John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XXVI

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John Halifax, Gentleman by Dinah Craik
Chapter XXVI

"What a comfort! the day-light is lengthening. I think this has been the very dreariest winter I ever knew. Has it not, my little daughter? Who brought her these violets?"

And John placed himself on a corner of my own particular armchair, where, somehow or other, Muriel always lay curled up at tea-time now- -(ay, and many hours in the day-time, though we hardly noticed it at first). Taking between his hands the little face, which broke into smiles at the merest touch of the father's fingers, be asked her "when she intended to go a walk with him?"

"To-morrow."

"So we have said for a great many to-morrows, but it is always put off. What do you think, mother—is the little maid strong enough?"

Mrs. Halifax hesitated; said something about "east winds."

"Yet I think it would do her good if she braved east winds, and played out of doors as the boys do. Would you not like it, Muriel?"

The child shrank back with an involuntary "Oh, no."

"That is because she is a little girl, necessarily less strong than the lads are. Is it not so, Uncle Phineas?" continued her father, hastily, for I was watching them.

"Muriel will be quite strong when the warm weather comes. We have had such a severe winter. Every one of the children has suffered," said the mother, in a cheerful tone, as she poured out a cup of cream for her daughter, to whom was now given, by common consent, all the richest and rarest of the house.

"I think every one has," said John, looking round on his apple-cheeked boys; it must have been a sharp eye that detected any decrease of health, or increase of suffering, there. "But my plan will set all to rights. I spoke to Mrs. Tod yesterday. She will be ready to take us all in. Boys, shall you like going to Enderley? You shall go as soon as ever the larch-wood is green."

For, at Longfield, already we began to make a natural almanack and chronological table. "When the may was out"—"When Guy found the first robin's nest"—"When the field was all cowslips"—and so on.

"Is it absolutely necessary we should go?" said the mother, who had a strong home-clinging, and already began to hold tiny Longfield as the apple of her eye.

"I think so, unless you will consent to let me go alone to Enderley."

She shook her head.

"What, with those troubles at the mills? How can you speak so lightly?"

"Not lightly, love—only cheerfully. The troubles must be borne; why not bear them with as good heart as possible? They cannot last—let Lord Luxmore do what he will. If, as I told you, we re-let Longfield for this one summer to Sir Ralph, we shall save enough to put the mill in thorough repair. If my landlord will not do it, I will; and add a steam-engine, too."

Now the last was a daring scheme, discussed many a winter night by us three in Longfield parlour. At first, Mrs. Halifax had looked grave- -most women would, especially wives and mothers, in those days when every innovation was regarded with horror, and improvement and ruin were held synonymous. She might have thought so too, had she not believed in her husband. But now, at mention of the steam-engine, she looked up and smiled.

"Lady Oldtower asked me about it to-day. She said, 'she hoped you would not ruin yourself, like Mr. Miller of Glasgow!' I said I was not afraid."

Her husband returned a bright look. "It is easier to make the world trust one, when one is trusted by one's own household."

"Ah! never fear; you will make your fortune yet, in spite of Lord Luxmore."

For, all winter, John had found out how many cares come with an attained wish. Chiefly, because, as the earl had said, his lordship possessed an "excellent memory." The Kingswell election had worked its results in a hundred small ways, wherein the heavy hand of the landlord could be laid upon the tenant. He bore up bravely against it; but hard was the struggle between might and right, oppression and staunch resistance. It would have gone harder, but for one whom John now began to call his "friend;" at least, one who invariably called Mr. Halifax so—our neighbour, Sir Ralph Oldtower.

"How often has Lady Oldtower been here, Ursula?"

"She called first, you remember, after our trouble with the children; she has been twice since, I think. To-day she wanted me to bring Muriel and take luncheon at the Manor House. I shall not go—I told her so."

"But gently, I hope?—you are so very outspoken, love. You made her clearly understand that it is not from incivility we decline her invitations?—Well—never mind! Some day we will take our place, and so shall our children, with any gentry in the land."

I think—though John rarely betrayed it—he had strongly this presentiment of future power, which may often be noticed in men who have carved out their own fortunes. They have in them the instinct to rise; and as surely as water regains its own level, so do they, from however low a source, ascend to theirs.

