John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XII
The next day John rode away earlier even than was his wont, I thought. He stayed but a little while talking with me. While Mrs. Tod was bustling over our breakfast he asked her, in a grave and unconcerned manner, "How Mr. March was this morning?" which was the only allusion he made to the previous night's occurrences.
I had a long, quiet day alone in the beech-wood, close below our cottage, sitting by the little runnel, now worn to a thread with the summer weather, but singing still. It talked to me like a living thing.
When I came home in the evening Miss March stood in front of the cottage, with—strange to say—her father. But I had heard that his paroxysms were often of brief continuance, and that, like most confirmed valetudinarians, when real danger stared him in the face he put it from him, and was glad to be well.
Seeing me coming, Miss March whispered to him; he turned upon me a listless gaze from over his fur collar, and bowed languidly, without rising from his easy chair. Yes, it was Mr. March—the very Mr. March we had met! I knew him, changed though he was; but he did not know me in the least, as, indeed, was not likely.
His daughter came a step or two to meet me. "You are better, I see, Mr. Fletcher. Enderley is a most healthy place, as I try to persuade my father. This is Mr. Fletcher, sir, the gentleman who—"
"Was so obliging as to ride to S——, last night, for me? Allow me to thank him myself."
I began to disclaim, and Miss March to explain; but we must both have been slightly incoherent, for I think the poor gentleman was never quite clear as to who it was that went for Dr. Brown. However, that mattered little, as his acknowledgments were evidently dictated more by a natural habit of courtesy than by any strong sense of service rendered.
"I am a very great invalid, sir; my dear, will you explain to the gentleman?" And he leaned his head back wearily.
"My father has never recovered his ten years' residence in the West Indies."
"'Residence?' Pardon me, my dear, you forget I was governor of—"
"Oh, yes!—The climate is very trying there, Mr. Fletcher. But since he has been in England—five years only—he has been very much better. I hope he will be quite well in time."
Mr. March shook his head drearily. Poor man! the world of existence to him seemed to have melted lazily down into a mere nebula, of which the forlorn nucleus was—himself. What a life for any young creature—even his own daughter, to be bound to continually!
I could not help remarking the strong contrast between them. He, with his sallow, delicately-shaped features—the thin mouth and long straight nose, of that form I have heard called the "melancholy nose," which usually indicates a feeble, pensive, and hypochondriac temperament; while his daughter—But I have described her already.
"Mr. Fletcher is an invalid too, father," she said; so gently, that I could feel no pain in her noticing my infirmity; and took gratefully a seat she gave me, beside that of Mr. March. She seemed inclined to talk to me; and her manner was perfectly easy, friendly, and kind.
We spoke of commonplace subjects, near at hand, and of the West Indian island, which its late "governor" was apparently by no means inclined to forget. I asked Miss March whether she had liked it?
"I was never there. Papa was obliged to leave me behind, in Wales— poor mamma's country. Were you ever in Wales? I like it so! Indeed, I feel as if I belonged altogether to the mountains."
And saying this, she looked the very incarnation of the free mountain spirit—a little rugged, perhaps, and sharply outlined; but that would soften with time, and was better and wholesomer than any tame green level of soft perfection. At least, one inclined to think so, looking at her.
I liked Miss March very much, and was glad of it.
In retiring, with her father leaning on her arm, to which he hung trustingly and feebly as a child, she turned abruptly, and asked if she could lend me any books to read? I must find the days long and dull without my friend.
I assented with thanks; and shortly afterwards she brought me an armful of literature—enough to have caused any young damsel to have been dubbed a "blue," in those matter-of-fact days.
"I have no time to study much myself," said she, in answer to my questions; "but I like those who do. Now, good evening, for I must run. You and your friend can have any books of ours. You must not think"—and she turned back to tell me this—"that because my father said little he and I are not deeply grateful for the kindness Mr. Halifax showed us last night."
"It was a pleasure to John—it always is—to do a kind office for any one."
"I well believe that, Mr. Fletcher." And she left me.
When John came home I informed him of what had passed. He listened, though he made no comment whatever. But all the evening he sat turning over Miss March's books, and reading either aloud or to himself fragments out of one—which I had expected he would have scouted, inasmuch as it was modern not classical poetry: in fact, a collection of Lyrical Ballads, brought out that year by a young man named Mr. William Wordsworth, and some anonymous friend, conjointly. I had opened it, and found therein great nonsense; but John had better luck—he hit upon a short poem called "Love," by the Anonymous Friend, which he read, and I listened to, almost as if it had been Shakspeare. It was about a girl named Genevieve—a little simple story—everybody knows it now; but it was like a strange, low, mystic music, luring the very heart out of one's bosom, to us young visionaries then.
