John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XXIV
Midnight though it was, I sat up until John and his wife came home. They said scarcely anything, but straightway retired. In the morning, all went on in the house as usual, and no one ever knew of this night's episode, except us three.
In the morning, Guy looked wistfully around him, asking for the "pretty lady;" and being told that she was gone, and that he would not be likely to see her again, seemed disappointed for a minute; but soon he went down to play at the stream, and forgot all.
Once or twice I fancied the mother's clear voice about the house was rarer than its wont; that her quick, active, cheerful presence— penetrating every nook, and visiting every creature, as with the freshness of an April wind—was this day softer and sadder; but she did not say anything to me, nor I to her.
John had ridden off early—to the flour-mill, which he still kept on, together with the house at Norton Bury—he always disliked giving up any old associations. At dinner-time he came home, saying he was going out again immediately.
Ursula looked uneasy. A few minutes after, she followed me under the walnut-tree, where I was sitting with Muriel, and asked me if I would go with John to Kingswell.
"The election takes place to-day, and he thinks it right to be there. He will meet Mr. Brithwood and Lord Luxmore; and though there is not the slightest need—my husband can do all that he has to do alone— still, for my own satisfaction, I would like his brother to be near him."
They invariably called me their brother now; and it seemed as if the name had been mine by right of blood always.
Of course, I went to Kingswell, riding John's brown mare, he himself walking by my side. It was not often that we were thus alone together, and I enjoyed it much. All the old days seemed to come back again as we passed along the quiet roads and green lanes, just as when we were boys together, when I had none I cared for but David, and David cared only for me. The natural growth of things had made a difference in this, but our affection had changed its outward form only, not its essence. I often think that all loves and friendships need a certain three days' burial before we can be quite sure of their truth and immortality. Mine—it happened just after John's marriage, and I may confess it now—had likewise its entombment, bitter as brief. Many cruel hours sat I in darkness, weeping at the door of its sepulchre, thinking that I should never see it again; but, in the dawn of the morning, it rose, and I met it in the desolate garden, different, yet the very same. And after that, it walked with me continually, secure and imperishable evermore.
I rode, and John sauntered beside me along the footpath, now and then plucking a leaf or branch off the hedge, and playing with it, as was his habit when a lad. Often I caught the old smile—not one of his three boys, not even handsome Guy, had their father's smile.
He was telling me about Enderley Mill, and all his plans there, in the which he seemed very happy. At last, his long life of duty was merging into the life he loved. He looked as proud and pleased as a boy, in talking of the new inventions he meant to apply in cloth- weaving; and how he and his wife had agreed together to live for some years to come at little Longfield, strictly within their settled income, that all the remainder of his capital might go to the improvement of Enderley Mills and mill-people.
"I shall be master of nearly a hundred, men and women. Think what good we may do! She has half-a-dozen plans on foot already—bless her dear heart!"
It was easy to guess whom he referred to—the one who went hand- in-hand with him in everything.
"Was the dinner in the barn, next Monday, her plan, too?"
"Partly. I thought we would begin a sort of yearly festival for the old tan-yard people, and those about the flour-mill, and the Kingswell tenants—ah, Phineas, wasn't I right about those Kingswell folk?"
These were about a dozen poor families, whom, when our mortgage fell in, he had lured out of Sally Watkins' miserable alley to these old houses, where they had at least fresh country air, and space enough to live wholesomely and decently, instead of herding together like pigs in a sty.
"You ought to be proud of your tenants, Phineas. I assure you, they form quite a contrast to their neighbours, who are Lord Luxmore's."
"And his voters likewise, I suppose?—the 'free and independent burgesses' who are to send Mr. Vermilye to Parliament?"
"If they can," said John, biting his lip with that resolute half- combative air which I now saw in him at times, roused by things which continually met him in his dealings with the world—things repugnant alike to his feelings and his principles, but which he had still to endure, not having risen high enough to oppose, single-handed, the great mass of social corruption which at this crisis of English history kept gathering and gathering, until out of the very horror and loathsomeness of it an outcry for purification arose.
"Do you know, Phineas, I might last week have sold your houses for double price? They are valuable, this election year, since your five tenants are the only voters in Kingswell who are not likewise tenants of Lord Luxmore. Don't you see how the matter stands?"
