John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XX

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In the late autumn, John married Ursula March. He was twenty-one, and she eighteen. It was very young—too young, perhaps, prudent folk might say: and yet sometimes I think a double blessing falls on unions like this. A right and holy marriage, a true love-marriage, be it early or late, is—must be—sanctified and happy; yet those have the best chance of happiness, who, meeting on the very threshold of life, enter upon its duties together; with free, fresh hearts, easily moulded the one to the other, rich in all the riches of youth, acute to enjoy, brave and hopeful to endure.

Such were these two—God bless them!

They were married quite privately, neither having any near kindred. Besides, John held strongly the opinion that so solemn a festival as marriage is only desecrated by outward show. And so, one golden autumn morning, Ursula walked quietly up the Abbey aisle in her plain white muslin gown; and John and she plighted their faithful vows, no one being present except the Jessops and I. They then went away for a brief holiday—went away without either pomp or tears, entirely happy—husband and wife together.

When I came home and said what had happened my good father seemed little surprised. He had expressly desired not to be told anything of the wedding till all was over—he hated marriages.

"But since it is done, maybe 'tis as well," said he, grimly. "She seems a kindly young thing; wise, even—for a woman."

"And pleasant too, father?"

"Ay, but favour is deceitful, and beauty vain. So the lad's gone;" and he looked round, as if missing John, who had lived in our house ever since his illness. "I thought as much, when he bade me goodnight, and asked my leave to take a journey. So he's married and gone! Come, Phineas, sit thee down by thy old father; I am glad thee wilt always remain a bachelor."

We settled ourselves, my father and I; and while the old man smoked his meditative pipe I sat thinking of the winter evenings when we two lads had read by the fire-side; the summer days when we had lounged on the garden wall. He was a married man now, the head of a household; others had a right—the first, best, holiest right—to the love that used to be all mine; and though it was a marriage entirely happy and hopeful, though all that day and every day I rejoiced both with and for my brother, still it was rather sad to miss him from our house, to feel that his boyish days were quite over—that his boyish place would know him no more.

But of course I had fully overcome, or at least suppressed, this feeling when, John having brought his wife home, I went to see them in their own house.

I had seen it once before; it was an old dwelling-house, which my father bought with the flour-mill, situated in the middle of the town, the front windows looking on the street, the desolate garden behind shut in by four brick walls. A most un-bridal-like abode. I feared they would find it so, even though John had been busy there the last two months, in early mornings and late evenings, keeping a comical secrecy over the matter as if he were jealous that any one but himself should lend an eye, or put a finger, to the dear task of making ready for his young wife.

They could not be great preparations, I knew, for the third of my father's business promised but a small income. Yet the gloomy outside being once passed, the house looked wonderfully bright and clean; the walls and doors newly-painted and delicately stencilled:— ("Master did all that himself," observed the proud little handmaid, Jenny—Jem Watkins's sweetheart. I had begged the place for her myself of Mistress Ursula.) Though only a few rooms were furnished, and that very simply, almost poorly, all was done with taste and care; the colours well mingled, the wood-work graceful and good.

They were out gardening, John Halifax and his wife.

Ay, his wife; he was a husband now. They looked so young, both of them, he kneeling, planting box-edging, she standing by him with her hand on his shoulder—the hand with the ring on it. He was laughing at something she had said, thy very laugh of old, David! Neither heard me come till I stood close by.

"Phineas, welcome, welcome!" He wrung my hand fervently, many times; so did Ursula, blushing rosy red. They both called me "brother," and both were as fond and warm as any brother and sister could be.

A few minutes after, Ursula—"Mrs. Halifax," as I said I ought to call her now—slipped away into the house, and John and I were left together. He glanced after his wife till she was out of sight, played with the spade, threw it down, placed his two hands on my shoulders, and looked hard in my face. He was trembling with deep emotion.

"Art thou happy, David?"

"Ay, lad, almost afraid of my happiness. God make me worthy of it, and of her!"

He lifted his eyes upwards; there was in them a new look, sweet and solemn, a look which expressed the satisfied content of a life now rounded and completed by that other dear life which it had received into and united with its own—making a full and perfect whole, which, however kindly and fondly it may look on friends and kindred outside, has no absolute need of any, but is complete in and sufficient to itself, as true marriage should be. A look, unconsciously fulfilling the law—God's own law—that a man shall leave father and mother, brethren and companions, and shall cleave unto his wife, and "they two shall become one flesh."

