John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XVIII
For weeks after then, we went on in our usual way; Ursula March living within a stone's throw of us. She had left her cousin's, and come to reside with Dr. Jessop and his wife.
It was a very hard trial for John.
Neither of us were again invited by Mrs. Jessop. We could not blame her; she held a precious charge, and Norton Bury was a horrible place for gossip. Already tale after tale had gone abroad about Miss March's "ingratitude" to her relations. Already tongue after tongue had repeated, in every possible form of lying, the anecdote of "young Halifax and the 'squire." Had it been "young Halifax and Miss March," I truly believe John could not have borne it.
As it was, though he saw her constantly, it was always by chance—a momentary glimpse at the window, or a passing acknowledgment in the street. I knew quite well when he had thus met her, whether he mentioned it or not—knew by the wild, troubled look, which did not wear off for hours.
I watched him closely, day by day, in an agony of doubt and pain.
For, though he said nothing, a great change was creeping over "the lad," as I still fondly called him. His strength, the glory of a young man, was going from him—he was becoming thin, weak, restless-eyed. That healthy energy and gentle composure, which had been so beautiful in him all his life through, were utterly lost.
"What am I to do with thee, David?" said I to him one evening, when he had come in, looking worse than usual—I knew why; for Ursula and her friend had just passed our house taking their pleasant walk in the spring twilight. "Thou art very ill, I fear?"
"Not at all. There is not the least thing the matter with me. Do let me alone."
Two minutes afterwards he begged my pardon for those sharp-spoken words. "It was not THEE that spoke, John," I said.
"No, you are right, it was not I. It was a sort of devil that lodges here:" he touched his breast. "The chamber he lives in is at times a burning hell."
He spoke in a low tone of great anguish. What could I answer? Nothing.
We stood at the window, looking idly out. The chestnut trees in the Abbey-yard were budding green: there came that faint, sweet sound of children at play, which one hears as the days begin to lengthen.
"It's a lovely evening," he said.
"John!" I looked him in the face. He could not palm off that kind deceit upon me. "You have heard something about her?"
"I have," he groaned. "She is leaving Norton Bury."
"Thank God!" I muttered.
John turned fiercely upon me—but only for a moment. "Perhaps I too ought to say, 'Thank God.' This could not have lasted long, or it would have made me—what I pray His mercy to save me from, or to let me die. Oh, lad, if I could only die."
He bent down over the window-sill, crushing his forehead on his hands.
"John," I said, in this depth of despair snatching at an equally desperate hope, "what if, instead of keeping this silence, you were to go to her and tell her all?"
"I have thought of that: a noble thought, worthy of a poor 'prentice lad! Why, two several evenings I have been insane enough to walk to Dr. Jessop's door, which I have never entered, and—mark you well! they have never asked me to enter since that night. But each time ere I knocked my senses came back, and I went home—luckily having made myself neither a fool nor a knave."
There was no answer to this either. Alas! I knew as well as he did, that in the eye of the world's common sense, for a young man not twenty-one, a tradesman's apprentice, to ask the hand of a young gentlewoman, uncertain if she loved him, was most utter folly. Also, for a penniless youth to sue a lady with a fortune, even though it was (the Brithwoods took care to publish the fact) smaller than was at first supposed—would, in the eye of the world's honour, be not very much unlike knavery. There was no help—none!
"David," I groaned, "I would you had never seen her."
"Hush!—not a word like that. If you heard all I hear of her—daily- -hourly—her unselfishness, her energy, her generous, warm heart! It is blessedness even to have known her. She is an angel—no, better than that, a woman! I did not want her for a saint in a shrine—I wanted her as a help-meet, to walk with me in my daily life, to comfort me, strengthen me, make me pure and good. I could be a good man if I had her for my wife. Now—"
He rose, and walked rapidly up and down. His looks were becoming altogether wild.
"Come, Phineas, suppose we go to meet her up the road—as I meet her almost every day. Sometimes she merely bends and smiles, sometimes she holds out her little hand, and 'hopes I am quite well!' And then they pass on, and I stand gaping and staring after them like an idiot. There—look—there they are now."
Ay! walking leisurely along the other side of the road—talking and smiling to one another, in their own merry, familiar way, were Mrs. Jessop and Miss March.
