John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XXIX
We went home, leaving all that was mortal of our darling sleeping at Enderley, underneath the snows.
For twelve years after then, we lived at Longfield; in such unbroken, uneventful peace, that looking back seems like looking back over a level sea, whose leagues of tiny ripples make one smooth glassy plain.
Let me recall—as the first wave that rose, ominous of change—a certain spring evening, when Mrs. Halifax and I were sitting, as was our wont, under the walnut-tree. The same old walnut-tree, hardly a bough altered, though many of its neighbours and kindred had grown from saplings into trees—even as some of us had grown from children almost into young men.
"Edwin is late home from Norton Bury," said Ursula.
"So is his father."
"No—this is just John's time. Hark! there are the carriage-wheels!"
For Mr. Halifax, a prosperous man now, drove daily to and from his mills, in as tasteful an equipage as any of the country gentry between here and Enderley.
His wife went down to the stream to meet him, as usual, and they came up the field-path together.
Both were changed from the John and Ursula of whom I last wrote. She, active and fresh-looking still, but settling into that fair largeness which is not unbecoming a lady of middle-age, he, inclined to a slight stoop, with the lines of his face more sharply defined, and the hair wearing away off his forehead up to the crown. Though still not a grey thread was discernible in the crisp locks at the back, which successively five little ones had pulled, and played with, and nestled in; not a sign of age, as yet, in "father's curls."
As soon as he had spoken to me, he looked round as usual for his children, and asked if the boys and Maud would be home to tea?
"I think Guy and Walter never do come home in time when they go over to the manor-house."
"They're young—let them enjoy themselves," said the father, smiling. "And you know, love, of all our 'fine' friends, there are none you so heartily approve of as the Oldtowers."
These were not of the former race. Good old Sir Ralph had gone to his rest, and Sir Herbert reigned in his stead; Sir Herbert, who in his dignified gratitude never forgot a certain election day, when he first made the personal acquaintance of Mr. Halifax. The manor-house family brought several other "county families" to our notice, or us to theirs. These, when John's fortunes grew rapidly—as many another fortune grew, in the beginning of the thirty years' peace, when unknown, petty manufacturers first rose into merchant princes and cotton lords—these gentry made a perceptible distinction, often amusing enough to us, between John Halifax, the tanner of Norton Bury, and Mr. Halifax, the prosperous owner of Enderley Mills. Some of them, too, were clever enough to discover, what a pleasant and altogether "visitable" lady was Mrs. Halifax, daughter of the late Mr. March, a governor in the West Indies, and cousin of Mr. Brithwood of the Mythe. But Mrs. Halifax, with quiet tenacity, altogether declined being visited as anything but Mrs. Halifax, wife of John Halifax, tanner, or mill-owner, or whatever he might be. All honours and all civilities that did not come through him, and with him, were utterly valueless to her.
To this her peculiarity was added another of John's own, namely, that all his life he had been averse to what is called "society;" had eschewed "acquaintances,"—and—but most men might easily count upon their fingers the number of those who, during a life-time, are found worthy of the sacred name of "friend." Consequently, our circle of associations was far more limited than that of many families holding an equal position with us—on which circumstance our neighbours commented a good deal. But little we cared; no more than we had cared for the chit-chat of Norton Bury. Our whole hearts were bound up within our own home—our happy Longfield.
"I do think this place is growing prettier than ever," said John, when, tea being over—a rather quiet meal, without a single child—we elders went out again to the walnut-tree bench. "Certainly, prettier than ever;" and his eye wandered over the quaint, low house, all odds and ends—for nearly every year something had been built, or something pulled down; then crossing the smooth bit of lawn, Jem Watkins's special pride, it rested on the sloping field, yellow with tall buttercups, wavy with growing grass. "Let me see—how long have we lived here? Phineas, you are the one for remembering dates. What year was it we came to Longfield?"
"Eighteen hundred and twelve. Thirteen years ago."
"Ah, so long!"
"Not too long," said Mrs. Halifax, earnestly. "I hope we may end our days here. Do not you, John?"
He paused a little before answering. "Yes, I wish it; but I am not sure how far it would be right to do it."
"We will not open that subject again," said the mother, uneasily. "I thought we had all made up our minds that little Longfield was a thousand times pleasanter than Beechwood, grand as it is. But John thinks he never can do enough for his people at Enderley."
"Not that alone, love. Other reasons combined. Do you know, Phineas," he continued, musingly, as he watched the sun set over Leckington Hill—"sometimes I fancy my life is too easy—that I am not a wise steward of the riches that have multiplied so fast. By fifty, a man so blest as I have been, ought to have done really something of use in the world—and I am forty-five. Once, I hoped to have done wonderful things ere I was forty-five. But somehow the desire faded."
