John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter II
Dinner was over; my father and I took ours in the large parlour, where the stiff, high-backed chairs eyed one another in opposite rows across the wide oaken floor, shiny and hard as marble, and slippery as glass. Except the table, the sideboard and the cuckoo clock, there was no other furniture.
I dared not bring the poor wandering lad into this, my father's especial domain; but as soon as he was away in the tan-yard I sent for John.
Jael brought him in; Jael, the only womankind we ever had about us, and who, save to me when I happened to be very ill, certainly gave no indication of her sex in its softness and tenderness. There had evidently been wrath in the kitchen.
"Phineas, the lad ha' got his dinner, and you mustn't keep 'un long. I bean't going to let you knock yourself up with looking after a beggar-boy."
A beggar-boy! The idea seemed so ludicrous, that I could not help smiling at it as I regarded him. He had washed his face and combed out his fair curls; though his clothes were threadbare, all but ragged, they were not unclean; and there was a rosy, healthy freshness in his tanned skin, which showed he loved and delighted in what poor folk generally abominate—water. And now the sickness of hunger had gone from his face, the lad, if not actually what our scriptural Saxon terms "well-favoured," was certainly "well-liking." A beggar-boy, indeed! I hoped he had not heard Jael's remark. But he had.
"Madam," said he, with a bow of perfect good-humour, and even some sly drollery, "you mistake: I never begged in my life: I'm a person of independent property, which consists of my head and my two hands, out of which I hope to realise a large capital some day."
I laughed. Jael retired, abundantly mystified, and rather cross. John Halifax came to my easy chair, and in an altered tone asked me how I felt, and if he could do anything for me before he went away.
"You'll not go away; not till my father comes home, at least?" For I had been revolving many plans, which had one sole aim and object, to keep near me this lad, whose companionship and help seemed to me, brotherless, sisterless, and friendless as I was, the very thing that would give me an interest in life, or, at least, make it drag on less wearily. To say that what I projected was done out of charity or pity would not be true; it was simple selfishness, if that be selfishness which makes one leap towards, and cling to, a possible strength and good, which I conclude to be the secret of all those sudden likings that spring more from instinct than reason. I do not attempt to account for mine: I know not why "the soul of Jonathan clave to the soul of David." I only know that it was so, and that the first day I beheld the lad John Halifax, I, Phineas Fletcher, "loved him as my own soul."
Thus, my entreaty, "You'll not go away?" was so earnest, that it apparently touched the friendless boy to the core.
"Thank you," he said, in an unsteady voice, as leaning against the fire-place he drew his hand backwards and forwards across his face: "you are very kind; I'll stay an hour or so, if you wish it."
"Then come and sit down here, and let us have a talk."
What this talk was, I cannot now recall, save that it ranged over many and wide themes, such as boys delight in—chiefly of life and adventure. He knew nothing of my only world—books.
"Can you read?" he asked me at last, suddenly.
"I should rather think so." And I could not help smiling, being somewhat proud of my erudition.
"Oh, yes; certainly."
He thought a minute, and then said, in a low tone, "I can't write, and I don't know when I shall be able to learn; I wish you would put down something in a book for me."
"That I will."
He took out of his pocket a little case of leather, with an under one of black silk; within this, again, was a book. He would not let it go out of his hands, but held it so that I could see the leaves. It was a Greek Testament.
He pointed to the fly-leaf, and I read:
"Guy Halifax, his Book.
"Guy Halifax, gentleman, married Muriel Joyce, spinster, May 17, in the year of our Lord 1779.
"John Halifax, their son, born June 18, 1780."
There was one more entry, in a feeble, illiterate female hand: "Guy Halifax, died Jannary 4, 1781."
"What shall I write, John?" said I, after a minute or so of silence.
"I'll tell you presently. Can I get you a pen?"
He leaned on my shoulder with his left hand, but his right never once let go of the precious book.
"Write—'Muriel Halifax, died January 1, 1791.'"
He looked at the writing for a minute or two, dried it carefully by the fire, replaced the book in its two cases, and put it into his pocket. He said no other word but "Thank you," and I asked him no questions.