And although I rejoiced in his joy, still I felt half-sadly for a moment, the vague, fine line of division which was thus for evermore drawn between him and me of no fault on either side, and of which he himself was unaware. It was but the right and natural law of things, the difference between the married and unmarried, which only the latter feel. Which, perhaps, the Divine One meant them to feel—that out of their great solitude of this world may grow a little inner Eden, where they may hear His voice, "walking in the garden in the cool of the day."

We went round John's garden; there was nothing Eden-like about it, being somewhat of a waste still, divided between ancient cabbage- beds, empty flower-beds, and great old orchard-trees, very thinly laden with fruit.

"We'll make them bear better next year," said John, hopefully. "We may have a very decent garden here in time." He looked round his little domain with the eye of a master, and put his arm, half proudly, half shyly, round his wife's shoulders—she had sidled up to him, ostensibly bringing him a letter, though possibly only for an excuse, because in those sweet early days they naturally liked to be in each other's sight continually. It was very beautiful to see what a demure, soft, meek matronliness had come over the high spirit of the "Nut-browne Mayde."

"May I read?" she said, peeping over him.

"Of course you may, little one." A comical pet name for him to give her, who was anything but small. I could have smiled, remembering the time when John Halifax bowed to the stately and dignified young gentlewoman who stood at Mrs. Tod's door. To think he should ever have come to call Miss Ursula March "little one!"

But this was not exactly a time for jesting, since, on reading the letter, I saw the young wife flush an angry red, and then look grave. Until John, crumpling up the paper, and dropping it almost with a boyish frolic into the middle of a large rosemary-bush, took his wife by both her hands, and gazed down into her troubled face, smiling.

"You surely don't mind this, love? We knew it all before. It can make no possible difference."

"No! But it is so wrong—so unjust. I never believed he dared do it—to you."

"Hear her, Phineas! She thinks nobody dare do anything ill to her husband—not even Richard Brithwood."

"He is a—"

"Hush, dear!—we will not talk about him; since, for all his threats, he can do us no harm, and, poor man! he never will be half as happy as we."

That was true. So Mr. Brithwood's insulting letter was left to moulder harmlessly away in the rosemary-bush, and we all walked up and down the garden, talking over a thousand plans for making ends meet in that little household. To their young hopefulness even poverty itself became a jest; and was met cheerfully, like an honest, hard-featured, hard-handed friend, whose rough face was often kindly, and whose harsh grasp made one feel the strength of one's own.

"We mean," John said gaily, "to be two living Essays on the Advantages of Poverty. We are not going to be afraid of it or ashamed of it. We don't care who knows it. We consider that our respectability lies solely in our two selves."

"But your neighbours?"

"Our neighbours may think of us exactly what they like. Half the sting of poverty is gone when one keeps house for one's own comfort, and not for the comments of one's neighbours."

"I should think not," Ursula cried, tossing back her head in merry defiance. "Besides, we are young, we have few wants, and we can easily reduce our wants to our havings."

"And no more grey silk gowns?" said her husband, half-fondly, half-sadly.

"You will not be so rude as to say I shall not look equally well in a cotton one? And as for being as happy in it—why, I know best."

He smiled at her once more,—that tender, manly smile which made all soft and lustrous the inmost depths of his brown eyes; truly no woman need be afraid, with a smile like that, to be the strength, the guidance, the sunshine of her home.

We went in, and the young mistress showed us her new house; we investigated and admired all, down to the very scullery; then we adjourned to the sitting-room—the only one—and, after tea, Ursula arranged her books, some on stained shelves, which she proudly informed me were of John's own making, and some on an old spinet, which he had picked up, and which, he said, was of no other use than to hold books, since she was not an accomplished young lady, and could neither sing nor play.

"But you don't dislike the spinet, Ursula? It caught my fancy. Do you know I have a faint remembrance that once, on such a thing as this, my mother used to play?"

He spoke in a low voice; Ursula stole up to him with a fond, awed look.

"You never told me anything about your mother?"

"Dear, I had little to tell. Long ago you knew whom you were going to marry—John Halifax, who had no friends, no kindred, whose parents left him nothing but his name."

"And you cannot remember them?"

"My father not at all; my mother very little."

"And have you nothing belonging to them?"

"Only one thing. Should you like to see it?"

"Very much." She still spoke slowly, and with slight hesitation. "It was hard for him not to have known his parents," she added, when John had left the room. "I should like to have known them too. But still—when I know HIM—"

She smiled, tossed back the coronet of curls from her forehead—her proud, pure forehead, that would have worn a coronet of jewels more meekly than it now wore the unadorned honour of being John Halifax's wife. I wished he could have seen her.

