John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XVI
It was winter-time. All the summer-days at Enderley were gone, "like a dream when one awaketh." Of her who had been the beautiful centre of the dream we had never heard nor spoken since.
John and I were walking together along the road towards the Mythe; we could just see the frosty sunset reflected on the windows of the Mythe House, now closed for months, the family being away. The meadows alongside, where the Avon had overflowed and frozen, were a popular skating-ground: and the road was alive with lookers-on of every class. All Norton Bury seemed abroad; and half Norton Bury exchanged salutations with my companion, till I was amused to notice how large John's acquaintance had grown.
Among the rest there overtook us a little elderly lady, as prim and neat as an old maid, and as bright-looking as a happy matron. I saw at once who it was—Mrs. Jessop, our good doctor's new wife, and old love: whom he had lately brought home, to the great amazement and curiosity of Norton Bury.
"She seems to like you very much," I said; as, after a cordial greeting, which John returned rather formally, she trotted on.
"They were both very kind to me in London, last month, as I think I told you."
"Ay!" It was one of the few things he had mentioned about that same London journey, for he had grown into a painful habit of silence now. Yet I dreaded to break it, lest any wounds rankling beneath might thereby be caused to smart once more. And our love to one another was too faithful for a little reserve to have power to influence it in any way.
We came once more upon the old lady, watching the skaters. She again spoke to John, and looked at me with her keen, kind, blue eyes.
"I think I know who your friend is, though you do not introduce him." (John hastily performed that ceremony.) "Tom, and I" (how funny to hear her call our old bachelor doctor, "Tom!") "were wondering what had become of you, Mr. Halifax. Are you stronger than you were in London?"
"Was he ill in London, madam?"
"No, indeed, Phineas! Or only enough to win for me Dr. and Mrs. Jessop's great kindness."
"Which you have never come to thank us for. Never crossed our door-sill since we returned home! Does not your conscience sting you for your ingratitude?"
He coloured deeply.
"Indeed, Mrs. Jessop, it was not ingratitude."
"I know it; I believe it," she answered, with much kindness. "Tell me what it was?"
"You ought to believe the warm interest we both take in you. Tell me the plain truth."
"I will. It is that your kindness to me in London was no reason for my intruding on you at Norton Bury. It might not be agreeable for you and Dr. Jessop to have my acquaintance here. I am a tradesman."
The little old lady's eyes brightened into something beyond mere kindness as she looked at him.
"Mr. Halifax, I thank you for that 'plain truth.' Truth is always best. Now for mine. I had heard you were a tradesman; I found out for myself that you were a gentleman. I do not think the two facts incompatible, nor does my husband. We shall be happy to see you at our house at all times and under all circumstances."
She offered him her hand. John bowed over it in silence, but it was long since I had seen him look more pleased.
"Well, then, suppose you come this evening, both of you?"
We assented; and on her further invitation John and I and the little old lady walked on together.
I could not help watching Mrs. Jessop with some amusement. Norton Bury said she had been a poor governess all her days; but that hard life had left no shadow on the cheerful sunset of her existence now. It was a frank, bright, happy face, in spite of its wrinkles, and its somewhat hard Welsh features. And it was pleasant to hear her talk, even though she talked a good deal, and in a decidedly Welsh accent. Sometimes a tone or two reminded me slightly of—Ay, it was easy to guess why John evidently liked the old lady.
"I know this road well, Mr. Halifax. Once I spent a summer here, with an old pupil, now grown up. I am going to-day to inquire about her at the Mythe House. The Brithwoods came home yesterday."
I was afraid to look at John. Even to me the news was startling. How I blessed Mrs. Jessop's innocent garrulousness.
"I hope they will remain here some time. I have a special interest in their stay. Not on Lady Caroline's account, though. She patronizes me very kindly; but I doubt if she ever forgets—what Tom says I am rather too proud of remembering—that I was the poor governess, Jane Cardigan."
"Jane Cardigan!" I exclaimed.
"What, Mr. Fletcher, you know my name! And really, now I think of it, I believe I have heard yours. Not from Tom, either. It couldn't possibly be—Yes! it certainly was—How strange! Did you ever hear tell of a Miss Ursula March?"