His wife and I were silent. We both knew the truth; that calm as had flowed his outer existence, in which was omitted not one actual duty, still, for these twelve years, all the high aims which make the glory and charm of life as duties make its strength, all the active energies and noble ambitions which especially belong to the prime of manhood, in him had been, not dead perhaps, but sleeping. Sleeping, beyond the power of any human voice to waken them, under the daisies of a child's grave at Enderley.
I know not if this was right—but it was scarcely unnatural. In that heart, which loved as few men love, and remembered as few men remember, so deep a wound could never be thoroughly healed. A certain something in him seemed different ever after, as if a portion of the father's own life had been taken away with Muriel, and lay buried in the little dead bosom of his first-born, his dearest child.
"You forget," said Mrs. Halifax, tenderly—"you forget, John, how much you have been doing, and intend to do. What with your improvements at Enderley, and your Catholic Emancipation—your Abolition of Slavery and your Parliamentary Reform—why, there is hardly any scheme for good, public or private, to which you do not lend a helping hand."
"A helping purse, perhaps, which is an easier thing, much."
"I will not have you blaming yourself. Ask Phineas, there—our household Solomon."
"Thank you, Ursula," said I, submitting to the not rare fortune of being loved and laughed at.
"Uncle Phineas, what better could John have done in all these years, than look after his mills and educate his three sons?"
"Have them educated, rather," corrected he, sensitive over his own painfully-gained and limited acquirements. Yet this feeling had made him doubly careful to give his boys every possible advantage of study, short of sending them from home, to which he had an invincible objection. And three finer lads, or better educated, there could not be found in the whole country.
"I think, John, Guy has quite got over his fancy of going to Cambridge with Ralph Oldtower."
"Yes; college life would not have done for Guy," said the father thoughtfully.
"Hush! we must not talk about them, for here come the children."
It was now a mere figure of speech to call them so, though in their home-taught, loving simplicity, they would neither have been ashamed nor annoyed at the epithet—these two tall lads, who in the dusk looked as man-like as their father.
"Where is your sister, boys?"
"Maud stopped at the stream with Edwin," answered Guy, rather carelessly. His heart had kept its childish faith; the youngest, pet as she was, was never anything to him but "little Maud." One—whom the boys still talked of, softly and tenderly, in fireside evening talks, when the winter winds came and the snow was falling—one only was ever spoken of by Guy as "sister."
Maud, or Miss Halifax, as from the first she was naturally called—as naturally as our lost darling was never called anything else than Muriel—came up, hanging on Edwin's arm, which she was fond of doing, both because it happened to be the only arm low enough to suit her childish stature, and because she was more especially "Edwin's girl," and had been so always. She had grown out of the likeness that we longed for in her cradle days, or else we had grown out of the perception of it; for though the external resemblance in hair and complexion still remained, nothing could be more unlike in spirit than this sprightly elf, at once the plague and pet of the family—to our Muriel.
"Edwin's girl" stole away with him, merrily chattering. Guy sat down beside his mother, and slipped his arm round her waist. They still fondled her with a child-like simplicity—these her almost grown-up sons; who had never been sent to school for a day, and had never learned from other sons of far different mothers, that a young man's chief manliness ought to consist in despising the tender charities of home.
"Guy, you foolish boy!" as she took his cap off and pushed back his hair, trying not to look proud of his handsome face, "what have you been doing all day?"
"Making myself agreeable, of course, mother."
"That he has," corroborated Walter, whose great object of hero- worship was his eldest brother. "He talked with Lady Oldtower, and he sang with Miss Oldtower and Miss Grace. Never was there such a fellow as our Guy."
"Nonsense!" said his mother, while Guy only laughed, too accustomed to this family admiration to be much disconcerted or harmed thereby.
"When does Ralph return to Cambridge?"
"Not at all. He is going to leave college, and be off to help the Greeks. Father, do you know everybody is joining the Greeks? Even Lord Byron is off with the rest. I only wish I were."
"Heaven forbid!" muttered the mother.
"Why not? I should have made a capital soldier, and liked it too, better than anything."
"Better than being my right hand at the mills, and your mother's at home?—Better than growing up to be our eldest son, our comfort and our hope?—I think not, Guy."
"You are right, father," was the answer, with an uneasy look. For this description seemed less what Guy was than what we desired him to be. With his easy, happy temper, generous but uncertain, and his showy, brilliant parts, he was not nearly so much to be depended on as the grave Edwin, who was already a thorough man of business, and plodded between Enderley mills and a smaller one which had taken the place of the flour mill at Norton Bury, with indomitable perseverance.
