John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XIX
"I hardly like taking thee out this wet day, Phineas—but it is a comfort to have thee."
Perhaps it was, for John was bent on a trying errand. He was going to communicate to Mr. Brithwood of the Mythe, Ursula's legal guardian and trustee, the fact that she had promised him her hand—him, John Halifax, the tanner. He did it—nay, insisted upon doing it—the day after he came of age, and just one week after they had been betrothed—this nineteenth of June, one thousand eight hundred and one.
We reached the iron gate of the Mythe House;—John hesitated a minute, and then pulled the bell with a resolute hand.
"Do you remember the last time we stood here, John? I do, well!"
But soon the happy smile faded from his lips, and left them pressed together in a firm, almost painful gravity. He was not only a lover but a man. And no man could go to meet what he knew he must meet in this house, and on this errand, altogether unmoved. One might foresee a good deal—even in the knowing side-glance of the servant, whom he startled with his name, "Mr. Halifax."
"Mr. Brithwood's busy, sir—better come to-morrow," suggested the man—evidently knowing enough upon his master's affairs.
"I am sorry to trouble him—but I must see Mr. Brithwood to-day."
And John determinedly followed the man into the grand empty dining-room, where, on crimson velvet chairs, we sat and contemplated the great stag's head with its branching horns, the silver flagons and tankards, and the throstles hopping outside across the rainy lawn: at our full leisure, too, for the space of fifteen minutes.
"This will not do," said John—quietly enough, though this time it was with a less steady hand that he pulled the bell.
"Did you tell your master I was here?"
"Yes, sir." And the grin with which the footman came in somehow slid away from his mouth's corners.
"How soon may I have the honour of seeing him?"
"He says, sir, you must send up your business by me."
John paused, evidently subduing something within him—something unworthy of Ursula's lover—of Ursula's husband that was to be.
"Tell your master my business is solely with himself, and I must request to see him. It is important, say, or I would not thus intrude upon his time."
"Very well, sir."
Ere long, the man brought word that Mr. Brithwood would be at liberty, for five minutes only, in the justice-room. We were led out, crossing the court-yard once more—where, just riding out, I saw two ladies, one of whom kissed her hand gaily to John Halifax—to the magistrate's office. There, safely separated from his own noble mansion, Mr. Brithwood administered justice. In the outer room a stout young fellow—a poacher, probably—sat heavily ironed, sullen and fierce; and by the door a girl with a child in her arms, and—God pity her!—no ring on her finger, stood crying; another ill-looking fellow, maudlin drunk, with a constable by him, called out to us as we passed for "a drop o' beer."
These were the people whom Richard Brithwood, Esquire, magistrate for the county of ——, had to judge and punish, according to his own sense of equity and his knowledge of his country's law.
He sat behind his office-table, thoroughly magisterial, dictating so energetically to his clerk behind him, that we had both entered, and John had crossed the room, before he saw us, or seemed to see.
"Oh—Mr. Halifax. Good-morning."
John returned the salutation, which was evidently meant to show that the giver bore no grudge; that, indeed, it was impossible so dignified a personage as Richard Brithwood, Esquire, in his public capacity, too, could bear a grudge against so inferior an individual as John Halifax.
"I should be glad, sir, of a few minutes' speech with you."
"Certainly—certainly; speak on;" and he lent a magisterial ear.
"Excuse me, my business is private," said John, looking at the clerk.
"No business is private here," returned the 'squire, haughtily.
"Then shall I speak with you elsewhere? But I must have the honour of an interview with you, and immediately."
Whether Mr. Brithwood was seized with some indefinite alarm, he himself best knew why, or whether John's manner irresistibly compelled him to civility, as the stronger always compels the weaker, I cannot tell—but he signed to the clerk to leave the room.
"And, Jones, send back all the others to the lock-up house till tomorrow. Bless my life! it's near three o'clock. They can't expect to keep a gentleman's dinner waiting—these low fellows."
I suppose this referred only to the culprits outside; at all events, we chose to take it so.
"Now—you, sir—perhaps you'll despatch your business; the sooner the better."
"It will not take long. It is a mere matter of form, which nevertheless I felt it my duty to be the first to inform you. Mr. Brithwood, I have the honour of bearing a message to you from your cousin—Miss Ursula March."
"She's nothing to me—I never wish to see her face again, the—the vixen!"
"You will be kind enough, if you please, to avoid all such epithets; at least, in my hearing."
"Your hearing! And pray who are you, sir?"
"You know quite well who I am."
"Oh, yes! And how goes the tanning? Any offers in the horseflesh line? Always happy to meet you in the way of business. But what can you possibly have to do with me, or with any member of my family?"
