John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XVII
Mrs. Jessop's drawing-room, ruddy with fire-light, glittering with delicate wax candle-light; a few women in pale-coloured gauzy dresses, a few men, sublime in blue coats, gold buttons, yellow waistcoats, and smiles—this was all I noticed of the scene, which was quite a novel scene to me.
The doctor's wife had introduced us formally to all her guests, as the custom then was, especially in these small cosy supper-parties. How they greeted us I do not now remember; no doubt, with a kind of well-bred formal surprise; but society was generally formal then. My chief recollection is of Mrs. Jessop's saying pointedly and aloud, though with a smile playing under the corners of her good little mouth:
"Mr. Halifax, it is kind of you to come; Lady Caroline Brithwood will be delighted. She longs to make your acquaintance."
After that everybody began to talk with extraordinary civility to Mr. Halifax.
For John, he soon took his place among them, with that modest self- possession which best becomes youth. Society's dangerous waters accordingly became smooth to him, as to a good swimmer who knows his own strength, trusts it, and struggles not.
"Mr. Brithwood and Lady Caroline will be late," I overheard the hostess say. "I think I told you that Miss March—"
But here the door was flung open, and the missing guests announced. John and I were in the alcove of the window; I heard his breathing behind me, but I dared not look at or speak to him. In truth, I was scarcely calmer than he. For though it must be clearly understood I never was "in love" with any woman, still the reflected glamour of those Enderley days had fallen on me. It often seems now as if I too had passed the golden gate, and looked far enough into youth's Eden to be able ever after to weep with those that wept without the doors.
No—she was not there.
We both sat down. I know not if I was thankful or sorry.
I had seldom seen the 'squire or Lady Caroline. He was a portly young man, pinched in by tight light-coloured garments. She was a lady rather past her first youth, but very handsome still, who floated about, leaving a general impression of pseudo-Greek draperies, gleaming arms and shoulders, sparkling jewellery, and equally sparkling smiles. These smiles seemed to fall just as redundantly upon the family physician, whom by a rare favour—for so, I suppose, it must have been—she was honouring with a visit, as if worthy Dr. Jessop were the noblest in the land. He, poor man, was all bows and scrapes and pretty speeches, in the which came more than the usual amount of references to the time which had made his fortune, the day when Her Majesty Queen Charlotte had done him the honour to be graciously taken ill in passing through Norton Bury. Mrs. Jessop seemed to wear her honours as hostess to an earl's daughter very calmly indeed. She performed the ordinary courtesies, and then went over to talk with Mr. Brithwood. In their conversation I sought in vain the name of Ursula.
So it ended—the sickening expectation which I had read in the lad's face all day. He would not see her—perhaps it was best. Yet my heart bled when I looked at him. But such thoughts could not be indulged in now, especially as Mrs. Jessop's quick eyes seemed often upon him or me, with an expression that I could not make out at all, save that in such a good woman, whom Miss March so well loved, could lurk nothing evil or unkindly.
So I tried to turn my attention to the Brithwoods. One could not choose but look at her, this handsome Lady Caroline, whom half Norton Bury adored, the other half pursed up their lips at the mention of— but these were of the number she declined to "know." All that she did know—all that came within her influence, were irresistibly attracted, for to please seemed a part of her nature. To-night nearly every one present stole gradually into the circle round her; men and women alike charmed by the fascination of her ripe beauty, her lively manner, her exquisite smile and laugh.
I wondered what John thought of Lady Caroline Brithwood. She could not easily see him, even though her acute glance seemed to take in everything and everybody in the room. But on her entrance John had drawn back a little, and our half-dozen of fellow-guests, who had been conversing with him, crept shyly out of his way; as if, now the visible reality appeared, they were aghast at the great gulf that lay between John Halifax the tanner and the Brithwoods of the Mythe. A few even looked askance at our hostess, as though some terrible judgment must fall upon poor ignorant Mrs. Jessop, who had dared to amalgamate such opposite ranks.
So it came to pass, that while everybody gathered round the Brithwoods John and I stood alone, and half concealed by the window.
Very soon I heard Lady Caroline's loud whisper;
"Mrs. Jessop, my good friend, one moment. Where is your 'jeune heros,' 'l'homme du peuple?' I do not see him. Does he wear clouted shoes and woollen stockings? Has he a broad face and turned-up nose, like your 'paysans Anglais'?"
"Judge for yourself, my lady—he stands at your elbow. Mr. Halifax, let me present you to Lady Caroline Brithwood."
If Lord Luxmore's fair daughter ever looked confounded in her life she certainly did at this minute.
"Lui? Mon dieu! Lui!" And her shrug of amazement was stopped, her half-extended hand drawn back. No, it was quite impossible to patronise John Halifax.
