Sylvia's Lovers/Chapter VII

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Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter VII: Tete-a-tete. The will.


TETE-A-TETE. THE WILL

'And now tell me all about th' folk at home?' said Philip, evidently preparing to walk back with the girls. He generally came to Haytersbank every Sunday afternoon, so Sylvia knew what she had to expect the moment she became aware of his neighbourhood in the churchyard.

'My feyther's been sadly troubled with his rheumatics this week past; but he's a vast better now, thank you kindly.' Then, addressing herself to Molly, she asked, 'Has your cousin a doctor to look after him?'

'Ay, for sure!' said Molly, quickly; for though she knew nothing about the matter, she was determined to suppose that her cousin had everything becoming an invalid as well as a hero. 'He's well-to-do, and can afford everything as he needs,' continued she. 'His feyther's left him money, and he were a farmer out up in Northumberland, and he's reckoned such a specksioneer as never, never was, and gets what wage he asks for and a share on every whale he harpoons beside.'

'I reckon he'll have to make himself scarce on this coast for awhile, at any rate,' said Philip.

'An' what for should he?' asked Molly, who never liked Philip at the best of times, and now, if he was going to disparage her cousin in any way, was ready to take up arms and do battle.

'Why, they do say as he fired the shot as has killed some o' the men-o'-war's men, and, of course, if he has, he'll have to stand his trial if he's caught.'

'What lies people do say!' exclaimed Molly. 'He niver killed nought but whales, a'll be bound; or, if he did, it were all right and proper as he should, when they were for stealing him an' all t' others, and did kill poor Darley as we come fra' seeming buried. A suppose, now yo're such a Quaker that, if some one was to break through fra' t' other side o' this dyke and offer for to murder Sylvia and me, yo'd look on wi' yo'r hands hanging by yo'r side.'

'But t' press-gang had law on their side, and were doing nought but what they'd warrant for.'

'Th' tender's gone away, as if she were ashamed o' what she'd done,' said Sylvia, 'and t' flag's down fra' o'er the Randyvowse. There 'll be no more press-ganging here awhile.'

'No; feyther says,' continued Molly, 'as they've made t' place too hot t' hold 'em, coming so strong afore people had getten used to their ways o' catchin' up poor lads just come fra' t' Greenland seas. T' folks ha' their blood so up they'd think no harm o' fighting 'em i' t' streets--ay, and o' killing 'em, too, if they were for using fire-arms, as t' _Aurora_'s men did.'

'Women is so fond o' bloodshed,' said Philip; 'for t' hear you talk, who'd ha' thought you'd just come fra' crying ower the grave of a man who was killed by violence? I should ha' thought you'd seen enough of what sorrow comes o' fighting. Why, them lads o' t' _Aurora_ as they say Kinraid shot down had fathers and mothers, maybe, a looking out for them to come home.'

'I don't think he could ha' killed them,' said Sylvia; 'he looked so gentle.'

But Molly did not like this half-and-half view of the case.

'A dare say he did kill 'em dead; he's not one to do things by halves. And a think he served 'em reet, that's what a do.'

'Is na' this Hester, as serves in Foster's shop?' asked Sylvia, in a low voice, as a young woman came through a stile in the stone wall by the roadside, and suddenly appeared before them.

'Yes,' said Philip. 'Why, Hester, where have you been?' he asked, as they drew near.

Hester reddened a little, and then replied, in her slow, quiet way--

'I've been sitting with Betsy Darley--her that is bed-ridden. It were lonesome for her when the others were away at the burying.'

And she made as though she would have passed; but Sylvia, all her sympathies alive for the relations of the murdered man, wanted to ask more questions, and put her hand on Hester's arm to detain her a moment. Hester suddenly drew back a little, reddened still more, and then replied fully and quietly to all Sylvia asked.

In the agricultural counties, and among the class to which these four persons belonged, there is little analysis of motive or comparison of characters and actions, even at this present day of enlightenment. Sixty or seventy years ago there was still less. I do not mean that amongst thoughtful and serious people there was not much reading of such books as _Mason_ on _Self-Knowledge_ and _Law's Serious Call_, or that there were not the experiences of the Wesleyans, that were related at class-meeting for the edification of the hearers. But, taken as a general ride, it may be said that few knew what manner of men they were, compared to the numbers now who are fully conscious of their virtues, qualities, failings, and weaknesses, and who go about comparing others with themselves--not in a spirit of Pharisaism and arrogance, but with a vivid self-consciousness that more than anything else deprives characters of freshness and originality.

