John Brent/Chapter XI

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Father and Daughter[edit]

“Come, gentlemen,” said the father, in a lively way. “We are all campaigners. Sit down and take a cup of tea with us. No ceremony. A la guerre, comme à la guerre. I cannot give you Sèvres porcelain. I am afraid even my delf is a little cracked; but we’ll fancy it whole and painted with roses. Now plenty of tea, Ellen dear. Guests are too rare not to be welcomed with our very best. Besides, I expect Brother Sizzum, after his camp duties are over.”

It was inexpressibly dreary, this feeble conviviality. In the old gentleman’s heart it was plain that disappointment and despondency were the permanent tenants. His gayety seemed only a mockery, — a vain essay to delude himself into the thought that he could be happy even for a moment. His voice, even while he jested, was hollow and sorrowful. There was a trepidation in his manner, half hope, half fear, as if he dreaded that some one would presently announce to him a desperate disaster, or fancied that some sudden piece of good luck was about to befall him, and he must be all attention lest it pass to another. Nothing of the anxiety of a guilty man about him, — of one who hears pursuit in the hum of a cricket or the buzz of a bee; only the uneasiness of one flying forever from himself, and hoping that some chance bliss will hold his flight and give him a moment’s forgetfulness.

We of course accepted the kindly invitation. Civilization was the novelty to us. Tea with a gentleman and lady was a privilege quite unheard of. We should both have been ready to devote ourselves to a woman far less charming than our hostess. But here was a pair — the beautiful daughter, the father astray — whom we must know more of. I felt myself taking a very tender interest in their welfare, revolving plans in my mind to learn their history, and, if it might be done, to persuade the father out of his delusion.

“Now, gentlemen,” said our friend, playing his part with mild gracefulness, like an accomplished host; “sit down on the blankets. I cannot give you grand arm-chairs, as I might have done once in Old England, and hope to do if you ever come to see me at my house in Deseret. But really we are forgetting something very important. We have not been formally introduced. Bless me! that will never do. Allow me gentlemen to present myself, Mr. Hugh Clitheroe, late of Clitheroe Hall, Clitheroe, Lancashire, — a good old name, you see. And this is my daughter. Miss Ellen Clitheroe. These gentlemen, my dear, will take the liberty to present themselves to you.”

“Mr. Richard Wade, late of California; Mr. John Brent, a roving Yankee. Pray let me aid you Miss Clitheroe.”

Brent took the teakettle from her hand, and filled the teapot. This little domestic office opened the way to other civil services.

It was like a masquerading scene. My handsome friend and the elegant young lady bending together over four cracked cups and as many plates of coarse earthenware, spread upon a shawl, on the dry grass. The circle of wagons, the groups of Saints about their supper fires, the cattle and the fort in the distance, made a strangely unreal background to a woman whose proper place, for open air, was in the ancient avenue of some ancestral park, or standing on the terrace to receive groups of brilliant ladies coming up the lawn. But character is superior to circumstance, and Miss Clitheroe’s self-possession controlled her scenery. Her place, wherever it was, became her right place. The prairie, and the wagons, and the rough accessories, gave force to her refinement.

Mr. Clitheroe regarded the pair with a dreamy pleasure.

“Quite patriarchal, is it not?” said he to me. “I could fancy myself Laban, and my daughter Rachel. There is a trace of the Oriental in her looks. We only need camels, and this would be a scene worthy of the times of the Eastern patriarchs and the plains of the old Holy Land. We of the Latter Day Church think much of such associations; more I suppose than you world’s people.”

And here the old gentleman looked at me uneasily, as if he dreaded lest I should fling in a word to disturb his illusion, or perhaps ridicule his faith.

“I have often been reminded here of the landscape of Palestine,” said I, “and those bare regions of the Orient. Your friends in Utah, too, refresh the association by their choice of Biblical names.”

“Yes; we love to recall those early days when Jehovah was near to his people, a chosen people, who suffered for faith’s sake, as we have done. In fact, our new faith and new revelation are only revivals and continuations of the old. Our founder and our prophets give us the doctrines of the earliest Church, with a larger light and a surer confidence.”

