and going into the little dark counting-house, and scratching paper from eight till six, shouldn't I like to break away!—dash out into the world, take to all sorts of wild freaks, do all sorts of grand things, and perhaps never come back to the tanning any more."

"Never any more?"

"No! no! I spoke hastily. I did not mean I ever should do such a wrong thing; but merely that I sometimes feel the wish to do it. I can't help it; it's my Apollyon that I have to fight with—everybody keeps a private Apollyon, I fancy. Now, Phineas, be content; Apollyon is beaten down."

He rose up, but I thought that, in the red glow of the twilight, he looked rather pale. He stretched his hand to help me up from the grass. We went into the house together, silently.

After supper, when the chimes struck half-past nine, John prepared to leave as usual. He went to bid good-night to my father, who was sitting meditatively over the fireless hearth-place, sometimes poking the great bow-pot of fennel and asparagus, as in winter he did the coals: an instance of obliviousness, which, in my sensible and acute father, argued very deep cogitation on some subject or other.

"Good-night," said John, twice over, before his master heard him.

"Eh?—Oh, good-night, good-night, lad! Stay! Halifax, what hast thee got to do to-morrow?"

"Not much, unless the Russian hides should come in; I cleared off the week's accounts last night, as usual."

"Ay, to-morrow I shall look over all thy books and see how thee stand'st, and what further work thou art fit for. Therefore, take a day's holiday, if thee likes."

We thanked him warmly. "There, John," whispered I, "you may have your wish, and run wild to-morrow."

He said, "the wish had gone out of him." So we planned a sweet lazy day under the Midsummer sky, in some fields about a mile off, called the Vineyards.

The morning came, and we took our way thither, under the Abbey walls, and along a lane, shaded on one side by the "willows in the water-courses." We came out in those quiet hay-fields, which, tradition says, had once grown wine for the rosy monks close by, and history avers, were afterwards watered by a darker stream than the blood of grapes. The Vineyards had been a battle-field; and under the long wavy grass, and the roots of the wild apple trees, slept many a Yorkist and Lancastrian. Sometimes an unusually deep furrow turned out a white bone—but more often the relics were undisturbed, and the meadows used as pastures or hay-fields.

John and I lay down on some wind-rows, and sunned ourselves in the warm and delicious air. How beautiful everything was! so very still! with the Abbey-tower—always the most picturesque point in our Norton Bury views—showing so near, that it almost seemed to rise up out of the fields and hedge-rows.

"Well, David," and I turned to the long, lazy figure beside me, which had considerably flattened the hay, "are you satisfied?"

"Ay."

Thus we lounged out all the summer morning, recurring to a few of the infinitude of subjects we used to compare notes upon; though we were neither of us given to wordiness, and never talked but when we had something to say. Often—as on this day—we sat for hours in a pleasant dreaminess, scarcely exchanging a word; nevertheless, I could generally track John's thoughts, as they went wandering on, ay, as clearly as one might track a stream through a wood; sometimes— like to-day—I failed.

In the afternoon, when we had finished our bread and cheese—eaten slowly and with graceful dignity, in order to make dinner a more important and lengthy affair—he said abruptly—

"Phineas, don't you think this field is rather dull? Shall we go somewhere else? not if it tires you, though."

I protested the contrary, my health being much above the average this summer. But just as we were quitting the field we met two rather odd-looking persons entering it, young-old persons they seemed, who might own to any age or any occupation. Their dress, especially that of the younger, amused us by its queer mixture of fashionableness and homeliness, such as grey ribbed stockings and shining paste shoe- buckles, rusty velvet small-clothes and a coatee of blue cloth. But the wearer carried off this anomalous costume with an easy, condescending air, full of pleasantness, humour, and grace.

"Sir," said he, approaching John Halifax with a bow that I feel sure the "first gentleman of his day," as loyal folk then entitled the Prince Regent, could not have surpassed—"Sir, will you favour me by informing us how far it is to Coltham?"

"Ten miles, and the stage will pass here in three hours."

"Thank you; at present I have little to do with the—at least with THAT stage. Young gentlemen, excuse our continuing our dessert, in fact, I may say our dinner. Are you connoisseurs in turnips?"

He offered us—with a polite gesture—one of the "swedes" he was munching. I declined; but John, out of a deeper delicacy than I could boast, accepted it.

"One might dine worse," he said; "I have done, sometimes."

"It was a whim of mine, sir. But I am not the first remarkable person who has eaten turnips in your Norton Bury fields—ay, and turned field-preacher afterwards—the celebrated John Philip—"

Here the elder and less agreeable of the two wayfarers interposed with a nudge, indicating silence.

"My companion is right, sir," he continued. "I will not betray our illustrious friend by mentioning his surname; he is a great man now, and might not wish it generally known that he had dined off turnips. May I give you instead my own humble name?"

He gave it me; but I, Phineas Fletcher, shall copy his reticence, and not indulge the world therewith. It was a name wholly out of my sphere, both then and now; but I know it has since risen into note among the people of the world. I believe, too, its owner has carried up to the topmost height of celebrity always the gay, gentlemanly spirit and kindly heart which he showed when sitting with us and eating swedes. Still, I will not mention his surname—I will only call him "Mr. Charles."