He bowed gravely, she made a gracious curtsey; they met on equal terms, a lady and gentleman.
Soon her lively manner returned. She buckled on her spurs for a new conquest, and left the already vanquished gentilities of Norton Bury to amuse themselves as they best might.
"I am enchanted to meet you, Mr. Halifax; I adore 'le peuple.' Especially"—with a sly glance at her husband, who, with Tory Dr. Jessop, was vehemently exalting Mr. Pitt and abusing the First Consul, Bonaparte—"especially le peuple Francais. Me comprenez vous?"
"Madame, je vous comprends."
Her ladyship looked surprised. French was not very common among the honest trading class, or indeed any but the higher classes in England.
"But," John continued, "I must dissent from Lady Caroline Brithwood, if she mingles the English people with 'le peuple Francais.' They are a very different class of beings."
"Ah, ca ira, ca ira"—she laughed, humming beneath her breath a few notes out of that terrible song. "But you know French—let us talk in that language; we shall horrify no one then."
"I cannot speak it readily; I am chiefly self-taught."
"The best teaching. Mon dieu! Truly you are made to be 'un hero'— just the last touch of grace that a woman's hand gives—had you ever a woman for your friend?—and you would be complete. But I cannot flatter—plain, blunt honesty for me. You must—you shall be— 'l'homme du peuple.' Were you born such?—Who were your parents?"
I saw John hesitate; I knew how rarely he ever uttered those names written in the old Bible—how infinitely sacred they were to him. Could he blazon them out now, to gratify this woman's idle curiosity?
"Madam," he said, gravely, "I was introduced to you simply as John Halifax. It seems to me that, so long as I do no discredit to it, the name suffices to the world."
"Ah—I see! I see!" But he, with his downcast eyes, did not detect the meaning smile that just flashed in hers was changed into a tone of soft sympathy. "You are right; rank is nothing—a cold, glittering marble, with no soul under. Give me the rich flesh-and-blood life of the people. Liberte—fraternite—egalite. I would rather be a gamin in Paris streets than my brother William at Luxmore Hall."
Thus talked she, sometimes in French, sometimes in English, the young man answering little. She only threw her shining arts abroad the more; she seemed determined to please. And Nature fitted her for it. Even if not born an earl's daughter, Lady Caroline would have been everywhere the magic centre of any society wherein she chose to move. Not that her conversation was brilliant or deep, but she said the most frivolous things in a way that made them appear witty; and the grand art, to charm by appearing charmed, was hers in perfection. She seemed to float altogether upon and among the pleasantnesses of life; pain, either endured or inflicted, was to her an impossibility.
Thus her character struck me on this first meeting, and thus, after many years, it strikes me still. I look back upon what she appeared that evening—lovely, gay, attractive—in the zenith of her rich maturity. What her old age was the world knows, or thinks it knows. But Heaven may be more merciful—I cannot tell. Whatever is now said of her, I can only say, "Poor Lady Caroline!"
It must have indicated a grain of pure gold at the bottom of the gold-seeming dross, that, from the first moment she saw him, she liked John Halifax.
They talked a long time. She drew him out, as a well-bred woman always can draw out a young man of sense. He looked pleased; he conversed well. Had he forgotten? No; the restless wandering of his eyes at the slightest sound in the room told how impossible it was he should forget. Yet he comported himself bravely, and I was proud that Ursula's kindred should see him as he was.
"Lady Caroline" (her ladyship turned, with a slightly bored expression, to her intrusive hostess), "I fear we must give up all expectation of our young friend to-night."
"I told you so. Post-travelling is very uncertain, and the Bath roads are not good. Have you ever visited Bath, Mr. Halifax?"
"But she is surely long on the road," pursued Mrs. Jessop, rather anxiously. "What attendants had she?"
"Her own maid, and our man Laplace. Nay, don't be alarmed, excellent and faithful gouvernante! I assure you your fair ex-pupil is quite safe. The furore about her has considerably abated since the heiress-hunters at Bath discovered the melancholy fact that Miss March—"
"Pardon me," interrupted the other; "we are among strangers. I assure you I am quite satisfied about my dear child."
"What a charming thing is affectionate fidelity," observed her ladyship, turning once more to John, with a sweet, lazy dropping of the eyelids.
The young man only bowed. They resumed their conversation—at least, she did, talking volubly; satisfied with monosyllabic answers.
It was now almost supper-time—held a glorious hour at Norton Bury parties. People began to look anxiously to the door.
"Before we adjourn," said Lady Caroline, "I must do what it will be difficult to accomplish after supper;" and for the first time a sharp, sarcastic tone jarred in her smooth voice. "I must introduce you especially to my husband. Mr. Brithwood?"
"Madam." He lounged up to her. They were a diverse pair. She, in her well-preserved beauty, and Gallic artificial grace—he, in his coarse, bloated youth, coarser and worse than the sensualism of middle age.
