John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XI
A week slipped by. We had grown familiar with Enderley Hill—at least I had. As for John, he had little enough enjoyment of the pretty spot he had taken such a fancy to, being absent five days out of the seven; riding away when the morning sun had slid down to the boles of my four poplars, and never coming home till Venus peeped out over their heads at night. It was hard for him; but he bore the disappointment well.
With me one day went by just like another. In the mornings I crept out, climbed the hill behind Rose Cottage garden, and there lay a little under the verge of the Flat, in a sunny shelter, watching the ants running in and out of the numerous ant-hills there; or else I turned my observation to the short velvet herbage that grew everywhere hereabouts; for the common, so far from being barren, was a perfect sheet of greenest, softest turf, sowed with minute and rare flowers. Often a square foot of ground presented me with enough of beauty and variety in colour and form to criticise and contemplate for a full hour.
My human interests were not extensive. Sometimes the Enderley villagers, or the Tod children, who were a grade above these, and decidedly "respectable," would appear and have a game of play at the foot of the slope, their laughter rising up to where I lay. Or some old woman would come with her pails to the spring below, a curious and very old stone well, to which the cattle from the common often rushed down past me in bevies, and stood knee-deep, their mouths making glancing circles in the water as they drank.
Being out of doors almost all day, I saw very little of the inhabitants of our cottage. Once or twice a lady and gentleman passed, creeping at the foot of the slope so slowly, that I felt sure it must be Mr. March and his daughter. He was tall, with grey hair; I was not near enough to distinguish his features. She walked on the further side, supporting him with her arm. Her comfortable morning hood was put off, and she had on her head that ugly, stiff thing which ladies had lately taken to wearing, and which, Jael said, was called a "bonnet."
Except on these two occasions, I had no opportunity of making any observations on the manners and customs of our neighbours. Occasionally Mrs. Tod mentioned them in her social chatter, while laying the cloth; but it was always in the most cursory and trivial way, such as "Miss March having begged that the children might be kept quiet—Mrs. Tod hoped their noise didn't disturb ME? but Mr. March was such a very fidgety gentleman—so particular in his dress, too—Why, Miss March had to iron his cravats with her own hands. Besides, if there was a pin awry in her dress he did make such a fuss—and, really, such an active, busy young lady couldn't look always as if she came trim out of a band-box. Mr. March wanted so much waiting on, he seemed to fancy he still had his big house in Wales, and his seven servants."
Mrs. Tod conversed as if she took it for granted I was fully acquainted with all the prior history of her inmates, or any others that she mentioned—a habit peculiar to Enderley folk with strangers. It was generally rather convenient, and it saved much listening; but in this case, I would rather have had it broken through. Sometimes I felt strongly inclined to question her; but on consulting John, he gave his veto so decidedly against seeking out people's private affairs in such an illicit manner that I felt quite guilty, and began to doubt whether my sickly, useless, dreaming life, was not inclining me to curiosity, gossip, and other small vices which we are accustomed—I know not why—to insult the other sex by describing as "womanish."
As I have said, the two cottages were built distinct, so that we could have neither sound nor sight of our neighbours, save upon the neutral ground of Mrs. Tod's kitchen; where, however I might have felt inclined to venture, John's prohibition stopped me entirely.
Thus—save the two days when he was at home, when he put me on his mare's back, and led me far away, over common, and valley, and hill, for miles, only coming back at twilight—save those two blithe days, I spent the week in dignified solitude, and was very thankful for Sunday.
We determined to make it a long, lovely, country Sunday; so we began it at six a.m. John took me a new walk across the common, where—he said, in answer to my question—we were quite certain NOT to meet Miss March.
"Do you experimentalize on the subject, that you calculate her paths with such nicety? Pray, have you ever met her again, for I know you have been out most mornings?"
"Morning is the only time I have for walking, you know, Phineas."
"Ah, true! You have little pleasure at Enderley. I almost wish we could go home."
"Don't think of such a thing. It is doing you a world of good. Indeed, we must not, on any account, go home."
