John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XL
Friday, the first of August, 1834.
Many may remember that day; what a soft, grey, summer morning it was, and how it broke out into brightness; how everywhere bells were ringing, club fraternities walking with bands and banners, school- children having feasts and work-people holidays; how, in town and country, there was spread abroad a general sense of benevolent rejoicing—because honest old England had lifted up her generous voice, nay, had paid down cheerfully her twenty millions, and in all her colonies the negro was free.
Many may still find, in some forgotten drawer, the medal bought by thousands and tens of thousands, of all classes, in copper, silver, or gold—distributed in charity-schools, and given by old people to their grandchildren. I saw Mrs. Halifax tying one with a piece of blue ribbon round little Louise's neck, in remembrance of this day. The pretty medal, with the slave standing upright, stretching out to Heaven free hands, from which the fetters are dropping—as I overheard John say to his wife, he could fancy the freeman Paul would stand in the Roman prison, when he answered to those that loved him, "I HAVE FOUGHT THE GOOD FIGHT. I HAVE FINISHED MY COURSE. I HAVE KEPT THE FAITH."
Now, with my quickened ears, I often heard John talking quietly to his wife on this wise.
He remained by her side the whole forenoon—wheeling her about in her garden-chair; taking her to see her school-children in their glory on our lawn—to hear the shouts rising up from the people at the mill-yard below. For all Enderley, following the master's example, took an interest, hearty even among hearty hard-working England, in the Emancipation of the Slaves.
We had our own young people round us, and the day was a glorious day, they declared one and all.
John was happy too—infinitely happy. After dinner he carried his wife to her chair beside the weeping ash, where she could smell the late hay in the meadow, and hear the ripple of the stream in the beech-wood—faint, for it was almost dried up now, but pleasant still. Her husband sat on the grass, making her laugh with his quaint sayings—admiring her in her new bonnet, and in the lovely white shawl—Guy's shawl—which Mr. Guy himself had really no time for admiring. He had gone off to the school tea-drinking, escorting his sister and sister-in-law, and another lady, whose eyes brightened with most "sisterly" joy whenever she glanced at her old playfellow. Guy's "sister" she nevertheless was not, nor was ever likely to be— and I questioned whether, in his secret heart, he had not begun already to feel particularly thankful for that circumstance.
"Ah, mother," cried the father, smiling, "you'll see how it will end: all our young birds will soon be flown—there will be nobody left but you and me."
"Never mind, John;" and stooping over him, she gave him one of her quiet, soft kisses, precious now she was an old woman as they had been in the days of her bloom. "Never mind. Once there were only our two selves—now there will be only our two selves again. We shall be very happy. We only need one another."
"Only one another, my darling."
This last word, and the manner of his saying it, I can hear if I listen in silence, clear as if yet I heard its sound. This last sight—of them sitting under the ash-tree, the sun making still whiter Ursula's white shawl, brightening the marriage ring on her bare hand, and throwing, instead of silver, some of their boyish gold colour into the edges of John's curls—this picture I see with my shut eyes, vivid as yesterday.
I sat for some time in my room—then John came to fetch me for our customary walk along his favourite "terrace" on the Flat. He rarely liked to miss it—he said the day hardly seemed complete or perfect unless one had seen the sun set. Thus, almost every evening, we used to spend an hour or more, pacing up and down, or sitting in that little hollow under the brow of the Flat, where, as from the topmost seat of a natural amphitheatre, one could see Rose Cottage and the old well-head where the cattle drank; our own green garden-gate, the dark mass of the beech-wood, and far away beyond that Nunneley Hill, where the sun went down.
There, having walked somewhat less time than usual, for the evening was warm and it had been a fatiguing day, John and I sat down together. We talked a little, ramblingly—chiefly of Longfield—how I was to have my old room again—and how a new nursery was to be planned for the grandchildren.
