John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter X
"That Mrs. Tod is an extraordinary woman. I repeat it—a most extraordinary woman."
And leaning his elbows on the table, from which the said extraordinary woman had just removed breakfast, John looked over to me with his own merry brown eyes.
"She has a house full of children, yet manages to keep it quiet and her own temper likewise. Astonishing patience! However people attain it who have to do with brats, I can't imagine."
"John! that's mean hypocrisy. I saw you myself half-an-hour ago holding the eldest Tod boy on a refractory donkey, and laughing till you could hardly stand."
"Did I?" said he, half-ashamed. "Well, it was only to keep the little scamp from making a noise under the windows. And that reminds me of another remarkable virtue in Mrs. Tod—she can hold her tongue."
"In two whole days she has not communicated to us a single fact concerning our neighbours on the other half of Rose Cottage."
"Did you want to know?"
John laughingly denied; then allowed that he always had a certain pleasure in eliciting information on men and things.
"The wife being indicated, I suppose, by that very complimentary word 'thing.' But what possible interest can you have in either the old gentleman or the old lady?"
"Stop, Phineas: you have a bad habit of jumping at conclusions. And in our great dearth of occupation here, I think it might be all the better for you to take a little interest in your neighbours. So I've a great mind to indulge you with an important idea, suggestion, discovery. Harkee, friend!"—and he put on an air of sentimental mystery, not a bad copy of our old acquaintance, Mr. Charles—"what if the—the individual should not be an old lady at all?"
"What! The old gentleman's wife?"
"Wife? Ahem! more jumping at conclusions. No; let us keep on the safe side, and call her the—individual. In short; the owner of that grey silk gown I saw hanging up in the kitchen. I've seen it again."
"The grey gown! when and where?"
"This morning, early. I walked after it across the Flat, a good way behind, though; for I thought that it—well, let me say SHE—might not like to be watched or followed. She was trotting along very fast, and she carried a little basket—I fancy a basket of eggs."
"Capital housekeeper! excellent wife!"
"Once more—I have my doubts on that latter fact. She walked a great deal quicker and merrier than any wife ought to walk when her husband is ill!"
I could not help laughing at John's original notions of conjugal duty.
"Besides, Mrs. Tod always calls her invalid 'the old gentleman!' and I don't believe this was an elderly lady."
"Nay, old men do sometimes marry young women."
"Yes, but it is always a pity; and sometimes not quite right. No,"— and I was amused to see how gravely and doggedly John kept to his point—"though this lady did not look like a sylph or a wood-nymph— being neither very small nor very slight, and having a comfortable woollen cloak and hood over the grey silk gown—still, I don't believe she's an old woman, or married either."
"How can you possibly tell? Did you see her face?"
"Of course not," he answered, rather indignantly. "I should not think it manly to chase a lady as a schoolboy does a butterfly, for the mere gratification of staring at her. I stayed on the top of the Flat till she had gone indoors."
"Into Rose Cottage?"
"She had, doubtless, gone to fetch new-laid eggs for her—I mean for the sick gentleman's breakfast. Kind soul!"
"You may jest, Phineas, but I think she is a kind soul. On her way home I saw her stop twice; once to speak to an old woman who was gathering sticks; and again, to scold a lad for thrashing a donkey."
"Did you hear her?"
"No; but I judge from the lad's penitent face as I passed him. I am sure she had been scolding him."
"Then she's not young, depend upon it. Your beautiful young creatures never scold."
"I'm not so sure of that," said John, meditatively. "For my part, I should rather not cheat myself, or be cheated after that manner. Perfection is impossible. Better see the young woman as she really is, bad and good together."
"The young woman! The fair divinity, you mean!"
"No;" shutting his mouth over the negative in his firm way—"I strongly object to divinities. How unpleasant it would be to woo an angel of perfection, and find her out at last to be only—only Mrs.— "
"Halifax," suggested I; at which he laughed, slightly colouring.