John bit his lip; the 'squire's manner was extremely galling; more so, perhaps, in its outside civility than any gross rudeness.
"Mr. Brithwood, I was not speaking of myself, but of the lady whose message I have the honour to bring you."
"That lady, sir, has chosen to put herself away from her family, and her family can hold no further intercourse with her," said the 'squire, loftily.
"I am aware of that," was the reply, with at least equal hauteur.
"Are you? And pray what right may you have to be acquainted with Miss March's private concerns?"
"The right—which, indeed, was the purport of her message to you— that in a few months I shall become her husband."
John said this very quietly—so quietly that, at first, the 'squire seemed hardly to credit his senses. At last, he burst into a hoarse laugh.
"Well, that is the best joke I ever did hear."
"Pardon me; I am perfectly serious."
"Bah! how much money do you want, fellow? A pretty tale! you'll not get me to believe it—ha! ha! She wouldn't be so mad. To be sure, women have their fancies, as we know, and you're a likely young fellow enough; but to marry you—"
John sprang up—his whole frame quivering with fury. "Take care, sir; take care how you insult my WIFE!"
He stood over the wretch—the cowardly shrinking wretch—he did not touch him, but he stood over him till, terrified out of his life, Richard Brithwood gasped out some apology.
"Sit down—pray sit down again. Let us proceed in our business."
John Halifax sat down.
"So—my cousin is your wife, I think you were saying?"
"She will be, some months hence. We were engaged a week ago, with the full knowledge and consent of Doctor and Mrs. Jessop, her nearest friends."
"And of yours?" asked Mr. Brithwood, with as much sarcasm as his blunt wits could furnish him.
"I have no relatives."
"So I always understood. And that being the case, may I ask the meaning of the visit? Where are your lawyers, your marriage settlements, hey? I say, young man—ha! ha! I should like to know what you can possibly want with me, Miss March's trustee?"
"Nothing whatever. Miss March, as you are aware, is by her father's will left perfectly free in her choice of marriage; and she has chosen. But since, under certain circumstances, I wish to act with perfect openness, I came to tell you, as her cousin and the executor of this will, that she is about to become my wife."
And he lingered over that name, as if its very utterance strengthened and calmed him.
"May I inquire into those 'certain circumstances'?" asked the other, still derisively.
"You know them already. Miss March has a fortune and I have none; and though I wish that difference were on the other side—though it might and did hinder me from seeking her—yet now she is sought and won, it shall not hinder my marrying her."
"Likely not," sneered Mr. Brithwood.
John's passion was rising again.
"I repeat, it shall not hinder me. The world may say what it chooses; we follow a higher law than the world—she and I. She knows me, she is not afraid to trust her whole life with me; am I to be afraid to trust her? Am I to be such a coward as not to dare to marry the woman I love, because the world might say I married her for her money?"
He stood, his clenched hand resting on the table, looking full into Richard Brithwood's face. The 'squire sat dumfoundered at the young man's vehemence.
"Your pardon," John added, more calmly. "Perhaps I owe her some pardon too, for bringing her name thus into discussion; but I wished to have everything clear between myself and you, her nearest relative. You now know exactly how the matter stands. I will detain you no longer—I have nothing more to say."
"But I have," roared out the 'squire, at length recovering himself, seeing his opponent had quitted the field. "Stop a minute."
John paused at the door.
"Tell Ursula March she may marry you, or any other vagabond she pleases—it's no business of mine. But her fortune is my business, and it's in my hands too. Might's right, and possession's nine-tenths of the law. Not one penny shall she get out of my fingers as long as I can keep hold of it."
John bowed, his hand still on the door. "As you please, Mr. Brithwood. That was not the subject of our interview. Good-morning."
And we were away.
Re-crossing the iron gates, and out into the open road, John breathed freely.
"That's over—all is well."
"Do you think what he threatened is true? Can he do it?"
"Very likely; don't let us talk about that." And he walked on lightly, as if a load were taken off his mind, and body and soul leaped up to meet the glory of the summer sunshine, the freshness of the summer air.
"Oh! what a day is this!—after the rain, too! How she will enjoy it!"
And coming home through Norton Bury, we met her, walking with Mrs. Jessop. No need to dread that meeting now.
Yet she looked up, questioning, through her blushes. Of course he had told her where we were going to-day; her who had a right to know every one of his concerns now.
"Yes, dear, all is quite right. Do not be afraid."
Afraid, indeed! Not the least fear was in those clear eyes. Nothing but perfect content—perfect trust.
John drew her arm through his. "Come, we need not mind Norton Bury now," he said, smiling.
So they two walked forward, talking, as we could see, earnestly and rather seriously to one another; while Mrs. Jessop and I followed behind.