This was all I ever heard of the boy's parentage: nor do I believe he knew more himself. He was indebted to no forefathers for a family history: the chronicle commenced with himself, and was altogether his own making. No romantic antecedents ever turned up: his lineage remained uninvestigated, and his pedigree began and ended with his own honest name—John Halifax.
Jael kept coming in and out of the parlour on divers excuses, eyeing very suspiciously John Halifax and me; especially when she heard me laughing—a rare and notable fact—for mirth was not the fashion in our house, nor the tendency of my own nature. Now this young lad, hardly as the world had knocked him about even already, had an overflowing spirit of quiet drollery and healthy humour, which was to me an inexpressible relief. It gave me something I did not possess— something entirely new. I could not look at the dancing brown eyes, at the quaint dimples of lurking fun that played hide-and-seek under the firm-set mouth, without feeling my heart cheered and delighted, like one brought out of a murky chamber into the open day.
But all this was highly objectionable to Jael.
"Phineas!"—and she planted herself before me at the end of the table—"it's a fine, sunshiny day: thee ought to be out."
"I have been out, thank you, Jael." And John and I went on talking.
"Phineas!"—a second and more determined attack—"too much laughing bean't good for thee; and it's time this lad were going about his own business."
"No—she's right," said John Halifax, rising, while that look of premature gravity, learned doubtless out of hard experience, chased all the boyish fun from his face. "I've had a merry day—thank you kindly for it! and now I'll be gone."
Gone! It was not to be thought of—at least, not till my father came home. For now, more determinedly than ever, the plan which I had just ventured to hint at to my father fixed itself on my mind. Surely he would not refuse me—me, his sickly boy, whose life had in it so little pleasure.
"Why do you want to go? You have no work?"
"No; I wish I had. But I'll get some."
"Just by trying everything that comes to hand. That's the only way. I never wanted bread, nor begged it, yet—though I've often been rather hungry. And as for clothes"—he looked down on his own, light and threadbare, here and there almost burst into holes by the stout muscles of the big growing boy—looked rather disconsolately. "I'm afraid SHE would be sorry—that's all! She always kept me so tidy."
By the way he spoke, "SHE" must have meant his mother. There the orphan lad had an advantage over me; alas! I did not remember mine.
"Come," I said, for now I had quite made up my mind to take no denial, and fear no rebuff from my father; "cheer up. Who knows what may turn up?"
"Oh yes, something always does; I'm not afraid!" He tossed back his curls, and looked smiling out through the window at the blue sky; that steady, brave, honest smile, which will meet Fate in every turn, and fairly coax the jade into good humour.
"John, do you know you're uncommonly like a childish hero of mine— Dick Whittington? Did you ever hear of him?"
"Come into the garden then"—for I caught another ominous vision of Jael in the doorway, and I did not want to vex my good old nurse; besides, unlike John, I was anything but brave. "You'll hear the Abbey bells chime presently—not unlike Bow bells, I used to fancy sometimes; and we'll lie on the grass, and I'll tell you the whole true and particular story of Sir Richard Whittington."
I lifted myself, and began looking for my crutches. John found and put them into my hand, with a grave, pitiful look.
"You don't need those sort of things," I said, making pretence to laugh, for I had not grown used to them, and felt often ashamed.
"I hope you will not need them always."
"Perhaps not—Dr. Jessop isn't sure. But it doesn't matter much; most likely I shan't live long." For this was, God forgive me, always the last and greatest comfort I had.
John looked at me—surprised, troubled, compassionate—but he did not say a word. I hobbled past him; he following through the long passage to the garden door. There I paused—tired out. John Halifax took gentle hold of my shoulder.
"I think, if you did not mind, I'm sure I could carry you. I carried a meal-sack once, weighing eight stone."
I burst out laughing, which maybe was what he wanted, and forthwith consented to assume the place of the meal-sack. He took me on his back—-what a strong fellow he was!—and fairly trotted with me down the garden walk. We were both very merry; and though I was his senior I seemed with him, out of my great weakness and infirmity, to feel almost like a child.
