John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XV
I was left with Miss March alone. She sat looking at the door where John had disappeared, in extreme surprise, not unmingled with a certain embarrassment.
"What does he mean, Mr. Fletcher? Can I have offended him in any way?"
"Why did he go away?"
But that question, simple as it was in itself, and most simply put, involved so much, that I felt I had no right to answer it; while, at the same time, I had no possible right to use any of those disguises or prevarications which are always foolish and perilous, and very frequently wrong. Nor, even had I desired, was Miss March the woman to whom one dared offer the like; therefore I said to her plainly:
"I know the reason. I would tell you, but I think John would prefer telling you himself."
"As he pleases," returned Miss March, a slight reserve tempering her frank manner; but it soon vanished, and she began talking to me in her usual friendly way, asking me many questions about the Brithwoods and about Norton Bury. I answered them freely—my only reservation being, that I took care not to give any information concerning ourselves.
Soon afterwards, as John did not return, I took leave of her, and went to our own parlour.
He was not there. He had left word with little Jack, who met him on the common, that he was gone a long walk, and should not return till dinner-time. Dinner-time came, but I had to dine alone. It was the first time I ever knew him break even such a trivial promise. My heart misgave me—I spent a miserable day. I was afraid to go in search of him, lest he should return to a dreary, empty parlour. Better, when he did come in, that he should find a cheerful hearth and—me.
Me, his friend and brother, who had loved him these six years better than anything else in the whole world. Yet what could I do now? Fate had taken the sceptre out of my hands—I was utterly powerless; I could neither give him comfort nor save him pain any more.
What I felt then, in those long, still hours, many a one has felt likewise; many a parent over a child, many a sister over a brother, many a friend over a friend. A feeling natural and universal. Let those who suffer take it patiently, as the common lot; let those who win hold the former ties in tenderest reverence, nor dare to flaunt the new bond cruelly in the face of the old.
Having said this, which, being the truth, it struck me as right to say, I will no more allude to the subject.
In the afternoon there occurred an incident. A coach-and-four, resplendent in liveries, stopped at the door; I knew it well, and so did all Norton Bury. It was empty; but Lady Caroline's own maid—so I heard afterwards—sat in the rumble, and Lady Caroline's own black- eyed Neapolitan page leaped down, bearing a large letter, which I concluded was for Miss March.
I was glad that John was not at home; glad that the coach, with all its fine paraphernalia, was away, empty as it had arrived, before John came in.
He did not come till it was nearly dusk. I was at the window, looking at my four poplar-trees, as they pointed skywards like long fingers stretching up out of the gloom, when I saw him crossing the common. At first I was going to meet him at the gate, but on second thoughts I remained within, and only stirred up the fire, which could be seen shining ever so far.
"What a bright blaze!—Nay, you have not waited dinner, I hope?—Tea- -yes, that's far better; I have had such a long walk, and am so tired "
The words were cheerful, so was the tone. TOO cheerful—oh, by far! The sort of cheerfulness that strikes to a friend's heart, like the piping of soldiers as they go away back from a newly-filled grave.
"Where have you been, John?"
"All over Nunnely Hill. I must take you there—such expansive views. As Mrs. Tod informed me, quoting some local ballad, which she said was written by an uncle of hers:
"'There you may spy
Twenty-three churches with the glass and the eye.'
Remarkable fact, isn't it?"
Thus he kept on talking all tea-time, incessantly, rapidly talking. It was enough to make one weep.
After tea I insisted on his taking my arm-chair; saying, that after such a walk, in that raw day, he must be very cold.
"Not the least—quite the contrary—feel my hand." It was burning. "But I am tired—thoroughly tired."
He leaned back and shut his eyes. Oh, the utter weariness of body and soul that was written on his face!
"Why did you go out alone? John, you know that you have always me."
He looked up, smiling. But the momentary brightness passed. Alas! I was not enough to make him happy now.
We sat silent. I knew he would speak to me in time; but the gates of his heart were close locked. It seemed as if he dared not open them, lest the flood should burst forth and overwhelm us.
At nine o'clock Mrs. Tod came in with supper. She had always something or other to say, especially since the late events had drawn the whole household of Rose Cottage so closely together; now, she was brim-full of news.
She had been all that evening packing up for poor dear Miss March; though why she should call her "poor," truly, she didn't know. Who would have thought Mr. March had such grand relations? Had we seen Lady Caroline Brithwood's coach that came that day? Such a beautiful coach it was!—sent on purpose for Miss March—only she wouldn't go. "But now she has made up her mind, poor dear. She is leaving to-morrow."