Not many weeks after, we removed in a body to Enderley. Though the chief reason was, that John might be constantly on the spot, superintending his mills, yet I fancied I could detect a secondary reason, which he would not own even to himself; but which peered out unconsciously in his anxious looks. I saw it when he tried to rouse Muriel into energy, by telling her how much she would enjoy Enderley Hill; how sweet the primroses grew in the beechwood, and how wild and fresh the wind swept over the common, morning and night. His daily longing seemed to be to make her love the world, and the things therein. He used to turn away, almost in pain, from her smile, as she would listen to all he said, then steal off to the harpsichord, and begin that soft, dreamy music, which the children called "talking to angels."

We came to Enderley through the valley, where was John's cloth-mill. Many a time in our walks he and I had passed it, and stopped to listen to the drowsy fall of the miniature Niagara, or watch the incessant turning—turning of the great water-wheel. Little we thought he should ever own it, or that John would be pointing it out to his own boys, lecturing them on "undershot," and "overshot," as he used to lecture me.

It was sweet, though half-melancholy, to see Enderley again; to climb the steep meadows and narrow mule-paths, up which he used to help me so kindly. He could not now; he had his little daughter in his arms. It had come, alas! to be a regular thing that Muriel should be carried up every slight ascent, and along every hard road. We paused half-way up on a low wall, where I had many a time rested, watching the sunset over Nunneley Hill—watching for John to come home. Every night—at least after Miss March went away—he usually found me sitting there.

He turned to me and smiled. "Dost remember, lad?" at which appellation Guy widely stared. But, for a minute, how strangely it brought back old times, when there were neither wife nor children— only he and I! This seat on the wall, with its small twilight picture of the valley below the mill, and Nunneley heights, with that sentinel row of sun-set trees—was all mine—mine solely—for evermore.

"Enderley is just the same, Phineas. Twelve years have made no change—except in us." And he looked fondly at his wife, who stood a little way off, holding firmly on the wall, in a hazardous group, her three boys. "I think the chorus and comment on all life might be included in two brief phrases given by our friend Shakspeare, one to Hamlet, the other to Othello: Tis very strange,' and Tis better as it is.'"

"Ay, ay," said I thoughtfully. Better as it was; better a thousand times.

I went to Mrs. Halifax, and helped her to describe the prospect to the inquisitive boys; finally coaxing the refractory Guy up the winding road, where, just as if it had been yesterday, stood my old friends, my four Lombardy poplars, three together and one apart.

Mrs. Tod descried us afar off and was waiting at the gate; a little stouter, a little rosier—that was all. In her delight, she so absolutely forgot herself as to address the mother as Miss March; at which long-unspoken name Ursula started, her colour went and came, and her eyes turned restlessly towards the church hard by.

"It is all right—Miss—Ma'am, I mean. Tod bears in mind Mr. Halifax's orders, and has planted lots o' flower-roots and evergreens."

"Yes, I know."

And when she had put all her little ones to bed—we, wondering where the mother was, went out towards the little churchyard, and found her quietly sitting there.

We were very happy at Enderley. Muriel brightened up before she had been there many days. She began to throw off her listlessness, and go about with me everywhere. It was the season she enjoyed most—the time of the singing of birds, and the springing of delicate-scented flowers. I myself never loved the beech-wood better than did our Muriel. She used continually to tell us this was the happiest spring she had ever had in her life.

John was much occupied now. He left his Norton Bury business under efficient care, and devoted himself almost wholly to the cloth-mill. Early and late he was there. Very often Muriel and I followed him, and spent whole mornings in the mill meadows. Through them the stream on which the machinery depended was led by various contrivances, checked or increased in its flow, making small ponds, or locks, or waterfalls. We used to stay for hours listening to its murmur, to the sharp, strange cry of the swans that were kept there, and the twitter of the water-hen to her young among the reeds. Then the father would come to us and remain a few minutes—fondling Muriel, and telling me how things went on at the mill.

One morning, as we three sat there, on the brick-work of a little bridge, underneath an elm tree, round the roots of which the water made a pool so clear, that we could see a large pike lying like a black shadow, half-way down; John suddenly said:

"What is the matter with the stream? Do you notice, Phineas?"

"I have seen it gradually lowering—these two hours. I thought you were drawing off the water."

"Nothing of the kind—I must look after it. Good-bye, my little daughter. Don't cling so fast; father will be back soon—and isn't this a sweet sunny place for a little maid to be lazy in?"