"Now, having satisfactorily 'munched, and munched, and munched,' like the sailor's wife who had chestnuts in her lap—are you acquainted with my friend, Mr. William Shakspeare, young gentleman?—I must try to fulfil the other duties of existence. You said the Coltham mail passed here in three hours? Very well. I have the honour of wishing you a very good day, Mr.—"

"Halifax."

"And yours?"

"Fletcher."

"Any connection with him who went partnership with the worthy Beaumont?"

"My father has no partner, sir," said I. But John, whose reading had lately surpassed mine, and whom nothing ever puzzled, explained that I came from the same old stock as the brothers Phineas and Giles Fletcher. Upon which Mr. Charles, who till now had somewhat overlooked me, took off his hat, and congratulated me on my illustrious descent.

"That man has evidently seen a good deal of the world," said John, smiling; "I wonder what the world is like!"

"Did you not see something of it as a child?"

"Only the worst and lowest side; not the one I want to see now. What business do you think that Mr. Charles is? A clever man, anyhow; I should like to see him again."

"So should I."

Thus talking at intervals and speculating upon our new acquaintance, we strolled along till we came to a spot called by the country people, "The Bloody Meadow," from being, like several other places in the neighbourhood, the scene of one of those terrible slaughters chronicled in the wars of the Roses. It was a sloping field, through the middle of which ran a little stream down to the meadow's end, where, fringed and hidden by a plantation of trees, the Avon flowed. Here, too, in all directions, the hay-fields lay, either in green swathes, or tedded, or in the luxuriously-scented quiles. The lane was quite populous with waggons and hay-makers—the men in their corduroys and blue hose—the women in their trim jackets and bright calamanco petticoats. There were more women than men, by far, for the flower of the peasant youth of England had been drafted off to fight against "Bonyparty." Still hay-time was a glorious season, when half our little town turned out and made holiday in the sunshine.

"I think we will go to a quieter place, John. There seems a crowd down in the meadow; and who is that man standing on the hay-cart, on the other side the stream?"

"Don't you remember the bright blue coat? 'Tis Mr. Charles. How he's talking and gesticulating! What can he be at?"

Without more ado John leaped the low hedge, and ran down the slope of the Bloody Meadow. I followed less quickly.

There, of a surety, stood our new friend, on one of the simple- fashioned hay-carts that we used about Norton Bury, a low framework on wheels, with a pole stuck at either of the four corners. He was bare-headed, and his hair hung in graceful curls, well powdered. I only hope he had honestly paid the tax, which we were all then exclaiming against—so fondly does custom cling to deformity. Despite the powder, the blue coat, and the shabby velvet breeches, Mr. Charles was a very handsome and striking-looking man. No wonder the poor hay-makers had collected from all parts to hear him harangue.

What was he haranguing upon? Could it be, that like his friend, "John Philip," whoever that personage might be, his vocation was that of a field preacher? It seemed like it, especially judging from the sanctified demeanour of the elder and inferior person who accompanied him; and who sat in the front of the cart, and folded his hands and groaned, after the most approved fashion of a methodistical "revival."

We listened, expecting every minute to be disgusted and shocked: but no! I must say this for Mr. Charles, that in no way did he trespass the bounds of reverence and decorum. His harangue, though given as a sermon, was strictly and simply a moral essay, such as might have emanated from any professor's chair. In fact, as I afterwards learnt, he had given for his text one which the simple rustics received in all respect, as coming from a higher and holier volume than Shakspeare—

          "Mercy is twice blessed:
      It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
      'Tis mightiest in the mightiest."

And on that text did he dilate; gradually warming with his subject, till his gestures—which at first had seemed burthened with a queer constraint, that now and then resulted in an irrepressible twitch of the corners of his flexible mouth—became those of a man beguiled into real earnestness. We of Norton Bury had never heard such eloquence.

"Who CAN he be, John? Isn't it wonderful?"

But John never heard me. His whole attention was riveted on the speaker. Such oratory—a compound of graceful action, polished language, and brilliant imagination, came to him as a positive revelation, a revelation from the world of intellect, the world which he longed after with all the ardour of youth.

What that harangue would have seemed like, could we have heard it with maturer ears, I know not; but at eighteen and twenty it literally dazzled us. No wonder it affected the rest of the audience. Feeble men, leaning on forks and rakes, shook their old heads sagely, as if they understood it all. And when the speaker alluded to the horrors of war—a subject which then came so bitterly home to every heart in Britain—many women melted into sobs and tears. At last, when the orator himself, moved by the pictures he had conjured up, paused suddenly, quite exhausted, and asked for a slight contribution "to help a deed of charity," there was a general rush towards him.

"No—no, my good people," said Mr. Charles, recovering his natural manner, though a little clouded, I thought, by a faint shade of remorse; "no, I will not take from any one more than a penny; and then only if they are quite sure they can spare it. Thank you, my worthy man. Thanks, my bonny young lass—I hope your sweetheart will soon be back from the wars. Thank you all, my 'very worthy and approved good masters,' and a fair harvest to you!"