"Mr. Brithwood, let me introduce you to a new friend of mine."
The 'squire bowed, rather awkwardly; proving the truth of what Norton Bury often whispered, that Richard Brithwood was more at home with grooms than gentlemen.
"He belongs to this your town—you must have heard of him, perhaps met him."
"I have more than had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Brithwood, but he has doubtless forgotten it."
"By Jove! I have. What might your name be, sir?"
"What, Halifax the tanner?"
"Phew!"—He began a low whistle, and turned on his heel.
John changed colour a little. Lady Caroline laughed—a thoughtless, amused laugh, with a pleasant murmur of "Bete!"—"Anglais!"— Nevertheless, she whispered to her husband—
"Mon ami—you forget; I have introduced you to this gentleman."
"Gentleman indeed! Pooh! rubbish! Lady Caroline—I'm busy talking."
"And so are we, most pleasantly. I only called you as a matter of form, to ratify my invitation. Mr. Halifax will, I hope, dine with us next Sunday?"
"The devil he will!"
"Richard—you hurt me!"—with a little scream, as she pushed his rough fingers from her arm, so soft, and round, and fair.
"Madam, you must be crazy. The young man is a tradesman—a tanner. Not fit for MY society."
"Precisely; I invite him for my own."
But the whispers and responses were alike unheeded by their object. For, at the doorway, entering with Mrs. Jessop, was a tall girl in deep mourning. We knew her—we both knew her—our dream at Enderley- -our Nut-browne Mayde.
John was near to the door—their eyes met. She bowed—he returned it. He was very pale. For Miss March, her face and neck were all in a glow. Neither spoke, nor offered more than this passing acknowledgment, and she moved on.
She came and sat down beside me, accidentally, I believe; but when she saw me she held out her hand. We exchanged a word or two—her manner was unaltered; but she spoke hurriedly, and her fingers had their old nervous twitch. She said this meeting was to her "unexpected," but "she was very glad to see me."
So she sat, and I looked sideways at her dropped eyes—her forehead with its coronet of chestnut curls. How would he bear the sight—he of whose heart mine was the mere faint echo? Yet truly an echo, repeating with cruel faithfulness every throb.
He kept his position, a little aloof from the Brithwoods, who were holding a slight altercation—though more of looks than words. John heeded them not. I was sure, though he had never looked directly towards us, that he had heard every syllable Miss March said to me.
The 'squire called across the room, in a patronising tone: "My good fellow—that is, ahem! I say, young Halifax?"
"Were you addressing me, Mr. Brithwood?"
"I was. I want a quiet word or two—between ourselves."
They stood face to face. The one seemed uncomfortable, the other was his natural self—a little graver, perhaps, as if he felt what was coming, and prepared to meet it, knowing in whose presence he had to prove himself—what Richard Brithwood, with all his broad acres, could never be—a gentleman.
Few could doubt that fact, who looked at the two young men, as all were looking now.
"On my soul, it's awkward—I'll call at the tan-yard and explain."
"I had rather you would explain here."
"Well then, though it's a confounded unpleasant thing to say—and I really wish I had not been brought into such a position—you'll not heed my wife's nonsense?"
"I do not understand you."
"Come, it's no use running to cover in that way. Let's be open and plain. I mean no offence. You may be a very respectable young man for aught I know, still rank is rank. Of course Doctor Jessop asks whom he likes to his house—and, by George! I'm always civil to everybody—but really, in spite of my lady's likings, I can't well invite you to my table!"
"Nor could I humiliate myself by accepting any such invitation."
He said the words distinctly, so that the whole circle might have heard, and was turning away, when Mr. Brithwood fired up—as an angry man does in a losing game.
"Humiliate yourself! What do you mean, sir? Wouldn't you be only too thankful to crawl into the houses of your betters, any how, by hook or by crook? Ha! ha! I know you would. It's always the way with you common folk, you rioters, you revolutionists. By the Lord! I wish you were all hanged."
The young blood rose fiercely in John's cheek, but he restrained himself. "Sir, I am neither a rioter nor a revolutionist."
"But you are a tradesman? You used to drive Fletcher's cart of skins."
"And are you not—I remember you now—the very lad, the tanner's lad, that once pulled us ashore from the eger—Cousin March and me?"
I heard a quick exclamation beside me, and saw Ursula listening intently—I had not noticed how intently till now. Her eyes were fixed on John, waiting for his answer. It came.
"Your memory is correct; I was that lad."
"Thank'ee for it too. Lord! what a jolly life I should have missed! You got no reward, though. You threw away the guinea I offered you; come, I'll make it twenty guineas to-morrow."
The insult was too much. "Sir, you forget that whatever we may have been, to-night we meet as equals."