To return to the party we left standing on the high-raised footway that ran alongside of the bridle-road to Haytersbank. Sylvia had leisure in her heart to think 'how good Hester is for sitting with the poor bed-ridden sister of Darley!' without having a pang of self-depreciation in the comparison of her own conduct with that she was capable of so fully appreciating. She had gone to church for the ends of vanity, and remained to the funeral for curiosity and the pleasure of the excitement. In this way a modern young lady would have condemned herself, and therefore lost the simple, purifying pleasure of admiration of another.

Hester passed onwards, going down the hill towards the town. The other three walked slowly on. All were silent for a few moments, then Sylvia said--

'How good she is!'

And Philip replied with ready warmth,--

'Yes, she is; no one knows how good but us, who live in the same house wi' her.'

'Her mother is an old Quakeress, bean't she?' Molly inquired.

'Alice Rose is a Friend, if that is what you mean,' said Philip.

'Well, well! some folk's so particular. Is William Coulson a Quaker, by which a mean a Friend?'

'Yes; they're all on 'em right-down good folk.'

'Deary me! What a wonder yo' can speak to such sinners as Sylvia and me, after keepin' company with so much goodness,' said Molly, who had not yet forgiven Philip for doubting Kinraid's power of killing men. 'Is na' it, Sylvia?'

But Sylvia was too highly strung for banter. If she had not been one of those who went to mock, but remained to pray, she had gone to church with the thought of the cloak-that-was-to-be uppermost in her mind, and she had come down the long church stair with life and death suddenly become real to her mind, the enduring sea and hills forming a contrasting background to the vanishing away of man. She was full of a solemn wonder as to the abiding-place of the souls of the dead, and a childlike dread lest the number of the elect should be accomplished before she was included therein. How people could ever be merry again after they had been at a funeral, she could not imagine; so she answered gravely, and slightly beside the question:

'I wonder if I was a Friend if I should be good?'

'Gi' me your red cloak, that's all, when yo' turn Quaker; they'll none let thee wear scarlet, so it 'll be of no use t' thee.'

'I think thou'rt good enough as thou art,' said Philip, tenderly--at least as tenderly as he durst, for he knew by experience that it did not do to alarm her girlish coyness. Either one speech or the other made Sylvia silent; neither was accordant to her mood of mind; so perhaps both contributed to her quietness.

'Folk say William Coulson looks sweet on Hester Rose,' said Molly, always up in Monkshaven gossip. It was in the form of an assertion, but was said in the tone of a question, and as such Philip replied to it.

'Yes, I think he likes her a good deal; but he's so quiet, I never feel sure. John and Jeremiah would like the match, I've a notion.'

And now they came to the stile which had filled Philip's eye for some minutes past, though neither of the others had perceived they were so near it; the stile which led to Moss Brow from the road into the fields that sloped down to Haystersbank. Here they would leave Molly, and now would begin the delicious _tete-a-tete_ walk, which Philip always tried to make as lingering as possible. To-day he was anxious to show his sympathy with Sylvia, as far as he could read what was passing in her mind; but how was he to guess the multitude of tangled thoughts in that unseen receptacle? A resolution to be good, if she could, and always to be thinking on death, so that what seemed to her now as simply impossible, might come true--that she might 'dread the grave as little as her bed'; a wish that Philip were not coming home with her; a wonder if the specksioneer really had killed a man, an idea which made her shudder; yet from the awful fascination about it, her imagination was compelled to dwell on the tall, gaunt figure, and try to recall the wan countenance; a hatred and desire of revenge on the press-gang, so vehement that it sadly militated against her intention of trying to be good; all these notions, and wonders, and fancies, were whirling about in Sylvia's brain, and at one of their promptings she spoke,--

'How many miles away is t' Greenland seas?--I mean, how long do they take to reach?'

'I don't know; ten days or a fortnight, or more, maybe. I'll ask.'

'Oh! feyther 'll tell me all about it. He's been there many a time.'

'I say, Sylvie! My aunt said I were to give you lessons this winter i' writing and ciphering. I can begin to come up now, two evenings, maybe, a week. T' shop closes early after November comes in.'

Sylvia did not like learning, and did not want him for her teacher; so she answered in a dry little tone,--

'It'll use a deal o' candle-light; mother 'll not like that. I can't see to spell wi'out a candle close at my elbow.'