His tone was gay, but he had an anxious look. He walked rapidly down the meadows, and went into his mill. Then I saw him retracing his steps, examining where the stream entered the bounds of his property. Finally, he walked off towards the little town at the head of the valley—beyond which, buried in woods, lay Luxmore Hall. It was two hours more before we saw him again.

Then he came towards us, narrowly watching the stream. It had sunk more and more—the muddy bottom was showing plainly.

"Yes—that's it—it can be nothing else! I did not think he would have dared to do it."

"Do what, John? Who?"

"Lord Luxmore." He spoke in the smothered tones of violent passion. "Lord Luxmore has turned out of its course the stream that works my mill."

I tried to urge that such an act was improbable; in fact, against the law.

"Not against the law of the great against the little. Besides, he gives a decent colouring—says he only wants the use of the stream three days a week, to make fountains at Luxmore Hall. But I see what it is—I have seen it coming a whole year. He is determined to ruin me!"

John said this in much excitement. He hardly felt Muriel's tiny creeping hands.

"What does 'ruin' mean? Is anybody making father angry?"

"No, my sweet—not angry—only very, very miserable!"

He snatched her up, and buried his head in her soft, childish bosom. She kissed him and patted his hair.

"Never mind, dear father. You say nothing signifies, if we are only good. And father is always good."

"I wish I were."

He sat down with her on his knee; the murmur of the elm-leaves, and the slow dropping of the stream, soothed him. By and by, his spirit rose, as it always did, the heavier it was pressed down.

"No, Lord Luxmore shall not ruin me! I have thought of a scheme. But first I must speak to my people—I shall have to shorten wages for a time."

"How soon?"

"To-night. If it must be done—better done at once, before winter sets in. Poor fellows! it will go hard with them—they'll be hard upon me. But it is only temporary; I must reason them into patience, if I can;—God knows, it is not they alone who want it."

He almost ground his teeth as he saw the sun shining on the far white wing of Luxmore Hall.

"Have you no way of righting yourself? If it is an unlawful act, why not go to law?"

"Phineas, you forget my principle—only mine, however; I do not force it upon any one else—my firm principle, that I will never go to law. Never! I would not like to have it said, in contradistinction to the old saying, 'See how these Christians FIGHT!'"

I urged no more; since, whether abstractedly the question be right or wrong, there can be no doubt that what a man believes to be evil, to him it is evil.

"Now, Uncle Phineas, go you home with Muriel. Tell my wife what has occurred—say, I will come to tea as soon as I can. But I may have some little trouble with my people here. She must not alarm herself."

No, the mother never did. She wasted no time in puerile apprehensions—it was not her nature; she had the rare feminine virtue of never "fidgetting"—at least, externally. What was to be borne—she bore: what was to be done—she did; but she rarely made any "fuss" about either her doings or her sufferings.

To-night, she heard all my explanation; understood it, I think, more clearly than I did—probably from being better acquainted with her husband's plans and fears. She saw at once the position in which he was placed; a grave one, to judge by her countenance.

"Then you think John is right?"

"Of course I do."

I had not meant it as a question, or even a doubt. But it was pleasant to hear her thus answer. For, as I have said, Ursula was not a woman to be led blindfold, even by her husband. Sometimes they differed on minor points, and talked their differences lovingly out; but on any great question she had always this safe trust in him—that if one were right and the other wrong, the erring one was much more likely to be herself than John.

She said no more; but put the children to bed; then came downstairs with her bonnet on.

"Will you come with me, Phineas? Or are you too tired? I am going down to the mill."

She started, walking quickly—yet not so quick but that on the slope of the common she stooped to pick up a crying child, and send it home to its mother in Enderley village.

It was almost dark, and we met no one else except a young man, whom I had occasionally seen about of evenings. He was rather odd looking, being invariably muffled up in a large cloak and a foreign sort of hat.

"Who is that, watching our mills?" said Mrs. Halifax, hastily.

I told her all I had seen of the person.

"A Papist, most likely—I mean a Catholic." (John objected to the opprobrious word "Papist.") "Mrs. Tod says there are a good many hidden hereabouts. They used to find shelter at Luxmore."

And that name set both our thoughts anxiously wandering; so that not until we reached the foot of the hill did I notice that the person had followed us almost to the mill-gates.