When John heard this he was helping Mrs. Tod, as usual, to fasten the heavy shutters. He stood, with his hand on the bolt, motionless, till the good woman was gone. Then he staggered to the mantelpiece, and leaned on it with both his elbows, his hands covering his face.
But there was no disguise now—no attempt to make it. A young man's first love—not first fancy, but first love—in all its passion, desperation, and pain—had come to him, as it comes to all. I saw him writhing under it—saw, and could not help him. The next few silent minutes were very bitter to us both.
Then I said gently, "David!"
"I thought things were so."
"Suppose you were to talk to me a little—it might do you good."
"Another time. Let me go out—out into the air; I'm choking."
Snatching up his hat, he rushed from me. I did not dare to follow.
After waiting some time, and listening till all was quiet in the house, I could bear the suspense no longer and went out.
I thought I should find him on the Flat—probably in his favourite walk, his "terrace," as he called it, where he had first seen, and must have seen many a day after, that girlish figure tripping lightly along through the morning sunshine and morning dew. I had a sort of instinct that he would be there now; so I climbed up the shortest way, often losing my footing; for it was a pitch-dark night, and the common looked as wide, and black, and still, as a midnight sea.
John was not there; indeed, if he had been I could scarcely have seen him; I could see nothing but the void expanse of the Flat, or, looking down, the broad river of mist that rolled through the valley, on the other side of which twinkled a few cottage lights, like unearthly beacons from the farthest shore of an impassable flood.
Suddenly I remembered hearing Mrs. Tod say that, on account of its pits and quarries, the common was extremely dangerous after dark, except to those who knew it well. In a horrible dread I called out John's name—but nothing answered. I went on blindly, desperately shouting as I went. At length, in one of the Roman fosses, I stumbled and fell. Some one came, darting with great leaps through the mist, and lifted me up.
"Phineas—is that you? You have come out this bitter night—why did you?"
His tenderness over me, even then, made me break down. I forgot my manhood, or else it slipped from me unawares. In the old Bible language, "I fell on his neck and wept."
Afterwards I was not sorry for this, because I think my weakness gave him strength. I think, amidst the whirl of passion that racked him it was good for him to feel that the one crowning cup of life is not inevitably life's sole sustenance; that it was something to have a friend and brother who loved him with a love—like Jonathan's— "passing the love of women."
"I have been very wrong," he kept repeating, in a broken voice; "but I was not myself. I am better now. Come—let us go home."
He put his arm round me to keep me warm, and brought me safely into the house. He even sat down by the fire to talk with me. Whatever struggle there had been, I saw it was over, he looked his own self— only so very, very pale—and spoke in his natural voice; ay, even when mentioning HER, which he was the first to do.
"She goes to-morrow, you are sure, Phineas?"
"I believe so. Shall you see her again?"
"If she desires it."
"Shall you say anything to her?"
"Nothing. If for a little while—not knowing or not thinking of all the truth—I felt I had strength to remove all impediments, I now see that even to dream of such things makes me a fool, or possibly worse- -a knave. I will be neither—I will be a man."
I replied not: how could one answer such words?—calmly uttered, though each syllable must have been torn out like a piece of his heart.
"Did she say anything to you? Did she ask why I left her so abruptly this morning?"
"She did; I said you would probably tell her the reason yourself."
"I will. She must no longer be kept in ignorance about me or my position. I shall tell her the whole truth—save one thing. She need never know that."
I guessed by his broken voice what the "one thing" was;—which he counted as nothing; but which, I think, any true woman would have counted worth everything—the priceless gift of a good man's love. Love, that in such a nature as his, if once conceived, would last a lifetime. And she was not to know it! I felt sorry—ay, even sorry for Ursula March.
"Do you not think I am right, Phineas?"
"Perhaps. I cannot say. You are the best judge."
"It is right," said he, firmly. "There can be no possible hope for me; nothing remains but silence."
I did not quite agree with him. I could not see that to any young man, only twenty years old, with the world all before him, any love could be absolutely hopeless; especially to a young man like John Halifax. But as things now stood I deemed it best to leave him altogether to himself, offering neither advice nor opinion. What Providence willed, through HIS will, would happen: for me to interfere either way would be at once idle and perilous; nay, in some sense, exceedingly wrong.
So I kept my thoughts to myself, and preserved a total silence.
John broke it—talking to himself as if he had forgotten I was by.