The live crimson rushed madly over John's face. Mrs. Jessop saw it; she could not but see. At first she looked astounded, then exceedingly grave.
I replied, "that we had had the honour of meeting Miss March last summer at Enderley."
"Yes," the old lady continued, somewhat formally. "Now I recollect, Miss March told me of the circumstance; of two gentlemen there, who were very kind to her when her father died; a Mr. Fletcher and his friend—was that Mr. Halifax?"
"It was," I answered: for John was speechless. Alas! I saw at once that all my hopes for him, all the design of my long silence on this subject, had been in vain. No, he had not forgotten her. It was not in his nature to forget.
Mrs. Jessop went on, still addressing herself to me.
"I am sure I ought, on behalf of my dear pupil, to offer you both my warmest thanks. Hers was a most trying position. She never told me of it till afterwards, poor child! I am thankful her trouble was softened to her by finding that STRANGERS" (was it only my fancy that detected a slight stress on the word?) "mere strangers could be at once so thoughtful and so kind."
"No one could be otherwise to Miss March. Is she well? Has she recovered from her trial?"
"I hope so. Happily, few sorrows, few feelings of any kind, take lasting hold at eighteen. She is a noble girl. She did her duty, and it was no light one, to him who is gone; now her life begins anew. It is sure to be prosperous—I trust it may be very happy.— Now I must bid you both good-bye."
She stopped at the gates of the Mythe House; great iron gates, a barrier as proud and impassable as that which in these times the rich shut against the poor, the aristocrat against the plebeian. John, glancing once up at them, hurriedly moved on.
"Stay; you will come and see us, Mr. Halifax? Promise!"
"If you wish it."
"And promise, too, that under all circumstances you will tell me, as you did this morning, the 'plain truth'? Yes, I see you will. Good-bye."
The iron gates closed upon her, and against us. We took our silent way up to the Mythe to our favourite stile. There we leaned—still in silence, for many minutes.
"The wind is keen, Phineas; you must be cold."
Now I could speak to him—could ask him to tell me of his pain.
"It is so long since you have told me anything. It might do you good."
"Nothing can do me good. Nothing but bearing it. My God! what have I not borne! Five whole months to be dying of thirst, and not a drop of water to cool my tongue."
He bared his head and throat to the cutting wind—his chest heaved, his eyes seemed in a flame.
"God forgive me!—but I sometimes think I would give myself body and soul to the devil for one glimpse of her face, one touch of her little hand."
I made no answer. What answer could be made to such words as these? I waited—all I could do—till the paroxysm had gone by. Then I hinted—as indeed seemed not unlikely—that he might see her soon.
"Yes, a great way off, like that cloud up there. But I want her near—close—in my home—at my heart;—Phineas," he gasped, "talk to me—about something else—anything. Don't let me think, or I shall go clean mad."
And indeed he looked so. I was terrified. So quiet as I had always seen him when we met, so steadily as he had pursued his daily duties; and with all this underneath—this torment, conflict, despair, of a young man's love. It must come out—better it should.
"And you have gone on working all this while?"
"I was obliged. Nothing but work kept me in my senses. Besides"— and he laughed hoarsely—"I was safest in the tan-yard. The thought of her could not come there. I was glad of it. I tried to be solely and altogether what I am—a 'prentice lad—a mere clown."
"Nay, that was wrong."
"Was it? Well, at last it struck me so. I thought I would be a gentleman again—just for a pretence, you know—a dream—a bit of the old dream back again. So I went to London."
"And met the Jessops there?"
"Yes; though I did not know she was Jane Cardigan. But I liked her— I liked my life with them. It was like breathing a higher air, the same air that—Oh, Phineas, it was horrible to come back to my life here—to that accursed tan-yard!"
I said nothing.
"You see, now"—and that hard laugh smote me to the heart again—"you see, Phineas, how wicked I am growing. You will have to cut my acquaintance presently."
"Tell me the rest—I mean, the rest of your life in London," I said, after a pause. "Did you ever hear of her?"
