John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XXVII

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Summer waned. Already the beech-wood began to turn red, and the little yellow autumn flowers to show themselves all over the common, while in the midst of them looked up the large purple eye of the ground-thistle. The mornings grew hazy and dewy. We ceased to take Muriel out with us in our slow walk along John's favourite "terrace" before any one else was stirring. Her father at first missed her sorely, but always kept repeating that "early walks were not good for children." At last he gave up the walk altogether, and used to sit with her on his knee in front of the cottage till breakfast-time.

After that, saying with a kind of jealousy "that every one of us had more of his little daughter than he," he got into a habit of fetching her down to the mill every day at noon, and carrying her about in his arms, wherever he went, during the rest of his work.

Many a time I have seen the rough, coarse, blue-handed, blue-pinafored women of the mill stop and look wistfully after "master and little blind miss." I often think that the quiet way in which the Enderley mill people took the introduction of machinery, and the peaceableness with which they watched for weeks the setting up of the steam-engine, was partly owing to their strong impression of Mr. Halifax's goodness as a father, and the vague, almost superstitious interest which attached to the pale, sweet face of Muriel.

Enderley was growing dreary, and we began to anticipate the cosy fireside of Longfield.

"The children will all go home looking better than they came; do you not think so, Uncle Phineas?—especially Muriel?"

To that sentence I had to answer with a vague assent; after which I was fain to rise and walk away, thinking how blind love was—all love save mine, which had a gift for seeing the saddest side of things.

When I came back, I found the mother and daughter talking mysteriously apart. I guessed what it was about, for I had overheard Ursula saying they had better tell the child—it would be "something for her to look forward to—something to amuse her next winter."

"It is a great secret, mind," the mother whispered, after its communication.

"Oh, yes!" The tiny face, smaller than ever, I thought, flushed brightly. "But I would much rather have a little sister, if you please. Only"—and the child suddenly grew earnest—"will she be like me?"

"Possibly; sisters often are alike."

"No, I don't mean that; but—you know?" And Muriel touched her own eyes.

"I cannot tell, my daughter. In all things else, pray God she may be like you, Muriel, my darling—my child of peace!" said Ursula, embracing her with tears.

After this confidence, of which Muriel was very proud, and only condescended, upon gaining express permission, to re-confide it to me, she talked incessantly of the sister that was coming, until "little Maud"—the name she chose for her—became an absolute entity in the household.

The dignity and glory of being sole depositary of this momentous fact, seemed for a time to put new life—bright human life—into this little maid of eleven years old. She grew quite womanly, as it were; tried to help her mother in a thousand little ways, and especially by her own solitary branch of feminine industry—poor darling! She set on a pair of the daintiest elfin socks that ever were knitted. I found them, years after—one finished, one with the needles (all rusty) stuck through the fine worsted ball, just as the child had laid it out of her hand. Ah, Muriel, Muriel!

The father took great delight in this change, in her resuming her simple work, and going about constantly with her mother.

"What a comfort she will be to Ursula one day—an eldest daughter always is. So will she: will she not, Uncle Phineas?"

I smiled assentingly. Alas! his burthens were heavy enough! I think I did right to smile.

"We must take her down with us to see the steam-engine first worked. I wish Ursula would have gone home without waiting for to-morrow. But there is no fear—my men are so quiet and good-humoured. What in most mills has been a day of outrage and dread, is with us quite a festival. Boys, shall you like to come? Edwin, my practical lad, my lad that is to carry on the mills—will you promise to hold fast by Uncle Phineas, if I let you see the steam-engine work?"

Edwin lifted up from his slate bright, penetrating eyes. He was quite an old man in his ways—wise even from his babyhood, and quiet even when Guy snubbed him; but, I noticed, he did not come to "kiss and make friends" so soon as Guy. And though Guy was much the naughtiest, we all loved him best. Poor Guy! he had the frankest, warmest, tenderest boy-heart, always struggling to be good, and never able to accomplish it.

"Father," cried Guy, "I want to see the steam-engine move, but I'll not be a baby like Edwin; I'll not hold Uncle Phineas' hand."

Hereupon ensued one of those summer storms which sometimes swept across the family horizon, in the midst of which Muriel and I stole out into the empty church, where, almost in the dark—which was no dark to her—for a long hour she sat and played. By and by the moon looked in, showing the great gilt pipes of the organ, and the little fairy figure sitting below.