"To think it was she who did it—that first kindness to a poor friendless boy. I never forgot it—never. It did me more good than I can tell. And that scar on her poor arm—her dear little tender arm;—how this morning I would have given all the world to—"
He broke off—instinctively, as it were—with the sort of feeling every good man has, that the sacred passion, the inmost tenderness of his love, should be kept wholly between himself and the woman he has chosen.
I knew that too; knew that in his heart had grown up a secret, a necessity, a desire, stronger than any friendship—closer than the closest bond of brotherly love. Perhaps—I hardly know why—I sighed.
John turned round—"Phineas, you must not think—because of this— which you will understand for yourself, I hope, one day; you must not think I could ever think less, or feel less, about my brother."
He spoke earnestly, with a full heart. We clasped hands warmly and silently. Thus was healed my last lingering pain—I was thenceforward entirely satisfied.
I think we parted that night as we had never parted before; feeling that the trial of our friendship—the great trial, perhaps, of any friendship—had come and passed, safely: that whatever new ties might gather round each, our two hearts would cleave together until death.
The next morning rose, as I have seen many a morning rise at Enderley—misty and grey; but oh, so heavenly fair! with a pearly network of dewy gossamer under foot, and overhead countless thistle downs flying about, like fairy chariots hurrying out of sight of the sun, which had only mounted high enough above the Flat to touch the horizon of hills opposite, and the tops of my four poplars, leaving Rose Cottage and the valley below it all in morning shadow. John called me to go with him on the common; his voice sounded so cheerful outside my door that it was with a glad heart I rose and went.
He chose his old walk—his "terrace." No chance now of meeting the light figure coming tripping along the level hill. All that dream was now over. He did not speak of it—nor I. He seemed contented— or, at least, thoroughly calmed down; except that the sweet composure of his mien had settled into the harder gravity of manhood. The crisis and climax of youth had been gone through—he never could be a boy again.
We came to that part of John's terrace which overhung the churchyard. Both of us glanced instinctively down to the heap of loose red earth- -the as yet nameless grave. Some one stood beside it—the only one who was likely to be there.
Even had I not recognized her, John's manner would have told me who it was. A deadly paleness overspread his face—its quietness was gone—every feature trembled. It almost broke my heart to see how deeply this love had struck its roots down to the very core of his; twisting them with every fibre of his being. A love which, though it had sprung up so early, and come to maturity so fast, might yet be the curse of his whole existence. Save that no love conceived virtuously, for a good woman, be it ever so hopeless, can be rightly considered as a curse.
"Shall we go away?" I whispered—"a long walk—to the other side of the Flat? She will have left Rose Cottage soon."
"Before noon, I heard. Come, David."
He suffered me to put my arm in his, and draw him away for a step or two, then turned.
"I can't, Phineas, I can't! I MUST look at her again—only for one minute—one little minute."
But he stayed—we were standing where she could not see us—till she had slowly left the grave. We heard the click of the churchyard gate: where she went afterward we could not discern.
John moved away. I asked him if we should take our walk now? But he did not seem to hear me; so I let him follow his own way—perhaps it might be for good—who could tell?
He descended from the Flat, and came quickly round the corner of the cottage. Miss March stood there, trying to find one fresh rose among the fast-withering clusters about what had been our parlour window and now was hers.
She saw us, acknowledged us, but hurriedly, and not without some momentary signs of agitation.
"The roses are all gone," she said rather sadly.
"Perhaps, higher up, I can reach one—shall I try?"
I marvelled to see that John's manner as he addressed her was just like his manner always with her.
"Thank you—that will do. I wanted to take some away with me—I am leaving Rose Cottage to-day, Mr. Halifax."
"So I have heard."
He did not say "sorry to hear." I wondered did the omission strike her? But no—she evidently regarded us both as mere acquaintances, inevitably, perhaps even tenderly, bound up with this time; and as such, claiming a more than ordinary place in her regard and remembrance. No man with common sense or common feeling could for a moment dare to misinterpret the emotion she showed.
Re-entering the house, she asked us if we would come in with her; she had a few things to say to us. And then she again referred gratefully to our "kindness."
We all went once more—for the last time—into the little parlour. "Yes—I am going away," said she, mournfully.
"We hope all good will go with you—always and everywhere."
"Thank you, Mr. Fletcher."
It was strange, the grave tone our intercourse now invariably assumed. We might have been three old people, who had long fought with and endured the crosses of the world, instead of two young men and a young woman, in the very dawn of life.
"Circumstances have fixed my plans since I saw you yesterday. I am going to reside for a time with my cousins, the Brithwoods. It seems best for me. Lady Caroline is very kind, and I am so lonely."