It was not difficult, for that sort of game was played all over England, connived at, or at least winked at, by those who had political influence to sell or obtain, until the Reform Bill opened up the election system in all its rottenness and enormity.
"Of course I knew you would not sell your houses; and I shall use every possible influence I have to prevent your tenants selling their votes. Whatever may be the consequence, the sort of thing that this Kingswell election bids fair to be, is what any honest Englishman ought to set his face against, and prevent if he can."
"I do not feel sure, but I mean to try. First, for simple right and conscience; secondly, because if Mr. Vermilye is not saved from arrest by being placed in Parliament, he will be outlawed and driven safe out of the country. You see?"
Ay, I did, only too well. Though I foresaw that whatever John was about to do, it must necessarily be something that would run directly counter to Lord Luxmore—and he had only just signed the lease of Enderley Mills. Still, if right to be done, he ought to do it at all risks, at all costs; and I knew his wife would say so.
We came to the foot of Kingswell Hill, and saw the little hamlet— with its grey old houses, its small, ancient church, guarded by enormous yew-trees, and clothed with ivy that indicated centuries of growth.
A carriage overtook us here; in it were two gentlemen, one of whom bowed in a friendly manner to John. He returned it.
"This is well; I shall have one honest gentleman to deal with to-day."
"Who is he?"
"Sir Ralph Oldtower, from whom I bought Longfield. An excellent man- -I like him—even his fine old Norman face, like one of his knightly ancestors on the tomb in Kingswell church. There's something pleasant about his stiff courtesy and his staunch Toryism; for he fully believes in it, and acts up to his belief. A true English gentleman, and I respect him."
"Yet, John, Norton Bury calls you a democrat."
"So I am, for I belong to the people. But I nevertheless uphold a true aristocracy—the BEST MEN of the country,—do you remember our Greeks of old? These ought to govern, and will govern, one day, whether their patent of nobility be births and titles, or only honesty and brains."
Thus he talked on, and I liked to hear him, for talking was rare in his busy life of constant action. I liked to observe how during these ten years his mind had brooded over many things; how it had grown, strengthened, and settled itself, enlarging both its vision and its aspirations; as a man does, who, his heart at rest in a happy home, has time and will to look out from thence into the troublous world outside, ready to do his work there likewise. That John was able to do it—ay, beyond most men—few would doubt who looked into his face; strong with the strength of an intellect which owed all its development to himself alone; calm with the wisdom which, if a man is ever to be wise, comes to him after he has crossed the line of thirty years. In that face, where day by day Time was writing its fit lessons—beautiful, because they were so fit—I ceased to miss the boyish grace, and rejoiced in the manhood present, in the old age that was to be.
It seemed almost too short a journey, when, putting his hand on the mare's bridle—the creature loved him, and turned to lick his arm the minute he came near—John stopped me to see the view from across Kingswell churchyard.
"Look, what a broad valley, rich in woods, and meadow-land, and corn. How quiet and blue lie the Welsh hills far away. It does one good to look at them. Nay, it brings back a little bit of me which rarely comes uppermost now, as it used to come long ago, when we read your namesake, and Shakspeare, and that Anonymous Friend who has since made such a noise in the world. I delight in him still. Think of a man of business liking Coleridge."
"I don't see why he should not."
"Nor I. Well, my poetic tastes may come out more at Enderley. Or perhaps when I am an old man, and have fought the good fight, and— holloa, there! Matthew Hales, have they made you drunk already?"
The man—he was an old workman of ours—touched his hat, and tried to walk steadily past "the master," who looked at once both stern and sad.
"I thought it would be so!—I doubt if there is a voter in all Kingswell who has not got a bribe."
"It is the same everywhere," I said. "What can one man do against it, single-handed?"
"Single-handed or not, every man ought to do what he can. And no man knows how much he can do till he tries."
So saying, he went into the large parlour of the Luxmore Arms, where the election was going on.
A very simple thing, that election! Sir Ralph Oldtower, who was sheriff, sat at a table, with his son, the grave-looking young man who had been with him in the carriage; near them were Mr. Brithwood of the Mythe, and the Earl of Luxmore.
The room was pretty well filled with farmers' labourers and the like. We entered, making little noise; but John's head was taller than most heads present; the sheriff saw him at once, and bowed courteously. So did young Mr. Herbert Oldtower, so did the Earl of Luxmore. Richard Brithwood alone took no notice, but turned his back and looked another way.
It was now many years since I had seen the 'squire, Lady Caroline's husband. He had fulfilled the promise of his youth, and grown into a bloated, coarse-featured, middle-aged man; such a man as one rarely meets with now-a-days; for even I, Phineas Fletcher, have lived to see so great a change in manners and morals, that intemperance, instead of being the usual characteristic of "a gentleman," has become a rare failing—a universally-contemned disgrace.
"Less noise there!" growled Mr. Brithwood. "Silence, you fellows at the door! Now, Sir Ralph, let's get the business over, and be back for dinner."
Sir Ralph turned his stately grey head to the light, put on his gold spectacles, and began to read the writ of election. As he finished, the small audience set up a feeble cheer.
The sheriff acknowledged it, then leaned over the table talking with rather frosty civility to Lord Luxmore. Their acquaintance seemed solely that of business. People whispered that Sir Ralph never forgot that the Oldtowers were Crusaders when the Ravenels were— nobody. Also the baronet, whose ancestors were all honourable men and stainless women, found it hard to overlook a certain royal bar-sinister, which had originated the Luxmore earldom, together with a few other blots which had tarnished that scutcheon since. So folk said; but probably Sir Ralph's high principle was at least as strong as his pride, and that the real cause of his dislike was founded on the too well-known character of the Earl of Luxmore.
They ceased talking; the sheriff rose, and briefly stated that Richard Brithwood, Esquire, of the Mythe, would nominate a candidate.
The candidate was Gerard Vermilye, Esquire; at the mention of whose name one Norton Bury man broke into a horse-laugh, which was quenched by his immediate ejection from the meeting.
Then, Mr. Thomas Brown, steward of the Earl of Luxmore, seconded the nomination.
After a few words between the sheriff, his son, and Lord Luxmore, the result of which seemed rather unsatisfactory than otherwise, Sir Ralph Oldtower again rose.
"Gentlemen and electors, there being no other candidate proposed, nothing is left me but to declare Gerard Vermilye, Esquire—"
John Halifax made his way to the table. "Sir Ralph, pardon my interruption, but may I speak a few words?"
Mr. Brithwood started up with an angry oath.
"My good sir," said the baronet, with a look of reprehension which proved him of the minority who thought swearing ungentlemanly.
"By —-, Sir Ralph, you shall not hear that low fellow!"
"Excuse me, I must, if he has a right to be heard. Mr. Halifax, you are a freeman of Kingswell?"
This fact surprised none more than myself.
Brithwood furiously exclaimed that it was a falsehood. "The fellow does not belong to this neighbourhood at all. He was picked up in Norton Bury streets—a beggar, a thief, for all I know."
"You do know very well, Mr. Brithwood. Sir Ralph, I was never either a beggar or a thief. I began life as a working lad—a farm-labourer- -until Mr. Fletcher, the tanner, took me into his employ."
"So I have always understood," said Sir Ralph, courteously. "And next to the man who is fortunate enough to boast a noble origin, I respect the man who is not ashamed of an ignoble one."
"That is not exactly my position either," said John, with a half smile. "But we are passing from the question in hand, which is simply my claim to be a freeman of this borough."
"On what grounds?"
"You will find in the charter a clause, seldom put in force, that the daughter of a freeman can confer the freedom on her husband. My wife's late father, Mr. Henry March, was a burgess of Kingswell. I claimed my rights, and registered, this year. Ask your clerk, Sir Ralph, if I have not spoken correctly."
The old white-headed clerk allowed the fact.
Lord Luxmore looked considerably surprised, and politely incredulous still. His son-in-law broke out into loud abuse of this "knavery."
"I will pass over this ugly word, Mr. Brithwood, merely stating that- -"
"We are quite satisfied," interrupted Lord Luxmore, blandly. "My dear sir, may I request so useful a vote and so powerful an interest as yours, for our friend, Mr. Vermilye?"
