John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XXVIII
Without any discussion, our plans were tacitly changed—no more was said about going home to dear Longfield. Every one felt, though no one trusted it to words, that the journey was impossible. For Muriel lay, day after day, on her little bed in an upper chamber, or was carried softly down in the middle of the day by her father, never complaining, but never attempting to move or talk. When we asked her if she felt ill, she always answered, "Oh, no! only so very tired." Nothing more.
"She is dull, for want of the others to play with her. The boys should not run out and leave their sister alone," said John, almost sharply, when one bright morning the lads' merry voices came down from the Flat, while he and I were sitting by Muriel's sofa in the still parlour.
"Father, let the boys play without me, please. Indeed, I do not mind. I had rather lie quiet here."
"But it is not good for my little girl always to be quiet, and it grieves father."
"Does it?" She roused herself, sat upright, and began to move her limbs, but wearily.
"That is right, my darling. Now let me see how well you can walk."
Muriel slipped to her feet and tried to cross the room, catching at table and chairs—now, alas! not only for guidance but actual support. At last she began to stagger, and said, half crying:
"I can't walk, I am so tired. Oh, do take me in your arms, dear father."
Her father took her, looked long in her sightless face, then buried his against her shoulder, saying nothing. But I think in that moment he too saw, glittering and bare, the long-veiled Hand which, for this year past, I had seen stretched out of the immutable heavens, claiming that which was its own. Ever after there was discernible in John's countenance a something which all the cares of his anxious yet happy life had never written there—an ineffaceable record, burnt in with fire.
He held her in his arms all day. He invented all sorts of tales and little amusements for her; and when she was tired of these he let her lie in his bosom and sleep. After her bed-time he asked me to go out with him on the Flat.
It was a misty night. The very cows and asses stood up large and spectral as shadows. There was not a single star to be seen.
We took our walk along the terrace and came back again, without exchanging a single word. Then John said hastily:
"I am glad her mother was so busy to-day—too busy to notice."
"Yes," I answered; unconnected as his words were.
"Do you understand me, Phineas? Her mother must not on any account be led to imagine, or to fear—anything. You must not look as you looked this morning. You must not, Phineas."
He spoke almost angrily. I answered in a few quieting words. We were silent, until over the common we caught sight of the light in Muriel's window. Then I felt rather than heard the father's groan.
"Oh, God! my only daughter—my dearest child!"
Yes, she was the dearest. I knew it. Strange mystery, that He should so often take, by death or otherwise, the DEAREST—always the dearest. Strange that He should hear us cry—us writhing in the dust, "O Father, anything, anything but this!" But our Father answers not; and meanwhile the desire of our eyes—be it a life, a love, or a blessing—slowly, slowly goes—is gone. And yet we have to believe in our Father. Perhaps of all trials to human faith this is the sorest. Thanks be to God if He puts into our hearts such love towards Him that even while He slays us we can trust Him still.
This father—this broken-hearted earthly father—could.
When we sat at the supper-table—Ursula, John, and I, the children being all in bed—no one could have told that there was any shadow over us, more than the sadly-familiar pain of the darling of the house being "not so strong as she used to be."
"But I think she will be, John. We shall have her quite about again, before—"
The mother stopped, slightly smiling. It was, indeed, an especial mercy of heaven which put that unaccountable blindness before her eyes, and gave her other duties and other cares to intercept the thought of Muriel. While, from morning till night, it was the incessant secret care of her husband, myself, and good Mrs. Tod, to keep her out of her little daughter's sight, and prevent her mind from catching the danger of one single fear.
Thus, within a week or two, the mother lay down cheerfully upon her couch of pain, and gave another child to the household—a little sister to Muriel.
Muriel was the first to whom the news was told. Her father told it. His natural joy and thankfulness seemed for the moment to efface every other thought.
"She is come, darling! little Maud is come. I am very rich—for I have two daughters now."
"Muriel is glad, father." But she showed her gladness in a strangely quiet, meditative way, unlike a child—unlike even her old self.
"What are you thinking of, my pet?"
"That—though father has another daughter, I hope he will remember the first one sometimes."
"She is jealous!" cried John, in the curious delight with which he always detected in her any weakness, any fault, which brought her down to the safe level of humanity. "See, Uncle Phineas, our Muriel is actually jealous."
But Muriel only smiled.
That smile—so serene—so apart from every feeling or passion appertaining to us who are "of the earth, earthy," smote the father to the heart's core.
