John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XXI
The winter and spring passed calmly by. I had much ill-health, and could go out very little; but they came constantly to me, John and Ursula, especially the latter. During this illness, when I learned to watch longingly for her kind face, and listen for her cheerful voice talking pleasantly and sisterly beside my chair, she taught me to give up "Mrs. Halifax," and call her Ursula. It was only by slow degrees I did so, truly; for she was not one of those gentle creatures whom, married or single, one calls instinctively by their Christian names. Her manner in girlhood was not exactly either "meek" or "gentle"; except towards him, the only one who ever ruled her, and to whom she was, through life, the meekest and tenderest of women. To every one else she comported herself, at least in youth, with a dignity and decision—a certain stand-offishness—so that, as I said, it was not quite easy to speak to or think of her as "Ursula." Afterwards, when seen in the light of a new character, for which Heaven destined and especially fitted her, and in which she appeared altogether beautiful—I began to give her another name—but it will come by and by.
In the long midsummer days, when our house was very quiet and rather dreary, I got into the habit of creeping over to John's home, and sitting for hours under the apple-trees in his garden. It was now different from the wilderness he found it; the old trees were pruned and tended, and young ones planted. Mrs. Halifax called it proudly "our orchard," though the top of the tallest sapling could be reached with her hand. Then, in addition to the indigenous cabbages, came long rows of white-blossomed peas, big-headed cauliflowers, and all vegetables easy of cultivation. My father sent contributions from his celebrated gooseberry-bushes, and his wall-fruit, the pride of Norton Bury; Mrs. Jessop stocked the borders from her great parterres of sweet-scented common flowers; so that, walled in as it was, and in the midst of a town likewise, it was growing into a very tolerable garden. Just the kind of garden that I love—half trim, half wild— fruits, flowers, and vegetables living in comfortable equality and fraternity, none being too choice to be harmed by their neighbours, none esteemed too mean to be restricted in their natural profusion. Oh, dear old-fashioned garden! full of sweet-Williams and white-Nancies, and larkspur and London-pride, and yard-wide beds of snowy saxifrage, and tall, pale evening primroses, and hollyhocks six or seven feet high, many-tinted, from yellow to darkest ruby-colour; while for scents, large blushing cabbage-roses, pinks, gilly-flowers, with here and there a great bush of southern-wood or rosemary, or a border of thyme, or a sweet-briar hedge—a pleasant garden, where all colours and perfumes were blended together; ay, even a stray dandelion, that stood boldly up in his yellow waistcoat, like a young country bumpkin, who feels himself a decent lad in his way—or a plant of wild marjoram, that had somehow got in, and kept meekly in a corner of the bed, trying to turn into a respectable cultivated herb. Dear old garden!—such as one rarely sees now-a-days!—I would give the finest modern pleasure-ground for the like of thee!
This was what John's garden became; its every inch and every flower still live in more memories than mine, and will for a generation yet; but I am speaking of it when it was young, like its gardeners. These were Mrs. Halifax and her husband, Jem and Jenny. The master could not do much; he had long, long hours in his business; but I used to watch Ursula, morning after morning, superintending her domain, with her faithful attendant Jem—Jem adored his "missis." Or else, when it was hot noon, I used to lie in their cool parlour, and listen to her voice and step about the house, teaching Jenny, or learning from her—for the young gentlewoman had much to learn, and was not ashamed of it either. She laughed at her own mistakes, and tried again; she never was idle or dull for a minute. She did a great deal in the house herself. Often she would sit chatting with me, having on her lap a coarse brown pan, shelling peas, slicing beans, picking gooseberries; her fingers—Miss March's fair fingers—looking fairer for the contrast with their unaccustomed work. Or else, in the summer evenings, she would be at the window sewing—always sewing— but so placed that with one glance she could see down the street where John was coming. Far, far off she always saw him; and at the sight her whole face would change and brighten, like a meadow when the sun comes out. Then she ran to open the door, and I could hear his low "my darling!" and a long, long pause, in the hall.
They were very, very happy in those early days—those quiet days of poverty; when they visited nobody, and nobody visited them; when their whole world was bounded by the dark old house and the garden, with its four high walls.
One July night, I remember, John and I were walking up and down the paths by star-light. It was very hot weather, inclining one to stay without doors half the night. Ursula had been with us a good while, strolling about on her husband's arm; then he had sent her in to rest, and we two remained out together.
How soft they were, those faint, misty, summer stars! what a mysterious, perfumy haze they let fall over us!—A haze through which all around seemed melting away in delicious intangible sweetness, in which the very sky above our heads—the shining, world-besprinkled sky—was a thing felt rather than seen.