They were not thinking of us, not the least. Only just ere they passed our house Ursula turned slightly round, and looked behind; a quiet, maidenly look, with the smile still lingering on her mouth. She saw nothing, and no one; for John had pulled me from the window, and placed himself out of sight. So, turning back again, she went on her way. They both disappeared.
"Now, Phineas, it is all ended."
"What do you mean?"
"I have looked on her for the last time."
"Nay—she is not going yet."
"But I am—fleeing from the devil and his angels. Hurrah, Phineas, lad! We'll have a merry night. To-morrow I am away to Bristol, to set sail for America."
He wrung my hands with a long, loud, half-mad laugh; and then dropped heavily on a chair.
A few hours after, he was lying on my bed, struck down by the first real sickness he had ever known. It was apparently a low agueish fever, which had been much about Norton Bury since the famine of last year. At least, so Jael said; and she was a wise doctoress, and had cured many. He would have no one else to attend him—seemed terrified at the mere mention of Dr. Jessop. I opposed him not at first, for well I knew, whatever the proximate cause of his sickness might be, its root was in that mental pang which no doctors could cure. So I trusted to the blessed quiet of a sick-room—often so healing to misery—to Jael's nursing, and his brother's love.
After a few days we called in a physician—a stranger from Coltham— who pronounced it to be this Norton Bury fever, caught through living, as he still persisted in doing, in his old attic, in that unhealthy alley where was Sally Watkins's house. It must have been coming on, the doctor said, for a long time; but it had no doubt now reached its crisis. He would be better soon.
But he did not get better. Days slid into weeks, and still he lay there, never complaining, scarcely appearing to suffer, except from the wasting of the fever; yet when I spoke of recovery he "turned his face unto the wall"—weary of living.
Once, when he had lain thus a whole morning, hardly speaking a word, I began to feel growing palpable the truth which day by day I had thrust behind me as some intangible, impossible dread—that ere now people had died of mere soul-sickness, without any bodily disease. I took up his poor hand that lay on the counterpane;—once, at Enderley, he had regretted its somewhat coarse strength: now Ursula's own was not thinner or whiter. He drew it back.
"Oh, Phineas, lad, don't touch me—only let me rest."
The weak, querulous voice—that awful longing for rest! What if, despite all the physician's assurances, he might be sinking, sinking- -my friend, my hope, my pride, all my comfort in this life—passing from it and from me into another, where, let me call never so wildly, he could not answer me any more, nor come back to me any more.
Oh, God of mercy! if I were to be left in this world without my brother!
I had many a time thought over the leaving him, going quietly away when it should please the Giver of all breath to recall mine, falling asleep, encompassed and sustained by his love until the last; then, a burden no longer, leaving him to work out a glorious life, whose rich web should include and bring to beautiful perfection all the poor broken threads in mine. But now, if this should be all vain, if he should go from me, not I from him—I slid down to the ground, to my knees, and the dumb cry of my agony went up on high.
How could I save him?
There seemed but one way; I sprung at it; stayed not to think if it were right or wrong, honourable or dishonourable. His life hung in the balance, and there was but one way; besides, had I not cried unto God for help?
I put aside the blind, and looked out of doors. For weeks I had not crossed the threshold; I almost started to find that it was spring. Everything looked lovely in the coloured twilight; a blackbird was singing loudly in the Abbey trees across the way; all things were fresh and glowing, laden with the hope of the advancing year. And there he lay on his sick-bed, dying!
All he said, as I drew the curtain back, was a faint moan—"No light! I can't bear the light! Do let me rest!"
In half-an-hour, without saying a word to human being, I was on my way to Ursula March.
She sat knitting in the summer-parlour alone. The doctor was out; Mrs. Jessop I saw down the long garden, bonnetted and shawled, busy among her gooseberry-bushes—so we were safe.
As I have said, Ursula sat knitting, but her eyes had a soft dreaminess. My entrance had evidently startled her, and driven some sweet, shy thought away.
But she met me cordially—said she was glad to see me—that she had not seen either of us lately; and the knitting pins began to move quickly again.
Those dainty fingers—that soft, tremulous smile—I could have hated her!
"No wonder you did not see us, Miss March; John has been very ill, is ill now—almost dying."