"But how woeful must be our dearth of subjects, when we talk such nonsense as this! What suggested it?"
"Your friend in the grey gown, I suppose."
"Requiescat in Pace! May she enjoy her eggs! And now I must go saddle the brown mare, and be off to Norton Bury. A lovely day for a ride. How I shall dash along!"
He rose up cheerily. It was like morning sunshine only to see his face. No morbid follies had ever tainted his healthy nature, whatsoever romance was there—and never was there a thoroughly noble nature without some romance in it. But it lay deep down, calm and unawakened. His heart was as light and free as air.
Stooping over my easy chair, he wheeled it to the window, in sight of the pleasant view.
"Now, Phineas, what more books do you want? You'll take a walk before dinner? You'll not be moping?"
No; why should I, who knew I had always, whether absent or present, the blessing, the infinite blessing, of being first in his thoughts and cares? Who, whether he expressed it or not—the best things never are expressed or expressible—knew by a thousand little daily acts like these, the depth and tenderness of his friendship, his brotherly love for me. As yet, I had it all. And God, who knows how little else I had, will pardon, if in my unspeakable thankfulness lurked a taint of selfish joy in my sole possession of such a priceless boon.
He lingered about, making me "all right," as he called it, and planning out my solitary day. With much merriment, too, for we were the gayest couple of young bachelors, when, as John said, "the duties of our responsible position" would allow.
"Responsible position! It's our good landlady who ought to talk about that. With two sets of lodgers, a husband, and an indefinite number of children. There's one of them got into mischief at last. Hark!"
"It's Jack, my namesake. Bless my life! I knew he would come to grief with that donkey. Hey, lad! never mind. Get up again."
But soon he perceived that the accident was more serious; and disappeared like a shot, leaping out through the open window. The next minute I saw him carrying in the unlucky Jack, who was bleeding from a cut in the forehead, and screaming vociferously.
"Don't be frightened, Mrs. Tod; it is very slight—I saw it done. Jack, my lad!—be a man, and never mind it. Don't scream so; you alarm your mother."
But as soon as the good woman was satisfied that there was no real cause for terror, hers changed into hearty wrath against Jack for his carelessness, and for giving so much trouble to the gentleman.
"But he be always getting into mischief, sir—that boy. Three months back, the very day Mr. March came, he got playing with the carriage-horse, and it kicked him and broke his arm. A deal he cares: he be just as sprack as ever. As I say to Tod—it bean't no use fretting over that boy."
"Have patience," answered John, who had again carried the unfortunate young scapegrace from our parlour into Mrs. Tod's kitchen—the centre room of the cottage; and was trying to divert the torrent of maternal indignation, while he helped her to plaster up the still ugly looking wound. "Come, forgive the lad. He will be more sorry afterwards than if you had punished him."
"Do'ee think so?" said the woman, as, struck either by the words, the manner, or the tone, she looked up straight at him. "Do'ee really think so, Mr. Halifax?"
"I am sure of it. Nothing makes one so good as being forgiven when one has been naughty. Isn't it so, Jack, my namesake?"
"Jack ought to be proud o' that, sir," said the mother, respectfully; "and there's some sense in what you say, too. You talk like my man does, o' Sundays. Tod be a Scotchman, Mr. Halifax; and they're good folks, the Scotch, and read their Bibles hard. There's a deal about forgiving in the Bible; isn't there, sir?"
"Exactly," John answered, smiling. "And so, Jack, you're safe this time; only you must not disobey your mother again, for the sake of donkeys or anything else."
"No, sir—thank'ee, sir," sobbed Jack, humbly. "You be a gentleman— Mr. March bean't—he said it served me right for getting under his horses."
"Hold thy tongue!" said Jack's mother, sharply; for the latch of the opposite door was just then lifted, and a lady stood there.
"Mrs. Tod; my father says—"
Seeing strangers, the lady paused. At the sound of her voice—a pleasant voice, though somewhat quick and decided in tone—John and I both involuntarily turned. We felt awkward! doubtful whether to stay or retire abruptly. She saved us the choice.