He sat down by her, and she crept up into his arms.
"What day is it, father?"
"The first of December."
"I am glad. Little Maud's birthday will be in the same month as mine."
"But you came in the snow, Muriel, and now it is warm and mild."
"There will be snow on my birthday, though. There always is. The snow is fond of me, father. It would like me to lie down and be all covered over, so that you could not find me anywhere."
I heard John try to echo her weak, soft laugh.
"This month it will be eleven years since I was born, will it not, father?"
"Yes, my darling."
"What a long time! Then, when my little sister is as old as I am, I shall be—that is, I should have been—a woman grown. Fancy me twenty years old, as tall as mother, wearing a gown like her, talking and ordering, and busy about the house. How funny!" and she laughed again. "Oh! no, father, I couldn't do it. I had better remain always your little Muriel, weak and small, who liked to creep close to you, and go to sleep in this way."
She ceased talking—very soon she was sound asleep. But—the father!
Muriel faded, though slowly. Sometimes she was so well for an hour or two that the Hand seemed drawn back into the clouds, till of a sudden again we discerned it there.
One Sunday—it was ten days or so after Maud's birth, and the weather had been so bitterly cold that the mother had herself forbidden our bringing Muriel to the other side of the house where she and the baby lay—Mrs. Tod was laying the dinner, and John stood at the window playing with his three boys.
He turned abruptly, and saw all the chairs placed round the table— all save one.
"Where is Muriel's chair, Mrs. Tod?"
"Sir, she says she feels so tired like, she'd rather not come down to-day," answered Mrs. Tod, hesitatingly.
"Not come down?"
"Maybe better not, Mr. Halifax. Look out at the snow. It'll be warmer for the dear child to-morrow."
"You are right. Yes, I had forgotten the snow. She shall come down to-morrow."
I caught Mrs. Tod's eyes; they were running over. She was too wise to speak of it—but she knew the truth as well as we.
This Sunday—I remember it well—was the first day we sat down to dinner with the one place vacant.
For a few days longer, her father, every evening when he came in from the mills, persisted in carrying her down, as he had said, holding her on his knee during tea, then amusing her and letting the boys amuse her for half-an-hour or so before bed-time. But at the week's end even this ceased.
When Mrs. Halifax, quite convalescent, was brought triumphantly to her old place at our happy Sunday dinner-table, and all the boys came pressing about her, vying which should get most kisses from little sister Maud—she looked round, surprised amidst her smiling, and asked:
"Where is Muriel?"
"She seems to feel this bitter weather a good deal," John said; "and I thought it better she should not come down to dinner."
"No," added Guy, wondering and dolefully, "sister has not been down to dinner with us for a great many days."
The mother started; looked first at her husband, and then at me.
"Why did nobody tell me this?"
"Love—there was nothing new to be told."
"Has the child had any illness that I do not know of?"
"Has Dr. Jessop seen her?"
"Mother," said Guy, eager to comfort—for naughty as he was sometimes, he was the most tender-hearted of all the boys, especially to Muriel and to his mother,—"sister isn't ill a bit, I know. She was laughing and talking with me just now—saying she knows she could carry baby a great deal better than I could. She is as merry as ever she can be."
The mother kissed him in her quick, eager way—the sole indication of that maternal love which was in her almost a passion. She looked more satisfied.
Nevertheless, when Mrs. Tod came into the parlour, she rose and put little Maud into her arms.
"Take baby, please, while I go up to see Muriel."
"Don't—now don't, please, Mrs. Halifax," cried earnestly the good woman.
Ursula turned very pale. "They ought to have told me," she muttered; "John, YOU MUST let me go and see my child."
"Presently—presently—Guy, run up and play with Muriel. Phineas, take the others with you. You shall go up-stairs in one minute, my darling wife!"
He turned us all out of the room, and shut the door. How he told her that which was necessary she should know—that which Dr. Jessop himself had told us this very morning—how the father and mother had borne this first open revelation of their unutterable grief—for ever remained unknown.
I was sitting by Muriel's bed, when they came up-stairs. The darling laid listening to her brother, who was squatted on her pillow, making all sorts of funny talk. There was a smile on her face; she looked quite rosy: I hoped Ursula might not notice, just for the time being, the great change the last few weeks had made.
But she did—who could ever blindfold a mother? For a moment I saw her recoil—then turn to her husband with a dumb, piteous, desperate look, as though to say, "Help me—my sorrow is more than I can bear!"
