Sylvia's Lovers/Chapter VIII

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Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter VIII: Attraction and repulsion


ATTRACTION AND REPULSION

A fortnight had passed over and winter was advancing with rapid strides. In bleak northern farmsteads there was much to be done before November weather should make the roads too heavy for half-fed horses to pull carts through. There was the turf, pared up on the distant moors, and left out to dry, to be carried home and stacked; the brown fern was to be stored up for winter bedding for the cattle; for straw was scarce and dear in those parts; even for thatching, heather (or rather ling) was used. Then there was meat to salt while it could be had; for, in default of turnips and mangold-wurzel, there was a great slaughtering of barren cows as soon as the summer herbage failed; and good housewives stored up their Christmas piece of beef in pickle before Martinmas was over. Corn was to be ground while yet it could be carried to the distant mill; the great racks for oat-cake, that swung at the top of the kitchen, had to be filled. And last of all came the pig-killing, when the second frost set in. For up in the north there is an idea that the ice stored in the first frost will melt, and the meat cured then taint; the first frost is good for nothing but to be thrown away, as they express it.

There came a breathing-time after this last event. The house had had its last autumn cleaning, and was neat and bright from top to bottom, from one end to another. The turf was led; the coal carted up from Monkshaven; the wood stored; the corn ground; the pig killed, and the hams and head and hands lying in salt. The butcher had been glad to take the best parts of a pig of Dame Robson's careful feeding; but there was unusual plenty in the Haytersbank pantry; and as Bell surveyed it one morning, she said to her husband--

'I wonder if yon poor sick chap at Moss Brow would fancy some o' my sausages. They're something to crack on, for they are made fra' an old Cumberland receipt, as is not known i' Yorkshire yet.'

'Thou's allays so set upo' Cumberland ways!' said her husband, not displeased with the suggestion, however. 'Still, when folk's sick they han their fancies, and maybe Kinraid 'll be glad o' thy sausages. I ha' known sick folk tak' t' eating snails.'

This was not complimentary, perhaps. But Daniel went on to say that he did not mind if he stepped over with the sausages himself, when it was too late to do anything else. Sylvia longed to offer to accompany her father; but, somehow, she did not like to propose it. Towards dusk she came to her mother to ask for the key of the great bureau that stood in the house-place as a state piece of furniture, although its use was to contain the family's best wearing apparel, and stores of linen, such as might be supposed to be more needed upstairs.

'What for do yo' want my keys?' asked Bell.

'Only just to get out one of t' damask napkins.'

'The best napkins, as my mother span?'

'Yes!' said Sylvia, her colour heightening. 'I thought as how it would set off t' sausages.'

'A good clean homespun cloth will serve them better,' said Bell, wondering in her own mind what was come over the girl, to be thinking of setting off sausages that were to be eaten, not to be looked at like a picture-book. She might have wondered still more, if she had seen Sylvia steal round to the little flower border she had persuaded Kester to make under the wall at the sunny side of the house, and gather the two or three Michaelmas daisies, and the one bud of the China rose, that, growing against the kitchen chimney, had escaped the frost; and then, when her mother was not looking, softly open the cloth inside of the little basket that contained the sausages and a fresh egg or two, and lay her autumn blossoms in one of the folds of the towel.

After Daniel, now pretty clear of his rheumatism, had had his afternoon meal (tea was a Sunday treat), he prepared to set out on his walk to Moss Brow; but as he was taking his stick he caught the look on Sylvia's face; and unconsciously interpreted its dumb wistfulness.

'Missus,' said he, 't' wench has nought more t' do, has she? She may as well put on her cloak and step down wi' me, and see Molly a bit; she'll be company like.'

Bell considered.

'There's t' yarn for thy stockings as is yet to spin; but she can go, for I'll do a bit at 't mysel', and there's nought else agate.'

'Put on thy things in a jiffy, then, and let's be off,' said Daniel.


And Sylvia did not need another word. Down she came in a twinkling, dressed in her new red cloak and hood, her face peeping out of the folds of the latter, bright and blushing.

'Thou should'st na' ha' put on thy new cloak for a night walk to Moss Brow,' said Bell, shaking her head.