"Bless their dear hearts!" said the old lady, as she sat resting on the stile of a bean-field. "Well, we have all been young once."
Not all, good Mrs. Jessop, thought I; not all.
Yet, surely it was most pleasant to see them, as it is to see all true lovers—young lovers, too, in the morning of their days. Pleasant to see written on every line of their happy faces the blessedness of Nature's law of love—love began in youth-time, sincere and pure, free from all sentimental shams, or follies, or shames—love mutually plighted, the next strongest bond to that in which it will end, and is meant to end, God's holy ordinance of marriage.
We came back across the fields to tea at Mrs. Jessop's. It was John's custom to go there almost every evening; though certainly he could not be said to "go a-courting." Nothing could be more unlike it than his demeanour, or indeed the demeanour of both. They were very quiet lovers, never making much of one another "before folk." No whispering in corners, or stealing away down garden walks. No public show of caresses—caresses whose very sweetness must consist in their entire sacredness; at least, I should think so. No coquettish exactions, no testing of either's power over the other, in those perilous small quarrels which may be the renewal of passion, but are the death of true love.
No, our young couple were well-behaved always. She sat at her work, and he made himself generally pleasant, falling in kindly to the Jessop's household ways. But whatever he was about, at Ursula's lightest movement, at the least sound of her voice, I could see him lift a quiet glance, as if always conscious of her presence; her who was the delight of his eyes.
To-night, more than ever before, this soft, invisible link seemed to be drawn closer between them, though they spoke little together, and even sat at opposite sides of the table; but whenever their looks met, one could trace a soft, smiling interchange, full of trust, and peace, and joy. He had evidently told her all that had happened to-day, and she was satisfied.
More, perhaps, than I was; for I knew how little John would have to live upon besides what means his wife brought him; but that was their own affair, and I had no business to make public my doubts or fears.
We all sat round the tea-table, talking gaily together, and then John left us, reluctantly enough; but he always made a point of going to the tan-yard for an hour or two, in my father's stead, every evening. Ursula let him out at the front door; this was her right, silently claimed, which nobody either jested at or interfered with.
When she returned, and perhaps she had been away a minute or two longer than was absolutely necessary, there was a wonderful brightness on her young face; though she listened with a degree of attention, most creditable in its gravity, to a long dissertation of Mrs. Jessop's on the best and cheapest way of making jam and pickles.
"You know, my dear, you ought to begin and learn all about such things now."
"Yes," said Miss March, with a little droop of the head.
"I assure you"—turning to me—"she comes every day into the kitchen- -never mind, my dear, one can say anything to Mr. Fletcher. And what lady need be ashamed of knowing how a dinner is cooked and a household kept in order?"
"Nay, she should rather be proud; I know John thinks so."
At this answer of mine Ursula half smiled: but there was a colour in her cheek, and a thoughtfulness in her eyes, deeper than any that our conversation warranted or occasioned. I was planning how to divert Mrs. Jessop from the subject, when it was broken at once by a sudden entrance, which startled us all like a flash of lightning.
"Stole away! stole away! as my husband would say. Here have I come in the dusk, all through the streets to Dr. Jessop's very door. How is she? where is she, ma petite!"
"Ah! come forward. I haven't seen you for an age."
And Lady Caroline kissed her on both cheeks in her lively French fashion, which Ursula received patiently, and returned—no, I will not be certain whether she returned it or not.
"Pardon—how do you do, Mrs. Jessop, my dear woman? What trouble I have had in coming! Are you not glad to see me, Ursula?"
"Yes, very." In that sincere voice which never either falsified or exaggerated a syllable.
"Did you ever expect to see me again?"
"No, certainly I did not. And I would almost rather not see you now, if—"
"If Richard Brithwood did not approve of it? Bah! what notions you always had of marital supremacy. So, ma chere, you are going to be married yourself, I hear?"
"Why, how quietly you seem to take it! The news perfectly electrified me this morning. I always said that young man was 'un heros de romans!' Ma foi! this is the prettiest little episode I ever heard of. Just King Cophetua and the beggar-maid—only reversed. How do you feel, my Queen Cophetua?"
"I do not quite understand you, Caroline."
"Neither should I you, for the tale seems incredible. Only you gave me such an honest 'yes,' and I know you never tell even white lies. But it can't be true; at least, not certain. A little affaire de coeur, maybe—ah! I had several before I was twenty—very pleasant, chivalrous, romantic, and all that; and such a brave young fellow, too! Helas! love is sweet at your age!"—with a little sigh—"but marriage! My dear child, you are not surely promised to this youth?"
"How sharply you say it! Nay, don't be angry. I liked him greatly. A very pretty fellow. But then he belongs to the people."
"So do I."