Guy fell into a brown study, not unnoticed by those anxious eyes, which lingered oftener upon his face than on that of any of her sons. Mrs. Halifax said, in her quick, decisive way, that it was "time to go in."
So the sunset picture outside changed to the home-group within; the mother sitting at her little table, where the tall silver candlestick shed a subdued light on her work-basket, that never was empty, and her busy fingers, that never were still. The father sat beside her; he kept his old habit of liking to have her close to him; ay, even though he was falling into the middle-aged comforts of an arm-chair and newspaper. There he sat, sometimes reading aloud, or talking; sometimes lazily watching her, with silent, loving eyes, that saw beauty in his old wife still.
The young folk scattered themselves about the room. Guy and Walter at the unshuttered window—we had a habit of never hiding our home-light—were looking at the moon, and laying bets, sotto voce, upon how many minutes she would be in climbing over the oak on the top of One-tree Hill. Edwin sat, reading hard—his shoulders up to his ears, and his fingers stuck through his hair, developing the whole of his broad, knobbed, knotted forehead, where, Maud declared, the wrinkles had already begun to show. For Mistress Maud herself, she flitted about in all directions, interrupting everything, and doing nothing.
"Maud," said her father, at last, "I am afraid you give a great deal of trouble to Uncle Phineas."
Uncle Phineas tried to soften the fact, but the little lady was certainly the most trying of his pupils. Her mother she had long escaped from, for the advantage of both. For, to tell the truth, while in the invisible atmosphere of moral training the mother's influence was invaluable, in the minor branch of lesson-learning there might have been found many a better teacher than Ursula Halifax. So the children's education was chiefly left to me; other tutors succeeding as was necessary; and it had just begun to be considered whether a lady governess ought not to "finish" the education of Miss Halifax. But always at home. Not for all the knowledge and all the accomplishments in the world would these parents have suffered either son or daughter—living souls intrusted them by the Divine Father—to be brought up anywhere out of their own sight, out of the shelter and safeguard of their own natural home.
"Love, when I was waiting to-day in Jessop's bank—"
(Ah! that was another change, to which we were even yet not familiar, the passing away of our good doctor and his wife, and his brother and heir turning the old dining-room into a "County Bank—open from ten till four.")
"While waiting there I heard of a lady who struck me as likely to be an excellent governess for Maud."
"Indeed!" said Mrs. Halifax, not over-enthusiastically. Maud became eager to know "what the lady was like?" I at the same time inquiring "who she was?"
"Who? I really did not ask," John answered, smiling. "But of what she is, Jessop gave me first-rate evidence—a good daughter, who teaches in Norton Bury anybody's children for any sort of pay, in order to maintain an ailing mother. Ursula, you would let her teach our Maud, I know?"
"Is she an Englishwoman?"—For Mrs. Halifax, prejudiced by a certain French lady who had for a few months completely upset the peace of the manor-house, and even slightly tainted her own favourite, pretty Grace Oldtower, had received coldly this governess plan from the beginning. "Would she have to live with us?"
"I think so, decidedly."
"Then it can't be. The house will not accommodate her. It will hardly hold even ourselves. No, we cannot take in anybody else at Longfield."
"But—we may have to leave Longfield."
The boys here turned to listen; for this question had already been mooted, as all family questions were. In our house we had no secrets: the young folk, being trusted, were ever trustworthy; and the parents, clean-handed and pure-hearted, had nothing that they were afraid to tell their children.
"Leave Longfield!" repeated Mrs. Halifax; "surely—surely—" But glancing at her husband, her tone of impatience ceased.
He sat gazing into the fire with an anxious air.
"Don't let us discuss that question—at least, not to-night. It troubles you, John. Put it off till to-morrow."
No, that was never his habit. He was one of the very few who, a thing being to be done, will not trust it to uncertain "to-morrows." His wife saw that he wanted to talk to her, and listened.
"Yes, the question does trouble me a good deal. Whether, now that our children are growing up, and our income is doubling and trebling year by year, we ought to widen our circle of usefulness, or close it up permanently within the quiet bound of little Longfield. Love, which say you?"
"The latter, the latter—because it is far the happiest."
"I am afraid, NOT the latter, because it IS the happiest."