'Shall I go take it off, and put on my shawl?' asked Sylvia, a little dolefully.

'Na, na, come along! a'm noane goin' for t' wait o' women's chops and changes. Come along; come, Lassie!' (this last to his dog).

So Sylvia set off with a dancing heart and a dancing step, that had to be restrained to the sober gait her father chose. The sky above was bright and clear with the light of a thousand stars, the grass was crisping under their feet with the coming hoar frost; and as they mounted to the higher ground they could see the dark sea stretching away far below them. The night was very still, though now and then crisp sounds in the distant air sounded very near in the silence. Sylvia carried the basket, and looked like little Red Riding Hood. Her father had nothing to say, and did not care to make himself agreeable; but Sylvia enjoyed her own thoughts, and any conversation would have been a disturbance to her. The long monotonous roll of the distant waves, as the tide bore them in, the multitudinous rush at last, and then the retreating rattle and trickle, as the baffled waters fell back over the shingle that skirted the sands, and divided them from the cliffs; her father's measured tread, and slow, even movement; Lassie's pattering--all lulled Sylvia into a reverie, of which she could not have given herself any definite account. But at length they arrived at Moss Brow, and with a sudden sigh she quitted the subjects of her dreamy meditations, and followed her father into the great house-place. It had a more comfortable aspect by night than by day. The fire was always kept up to a wasteful size, and the dancing blaze and the partial light of candles left much in shadow that was best ignored in such a disorderly family. But there was always a warm welcome to friends, however roughly given; and after the words of this were spoken, the next rose up equally naturally in the mind of Mrs Corney.

'And what will ye tak'? Eh! but t' measter 'll be fine and vexed at your comin' when he's away. He's off to Horncastle t' sell some colts, and he'll not be back till to-morrow's neet. But here's Charley Kinraid as we've getten to nurse up a bit, and' t' lads 'll be back fra' Monkshaven in a crack o' no time.'

All this was addressed to Daniel, to whom she knew that none but masculine company would be acceptable. Amongst uneducated people--whose range of subjects and interest do not extend beyond their daily life--it is natural that when the first blush and hurry of youth is over, there should be no great pleasure in the conversation of the other sex. Men have plenty to say to men, which in their estimation (gained from tradition and experience) women cannot understand; and farmers of a much later date than the one of which I am writing, would have contemptuously considered it as a loss of time to talk to women; indeed, they were often more communicative to the sheep-dog that accompanied them through all the day's work, and frequently became a sort of dumb confidant. Farmer Robson's Lassie now lay down at her master's feet, placed her nose between her paws, and watched with attentive eyes the preparations going on for refreshments--preparations which, to the disappointment of her canine heart, consisted entirely of tumblers and sugar.

'Where's t' wench?' said Robson, after he had shaken hands with Kinraid, and spoken a few words to him and to Mrs. Corney. 'She's getten' a basket wi' sausages in 'em, as my missus has made, and she's a rare hand at sausages; there's noane like her in a' t' three Ridings, I'll be bound!'

For Daniel could praise his wife's powers in her absence, though he did not often express himself in an appreciative manner when she was by to hear. But Sylvia's quick sense caught up the manner in which Mrs. Corney would apply the way in which her mother's housewifery had been exalted, and stepping forwards out of the shadow, she said,--

'Mother thought, maybe, you hadn't killed a pig yet, and sausages is always a bit savoury for any one who is na' well, and----'

She might have gone on but that she caught Kinraid's eyes looking at her with kindly admiration. She stopped speaking, and Mrs. Corney took up the word--

'As for sausages, I ha' niver had a chance this year, else I stand again any one for t' making of 'em. Yorkshire hams 's a vast thought on, and I'll niver let another county woman say as she can make better sausages nor me. But, as I'm saying, I'd niver a chance; for our pig, as I were sa fond on, and fed mysel', and as would ha' been fourteen stone by now if he were an ounce, and as knew me as well as any Christian, and a pig, as I may say, that I just idolized, went and took a fit a week after Michaelmas Day, and died, as if it had been to spite me; and t' next is na' ready for killing, nor wunnot be this six week. So I'm much beholden to your missus, and so's Charley, I'm sure; though he's ta'en a turn to betterin' sin' he came out here to be nursed.'