But Muriel, hearing the step, cried with a joyful cry, "Mother! it's my mother!"
The mother folded her to her breast.
Muriel shed a tear or two there—in a satisfied, peaceful way; the mother did not weep at all. Her self-command, so far as speech went, was miraculous. For her look—but then she knew the child was blind.
"Now," she said, "my pet will be good and not cry? It would do her harm. We must be very happy to-day."
"Oh, yes." Then, in a fond whisper, "Please, I do so want to see little Maud."
"Who?" with an absent gaze.
"My little sister Maud—Maud that is to take my place, and be everybody's darling now."
"Hush, Muriel," said the father, hoarsely.
A strangely soft smile broke over her face—and she was silent.
The new baby was carried up-stairs proudly, by Mrs. Tod, all the boys following. Quite a levee was held round the bed, where, laid close beside her, her weak hands being guided over the tiny face and form, Muriel first "saw" her little sister. She was greatly pleased. With a grave elder-sisterly air she felt all over the baby-limbs, and when Maud set up an indignant cry, began hushing her with so quaint an imitation of motherliness, that we were all amused.
"You'll be a capital nurse in a month or two, my pretty!" said Mrs. Tod.
Muriel only smiled. "How fat she is!—and look, how fast her fingers take hold! And her head is so round, and her hair feels so soft—as soft as my dove's neck at Longfield. What colour is it? Like mine?"
It was; nearly the same shade. Maud bore, the mother declared, the strongest likeness to Muriel.
"I am so glad. But these"—touching her eyes anxiously.
"No—my darling. Not like you there," was the low answer.
"I am VERY glad. Please, little Maud, don't cry—it's only sister touching you. How wide open your eyes feel! I wonder,"—with a thoughtful pause—"I wonder if you can see me. Little Maud, I should like you to see sister."
"She does see, of course; how she stares!" cried Guy. And then Edwin began to argue to the contrary, protesting that as kittens and puppies could not see at first, he believed little babies did not: which produced a warm altercation among the children gathered round the bed, while Muriel lay back quietly on her pillow, with her little sister fondly hugged to her breast.
The father and mother looked on. It was such a picture—these five darlings, these children which God had given them—a group perfect and complete in itself, like a root of daisies, or a branch of ripening fruit, which not one could be added to, or taken from—
No. I was sure, from the parents' smile, that, this once, Mercy had blinded their eyes, so that they saw nothing beyond the present moment.
The children were wildly happy. All the afternoon they kept up their innocent little games by Muriel's bed-side; she sometimes sharing, sometimes listening apart. Only once or twice came that wistful, absent look, as if she were listening partly to us, and partly to those we heard not; as if through the wide-open orbs the soul were straining at sights wonderful and new—sights unto which HER eyes were the clear-seeing, and ours the blank and blind.
It seems strange now, to remember that Sunday afternoon, and how merry we all were; how we drank tea in the queer bed-room at the top of the house; and how afterwards Muriel went to sleep in the twilight, with baby Maud in her arms. Mrs. Halifax sat beside the little bed, a sudden blazing up of the fire showing the intentness of her watch over these two, her eldest and youngest, fast asleep; their breathing so soft, one hardly knew which was frailest, the life slowly fading or the life but just begun. Their breaths seemed to mix and mingle, and the two faces, lying close together, to grow into a strange likeness each to each. At least, we all fancied so.
Meanwhile, John kept his boys as still as mice, in the broad window- seat, looking across the white snowy sheet, with black bushes peering out here and there, to the feathery beech-wood, over the tops of which the new moon was going down. Such a little young moon! and how peacefully—nay, smilingly—she set among the snows!
The children watched her till the very last minute, when Guy startled the deep quiet of the room by exclaiming—"There—she's gone."
"No, mother, I am awake," said Muriel. "Who is gone, Guy?"
"The moon—such a pretty little moon."
"Ah, Maud will see the moon some day." She dropped her cheek down again beside the baby sister, and was silent once more.
This is the only incident I remember of that peaceful, heavenly hour.
Maud broke upon its quietude by her waking and wailing; and Muriel very unwillingly let the little sister go.
"I wish she might stay with me—just this one night; and to-morrow is my birthday. Please, mother, may she stay?"
"We will both stay, my darling. I shall not leave you again."
"I am so glad;" and once more she turned round, as if to go to sleep.
"Are you tired, my pet?" said John, looking intently at her.