"Of course not; though I knew she was there. I saw it in the Court Circular. Fancy a lady, whose name was in the Court Circular, being inquired after by a tanner's lad! But I wanted to look at her—any beggar might do that, you know—so I watched in streets and parks, by theatre-doors at night, and by church-doors on Sunday mornings; yet I never saw her once. Only think, not once for five whole months."
"John, how could you tell me you were happy?"
"I don't know. Perhaps because of my pride; perhaps because—Ah, don't look so wretched! Why did you let me say all this? You are too good for such as I."
Of course I took no heed of idle words like these. I let him stand there, leaning against the stile, now and then grasping it with his nervous, muscular hands, as if he would tear it down; then I said quietly:
"What do you intend to do?"
"Do? Nothing! What can I do? Though sometimes a score of wild plans rush into my mind, such as to run away to the Indies, like that young Warren Hastings we were talking of, come back twenty years hence a nabob, and—marry her."
"Marry her," I repeated, mournfully.
"Ay, I could. That is what maddens me. If now she and I were to meet and stand together, equal man and woman, I could make her love me; I feel I could. Instead of crawling after her thus I would go boldly in at those very gates—do you think she is there?"
He trembled, actually trembled, at the mere thought of her being so near.
"Oh, it's hard, hard! I could despise myself. Why cannot I trust my manhood, my honest manhood that I was born with, go straight to her and tell her that I love her; that God meant her for me and me for her—true husband and true wife? Phineas, mark my words"—and, wild as his manner was, it had a certain force which sounded almost like prophecy—"if ever Ursula March marries she will be my wife—MY wife!"
I could only murmur—"Heaven grant it!"
"But we shall never marry, neither one nor the other of us; we shall go on apart and alone till the next world. Perhaps she will come to me then: I may have her in my heart there."
John looked upward: there was in the west a broad, red frosty cloud, and just beyond it, nay, all but resting on it, the new moon—a little, wintry, soft new moon. A sight that might well have hushed the maddest storm of passion: it hushed his. He stood, still looking up, for many minutes, then his eyes closed, the lashes all wet.
"We'll never speak of this again, Phineas; I'll not grieve thee any more; I'll try and be a better brother to thee for the future. Come along!"
He drew my arm in his, and we went home.
Passing the tan-yard John proposed that we should call for my father. My poor father; now daily growing more sour and old, and daily leaning more and more upon John, who never ceased to respect, and make every one else respect, his master. Though still ostensibly a 'prentice, he had now the business almost entirely in his hands. It was pleasant to see how my father brightened up at his coming—how readily, when he turned homeward, he leaned upon John's strong arm, now the support of both him and me. Thus we walked through Norton Bury streets, where everybody knew us, and indeed, as it seemed to me this morning, nearly everybody greeted us—at least, one of us; but my father walked along soberly and sternly, frowning at almost every salutation John Halifax received.
"Thee art making far too many friends, John. I warn thee!"
"Not FRIENDS—only friendly acquaintance," was the gentle answer: he was well used to turn away, daily and hourly, Abel Fletcher's wrath. But it was roused beyond control when Dr. Jessop's neat little carriage, and neatest of little wives, stopped at the curb-stone and summoned John.
"I want you and Mr. Fletcher to come to us to-morrow instead of this evening. Lady Caroline Brithwood wishes to see you."
"Yes, you," smiled the old lady; "you, John Halifax, the hero of the people, who quelled the bread riots, and gave evidence thereupon to Mr. Pitt, in London. Nay! why didn't you tell me the wonderful story? Her Ladyship is full of it. She will torment me till she sees you—I know her ways. For my sake, you MUST come."
Waiting no refusal, Mrs. Jessop drove on.
"What's that?" said my father, sharply. "John, where art thee going?"
I knew this was the first warning-gun of a battle which broke out afresh every time John appeared in any livelier garb than his favourite grey, or was suspected of any more worldly associates than our quiet selves. He always took my father's attacks patiently—this time peculiarly so. He made no answer, but passed his hand once or twice over his brow, as if he could not see clearly.
Abel Fletcher repeated the question.
"Yes; that was Mrs. Jessop, sir."
"I know," grumbled my father. "The doctor is a fool in his old age. Who did she want thee to meet?"
"She!—Oh, Lady Caroline, you mean?"