'I'm a deal better,' said Kinraid; 'a'most ready for t' press-gang to give chase to again.'

'But folk say they're gone off this coast for one while,' added Daniel.

'They're gone down towards Hull, as I've been told,' said Kinraid. 'But they're a deep set, they'll be here before we know where we are, some of these days.'

'See thee here!' said Daniel, exhibiting his maimed hand; 'a reckon a served 'em out time o' t' Ameriky war.' And he began the story Sylvia knew so well; for her father never made a new acquaintance but what he told him of his self-mutilation to escape the press-gang. It had been done, as he would himself have owned, to spite himself as well as them; for it had obliged him to leave a sea-life, to which, in comparison, all life spent on shore was worse than nothing for dulness. For Robson had never reached that rank aboard ship which made his being unable to run up the rigging, or to throw a harpoon, or to fire off a gun, of no great consequence; so he had to be thankful that an opportune legacy enabled him to turn farmer, a great degradation in his opinion. But his blood warmed, as he told the specksioneer, towards a sailor, and he pressed Kinraid to beguile the time when he was compelled to be ashore, by coming over to see him at Haytersbank, whenever he felt inclined.

Sylvia, appearing to listen to Molly's confidences, was hearkening in reality to all this conversation between her father and the specksioneer; and at this invitation she became especially attentive.

Kinraid replied,--

'I'm much obliged to ye, I'm sure; maybe I can come and spend an ev'ning wi' you; but as soon as I'm got round a bit, I must go see my own people as live at Cullercoats near Newcastle-upo'-Tyne.'

'Well, well!' said Daniel, rising to take leave, with unusual prudence as to the amount of his drink. 'Thou'lt see, thou'lt see! I shall be main glad to see thee; if thou'lt come. But I've na' lads to keep thee company, only one sprig of a wench. Sylvia, come here, an let's show thee to this young fellow!'

Sylvia came forwards, ruddy as any rose, and in a moment Kinraid recognized her as the pretty little girl he had seen crying so bitterly over Darley's grave. He rose up out of true sailor's gallantry, as she shyly approached and stood by her father's side, scarcely daring to lift her great soft eyes, to have one fair gaze at his face. He had to support himself by one hand rested on the dresser, but she saw he was looking far better--younger, less haggard--than he had seemed to her before. His face was short and expressive; his complexion had been weatherbeaten and bronzed, though now he looked so pale; his eyes and hair were dark,--the former quick, deep-set, and penetrating; the latter curly, and almost in ringlets. His teeth gleamed white as he smiled at her, a pleasant friendly smile of recognition; but she only blushed the deeper, and hung her head.

'I'll come, sir, and be thankful. I daresay a turn'll do me good, if the weather holds up, an' th' frost keeps on.'

'That's right, my lad,' said Robson, shaking him by the hand, and then Kinraid's hand was held out to Sylvia, and she could not avoid the same friendly action.

Molly Corney followed her to the door, and when they were fairly outside, she held Sylvia back for an instant to say,--

'Is na' he a fine likely man? I'm so glad as yo've seen him, for he's to be off next week to Newcastle and that neighbourhood.'

'But he said he'd come to us some night?' asked Sylvia, half in a fright.

'Ay, I'll see as he does; never fear. For I should like yo' for to know him a bit. He's a rare talker. I'll mind him o' coming to yo'.'

Somehow, Sylvia felt as if this repeated promise of reminding Kinraid of his promise to come and see her father took away part of the pleasure she had anticipated from his visit. Yet what could be more natural than that Molly Corney should wish her friend to be acquainted with the man whom Sylvia believed to be all but Molly's engaged lover?

Pondering these thoughts, the walk home was as silent as that going to Moss Brow had been. The only change seemed to be that now they faced the brilliant northern lights flashing up the sky, and that either this appearance or some of the whaling narrations of Kinraid had stirred up Daniel Robson's recollections of a sea ditty, which he kept singing to himself in a low, unmusical voice, the burden of which was, 'for I loves the tossin' say!' Bell met them at the door.

'Well, and here ye are at home again! and Philip has been, Sylvie, to give thee thy ciphering lesson; and he stayed awhile, thinking thou'd be coming back.'