"Mrs. Tod, my father will take his soup at eleven. You will remember?"
"Yes, Miss March."
Upon which, Miss March shut the door at once, and vanished.
She wore a grey silken gown. I glanced at John, but he did not see me, his eyes were fixed on the door, which had disclosed and concealed the momentary picture. Its momentariness impressed it the more vividly on my memory—I have it there still.
A girl, in early but not precocious maturity, rather tall, of a figure built more for activity and energy than the mere fragility of sylph-like grace: dark-complexioned, dark-eyed, dark-haired—the whole colouring being of that soft darkness of tone which gives a sense of something at once warm and tender, strong and womanly. Thorough woman she seemed—not a bit of the angel about her. Scarcely beautiful; and "pretty" would have been the very last word to have applied to her; but there was around her an atmosphere of freshness, health, and youth, pleasant as a breeze in spring.
For her attire, it was that notable grey silk gown—very simply made, with no fripperies or fandangos of any sort—reaching up to her throat and down to her wrists, where it had some kind of trimming of white fur, which made the skin beneath show exquisitely delicate.
"That is Miss March," said our landlady, when she had disappeared.
"Is it?" said John, removing his eyes from the shut door.
"She be very sensible-like, for a young body of seventeen; more sensible and pleasanter than her father, who is always ailing, and always grumbling. Poor gentleman!—most like he can't help it. But it be terrible hard for the daughter—bean't it, sir?"
"Very," said John. His laconism was extraordinary.
Still he kept standing by the kitchen-table, waiting till the last bandage had been sewn on Jack's cut forehead, and even some minutes after his protege had begun playing about as usual. It was I who had to suggest that we should not intrude in Mrs. Tod's kitchen any longer.
"No—certainly not. Come, Phineas. Mrs. Tod, I hope our presence did not inconvenience—the young lady?"
"Bless your heart, sir! nothing ever inconveniences she. There bean't a pleasanter young body alive. She'll often come into this kitchen—just as you did, gentlemen, and very happy to see you always," added Mrs. Tod, curtseying. "When Mr. March is asleep she'll come and sit for half an hour, talking to Tod and me; and playing with the baby—"
Here, probably at sound of its name, the individual alluded to set up, from its cradle in the corner, such a terrific squall, that we young men beat a precipitate retreat.
"So, John, your grey gown is discovered at last. She's young, certainly—but not exactly a beauty."
"I never said she was."
"A pleasant person, though; hearty, cheerful-looking, and strong. I can easily imagine her trotting over the common with her basket of eggs—chatting to the old woman, and scolding the naughty boy."
"Don't make fun of her. She must have a hard life with her old father."
Of course, seeing him take it up so seriously, I jested no more.
"By-the-by, did not the father's name strike you? MARCH—suppose it should turn out to be the very Mr. March you pulled out of Severn five years ago. What a romantic conjuncture of circumstances?"
"Nonsense," said John, quickly—more quickly than he usually spoke to me; then came back to wish me a kind goodbye. "Take care of yourself, old fellow. It will be nightfall before I am back from Norton Bury."
I watched him mount, and ride slowly down the bit of common—turning once to look back at Rose Cottage, ere he finally disappeared between the chestnut trees: a goodly sight—for he was an admirable horseman.
When he was gone, I, glancing lazily up at Mr. March's window, saw a hand, and I fancied a white-furred wrist, pulling down the blind. It amused me to think Miss March might possibly have been watching him likewise.
I spent the whole long day alone in the cottage parlour, chiefly meditating; though more than once friendly Mrs. Tod broke in upon my solitude. She treated me in a motherly, free-and-easy way: not half so deferentially as she treated John Halifax.