"Lady Caroline wishes particularly to see John."
Abel Fletcher stopped, planted his stick in the ground, released his arm from John's, and eyed him from top to toe.
"Thee?—a woman of quality wanting to see THEE? Young man, thee art a hypocrite."
"I knew it! I foresaw how thy fine ways would end! Going to London- —crawling at the heels of grand folk—despising thy honest trade— trying to make thyself appear a gentleman!"
"I hope I am a gentleman."
Words could not describe my father's horrified astonishment. "Oh, lad!" he cried; "poor, misguided lad!—the Lord have mercy upon thee!"
John smiled—his mind evidently full of other things. Abel Fletcher's anger grew.
"And thee wants to hang on to the tail of other 'gentlemen,' such as Richard Brithwood, forsooth!—a fox-hunting, drinking, dicing fool!"
I was shocked; I had not believed him so bad as that—the young 'squire—Miss March's cousin.
"Or," pursued my father, waxing hotter and hotter, "or a 'lady' such as his wife is, the Jezebel daughter of an Ahab father!—brought up in the impious atrocities of France, and the debaucheries of Naples, where, though she keeps it close here, she abode with that vile woman whom they call Lady Hamilton."
John started. Well he might, for even to our quiet town had come, all this winter, foul newspaper tales about Nelson and Lady Hamilton.
"Take care," he said, in much agitation. "Any taint upon a woman's fame harms not her alone but all connected with her. For God's sake, sir, whether it be true or not, do not whisper in Norton Bury that Lady Caroline Brithwood is a friend of Lady Hamilton."
"Pshaw! What is either woman to us?"
And my father climbed the steps to his own door, John following.
"Nay, young gentleman, my poor house is hardly good enough for such as thee."
John turned, cruelly galled, but recovered himself.
"You are unjust to me, Abel Fletcher; and you yourself will think so soon. May I come in?"
My father made no answer, and I brought John in as usual. In truth, we had both more to think of than Abel Fletcher's temporary displeasure. This strange chance—what might it imply?—to what might it not lead? But no: if I judged Mrs. Jessop aright, it neither implied, nor would lead to, what I saw John's fancy had at once sprang toward, and revelled in, madly. A lover's fancy—a lover's hope. Even I could see what will-o'-the-wisps they were.
But the doctor's good wife, Ursula March's wise governess, would never lure a young man with such phantoms as these. I felt sure— certain—that if we met the Brithwoods we should meet no one else. Certain, even when, as we sat at our dish of tea, there came in two little dainty notes—the first invitations to worldly festivity that had ever tempted our Quaker household, and which Jael flung out of her fingers as if they had been coals from Gehenna. Notes, bidding us to a "little supper" at Dr. Jessop's, with Mr. and Lady Caroline Brithwood, of the Mythe House.
"Give them to your father, Phineas." And John vainly tried to hide the flash of his eye—the smiles that came and went like summer lightning—"To-morrow—you see, it is to-morrow."
Poor lad! he had forgotten every worldly thing in the hope of that to-morrow.
My father's sharp voice roused him. "Phineas, thee'lt stay at home. Tell the woman I say so."
"And John, father?"
"John may go to ruin if he chooses. He is his own master."
"I have been always." And the answer came less in pride than sadness. "I might have gone to ruin years ago, but for the mercy of Heaven and your kindness. Do not let us be at warfare now."
"All thy own fault, lad. Why cannot thee keep in thy own rank? Respect thyself. Be an honest tradesman, as I have been."
"And as I trust always to be. But that is only my calling, not me. I—John Halifax—am just the same, whether in the tan-yard or Dr. Jessop's drawing-room. The one position cannot degrade, nor the other elevate, me. I should not 'respect myself' if I believed otherwise."
"Eh?"—my father absolutely dropped his pipe in amazement. "Then, thee thinkest thyself already quite a gentleman?"
"As I told you before, sir—I hope I am."
"Fit to associate with the finest folk in the land?"
"If they desire it, and I choose it, certainly."
Now, Abel Fletcher, like all honest men, liked honesty; and something in John's bold spirit, and free bright eye, seemed to-day to strike him more than ordinarily.