'I'm very sorry,' said Sylvia, more out of deference to her mother's tone of annoyance, than because she herself cared either for her lesson or her cousin's disappointment.

'He'll come again to-morrow night, he says. But thou must take care, and mind the nights he says he'll come, for it's a long way to come for nought.'

Sylvia might have repeated her 'I'm very sorry' at this announcement of Philip's intentions; but she restrained herself, inwardly and fervently hoping that Molly would not urge the fulfilment of the specksioneer's promise for to-morrow night, for Philip's being there would spoil all; and besides, if she sate at the dresser at her lesson, and Kinraid at the table with her father, he might hear all, and find out what a dunce she was.

She need not have been afraid. With the next night Hepburn came; and Kinraid did not. After a few words to her mother, Philip produced the candles he had promised, and some books and a quill or two.

'What for hast thou brought candles?' asked Bell, in a half-affronted tone.

Hepburn smiled.

'Sylvia thought it would take a deal of candlelight, and was for making it into a reason not to learn. I should ha' used t' candles if I'd stayed at home, so I just brought them wi' me.'

'Then thou may'st just take them back again,' said Bell, shortly, blowing out that which he had lighted, and placing one of her own on the dresser instead.

Sylvia caught her mother's look of displeasure, and it made her docile for the evening, although she owed her cousin a grudge for her enforced good behaviour.

'Now, Sylvia, here's a copy-book wi' t' Tower o' London on it, and we'll fill it wi' as pretty writing as any in t' North Riding.'

Sylvia sate quite still, unenlivened by this prospect.

'Here's a pen as 'll nearly write of itsel',' continued Philip, still trying to coax her out her sullenness of manner.

Then he arranged her in the right position.

'Don't lay your head down on your left arm, you'll ne'er see to write straight.'

The attitude was changed, but not a word was spoken. Philip began to grow angry at such determined dumbness.

'Are you tired?' asked he, with a strange mixture of crossness and tenderness.

'Yes, very,' was her reply.

'But thou ought'st not to be tired,' said Bell, who had not yet got over the offence to her hospitality; who, moreover, liked her nephew, and had, to boot, a great respect for the learning she had never acquired.

'Mother!' said Sylvia, bursting out, 'what's the use on my writing "Abednego," "Abednego," "Abednego," all down a page? If I could see t' use on 't, I'd ha' axed father to send me t' school; but I'm none wanting to have learning.'

'It's a fine thing, tho', is learning. My mother and my grandmother had it: but th' family came down i' the world, and Philip's mother and me, we had none of it; but I ha' set my heart on thy having it, child.'

'My fingers is stiff,' pleaded Sylvia, holding up her little hand and shaking it.

'Let us take a turn at spelling, then,' said Philip.

'What's t' use on't?' asked captious Sylvia.

'Why, it helps one i' reading an' writing.'

'And what does reading and writing do for one?'

Her mother gave her another of the severe looks that, quiet woman as she was, she could occasionally bestow upon the refractory, and Sylvia took her book and glanced down the column Philip pointed out to her; but, as she justly considered, one man might point out the task, but twenty could not make her learn it, if she did not choose; and she sat herself down on the edge of the dresser, and idly gazed into the fire. But her mother came round to look for something in the drawers of the dresser, and as she passed her daughter she said in a low voice--

'Sylvie, be a good lass. I set a deal o' store by learning, and father 'ud never send thee to school, as has stuck by me sore.'

If Philip, sitting with his back to them, heard these words he was discreet enough not to show that he heard. And he had his reward; for in a very short time, Sylvia stood before him with her book in her hand, prepared to say her spelling. At which he also stood up by instinct, and listened to her slow succeeding letters; helping her out, when she looked up at him with a sweet childlike perplexity in her face: for a dunce as to book-learning poor Sylvia was and was likely to remain; and, in spite of his assumed office of schoolmaster, Philip Hepburn could almost have echoed the words of the lover of Jess MacFarlane--

I sent my love a letter, But, alas! she canna read, And I lo'e her a' the better.

Still he knew his aunt's strong wish on the subject, and it was very delightful to stand in the relation of teacher to so dear and pretty, if so wilful, a pupil.