I hurled the words at her, sharp as javelins, and watched to see them strike.
They struck—they wounded; I could see her shiver.
"Ill!—and no one ever told me!"
"You? How could it affect you? To me, now"—and my savage words, for they were savage, broke down in a burst of misery—"nothing in this world to me is worth a straw in comparison with John. If he dies—"
I let loose the flood of my misery. I dashed it over her, that she might see it—feel it; that it might enter all the fair and sightly chambers of her happy life, and make them desolate as mine. For was she not the cause?
Forgive me! I was cruel to thee, Ursula; and thou wert so good—so kind!
She rose, came to me, and took my hand. Hers was very cold, and her voice trembled much.
"Be comforted. He is young, and God is very merciful."
She could say no more, but sat down, nervously twisting and untwisting her fingers. There was in her looks a wild sorrow—a longing to escape from notice; but mine held her fast, mercilessly, as a snake holds a little bird. She sat cowering, almost like a bird, a poor, broken-winged, helpless little bird—whom the storm has overtaken.
Rising, she made an attempt to quit the room.
"I will call Mrs. Jessop: she may be of use—"
"She cannot. Stay!"
"Further advice, perhaps? Doctor Jessop—you must want help—"
"None save that which will never come. His bodily sickness is conquered—it is his mind. Oh, Miss March!" and I looked up at her like a wretch begging for life—"Do YOU not know of what my brother is dying?"
"Dying!" A long shudder passed over her, from head to foot—but I relented not.
"Think—a life like his, that might be made a blessing to all he loves—to all the world—is it to be sacrificed thus? It may be—I do not say it will—but it may be. While in health he could fight against this—this which I must not speak of; but now his health is gone. He cannot rally. Without some change, I see clearly, even I, who love him better than any one can love him—"
She stirred a little here.
"Far better," I repeated; "for while John does NOT love me best, he to me is more than any one else in the world. Yet even I have given up hope, unless—But I have no right to say more."
There was no need. She began to understand. A deep, soft red, sun-rise colour, dawned all over her face and neck, nay, tinged her very arms—her delicate, bare arms. She looked at me once—just once—with a mute but keen inquiry.
"It is the truth, Miss March—ay, ever since last year. You will respect it? You will, you shall respect it?"
She bent her head in acquiescence—that was all. She had not uttered a single syllable. Her silence almost drove me wild.
"What! not one word? not one ordinary message from a friend to a friend?—one who is lying ill, too!"
"Better so!" I cried, made desperate at last. "Better, if it must be, that he should die and go to the God who made him—ay, made him, as you shall yet see, too noble a man to die for any woman's love."
I left her—left her where she sat, and went my way.
Of the hours that followed the less I say the better. My mind was in a tumult of pain, in which right and wrong were strangely confused. I could not decide—I can scarcely decide now—whether what I had done ought to have been done; I only know that I did it—did it under an impulse so sudden and impetuous that it seemed to me like the guidance of Providence. All I could do afterwards was to trust the result where we say we trust all things, and yet are for ever disquieting ourselves in vain—we of little faith!
I have said, and I say again, that I believe every true marriage—of which there is probably one in every five thousand of conjugal unions—is brought about by heaven, and heaven only; and that all human influence is powerless either to make or to mar that happy end. Therefore, to heaven I left this marriage, if such it was destined to be. And so, after a season, I calmed myself enough to dare entering that quiet sick-chamber, where no one ever entered but Jael and me.
The old woman met me at the door.
"Come in gently, Phineas; I do think there is a change."
A change!—that awful word! I staggered rather than walked to John's bed-side.
Ay, there was a change, but not THAT one—which made my blood run cold in my veins even to think of. Thank God for evermore for His great mercies—not THAT change!
John was sitting up in bed. New life shone in his eyes, in his whole aspect. Life and—no, not hope, but something far better, diviner.
"Phineas, how tired you look; it is time you were in bed."
The old way of speaking—the old, natural voice, as I had not heard it for weeks. I flung myself by the bed-side—perhaps I wept outright—God knows! It is thought a shame for a man to weep; yet One Man wept, and that too was over His friend—His brother.
"You must not grieve over me any more, dear lad; to-morrow, please God! I mean to be quite well again."