That minute he re-appeared.

"Here, Ursula, is all I have of my parents. No one has seen it, except Phineas there, until now."

He held in his hand the little Greek Testament which he had showed me years before. Carefully, and with the same fond, reverent look as when he was a boy, he undid the case, made of silk, with ribbon strings—doubtless a woman's work—it must have been his mother's. His wife touched it, softly and tenderly. He showed her the fly-leaf; she looked over the inscription, and then repeated it aloud.

"'Guy Halifax, gentleman.' I thought—I thought—"

Her manner betrayed a pleased surprise: she would not have been a woman, especially a woman reared in pride of birth, not to have felt and testified the like pleasure for a moment.

"You thought that I was only a labourer's son: or—nobody's. Well, does it signify?"

"No," she cried, as, clinging round his neck and throwing her head back, she looked at him with all her heart in her eyes. "No, it does NOT signify. Were your father the king on his throne, or the beggar in the streets, it would be all the same to me; you would still be yourself—MY husband—MY John Halifax."

"God bless thee—my own wife that He has given me!" John murmured, through his close embrace.

They had altogether forgotten any one's presence, dear souls! so I kept them in that happy oblivion by slipping out to Jenny in the kitchen, and planning with her how we could at least spare Jem Watkins two days a week to help in the garden, under Mr. Halifax's orders.

"Only, Jenny," smiled I, with a warning finger, "no idling and chattering. Young folk must work hard if they want to come to the happy ending of your master and mistress."

The little maid grew the colour of her swain's pet peonies, and promised obedience. Conscientious Jem there was no fear of—all the rosy-cheeked damsels in Christendom would not have turned him aside from one iota of his duty to Mr. Halifax. Thus there was love in the parlour and love in the kitchen. But, I verily believe, the young married couple were served all the better for their kindness and sympathy to the humble pair of sweethearts in the rank below them.

John walked home with me—a pleasure I had hardly expected, but which was insisted upon both by him and Ursula. For from the very first of her betrothal there had been a thorough brother-and-sisterly bond established between her and me. Her womanly, generous nature would have scorned to do what, as I have heard, many young wives do—seek to make coldness between her husband and his old friends. No; secure in her riches, in her rightful possession of his whole heart, she took into hers everything that belonged to John, every one he cared for; to be for ever held sacred and beloved, being his, and therefore her own. Thus we were the very best of friends, my sister Ursula and me.

John and I talked a little about her—of her rosy looks, which he hoped would not fade in their town dwelling—and of good Mrs. Tod's wonderful delight at seeing her, when last week they had stayed two days in the dear old cottage at Enderley. But he seemed slow to speak about his wife, or to dilate on a joy so new that it was hardly to be breathed on, lest it might melt into air.

Only when, as we were crossing the street, a fine equipage passed, he looked after it with a smile.

"Grey ponies! she is so fond of long-tailed grey ponies. Poor child! when shall I be able to give her a carriage? Perhaps some day—who knows!"

He turned the conversation, and began telling me about the cloth mill—his old place of resort; which he had been over once again when they were at Rose Cottage.

"And do you know, while I was looking at the machinery, a notion came into my head that, instead of that great water-wheel—you remember it?—it might be worked by steam."

"What sort of steam?"

"Phineas, your memory is no better, I see. Have you forgotten my telling you how, last year, some Scotch engineer tried to move boats by steam, on the Forth and Clyde canal? Why should not the same power be turned to account in a cloth-mill? I know it could—I have got the plan of the machinery in my head already. I made a drawing of it last night, and showed it to Ursula; SHE understood it directly."

I smiled.

"And I do believe, by common patience and skill, a man might make his fortune with it at those Enderley cloth-mills."

"Suppose you try!" I said in half jest, and was surprised to see how seriously John took it.

"I wish I could try—if it were only practicable. Once or twice I have thought it might be. The mill belongs to Lord Luxmore. His steward works it. Now, if one could get to be a foreman or overseer- -"

"Try—you can do anything you try."

"No, I must not think of it—she and I have agreed that I must not," said he, steadily. "It's my weakness—my hobby, you know. But—no hobbies now. Above all, I must not, for a mere fancy, give up the work that lies under my hand. What of the tan-yard, Phineas?"

"My father missed you, and grumbled after you a good deal. He looks anxious, I think. He vexes himself more than he needs about business."