"How strange all seems! how unreal!" said John, in a low voice, when he had walked the length of the garden in silence. "Phineas, how very strange it seems!"
"What?—oh, everything." He hesitated a minute. "No, not everything—but something which to me seems now to fill and be mixed up with all I do, or think, or feel. Something you do not know—but to-night Ursula said I might tell you."
Nevertheless he was several minutes before he told me.
"This pear-tree is full of fruit—is it not? How thick they hang and yet it seems but yesterday that Ursula and I were standing here, trying to count the blossoms."
He stopped—touching a branch with his hand. His voice sank so I could hardly hear it.
"Do you know, Phineas, that when this tree is bare—we shall, if with God's blessing all goes well—we shall have—a little child."
I wrung his hand in silence.
"You cannot imagine how strange it feels. A child—hers and mine— little feet to go pattering about our house—a little voice to say— Think, that by Christmas-time I shall be a FATHER."
He sat down on the garden-bench, and did not speak for a long time.
"I wonder," he said at last, "if, when I was born, MY father was as young as I am: whether he felt as I do now. You cannot think what an awful joy it is to be looking forward to a child; a little soul of God's giving, to be made fit for His eternity. How shall we do it! we that are both so ignorant, so young—she will be only just nineteen when, please God, her baby is born. Sometimes, of an evening, we sit for hours on this bench, she and I, talking of what we ought to do, and how we ought to rear the little thing, until we fall into silence, awed at the blessing that is coming to us."
"God will help you both, and make you wise."
"We trust He will; and then we are not afraid."
A little while longer I sat by John's side, catching the dim outline of his face, half uplifted, looking towards those myriad worlds, which we are taught to believe, and do believe, are not more precious in the Almighty sight than one living human soul.
But he said no more of the hope that was coming, or of the thoughts which, in the holy hush of that summer night, had risen out of the deep of his heart. And though after this time they never again formed themselves into words, yet he knew well that not a hope, or joy, or fear of his, whether understood or not, could be unshared by me.
In the winter, when the first snow lay on the ground, the little one came.
It was a girl—I think they had wished for a son; but they forgot all about it when the tiny maiden appeared. She was a pretty baby—at least, all the women-kind said so, from Mrs. Jessop down to Jael, who left our poor house to its own devices, and trod stately in Mrs. Halifax's, exhibiting to all beholders the mass of white draperies with the infinitesimal human morsel inside them, which she vehemently declared was the very image of its father.
For that young father—
But I—what can I say? How should I tell of the joy of a man over his first-born?
I did not see John till a day afterwards—when he came into our house, calm, happy, smiling. But Jael told me, that when she first placed his baby in his arms he had wept like a child.
The little maiden grew with the snowdrops. Winter might have dropped her out of his very lap, so exceedingly fair, pale, and pure-looking was she. I had never seen, or at least never noticed, any young baby before; but she crept into my heart before I was aware. I seem to have a clear remembrance of all the data in her still and quiet infancy, from the time her week-old fingers, with their tiny pink nails—a ludicrous picture of her father's hand in little—made me smile as they closed over mine.
She was named Muriel—after the rather peculiar name of John's mother. Her own mother would have it so; only wishing out of her full heart, happy one! that there should be a slight alteration made in the second name. Therefore the baby was called Muriel Joy—Muriel Joy Halifax.
That name—beautiful, sacred, and never-to-be-forgotten among us—I write it now with tears.
In December, 1802, she was born—our Muriel. And on February 9th— alas! I have need to remember the date!—she formally received her name. We all dined at John's house—Dr. and Mrs. Jessop, my father and I.
It was the first time my father had taken a meal under any roof but his own for twenty years. We had not expected him, since, when asked and entreated, he only shook his head; but just when we were all sitting down to the table, Ursula at the foot, her cheeks flushed, and her lips dimpling with a house-wifely delight that everything was so nice and neat, she startled us by a little cry of pleasure. And there, in the doorway, stood my father!
His broad figure, but slightly bent even now, his smooth-shaven face, withered, but of a pale brown still, with the hard lines softening down, and the keen eyes kinder than they used to be; dressed carefully in his First-day clothes, the stainless white kerchief supporting his large chin, his Quaker's hat in one hand, his stick in the other, looking in at us, a half-amused twitch mingling with the gravity of his mouth—thus he stood—thus I see thee, O my dear old father!