'Niver mind about candles. I can bring up a candle wi' me, for I should be burning one at Alice Rose's.'

So that excuse would not do. Sylvia beat her brains for another.

'Writing cramps my hand so, I can't do any sewing for a day after; and feyther wants his shirts very bad.'

'But, Sylvia, I'll teach you geography, and ever such a vast o' fine things about t' countries, on t' map.'

'Is t' Arctic seas down on t' map?' she asked, in a tone of greater interest.

'Yes! Arctics, and tropics, and equator, and equinoctial line; we'll take 'em turn and turn about; we'll do writing and ciphering one night, and geography t' other.'

Philip spoke with pleasure at the prospect, but Sylvia relaxed into indifference.

'I'm no scholard; it's like throwing away labour to teach me, I'm such a dunce at my book. Now there's Betsy Corney, third girl, her as is younger than Molly, she'd be a credit to you. There niver was such a lass for pottering ower books.'

If Philip had had his wits about him, he would have pretended to listen to this proposition of a change of pupils, and then possibly Sylvia might have repented making it. But he was too much mortified to be diplomatic.

'My aunt asked me to teach _you_ a bit, not any neighbour's lass.'

'Well! if I mun be taught, I mun; but I'd rayther be whipped and ha' done with it,' was Sylvia's ungracious reply.

A moment afterwards, she repented of her little spirit of unkindness, and thought that she should not like to die that night without making friends. Sudden death was very present in her thoughts since the funeral. So she instinctively chose the best method of making friends again, and slipped her hand into his, as he walked a little sullenly at her side. She was half afraid, however, when she found it firmly held, and that she could not draw it away again without making what she called in her own mind a 'fuss.' So, hand in hand, they slowly and silently came up to the door of Haytersbank Farm; not unseen by Bell Robson, who sate in the window-seat, with her Bible open upon her knee. She had read her chapter aloud to herself, and now she could see no longer, even if she had wished to read more; but she gazed out into the darkening air, and a dim look of contentment came like moonshine over her face when she saw the cousins approach.

'That's my prayer day and night,' said she to herself.

But there was no unusual aspect of gladness on her face, as she lighted the candle to give them a more cheerful welcome.

'Wheere's feyther?' said Sylvia, looking round the room for Daniel.

'He's been to Kirk Moorside Church, for t' see a bit o' th' world, as he ca's it. And sin' then he's gone out to th' cattle; for Kester's ta'en his turn of playing hissel', now that father's better.'

'I've been talking to Sylvia,' said Philip, his head still full of his pleasant plan, his hand still tingling from the touch of hers, 'about turning schoolmaster, and coming up here two nights a week for t' teach her a bit o' writing and ciphering.'

'And geography,' put in Sylvia; 'for,' thought she, 'if I'm to learn them things I don't care a pin about, anyhow I'll learn what I do care to know, if it 'll tell me about t' Greenland seas, and how far they're off.'

That same evening, a trio alike in many outward circumstances sate in a small neat room in a house opening out of a confined court on the hilly side of the High Street of Monkshaven--a mother, her only child, and the young man who silently loved that daughter, and was favoured by Alice Rose, though not by Hester.

When the latter returned from her afternoon's absence, she stood for a minute or two on the little flight of steep steps, whitened to a snowy whiteness; the aspect of the whole house partook of the same character of irreproachable cleanliness. It was wedged up into a space which necessitated all sorts of odd projections and irregularities in order to obtain sufficient light for the interior; and if ever the being situated in a dusky, confined corner might have been made an excuse for dirt, Alice Rose's house had that apology. Yet the small diamond panes of glass in the casement window were kept so bright and clear that a great sweet-scented-leaved geranium grew and flourished, though it did not flower profusely. The leaves seemed to fill the air with fragrance as soon as Hester summoned up energy enough to open the door. Perhaps that was because the young Quaker, William Coulson, was crushing one between his finger and thumb, while waiting to set down Alice's next words. For the old woman, who looked as if many years of life remained in her yet, was solemnly dictating her last will and testament.

It had been on her mind for many months; for she had something to leave beyond the mere furniture of the house. Something--a few pounds--in the hands of John and Jeremiah Foster, her cousins: and it was they who had suggested the duty on which she was engaged. She had asked William Coulson to write down her wishes, and he had consented, though with some fear and trepidation; for he had an idea that he was infringing on a lawyer's prerogative, and that, for aught he knew, he might be prosecuted for making a will without a licence, just as a man might be punished for selling wine and spirits without going through the preliminary legal forms that give permission for such a sale. But to his suggestion that Alice should employ a lawyer, she had replied--

'That would cost me five pounds sterling; and thee canst do it as well, if thee'll but attend to my words.'

