John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XIV
"I am quite certain, Mrs. Tod, that it would be much better for her; and, if she consents, it shall be so," said John, decisively.
We three were consulting, the morning after the death, on a plan which he and I had already settled between ourselves, namely, that we should leave our portion of the cottage entirely at Miss March's disposal, while we inhabited hers—save that locked and silent chamber wherein there was no complaining, no suffering now.
Either John's decision, or Mrs. Tod's reasoning, was successful; we received a message to the effect that Miss March would not refuse our "kindness." So we vacated; and all that long Sunday we sat in the parlour lately our neighbour's, heard the rain come down, and the church bells ring; the wind blowing autumn gales, and shaking all the windows, even that of the room overhead. It sounded awful THERE. We were very glad the poor young orphan was away.
On the Monday morning we heard going up-stairs the heavy footsteps that every one at some time or other has shuddered at; then the hammering. Mrs. Tod came in, and told us that no one—not even his daughter—could be allowed to look at what had been "poor Mr. March," any more. All with him was ended.
"The funeral is to be soon. I wonder what she will do then, poor thing!"
John made me no answer.
"Is she left well provided for, do you think?"
"It is impossible to say."
His answers were terse and brief enough, but I could not help talking about the poor young creature, and wondering if she had any relative or friend to come to her in this sad time.
"She said—do you remember, when she was crying—that she had not a friend in the wide world?"
And this fact, which he expressed with a sort of triumph, seemed to afford the greatest possible comfort to John.
But all our speculations were set at rest by a request brought this moment by Mrs. Tod—that Mr. Halifax would go with her to speak to Miss March.
"I! only I?" said John, starting.
"Only you, sir. She wants somebody to speak to about the funeral— and I said, 'There be Mr. Halifax, Miss March, the kindest gentleman'; and she said, 'if it wouldn't trouble him to come—'"
"Tell her I am coming."
When, after some time, he returned, he was very serious.
"Wait a minute, Phineas, and you shall hear; I feel confused, rather. It is so strange, her trusting me thus. I wish I could help her more."
Then he told me all that had passed—how he and Mrs. Tod had conjointly arranged the hasty funeral—how brave and composed she had been—that poor child, all alone!
"Has she indeed no one to help her?"
"No one. She might send for Mr. Brithwood, but he was not friendly with her father; she said she had rather ask this 'kindness' of me, because her father had liked me, and thought I resembled their Walter, who died."
"Poor Mr. March!—perhaps he is with Walter, now. But, John, can you do all that is necessary for her? You are very young."
"She does not seem to feel that. She treats me as if I were a man of forty. Do I look so old and grave, Phineas?"
"Sometimes. And about the funeral?"
"It will be very simple. She is determined to go herself. She wishes to have no one besides Mrs. Tod, you, and me."
"Where is he to be buried?"
"In the little churchyard close by, which you and I have looked at many a time. Ah, Phineas, we did not think how soon we should be laying our dead there."
"Not OUR dead, thank God!"
But the next minute I understood. "OUR dead"—the involuntary admission of that sole feeling, which makes one, erewhile a stranger, say to, or think of another—"All thine are mine, and mine are thine, henceforward and for ever."
I watched John as he stood by the fire; his thoughtful brow and firm-set lips contradicting the youthfulness of his looks. Few as were his years, he had learnt much in them. He was at heart a man, ready and able to design and carry out a man's work in the world. And in his whole aspect was such grave purity, such honest truth, that no wonder, young as they both were, and little as she knew of him, this poor orphan should not have feared to trust him entirely. And there is nothing that binds heart to heart, of lovers or friends, so quickly and so safely, as to trust and be trusted in time of trouble.
"Did she tell you any more, John? Anything of her circumstances?"
"No. But from something Mrs. Tod let fall, I fear"—and he vainly tried to disguise his extreme satisfaction—"that she will be left with little or nothing."
"Poor Miss March!"
"Why call her poor? She is not a woman to be pitied, but to be honoured. You would have thought so, had you seen her this morning. So gentle—so wise—so brave. Phineas,"—and I could see his lips tremble—"that was the kind of woman Solomon meant, when he said, 'Her price was above rubies.'"
"I think so too. I doubt not that when she marries Ursula March will be 'a crown to her husband.'"
My words, or the half sigh that accompanied them—I could not help it—seemed to startle John, but he made no remark. Nor did we recur to the subject again that day.
Two days after, our little company followed the coffin out of the woodbine porch—where we had last said good-bye to poor Mr. March— across the few yards of common, to the churchyard, scarcely larger than a cottage garden, where, at long intervals, the few Enderley dead were laid.
A small procession—the daughter first, supported by good Mrs. Tod, then John Halifax and I. So we buried him—the stranger who, at this time, and henceforth, seemed even, as John had expressed it, "our dead," our own.