"Lad, lad, thee art young. But it won't last—no, it won't last."
He knocked the white ashes out of his pipe—it had been curling in brave wreaths to the very ceiling two minutes before—and sat musing.
"But about to-morrow?" persisted John, after watching him some little time. "I could go—I could have gone, without either your knowledge or permission; but I had rather deal openly with you. You know I always do. You have been the kindest master—the truest friend to me; I hope, as long as I live, rarely to oppose, and never to deceive you."
His manner—-earnest, yet most respectful—his candid looks, under which lurked an evident anxiety and pain, might have mollified a harder man than Abel Fletcher.
"John, why dost thee want to go among those grand folk?"
"Not because they are grand folk. I have other reasons—strong reasons."
"Be honest. Tell me thy strong reasons."
Here was a strait.
"Why dost thee blush, young man? Is it aught thee art ashamed of?"
"Is it a secret, then, the telling of which would be to thee, or to any else, dishonour?"
"Dishonour!" And the bright eye shot an indignant gleam.
"Then, tell the truth."
"I will. I wish first to find out, for myself, whether Lady Caroline Brithwood is fitted to have under her charge one who is young— innocent—good."
"Has she such an one? One thee knows?"
"Man or woman?"
My father turned, and looked John full in the eyes. Stern as that look was, I traced in it a strange compassion.
"Lad, I thought so. Thee hast found the curse of man's life—woman."
To my amazement, John replied not a syllable. He seemed even as if he had forgotten himself and his own secret—thus, for what end I knew not, voluntarily betrayed—so absorbed was he in contemplating the old man. And truly, in all my life I had never seen such a convulsion pass over my father's face. It was like as if some one had touched and revived the torment of a long-hidden, but never-to-be-healed wound. Not till years after did I understand the full meaning of John's gaze, or why he was so patient with my father.
The torment passed—ended in violent anger.
"Out with it. Who is deluding thee? Is it a matter of wedlock, or only—"
"Stop!" John cried; his face all on fire. "The lady—"
"It is a 'lady'! Now I see why thee would fain be a gentleman."
"Oh, father—how can you?"
"So thee knowest it too—I see it in thy face—Wouldst thee be led away by him a second time! But thee shall not. I'll put thee under lock and key before thee shalt ruin thyself and disgrace thy father."
This was hard to bear; but I believe—it was John's teaching—that one ought to bear anything, however hard, from a just and worthy parent. And it was John himself who now grasped my hand, and whispered patience. John—who knew, what I myself, as I have said, did not learn for years, concerning my father's former history.
"Sir, you mistake; Phineas has nothing whatever to do with this matter. He is altogether blameless. So am I too, if you heard all."
"Tell me all; honour is bold—shame only is silent."
"I feel no shame—an honest love is no disgrace to any man. And my confessing it harms no one. She neither knows of it nor returns it."
As he said this, slowly, gravely, John moved a step back and sat down. His face was in shadow; but the fire shone on his hands, tightly locked together, motionless as stone.
My father was deeply moved. Heaven knows what ghosts of former days came and knocked at the old man's heart. We all three sat silent for a long time, then my father said:
"Who is she?"
"I had rather not tell you. She is above me in worldly station."
"Ah!" a fierce exclamation. "But thee wouldst not humble thyself— ruin thy peace for life? Thee wouldst not marry her?"
"I would—if she had loved me. Even yet, if by any honourable means I can rise to her level, so as to be able to win her love, marry her I will."
That brave "I will"—it seemed to carry its own fulfilment. Its indomitable resolution struck my father with wonder—nay, with a sort of awe.
"Do as thee thinks best, and God help thee," he said, kindly. "Mayst thee never find thy desire a curse. Fear not, lad—I will keep thy counsel."
"I knew you would."
The subject ceased: my father's manner indicated that he wished it to cease. He re-lit his pipe, and puffed away, silently and sadly.
Years afterwards, when all that remained of Abel Fletcher was a green mound beside that other mound, in the Friends' burying-ground in St. Mary's Lane, I learnt—what all Norton Bury, except myself, had long known—that my poor mother, the young, thoughtless creature, whose married life had been so unhappy and so brief, was by birth a "gentlewoman."