I know, and knew then, that his anxiety was in earnest; that whatever other thoughts might lie underneath, the sincere thought of me was the one uppermost in his mind.
"Well, we'll stay—that is, if you are happy, John."
"Thoroughly happy; I like the dashing rides to Norton Bury. Above all, I like coming back. The minute I begin to climb Enderley Hill, the tan-yard, and all belonging to it, drops off like an incubus, and I wake into free, beautiful life. Now, Phineas, confess; is not this common a lovely place, especially of a morning?"
"Ay," said I, smiling at his energy. "But you did not tell me whether you had met Miss March again."
"She has never once seen me."
"But you have seen her? Answer honestly."
"Why should I not?—Yes, I have seen her—once or twice or so—but never in any way that could annoy her."
"That explains why you have become so well acquainted with the direction of her walks?"
He coloured deeply. "I hope, Phineas, you do not think that—that in any way I should intrude on or offend a lady?"
"Nay, don't take it so seriously—indeed, I meant nothing of the kind. It would be quite natural if a young man like you did use some pains to look at such a 'cunning piece of Nature's handiwork' as that apple-cheeked girl of seventeen."
"Russet apple. She is brown, you know—a real 'nut-brown mayde,'" said John, recovering his gay humour. "Certainly, I like to look at her. I have seen many a face that was more good-looking—never one that looked half so good."
"Sententious that;" yet I could not smile—he spoke with such earnestness. Besides, it was the truth. I myself would have walked half-way across the common any day for a glance at Miss March. Why not he?
"But, John, you never told me that you had seen her again!"
"Because you never asked me."
We were silent. Silent until we had walked along the whole length of a Roman encampment, the most perfect of the various fosses that seamed the flat—tokens of many a battle fought on such capital battleground, and which John had this morning especially brought me to look at.
"Yes," I said at last, putting the ending affirmative to a long train of thought, which was certainly not about Roman encampments; "yes, it is quite natural that you should admire her. It would even be quite natural, and not unlikely either, if she—"
"Pshaw!" interrupted he. "What nonsense you are talking! Impossible!" and setting his foot sharply upon a loose stone, he kicked it down into the ditch, where probably many a dead Roman had fallen before it in ages gone by.
The impetuous gesture—the energetic "impossible," struck me less than the quickness with which his mind had worked out my unexpressed thought—carrying it to a greater length than I myself had ever contemplated.
"Truly, no possibilities or impossibilities of THAT sort ever entered my head. I only thought you might admire her, and be unsettled thereby as young men are when they take fancies. That would grieve me very much, John."
"Don't let it then? Why, I have only seen her five times; I never spoke to her in my life, and most probably never shall do. Could any one be in a safer position? Besides," and his tone changed to extreme gravity, "I have too many worldly cares to think of; I can't afford the harmless little amusement of falling in love—so be easy, Phineas."
I smiled; and we began a discussion on camps and fosses, vallum and praetorium; the Danes, Saxons, and Normans; which, doubtless, we carried on to a most learned length: but at this distance of time, and indeed the very day after, I plead guilty to having forgotten all about it.
That long, quiet Sunday, when, I remember, the sun never came out all day, but the whole earth and sky melted together in a soft, grey haze; when we lay on the common and heard church-bells ringing, some distant, some near; and, after all was quiet, talked our own old sabbath talks, of this world and the world to come; when, towards twilight, we went down into the beech-wood below the house, and sat idly there among the pleasant-smelling ferns; when, from the morning to the evening, he devoted himself altogether to my comfort and amusement—to perfect which required of him no harder duty than to be near me always;—that Sunday was the last I ever had David altogether for my own—my very own.
It was natural, it was just, it was right. God forbid that in any way I should have murmured.
About ten o'clock—just as he was luring me out to see how grand the common looked under the black night, and we were wondering whether or no the household were in bed—Mrs. Tod came mysteriously into the parlour and shut the door after her. Her round, fresh face looked somewhat troubled.
"Mr. Halifax, might I speak a word to 'ee, sir?"