He said this with the manner of one who is repeating for the thousandth time a lesson, a formula which he must keep constantly before him, or its effect will be gone. In fact, his resolute assertion of his creed showed the weak belief. As he paused, he looked at me again, hoping, as I thought, that I would dispute or differ, and so he might talk against contradiction, a far less subtle enemy than doubt. As I did not immediately take up the discussion, he passed lightly, and with the air of one whose mind does not love to be consecutive, to another subject.

“Hunters, are you not?” said he, turning to Brent. “I am astonished that more of you American gentlemen do not profit by this great buffalo-preserve and deer-park. We send you a good shot occasionally from England.”

“Yes,” said my friend. “I had a capital shot, and capital fellow too for comrade, this summer, in the mountains. A countryman of yours. Sir Biron Biddulph. He was wretchedly out of sorts, poor fellow, when we started. Fresh air and bold life quite set him up. A month’s galloping with the buffalo, and a fortnight over the cliffs, after the big-horn, would ‘put a soul under the ribs of death.’ Biddulph left me to go home, a new man. I find that he has stayed in Utah, for more hunting, I suppose.”

Brent was kneeling at Miss Clitheroe’s feet, holding a cup for her to fill. He turned toward her father as he spoke. At the name of Biddulph, I saw that her red lips’ promise of possible blushes was no false one.

“Ah!” thought I; “here, perhaps, is the romance of the Baronet’s history. No wonder he found England too narrow for him, if this noble woman would not smile! Perhaps he has stopped in Utah to renew his suit, or volunteer his services. A strange drama! with new elements of interest coming in.”

I could not refrain from studying Miss Clitheroe with some curiosity as I thought thus.

She perceived my inquisitive look. She made some excuse, and stepped into the wagon.

“Biddulph!” said the father. “Ellen dear, Mr. Brent knows our old neighbor, Biron Biddulph. O, she has disappeared, ‘on hospitable thoughts intent.’ I shall be delighted to meet an old friend in Deseret. We knew him intimately at home in better days, — no! in those days I blindly deemed better, before I was illumined with the glories of the new faith, and saw the New Jerusalem with eyes of hope.”

Miss Clitheroe rejoined us. She had been absent only a moment, but, as I could see, long enough for tears, and the repression of tears. I should have pitied her more; but she seemed, in her stout-hearted womanhood, above pity, asking no more than the sympathy the brave have always ready for the sorrowful brave.

Evidently to change the subject, she engaged Brent again in his tea-table offices. I looked at that passionate fellow with some anxiety. He was putting a large share of earnestness in his manner of holding cups and distributing hard-tack. Why so much fervor and devotion, my friend? Seems to me I have seen cavaliers before, aiding beauties with like ardor, on the carpet, in the parlor, over the S èvres and the silver. And when I saw it, I thought, “O cavalier! O beauty! beware, or do not beware, just as you deem best, but know that there is peril! For love can improvise out of the steam of a teapot a romance as big and sudden and irrepressible as the Afreet that swelled from the casket by the sea-shore in the Arabian story.

We sat down upon the grass for our picnic. I should not invite the late Mr. Watteau, or even the extant Mr. Diaz, to paint us. The late Mr. Watteau’s heroes and heroines were silk and satin Arcadians; they had valets de chambre and filles de chambre, and therefore could be not fully heroes and heroines, if proverbs be true. The present Mr. Diaz, too, charming and pretty as he is, has his place near parterres and terraces, within the reach of rake and broom. Mr. Horace Yernet is equally inadmissible, since that martial personage does not comprehend a desert, except with a foreground of blood, smoke, baggy red pantaloons, and mon General on a white horse giving the Legion of Honor to mon enfant on his last legs. But I must wait for some artist with the gayety of Mr. Watteau, the refinement of Mr. Diaz, and the soldierly force of Mr. Vernet, who can perceive the poetry of American caravan-life, and can get the heroine of our picnic at Fort Bridger to give him a sitting. Art is unwise not to perceive the materials it neglects in such scenes.

Mr. Clitheroe grew more and more genial as we became better acquainted. He praised the sunshine and the climate. England had nothing like it, so our host asserted. The atmosphere of England crushed the body, as its moral atmosphere repressed perfect freedom of thought and action.