The young couple seemed as if they never could welcome him enough. He only said, "I thank thee, John," "I thank thee, Ursula;" and took his place beside the latter, giving no reason why he had changed his mind and come. Simple as the dinner was—simple as befitted those who, their guests knew, could not honestly afford luxuries; though there were no ornaments, save the centre nosegay of laurustinus and white Christmas roses—I do not think King George himself ever sat down to a nobler feast.
Afterwards we drew merrily round the fire, or watched outside the window the thickly falling snow.
"It has not snowed these two months," said John; "never since the day our little girl was born."
And at that moment, as if she heard herself mentioned, and was indignant at our having forgotten her so long, the little maid up-stairs set up a cry—that unmistakable child's cry, which seems to change the whole atmosphere of a household.
My father gave a start—he had never seen or expressed a wish to see John's daughter. We knew he did not like babies. Again the little helpless wail; Ursula rose and stole away—Abel Fletcher looked after her with a curious expression, then began to say something about going back to the tan-yard.
"Do not, pray do not leave us," John entreated; "Ursula wants to show you our little lady."
My father put out his hands in deprecation; or as if desiring to thrust from him a host of thronging, battling thoughts. Still, came faintly down at intervals the tiny voice, dropping into a soft coo of pleasure, like a wood-dove in its nest—every mother knows the sound. And then Mrs. Halifax entered holding in her arms her little winter flower, her baby daughter.
Abel Fletcher just looked at it and her—closed his eyes against both, and looked no more.
Ursula seemed pained a moment, but soon forgot it in the general admiration of her treasure.
"She might well come in a snow-storm," said Mrs. Jessop, taking the child. "She is just like snow, so soft and white."
"And as soundless—she hardly ever cries. She just lies in this way half the day over, cooing quietly, with her eyes shut. There, she has caught your dress fast. Now, was there ever a two months' old baby so quick at noticing things? and she does it all with her fingers—she touches everything;—ah! take care, doctor," the mother added, reproachfully, at a loud slam of the door, which made the baby tremble all over.
"I never knew a child so susceptible of sounds," said John, as he began talking to it and soothing it;—how strange it was to see him! and yet it seemed quite natural already. "I think even now she knows the difference between her mother's voice and mine; and any sudden noise always startles her in this way."
"She must have astonishingly quick hearing," said the doctor, slightly annoyed. Ursula wisely began to talk of something else— showed Muriel's eyelashes, very long for such a baby—and descanted on the colour of her eyes, that fruitful and never-ending theme of mothers and friends.
"I think they are like her father's; yes, certainly like her father's. But we have not many opportunities of judging, for she is such a lazy young damsel, she hardly ever opens them—we should often fancy her asleep, but for that little soft coo; and then she will wake up all of a sudden. There now! do you see her? Come to the window, my beauty! and show Dr. Jessop your bonny brown eyes."
They were bonny eyes! lovely in shape and colour, delicately fringed; but there was something strange in their expression—or rather, in their want of it. Many babies have a round, vacant stare—but this was no stare, only a wide, full look—a look of quiet blankness—an UNSEEING look.
It caught Dr. Jessop's notice. I saw his air of vexed dignity change into a certain anxiety.
"Well, whose are they like—her father's or mine? His, I hope—it will be the better for her beauty. Nay, we'll excuse all compliments."
"I—I can't exactly tell. I could judge better by candlelight."
"We'll have candles."
"No—no! Had we not better put it off altogether, till another day?- -I'll call in to-morrow and look at her eyes."
His manner was hesitating and troubled. John noticed it.
"Love, give her to me. Go and get us lights, will you?"
When she was gone, John took his baby to the window, gazed long and intently into her little face, then at Dr. Jessop. "Do you think— no—it's not possible—that there can be anything the matter with the child's eyes?"
Ursula coming in, heard the last words.
"What was that you said about baby's eyes?"
No one answered her. All were gathered in a group at the window, the child being held on her father's lap, while Dr. Jessop was trying to open the small white lids, kept so continually closed. At last the baby uttered a little cry of pain—the mother darted forward, and clasped it almost savagely to her breast.
"I will not have my baby hurt! There is nothing wrong with her sweet eyes. Go away; you shall not touch her, John."
She melted at that low, fond word; leaning against his shoulder— trying to control her tears.
"It shocked me so—the bare thought of such a thing. Oh! husband, don't let her be looked at again."
"Only once again, my darling. It is best. Then we shall be quite satisfied. Phineas, give me the candle."
The words—caressing, and by strong constraint made calm and soothing—were yet firm. Ursula resisted no more, but let him take Muriel—little, unconscious, cooing dove! Lulled by her father's voice she once more opened her eyes wide. Dr. Jessop passed the candle before them many times, once so close that it almost touched her face; but the full, quiet eyes, never blenched nor closed. He set the light down.
"Doctor!" whispered the father, in a wild appeal against—ay, it was against certainty. He snatched the candle, and tried the experiment himself.
"She does not see at all. Can she be blind?"
Yes, those pretty baby-eyes were dark—quite dark. There was nothing painful nor unnatural in their look, save, perhaps, the blankness of gaze which I have before noticed. Outwardly, their organization was perfect; but in the fine inner mechanism was something wrong— something wanting. She never had seen—never would see—in this world.
"BLIND!" The word was uttered softly, hardly above a breath, yet the mother heard it. She pushed every one aside, and took the child herself. Herself, with a desperate incredulity, she looked into those eyes, which never could look back either her agony or her love. Poor mother!
"John! John! oh, John!"—the name rising into a cry, as if he could surely help her. He came and took her in his arms—took both, wife and babe. She laid her head on his shoulder in bitter weeping. "Oh, John! it is so hard. Our pretty one—our own little child!"
John did not speak, but only held her to him—close and fast. When she was a little calmer he whispered to her the comfort—the sole comfort even her husband could give her—through whose will it was that this affliction came.
"And it is more an affliction to you than it will be to her, poor pet!" said Mrs. Jessop, as she wiped her friendly eyes. "She will not miss what she never knew. She may be a happy little child. Look, how she lies and smiles."
But the mother could not take that consolation yet. She walked to and fro, and stood rocking her baby, mute indeed, but with tears falling in showers. Gradually her anguish wept itself away, or was smothered down, lest it should disturb the little creature asleep on her breast.
Some one came behind her, and placed her in the arm-chair, gently. It was my father. He sat down by her, taking her hand.
"Grieve not, Ursula. I had a little brother who was blind. He was the happiest creature I ever knew."
My father sighed. We all marvelled to see the wonderful softness, even tenderness, which had come into him.
"Give me thy child for a minute." Ursula laid it across his knees; he put his hand solemnly on the baby-breast. "God bless this little one! Ay, and she shall be blessed."
These words, spoken with as full assurance as the prophetic benediction of the departing patriarchs of old, struck us all. We looked at little Muriel as if the blessing were already upon her; as if the mysterious touch which had scaled up her eyes for ever had left on her a sanctity like as of one who has been touched by the finger of God.
"Now, children, I must go home," said my father.
They did not detain us: it was indeed best that the poor young parents should be left alone.
"You will come again soon?" begged Ursula, tenderly clasping the hand which he had laid upon her curls as he rose with another murmured "God bless thee!"
"Perhaps. We never know. Be a good wife to thy husband, my girl. And John, never be thou harsh to her, nor too hard upon her little failings. She is but young—but young."
He sighed again. It was plain to see he was thinking of another than Ursula.
As we walked down the street he spoke to me only once or twice, and then of things which startled me by their strangeness—things which had happened a long time ago; sayings and doings of mine in my childhood, which I had not the least idea he had either known of or remembered.
When we got in-doors I asked if I should come and sit with him till his bed-time.
"No—no; thee looks tired, and I have a business letter to write. Better go to thy bed as usual."
I bade him good-night, and was going, when he called me back.
"How old art thee, Phineas—twenty-four or five?"
"Eh! so much?" He put his hand on my shoulder, and looked down on me kindly, even tenderly. "Thee art but weakly still, but thee must pick up, and live to be as old a man as thy father. Goodnight. God be with thee, my son!"
I left him. I was happy. Once I had never expected my old father and I would have got on together so well, or loved one another so dearly.
In the middle of the night Jael came into my room, and sat down on my bed's foot, looking at me. I had been dreaming strangely, about my own childish days, and about my father and mother when we were young.
What Jael told me—by slow degrees, and as tenderly as when she was my nurse years ago—seemed at first so unreal as to be like a part of the dream.
At ten o'clock, when she had locked up the house, she had come as usual to the parlour door, to tell my father it was bed-time. He did not answer, being sitting with his back to the door, apparently busy writing. So she went away.
Half an hour afterwards she came again. He sat there still—he had not moved. One hand supported his head; the other, the fingers stiffly holding the pen, lay on the table. He seemed intently gazing on what he had written. It ran thus:
- "GOOD FRIEND,
- "To-morrow I shall be—"
But there the hand had stopped—for ever.
O dear father! on that to-morrow thou wert with God.