"Naughty child, you will not comprehend me. I mean the lower orders, the bourgeoisie. My husband says he is a tanner's 'prenticeboy."
"He was apprentice; he is now partner in Mr. Fletcher's tan-yard."
"That is nearly as bad. And so you are actually going to marry a tanner?"
"I am going to marry Mr. Halifax. We will, if you please, cease to discuss him, Lady Caroline."
"La belle sauvage!" laughed the lady; and, in the dusk, I fancied I saw her reach over to pat Ursula's hand in her careless, pretty way. "Nay, I meant no harm."
"I am sure you did not; but we will change the subject."
"Not at all. I came to talk about it. I couldn't sleep till I had. Je t'aime bien, tu le sais, ma petite Ursule."
"Thank you," said Ursula, gently.
"And I would like well to see you married. Truly we women must marry, or be nothing at all. But as to marrying for love, as we used to think of, and as charming poets make believe—my dear, now-a-days, nous avons change tout cela."
Ursula replied nothing.
"I suppose my friend the young bourgeois is very much in love with you? With 'les beaux yeux de votre cassette,' Richard swears; but I know better. What of that? All men say they love one—but it will not last. It burns itself out. It will be over in a year, as we wives all know. Do we not, Mrs. Jessop? Ah! she is gone away."
Probably they thought I was away too—or else they took no notice of me—and went talking on.
"Jane would not have agreed with you, Cousin Caroline; she loved her husband very dearly when she was a girl. They were poor, and he was afraid to marry; so he let her go. That was wrong, I think."
"How wise we are growing in these things now!" laughed Lady Caroline. "But come, I am not interested in old turtle-doves. Say about yourself."
"I have nothing more to say."
"Nothing more? Mon Dieu! are you aware that Richard is furious; that he vows he will keep every sou he has of yours—law or no law—for as long as ever he can? He declared so this morning. Did young Halifax tell you?"
"Mr. Halifax has told me."
"'MR. Halifax!' how proudly she says it. And are you still going to be married to him?"
"What! a bourgeois—a tradesman? with no more money than those sort of people usually have, I believe. You, who have had all sorts of comforts, have always lived as a gentlewoman. Truly, though I adore a love-marriage in theory, practically I think you are mad—quite mad, my dear."
"And he, too! Verily, what men are! Especially men in love. All selfish together."
"Isn't it selfish to drag a pretty creature down, and make her a drudge, a slave—a mere poor man's wife?"
"She is proud of being such!" burst in the indignant young voice. "Lady Caroline, you may say what you like to me; you were kind always, and I was fond of you; but you shall not say a word against Mr. Halifax. You do not know him—how could you?"
"And you do? Ah! ma petite, we all think that, till we find out to the contrary. And so he urges you to be married at once—rich or poor—at all risks, at all costs? How lover-like—how like a man! I guess it all. Half beseeches—half persuades—"
"He does not!" And the girl's voice was sharp with pain. "I would not have told you, but I must—for his sake. He asked me this afternoon if I was afraid of being poor? if I would like to wait, and let him work hard alone, till he could give me a home like that I was born to? He did, Caroline."
"And you answered—"
"No—a thousand times, no! He will have a hard battle to fight— would I let him fight it alone? when I can help him—when he says I can."
"Ah, child! you that know nothing of poverty, how can you bear it?"
"I will try."
"You that never ruled a house in your life—"
"I can learn."
"Ciel! 'tis wonderful! And this young man has no friends, no connections, no fortune! only himself."
"Only himself," said Ursula, with a proud contempt.
"Will you tell me, my dear, why you marry him?"
"Because"—and Ursula spoke in low tones, that seemed wrung out of her almost against her will—"because I honour him, because I trust him; and, young as I am, I have seen enough of the world to be thankful that there is in it one man whom I can trust, can honour, entirely. Also—though I am often ashamed lest this be selfish— because when I was in trouble he helped me; when I was misjudged he believed in me; when I was sad and desolate he loved me. And I am proud of his love—I glory in it. No one shall take it from me—no one will—no one can, unless I cease to deserve it."
Lady Caroline was silent. Despite her will, you might hear a sigh breaking from some deep corner of that light, frivolous heart.
"Bien! chacun a son gout! But you have never stated one trifle—not unnecessary, perhaps, though most married folk get on quite well without it—'Honour,' 'trust,'—pshaw! My child—do you LOVE Mr. Halifax?"
"Nay, why be shy? In England, they say, and among the people—no offence, ma petite—one does sometimes happen to care for the man one marries. Tell me, for I must be gone, do you love him? one word, whether or no?"
Just then the light coming in showed Ursula's face, beautiful with more than happiness, uplifted even with a religious thankfulness, as she said simply: