John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter I
"Get out o' Mr. Fletcher's road, ye idle, lounging, little—"
"Vagabond," I think the woman (Sally Watkins, once my nurse), was going to say, but she changed her mind.
My father and I both glanced round, surprised at her unusual reticence of epithets: but when the lad addressed turned, fixed his eyes on each of us for a moment, and made way for us, we ceased to wonder. Ragged, muddy, and miserable as he was, the poor boy looked anything but a "vagabond."
"Thee need not go into the wet, my lad. Keep close to the wall, and there will be shelter enough both for us and thee," said my father, as he pulled my little hand-carriage into the alley, under cover, from the pelting rain. The lad, with a grateful look, put out a hand likewise, and pushed me further in. A strong hand it was—roughened and browned with labour—though he was scarcely as old as I. What would I not have given to have been so stalwart and so tall!
Sally called from her house-door, "Wouldn't Master Phineas come in and sit by the fire a bit?"—But it was always a trouble to me to move or walk; and I liked staying at the mouth of the alley, watching the autumnal shower come sweeping down the street: besides, I wanted to look again at the stranger-lad.
He had scarcely stirred, but remained leaning against the wall— either through weariness, or in order to be out of our way. He took little or no notice of us, but kept his eyes fixed on the pavement— for we actually boasted pavement in the High Street of our town of Norton Bury—watching the eddying rain-drops, which, each as it fell, threw up a little mist of spray. It was a serious, haggard face for a boy of only fourteen or so. Let me call it up before me—I can, easily, even after more than fifty years.
Brown eyes, deep-sunken, with strongly-marked brows, a nose like most other Saxon noses, nothing particular; lips well-shaped, lying one upon the other, firm and close; a square, sharply outlined, resolute chin, of that type which gives character and determination to the whole physiognomy, and without which in the fairest features, as in the best dispositions, one is always conscious of a certain want.
As I have stated, in person the lad was tall and strongly-built; and I, poor puny wretch! so reverenced physical strength. Everything in him seemed to indicate that which I had not: his muscular limbs, his square, broad shoulders, his healthy cheek, though it was sharp and thin—even to his crisp curls of bright thick hair.
Thus he stood, principal figure in a picture which is even yet as clear to me as yesterday—the narrow, dirty alley leading out of the High Street, yet showing a glimmer of green field at the further end; the open house-doors on either side, through which came the drowsy burr of many a stocking-loom, the prattle of children paddling in the gutter, and sailing thereon a fleet of potato parings. In front the High Street, with the mayor's house opposite, porticoed and grand: and beyond, just where the rain-clouds were breaking, rose up out of a nest of trees, the square tower of our ancient abbey—Norton Bury's boast and pride. On it, from a break in the clouds, came a sudden stream of light. The stranger-lad lifted up his head to look at it.
"The rain will be over soon," I said, but doubted if he heard me. What could he be thinking of so intently?—a poor working lad, whom few would have given credit for thinking at all.
I do not suppose my father cast a second glance or thought on the boy, whom, from a sense of common justice, he had made take shelter beside us. In truth, worthy man, he had no lack of matter to occupy his mind, being sole architect of a long up-hill but now thriving trade. I saw, by the hardening of his features, and the restless way in which he poked his stick into the little water-pools, that he was longing to be in his tan-yard close by.
He pulled out his great silver watch—the dread of our house, for it was a watch which seemed to imbibe something of its master's character; remorseless as justice or fate, it never erred a moment.
"Twenty-three minutes lost by this shower. Phineas, my son, how am I to get thee safe home? unless thee wilt go with me to the tan-yard—"
I shook my head. It was very hard for Abel Fletcher to have for his only child such a sickly creature as I, now, at sixteen, as helpless and useless to him as a baby.
"Well, well, I must find some one to go home with thee." For though my father had got me a sort of carriage in which, with a little external aid, I could propel myself, so as to be his companion occasionally in his walks between our house, the tanyard, and the Friends' meeting-house—still he never trusted me anywhere alone. "Here, Sally—Sally Watkins! do any o' thy lads want to earn an honest penny?"
Sally was out of earshot; but I noticed that as the lad near us heard my father's words, the colour rushed over his face, and he started forward involuntarily. I had not before perceived how wasted and hungry-looking he was.
"Father!" I whispered. But here the boy had mustered up his courage and voice.
"Sir, I want work; may I earn a penny?"
He spoke in tolerably good English—different from our coarse, broad, G—-shire drawl; and taking off his tattered old cap, looked right up into my father's face, The old man scanned him closely.
"What is thy name, lad?"
"Where dost thee come from?"
"Hast thee any parents living?"
I wished my father would not question thus; but possibly he had his own motives, which were rarely harsh, though his actions often appeared so.
"How old might thee be, John Halifax?"