"We can't get out of the way of children, I see clearly," he said, laughing. "We shall have Longfield just as full as ever it was, all summer time. But in winter we'll be quiet, and sit by the chimney- corner, and plunge into my dusty desert of books—eh, Phineas? You shall help me to make notes for those lectures I have intended giving at Norton Bury, these ten years past. And we'll rub up our old Latin, and dip into modern poetry—great rubbish, I fear! Nobody like our old friend Will of Avon, or even your namesake, worthy Phineas Fletcher."
I reminded him of the "Shepherd's life and fate," which he always liked so much, and used to say was his ideal of peaceful happiness.
"Well, and I think so still. 'Keep true to the dreams of thy youth,' saith the old German; I have not been false to mine. I have had a happy life, thank God; ay, and what few men can say, it has been the very sort of happiness I myself would have chosen. I think most lives, if, while faithfully doing our little best, day by day, we were content to leave their thread in wiser hands than ours, would thus weave themselves out; until, looked back upon as a whole, they would seem as bright a web as mine."
He sat, talking thus, resting his chin on his hands—his eyes, calm and sweet, looking out westward—where the sun was about an hour from the horizon.
"Do you remember how we used to lie on the grass in your father's garden, and how we never could catch the sunset except in fragments between the abbey trees! I wonder if they keep the yew hedge clipped as round as ever."
I told him Edwin had said to-day that some strange tenants were going to make an inn of the old house, and turn the lawn into a bowling- green.
"What a shame! I wish I could prevent it. And yet, perhaps not," he added, after a silence. "Ought we not rather to recognise and submit to the universal law of change? How each in his place is fulfilling his day, and passing away, just as that sun is passing. Only we know not whither he passes; while whither we go we know, and the Way we know—the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever."
Almost before he had done speaking—(God grant that in the Kingdom I may hear that voice, not a tone altered—I would not wish it altered even there)—a whole troop of our young people came out of Mrs. Tod's cottage, and nodded to us from below.
There was Mrs. Edwin, standing talking to the good old soul, who admired her baby-boy very much, but wouldn't allow there could be any children like Mrs. Halifax's children.
There was Edwin, deep in converse with his brother Guy, while beside them—prettier and younger-looking than ever—Grace Oldtower was making a posy for little Louise.
Further down the slope, walking slowly, side by side, evidently seeing nobody but one another, were another couple.
"I think, sometimes, John, that those two, William and Maud, will be the happiest of all the children."
He smiled, looked after them for a minute, and then laid himself quietly down on his back along the slope, his eyes still directed towards the sunset. When, brightening as it descended, the sun shone level upon the place where we were sitting, I saw John pull his broad straw hat over his face, and compose himself, with both hands clasped upon his breast, in the attitude of sleep.
I knew he was very tired, so I spoke no more, but threw my cloak over him. He looked up, thanked me silently, with his old familiar smile. One day—one day I shall know him by that smile! I sat half an hour or more watching the sun, which sank steadily, slowly, round, and red, without a single cloud. Beautiful, as I had never before seen it; so clear, that one could note the very instant its disc touched the horizon's grey.
Maud and Mr. Ravenel were coming up the slope. I beckoned them to come softly, not to disturb the father. They and I sat in silence, facing the west. The sun journeyed down to his setting—lower— lower; there was a crescent, a line, a dim sparkle of light; then—he was gone. And still we sat—grave, but not sad—looking into the brightness he had left behind; believing, yea, knowing, we should see his glorious face again to-morrow.
"How cold it has grown," said Maud. "I think we ought to wake my father."
She went up to him, laid her hand upon his, that were folded together over the cloak—drew back startled—alarmed.
I put the child aside. It was I who moved the hat from John's face— THE face—for John himself was far, far away. Gone from us unto Him whose faithful servant he was. While he was sleeping thus the Master had called him.
His two sons carried him down the slope. They laid him in the upper room in Mrs. Tod's cottage. Then I went home to tell his wife.
* * *
She was at last composed, as we thought, lying on her bed, death-like almost, but calm. It was ten o'clock at night. I left her with all her children watching round her.