I wonder if Miss March knew the harm she did, and the mischief that has been done among young people in all ages (since Caxton's days), by the lending books, especially books of poetry.
The next day John was in a curious mood. Dreamy, lazy, mild; he sat poring in-doors, instead of roaming abroad—in truth, was a changed lad. I told him so, and laid it all to the blame of the Anonymous Friend: who held him in such fascinated thrall that he only looked up once all the morning,—which was when Mr. and Miss March went by. In the afternoon he submitted, lamb-like, to be led down to the beech-wood—that the wonderful talking stream might hold forth to him as it did to me. But it could not—ah, no! it could not. Our lives, though so close, were yet as distinct as the musical living water and the motionless grey rock beside which it ran. The one swept joyfully on to its appointed course: the other—was what Heaven made it, abode where Heaven placed it, and likewise fulfilled its end.
Coming back out of the little wood, I took John a new way I had discovered, through the prettiest undulating meadow, half-field, half-orchard, where trees loaded with ripening cider apples and green crabs made a variety among the natural foresters. Under one of these, as we climbed the slope—for field, beech-wood, and common formed a gradual ascent—we saw a vacant table laid.
"A pretty piece of rusticity—domestic Arcadia on a small scale," said John; "I should like to invite myself to tea with them. Who can they be?"
"Probably visitors. Resident country-folks like their meals best under a decent roof-tree. I should not wonder if this were not one of Mr. March's vagaries."
"Don't say vagaries—he is an old man."
"Don't be reproachful—I shall say nought against him. Indeed, I have no opportunity, for there they both are coming hither from the house."
Sure enough they were—Miss March helping her father across the uneven bit of common to the gate which led to the field. Precisely at that gate we all four met.
"'Tis useless to escape them," whispered I to John.
"I do not wish—why should I?" he answered, and held the gate open for the father and daughter to go through. She looked up and acknowledged him, smiling. I thought that smile and his courteous, but far less frank, response to it, would have been all the greeting; but no! Mr. March's dull perceptions had somehow been brightened up. He stopped.
"Mr. Halifax, I believe?"
They stood a moment looking at one another; the tall, stalwart young man, so graceful and free in bearing, and the old man, languid, sickly, prematurely broken down.
"Sir," said the elder, and in his fixed gaze I fancied I detected something more than curiosity—something of the lingering pensiveness with which, years ago, he had turned back to look at John—as if the lad reminded him of some one he knew. "Sir, I have to thank you—"
"Indeed, no thanks are needed. I sincerely hope you are better to-day?"
Mr. March assented: but John's countenance apparently interested him so much that he forgot his usual complainings. "My daughter tells me you are our neighbours—I am happy to have such friendly ones. My dear," in a half audible, pensive whisper to her, "I think your poor brother Walter would have grown up extremely like Mr.—Mr.—"
"Mr. Halifax, papa."
"Mr. Halifax, we are going to take tea under the trees there—my daughter's suggestion—she is so fond of rurality. Will you give us the pleasure of your company? You and"—here, I must confess, the second invitation came in reply to a glance of Miss March's—"your friend."
Of course we assented: I considerably amused, and not ill-pleased, to see how naturally it fell out that when John appeared in the scene, I, Phineas, subsided into the secondary character of John's "friend."
Very soon—so soon that our novel position seemed like an adventure out of the Arabian Nights—we found ourselves established under the apple-tree, between whose branches the low sun stole in, kissing into red chestnut colour the hair of the "nut-browne mayde," as she sat, bareheaded, pouring into small white china cups that dainty luxury, tea. She had on—not the grey gown, but a white one, worked in delicate muslin. A bunch of those small pinky-white roses that grew in such clusters about our parlour window nestled, almost as if they were still growing, in her fair maiden bosom.
She apologized for little Jack's having "stolen" them from our domains for her—lucky Jack! and received some brief and rather incoherent answer from John about being "quite welcome."
He sat opposite her—I by her side—she had placed me there. It struck me as strange, that though her manner to us both was thoroughly frank and kind, it was a shade more frank, more kind, to me than to him. Also, I noted, that while she chatted gaily with me, John almost entirely confined his talk to her father.
But the young lady listened—ay, undoubtedly she listened—to every word that was said. I did not wonder at it: when his tongue was once unloosed few people could talk better than John Halifax. Not that he was one of your showy conversationalists; language was with him neither a science, an art, nor an accomplishment, but a mere vehicle for thought; the garb, always chosen as simplest and fittest, in which his ideas were clothed. His conversation was never wearisome, since he only spoke when he had something to say; and having said it, in the most concise and appropriate manner that suggested itself at the time, he was silent; and silence is a great and rare virtue at twenty years of age.