"My lord, I should be very sorry for you to misapprehend me for a moment. It is not my intention, except at the last extremity, to vote at all. If I do, it will certainly not be for Mr. Brithwood's nominee. Sir Ralph, I doubt if, under some circumstances, which by your permission I am about to state, Mr. Gerard Vermilye can keep his seat, even if elected."
A murmur arose from the crowd of mechanics and labourers, who, awed by such propinquity to gentry and even nobility, had hitherto hung sheepishly back; but now, like all English crowds, were quite ready to "follow the leader," especially one they knew.
"Hear him! hear the master!" was distinguishable on all sides. Mr. Brithwood looked too enraged for words; but Lord Luxmore, taking snuff with a sarcastic smile, said:
"Honores mutant mores!—I thought, Mr. Halifax, you eschewed politics?"
"Mere politics I do, but not honesty, justice, morality; and a few facts have reached my knowledge, though possibly not Lord Luxmore's, which make me feel that Mr. Vermilye's election would be an insult to all three; therefore, I oppose it."
A louder murmur rose.
"Silence, you scoundrels!" shouted Mr. Brithwood; adding his usual formula of speech, which a second time extorted the old baronet's grave rebuke.
"It seems, Sir Ralph, that democracy is rife in your neighbourhood. True, my acquaintance has not lain much among the commonalty, but still I was not aware that the people choose the Member of Parliament."
"They do not, Lord Luxmore," returned the sheriff, somewhat haughtily. "But we always hear the people. Mr. Halifax, be brief. What have you to allege against Mr. Brithwood's nominee?"
"First, his qualification. He has not three hundred, nor one hundred a-year. He is deeply in debt, at Norton Bury and elsewhere. Warrants are out against him; and only as an M.P. can he be safe from outlawry. Add to this, an offence common as daylight, yet which the law dare not wink at when made patent—that he has bribed, with great or small sums, every one of the fifteen electors of Kingswell; and I think I have said enough to convince any honest Englishman that Mr. Gerard Vermilye is not fit to represent them in Parliament."
Here a loud cheer broke from the crowd at the door and under the open windows, where, thick as bees, the villagers had now collected. They, the un-voting, and consequently unbribable portion of the community, began to hiss indignantly at the fifteen unlucky voters. For though bribery was, as John had truly said, "as common as daylight," still, if brought openly before the public, the said virtuous public generally condemned it, if they themselves had not been concerned therein.
The sheriff listened uneasily to a sound, very uncommon at elections, of the populace expressing an opinion contrary to that of the lord of the soil.
"Really, Mr. Brithwood, you must have been as ignorant as I was of the character of your nominee, or you would have chosen some one else. Herbert"—he turned to his son, who, until the late dissolution, had sat for some years as member for Norton Bury— "Herbert, are you acquainted with any of these facts?"
Mr. Herbert Oldtower looked uncomfortable.
"Answer," said his father. "No hesitation in a matter of right and wrong. Gentlemen, and my worthy friends, will you hear Mr. Oldtower, whom you all know? Herbert, are these accusations true?"
"I am afraid so," said the grave young man, more gravely.
"Mr. Brithwood, I regret extremely that this discovery was not made before. What do you purpose doing?"
"By the Lord that made me, nothing! The borough is Lord Luxmore's; I could nominate Satan himself if I chose. My man shall stand."
"I think," Lord Luxmore said, with meaning, "it would be better for all parties that Mr. Vermilye should stand."
"My lord," said the baronet; and one could see that not only rigid justice, but a certain obstinacy, marked his character, especially when anything jarred against his personal dignity or prejudices; "you forget that, however desirous I am to satisfy the family to whom this borough belongs, it is impossible for me to see with satisfaction— even though I cannot prevent—the election of any person so unfit to serve His Majesty. If, indeed, there were another candidate, so that the popular feeling might decide this very difficult matter—"
"Sir Ralph," said John Halifax, determinedly, "this brings me to the purpose for which I spoke. Being a landholder, and likewise a freeman of this borough, I claim the right of nominating a second candidate."
Intense, overwhelming astonishment struck all present. Such a right had been so long unclaimed, that everybody had forgotten it was a right at all. Sir Ralph and his clerk laid their venerable heads together for some minutes, before they could come to any conclusion on the subject. At last the sheriff rose.