"As guests in the same house—most certainly for the time being, equals."
Richard Brithwood stared, literally dumb with fury. The standers-by were dumb too, though such fracas were then not uncommon even in drawing-rooms, and in women's presence, especially with men of Mr. Brithwood's stamp. His wife seemed quite used to it. She merely shrugged her shoulders and hummed a note or two of "Ca ira." It irritated the husband beyond all bounds.
"Hold your tongue, my lady. What, because a 'prentice-lad once saved my life, and you choose to patronise him as you do many another vagabond, with your cursed liberty and equality, am I to have him at my table, and treat him as a gentleman? By —-, madam, never!"
He spoke savagely, and loud. John was silent; he had locked his hands together convulsively; but it was easy to see that his blood was at boiling heat, and that, did he once slip the leash of his passions, it would go hard with Richard Brithwood.
The latter came up to him with clenched fist. "Now mark me, you—you vagabond!"
Ursula March crossed the room, and caught his arm, her eyes gleaming fire.
"Cousin, in my presence this gentleman shall be treated as a gentleman. He was kind to my father."
"Curse your father!"
John's right hand burst free; he clutched the savage by the shoulder.
"Be silent. You had better."
Brithwood shook off the grasp, turned and struck him; that last fatal insult, which offered from man to man, in those days, could only be wiped out with blood.
John staggered. For a moment he seemed as if he would have sprung on his adversary and felled him to the ground—but—he did it not.
Some one whispered,—"He won't fight. He is a Quaker."
"No!" he said, and stood erect; though he was ghastly pale, and his voice sounded hoarse and strange—"But I am a Christian. I shall not return blow for blow."
It was a new doctrine; foreign to the practice, if familiar to the ear, of Christian Norton Bury. No one answered him; all stared at him; one or two sheered off from him with contemptuous smiles. Then Ursula March stretched out her friendly hand. John took it, and grew calm in a moment.
There arose a murmur of "Mr. Brithwood is going."
"Let him go!" Miss March cried, anger still glowing in her eyes.
"Not so—it is not right. I will speak to him. May I?" John softly unclosed her detaining hand, and went up to Mr. Brithwood. "Sir, there is no need for you to leave this house—I am leaving it. You and I shall not meet again if I can help it."
His proud courtesy, his absolute dignity and calmness, completely overwhelmed his blustering adversary; who gazed open-mouthed, while John made his adieu to his host and to those he knew. The women gathered round him—woman's instinct is usually true. Even Lady Caroline, amid a flutter of regrets, declared she did not believe there was a man in the universe who would have borne so charmingly such a "degradation."
At the word Miss March fired up. "Madam," she said, in her impetuous young voice, "no insult offered to a man can ever degrade him; the only real degradation is when he degrades himself."
John, passing out at the doorway, caught her words. As he quitted the room no crowned victor ever wore a look more joyful, more proud.
After a minute we followed him; the Doctor's wife and I. But now the pride and joy had both faded.
"Mrs. Jessop, you see I am right," he murmured. "I ought not to have come here. It is a hard world for such as I. I shall never conquer it—never."
"Yes—you will." And Ursula stood by him, with crimsoned cheek, and eyes no longer flashing, but fearless still.
Mrs. Jessop put her arm round the young girl. "I also think you need not dread the world, Mr. Halifax, if you always act as you did tonight; though I grieve that things should have happened thus, if only for the sake of this, my child."
"Have I done any harm? oh! tell me, have I done any harm?"
"No!" cried Ursula, with the old impetuosity kindling anew in every feature of her noble face. "You have but showed me what I shall remember all my life—that a Christian only can be a true gentleman."
She understood him—he felt she did; understood him as, if a man be understood by one woman in the world, he—and she too—is strong, safe, and happy. They grasped hands once more, and gazed unhesitatingly into each other's eyes. All human passion for the time being set aside, these two recognized each in the other one aim, one purpose, one faith; something higher than love, something better than happiness. It must have been a blessed moment for both.
Mrs. Jessop did not interfere. She had herself known what true love was, if, as gossips said, she had kept constant to our worthy doctor for thirty years. But still she was a prudent woman, not unused to the world.
"You must go now," she said, laying her hand gently on John's arm.
"I am going. But she—what will she do?"
"Never mind me. Jane will take care of me," said Ursula, winding her arms round her old governess, and leaning her cheek down on Mrs. Jessop's shoulder.
We had never seen Miss March show fondness, that is, caressing fondness, to any one before. It revealed her in a new light; betraying the depths there were in her nature; infinite depths of softness and of love.
John watched her for a minute; a long, wild, greedy minute, then whispered hoarsely to me, "I must go."
We made a hasty adieu, and went out together into the night—the cold, bleak night, all blast and storm.