We talked a good deal about Wales; John had been there more than once in his journeyings; and this fact seemed to warm Miss March's manner, rather shy and reserved though it was, at least to him. She told us many an innocent tale of her life there—of her childish days, and of her dear old governess, whose name, I remember, was Cardigan. She seemed to have grown up solely under that lady's charge. It was not difficult to guess—though I forget whether she distinctly told us so—that "poor mamma" had died so early as to become a mere name to her orphan daughter. She evidently owed everything she was to this good governess.
"My dear," at last said Mr. March, rather testily, "you make rather too much of our excellent Jane Cardigan. She is going to be married, and she will not care for you now."
"Hush! papa, that is a secret at present. Pray, Mr. Halifax, do you know Norton Bury?"
The abruptness of the question startled John, so that he only answered in a hurried affirmative. Indeed, Mr. March left him no time for further explanation.
"I hate the place. My late wife's cousins, the Brithwoods of the Mythe, with whom I have had—ahem!—strong political differences— live there. And I was once nearly drowned in the Severn, close by."
"Papa, don't speak of that, please," said Miss March, hurriedly; so hurriedly that I am sure she did not notice what would otherwise have been plain enough—John's sudden and violent colour. But the flush died down again—he never spoke a word. And, of course, acting on his evident desire, neither did I.
"For my part," continued the young lady, "I have no dislike to Norton Bury. Indeed, I rather admired the place, if I remember right."
"You have been there?" Though it was the simplest question, John's sudden look at her, and the soft inflection of his voice, struck me as peculiar.
"Once, when I was about twelve years old. But we will talk of something papa likes better. I am sure papa enjoys this lovely evening. Hark! how the doves are cooing in the beech-wood."
I asked her if she had ever been in the beech-wood.
No; she was quite unacquainted with its mysteries—the fern-glades, the woodbine tangles, and the stream, that, if you listened attentively, you could hear faintly gurgling even where we sat.
"I did not know there was a stream so near. I have generally taken my walks across the Flat," said Miss March, smiling, and then blushing at having done so, though it was the faintest blush imaginable.
Neither of us made any reply.
Mr. March settled himself to laziness and his arm-chair; the conversation fell to the three younger persons—I may say the two— for I also seceded, and left John master of the field. It was enough for me to sit listening to him and Miss March, as they gradually became more friendly; a circumstance natural enough, under the influence of that simple, solitary place, where all the pretences of etiquette seemed naturally to drop away, leaving nothing but the forms dictated and preserved by true manliness and true womanliness.
How young both looked, how happy in their frank, free youth, with the sun-rays slanting down upon them, making a glory round either head, and—as glory often does—dazzling painfully.
"Will you change seats with me, Miss March?—The sun will not reach your eyes here."
She declined, refusing to punish any one for her convenience.
"It would not be punishment," said John, so gravely that one did not recognize it for a "pretty speech" till it had passed—and went on with their conversation. In the course of it he managed so carefully, and at the same time so carelessly, to interpose his broad hat between the sun and her, that the fiery old king went down in splendour before she noticed that she had been thus guarded and sheltered. Though she did not speak—why should she? of such a little thing,—yet it was one of those "little things" which often touch a woman more than any words.
Miss March rose. "I should greatly like to hear your stream and its wonderful singing." (John Halifax had been telling how it held forth to me during my long, lonely days)—"I wonder what it would say to me? Can we hear it from the bottom of this field?"
"Not clearly; we had better go into the wood." For I knew John would like that, though he was too great a hypocrite to second my proposal by a single word.
Miss March was more single-minded, or else had no reason for being the contrary. She agreed to my plan with childish eagerness. "Papa, you wouldn't miss me—I shall not be away five minutes. Then, Mr. Fletcher, will you go with me?"
"And I will stay beside Mr. March, so that he will not be left alone," said John, reseating himself.
What did the lad do that for?—why did he sit watching us so intently, as I led Miss March down the meadow, and into the wood? It passed my comprehension.
The young girl walked with me, as she talked with me, in perfect simplicity and frankness, free from the smallest hesitation. Even as the women I have known have treated me all my life—showing me that sisterly trust and sisterly kindness which have compensated in a measure for the solitary fate which it pleased Heaven to lay upon me; which, in any case, conscience would have forced me to lay upon myself—that no woman should ever be more to me than a sister.
Yet I watched her with pleasure—this young girl, as she tripped on before me, noticing everything, enjoying everything. She talked to me a good deal too about myself, in her kindly way, asking what I did all day?—and if I were not rather dull sometimes, in this solitary country lodging?