So he had bought, at her desire, a black-edged sheet of fine-wove paper, and a couple of good pens, on the previous Saturday; and while waiting for her to begin her dictation, and full serious thought himself, he had almost unconsciously made the grand flourish at the top of the paper which he had learnt at school, and which was there called a spread-eagle.

'What art thee doing there?' asked Alice, suddenly alive to his proceedings.

Without a word he showed her his handiwork.

'It's a vanity,' said she, 'and 't may make t' will not stand. Folk may think I were na in my right mind, if they see such fly-legs and cob-webs a-top. Write, "This is my doing, William Coulson, and none of Alice Rose's, she being in her sound mind."'

'I don't think it's needed,' said William. Nevertheless he wrote down the words.

'Hast thee put that I'm in my sound mind and seven senses? Then make the sign of the Trinity, and write, "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."'

'Is that the right way o' beginning a will?' said Coulson, a little startled.

'My father, and my father's father, and my husband had it a-top of theirs, and I'm noane going for to cease fra' following after them, for they were godly men, though my husband were o' t' episcopal persuasion.'

'It's done,' said William.

'Hast thee dated it?' asked Alice.

'Nay.'

'Then date it third day, ninth month. Now, art ready?'

Coulson nodded.

'I, Alice Rose, do leave my furniture (that is, my bed and chest o' drawers, for thy bed and things is thine, and not mine), and settle, and saucepans, and dresser, and table, and kettle, and all the rest of my furniture, to my lawful and only daughter, Hester Rose. I think that's safe for her to have all, is 't not, William?'

'I think so, too,' said he, writing on all the time.

'And thee shalt have t' roller and paste-board, because thee's so fond o' puddings and cakes. It 'll serve thy wife after I'm gone, and I trust she'll boil her paste long enough, for that's been t' secret o' mine, and thee'll noane be so easy t' please.'

'I din't reckon on marriage,' said William.

'Thee'll marry,' said Alice. 'Thee likes to have thy victuals hot and comfortable; and there's noane many but a wife as'll look after that for t' please thee.'

'I know who could please me,' sighed forth William, 'but I can't please her.'

Alice looked sharply at him from over her spectacles, which she had put on the better to think about the disposal of her property.

'Thee art thinking on our Hester,' said she, plainly out.

He started a little, but looked up at her and met her eyes.

'Hester cares noane for me,' said he, dejectedly.

'Bide a while, my lad,' said Alice, kindly. 'Young women don't always know their own minds. Thee and her would make a marriage after my own heart; and the Lord has been very good to me hitherto, and I think He'll bring it t' pass. But don't thee let on as thee cares for her so much. I sometimes think she wearies o' thy looks and thy ways. Show up thy manly heart, and make as though thee had much else to think on, and no leisure for to dawdle after her, and she'll think a deal more on thee. And now mend thy pen for a fresh start. I give and bequeath--did thee put "give and bequeath," at th' beginning?'

'Nay,' said William, looking back. 'Thee didst not tell me "give and bequeath!"'

'Then it won't be legal, and my bit o' furniture 'll be taken to London, and put into chancery, and Hester will have noane on it.'

'I can write it over,' said William.

'Well, write it clear then, and put a line under it to show those are my special words. Hast thee done it? Then now start afresh. I give and bequeath my book o' sermons, as is bound in good calfskin, and lies on the third shelf o' corner cupboard at the right hand o' t' fire-place, to Philip Hepburn; for I reckon he's as fond o' reading sermons as thee art o' light, well-boiled paste, and I'd be glad for each on ye to have somewhat ye like for to remember me by. Is that down? There; now for my cousins John and Jeremiah. They are rich i' world's gear, but they'll prize what I leave 'em if I could only onbethink me what they would like. Hearken! Is na' that our Hester's step? Put it away, quick! I'm noane for grieving her wi' telling her what I've been about. We'll take a turn at t' will next First Day; it will serve us for several Sabbaths to come, and maybe I can think on something as will suit cousin John and cousin Jeremiah afore then.'

Hester, as was mentioned, paused a minute or two before lifting the latch of the door. When she entered there was no unusual sign of writing about; only Will Coulson looking very red, and crushing and smelling at the geranium leaf.

