John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter IX
"Well done, Phineas—to walk round the garden without once resting! now I call that grand, after an individual has been ill a month. However, you must calm your superabundant energies, and be quiet."
I was not unwilling, for I still felt very weak. But sickness did not now take that heavy, overpowering grip of me, mind and body, that it once used to do. It never did when John was by. He gave me strength, mentally and physically. He was life and health to me, with his brave cheerfulness—his way of turning all minor troubles into pleasantries, till they seemed to break and vanish away, sparkling, like the foam on the top of the wave. Yet, all the while one knew well that he could meet any great evil as gallantly as a good ship meets a heavy sea—breasting it, plunging through it, or riding over it, as only a good ship can.
When I recovered—just a month after the bread-riot, and that month was a great triumph to John's kind care—I felt that if I always had him beside me I should never be ill any more; I said as much, in a laughing sort of way.
"Very well; I shall keep you to that bargain. Now, sit down; listen to the newspaper, and improve your mind as to what the world is doing. It ought to be doing something, with the new century it began this year. Did it not seem very odd at first to have to write '1800'?"
"John, what a capital hand you write now!"
"Do I! That's somebody's credit. Do you remember my first lesson on the top of the Mythe?"
"I wonder what has become of those two gentlemen?"
"Oh! did you never hear? Young Mr. Brithwood is the 'squire now. He married, last month, Lady Somebody Something, a fine lady from abroad."
"And Mr. March—what of him?"
"I haven't the least idea. Come now, shall I read the paper?"
He read well, and I liked to listen to him. It was, I remember, something about "the spacious new quadrangles, to be called Russell and Tavistock Squares, with elegantly laid out nursery-grounds adjoining."
"It must be a fine place, London."
"Ay; I should like to see it. Your father says, perhaps he shall have to send me, this winter, on business—won't that be fine? If only you would go too."
I shook my head. I had the strongest disinclination to stir from my quiet home, which now held within it, or about it, all I wished for and all I loved. It seemed as if any change must be to something worse.
"Nevertheless, you must have a change. Doctor Jessop insists upon it. Here have I been beating up and down the country for a week past—'Adventures in Search of a Country Residence'—and, do you know, I think I've found one at last. Shouldn't you like to hear about it?"
I assented, to please him.
"Such a nice, nice place, on the slope of Enderley Hill. A cottage— Rose Cottage—for it's all in a bush of cluster-roses, up to the very roof."
"Where is Enderley?"
"Did you never hear of Enderley Flat, the highest tableland in England? Such a fresh, free, breezy spot—how the wind sweeps over it! I can feel it in my face still."
And even the description was refreshing, this heavy, sultry day, with not a breath of air moving across the level valley.
"Shouldn't you like to live on a hill-side, to be at the top of everything, overlooking everything? Well, that's Enderley: the village lies just under the brow of the Flat."
"Is there a village?"
"A dozen cottages or so, at each door of which half-a-dozen white little heads and a dozen round eyes appeared staring at me. But oh, the blessed quiet and solitude of the place! No fights in filthy alleys! no tan-yards—I mean"—he added, correcting himself—"it's a thorough country spot; and I like the country better than the town."
"Do you, still? Would you really like to take to the 'shepherd's life and state,' upon which my namesake here is so eloquent? Let us see what he says."
And from the handful of books that usually lay strewn about wherever we two sat, I took up one he had lately got, with no small pains I was sure, and had had bound in its own proper colour, and presented it to me—"The Purple Island," and "Sicelides," of Phineas Fletcher. People seldom read this wise, tender, and sweet-voiced old fellow now; so I will even copy the verses I found for John to read.
"Here is the place. Thyrsis is just ending his 'broken lay.'
'Lest that the stealing night his later song might stay—'"
"Stop a minute," interrupted John. "Apropos of 'stealing night,' the sun is already down below the yew-hedge. Are you cold?"
"Not a bit of it."
"Then we'll begin:—
'Thrice, oh, thrice happy, shepherd's life and state:
When courts are happiness, unhappy pawns!'
That's not clear," said John, laying down the book. "Now I do like poetry to be intelligible. A poet ought to see things more widely, and express them more vividly, than ordinary folk."
"Don't you perceive—he means the pawns on the chess-board—the common people."