Once or twice she stooped from the organ-loft to ask me where was Brother Anselmo, who usually met us in the church of evenings, and whom to-night—this last night before the general household moved back to Longfield—we had fully expected.

At last he came, sat down by me, and listened. She was playing a fragment of one of his Catholic masses. When it ended, he called "Muriel!"

Her soft, glad answer came down from the gallery.

"Child, play the 'Miserere' I taught you."

She obeyed, making the organ wail like a tormented soul. Truly, no tales I ever heard of young Wesley and the infant Mozart ever surpassed the wonderful playing of our blind child.

"Now, the 'Dies Irae.'—It will come," he muttered, "to us all."

The child struck a few notes, heavy and dolorous, filling the church like a thunder-cloud, then suddenly left off, and opening the flute-stop, burst into altogether different music.

"That is Handel—'I know that my Redeemer liveth.'"

Exquisitely she played it, the clear treble notes seemed to utter like a human voice the very words:

    "I know that my Redeemer liveth, and He shall stand
          at the latter day upon the earth.
     And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh
          shall I see God."

With that she ceased.

"More, more!" we both cried.

"Not now—no more now."

And we heard her shutting up the stops and closing the organ lid.

"But my little Muriel has not finished her tune?"

"She will, some day," said the child.

So she came down from the organ-loft, feeling her way along the aisles; and we all went out together, locking the church-door.

Lord Ravenel was rather sad that night; he was going away from Luxmore for some time. We guessed why—because the earl was coming. Bidding us good-bye, he said, mournfully, to his little pet, "I wish I were not leaving you. Will you remember me, Muriel?"

"Stoop down; I want to see you."

This was her phrase for a way she had of passing her extremely sensitive fingers over the faces of those she liked. After which she always said she "saw" them.

"Yes; I shall remember you."

"And love me?"

"And love you, Brother Anselmo."

He kissed, not her cheek or mouth, but her little child-hands, reverently, as if she had been the saint he worshipped, or, perhaps, the woman whom afterwards he would learn to adore. Then he went away.

"Truly," said the mother, in an amused aside to me, as with a kind of motherly pride she watched him walk hastily down between those chestnut-trees, known of old—"truly, time flies fast. Things begin to look serious—eh, father? Five years hence we shall have that young man falling in love with Muriel."

But John and I looked at the still, soft face, half a child's and half an angel's.

"Hush!" he said, as if Ursula's fancy were profanity; then eagerly snatched it up and laughed, confessing how angry he should be if anybody dared to "fall in love" with Muriel.

Next day was the one fixed for the trial of the new steam-engine; which trial being successful, we were to start at once in a post-chaise for Longfield; for the mother longed to be at home, and so did we all.

There was rather a dolorous good-bye, and much lamenting from good Mrs. Tod, who, her own bairns grown up, thought there were no children worthy to compare with our children. And truly, as the three boys scampered down the road—their few regrets soon over, eager for anything new—three finer lads could not be seen in the whole country.

Mrs. Halifax looked after them proudly—mother-like, she gloried in her sons; while John, walking slowly, and assuring Mrs. Tod over and over again that we should all come back next summer, went down the steep hill, carrying, hidden under many wraps and nestled close to his warm shoulder, his little frail winter-rose—his only daughter.

In front of the mill we found a considerable crowd; for the time being ripe, Mr. Halifax had made public the fact that he meant to work his looms by steam, the only way in which he could carry on the mill at all. The announcement had been received with great surprise and remarkable quietness, both by his own work-people and all along Enderley valley. Still there was the usual amount of contemptuous scepticism, incident on any new experiment. Men were peering about the locked door of the engine-room with a surly curiosity; and one village oracle, to prove how impossible it was that such a thing as steam could work anything, had taken the trouble to light a fire in the yard and set thereon his wife's best tea-kettle, which, as she snatched angrily away, scalded him slightly, and caused him to limp away swearing, a painful illustration of the adage, that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

"Make way, my good people," said Mr. Halifax; and he crossed the mill-yard, his wife on his arm, followed by an involuntary murmur of respect.

"He be a fine fellow, the master; he sticks at nothing," was the comment heard made upon him by one of his people, and probably it expressed the feeling of the rest. There are few things which give a man more power over his fellows than the thoroughly English quality of daring.

Perhaps this was the secret why John had as yet passed safely through the crisis which had been the destruction of so many mill-owners, namely, the introduction of a power which the mill-people were convinced would ruin hand-labour. Or else the folk in our valley, out of their very primitiveness, had more faith in the master; for certainly, as John passed through the small crowd, there was only one present who raised the old fatal cry of "Down with machinery!"