"Shall I take your brothers down-stairs?"
"Not yet, dear father."
"What would you like, then?"
"Only to lie here, this Sunday evening, among you all."
He asked her if she would like him to read aloud? as he generally did on Sunday evenings.
"Yes, please; and Guy will come and sit quiet on the bed beside me and listen. That will be pleasant. Guy was always very good to his sister—always."
"I don't know that," said Guy, in a conscience-stricken tone. "But I mean to be when I grow a big man—that I do."
No one answered. John opened the large Book—the Book he had taught all his children to long for and to love—and read out of it their favourite history of Joseph and his brethren. The mother sat by him at the fireside, rocking Maud softly on her knees. Edwin and Walter settled themselves on the hearth-rug, with great eyes intently fixed on their father. From behind him the candle-light fell softly down on the motionless figure in the bed, whose hand he held, and whose face he every now and then turned to look at—then, satisfied, continued to read.
In the reading his voice had a fatherly, flowing calm—as Jacob's might have had, when "the children were tender," and he gathered them all round him under the palm-trees of Succoth—years before he cried unto the Lord that bitter cry—(which John hurried over as he read)— "IF I AM BEREAVED OF MY CHILDREN, I AM BEREAVED."
For an hour, nearly, we all sat thus—with the wind coming up the valley, howling in the beech-wood, and shaking the casement as it passed outside. Within, the only sound was the father's voice. This ceased at last; he shut the Bible, and put it aside. The group—that last perfect household picture—was broken up. It melted away into things of the past, and became only a picture, for evermore.
"Now, boys—it is full time to say good-night. There, go and kiss your sister."
"Which?" said Edwin, in his funny way. "We've got two now; and I don't know which is the biggest baby."
"I'll thrash you if you say that again," cried Guy. "Which, indeed? Maud is but the baby. Muriel will be always 'sister.'"
"Sister" faintly laughed, as she answered his fond kiss—Guy was often thought to be her favourite brother.
"Now, off with you, boys; and go down-stairs quietly—mind, I say quietly."
They obeyed—that is, as literally as boy-nature can obey such an admonition. But an hour after I heard Guy and Edwin arguing vociferously in the dark, on the respective merits and future treatment of their two sisters, Muriel and Maud.
John and I sat up late together that night. He could not rest—even though he told me he had left the mother and her two daughters as cosy as a nest of wood-pigeons. We listened to the wild night, till it had almost howled itself away; then our fire went out, and we came and sat over the last faggot in Mrs. Tod's kitchen—the old Debateable Land. We began talking of the long-ago time, and not of this time at all. The vivid present—never out of either mind for an instant—we in our conversation did not touch upon, by at least ten years. Nor did we give expression to a thought which strongly oppressed me, and which I once or twice fancied I could detect in John likewise—how very like this night seemed to the night when Mr. March died; the same silentness in the house—the same windy whirl without—the same blaze of the wood-fire on the same kitchen ceiling.
More than once I could almost have deluded myself that I heard the faint moans and footsteps over-head—that the staircase door would open, and we should see there Miss March, in her white gown, and her pale, steadfast look.
"I think the mother seemed very well and calm to-night," I said, hesitatingly, as we were retiring.
"She is. God help her—and us all!"
This was all we said.
He went up-stairs the last thing, and brought down word that mother and children were all sound asleep.
"I think I may leave them until daylight to-morrow. And now, Uncle Phineas, go you to bed, for you look as tired as tired can be."
I went to bed; but all night long I had disturbed dreams, in which I pictured over and over again, first the night when Mr. March died— then the night at Longfield, when the little white ghost had crossed by my bed's foot, into the room where Mary Baines' dead boy lay. And continually, towards morning, I fancied I heard through my window, which faced the church, the faint, distant sound of the organ, as when Muriel used to play it.
Long before it was light I rose. As I passed the boy's room Guy called out to me:
"Halloa! Uncle Phineas, is it a fine morning?—for I want to go down into the wood and get a lot of beech-nuts and fir-cones for sister. It's her birthday to-day, you know."
It WAS, for her. But for us—Oh, Muriel, our darling—darling child!
Let me hasten over the story of that morning, for my old heart quails before it still.
John went early to the room up-stairs. It was very still. Ursula lay calmly asleep, with baby Maud in her bosom; on her other side, with eyes wide open to the daylight, lay—that which for more than ten years we had been used to call "blind Muriel." She saw, now.