"Thee art used to work?"
"What sort of work?"
"Anything that I can get to do."
I listened nervously to this catechism, which went on behind my back.
"Well," said my father, after a pause, "thee shall take my son home, and I'll give thee a groat. Let me see; art thee a lad to be trusted?" And holding him at arm's length, regarding him meanwhile with eyes that were the terror of all the rogues in Norton Bury, Abel Fletcher jingled temptingly the silver money in the pockets of his long-flapped brown waistcoat. "I say, art thee a lad to be trusted?"
John Halifax neither answered nor declined his eyes. He seemed to feel that this was a critical moment, and to have gathered all his mental forces into a serried square, to meet the attack. He met it, and conquered in silence.
"Lad, shall I give thee the groat now?"
"Not till I've earned it, sir."
So, drawing his hand back, my father slipped the money into mine, and left us.
I followed him with my eyes, as he went sturdily plashing down the street; his broad, comfortable back, which owned a coat of true Quaker cut, but spotless, warm, and fine; his ribbed hose and leathern gaiters, and the wide-brimmed hat set over a fringe of grey hairs, that crowned the whole with respectable dignity. He looked precisely what he was—an honest, honourable, prosperous tradesman. I watched him down the street—my good father, whom I respected perhaps even more than I loved him. The Cornish lad watched him likewise.
It still rained slightly, so we remained under cover. John Halifax leaned in his old place, and did not attempt to talk. Once only, when the draught through the alley made me shiver, he pulled my cloak round me carefully.
"You are not very strong, I'm afraid?"
Then he stood idly looking up at the opposite—the mayor's—house, with its steps and portico, and its fourteen windows, one of which was open, and a cluster of little heads visible there.
The mayor's children—I knew them all by sight, though nothing more; for their father was a lawyer, and mine a tanner; they belonged to Abbey folk and orthodoxy, I to the Society of Friends—the mayor's rosy children seemed greatly amused by watching us shivering shelterers from the rain. Doubtless our position made their own appear all the pleasanter. For myself it mattered little; but for this poor, desolate, homeless, wayfaring lad to stand in sight of their merry nursery window, and hear the clatter of voices, and of not unwelcome dinner-sounds—I wondered how he felt it.
Just at this minute another head came to the window, a somewhat older child; I had met her with the rest; she was only a visitor. She looked at us, then disappeared. Soon after, we saw the front door half opened, and an evident struggle taking place behind it; we even heard loud words across the narrow street.
"I will—I say I will."
"You shan't, Miss Ursula."
"But I will!"
And there stood the little girl, with a loaf in one hand and a carving-knife in the other. She succeeded in cutting off a large slice, and holding it out.
"Take it, poor boy!—you look so hungry. Do take it." But the servant forced her in, and the door was shut upon a sharp cry.
It made John Halifax start, and look up at the nursery window, which was likewise closed. We heard nothing more. After a minute he crossed the street, and picked up the slice of bread. Now in those days bread was precious, exceedingly. The poor folk rarely got it; they lived on rye or meal. John Halifax had probably not tasted wheaten bread like this for months: it appeared not, he eyed it so ravenously;—then, glancing towards the shut door, his mind seemed to change. He was a long time before he ate a morsel; when he did so, it was quietly and slowly; looking very thoughtful all the while.
As soon as the rain ceased, we took our way home, down the High Street, towards the Abbey church—he guiding my carriage along in silence. I wished he would talk, and let me hear again his pleasant Cornish accent.
"How strong you are!" said I, sighing, when, with a sudden pull, he had saved me from being overturned by a horseman riding past—young Mr. Brithwood of the Mythe House, who never cared where he galloped or whom he hurt—"So tall and so strong."
"Am I? Well, I shall want my strength."
"To earn my living."
He drew up his broad shoulders, and planted on the pavement a firmer foot, as if he knew he had the world before him—would meet it single-handed, and without fear.
"What have you worked at lately?"
"Anything I could get, for I have never learned a trade."
"Would you like to learn one?"
He hesitated a minute, as if weighing his speech. "Once I thought I should like to be what my father was."
"What was he?"
"A scholar and a gentleman."
This was news, though it did not much surprise me. My father, tanner as he was, and pertinaciously jealous of the dignity of trade, yet held strongly the common-sense doctrine of the advantages of good descent; at least, in degree. For since it is a law of nature, admitting only rare exceptions, that the qualities of the ancestors should be transmitted to the race—the fact seems patent enough, that even allowing equal advantages, a gentleman's son has more chances of growing up a gentleman than the son of a working man. And though he himself, and his father before him, had both been working men, still, I think, Abel Fletcher never forgot that we originally came of a good stock, and that it pleased him to call me, his only son, after one of our forefathers, not unknown—Phineas Fletcher, who wrote the "Purple Island."