Hester came in briskly, with the little stock of enforced cheerfulness she had stopped at the door to acquire. But it faded away along with the faint flush of colour in her cheeks; and the mother's quick eye immediately noted the wan heavy look of care.

'I have kept t' pot in t' oven; it'll have a'most got a' t' goodness out of t' tea by now, for it'll be an hour since I made it. Poor lass, thou look'st as if thou needed a good cup o' tea. It were dree work sitting wi' Betsy Darley, were it? And how does she look on her affliction?'

'She takes it sore to heart,' said Hester, taking off her hat, and folding and smoothing away her cloak, before putting them in the great oak chest (or 'ark,' as it was called), in which they were laid from Sunday to Sunday.

As she opened the lid a sweet scent of dried lavender and rose-leaves came out. William stepped hastily forwards to hold up the heavy lid for her. She lifted up her head, looked at him full with her serene eyes, and thanked him for his little service. Then she took a creepie-stool and sate down on the side of the fire-place, having her back to the window.

The hearth was of the same spotless whiteness as the steps; all that was black about the grate was polished to the utmost extent; all that was of brass, like the handle of the oven, was burnished bright. Her mother placed the little black earthenware teapot, in which the tea had been stewing, on the table, where cups and saucers were already set for four, and a large plate of bread and butter cut. Then they sate round the table, bowed their heads, and kept silence for a minute or two.

When this grace was ended, and they were about to begin, Alice said, as if without premeditation, but in reality with a keen shrinking of heart out of sympathy with her child--

'Philip would have been in to his tea by now, I reckon, if he'd been coming.'

William looked up suddenly at Hester; her mother carefully turned her head another way. But she answered quite quietly--

'He'll be gone to his aunt's at Haytersbank. I met him at t' top o' t' Brow, with his cousin and Molly Corney.'

'He's a deal there,' said William.

'Yes,' said Hester. 'It's likely; him and his aunt come from Carlisle-way, and must needs cling together in these strange parts.'

'I saw him at the burying of yon Darley,' said William.

'It were a vast o' people went past th' entry end,' said Alice. 'It were a'most like election time; I were just come back fra' meeting when they were all going up th' church steps. I met yon sailor as, they say, used violence and did murder; he looked like a ghost, though whether it were his bodily wounds, or the sense of his sins stirring within him, it's not for me to say. And by t' time I was back here and settled to my Bible, t' folk were returning, and it were tramp, tramp, past th' entry end for better nor a quarter of an hour.'

'They say Kinraid has getten slugs and gun-shot in his side,' said Hester.

'He's niver one Charley Kinraid, for sure, as I knowed at Newcastle,' said William Coulson, roused to sudden and energetic curiosity.

'I don't know,' replied Hester; 'they call him just Kinraid; and Betsy Darley says he's t' most daring specksioneer of all that go off this coast to t' Greenland seas. But he's been in Newcastle, for I mind me she said her poor brother met with him there.'

'How didst thee come to know him?' inquired Alice.

'I cannot abide him if it is Charley,' said William. 'He kept company with my poor sister as is dead for better nor two year, and then he left off coming to see her and went wi' another girl, and it just broke her heart.'

'He don't look now as if he iver could play at that game again,' said Alice; 'he has had a warning fra' the Lord. Whether it be a call no one can tell. But to my eyne he looks as if he had been called, and was going.'

'Then he'll meet my sister,' said William, solemnly; 'and I hope the Lord will make it clear to him, then, how he killed her, as sure as he shot down yon sailors; an' if there's a gnashing o' teeth for murder i' that other place, I reckon he'll have his share on't. He's a bad man yon.'

'Betsy said he were such a friend to her brother as niver was; and he's sent her word and promised to go and see her, first place he goes out to.

But William only shook his head, and repeated his last words,--

'He's a bad man, he is.'

When Philip came home that Sunday night, he found only Alice up to receive him. The usual bedtime in the household was nine o'clock, and it was but ten minutes past the hour; but Alice looked displeased and stern.

'Thee art late, lad,' said she, shortly.

'I'm sorry; it's a long way from my uncle's, and I think clocks are different,' said he, taking out his watch to compare it with the round moon's face that told the time to Alice.

'I know nought about thy uncle's, but thee art late. Take thy candle, and begone.'

If Alice made any reply to Philip's 'good-night,' he did not hear it.