He bowed them away, in a dignified and graceful manner, still standing on the hay-cart. The honest folk trooped off, having no more time to waste, and left the field in possession of Mr. Charles, his co-mate, and ourselves; whom I do not think he had as yet noticed.

He descended from the cart. His companion burst into roars of laughter; but Charles looked grave.

"Poor, honest souls!" said he, wiping his brows—I am not sure that it was only his brows—"Hang me if I'll be at this trick again, Yates."

"It was a trick then, sir," said John, advancing. "I am sorry for it."

"So am I, young man," returned the other, no way disconcerted; indeed, he seemed a person whose frank temper nothing could disconcert. "But starvation is—excuse me,—unpleasant; and necessity has no law. It is of vital consequence that I should reach Coltham to-night; and after walking twenty miles one cannot easily walk ten more, and afterwards appear as Macbeth to an admiring audience."

"You are an actor?"

"I am, please your worship—

            'A poor player,
      That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
      And then is seen no more.'"

There was inexpressible pathos in his tone, and his fine face looked thin and worn—it did not take much to soften both John's feelings and mine towards the "poor player." Besides, we had lately been studying Shakspeare, who for the first time of reading generally sends all young people tragedy-mad.

"You acted well to-day," said John; "all the folk here took you for a methodist preacher."

"Yet I never meddled with theology—only common morality. You cannot say I did."

John thought a moment, and then answered—

"No. But what put the scheme into your head?"

"The fact that, under a like necessity, the same amusing play was played out here years ago, as I told you, by John Philip—no, I will not conceal his name, the greatest actor and the truest gentleman our English stage has ever seen—John Philip Kemble."

And he raised his hat with sincere reverence. We too had heard—at least John had—of this wonderful man.

I saw the fascination of Mr. Charles's society was strongly upon him. It was no wonder. More brilliant, more versatile talent I never saw. He turned "from grave to gay, from lively to severe"—appearing in all phases like the gentleman, the scholar, and the man of the world. And neither John nor I had ever met any one of these characters, all so irresistibly alluring at our age.

I say OUR, because though I followed where he led, I always did it of my own will likewise.

The afternoon began to wane, while we, with our two companions, yet sat talking by the brook-side. Mr. Charles had washed his face, and his travel-sore, blistered feet, and we had induced him, and the man he called Yates, to share our remnants of bread and cheese.

"Now," he said, starting up, "I am ready to do battle again, even with the Thane of Fife—who, to-night, is one Johnson, a fellow of six feet and twelve stone. What is the hour, Mr. Halifax?"

"Mr. Halifax"—(I felt pleased to hear him for the first time so entitled)—had, unfortunately, no watch among his worldly possessions, and candidly owned the fact. But he made a near guess by calculating the position of his unfailing time-piece, the sun.—It was four o'clock.

"Then I must go. Will you not retract, young gentlemen? Surely you would not lose such a rare treat as 'Macbeth,' with—I will not say my humble self—but with that divine Siddons. Such a woman! Shakspeare himself might lean out of Elysium to watch her. You will join us?"

John made a silent, dolorous negative; as he had done once or twice before, when the actor urged us to accompany him to Coltham for a few hours only—we might be back by midnight, easily.

"What do you think, Phineas?" said John, when we stood in the high-road, waiting for the coach; "I have money—and—we have so little pleasure—we would send word to your father. Do you think it would be wrong?"

I could not say; and to this minute, viewing the question nakedly in a strict and moral sense, I cannot say either whether or no it was an absolute crime; therefore, being accustomed to read my wrong or right in "David's" eyes, I remained perfectly passive.

We waited by the hedge-side for several minutes—Mr. Charles ceased his urging, half in dudgeon, save that he was too pleasant a man really to take offence at anything. His conversation was chiefly directed to me. John took no part therein, but strolled about plucking at the hedge.

When the stage appeared down the winding of the road I was utterly ignorant of what he meant us to do, or if he had any definite purpose at all.

It came—the coachman was hailed. Mr. Charles shook hands with us and mounted—paying his own fare and that of Yates with their handful of charity-pennies, which caused a few minutes' delay in counting, and a great deal of good-humoured joking, as good-humouredly borne.

Meanwhile, John put his two hands on my shoulders, and looked hard into my face—his was slightly flushed and excited, I thought.

"Phineas, are you tired?"

"Not at all."

"Do you feel strong enough to go to Coltham? Would it do you no harm? Would you LIKE to go?"

To all these hurried questions I answered with as hurried an affirmative. It was sufficient to me that he evidently liked to go.

"It is only for once—your father would not grudge us the pleasure, and he is too busy to be out of the tan-yard before midnight. We will be home soon after then, if I carry you on my back all the ten miles. Come, mount, we'll go."

"Bravo!" cried Mr. Charles, and leaned over to help me up the coach's side. John followed, and the crisis was past.

But I noticed that for several miles he hardly spoke one word.