Thus it seemed to me, and I doubted not it would to my father, much more reasonable and natural that a boy like John Halifax—in whom from every word he said I detected a mind and breeding above his outward condition—should come of gentle than of boorish blood.
"Then, perhaps," I said, resuming the conversation, "you would not like to follow a trade?"
"Yes, I should. What would it matter to me? My father was a gentleman."
"And your mother?"
And he turned suddenly round; his cheeks hot, his lips quivering: "She is dead. I do not like to hear strangers speak about my mother."
I asked his pardon. It was plain he had loved and mourned her; and that circumstances had smothered down his quick boyish feelings into a man's tenacity of betraying where he had loved and mourned. I, only a few minutes after, said something about wishing we were not "strangers."
"Do you?" The lad's half amazed, half-grateful smile went right to my heart.
"Have you been up and down the country much?"
"A great deal—these last three years; doing a hand's turn as best I could, in hop-picking, apple-gathering, harvesting; only this summer I had typhus fever, and could not work."
"What did you do then?"
"I lay in a barn till I got well—I'm quite well now; you need not be afraid."
"No, indeed; I had never thought of that."
We soon became quite sociable together. He guided me carefully out of the town into the Abbey walk, flecked with sunshine through overhanging trees. Once he stopped to pick up for me the large brown fan of a horse-chestnut leaf.
"It's pretty, isn't it?—only it shows that autumn is come."
"And how shall you live in the winter, when there is no out-of-door work to be had?"
"I don't know."
The lad's countenance fell, and that hungry, weary look, which had vanished while we talked, returned more painfully than ever. I reproached myself for having, under the influence of his merry talk, temporarily forgotten it.
"Ah!" I cried eagerly, when we left the shade of the Abbey trees, and crossed the street; "here we are, at home!"
"Are you?" The homeless lad just glanced at it—the flight of spotless stone-steps, guarded by ponderous railings, which led to my father's respectable and handsome door. "Good day, then—which means good-bye."
I started. The word pained me. On my sad, lonely life—brief indeed, though ill health seemed to have doubled and trebled my sixteen years into a mournful maturity—this lad's face had come like a flash of sunshine; a reflection of the merry boyhood, the youth and strength that never were, never could be, mine. To let it go from me was like going back into the dark.
"Not good-bye just yet!" said I, trying painfully to disengage myself from my little carriage and mount the steps. John Halifax came to my aid.
"Suppose you let me carry you. I could—and—and it would be great fun, you know."
He tried to turn it into a jest, so as not to hurt me; but the tremble in his voice was as tender as any woman's—tenderer than any woman's I ever was used to hear. I put my arms round his neck; he lifted me safely and carefully, and set me at my own door. Then with another good-bye he again turned to go.
My heart cried after him with an irrepressible cry. What I said I do not remember, but it caused him to return.
"Is there anything more I can do for you, sir?"
"Don't call me 'sir'; I am only a boy like yourself. I want you; don't go yet. Ah! here comes my father!"
John Halifax stood aside, and touched his cap with a respectful deference, as the old man passed.
"So here thee be—hast thou taken care of my son? Did he give thee thy groat, my lad?"
We had neither of us once thought of the money.
When I acknowledged this my father laughed, called John an honest lad, and began searching in his pocket for some larger coin. I ventured to draw his ear down and whispered something—but I got no answer; meanwhile, John Halifax for the third time was going away.
"Stop, lad—I forget thy name—here is thy groat, and a shilling added, for being kind to my son."
"Thank you, but I don't want payment for kindness."
He kept the groat, and put back the shilling into my father's hand.
"Eh!" said the old man, much astonished, "thee'rt an odd lad; but I can't stay talking with thee. Come in to dinner, Phineas. I say," turning back to John Halifax with a sudden thought, "art thee hungry?"
"Very hungry." Nature gave way at last, and great tears came into the poor lad's eyes. "Nearly starving."
"Bless me! then get in, and have thy dinner. But first—" and my inexorable father held him by the shoulder; "thee art a decent lad, come of decent parents?"
"Yes," almost indignantly.
"Thee works for thy living?"
"I do, whenever I can get it."
"Thee hast never been in gaol?"
"No!" thundered out the lad, with a furious look. "I don't want your dinner, sir; I would have stayed, because your son asked me, and he was civil to me, and I liked him. Now I think I had better go. Good day, sir."
There is a verse in a very old Book—even in its human histories the most pathetic of all books—which runs thus:
"And it came to pass when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit unto the soul of David; and Jonathan loved him as his own soul."
And this day, I, a poorer and more helpless Jonathan, had found my David.
I caught him by the hand, and would not let him go.
"There, get in, lads—make no more ado," said Abel Fletcher, sharply, as he disappeared.
So, still holding my David fast, I brought him into my father's house.