In his empty mill, standing beside one of its silenced looms, we found the master. He was very much dejected—Ursula touched his arm before he even saw her.

"Well, love—you know what has happened?"

"Yes, John. But never mind."

"I would not—except for my poor people."

"What do you intend doing? That which you have wished to do all the year?"

"Our wishes come as a cross to us sometimes," he said, rather bitterly. "It is the only thing I can do. The water-power being so greatly lessened, I must either stop the mills, or work them by steam."

"Do that, then. Set up your steam-engine."

"And have all the country down upon me for destroying hand-labour? Have a new set of Luddites coming to burn my mill, and break my machinery? That is what Lord Luxmore wants. Did he not say he would ruin me?—Worse than this—he is ruining my good name. If you had heard those poor people whom I sent away tonight! What must they, who will have short work these two months, and after that machinery-work, which they fancy is taking the very bread out of their mouths—what must they think of the master?"

He spoke—as we rarely heard John speak: as worldly cares and worldly injustice cause even the best of men to speak sometimes.

"Poor people!" he added, "how can I blame them? I was actually dumb before them to-night, when they said I must take the cost of what I do—they must have bread for their children. But so must I for mine. Lord Luxmore is the cause of all."

Here I heard—or fancied I heard—out of the black shadow behind the loom, a heavy sigh. John and Ursula were too anxious to notice it.

"Could anything be done?" she asked. "Just to keep things going till your steam-engine is ready? Will it cost much?"

"More than I like to think of. But it must be;—nothing venture— nothing have. You and the children are secure anyhow, that's one comfort. But oh, my poor people at Enderley!"

Again Ursula asked if nothing could be done.

"Yes—I did think of one plan—but—"

"John, I know what you thought of."

She laid her hand on his arm, and looked straight up at him—eye to eye. Often, it seemed that from long habit they could read one another's minds in this way, clearly as a book. At last John said:

"Would it be too hard a sacrifice, love?"

"How can you talk so! We could do it easily, by living in a plainer way; by giving up one or two trifles. Only outside things, you know. Why need we care for outside things?"

"Why, indeed?" he said, in a low, fond tone.

So I easily found out how they meant to settle the difficulty; namely, by setting aside a portion of the annual income which John, in his almost morbid anxiety lest his family should take harm by any possible non-success in his business, had settled upon his wife. Three months of little renunciations—three months of the old narrow way of living, as at Norton Bury—and the poor people at Enderley might have full wages, whether or no there was full work. Then in our quiet valley there would be no want, no murmurings, and, above all, no blaming of the master.

They decided it all—in fewer words than I have taken to write it—it was so easy to decide when both were of one mind.

"Now," said John, rising, as if a load were taken off his breast— "now, do what he will Lord Luxmore cannot do me any harm."

"Husband, don't let us speak of Lord Luxmore."

Again that sigh—quite ghostly in the darkness. They heard it likewise this time.

"Who's there?"

"Only I. Mr. Halifax—-don't be angry with me."

It was the softest, mildest voice—the voice of one long used to oppression; and the young man whom Ursula had supposed to be a Catholic appeared from behind the loom.

"I do not know you, sir. How came you to enter my mill?"

"I followed Mrs. Halifax. I have often watched her and your children. But you don't remember me."

Yes; when he came underneath the light of the one tallow candle, we all recognized the face—more wan than ever—with a sadder and more hopeless look in the large grey eyes.

"I am surprised to see you here, Lord Ravenel."

"Hush! I hate the very sound of the name. I would have renounced it long ago. I would have hid myself away from him and from the world, if he would have let me."

"He—do you mean your father?"

The boy—no, he was a young man now, but scarcely looked more than a boy—assented silently, as if afraid to utter the name.

"Would not your coming here displease him?" said John, always tenacious of trenching a hair's breadth upon any lawful authority.

"It matters not—he is away. He has left me these six months alone at Luxmore."

"Have you offended him?" asked Ursula, who had cast kindly looks on the thin face, which perhaps reminded her of another—now for ever banished from our sight, and his also.

"He hates me because I am a Catholic, and wish to become a monk."

The youth crossed himself, then started and looked round, in terror of observers. "You will not betray me? You are a good man, Mr. Halifax, and you spoke warmly for us. Tell me—I will keep your secret—are you a Catholic too?"

"No, indeed."