"I am bound to say, that, though very uncommon, this proceeding is not illegal."
"Not illegal?" almost screamed Richard Brithwood.
"Not illegal. I therefore wait to hear Mr. Halifax's nomination. Sir, your candidate is, I hope, no democrat?"
"His political opinions differ from mine, but he is the only gentleman whom I in this emergency can name; and is one whom myself, and I believe all my neighbours, will be heartily glad to see once more in Parliament. I beg to nominate Mr. Herbert Oldtower."
A decided sensation at the upper half of the room. At the lower half an unanimous, involuntary cheer; for among our county families there were few so warmly respected as the Oldtowers.
Sir Ralph rose, much perplexed. "I trust that no one present will suppose I was aware of Mr. Halifax's intention. Nor, I understand, was Mr. Oldtower. My son must speak for himself."
Mr. Oldtower, with his accustomed gravity, accompanied by a not unbecoming modesty, said, that in this conjuncture, and being personally unacquainted with both Mr. Brithwood and the Earl of Luxmore, he felt no hesitation in accepting the honour offered to him.
"That being the case," said his father, though evidently annoyed, "I have only to fulfil my duty as public officer to the Crown."
Amidst some confusion, a show of hands was called for; and then a cry rose of "Go to the poll!"
"Go to the poll!" shouted Mr. Brithwood. "This is a family borough. There has not been a poll here these fifty years. Sir Ralph, your son's mad."
"Sir, insanity is not in the family of the Oldtowers. My position here is simply as sheriff of the county. If a poll be called for—"
"Excuse me, Sir Ralph, it would be hardly worth while. May I offer you—"
It was—only his snuff-box. But the Earl's polite and meaning smile filled up the remainder of the sentence.
Sir Ralph Oldtower drew himself up haughtily, and the fire of youth flashed indignantly from his grand old eyes.
"Lord Luxmore seems not to understand the duties and principles of us country gentlemen," he said coldly, and turned away, addressing the general meeting. "Gentlemen, the poll will be held this afternoon, according to the suggestion of my neighbour here."
"Sir Ralph Oldtower has convenient neighbours," remarked Lord Luxmore.
"Of my neighbour, Mr Halifax," repeated the old baronet, louder, and more emphatically. "A gentleman,"—he paused, as if doubtful whether in that title he were awarding a right or bestowing a courtesy, looked at John, and decided—"a gentleman for whom, ever since I have known him, I have entertained the highest respect."
It was the first public recognition of the position which for some time had been tacitly given to John Halifax in his own neighbourhood. Coming thus, from this upright and honourable old man, whose least merit it was to hold, and worthily, a baronetage centuries old, it made John's cheek glow with an honest gratification and a pardonable pride.
"Tell her," he said to me, when, the meeting having dispersed, he asked me to ride home and explain the reason of his detention at Kingswell—"Tell my wife all. She will be pleased, you know."
Ay, she was. Her face glowed and brightened as only a wife's can—a wife whose dearest pride is in her husband's honour.
Nevertheless, she hurried me back again as quickly as I came.
As I once more rode up Kingswell Hill, it seemed as if the whole parish were agog to see the novel sight. A contested election! truly, such a thing had not been known within the memory of the oldest inhabitant. The fifteen voters—I believe that was the number—were altogether bewildered by a sense of their own importance. Also, by a new and startling fact—which I found Mr. Halifax trying to impress upon a few of them, gathered under the great yew-tree in the churchyard—that a man's vote ought to be the expression of his own conscientious opinion; and that for him to sell it was scarcely less vile than to traffic in the liberty of his son or the honour of his daughter. Among those who listened most earnestly, was a man whom I had seen before to-day—Jacob Baines, once the ringleader of the bread-riots, who had long worked steadily in the tan-yard, and then at the flour-mill. He was the honestest and faithfulest of all John's people—illustrating unconsciously that Divine doctrine, that often they love most to whom most has been forgiven.
The poll was to be held in the church—a not uncommon usage in country boroughs, but which from its rarity struck great awe into the Kingswell folk. The churchwarden was placed in the clerk's desk to receive votes. Not far off, the sheriff sat in his family-pew, bare- headed; by his grave and reverent manner imposing due decorum, which was carefully observed by all except Lord Luxmore and Mr. Brithwood.