“Yes, gentlemen,” said he, “I have escaped at last into the region I have longed for. I mean to renew my youth in the Promised Land, — to have my life over again, with a store of the wisdom of age.”

Then he talked pleasantly of the incidents of his journey, — an impressible being, taking easily the color of the moment, like a child. He liked travel, he said; it was dramatic action and scene-shifting, without the tragedy or the over-absorbing interest of dramatic plot. He liked to have facts come to him without being laboriously sought for, as they do in travel. The eye, without trouble, took in whatever appeared, and at the end of the day a traveller found himself expanded and educated without knowing it. There was a fine luxury in this, for a mature man to learn again, just as a child does, and find his lessons play. He liked this novel, adventurous life.

“Think of it, sir,” he said, “I have seen real Indians, splendid fellows, all in their war-paint; just such as I used to read of with delight in your Mr. Fenimore’s tales. And these prairies too, — I seem to have visited them already in the works of your charming Mr. Irving, — a very pleasant author, very pleasant indeed, and quite reminding me of our best essayists; though he has an American savor too. Mr. Irving, I think, did not come out so far as this. This region has never been described by any one with a poetic eye. My brethren in the Church of the Latter Day have their duties of stern apostleship; they cannot turn aside to the right hand nor to the left. But when the Saints are gathered in, they will begin to see the artistic features of their land. Those Wind River Mountains — fine name, by the way — that I saw from the South Pass, — they seem to me quite an ideal Sierra. Their blue edges and gleaming snow-peaks were great society for us as we came by. We are very fond of scenery, sir, my daughter and I, and this breadth of effect is very impressive after England. England, you know, sir, is tame, — a snug little place, but quite a prison for people of scope. Lancashire, my old home, is very pretty, but not grand; quite the contrary. I have grown really quite tired of green grass, and well-kept lawns, and the shaved, beardless, effeminate look of my native country. This rough nature is masculine. It reminds me of the youth of the world. I like to be in the presence of strong forces. I am not afraid of the Orson feeling. Besides, in Lancashire, particularly, we never see the sun; we see smoke; we breathe smoke; smoke spoils the fragrance and darkens the hue of all our life. 1 hate chimneys, sir; I have seen great fortunes go up them. I might perhaps tell you something of my own experience in looking up a certain tall chimney not a hundred miles from Clitheroe, and seeing ancestral acres fly up it, and ancestral pictures and a splendid old mansion all going off in smoke. But you are a stranger, and do not care about hearing my old gossip. Besides, what is the loss of houses and lands, if one finds the pearl of great price, and wins the prophet’s crown and the saint’s throne?”

And here the gray-haired, pale, dreamy old gentleman paused, and a half-quenched fire glimmered in his eye. His childish, fanatical ambition stirred him, and he smiled with a look of triumph.

I was silent in speechless pity.

His daughter turned, and smiled with almost tearful tenderness upon her father.

“I have not heard you so animated for a long time, dear father,” she said. “Mr. Wade seems quite to inspire you.”

“Yes, my dear, he has been talking on many very interesting topics.”

I had really done nothing except to bow, and utter those civil monosyllables which are the “Hear! hear!” of conversation.

If I had been silent, Brent had not. While the garrulous old gentleman was prattling on at full speed, I had heard all the time my friend’s low, melodious voice, as he talked to the lady. He was a trained artist in the fine art of sympathy. His own early sorrows had made him infinitely tender with all that suffer. To their hearts he came as one that had a right to enter, as one that knew their malady, and was commanded to lay a gentle touch of soothing there. It is a great power to have known the worst and bitterest that can befall the human life, and yet not be hardened. No sufferer can resist the fine magnetism of a wise and unintrusive pity. It is as mild and healing as music by night to fevered sleeplessness.

The lady’s protective armor of sternness was presently thrown aside. She perceived that she need not wear it against a man who was brother to every desolate soul, — sisterly indeed, so delicate was his comprehension of the wants of a woman’s nature. In fact, both father and daughter, as soon as they discovered that we were ready to be their friends, met us frankly. It was easy to see, poor souls! that it was long since they had found any one fit company for them, any one whose presence could excite the care-beguiling exhilaration of worthy society. They savored the aroma of good-breeding with appetite.