The sun had gone down over Nunnely Hill, behind the four tall Italian poplars, which stood on the border of our bit of wilderness—three together and one apart. They were our landmarks—and skymarks too— for the first sunbeam coming across the common struck their tops of a morning, and the broad western glimmer showed their forms distinctly until far in the night. They were just near enough for me to hear their faint rustling in windy weather; on calm days they stood up straight against the sky, like memorial columns. They were friends of mine—those four poplars; sometimes they almost seemed alive. We made acquaintance on this first night, when I sat watching for John; and we kept up the friendship ever afterwards.
It was nine o'clock before I heard the old mare's hoofs clattering up the road: joyfully I ran out.
David was not quite his youthful, gay self that night; not quite, as he expressed it, "the David of the sheep-folds." He was very tired, and had what he called "the tan-yard feeling," the oppression of business cares.
"Times are hard," said he, when we had finally shut out the starlight, and Mrs. Tod had lit candles, bade us good-night in her free, independent way, and "hoped Mr. Halifax had everything he wanted." She always seemed to consider him the head of our little menage.
"The times are very hard," repeated John, thoughtfully. "I don't see how your father can rightly be left with so many anxieties on his shoulders. I must manage to get to Norton Bury at least five days a week. You will have enough of solitude, I fear."
"And you will have little enough of the pleasant country life you planned, and which you seem so to delight in."
"Never mind—perhaps it's good for me. I have a life of hard work before me, and can't afford to get used to too much pleasure. But we'll make the most of every bit of time we have. How have you felt to-day? Strong?"
"Very strong. Now what would you like us to do tomorrow?"
"I want to show you the common in early morning—the view there is so lovely."
"Of Nature, or human nature?"
He half smiled, though only at my mischievousness. I could see it did not affect him in the least. "Nay, I know what you mean; but I had forgotten her, or, if not absolutely forgotten, she was not in my mind just then. We will go another way, as indeed I had intended: it might annoy the young lady, our meeting her again."
His grave, easy manner of treating and dismissing the subject was a tacit reproach to me. I let the matter drop; we had much more serious topics afloat than gossip about our neighbours.
At seven next morning we were out on the Flat.
"I'm not going to let you stand here in the dews, Phineas. Come a little farther on, to my terrace, as I call it. There's a panorama!"
It was indeed. All around the high flat a valley lay, like a moat, or as if some broad river had been dried up in its course, and, century after century, gradually converted into meadow, woodland, and town. For a little white town sat demurely at the bottom of the hollow, and a score or two of white cottages scattered themselves from this small nucleus of civilisation over the opposite bank of this imaginary river, which was now a lovely hill-side. Gorges, purple with shadow, yellow corn-fields, and dark clumps of woodland dressed this broad hill-side in many colours; its highest point, Nunnely Hill, forming the horizon where last night I had seen the sun go down, and which now was tinted with the tenderest western morning grey.
"Do you like this, Phineas? I do, very much. A dear, smiling, English valley, holding many a little nest of an English home. Fancy being patriarch over such a region, having the whole valley in one's hand, to do good to, or ill. You can't think what primitive people they are hereabouts—descendants from an old colony of Flemish cloth-weavers: they keep to the trade. Down in the valley—if one could see through the beech wood—is the grand support of the neighbourhood, a large cloth mill!"
"That's quite in your line, John;" and I saw his face brighten up as it had done when, as a boy, he had talked to me about his machinery. "What has become of that wonderful little loom you made?"
"Oh! I have it still. But this is such a fine cloth-mill!—I have been all over it. If the owner would put aside his old Flemish stolidity! I do believe he and his ancestors have gone on in the same way, and with almost the same machinery, ever since Queen Elizabeth's time. Now, just one or two of our modern improvements, such as—but I forget, you never could understand mechanics."
"You can, though. Explain clearly, and I'll try my best."
He did so, and so did I. I think he even managed to knock something of the matter into my stupid head, where it remained—for ten minutes! Much longer remained the impression of his energetic talk— his clear-headed way of putting before another what he understood so well himself. I marvelled how he had gained all his information.