"I am dull occasionally myself, or should be, if I had time to think about it. It is hard to be an only child."
I told her I had never found it so.
"But then you have your friend. Has Mr. Halifax any brothers or sisters?"
"None. No relatives living."
"Ah!" a compassionate ejaculation, as she pulled a woodbine spray, and began twisting it with those never-quiet fingers of hers. "You and he seem to be great friends."
"John is a brother, friend, everything in the world to me."
"Is he? He must be very good. Indeed, he looks so," observed Miss March, thoughtfully. "And I believe—at least I have often heard— that good men are rare."
I had no time to enter into that momentous question, when the origin of it himself appeared, breaking through the bushes to join us.
He apologized for so doing, saying Mr. March had sent him.
"You surely do not mean that you come upon compulsion? What an ill compliment to this lovely wood."
And the eyes of the "nut-browne mayde" were a little mischievous. John looked preternaturally grave, as he said, "I trust you do not object to my coming?"
She smiled—so merrily, that his slight haughtiness evaporated like mist before the sunbeams.
"I was obliged to startle you by jumping through the bushes; for I heard my own name. What terrible revelations has this friend of mine been making to you, Miss March?"
He spoke gaily; but I fancied he looked uneasy. The young lady only laughed.
"I have a great mind not to tell you, Mr. Halifax."
"Not when I ask you?"
He spoke so seriously that she could choose but reply.
"Mr. Fletcher was telling me three simple facts:—First, that you were an orphan, without relatives. Secondly, that you were his dearest friend. Thirdly—well, I never compromise truth—that you were good."
"The first I was ignorant of; the second I had already guessed; the third—"
He gazed at her intently.
"The third I had likewise—not doubted."
John made some hurried acknowledgment. He looked greatly pleased— nay, more than pleased—happy. He walked forward by Miss March's side, taking his natural place in the conversation, while I as naturally as willingly fell behind. But I heard all they said, and joined in it now and then.
Thus, sometimes spoken to, and sometimes left silent, watching their two figures, and idly noting their comparative heights—her head came just above John's shoulder—I followed these young people through the quiet wood.
Let me say a word about that wood—-dear and familiar as it was. Its like I have never since seen. It was small—so small that in its darkest depths you might catch the sunshine lighting up the branches of its outside trees. A young wood, too—composed wholly of smooth- barked beeches and sturdy Scotch firs, growing up side by side—the Adam and Eve in this forest Eden. No old folk were there—no gnarled and withered foresters—every tree rose up, upright in its youth, and perfect after its kind. There was as yet no choking under-growth of vegetation; nothing but mosses, woodbine, and ferns; and between the boles of the trees you could trace vista after vista, as between the slender pillars of a cathedral aisle.
John pointed out all this to Miss March, especially noticing the peculiar character of the two species of trees—the masculine and feminine—fir and beech. She smiled at the fancy; and much graceful badinage went on between them. I had never before seen John in the company of women, and I marvelled to perceive the refinement of his language, and the poetic ideas it clothed. I forgot the truth—of whose saying was it?—"that once in his life every man becomes a poet."
They stood by the little rivulet, and he showed her how the water came from the spring above; the old well-head where the cattle drank; how it took its course merrily through the woods, till at the bottom of the valley below it grew into a wide stream.
"Small beginnings make great endings," observed Miss March, sententiously.
John answered her with the happiest smile! He dipped his hollowed palm into the water and drank: she did the same. Then, in her free-hearted girlish fun, she formed a cup out of a broad leaf, which, by the greatest ingenuity, she managed to make contain about two teaspoonfuls of water for the space of half a minute, and held it to my mouth.
"I am like Rebecca at the well. Drink, Eleazer," she cried, gaily.
John looked on. "I am very thirsty, too," said he, in a low voice.
The young girl hesitated a moment; then filled and offered to him the Arcadian cup. I fear he drank out of it a deeper and more subtle draught than that innocent water.
Both became somewhat grave, and stood, one on either side the stream, looking down upon it, letting its bubbling murmur have all the talk. What it said I know not: I only know that it did not, could not, say to those two what it said to me.
When we took leave of our acquaintances Mr. March was extremely courteous, and declared our society would always be a pleasure to himself and his daughter.
"He always says so formally, 'my daughter,'" I observed, breaking the silence in which they had left us. "I wonder what her Christian name is."
"I believe it is Ursula."
"How did you find that out?"
"It is written in one of her books."
"Ursula!" I repeated, wondering where I had heard it before. "A pretty name."
"A very pretty name."
When John fell into this echo mood I always found it best to fall into taciturnity.