She said this not in any complaint, but as if accepting the fact, and making up her mind to endure it. A little more fragmentary conversation passed, chiefly between herself and me—John uttered scarcely a word. He sat by the window, half shading his face with his hand. Under that covert, the gaze which incessantly followed and dwelt on her face—oh, had she seen it!
The moments narrowed. Would he say what he had intended, concerning his position in the world? Had she guessed or learned anything, or were we to her simply Mr. Halifax and Mr. Fletcher—two "gentlemen" of Norton Bury? It appeared so.
"This is not a very long good-bye, I trust?" said she to me, with something more than courtesy. "I shall remain at the Mythe House some weeks, I believe. How long do you purpose staying at Enderley?"
I was uncertain.
"But your home is in Norton Bury? I hope—I trust, you will allow my cousin to express in his own house his thanks and mine for your great kindness during my trouble?"
Neither of us answered. Miss March looked surprised—hurt—nay, displeased; then her eye, resting on John, lost its haughtiness, and became humble and sweet.
"Mr. Halifax, I know nothing of my cousin, and I do know you. Will you tell me—candidly, as I know you will—whether there is anything in Mr. Brithwood which you think unworthy of your acquaintance?"
"He would think me unworthy of his," was the low, firm answer.
Miss March smiled incredulously. "Because you are not very rich? What can that signify? It is enough for me that my friends are gentlemen."
"Mr. Brithwood, and many others, would not allow my claim to that title."
Astonished—nay, somewhat more than astonished—the young gentlewoman drew back a little. "I do not quite understand you."
"Let me explain, then;" and her involuntary gesture seeming to have brought back all honest dignity and manly pride, he faced her, once more himself. "It is right, Miss March, that you should know who and what I am, to whom you are giving the honour of your kindness. Perhaps you ought to have known before; but here at Enderley we seemed to be equals—friends."
"I have indeed felt it so."
"Then you will the sooner pardon my not telling you—what you never asked, and I was only too ready to forget—that we are not equals— that is, society would not regard us as such—and I doubt if even you yourself would wish us to be friends."
"Because you are a gentlewoman and I am a tradesman."
The news was evidently a shock to her—it could not but be, reared as she had been. She sat—the eye-lashes dropping over her flushed cheeks—perfectly silent.
John's voice grew firmer—prouder—no hesitation now.
"My calling is, as you will soon hear at Norton Bury, that of a tanner. I am apprentice to Abel Fletcher—Phineas's father."
"Mr. Fletcher!" She looked up at me—a mingled look of kindliness and pain.
"Ay, Phineas is a little less beneath your notice than I am. He is rich—he has been well educated; I have had to educate myself. I came to Norton Bury six years ago—a beggar-boy. No, not quite that- -for I never begged! I either worked or starved."
The earnestness, the passion of his tone, made Miss March lift her eyes, but they fell again.
"Yes, Phineas found me in an alley—starving. We stood in the rain, opposite the mayor's house. A little girl—you know her, Miss March- -came to the door, and threw out to me a bit of bread."
Now indeed she started. "You—was that you?"
"It was I."
John paused, and his whole manner changed into softness, as he resumed. "I never forgot that little girl. Many a time, when I was inclined to do wrong, she kept me right—the remembrance of her sweet face and her kindness."
That face was pressed down against the sofa where she sat. I think Miss March was all but weeping.
"I am glad to have met her again—glad to have been able to do her some small good in return for the infinite good she once did me. I shall bid her farewell now—at once and altogether."
A quick, involuntary turn of the hidden face asked him "Why?"
"Because," John answered, "the world says we are not equals, and it would neither be for Miss March's honour nor mine did I try to force upon it the truth—which I may prove openly one day—that we ARE equals."
Miss March looked up at him—it were hard to say with what expression, of pleasure, or pride, or simple astonishment; perhaps a mingling of all—then her eyelids fell. She silently offered her hand, first to me and then to John. Whether she meant it as friendliness, or as a mere ceremony of adieu, I cannot tell. John took it as the latter, and rose.
His hand was on the door—but he could not go.
"Miss March," he said, "perhaps I may never see you again—at least, never as now. Let me look once more at that wrist which was hurt."
Her left arm was hanging over the sofa—the scar being visible enough. John took the hand, and held it firmly.
"Poor little hand—blessed little hand! May God bless it evermore."
Suddenly he pressed his lips to the place where the wound had been—a kiss long and close, such as only a lover's kiss could be. Surely she must have felt it—known it.
A moment afterward, he was gone.
That day Miss March departed, and we remained at Enderley alone.