We followed the orphan home. She had walked firmly, and stood by the grave-side motionless, her hood drawn over her face. But when we came back to Rose Cottage door, and she gave a quick, startled glance up at the familiar window, we saw Mrs. Tod take her, unresisting, into her motherly arms—then we knew how it would be.
"Come away," said John, in a smothered voice—and we came away.
All that day we sat in our parlour—Mr. March's parlour that had been—where, through the no longer darkened casement, the unwonted sun poured in. We tried to settle to our ordinary ways, and feel as if this were like all other days—our old sunshiny days at Enderley. But it would not do. Some imperceptible but great change had taken place. It seemed a year since that Saturday afternoon, when we were drinking tea so merrily under the apple-tree in the field.
We heard no more from Miss March that day. The next, we received a message of thanks for our "kindness." She had given way at last, Mrs. Tod said, and kept her chamber, not seriously ill, but in spirit thoroughly broken down. For three days more, when I went to meet John returning from Norton Bury, I could see that his first glance, as he rode up between the chestnut trees, was to the window of the room that had been mine. I always told him, without his asking, whatever Mrs. Tod had told me about her state; he used to listen, generally in silence, and then speak of something else. He hardly ever mentioned Miss March's name.
On the fourth morning, I happened to ask him if he had told my father what had occurred here?
I looked surprised.
"Did you wish me to tell him? I will, if you like, Phineas."
"Oh, no. He takes little interest in strangers."
Soon after, as he lingered about the parlour, John said:
"Probably I may be late to-night. After business hours I want to have a little talk with your father."
He stood irresolutely by the fire. I knew by his countenance that there was something on his mind.
"Will you not tell me first what you want to say to my father?"
"I can't stay now. To-night, perhaps. But, pshaw! what is there to be told? 'Nothing.'"
"Anything that concerns you can never be to me quite 'nothing.'"
"I know that," he said, affectionately, and went out of the room.
When he came in he looked much more cheerful—stood switching his riding-whip after the old habit, and called upon me to admire his favourite brown mare.
"I do; and her master likewise. John, when you're on horseback you look like a young knight of the Middle Ages. Maybe, some of the old Norman blood was in 'Guy Halifax, gentleman.'"
It was a dangerous allusion. He changed colour so rapidly and violently that I thought I had angered him.
"No—that would not matter—cannot—cannot—never shall. I am what God made me, and what, with His blessing, I will make myself."
He said no more, and very soon afterwards he rode away. But not before, as every day, I had noticed that wistful wandering glance up at the darkened window of the room, where sad and alone, save for kindly Mrs. Tod, the young orphan lay.
In the evening, just before bed-time, he said to me with a rather sad smile, "Phineas, you wanted to know what it was that I wished to speak about to your father?"
"Ay, do tell me."
"It is hardly worth telling. Only to ask him how he set up in business for himself. He was, I believe, little older than I am now."
"And I shall be twenty-one next June."
"Are you thinking of setting up for yourself?"
"A likely matter!" and he laughed, rather bitterly, I thought—"when every trade requires capital, and the only trade I thoroughly understand, a very large one. No, no, Phineas; you'll not see me setting up a rival tan-yard next year. My capital is NIL."
"Except youth, health, courage, honour, honesty, and a few other such trifles."
"None of which I can coin into money, however. And your father has expressly told me that without money a tanner can do nothing."
"Unless, as was his own case, he was taken into some partnership where his services were so valuable as to be received instead of capital. True, my father earned little at first, scarcely more than you earn now; but he managed to live respectably, and, in course of time, to marry."
I avoided looking at John as I said the last word. He made no answer, but in a little time he came and leaned over my chair.
"Phineas, you are a wise counsellor—'a brother born for adversity.' I have been vexing myself a good deal about my future, but now I will take heart. Perhaps, some day, neither you nor any one else will be ashamed of me."
"No one could, even now, seeing you as you really are."
"As John Halifax, not as the tanner's 'prentice boy? Oh! lad—there the goad sticks. Here I forget everything unpleasant; I am my own free natural self; but the minute I get back to Norton Bury—however, it is a wrong, a wicked feeling, and must be kept down. Let us talk of something else."
"Of Miss March? She has been greatly better all day."
"She? No, not her to-night!" he said, hurriedly. "Pah! I could almost fancy the odour of these hides on my hands still. Give me a candle."
He went up-stairs, and only came down a few minutes before bed-time.
Next morning was Sunday. After the bells had done ringing we saw a black-veiled figure pass our window. Poor girl!—going to church alone. We followed—taking care that she should not see us, either during service or afterwards. We did not see anything more of her that day.
On Monday a message came, saying that Miss March would be glad to speak with us both. Of course we went.
She was sitting quite alone, in our old parlour, very grave and pale, but perfectly composed. A little more womanly-looking in the dignity of her great grief, which, girl as she was, and young men as we were, seemed to be to her a shield transcending all worldly "proprieties."