"With pleasure. Sit down, Mrs. Tod. There's nothing wrong with your children?"
"No, I thank'ee. You are very kind, sir. No, it be about that poor Miss March."
I could see John's fingers twitch over the chair he was leaning on. "I hope—" he began, and stopped.
"Her father is dreadful bad to-night, and it's a good seven-mile walk to the doctor's at S——; and Miss March says—that is, she don't, for I bean't going to tell her a word about it—but I think, Mr. Halifax, if I might make so bold, it would be a great kindness in a young gentleman like you to lend Tod your mare to ride over and fetch the doctor."
"I will, gladly. At once?"
"Tod bean't come in yet."
"He shall have the mare with pleasure. Tell Miss March so—I mean, do not tell her, of course. It was very right of you to come to us in this way, Mrs. Tod. Really, it would be almost a treat to be ill in your house—you are so kind."
"Thank'ee, Mr. Halifax," said the honest landlady, greatly delighted. "But a body couldn't help doing anything for Miss March. You would think so yourself, if you only knew her."
"No doubt," returned John, more politely than warmly, I fancied, as he closed the door after the retreating figure of Mrs. Tod. But when he came and sat down again I saw he was rather thoughtful. He turned the books restlessly, one after the other, and could not settle to anything. To all my speculations about our sick neighbour, and our pearl of kind-hearted landladies, he only replied in monosyllables; at last he started up and said,—
"Phineas, I think I'll go myself."
"To fetch Doctor Brown. If Tod is not come in it would be but a common charity. And I know the way."
"But the dark night?"
"Oh, no matter; the mare will be safer under me than a stranger. And though I have taken good care that the three horses in the tan-yard shall have the journey, turn and turn about; still it's a good pull from here to Norton Bury, and the mare's my favourite. I would rather take her myself."
I smiled at his numerous good reasons for doing such a very simple thing; and agreed that it was right and best he should do it.
"Then shall I call Mrs. Tod and inquire? Or perhaps it might make less fuss just to go and speak to her in the kitchen. Will you, Phineas, or shall I?"
Scarcely waiting my answer, we walked from our parlour into what I called the Debateable Land.
No one was there. We remained several minutes all alone, listening to the groaning overhead.
"That must be Mr. March, John."
"I hear. Good heavens! how hard for her. And she such a young thing, and alone," muttered he, as he stood gazing into the dull wood embers of the kitchen fire. I saw he was moved; but the expression on his face was one of pure and holy compassion. That at this moment no less unselfish feeling mingled with it I am sure.
Mrs. Tod appeared at the door leading to the other half of the cottage; she was apparently speaking to Miss March on the staircase. We heard again those clear, quick, decided tones, but subdued to a half-whisper.
"No, Mrs. Tod, I am not sorry you did it—on my father's account, 'tis best. Tell Mr.—the young gentleman—I forget his name—that I am very much obliged to him."
"I will, Miss March—stay, he is just here.—Bless us! she has shut the door already.—Won't you take a seat, Mr. Halifax? I'll stir up the fire in a minute, Mr. Fletcher. You are always welcome in my kitchen, young gentlemen." And Mrs. Tod bustled about, well aware what a cosy and cheerful old-fashioned kitchen it was, especially of evenings.
But when John explained the reason of our intrusion there was no end to her pleasure and gratitude. He was the kindest young gentleman that ever lived.—She would tell Miss March so; as, indeed, she had done many a time.
"'Miss,' said I to her the very first day I set eyes on you, when I had told her how you came hunting for lodgings—(she often has a chat with me quite freely, being so lonesome-like, and knowing I to be too proud to forget that she's a born lady)—'Miss,' said I, 'who Mr. Halifax may be I don't know, but depend upon it he's a real gentleman.'"
I was the sole amused auditor of this speech, for John had vanished. In a few minutes more he had brought the mare round, and after a word or two with me was clattering down the road.
I wondered whether this time any white-furred wrist stirred the blind to watch him.