"Please to take me to that clematis arbour; it looks over the Avon. Now, how do you like our garden?"
"It's a nice place."
He did not go into ecstasies, as I had half expected; but gazed about him observantly, while a quiet, intense satisfaction grew and diffused itself over his whole countenance.
"It's a VERY nice place."
Certainly it was. A large square, chiefly grass, level as a bowling-green, with borders round. Beyond, divided by a low hedge, was the kitchen and fruit garden—my father's pride, as this old-fashioned pleasaunce was mine. When, years ago, I was too weak to walk, I knew, by crawling, every inch of the soft, green, mossy, daisy-patterned carpet, bounded by its broad gravel walk; and above that, apparently shut in as with an impassable barrier from the outer world, by a three-sided fence, the high wall, the yew-hedge, and the river.
John Halifax's comprehensive gaze seemed to take in all.
"Have you lived here long?" he asked me.
"Ever since I was born."
"Ah!—well, it's a nice place," he repeated, somewhat sadly. "This grass plot is very even—thirty yards square, I should guess. I'd get up and pace it; only I'm rather tired."
"Are you? Yet you would carry—"
"Oh—that's nothing. I've often walked farther than to-day. But still it's a good step across the country since morning."
"How far have you come?"
"From the foot of those hills—I forget what they call them—over there. I have seen bigger ones—but they're steep enough—bleak and cold, too, especially when one is lying out among the sheep. At a distance they look pleasant. This is a very pretty view."
Ay, so I had always thought it; more so than ever now, when I had some one to say to how "very pretty" it was. Let me describe it— this first landscape, the sole picture of my boyish days, and vivid as all such pictures are.
At the end of the arbour the wall which enclosed us on the riverward side was cut down—my father had done it at my asking—so as to make a seat, something after the fashion of Queen Mary's seat at Stirling, of which I had read. Thence, one could see a goodly sweep of country. First, close below, flowed the Avon—Shakspeare's Avon— here a narrow, sluggish stream, but capable, as we at Norton Bury sometimes knew to our cost, of being roused into fierceness and foam. Now it slipped on quietly enough, contenting itself with turning a flour-mill hard by, the lazy whirr of which made a sleepy, incessant monotone which I was fond of hearing.
From the opposite bank stretched a wide green level, called the Ham— dotted with pasturing cattle of all sorts. Beyond it was a second river, forming an arch of a circle round the verdant flat. But the stream itself lay so low as to be invisible from where we sat; you could only trace the line of its course by the small white sails that glided in and out, oddly enough, from behind clumps of trees, and across meadow lands.
They attracted John's attention. "Those can't be boats, surely. Is there water there?"
"To be sure, or you would not see the sails. It is the Severn; though at this distance you can't perceive it; yet it is deep enough too, as you may see by the boats it carries. You would hardly believe so, to look at it here—but I believe it gets broader and broader, and turns out a noble river by the time it reaches the King's Roads, and forms the Bristol Channel."
"I've seen that!" cried John, with a bright look. "Ah, I like the Severn."
He stood gazing at it a good while, a new expression dawning in his eyes. Eyes in which then, for the first time, I watched a thought grow, and grow, till out of them was shining a beauty absolutely divine.
All of a sudden the Abbey chimes burst out, and made the lad start.
"Turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London," I sang to the bells; and then it seemed such a commonplace history, and such a very low degree of honour to arrive at, that I was really glad I had forgotten to tell John the story. I merely showed him where, beyond our garden wall, and in the invisible high road that interposed, rose up the grim old Abbey tower.
"Probably this garden belonged to the Abbey in ancient time—our orchard is so fine. The monks may have planted it; they liked fruit, those old fellows."
"Oh! did they!" He evidently did not quite comprehend, but was trying, without asking, to find out what I referred to. I was almost ashamed, lest he might think I wanted to show off my superior knowledge.
"The monks were parsons, John, you know. Very good men, I dare say, but rather idle."