"Ah! I hoped you were. But you are sure you will not betray me?"

Mr. Halifax smiled at such a possibility. Yet, in truth, there was some reason for the young man's fears; since, even in those days, Catholics were hunted down both by law and by public opinion, as virulently as Protestant nonconformists. All who kept out of the pale of the national church were denounced as schismatics, deists, atheists—it was all one.

"But why do you wish to leave the world?"

"I am sick of it. There never was but one in it I cared for, or who cared for me—and now—Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis."

His lips moved in a paroxysm of prayer—helpless, parrot-learnt, Latin prayer; yet, being in earnest, it seemed to do him good. The mother, as if she heard in fancy that pitiful cry, which rose to my memory too—"Poor William!—don't tell William!"—turned and spoke to him kindly, asking him if he would go home with us.

He looked exceedingly surprised. "I—you cannot mean it? After Lord Luxmore has done you all this evil?"

"Is that any reason why I should not do good to his son—that is, if I could? Can I?"

The lad lifted up those soft grey eyes, and then I remembered what his sister had said of Lord Ravenel's enthusiastic admiration of Mr. Halifax. "Oh, you could—you could."

"But I and mine are heretics, you know!"

"I will pray for you. Only let me come and see you—you and your children."

"Come, and welcome."

"Heartily welcome, Lord—"

"No—not that name, Mrs. Halifax. Call me as they used to call me at St. Omer—Brother Anselmo."

The mother was half inclined to smile; but John never smiled at any one's religious beliefs, howsoever foolish. He held in universal sacredness that one rare thing—sincerity,

So henceforward "Brother Anselmo" was almost domesticated at Rose Cottage. What would the earl have said, had a little bird flown over to London and told him that his only son, the heir-apparent to his title and political opinions, was in constant and open association— for clandestine acquaintance was against all our laws and rules—with John Halifax the mill-owner, John Halifax the radical, as he was still called sometimes; imbibing principles, modes of life and of thought, which, to say the least, were decidedly different from those of the house of Luxmore!

Above all, what would that noble parent have said, had he been aware that this, his only son, for whom, report whispered, he was already planning a splendid marriage—as grand in a financial point of view as that he planned for his only daughter—that Lord Ravenel was spending all the love of his loving nature in the half paternal, half lover-like sentiment which a young man will sometimes lavish on a mere child—upon John Halifax's little blind daughter, Muriel!

He said, "She made him good"—our child of peace. He would sit, gazing on her almost as if she were his guardian angel—his patron saint. And the little maid in her quiet way was very fond of him; delighting in his company when her father was not by. But no one ever was to her like her father.

The chief bond between her and Lord Ravenel—or "Anselmo," as he would have us call him—was music. He taught her to play on the organ, in the empty church close by. There during the long midsummer evenings, they two would sit for hours in the organ-gallery, while I listened down below; hardly believing that such heavenly sounds could come from those small child-fingers; almost ready to fancy she had called down some celestial harmonist to aid her in playing. Since, as we used to say—but by some instinct never said now—Muriel was so fond of "talking with the angels."

Just at this time, her father saw somewhat less of her than usual. He was oppressed with business cares; daily, hourly vexations. Only twice a week the great water-wheel, the delight of our little Edwin as it had once been of his father, might be seen slowly turning; and the water-courses along the meadows, with their mechanically-forced channels, and their pretty sham cataracts, were almost always low or dry. It ceased to be a pleasure to walk in the green hollow, between the two grassy hills, which heretofore Muriel and I had liked even better than the Flat. Now she missed the noise of the water—the cry of the water-hens—the stirring of the reeds. Above all, she missed her father, who was too busy to come out of his mill to us, and hardly ever had a spare minute, even for his little daughter.

He was setting up that wonderful novelty—a steam-engine. He had already been to Manchester and elsewhere, and seen how the new power was applied by Arkwright, Hargreaves, and others; his own ingenuity and mechanical knowledge furnished the rest. He worked early and late—often with his own hands—aided by the men he brought with him from Manchester. For it was necessary to keep the secret—especially in our primitive valley—until the thing was complete. So the ignorant, simple mill people, when they came for their easy Saturday's wages, only stood and gaped at the mass of iron, and the curiously-shaped brickwork, and wondered what on earth "the master" was about? But he was so thoroughly "the master," with all his kindness, that no one ventured either to question or interfere.