"Oh! it's easy enough, when one has a natural propensity for catching hold of facts; and then, you know, I always had a weakness for machinery; I could stand for an hour watching a mill at work, especially if it's worked by a great water-wheel."
"Would you like to be a mill-owner?"
"Shouldn't I!"—with a sunshiny flash, which soon clouded over. "However, 'tis idle talking; one cannot choose one's calling—at least, very few can. After all, it isn't the trade that signifies— it's the man. I'm a tanner, and a capital tanner I intend to be. By-the-by, I wonder if Mrs. Tod, who talks so much about 'gentlefolk,' knows that latter fact about you and me?"
"I think not; I hope not. Oh, David! this one month at least let us get rid of the tan-yard."
For I hated it more than ever now, in our quiet, free, Arcadian life; the very thought of it was insupportable, not only for myself, but for John.
He gently blamed me, yet, I think, he involuntarily felt much as I did, if he would have allowed himself so to feel.
"Who would guess now that I who stand here, delighting myself in this fresh air and pleasant view, this dewy common, all thick with flowers—what a pretty blue cluster that is at your foot, Phineas!— who would guess that all yesterday I had been stirring up tan-pits, handling raw hides? Faugh! I wonder the little harebells don't sicken in these, my hands—such ugly hands, too!"
"Nonsense, John! they're not so bad, indeed; and if they were, what does it matter?"
"You are right; lad; it does not matter. They have done me good service, and will yet, though they were not made for carrying nosegays."
"There is somebody besides yourself plucking posies on the Flat. See, how large the figure looks against the sky. It might be your Titaness, John—
'Like Proserpina gathering flowers,
Herself the fairest—'
— no, not fairest; for I declare she looks very like your friend Grey-gown—I beg her pardon—Miss March."
"It is she," said John, so indifferently that I suspect that fact had presented itself to him for at least two minutes before I found it out.
"There's certainly a fatality about your meeting her."
"Not the least. She has this morning taken her walk in a different direction, as I did; and we both chanced again to hit upon the same," answered John, gravely and explanatorily. "Come away down the slope. We must not intrude upon a lady's enjoyments."
He carried me off, much against my will, for I had a great wish to see again that fresh young face, so earnest, cheerful, and good. Also, as I laboured in vain to convince my companion, the said face indicated an independent dignity which would doubtless make its owner perfectly indifferent whether her solitary walk were crossed by two gentlemen or two hundred.
John agreed to this; nevertheless, he was inexorable. And, since he was "a man of the world"—having, in his journeys up and down the country for my father, occasionally fallen into "polite" society—I yielded the point to him and submitted to his larger experience of good breeding.
However, Fate, kinder than he, took the knot of etiquette into her own hands, and broke it.
Close to the cottage door, our two paths converging, and probably our breakfast-hours likewise, brought us suddenly face to face with Miss March.
She saw us, and we had a distinct sight of her.
I was right: we and our contiguity were not of the smallest importance to Miss March. Her fresh morning roses did not deepen, nor her eyes droop, as she looked for a moment at us both—a quiet, maidenly look of mere observation. Of course no recognition passed; but there was a merry dimple beside her mouth, as if she quite well knew who we were, and owned to a little harmless feminine curiosity in observing us.
She had to pass our door, where stood Mrs. Tod and the baby. It stretched out its little arms to come to her, with that pretty, babyish gesture which I suppose no woman can resist. Miss March could not. She stopped, and began tossing up the child.
Truly, they made a pleasant picture, the two—she with her hooded cloak dropping off, showing her graceful shape, and her dark-brown hair, all gathered up in a mass of curls at the top of her head, as the fashion then was. As she stood, with her eyes sparkling, and the young blood flushing through her clear brunette cheeks, I was not sure whether I had not judged too hastily in calling her "no beauty."
Probably, by his look, John thought the same.
She stood right before our wicket-gate; but she had evidently quite forgotten us, so happy was she with Mrs. Tod's bonny boy, until the landlady made some remark about "letting the gentlemen by." Then, with a slight start, drawing her hood back over her head, the young lady stepped aside.