"Oh, indeed. Do you think they planted that yew hedge?" And he went to examine it.
Now, far and near, our yew-hedge was noted. There was not its like in the whole country. It was about fifteen feet high, and as many thick. Century after century of growth, with careful clipping and training, had compacted it into a massive green barrier, as close and impervious as a wall.
John poked in and about it—peering through every interstice—leaning his breast against the solid depth of branches; but their close shield resisted all his strength.
At last he came back to me, his face glowing with the vain efforts he had made.
"What were you about? Did you want to get through?"
"I wanted just to see if it were possible."
I shook my head. "What would you do, John, if you were shut up here, and had to get over the yew-hedge? You could not climb it?"
"I know that, and, therefore, should not waste time in trying."
"Would you give up, then?"
He smiled—there was no "giving up" in that smile of his. "I'll tell you what I'd do—I'd begin and break it, twig by twig, till I forced my way through, and got out safe at the other side."
"Well done, lad!—but if it's all the same to thee, I would rather thee did not try that experiment upon MY hedge at present."
My father had come behind, and overheard us, unobserved. We were both somewhat confounded, though a grim kindliness of aspect showed that he was not displeased—nay, even amused.
"Is that thy usual fashion of getting over a difficulty, friend— what's thy name?"
I supplied the answer. The minute Abel Fletcher appeared, John seemed to lose all his boyish fun, and go back to that premature gravity and hardness of demeanour which I supposed his harsh experience of the world and of men had necessarily taught him; but which was very sad to see in a lad so young.
My father sat down beside me on the bench—pushed aside an intrusive branch of clematis—finally, because it would come back and tickle his bald pate, broke it off, and threw it into the river: then, leaning on his stick with both hands, eyed John Halifax sharply, all over, from top to toe.
"Didn't thee say thee wanted work? It looks rather like it."
His glance upon the shabby clothes made the boy colour violently.
"Oh, thee need'st not be ashamed; better men than thee have been in rags. Hast thee any money?"
"The groat you gave, that is, paid me; I never take what I don't earn," said the lad, sticking a hand in either poor empty pocket.
"Don't be afraid—I was not going to give thee anything—except, maybe—Would thee like some work?"
I hardly know which was the most grateful cry.
Abel Fletcher looked surprised, but on the whole not ill-pleased. Putting on and pulling down his broad-brimmed hat, he sat meditatively for a minute or so; making circles in the gravel walk with the end of his stick. People said—nay, Jael herself, once, in a passion, had thrown the fact at me—that the wealthy Friend himself had come to Norton Bury without a shilling in his pocket.
"Well, what work canst thee do, lad?"
"Anything," was the eager answer.
"Anything generally means nothing," sharply said my father; "what hast thee been at all this year?—The truth, mind!"
John's eyes flashed, but a look from mine seemed to set him right again. He said quietly and respectfully, "Let me think a minute, and I'll tell you. All spring I was at a farmer's, riding the plough-horses, hoeing turnips; then I went up the hills with some sheep: in June I tried hay-making, and caught a fever—you needn't start, sir, I've been well these six weeks, or I wouldn't have come near your son—then—"
"That will do, lad—I'm satisfied."
"Thank you, sir."
"Thee need not say 'sir'—it is folly. I am Abel Fletcher." For my father retained scrupulously the Friend's mode of speech, though he was practically but a lax member of the Society, and had married out of its pale. In this announcement of his plain name appeared, I fancy, more pride than humility.
"Very well, I will remember," answered the boy fearlessly, though with an amused twist of his mouth, speedily restrained. "And now, Abel Fletcher, I shall be willing and thankful for any work you can give me."
"We'll see about it."
I looked gratefully and hopefully at my father—but his next words rather modified my pleasure.
"Phineas, one of my men at the tan-yard has gone and 'listed this day—left an honest livelihood to be a paid cut-throat. Now, if I could get a lad—one too young to be caught hold of at every pot-house by that man of blood, the recruiting sergeant—Dost thee think this lad is fit to take the place?"
"Whose place, father?"