"Don't let him. Keep him as much at home as you can. I'll manage the tan-yard: you know—and he knows too—that everything which can be done for us all I shall do."

I looked up, surprised at the extreme earnestness of his manner.

"Surely, John—"

"Nay, there is nothing to be uneasy about—nothing more than there has been for this year past. All trade is bad just now. Never fear, we'll weather the storm—I'm not afraid."

Cheerfully as he spoke, I began to guess—what he already must have known—that our fortunes were as a slowly leaking ship, of which the helm had slipped from my old father's feeble hand. But John had taken it—John stood firm at the wheel. Perhaps, with God's blessing, he might guide us safe to land.

I had not time to say more, when, with its pretty grey ponies, the curricle once more passed our way. Two ladies were in it: one leaned out and bowed. Presently a lacquey came to beg Mr. Halifax would come and speak with Lady Caroline Brithwood.

"Shall you go, John?"

"Certainly—why not?" And he stepped forward to the carriage-side.

"Ah! delighted to see mon beau cousin. This is he, Emma," turning to the lady who sat by her—oh, what a lovely face that lady had! no wonder it drove men mad; ay, even that brave man in whose honest life can be chronicled only this one sin, of being bewitched by her.

John caught the name—perhaps, too, he recognized the face—it was only too public, alas! His own took a sternness, such as I had never before seen, and yet there was a trace of pity in it too.

"You are quite well. Indeed, he looks so—n'est-ce pas, ma chere?"

John bore gravely the eyes of the two ladies fixed on him, in rather too plain admiration—very gravely, too, he bowed.

"And what of our young bride, our treasure that we stole—nay, it was quite fair—quite fair. How is Ursula?"

"I thank you, Mrs. Halifax is well."

Lady Caroline smiled at the manner, courteous through all its coldness, which not ill became the young man. But she would not be repelled.

"I am delighted to have met you. Indeed, we must be friends. One's friends need not always be the same as one's husband's, eh, Emma? You will be enchanted with our fair bride. We must both seize the first opportunity, and come as disguised princesses to visit Mrs. Halifax."

"Again let me thank you, Lady Caroline. But—"

"No 'buts.' I am resolved. Mr. Brithwood will never find it out. And if he does—why, he may. I like you both; I intend us to be excellent friends, whenever I chance to be at Norton Bury. Don't be proud, and reject me, there's good people—the only good people I ever knew who were not disagreeable."

And leaning on her large ermine muff, she looked right into John's face, with the winning sweetness which Nature, not courts, lent to those fair features—already beginning to fade, already trying to hide by art their painful, premature decay.

John returned the look, half sorrowfully; it was so hard to give back harshness to kindliness. But a light laugh from the other lady caught his ear, and his hesitation—if hesitation he had felt-was over.

"No, Lady Caroline, it cannot be. You will soon see yourself that it cannot. Living, as we do, in the same neighbourhood, we may meet occasionally by chance, and always, I hope, with kindly feeling; but, under present circumstances—indeed, under any circumstances— intimacy between your house and ours would he impossible."

Lady Caroline shrugged her shoulders with a pretty air of pique. "As you will! I never trouble myself to court the friendship of any one. Le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle."

"Do not mistake me," John said, earnestly. "Do not suppose I am ungrateful for your former kindness to my wife; but the difference between her and you—between your life and hers—is so extreme."

"Vraiment!" with another shrug and smile, rather a bitter one.

"Our two paths lie wide apart—wide as the poles; our house and our society would not suit you; and that my wife should ever enter yours"—glancing from one to the other of those two faces, painted with false roses, lit by false smiles,—"No, Lady Caroline," he added, firmly, "it is impossible."

She looked mortified for a moment, and then resumed her gaiety, which nothing could ever banish long.

"Hear him, Emma! So young and so unkindly! Mais nous verrons. You will change your mind. Au revoir, mon beau cousin."

They drove off quickly, and were gone.

"John, what will Mrs. Halifax say?"

"My innocent girl! thank God she is safe away from them all—safe in a poor man's honest breast." He spoke with much emotion.

"Yet Lady Caroline—"

"Did you see who sat beside her?"

"That beautiful woman?"

"Poor soul! alas for her beauty! Phineas, that was Lady Hamilton."

He said no more, nor I. At my own door he left me, with his old merry laugh, his old familiar grasp of my shoulder.

"Lad, take care of thyself, though I'm not by to see. Remember, I am just as much thy tyrant as if I were living here still."

I smiled, and he went his way to his own quiet, blessed, married home.