I went out, up to Rose Cottage, to sit an hour by myself alone, looking at him whom I should not see again for—as he had said—"a little while."
"A little while—a little while." I comforted myself with those words. I fancied I could almost hear John saying them, standing near me, with his hand on my shoulder. John himself, quite distinct from that which lay so still before me; beautiful as nothing but death can be, younger much than he had looked this very morning—younger by twenty years.
Farewell, John! Farewell, my more than brother! It is but for a little while.
As I sat, thinking how peacefully the hands lay, clasped together still, how sweet was the expression of the close mouth, and what a strange shadowy likeness the whole face bore to Muriel's little face, which I had seen resting in the same deep rest on the same pillow; some one touched me. It was Mrs. Halifax.
How she came I do not know; nor how she had managed to steal out from among her children. Nor how she, who had not walked for weeks, had found her way up hither, in the dark, all alone. Nor what strength, almost more than mortal, helped her to stand there, as she did stand, upright and calm—gazing—gazing as I had done.
"It is very like him; don't you think so, Phineas?" The voice low and soft, unbroken by any sob. "He once told me, in case of—this, he would rather I did not come and look at him; but I can, you see."
I gave her my place, and she sat down by the bed. It might have been ten minutes or more that she and I remained thus, without exchanging a word.
"I think I hear some one at the door. Brother, will you call in the children?"
Guy, altogether overcome, knelt down beside his mother, and besought her to let him take her home.
"Presently—presently, my son. You are very good to me; but—your father. Children, come in and look at your father."
They all gathered round her—weeping; but she spoke without single tear.
"I was a girl, younger than any of you, when first I met your father. Next month we shall have been married thirty-three years. Thirty- three years."
Her eyes grew dreamy, as if fancy had led her back all that space of time; her fingers moved to and fro, mechanically, over her wedding- ring.
"Children, we were so happy, you cannot tell. He was so good; he loved me so. Better than that, he made me good; that was why I loved him. Oh, what his love was to me from the first! strength, hope, peace; comfort and help in trouble, sweetness in prosperity. How my life became happy and complete—how I grew worthier to myself because he had taken me for his own! And what HE was—Children, no one but me ever knew all his goodness, no one but himself ever knew how dearly I loved your father. We were more precious each to each than anything on earth; except His service, who gave us to one another."
Her voice dropped all but inaudible; but she roused herself, and made it once more clear and firm, the mother's natural voice.
"Guy, Edwin, all of you, must never forget your father. You must do as he wishes, and live as he lived—in all ways. You must love him, and love one another. Children, you will never do anything that need make you ashamed to meet your father."
As they hung round her she kissed them all—her three sons and her daughter, one by one; then, her mind being perhaps led astray by the room we were in, looked feebly round for one more child—remembered— smiled—
"How glad her father will be to have her again—his own little Muriel."
"Mother! mother darling! come home," whispered Guy, almost in a sob.
His mother stooped over him, gave him one kiss more—him her favourite of all her children—and repeated the old phrase:
"Presently, presently! Now go away, all of you; I want to be left for a little, alone with my husband."
As we went out, I saw her turn toward the bed—"John, John!" The same tone, almost the same words, with which she had crept up to him years before, the day they were betrothed. Just a low, low murmur, like a tired child creeping to fond protecting arms. "John, John!"
We closed the door. We all sat on the stairs outside; it might have been for minutes, it might have been for hours. Within or without— no one spoke—nothing stirred.
At last Guy softly went in.
She was still in the same place by the bed-side, but half lying on the bed, as I had seen her turn when I was shutting the door. Her arm was round her husband's neck; her face, pressed inwards to the pillow, was nestled close to his hair. They might have been asleep— both of them.
One of her children called her, but she neither answered nor stirred.
Guy lifted her up, very tenderly; his mother, who had no stay left but him—his mother—a widow—
No, thank God! she was not a widow now.
End of the Project Gutenberg Etext of John Halifax, Gentleman.