"Who said that?"

At the master's voice—at the flash of the master's eye—the little knot of work-people drew back, and the malcontent, whoever he was, shrunk into silence.

Mr. Halifax walked past them, entered his mill, and unlocked the door of the room which he had turned into an engine-room, and where, along with the two men he had brought from Manchester, he had been busy almost night and day for this week past in setting up his machinery. They worked—as the Manchester fellows said they had often been obliged to work—under lock and key.

"Your folk be queer 'uns, Mr. Halifax. They say there's six devils inside on her, theer."

And the man pointed to the great boiler which had been built up in an out-house adjoining.

"Six devils, say they?—Well, I'll be Maister Michael Scot—eh, Phineas?—and make my devils work hard."

He laughed, but he was much excited. He went over, piece by piece, the complicated but delicate machinery; rubbed here and there at the brass-work, which shone as bright as a mirror; then stepped back, and eyed it with pride, almost with affection.

"Isn't it a pretty thing?—If only I have set it up right—if it will but work."

His hands shook—his cheeks were burning—little Edwin came peering about at his knee; but he pushed the child hastily away; then he found some slight fault with the machinery, and while the workmen rectified it stood watching them, breathless with anxiety. His wife came to his side.

"Don't speak to me,—don't, Ursula. If it fails I am ruined."

"John!"—she just whispered his name, and the soft, firm fold of her fingers closed round his, strengthening, cheering. Her husband faintly smiled.

"Here!"—He unlocked the door, and called to the people outside. "Come in, two of you fellows, and see how my devils work. Now then! Boys, keep out of the way; my little girl"—his voice softened—"my pet will not be frightened? Now, my men—ready?"

He opened the valve.

With a strange noise, that made the two Enderley men spring back as if the six devils were really let loose upon them, the steam came rushing into the cylinder. There was a slight motion of the piston-rod.

"All's right! it will work?"

No, it stopped.

John drew a deep breath.

It went on again, beginning to move slowly up and down, like the strong right arm of some automaton giant. Greater and lesser cog- wheels caught up the motive power, revolving slowly and majestically, and with steady, regular rotation, or whirling round so fast you could hardly see that they stirred at all. Of a sudden a soul had been put into that wonderful creature of man's making, that inert mass of wood and metal, mysteriously combined. The monster was alive!

Speechless, John stood watching it. Their trial over, his energies collapsed; he sat down by his wife's side, and taking Muriel on his knee, bent his head over hers.

"Is all right, father?" the child whispered.

"All quite right, my own."

"You said you could do it, and you have done it," cried his wife, her eyes glowing with triumph, her head erect and proud.

John dropped his lower, lower still. "Yes," he murmured; "yes, thank God."

Then he opened the door, and let all the people in to see the wondrous sight.

They crowded in by dozens, staring about in blank wonder, gaping curiosity, ill-disguised alarm. John took pains to explain the machinery, stage by stage, till some of the more intelligent caught up the principle, and made merry at the notion of "devils." But they all looked with great awe at the master, as if he were something more than man. They listened open-mouthed to every word he uttered, cramming the small engine-room till it was scarcely possible to breathe, but keeping at a respectful distance from the iron-armed monster, that went working, working on, as if ready and able to work on to everlasting.

John took his wife and children out into the open air. Muriel, who had stood for the last few minutes by her father's side, listening with a pleasing look to the monotonous regular sound, like the breathing of the demon, was unwilling to go.

"I am very glad I was with you to-day,—very glad, father," she kept saying.

He said, as often—twice as often—that next summer, when he came back to Enderley, she should be with him at the mills every day, and all day over, if she liked.

There was now nothing to be done but to hasten as quickly and as merrily as possible to our well-beloved Longfield.

Waiting for the post-chaise, Mrs. Halifax and the boys sat down on the bridge over the defunct and silenced water-fall, on the muddy steps of which, where the stream used to dash musically over, weeds and long grasses, mingled with the drooping water-fern, were already beginning to grow.

"It looks desolate, but we need not mind that now," said Mrs. Halifax.

"No," her husband answered. "Steam power once obtained, I can apply it in any way I choose. My people will not hinder; they trust me, they like me."

"And, perhaps, are just a little afraid of you. No matter, it is wholesome fear. I should not like to have married a man whom nobody was afraid of."