John was away a wonderfully short time, and the doctor rode back with him. They parted at the gate, and he came into our parlour, his cheeks all glowing with the ride. He only remarked, "that the autumn nights were getting chill," and sat down. The kitchen clock struck one.
"You ought to have been in bed hours ago, Phineas. Will you not go? I shall sit up just a little while, to hear how Mr. March is."
"I should like to hear, too. It is curious the interest that one learns to take in people that are absolute strangers, when shut up together in a lonely place like this, especially when they are in trouble."
"Ay, that's it," said he, quickly. "It's the solitude, and their being in trouble. Did you hear anything more while I was away?"
"Only that Mr. March was rather better, and everybody had gone to bed except his daughter and Mrs. Tod."
"Hark! I think that's the doctor going away. I wonder if one might ask—No! they would think it intrusive. He must be better. But Dr. Brown told me that in one of these paroxysms he might—Oh, that poor young thing!"
"Has she no relatives, no brothers or sisters? Doctor Brown surely knows."
"I did not like to ask, but I fancy not. However, that's not my business: my business is to get you off to bed, Phineas Fletcher, as quickly as possible."
"Wait one minute, John. Let us go and see if we can do anything more."
"Ay—if we can do anything more," repeated he, as we again recrossed the boundary-line, and entered the Tod country.
All was quiet there. The kitchen fire burnt brightly, and a cricket sang in merry solitude on the hearth; the groans overhead were stilled, but we heard low talking, and presently stealthy footsteps crept down-stairs. It was Mrs. Tod and Miss March.
We ought to have left the kitchen: I think John muttered something to that effect, and even made a slight movement towards the door; but—I don't know how it was—we stayed.
She came and stood by the fire, scarcely noticing us. Her fresh cheeks were faded, and she had the weary look of one who has watched for many hours. Some sort of white dimity gown that she wore added to this paleness.
"I think he is better, Mrs. Tod—decidedly better," said she, speaking quickly. "You ought to go to bed now. Let all the house be quiet. I hope you told Mr.—Oh—"
She saw us, stopped, and for the moment the faintest tinge of her roses returned. Presently she acknowledged us, with a slight bend.
John came forward. I had expected some awkwardness on his part; but no—he was thinking too little of himself for that. His demeanour— earnest, gentle, kind—was the sublimation of all manly courtesy.
"I hope, madam"—young men used the deferential word in those days always—"I do hope that Mr. March is better. We were unwilling to retire until we had heard."
"Thank you! My father is much better. You are very kind," said Miss March, with a maidenly dropping of the eyes.
"Indeed he is kind," broke in the warm-hearted Mrs. Tod. "He rode all the way to S——, his own self, to fetch the doctor."
"Did you, sir? I thought you only lent your horse."
"Oh! I like a night-ride. And you are sure, madam, that your father is better? Is there nothing else I can do for you?"
His sweet, grave manner, so much graver and older than his years, softened too with that quiet deference which marked at once the man who reverenced all women, simply for their womanhood—seemed entirely to reassure the young lady. This, and her own frankness of character, made her forget, as she apparently did, the fact that she was a young lady and he a young gentleman, meeting on unacknowledged neutral ground, perfect strangers, or knowing no more of one another than the mere surname.
Nature, sincerity, and simplicity conquered all trammels of formal custom. She held out her hand to him.
"I thank you very much, Mr. Halifax. If I wanted help I would ask you; indeed I would."
"Thank YOU. Good-night."
He pressed the hand with reverence—and was gone. I saw Miss March look after him: then she turned to speak and smiled with me. A light word, an easy smile, as to a poor invalid whom she had often pitied out of the fulness of her womanly heart.
Soon I followed John into the parlour. He asked me no questions, made no remarks, only took his candle and went up-stairs.
But, years afterwards, he confessed to me that the touch of that hand—it was a rather peculiar hand in the "feel" of it, as the children say, with a very soft palm, and fingers that had a habit of perpetually fluttering, like a little bird's wing—the touch of that hand was to the young man like the revelation of a new world.