Amidst all my joy I marvelled over what could be the cause of so miraculous a change.
"You would smile if I told you—only a dream."
No, I did not smile; for I believed in the Ruler of all our spirits, sleeping or waking.
"A dream so curious, that I have scarcely lost the impression of it yet. Do you know, Phineas, she has been sitting by me, just where you sit now."
If I could express the tone in which he uttered the word, which had never fallen from his lips before—it was always either "Miss March," or the impersonal form used by all lovers to disguise the beloved name—"URSULA," spoken as no man speaks any woman's name save the one which is the music of his heart, which he foresees shall be the one fireside tune of his life, ever familiar, yet ever sweet.
"Yes, she sat there, talking. She told me she knew I loved her— loved her so much that I was dying for her; that it was very wrong; that I must rise up and do my work in the world—do it for heaven's sake, not for hers; that a true man should live, and live nobly for the woman he loves—it is only a coward who dies for her."
I listened, wonder-struck—for these were the very words that Ursula March might have uttered; the very spirit that seemed to shine in her eyes that night—the last night she and John spoke to one another. I asked him if there was any more of the dream?
"Nothing clear. I thought we were on the Flat at Enderley, and I was following her; whether I reached her or not I cannot tell. And whether I ever shall reach her I cannot tell. But this I know, Phineas, I will do as she bade me; I will arise and walk."
And so he did. He slept quietly as an infant all that night. Next morning I found him up and dressed. Looking like a spectre, indeed; but with health, courage, and hope in his eyes. Even my father noticed it, when at dinner-time, with Jael's help—poor old Jael! how proud she was—John crawled downstairs.
"Why, thee art picking up, lad! Thee'lt be a man again in no time."
"I hope so. And a better man than ever I was before."
"Thee might be better, and thee might be worse. Anyhow, we couldn't do without thee, John. Hey, Phineas! who's been meddling with my spectacles?"
The old man turned his back upon us, and busily read his newspaper upside down.
We never had a happier meal in our house than that dinner.
In the afternoon my father stayed at home—a rare thing for him to do; nay, more, he went and smoked his peaceful pipe in the garden. John lay on an extempore sofa, made of three of our high-backed chairs and the window-sill. I read to him—trying to keep his attention, and mine too, solely to the Great Plague of London and Daniel Defoe. When, just as I was stealthily glancing at his face, fancying it looked whiter and more sunken, that his smile was fading, and his thoughts were wandering—Jael burst in.
"John Halifax, there be a woman asking for thee."
No, John—no need for that start—that rush of impetuous blood to thy poor thin cheek, as if there were but one woman in all the world. No, it was only Mrs. Jessop.
At sight of him, standing up, tall, and gaunt, and pale, the good lady's eyes brimmed over.
"You have been very ill, my poor boy! Forgive me—but I am an old woman, you know. Lie down again."
With gentle force she compelled him, and sat down by his side.
"I had no idea—why did you not let us know—the doctor and me? How long have you been ill?"
"I am quite well now—I am indeed. I shall be about again tomorrow, shall I not, Phineas?" and he looked eagerly to me for confirmation.
I gave it, firmly and proudly. I was glad she should know it—glad she should see that the priceless jewel of his heart would not lie tossing in the mire because a haughty girl scorned to wear it. Glad that she might one day find out there lived not the woman of whom John Halifax was not worthy.
"But you must be very careful—very careful of yourself, indeed."
"He will, Mrs. Jessop. Or, if not, he has many to take care of him. Many to whom his life is most precious and most dear."
I spoke—perhaps more abruptly than I ought to have spoken to that good old lady—but her gentle answer seemed at once to understand and forgive me.
"I well believe that, Mr. Fletcher. And I think Mr. Halifax hardly knows how much we—we all—esteem him." And with a kind motherly gesture she took John's hand. "You must make haste and get well now. My husband will come and see you to-morrow. For Ursula—" here she carefully busied herself in the depths of her pocket—"my dear child sends you this."
It was a little note—unsealed. The superscription was simply his name, in her clear, round, fair hand-writing—"John Halifax."
His fingers closed over it convulsively. "I—she is—very kind." The words died away—the hand which grasped, ay, for more than a minute, the unopened letter, trembled like an aspen leaf.