I was dumb-foundered! I had occasionally seen the said Bill Watkins, whose business it was to collect the skins which my father had bought from the farmers round about. A distinct vision presented itself to me of Bill and his cart, from which dangled the sanguinary exuviae of defunct animals, while in front the said Bill sat enthroned, dirty-clad, and dirty-handed, with his pipe in his mouth. The idea of John Halifax in such a position was not agreeable.
He read deprecation in my looks—alas! he knew too well how I disliked the tan-yard and all belonging to it. "Thee'rt a fool, and the lad's another. He may go about his business for me."
"But, father, isn't there anything else?"
"I have nothing else, or if I had I wouldn't give it. He that will not work neither shall he eat."
"I will work," said John, sturdily—he had listened, scarcely comprehending, to my father and me. "I don't care what it is, if only it's honest work."
Abel Fletcher was mollified. He turned his back on me—but that I little minded—and addressed himself solely to John Halifax.
"Canst thee drive?"
"That I can!" and his eyes brightened with boyish delight.
"Tut! it's only a cart—the cart with the skins. Dost thee know anything of tanning?"
"No, but I can learn."
"Hey, not so fast! still, better be fast than slow. In the meantime, thee can drive the cart."
"Thank you, sir—Abel Fletcher, I mean—I'll do it well. That is, as well as I can."
"And mind! no stopping on the road. No drinking, to find the king's cursed shilling at the bottom of the glass, like poor Bill, for thy mother to come crying and pestering. Thee hasn't got one, eh? So much the better, all women are born fools, especially mothers."
"Sir!" The lad's face was all crimson and quivering; his voice choked; it was with difficulty he smothered down a burst of tears. Perhaps this self-control was more moving than if he had wept—at least, it answered better with my father.
After a few minutes more, during which his stick had made a little grave in the middle of the walk, and buried something there—I think something besides the pebble—Abel Fletcher said, not unkindly:
"Well, I'll take thee; though it isn't often I take a lad without a character of some sort—I suppose thee hast none."
"None," was the answer, while the straightforward, steady gaze which accompanied it unconsciously contradicted the statement; his own honest face was the lad's best witness—at all events I thought so.
"'Tis done then," said my father, concluding the business more quickly than I had ever before known his cautious temper settle even such a seemingly trifling matter. I say SEEMINGLY. How blindly we talk when we talk of "trifles."
Carelessly rising, he, from some kindly impulse, or else to mark the closing of the bargain, shook the boy's hand, and left in it a shilling.
"What is this for?"
"To show I have hired thee as my servant."
"Servant!" John repeated hastily, and rather proudly. "Oh yes, I understand—well, I will try and serve you well."
My father did not notice that manly, self-dependent smile. He was too busy calculating how many more of those said shillings would be a fair equivalent for such labour as a lad, ever so much the junior of Bill Watkins, could supply. After some cogitation he hit upon the right sum. I forget how much—be sure it was not over much; for money was scarce enough in this war-time; and besides, there was a belief afloat, so widely that it tainted even my worthy father, that plenty was not good for the working-classes; they required to be kept low.
Having settled the question of wages, which John Halifax did not debate at all, my father left us, but turned back when half-way across the green-turfed square.
"Thee said thee had no money; there's a week in advance, my son being witness I pay it thee; and I can pay thee a shilling less every Saturday till we get straight."
"Very well, sir; good afternoon, and thank you."
John took off his cap as he spoke—Abel Fletcher, involuntarily almost, touched his hat in return of the salutation. Then he walked away, and we had the garden all to ourselves—we, Jonathan and his new-found David.
I did not "fall upon his neck," like the princely Hebrew, to whom I have likened myself, but whom, alas! I resembled in nothing save my loving. But I grasped his hand, for the first time, and looking up at him, as he stood thoughtfully by me, whispered, "that I was very glad."
"Thank you—so am I," said he, in a low tone. Then all his old manner returned; he threw his battered cap high up in the air, and shouted out, "Hurrah!"—a thorough boy.
And I, in my poor, quavering voice, shouted too.