As she rose, and we shook hands, in a silence only broken by the rustle of her black dress, not one of us thought—surely the most evil-minded gossip could not have dared to think—that there was anything strange in her receiving us here. We began to talk of common things—not THE thing. She seemed to have fought through the worst of her trouble, and to have put it back into those deep quiet chambers where all griefs go; never forgotten, never removed, but sealed up in silence, as it should be. Perhaps, too—for let us not exact more from Nature than Nature grants—the wide, wide difference in character, temperament, and sympathies between Miss March and her father unconsciously made his loss less a heart-loss, total and irremediable, than one of mere habit and instinctive feeling, which, the first shock over, would insensibly heal. Besides, she was young- -young in life, in hope, in body, and soul; and youth, though it grieves passionately, cannot for ever grieve.
I saw, and rejoiced to see, that Miss March was in some degree herself again; at least, so much of her old self as was right, natural, and good for her to be.
She and John conversed a good deal. Her manner to him was easy and natural, as to a friend who deserved and possessed her warm gratitude: his was more constrained. Gradually, however, this wore away; there was something in her which, piercing all disguises, went at once to the heart of things. She seemed to hold in her hand the touchstone of truth.
He asked—no, I believe I asked her, how long she intended staying at Enderley?
"I can hardly tell. Once I understood that my cousin Richard Brithwood was left my guardian. This my fa—this was to have been altered, I believe. I wish it had been. You know Norton Bury, Mr. Halifax?"
"I live there."
"Indeed!"—with some surprise. "Then you are probably acquainted with my cousin and his wife?"
"No; but I have seen them."
John gave these answers without lifting his eyes.
"Will you tell me candidly—for I know nothing of her, and it is rather important that I should learn—what sort of person is Lady Caroline?"
This frank question, put directly, and guarded by the battery of those innocent, girlish eyes, was a very hard question to be answered; for Norton Bury had said many ill-natured things of our young 'squire's wife, whom he married at Naples, from the house of the well-known Lady Hamilton.
"She was, you are aware, Lady Caroline Ravenel, the Earl of Luxmore's daughter."
"Yes, yes; but that does not signify. I know nothing of Lord Luxmore—I want to know what she is herself."
John hesitated, then answered, as he could with truth, "She is said to be very charitable to the poor, pleasant and kind-hearted. But, if I may venture to hint as much, not exactly the friend whom I think Miss March would choose, or to whom she would like to be indebted for anything but courtesy."
"That was not my meaning. I need not be indebted to any one. Only, if she were a good woman, Lady Caroline would have been a great comfort and a useful adviser to one who is scarcely eighteen, and, I believe, an heiress."
"An heiress!" The colour flashed in a torrent over John's whole face, then left him pale. "I—pardon me—I thought it was otherwise. Allow me to—to express my pleasure—"
"It does not add to mine," said she, half-sighing. "Jane Cardigan always told me riches brought many cares. Poor Jane! I wish I could go back to her—but that is impossible!"
A silence here intervened, which it was necessary some one should break.
"So much good can be done with a large fortune," I said.
"Yes. I know not if mine is very large; indeed, I never understood money matters, but have merely believed what—what I was told. However, be my fortune much or little, I will try to use it well."
"I am sure you will."
John said nothing; but his eyes, sad indeed, yet lit with a proud tenderness, rested upon her as she spoke. Soon after, he rose up to take leave.
"Do not go yet; I want to ask about Norton Bury. I had no idea you lived there. And Mr. Fletcher too?"
I replied in the affirmative.
"In what part of the town?"
"On the Coltham Road, near the Abbey."
"Ah, those Abbey chimes!—how I used to listen to them, night after night, when the pain kept me awake!"
"What pain?" asked John, suddenly, alive to any suffering of hers.
Miss March smiled almost like her old smile. "Oh! I had nearly forgotten it, though it was very bad at the time; only that I cut my wrist rather dangerously with a bread knife, in a struggle with my nurse."
"When was that?" eagerly inquired John.
For me, I said nothing. Already I guessed all. Alas! the tide of fate was running strong against my poor David. What could I do but stand aside and watch?
"When was it? Let me see—five, six years ago. But, indeed, 'tis nothing."
"Not exactly 'nothing.' Do tell me!"
And John stood, listening for her words, counting them even, as one would count, drop by drop, a vial of joy which is nearly empty, yet Time's remorseless hand still keeps on, pouring, pouring.
"Well, if you must know it, it was one of my naughtinesses—I was very naughty as a child. They would not let me have a piece of bread that I wanted to give away to a poor lad."
"Who stood opposite—under an alley—in the rain?—was it not so?"
"How could you know? But he looked so hungry; I was so sorry for him."
"Were you?"—in a tone almost inaudible.
"I have often thought of him since, when I chanced to look at this mark."
"Let me look at it—may I?"
Taking her hand, he softly put back the sleeve, discovering, just above the wrist, a deep, discoloured seam. He gazed at it, his features all quivering, then, without a word either of adieu or apology, he quitted the room.