"Phineas, don't say the common people—I'm a common person myself. But to continue:—
'His cottage low, and safely humble gate,
Shuts out proud Fortune, with her scorns and fawns:
No feared treason breaks his quiet sleep.
Singing all day, his flocks he learns to keep,
Himself as innocent as are his quiet sheep.'
(Not many sheep at Enderley, I fancy; the Flat chiefly abounds in donkeys. Well—)
'No Serian worms he knows, that with their thread,
Drew out their silken lives—nor silken pride—'
Which reminds me that—"
"David, how can you make me laugh at our reverend ancestor in this way? I'm ashamed of you."
"Only let me tell you this one fact—very interesting, you'll allow— that I saw a silken gown hanging up in the kitchen at Rose Cottage. Now, though Mrs. Tod is a decent, comely woman, I don't think it belonged to her."
"She may have lodgers."
"I think she said she had—an old gentleman—but HE wouldn't wear a silken gown."
"His wife might. Now, do go on reading."
"Certainly; I only wish to draw a parallel between Thyrsis and ourselves in our future summer life at Enderley. So the old gentleman's wife may appropriate the 'silken pride,' while we emulate the shepherd.
'His lambs' warm fleece well fits his little need—'
I wear a tolerably good coat now, don't I, Phineas?"
"You are incorrigible."
Yet, through all his fun, I detected a certain under-tone of seriousness, observable in him ever since my father's declaration of his intentions concerning him, had, so to speak, settled John's future career. He seemed aware of some crisis in his life, arrived or impending, which disturbed the generally even balance of his temperament.
"Nay, I'll be serious;" and passing over the unfinished verse, with another or two following, he began afresh, in a new place, and in an altogether changed tone.
"'His certain life, that never can deceive him,
Is full of thousand sweets and rich content;
The smooth-leaved beeches in the field receive him
With coolest shades till noon-tide's rage is spent;
His life is neither tost on boisterous seas
Of troublous worlds, nor lost in slothful ease.
Pleased and full blest he lives, when he his God can please.
'His bed of wool yields safe and quiet sleeps,
While by his side his faithful spouse hath place;
His little son into his bosom creeps,
The lively image of his father's face;
Never his humble house or state torment him,
Less he could like, if less his God had sent him;
And when he dies, green turfs with grassy tomb content him.'"
John ceased. He was a good reader—but I had never heard him read like this before. Ending, one missed it like the breaking of music, or like the inner voice of one's own heart talking when nobody is by.
"David," I said, after a pause, "what are you thinking about?"
He started, with his old quick blush—"Oh, nothing—No, that's not quite true. I was thinking that, so far as happiness goes, this 'shepherd's' is my ideal of a happy life—ay, down to the 'grassy tomb.'"
"Your fancy leaps at once to the grassy tomb; but the shepherd enjoyed a few intermediate stages of felicity before that."
"I was thinking of those likewise."
"Then you do intend some day to have a 'faithful spouse and a little son'?"
"I hope so—God willing."
It may seem strange, but this was the first time our conversation had ever wandered in a similar direction. Though he was twenty and I twenty-two—to us both—and I thank Heaven that we could both look up in the face of Heaven and say so!—to us both, the follies and wickednesses of youth were, if not equally unknown, equally and alike hateful. Many may doubt, or smile at the fact; but I state it now, in my old age, with honour and pride, that we two young men that day trembled on the subject of love as shyly, as reverently, as delicately, as any two young maidens of innocent sixteen.
After John's serious "God willing," there was a good long silence. Afterwards, I said—
"Then you propose to marry?"
"Certainly! as soon as I can."
"Have you ever—" and, while speaking, I watched him narrowly, for a sudden possibility flashed across my mind—"Have you ever seen any one whom you would like for your wife?"
I was satisfied. John's single "No" was as conclusive as a score of asseverations.
We said no more; but after one of those pauses of conversation which were habitual to us—John used to say, that the true test of friendship was to be able to sit or walk together for a whole hour in perfect silence, without wearying of one another's company—we again began talking about Enderley.