In passing her, John raised his eyes, as was natural enough. For me, I could hardly take mine from her, such a pleasant creature was she to behold. She half smiled—he bowed, which she returned, courteously, and we both went in-doors. I told him this was a good beginning of acquaintance with our neighbour.
"Not at all, no acqaintance; a mere civility between two people living under the same roof. It will never be more."
I am afraid John was disappointed at my "probably." I am afraid that when he stood at our window, contemplating the little group which filled up our wicket-gate, he missed some one out of the three— which, I suspect, was neither Mrs. Tod nor yet the baby.
"I like her face very much better now, David. Do you?"
It was a very curious fact, which I never noticed till afterwards, that though there had been some lapse of time before I hazarded this remark, we both intuitively supplied the noun to that indefinite personal pronoun.
"A good—nay, a noble face; though still, with those irregular features, I can't—really I can't—call her beautiful."
"She bowed with remarkable grace, too. I think, John, for the first time in our lives, we may say we have seen a LADY."
"Most certainly a lady."
"Nay, I only meant that, girl as she is, she is evidently accustomed to what is called 'society.' Which makes it the more likely that her father is the Mr. March who was cousin to the Brithwoods. An odd coincidence."
"A very odd coincidence."
After which brief reply John relapsed into taciturnity.
More than once that morning we recurred to the subject of our neighbours—that is, I did—but John was rather saturnine and uncommunicative. Nay, when, as Mrs. Tod was removing the breakfast, I ventured to ask her a harmless question or two—who Mr. March was, and where he came from?—I was abruptly reproved, the very minute our good landlady had shut the door, for my tendency to "gossip."
At which I only laughed, and reminded him that he had ingeniously scolded me after, not before, I had gained the desired information— namely, that Mr. March was a gentleman of independent property—that he had no friends hereabouts, and that he usually lived in Wales.
"He cannot be our Mr. March, then."
"No," said John, with an air of great relief.
I was amused to see how seriously he took such a trifle; ay, many a time that day I laughed at him for evincing such great sympathy over our neighbours, and especially—which was plain enough to see, though he doubtless believed he entirely disguised it—for that interest which a young man of twenty would naturally take in a very charming and personable young woman. Ay, naturally, as I said to myself, for I admired her too, extremely.
It seems strange now to call to mind that morning, and our light-hearted jests about Miss March. Strange that Destiny should often come thus, creeping like a child to our very doors; we hardly notice it, or send it away with a laugh; it comes so naturally, so simply, so accidentally, as it were, that we recognise it not. We cannot believe that the baby intruder is in reality the king of our fortunes; the ruler of our lives. But so it is continually; and since IT IS, it must be right.
We finished the morning by reading Shakspeare—Romeo and Juliet—at which the old folio seemed naturally to open. There is a time—a sweet time, too, though it does not last—when to every young mind the play of plays, the poem of poems, is Romeo and Juliet. We were at that phase now.
John read it all through to me—not for the first time either; and then, thinking I had fallen asleep, he sat with the book on his knee, gazing out of the open window.
It was a warm summer day—breathless, soundless—a day for quietness and dreams. Sometimes a bee came buzzing among the roses, in and away again, like a happy thought. Nothing else was stirring; not a single bird was to be seen or heard, except that now and then came a coo of the wood-pigeons among the beech-trees—a low, tender voice— reminding one of a mother's crooning over a cradled child; or of two true lovers standing clasped heart to heart, in the first embrace, which finds not, and needs not, a single word.
John sat listening. What was he thinking about? Why that strange quiver about his mouth?—why that wonderful new glow, that infinite depth of softness in his eyes?
I closed mine. He never knew I saw him. He thought I slept placidly through that half-hour; which seemed to him as brief as a minute. To me it was long—ah, so long! as I lay pondering with an intensity that was actual pain, on what must come some time, and, for all I knew, might even now be coming.