These two, apparently sure of their cause, had recovered their spirits, and talked and laughed loudly on the other side of the church. It was a very small building, narrow and cruciform; every word said in it was distinctly audible throughout.
"My lord, gentlemen, and my friends all," said Sir Ralph, rising gravely, "let me hope that every one will respect the sanctity of this place."
Lord Luxmore, who had been going about with his dazzling diamond snuff-box and equally dazzling smile, stopped in the middle of the aisle, bowed, replied, "With pleasure—certainly!" and walked inside the communion rail, as if believing that his presence there conveyed the highest compliment he could pay the spot.
The poll began in perfect silence. One after the other, three farmers went up and voted for Mr. Vermilye. There was snuff under their noses—probably something heavier than snuff in their pockets.
Then came up the big, grey-headed fellow I have before mentioned— Jacob Baines. He pulled his fore-lock to Sir Ralph, rather shyly; possibly in his youth he had made the sheriff's acquaintance under less favourable circumstances. But he plucked up courage.
"Your honour, might a man say a word to 'ee?"
"Certainly! but be quick, my good fellow," replied the baronet, who was noted for his kindly manner to humble folk.
"Sir, I be a poor man. I lives in one o' my lord's houses. I hanna paid no rent for a year. Mr. Brown zays to me, he zays—'Jacob, vote for Vermilye, and I'll forgive 'ee the rent, and here be two pound ten to start again wi'. So, as I zays to Matthew Hales (he be Mr. Halifax's tenant, your honour, and my lord's steward ha' paid 'un nigh four pound for his vote), I sure us be poor men, and his lordship a lord and all that—it's no harm, I reckon."
"Holloa! cut it short, you rascal; you're stopping the poll. Vote, I say."
"Ay, ay, 'squire;" and the old fellow, who had some humour in him, pulled his hair again civilly to Mr. Brithwood. "Wait till I ha' got shut o' these."
And he counted out of his ragged pockets a handful of guineas. Poor fellow! how bright they looked; those guineas, that were food, clothing, life.
"Three was paid to I, two to Will Horrocks, and the rest to Matthew Hales. But, sir, we has changed our minds; and please, would 'ee give back the money to them as owns it?"
"Still, my honest friend—"
"Thank 'ee, Sir Ralph, that's it: we be honest; we couldn't look the master in the face else. Twelve year ago, come Michaelmas, he kept some on us from starving—may be worse. We bean't going to turn rascals on's hands now. Now I'll vote, sir,—and it won't be for Vermilye."
A smothered murmur of applause greeted old Jacob, as he marched back down the aisle, where on the stone benches of the porch was seated a rural jury, who discussed not over-favourably the merits of Lord Luxmore's candidate.
"He owes a power o' money in Norton Bury—he do."
"Why doesn't he show his face at the 'lection, like a decent gen'leman?"
"Fear'd o' bailiffs!" suggested the one constable, old and rheumatic, who guarded the peace of Kingswell. "He's the biggest swindler in all England."
"Curse him!" muttered an old woman. "She was a bonny lass—my Sally! Curse him!"
All this while, Lord Luxmore sat in lazy dignity in the communion- chair, apparently satisfied that as things always had been so they would continue to be; that despite the unheard-of absurdity of a contested election, his pocket-borough was quite secure. It must have been, to say the least, a great surprise to his lordship, when, the poll being closed, its result was found thus: Out of the fifteen votes, six were for Mr. Vermilye, nine for his opponent. Mr. Herbert Oldtower was therefore duly elected as member for the borough of Kingswell.
The earl received the announcement with dignified, incredulous silence; but Mr. Brithwood never spared language.
"It's a cheat—an infamous conspiracy! I will unseat him—by my soul I will!"
"You may find it difficult," said John Halifax, counting out the guineas deposited by Jacob Baines, and laying them in a heap before Mr. Brown, the steward. "Small as the number is, I believe any Committee of the House of Commons will decide that nine honester votes were never polled. But I regret, my lord—I regret deeply, Mr. Brithwood,"—and there was a kind of pity in his eye—"that in this matter I have been forced, as it were, to become your opponent. Some day, perhaps, you may both do me the justice that I now can only look for from my own conscience."