I soon found, that in this plan, my part was simply acquiescence; my father and John had already arranged it all. I was to be in charge of the latter; nothing could induce Abel Fletcher to leave, even for a day, his house, his garden, and his tan-yard. We two young men were to set up for a month or two our bachelor establishment at Mrs. Tod's: John riding thrice a-week over to Norton Bury to bring news of me, and to fulfil his duties at the tan-yard. One could see plain enough—and very grateful to me was the sight—that whether or no Abel Fletcher acknowledged it, his right hand in all his business affairs was the lad John Halifax.
On a lovely August day we started for Enderley. It was about eight miles off, on a hilly, cross-country road. We lumbered slowly along in our post-chaise; I leaning back, enjoying the fresh air, the changing views, and chiefly to see how intensely John enjoyed them too.
He looked extremely well to-day—handsome, I was about to write; but John was never, even in his youth, "handsome." Nay, I have heard people call him "plain"; but that was not true. His face had that charm, perhaps the greatest, certainly the most lasting, either in women or men—of infinite variety. You were always finding out something—an expression strange as tender, or the track of a swift, brilliant thought, or an indication of feeling different from, perhaps deeper than, anything which appeared before. When you believed you had learnt it line by line it would startle you by a phase quite new, and beautiful as new. For it was not one of your impassive faces, whose owners count it pride to harden into a mass of stone those lineaments which nature made as the flesh and blood representation of the man's soul. True, it had its reticences, its sacred disguises, its noble powers of silence and self-control. It was a fair-written, open book; only, to read it clearly, you must come from its own country, and understand the same language.
For the rest, John was decidedly like the "David" whose name I still gave him now and then—"a goodly person;" tall, well-built, and strong. "The glory of a young man is his strength;" and so I used often to think, when I looked at him. He always dressed with extreme simplicity; generally in grey, he was fond of grey; and in something of our Quaker fashion. On this day, I remember, I noticed an especial carefulness of attire, at his age neither unnatural nor unbecoming. His well-fitting coat and long-flapped vest, garnished with the snowiest of lawn frills and ruffles; his knee-breeches, black silk hose, and shoes adorned with the largest and brightest of steel buckles, made up a costume, which, quaint as it would now appear, still is, to my mind, the most suitable and graceful that a young man can wear. I never see any young men now who come at all near the picture which still remains in my mind's eye of John Halifax as he looked that day.
Once, with the natural sensitiveness of youth, especially of youth that has struggled up through so many opposing circumstances as his had done, he noticed my glance.
"Anything amiss about me, Phineas? You see I am not much used to holidays and holiday clothes."
"I have nothing to say against either you or your clothes," replied I, smiling.
"That's all right; I beg to state, it is entirely in honour of you and of Enderley that I have slipped off my tan-yard husk, and put on the gentleman."
"You couldn't do that, John. You couldn't put on what you were born with."
He laughed—but I think he was pleased.
We had now come into a hilly region. John leaped out and gained the top of the steep road long before the post-chaise did. I watched him standing, balancing in his hands the riding-whip which had replaced the everlasting rose-switch, or willow-wand, of his boyhood. His figure was outlined sharply against the sky, his head thrown backward a little, as he gazed, evidently with the keenest zest, on the breezy flat before him. His hair—a little darker than it used to be, but of the true Saxon colour still, and curly as ever—was blown about by the wind, under his broad hat. His whole appearance was full of life, health, energy, and enjoyment.
I thought any father might have been proud of such a son, any sister of such a brother, any young girl of such a lover. Ay, that last tie, the only one of the three that was possible to him—I wondered how long it would be before times changed, and I ceased to be the only one who was proud of him.
We drove on a little further, and came to the chief landmark of the high moorland—a quaint hostelry, called the "Bear." Bruin swung aloft pole in hand, brown and fierce, on an old-fashioned sign, as he and his progenitors had probably swung for two centuries or more.
"Is this Enderley?" I asked.
"Not quite, but near it. You never saw the sea? Well, from this point I can show you something very like it. Do you see that gleaming bit in the landscape far away? That's water—that's our very own Severn, swelled to an estuary. But you must imagine the estuary—you can only get that tiny peep of water, glittering like a great diamond that some young Titaness has flung out of her necklace down among the hills."
"David, you are actually growing poetical."
"Am I? Well, I do feel rather strange to-day—crazy like; a high wind always sends me half crazy with delight. Did you ever feel such a breeze? And there's something so gloriously free in this high level common—as flat as if my Titaness had found a little Mont Blanc, and amused herself with patting it down like a dough-cake."