He spoke gently, laying his hand on his wife's shoulder, and looking down on her with that peculiar look which he always had when telling her things that he knew were sore to hear. I never saw that look on any living face save John's; but I have seen it once in a picture—of two Huguenot lovers. The woman is trying to fasten round the man's neck the white badge that will save him from the massacre (of St. Bartholomew)—he, clasping her the while, gently puts it aside—not stern, but smiling. That quiet, tender smile, firmer than any frown, will, you feel sure, soon control the woman's anguish, so that she will sob out—any faithful woman would—"Go, die! Dearer to me than even thyself are thy honour and thy duty!"
When I saw this noble picture, it touched to the core this old heart of mine—for the painter, in that rare expression, might have caught John's. Just as in a few crises of his life I have seen it, and especially in this one, when he first told to his wife that determination which he had slowly come to—that it was both right and expedient for us to quit Longfield, our happy home for so many years, of which the mother loved every flower in the garden, every nook and stone in the walls.
"Leave Longfield!" she repeated again, with a bitter sigh.
"Leave Longfield!" echoed the children, first the youngest, then the eldest, but rather in curiosity than regret. Edwin's keen, bright eyes were just lifted from his book, and fell again; he was not a lad of much speech, or much demonstration of any kind.
"Boys, come and let us talk over the matter."
They came at once and joined in the circle; respectfully, yet with entire freedom, they looked towards their father—these, the sons of his youth, to whom he had been from their birth, not only parent and head, but companion, guide, and familiar friend. They honoured him, they trusted him, they loved him; not, perhaps, in the exact way that they loved their mother; for it often seems Nature's own ordinance, that a mother's influence should be strongest over her sons, while the father's is greatest over his daughters. But even a stranger could not glance from each to each of those attentive faces, so different, yet with a curious "family look" running through them all, without seeing in what deep, reverent affection, such as naturally takes the place of childish fondness, these youths held their father.
"Yes, I am afraid, after much serious thought on the matter, and much consultation with your mother here,—that we ought to leave Longfield."
"So I think," said Mistress Maud, from her footstool; which putting forward of her important opinion shook us all from gravity to merriment, that compelled even Mrs. Halifax to join. Then, laying aside her work, and with it the saddened air with which she had bent over it, she drew her chair closer to her husband, slipping her hand in his, and leaning against his shoulder. Upon which Guy, who had at first watched his mother anxiously, doubtful whether or no his father's plan had her approval, and therefore ought to be assented to,—relapsed into satisfied, undivided attention.
"I have again been over Beechwood Hall. You all remember Beechwood?"
Yes. It was the "great house" at Enderley, just on the slope of the hill, below Rose Cottage. The beech-wood itself was part of its pleasure ground, and from its gardens honest James Tod, who had them in keeping, had brought many a pocketful of pears for the boys, many a sweet-scented nosegay for Muriel.
"Beechwood has been empty a great many years, father? Would it be a safe investment to buy it?"
"I think so, Edwin, my practical lad," answered the father, smiling. "What say you, children? Would you like living there?"
Each one made his or her comment. Guy's countenance brightened at the notion of "lots of shooting and fishing" about Enderley, especially at Luxmore; and Maud counted on the numerous visitors that would come to John Halifax, Esquire, of Beechwood Hall.
"Neither of which excellent reasons happen to be your father's," said Mrs. Halifax, shortly. But John, often tenderer over youthful frivolities than she, answered:
"I will tell you, boys, what are my reasons. When I was a young man, before your mother and I were married, indeed before I had ever seen her, I had strongly impressed on my mind the wish to gain influence in the world—riches if I could—but at all events, influence. I thought I could use it well, better than most men; those can best help the poor who understand the poor. And I can; since, you know, when Uncle Phineas found me, I was—"
"Father," said Guy, flushing scarlet, "we may as well pass over that fact. We are gentlefolks now."
"We always were, my son."
The rebuke, out of its very mildness, cut the youth to the heart. He dropped his eyes, colouring now with a different and a holier shame.
"I know that. Please will you go on, father."
"And now," the father continued, speaking as much out of his own thoughts as aloud to his children—"now, twenty-five years of labour have won for me the position I desired. That is, I might have it for the claiming. I might take my place among the men who have lately risen from the people, to guide and help the people—the Cannings, Huskissons, Peels."
"Would you enter parliament? Sir Herbert asked me to-day if you ever intended it. He said there was nothing you might not attain to if you would give yourself up entirely to politics."
"No, Guy, no. Wisdom, like charity, begins at home. Let me learn to rule in my own valley, among my own people, before I attempt to guide the state. And that brings me back again to the pros and cons about Beechwood Hall."
"Tell them, John; tell all out plainly to the children."