"Very possibly," replied the earl, with a satirical bow. "I believe, gentlemen, our business is ended for to-day, and it is a long drive to Norton Bury. Sir Ralph, might we hope for the honour of your company? No? Good day, my friends. Mr. Halifax, your servant."
"One word, my lord. Those workmen of mine, who are your tenants—I am aware what usually results when tenants in arrear vote against their landlords—if, without taking any harsher measures, your agent will be so kind as to apply to me for the rent—"
"Sir, my agent will use his own discretion."
"Then I rely on your lordship's kindliness—your sense of honour."
"Honour is only spoken of between equals," said the earl, haughtily. "But on one thing Mr. Halifax may always rely—my excellent memory."
With a smile and bow as perfect as if he were victoriously quitting the field, Lord Luxmore departed. Soon not one remained of all those who had filled the church and churchyard, making there a tumult that is chronicled to this very day by some ancient villagers, who still think themselves greatly ill-used because the Reform Act has blotted out of the list of English boroughs the "loyal and independent" borough of Kingswell.
Sir Ralph Oldtower stood a good while talking with John; and finally, having sent his carriage on, walked with him down Kingswell Hill towards the manor-house. I, riding alongside, caught fragments of their conversation.
"What you say is all true, Mr. Halifax; and you say it well. But what can we do? Our English constitution is perfect—that is, as perfect as anything human can be. Yet corruptions will arise; we regret, we even blame—but we cannot remove them. It is impossible."
"Do you think, Sir Ralph, that the Maker of this world—which, so far as we can see, He means like all other of His creations gradually to advance toward perfection—do you think He would justify us in pronouncing any good work therein 'impossible'?"
"You talk like a young man," said the baronet, half sadly. "Coming years will show you the world and the ways of it in a clearer light."
"I earnestly hope so."
Sir Ralph glanced sideways at him—perhaps with a sort of envy of the very youth which he thus charitably excused as a thing to be allowed for till riper wisdom came. Something might have smote the old man with a conviction, that in this youth was strength and life, the spirit of the new generation then arising, before which the old worn- out generation would crumble into its natural dust. Dust of the dead ages, honourable dust, to be reverently inurned, and never parricidally profaned by us the living age, who in our turn must follow the same downward path. Dust, venerable and beloved—but still only dust.
The conversation ending, we took our diverse ways; Sir Ralph giving Mr. Halifax a hearty invitation to the manor-house, and seeing him hesitate, added, that "Lady Oldtower would shortly have the honour of calling upon Mrs. Halifax."
John bowed. "But I ought to tell you, Sir Ralph, that my wife and I are very simple people—that we make no mere acquaintances, and only desire friends."
"It is fortunate that Lady Oldtower and myself share the same peculiarity." And, shaking hands with a stately cordiality, the old man took his leave.
"John, you have made a step in the world to-day."
"Have I?" he said, absently, walking in deep thought, and pulling the hedge-leaves as he went along.
"What will your wife say?"
"My wife? bless her!" and he seemed to be only speaking the conclusion of his thinking. "It will make no difference to her— though it might to me. She married me in my low estate—but some day, God willing, no lady in the land shall be higher than my Ursula."
Thus as in all things each thought most of the other, and both of Him—whose will was to them beyond all human love, ay, even such love as theirs.
Slowly, slowly, I watched the grey turrets of the manor-house fade away in the dusk; the hills grew indistinct, and suddenly we saw the little twinkling light that we knew was the lamp in Longfield parlour, shine out like a glow-worm across the misty fields.
"I wonder if the children are gone to bed, Phineas?"
And the fatherly eyes turned fondly to that pretty winking light; the fatherly heart began to hover over the dear little nest of home.
"Surely there's some one at the white gate. Ursula!"
"John! Ah—it is you."
The mother did not express her feelings after the fashion of most women; but I knew by her waiting there, and by the nervous tremble of her hand, how great her anxiety had been.
"Is all safe, husband?"
"I think so. Mr. Oldtower is elected—HE must fly the country."
"Then she is saved."
"Let us hope she is. Come, my darling!" and he wrapped his arm round her, for she was shivering. "We have done all we could and must wait the rest. Come home. Oh!" with a lifted look and a closer strain, "thank God for home!"