"Yes, hers is a grateful nature," observed Mrs. Jessop, sedulously looking at and speaking to me. "I would not wish it otherwise—I would not wish her to forget those whose worth she proved in her season of trouble."
I was silent. The old lady's tongue likewise failed her. She took off her glove, wiped a finger across each eyelash, and sat still.
"Have you read your little note, Mr. Halifax?"
"I will take your message back. She told me what she had said to you."
Ay, all the world might have read those simple lines:
- "MY DEAR FRIEND,
- "I did not know till yesterday that you had been ill. I have not forgotten how kind you were to my poor father. I should like to come and see you if you would allow me.
- "Yours sincerely,
- "URSULA MARCH."
This was all the note. I saw it, more than thirty years afterwards, yellow and faded, in the corner of his pocket-book.
"Well, what shall I say to my child?"
"Say"—he half rose, struggling to speak—"ask her to come."
He turned his head towards the window, and the sunshine glittered on two great drops, large as a child's tear.
Mrs. Jessop went away. And now for a long hour we waited—scarcely moving. John lay, his eyes sometimes closed, sometimes fixed dreamily on the bit of blue sky that shone out above the iron railings between the Abbey trees. More than once they wandered to the little letter, which lay buried in his hands. He felt it there— that was enough.
My father came in from the garden, and settled to his afternoon doze; but I think John hardly noticed him—nor I. My poor old father! Yet we were all young once—let youth enjoy its day!
At length Ursula came. She stood at the parlour door, rosy with walking—a vision of youth and candid innocence, which blushed not, nor had need to blush, at any intent or act that was sanctified by the law of God, and by her own heart.
John rose to meet her. They did not speak, but only clasped hands.
He was not strong enough for disguises now—in his first look she might have seen, have felt, that I had told her the truth. For hers- -but it dropped down, down, as Ursula March's clear glance had never dropped before. Then I knew how all would end.
Jael's voice broke in sharply. "Abel Fletcher, the doctor's wife is wanting thee down in the kitchen-garden, and she says her green gooseberries bean't half as big as our'n."
My father awoke—rubbed his eyes—became aware of a lady's presence— rubbed them again, and sat staring.
John led Ursula to the old man's chair.
"Mr. Fletcher, this is Miss March, a friend of mine, who, hearing I was ill, out of her great kindness—"
His voice faltered. Miss March added, in a low tone, with downcast eyelids:
"I am an orphan, and he was kind to my dear father."
Abel Fletcher nodded—adjusted his spectacles—eyed her all over—and nodded again; slowly, gravely, with a satisfied inspection. His hard gaze lingered, and softened while it lingered, on that young face, whereon was written simplicity, dignity, truth.
"If thee be a friend of John's, welcome to my house. Wilt thee sit down?"
Offering his hand, with a mixture of kindness and ceremonious grace that I had never before seen in my Quaker father, he placed her in his own arm-chair. How well I remember her sitting there, in her black silk pelisse, trimmed with the white fur she was so fond of wearing, and her riding-hat, the soft feathers of which drooped on her shoulder, trembling as she trembled. For she did tremble very much.
Gradually the old man's perception opened to the facts before him. He ceased his sharp scrutiny, and half smiled.
"Wilt thee stay, and have a dish of tea with us?"
So it came to pass, I hardly remember how, that in an hour's space our parlour beheld the strangest sight it had beheld since—Ah, no wonder that when she took her place at the table's foot, and gave him his dish of tea with her own hand—her pretty ringed lady's hand—my old father started, as if it had been another than Miss March who was sitting there. No wonder that, more than once, catching the sound of her low, quiet, gentlewomanlike speech, different from any female voices here, he turned round suddenly with a glance, half-scared, half-eager, as if she had been a ghost from the grave.
But Mrs. Jessop engaged him in talk, and, woman-hater as he was, he could not resist the pleasantness of the doctor's little wife. The doctor, too, came in after tea, and the old folk all settled themselves for a cosy chat, taking very little notice of us three.
Miss March sat at a little table near the window, admiring some hyacinths that Mrs. Jessop had brought us. A wise present: for all Norton Bury knew that if Abel Fletcher had a soft place in his heart it was for his garden and his flowers. These were very lovely; in colour and scent delicious to one who had been long ill. John lay looking at them and at her, as if, oblivious of past and future, his whole life were absorbed into that one exquisite hour.