Perhaps it was not very flattering to notice Sylvia's great joy when her lessons were over, sadly shortened as they were by Philip's desire not to be too hard upon her. Sylvia danced round to her mother, bent her head back, and kissed her face, and then said defyingly to Philip,--

'If iver I write thee a letter it shall just be full of nothing but "Abednego! Abednego! Abednego!"'

But at this moment her father came in from a distant expedition on the moors with Kester to look after the sheep he had pasturing there before the winter set fairly in. He was tired, and so was Lassie, and so, too, was Kester, who, lifting his heavy legs one after the other, and smoothing down his hair, followed his master into the house-place, and seating himself on a bench at the farther end of the dresser, patiently awaited the supper of porridge and milk which he shared with his master. Sylvia, meanwhile, coaxed Lassie--poor footsore dog--to her side, and gave her some food, which the creature was almost too tired to eat. Philip made as though he would be going, but Daniel motioned to him to be quiet.

'Sit thee down, lad. As soon as I've had my victual, I want t' hear a bit o' news.'

Sylvia took her sewing and sat at the little round table by her mother, sharing the light of the scanty dip-candle. No one spoke. Every one was absorbed in what they were doing. What Philip was doing was, gazing at Sylvia--learning her face off by heart.

When every scrap of porridge was cleared out of the mighty bowl, Kester yawned, and wishing good-night, withdrew to his loft over the cow-house. Then Philip pulled out the weekly York paper, and began to read the latest accounts of the war then raging. This was giving Daniel one of his greatest pleasures; for though he could read pretty well, yet the double effort of reading and understanding what he read was almost too much for him. He could read, or he could understand what was read aloud to him; reading was no pleasure, but listening was.

Besides, he had a true John Bullish interest in the war, without very well knowing what the English were fighting for. But in those days, so long as they fought the French for any cause, or for no cause at all, every true patriot was satisfied. Sylvia and her mother did not care for any such far-extended interest; a little bit of York news, the stealing of a few apples out of a Scarborough garden that they knew, was of far more interest to them than all the battles of Nelson and the North.

Philip read in a high-pitched and unnatural tone of voice, which deprived the words of their reality; for even familiar expressions can become unfamiliar and convey no ideas, if the utterance is forced or affected. Philip was somewhat of a pedant; yet there was a simplicity in his pedantry not always to be met with in those who are self-taught, and which might have interested any one who cared to know with what labour and difficulty he had acquired the knowledge which now he prized so highly; reading out Latin quotations as easily as if they were English, and taking a pleasure in rolling polysyllables, until all at once looking askance at Sylvia, he saw that her head had fallen back, her pretty rosy lips open, her eyes fast shut; in short, she was asleep.

'Ay,' said Farmer Robson, 'and t' reading has a'most sent me off. Mother 'd look angry now if I was to tell yo' yo' had a right to a kiss; but when I was a young man I'd ha' kissed a pretty girl as I saw asleep, afore yo'd said Jack Robson.'

Philip trembled at these words, and looked at his aunt. She gave him no encouragement, standing up, and making as though she had never heard her husband's speech, by extending her hand, and wishing him 'good-night.' At the noise of the chairs moving over the flag floor, Sylvia started up, confused and annoyed at her father's laughter.

'Ay, lass; it's iver a good time t' fall asleep when a young fellow is by. Here's Philip here as thou'rt bound t' give a pair o' gloves to.'

Sylvia went like fire; she turned to her mother to read her face.

'It's only father's joke, lass,' said she. 'Philip knows manners too well.'

'He'd better,' said Sylvia, flaming round at him. 'If he'd a touched me, I'd niver ha' spoken to him no more.' And she looked even as it was as if she was far from forgiving him.

'Hoots, lass! wenches are brought up sa mim, now-a-days; i' my time they'd ha' thought na' such great harm of a kiss.'

'Good-night, Philip,' said Bell Robson, thinking the conversation unseemly.

'Good-night, aunt, good-night, Sylvie!' But Sylvia turned her back on him, and he could hardly say 'good-night' to Daniel, who had caused such an unpleasant end to an evening that had at one time been going on so well.