John smiled; he was looking at the horseman riding towards us along the high road. "I do believe that is Lord Luxmore. I wonder whether he has heard of my steam-engine. Love, will you go back into the mill or not?"

"Certainly not." The mother seated herself on the bridge, her boys around her; John avouched, with an air like the mother of the Gracchi, or like the Highland woman who trained one son after another to fight and slay their enemy—their father's murderer.

"Don't jest," said Ursula. She was much more excited than her husband. Two angry spots burnt on her cheeks when Lord Luxmore came up, and, in passing, bowed.

Mrs. Halifax returned it, haughtily enough. But at the moment a loud cheer broke out from the mill hard by, and "Hurrah for the master!" "Hurrah for Mr. Halifax!" was distinctly heard. The mother smiled, right proudly.

Lord Luxmore turned to his tenant—they might have been on the best terms imaginable from his bland air.

"What is that rather harsh noise I hear, Mr. Halifax?"

"It is my men cheering me."

"Oh, how charming! so grateful to the feelings. And WHY do they cheer you, may I ask?"

John briefly told him, speaking with perfect courtesy as he was addressed.

"And this steam-engine—I have heard of it before—will greatly advantage your mills?"

"It will, my lord. It renders me quite independent of your stream, of which the fountains at Luxmore can now have the full monopoly."

It would not have been human nature if a spice of harmless malice— even triumph—had not sparkled in John's eye, as he said this. He was walking by the horse's side, as Lord Luxmore had politely requested him.

They went a little way up the hill together, out of sight of Mrs. Halifax, who was busy putting the two younger boys into the chaise.

"I did not quite understand. Would you do me the favour to repeat your sentence?"

"Merely, my lord, that your cutting off of the water-course has been to me one of the greatest advantages I ever had in my life; for which, whether meant or not, allow me to thank you."

The earl looked full in John's face, without answering; then spurred his horse violently. The animal started off, full speed.

"The children. Good God—the children!"

Guy was in the ditch-bank, gathering flowers—but Muriel—For the first time in our lives, we had forgotten Muriel.

She stood in the horse's path—the helpless, blind child. The next instant she was knocked down.

I never heard a curse on John Halifax's lips but once—that once. Lord Luxmore heard it too. The image of the frantic father, snatching up his darling from under the horse's heels, must have haunted the earl's good memory for many a day.

He dismounted, saying, anxiously, "I hope the little girl is not injured? It was accident—you see—pure accident."

But John did not hear; he would scarcely have heard heaven's thunder. He knelt with the child in his arms by a little runnel in the ditch-bank. When the water touched her she opened her eyes with that wide, momentary stare so painful to behold.

"My little darling!"

Muriel smiled, and nestled to him. "Indeed, I am not hurt, dear father."

Lord Luxmore, standing by, seemed much relieved, and again pressed his apologies.

No answer.

"Go away," sobbed out Guy, shaking both his fists in the nobleman's face. "Go away—or I'll kill you—wicked man! I would have done it if you had killed my sister."

Lord Luxmore laughed at the boy's fury—threw him a guinea, which Guy threw back at him with all his might, and rode placidly away.

"Guy—Guy—" called the faint, soft voice which had more power over him than any other, except his mother's. "Guy must not be angry. Father, don't let him be angry."

But the father was wholly occupied in Muriel—looking in her face, and feeling all her little fragile limbs, to make sure that in no way she was injured.

It appeared not; though the escape seemed almost miraculous. John recurred, with a kind of trembling tenacity, to the old saying in our house, that "nothing ever harmed Muriel."

"Since it is safe over, and she can walk—you are sure you can, my pet?—I think we will not say anything about this to the mother; at least not till we reach Longfield."

But it was too late. There was no deceiving the mother. Every change in every face struck her instantaneously. The minute we rejoined her she said:

"John, something has happened to Muriel."

Then he told her, making as light of the accident as he could; as, indeed, for the first ten minutes we all believed, until alarmed by the extreme pallor and silence of the child.

Mrs. Halifax sat down by the roadside, bathed Muriel's forehead and smoothed her hair; but still the little curls lay motionless against the mother's breast,—and still to every question she only answered "that she was not hurt."

All this while the post-chaise was waiting.

"What must be done?" I inquired of Ursula; for it was no use asking John anything.

"We must go back again to Enderley," she said decidedly.

So, giving Muriel into her father's arms, she led the way, and, a melancholy procession, we again ascended the hill to Rose Cottage door.