For me—where I sat I do not clearly know, nor probably did any one else.
"There," said Miss March to herself, in a tone of almost childish satisfaction, as she arranged the last hyacinth to her liking.
"They are very beautiful," I heard John's voice answer, with a strange trembling in it. "It is growing too dark to judge of colours; but the scent is delicious, even here."
"I could move the table closer to you."
"Thank you—let me do it—will you sit down?"
She did so, after a very slight hesitation, by John's side. Neither spoke—but sat quietly there, with the sunset light on their two heads, softly touching them both, and then as softly melting away.
"There is a new moon to-night," Miss March remarked, appositely and gravely.
"Is there? Then I have been ill a whole month. For I remember noticing it through the trees the night when—"
He did not say what night, and she did not ask. To such a very unimportant conversation as they were apparently holding my involuntary listening could do no harm.
"You will be able to walk out soon, I hope," said Miss March again. "Norton Bury is a pretty town."
John asked, suddenly—"Are you going to leave it?"
"Not yet—I do not know for certain—perhaps not at all. I mean," she added, hurriedly, "that being independent, and having entirely separated from, and been given up by, my cousins, I prefer residing with Mrs. Jessop altogether."
"Of course—most natural." The words were formally spoken, and John did not speak again for some time.
"I hope,"—said Ursula, breaking the pause, and then stopping, as if her own voice frightened her.
"What do you hope?"
"That long before this moon has grown old you will be quite strong again."
"Thank you! I hope so too. I have need for strength, God knows!" He sighed heavily.
"And you will have what you need, so as to do your work in the world. You must not be afraid."
"I am not afraid. I shall bear my burthen like other men. Every one has some inevitable burthen to bear."
"So I believe."
And now the room darkened so fast that I could not see them; but their voices seemed a great way off, as the children's voices playing at the old well-head used to sound to me when I lay under the brow of the Flat—in the dim twilights at Enderley.
"I intend," John said, "as soon as I am able, to leave Norton Bury, and go abroad for some time."
"To America. It is the best country for a young man who has neither money, nor kindred, nor position—nothing, in fact, but his own right hand with which to carve out his own fortunes—as I will, if I can."
She murmured something about this being "quite right."
"I am glad you think so." But his voice had resumed that formal tone which ever and anon mingled strangely with its low, deep tenderness. "In any case, I must quit England. I have reasons for so doing."
The question seemed to startle John—he did not reply at once.
"If you wish I will tell you; in order that, should I ever come back- -or if I should not come back at all, you who were kind enough to be my friend will know I did not go away from mere youthful recklessness, or love of change."
He waited, apparently for some answer—but it came not, and he continued:
"I am going because there has befallen me a great trouble, which, while I stay here, I cannot get free from or overcome. I do not wish to sink under it—I had rather, as you said, 'Do my work in the world' as a man ought. No man has a right to say unto his Maker, 'My burthen is heavier than I can bear.' Do you not think so?"
"Do you not think I am right in thus meeting, and trying to conquer, an inevitable ill?"
"IS it inevitable?"
"Hush!" John answered, wildly. "Don't reason with me—you cannot judge—you do not know. It is enough that I must go. If I stay I shall become unworthy of myself, unworthy of—Forgive me, I have no right to talk thus; but you called me 'friend,' and I would like you to think kindly of me always. Because—because—" and his voice shook—broke down utterly. "God love thee and take care of thee, wherever I may go!"
It was but a low, faint cry, like that of a little bird. But he heard it—felt it. In the silence of the dark she crept up to him, like a young bird to its mate, and he took her into the shelter of his love for evermore. At once all was made clear between them; for whatever the world might say, they were in the sight of heaven equal, and she received as much as she gave.
* * *
When Jael brought in lights the room seemed to me, at first, all in a wild dazzle. Then I saw John rise, and Miss March with him. Holding her hand, he led her across the room. His head was erect, his eyes shining—his whole aspect that of a man who declares before all the world, "This is MY OWN."
"Eh?" said my father, gazing at them from over his spectacles.
John spoke brokenly, "We have no parents, neither she nor I. Bless her—for she has promised to be my wife."
And the old man blessed her with tears.