"A very culinary goddess."
"Yes! but a goddess after all. And her dough-cake, her mushroom, her flattened Mont Blanc, is very fine. What a broad green sweep— nothing but sky and common, common and sky. This is Enderley Flat. We shall come to its edge soon, where it drops abruptly into such a pretty valley. There, look down—that's the church. We are on a level with the top of its tower. Take care, my lad,"—to the post-boy, who was crossing with difficulty the literally "pathless waste."—"Don't lurch us into the quarry-pits, or topple us at once down the slope, where we shall roll over and over—facilis descensus Averni—and lodge in Mrs. Tod's garden hedge."
"Mrs. Tod would feel flattered if she knew Latin. You don't look upon our future habitation as a sort of Avernus?"
John laughed merrily. "No, as I told you before, I like Enderley Hill. I can't tell why, but I like it. It seems as if I had known the place before. I feel as if we were going to have great happiness here."
And as he spoke, his unwonted buoyancy softened into a quietness of manner more befitting that word "happiness." Strange word! hardly in my vocabulary. Yet, when he uttered it, I seemed to understand it and to be content.
We wound a little way down the slope, and came in front of Rose Cottage. It was well named. I never in my life had seen such a bush of bloom. They hung in clusters—those roses—a dozen in a group; pressing their pinky cheeks together in a mass of family fragrance, pushing in at the parlour window, climbing up even to the very attic. There was a yellow jasmine over the porch at one front door, and a woodbine at the other; the cottage had two entrances, each distinct. But the general impression it gave, both as to sight and scent, was of roses—nothing but roses.
"How are you, Mrs. Tod?" as a comely, middle-aged body appeared at the right-hand doorway, dressed sprucely in one of those things Jael called a "coat and jacket," likewise a red calamanco petticoat tucked up at the pocket-holes.
"I be pretty fair, sir—be you the same? The children ha' not forgotten you—you see, Mr. Halifax."
"So much the better!" and he patted two or three little white heads, and tossed the youngest high up in the air. It looked very strange to see John with a child in his arms.
"Don't 'ee make more noise than 'ee can help, my lad," the good woman said to our post-boy, "because, sir, the sick gentleman bean't so well again to-day."
"I am sorry for it. We would not have driven up to the door had we known. Which is his room?"
Mrs. Tod pointed to a window—not on our side of the house, but the other. A hand was just closing the casement and pulling down the blind—a hand which, in the momentary glimpse we had of it, seemed less like a man's than a woman's.
When we were settled in the parlour John noticed this fact.
"It was the wife, most likely. Poor thing! how hard to be shut up in-doors on such a summer evening as this!"
It did seem a sad sight—that closed window, outside which was the fresh, balmy air, the sunset, and the roses.
"And how do you like Enderley?" asked John, when, tea being over, I lay and rested, while he sat leaning his elbow on the window-sill, and his cheek against a bunch of those ever-intruding, inquisitive roses.
"It is very, very pretty, and so comfortable—almost like home."
"I feel as if it were home," John said, half to himself. "Do you know, I can hardly believe that I have only seen this place once before; it is so familiar. I seem to know quite well that slope of common before the door, with its black dots of furze-bushes. And that wood below; what a clear line its top makes against the yellow sky! There, that high ground to the right; it's all dusky now, but it is such a view by daylight. And between it and Enderley is the prettiest valley, where the road slopes down just under those chestnut-trees."
"How well you seem to know the place already."
"As I tell you, I like it. I hardly ever felt so content before. We will have a happy time, Phineas."
"Oh, yes!" How—even if I had felt differently—could I say anything but "yes" to him then?
I lay until it grew quite dark, and I could only see a dim shape sitting at the window, instead of John's known face; then I bade him good-night, and retired. Directly afterwards, I heard him, as I knew he would, dash out of the house, and away up the Flat. In the deep quiet of this lonely spot I could distinguish, for several minutes, the diminishing sound of his footsteps along the loose, stony road; and the notes, clear and shrill, of his whistling. I think it was "Sally in our Alley," or some such pleasant old tune. At last it faded far off, and I fell into sleep and dreams.