The same day at evening we three were sitting in the parlour; we elders only—it was past the children's bed-time. Grief had spent itself dry; we were all very quiet. Even Ursula, when she came in from fetching the boys' candle, as had always been her custom, and though afterwards I thought I had heard her going up-stairs, likewise from habit,—where there was no need to bid any mother's good-night now—even Ursula sat in the rocking-chair, nursing Maud, and trying to still her crying with a little foolish baby-tune that had descended as a family lullaby from one to the other of the whole five—how sad it sounded!
John—who sat at the table, shading the light from his eyes, an open book lying before him, of which he never turned one page—looked up at her.
"Love, you must not tire yourself. Give me the child."
"No, no! Let me keep my baby—she comforts me so." And the mother burst into uncontrollable weeping.
John shut his book and came to her. He supported her on his bosom, saying a soothing word or two at intervals, or when the paroxysm of her anguish was beyond all bounds supporting her silently till it had gone by; never once letting her feel that, bitter as her sorrow was, his was heavier than hers.
Thus, during the whole of the day, had he been the stay and consolation of the household. For himself—the father's grief was altogether dumb.
At last Mrs. Halifax became more composed. She sat beside her husband, her hand in his, neither speaking, but gazing, as it were, into the face of this their great sorrow, and from thence up to the face of God. They felt that He could help them to bear it; ay, or anything else that it was His will to send—if they might thus bear it, together.
We all three sat thus, and there had not been a sound in the parlour for ever so long, when Mrs. Tod opened the door and beckoned me.
"He will come in—he's crazy-like, poor fellow! He has only just heard—"
She broke off with a sob. Lord Ravenel pushed her aside and stood at the door. We had not seen him since the day of that innocent jest about his "falling in love" with Muriel. Seeing us all so quiet, and the parlour looking as it always did when he used to come of evenings—the young man drew back, amazed.
"It is not true! No, it could not be true!" he muttered.
"It is true," said the father. "Come in."
The mother held out her hand to him. "Yes, come in. You were very fond of—"
Ah! that name!—now nothing but a name! For a little while we all wept sore.
Then we told him—it was Ursula who did it chiefly—all particulars about our darling. She told him, but calmly, as became one on whom had fallen the utmost sorrow and crowning consecration of motherhood- -that of yielding up her child, a portion of her own being, to the corruption of the grave—of resigning the life which out of her own life had been created, unto the Creator of all.
Surely, distinct and peculiar from every other grief, every other renunciation, must be that of a woman who is thus chosen to give her very flesh and blood, the fruit of her own womb, unto the Lord!
This dignity, this sanctity, seemed gradually to fall upon the mourning mother, as she talked about her lost one; repeating often— "I tell you this, because you were so fond of Muriel."
He listened silently. At length he said, "I want to see Muriel."
The mother lit a candle, and he followed her up-stairs.
Just the same homely room—half-bedchamber, half-nursery—the same little curtainless bed where, for a week past, we had been accustomed to see the wasted figure and small pale face lying, in smiling quietude, all day long.
It lay there still. In it, and in the room, was hardly any change. One of Walter's playthings was in a corner of the window-sill, and on the chest of drawers stood the nosegay of Christmas roses which Guy had brought for his sister yesterday morning. Nay, her shawl—a white, soft, furry shawl, that she was fond of wearing—remained still hanging up behind the door. One could almost fancy the little maid had just been said "good-night" to, and left to dream the childish dreams on her nursery pillow, where the small head rested so peacefully, with that pretty babyish nightcap tied over the pretty curls.
There she was, the child who had gone out of the number of our children—our earthly children—for ever.
Her mother sat down at the side of the bed, her father at its foot, looking at her. Lord Ravenel stood by, motionless; then stooping down, he kissed the small marble hand.
"Good-bye, good-bye, my little Muriel!"
And he left the room abruptly, in such an anguish of grief that the mother rose and followed him.
John went to the door and locked it, almost with a sort of impatience; then came back and stood by his darling, alone. Me he never saw—no, nor anything in the world except that little face, even in death so strangely like his own. The face which had been for eleven years the joy of his heart, the very apple of his eye.
For a long time he remained gazing, in a stupor of silence; then, sinking on his knee, he stretched out his arms across the bed, with a bitter cry:
"Come back to me, my darling, my first-born! Come back to me, Muriel, my little daughter—my own little daughter!"
But thou wert with the angels, Muriel—Muriel!