The reasons were—first, the advantage of the boys themselves; for John Halifax was not one of those philanthropists who would benefit all the world except their own household and their own kin. He wished—since the higher a man rises, the wider and nobler grows his sphere of usefulness—not only to lift himself, but his sons after him; lift them high enough to help on the ever-advancing tide of human improvement, among their own people first, and thence extending outward in the world whithersoever their talents or circumstances might call them.
"I understand," cried the eldest son, his eyes sparkling; "you want to found a family. And so it shall be—we will settle at Beechwood Hall; all coming generations shall live to the honour and glory of your name—our name—"
"My boy, there is only one Name to whose honour we should all live. One Name 'in whom all the generations of the earth are blessed.' In thus far only do I wish to 'found a family,' as you call it, that our light may shine before men—that we may be a city set on a hill—that we may say plainly unto all that ask us, 'For me and my house, we will serve the Lord.'"
It was not often that John Halifax spoke thus; adopting solemnly the literal language of the Book—his and our life's guide, no word of which was ever used lightly in our family. We all listened, as in his earnestness he rose, and, standing upright in the firelight, spoke on.
"I believe, with His blessing, that one may 'serve the Lord' as well in wealth as in poverty, in a great house as in a cottage like this. I am not doubtful, even though my possessions are increased. I am not afraid of being a rich man. Nor a great man neither, if I were called to such a destiny."
"It may be—who knows?" said Ursula, softly.
John caught his wife's eyes, and smiled.
"Love, you were a true prophet once, with a certain 'Yes, you will,' but now—Children, you know when I married your mother I had nothing, and she gave up everything for me. I said I would yet make her as high as any lady in the land,—in fortune I then meant, thinking it would make her happier; but she and I are wiser now. We know that we never can be happier than we were in the old house at Norton Bury, or in this little Longfield. By making her lady of Beechwood I should double her responsibilities and treble her cares; give her an infinitude of new duties, and no pleasures half so sweet as those we leave behind. Still, of herself and for herself, my wife shall decide."
Ursula looked up at him; tears stood in her eyes, though through them shone all the steadfastness of faithful love. "Thank you, John. I have decided. If you wish it, if you think it right, we will leave Longfield and go to Beechwood."
He stooped and kissed her forehead, saying only: "We will go."
Guy looked up, half-reproachfully, as if the father were exacting a sacrifice; but I question whether the greater sacrifice were not his who took rather than hers who gave.
So all was settled—we were to leave beloved Longfield. It was to be let, not sold; let to a person we knew, who would take jealous care of all that was ours, and we might come back and see it continually; but it would be ours—our own home—no more.
Very sad—sadder even than I had thought—was the leaving all the familiar things; the orchard and the flower-garden, the meadow and the stream, the woody hills beyond, every line and wave of which was pleasant and dear almost as our children's faces. Ay, almost as that face which for a year—one little year, had lived in sight of, but never beheld, their beauty; the child who one spring day had gone away merrily out of the white gate with her three brothers, and never came back to Longfield any more.
Perhaps this circumstance, that her fading away and her departure happened away from home, was the cause why her memory—the memory of our living Muriel, in her human childhood—afterwards clung more especially about the house at Longfield. The other children altered, imperceptibly, yet so swiftly, that from year to year we half forgot their old likenesses. But Muriel's never changed. Her image, only a shade, yet often more real than any of these living children, seemed perpetually among us. It crept through the house at dusk; in winter fire-light it sat smiling in dim corners; in spring mornings it moved about the garden borders, with tiny soft footsteps neither seen nor heard. The others grew up—would be men and women shortly—but the one child that "was not," remained to us always a child.
I thought, even the last evening—the very last evening that John returned from Enderley, and his wife went down to the stream to meet him, and they came up the field together, as they had done so for many, many years;—ay, even then I thought I saw his eyes turn to the spot where a little pale figure used to sit on the door-sill, listening and waiting for him, with her dove in her bosom. We never kept doves now.
And the same night, when all the household was in bed—even the mother, who had gone about with a restless activity, trying to persuade herself that there would be at least no possibility of accomplishing the flitting to-morrow—the last night, when John went as usual to fasten the house-door, he stood a long time outside, looking down the valley.
"How quiet everything is. You can almost hear the tinkle of the stream. Poor old Longfield!" And I sighed, thinking we should never again have such another home.
John did not answer. He had been mechanically bending aside and training into its place a long shoot of wild clematis—virgin's bower, which Guy and Muriel had brought in from the fields and planted, a tiny root; it covered the whole front of the house now. Then he came and leaned beside me over the wicket-gate, looking fixedly up into the moon-light blue.
"I wonder if she knows we are leaving Longfield?"
"Who?" said I; for a moment forgetting.