John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XXXI
A great, eager, but doggedly-quiet crowd, of which each had his or her—for it was half women—individual terror to hide, his or her individual interest to fight for, and cared not a straw for that of any one else.
It was market-day, and this crowd was collected and collecting every minute, before the bank at Norton Bury. It included all classes, from the stout farmer's wife or market-woman, to the pale, frightened lady of "limited income," who had never been in such a throng before; from the aproned mechanic to the gentleman who sat in his carriage at the street corner, confident that whatever poor chance there was, his would be the best.
Everybody was, as I have said, extremely quiet. You heard none of the jokes that always rise in and circulate through a crowd; none of the loud outcries of a mob. All were intent on themselves and their own business; on that fast-bolted red-baize door, and on the green blind of the windows, which informed them that it was "open from ten till four."
The Abbey clock struck three quarters. Then there was a slight stirring, a rustling here and there of paper, as some one drew out and examined his bank notes; openly, with small fear of theft—they were not worth stealing.
John and I, a little way off, stood looking on, where we had once watched a far different crowd; for Mr. Jessop owned the doctor's former house, and in sight of the green bank blinds were my dear old father's known windows.
Guy's birthday had fallen on a Saturday. This was Monday morning. We had driven over to Norton Bury, John and I, at an unusually early hour. He did not exactly tell me why, but it was not difficult to guess. Not difficult to perceive how strongly he was interested, even affected—as any man, knowing all the circumstances, could not but be affected—by the sight of that crowd, all the sadder for its being such a patient, decent, respectable crowd, out of which so large a proportion was women.
I noticed this latter fact to John.
"Yes, I was sure it would be so. Jessop's bank has such a number of small depositors and issues so many small notes. He cannot cash above half of them without some notice. If there comes a run, he may have to stop payment this very day; and then, how wide the misery would spread among the poor, God knows."
His eye wandered pitifully over the heaving mass of anxious faces blue with cold, and growing more and more despondent as every minute they turned with a common impulse from the closed bank door to the Abbey clock, glittering far up in the sunshiny atmosphere of morning.
Its finger touched the one heel of the great striding X—glided on to the other—the ten strokes fell leisurely and regularly upon the clear frosty air; then the chimes—Norton Bury was proud of its Abbey chimes—burst out in the tune of "Life let us Cherish."
The bells went through all the tune, to the very last note—then ensued silence. The crowd were silent too—almost breathless with intent listening—but, alas! not to the merry Abbey chimes.
The bank door remained closed—not a rattle at the bolts, not a clerk's face peering out above the blind. The house was as shut-up and desolate as if it were entirely empty.
Five whole minutes—by the Abbey clock—did that poor, patient crowd wait on the pavement. Then a murmur arose. One or two men hammered at the door; some frightened women, jostled in the press, begun to scream.
John could bear it no longer. "Come along with me," he said, hurriedly. "I must see Jessop—we can get in at the garden door."
This was a little gate round the corner of the street, well known to us both in those brief "courting days," when we came to tea of evenings, and found Mrs. Jessop and Ursula March in the garden watering the plants and tying up the roses. Nay, we passed out of it into the same summer parlour, where—I cannot tell if John ever knew of the incident, at all events he never mentioned it to me—there had been transacted a certain momentous event in Ursula's life and mine. Entering by the French window, there rose up to my mental vision, in vivid contrast to all present scenes, the picture of a young girl I had once seen sitting there, with head drooped, knitting. Could that day be twenty-five years ago?
No summer parlour now—its atmosphere was totally changed. It was a dull, dusty room, of which the only lively object was a large fire, the under half of which had burnt itself away unstirred into black dingy caverns. Before it, with breakfast untasted, sat Josiah Jessop—his feet on the fender, his elbows on his knees, the picture of despair.
"Mr. Jessop, my good friend!"
"No, I haven't a friend in the world, or shall not have an hour hence. Oh! it's you, Mr. Halifax?—You have not an account to close? You don't hold any notes of mine, do you?"
John put his hand on the old man's shoulder, and repeated that he only came as a friend.
"Not the first 'friend' I have received this morning. I knew I should be early honoured with visitors;" and the banker attempted a dreary smile. "Sir Herbert and half-a-dozen more are waiting for me up-stairs. The biggest fish must have the first bite—eh, you know?"
"I know," said John, gloomily.
"Hark! those people outside will hammer my door down!—Speak to them, Mr. Halifax—tell them I'm an old man—that I was always an honest man—always. If only they would give me time—hark—just hark! Heaven help me! do they want to tear me in pieces?"
John went out for a few moments, then came back and sat down beside Mr. Jessop.
"Compose yourself,"—the old man was shaking like an aspen leaf. "Tell me, if you have no objection to give me this confidence, exactly how your affairs stand."
With a gasp of helpless thankfulness, looking up in John's face, while his own quivered like a frightened child's—the banker obeyed. It seemed that great as was his loss by W——'s failure, it was not absolute ruin to him. In effect, he was at this moment perfectly solvent, and by calling in mortgages, etc., could meet both the accounts of the gentry who banked with him, together with all his own notes now afloat in the country, principally among the humbler ranks, petty tradespeople, and such like, if only both classes of customers would give him time to pay them.
"But they will not. There will be a run upon the bank and then all's over with me. It's a hard case—solvent as I am—ready and able to pay every farthing—if only I had a week's time. As it is I must stop payment to-day. Hark! they are at the door again! Mr. Halifax, for God's sake quiet them!"
"I will; only tell me first what sum, added to the cash you have available, would keep the bank open—just for a day or two."
At once guided and calmed, the old man's business faculties seemed to return. He began to calculate, and soon stated the sum he needed; I think it was three or four thousand pounds.
"Very well; I have thought of a plan. But first—those poor fellows outside. Thank Heaven, I am a rich man, and everybody knows it. Phineas, that inkstand, please."
He sat down and wrote: curiously the attitude and manner reminded me of his sitting down and writing at my father's table, after the bread riot—years and years ago. Soon a notice, signed by Josiah Jessop, and afterwards by himself, to the effect that the bank would open, "without fail," at one o'clock this day,—was given by John to the astonished clerk, to be posted in the window.
A responsive cheer outside showed how readily those outside had caught at even this gleam of hope. Also—how implicitly they trusted in the mere name of a gentleman who all over the country was known for "his word being as good as his bond,"—John Halifax.
The banker breathed freer; but his respite was short: an imperative message came from the gentlemen above-stairs, desiring his presence. With a kind of blind dependence he looked towards John.
"Let me go in your stead. You can trust me to manage matters to the best of my power?"
The banker overwhelmed him with gratitude.
"Nay, that ought to be my word, standing in this house, and remembering"—His eyes turned to the two portraits—grimly-coloured daubs, yet with a certain apology of likeness too, which broadly smiled at one another from opposite walls—the only memorials now remaining of the good doctor and his cheery little old wife. "Come, Mr. Jessop, leave the matter with me; believe me, it is not only a pleasure, but a duty."
The old man melted into senile tears.
I do not know how John managed the provincial magnates, who were sitting in council considering how best to save, first themselves, then the bank, lastly—If the poor public outside had been made acquainted with that ominous "lastly!" Or if to the respectable conclave above-stairs, who would have recoiled indignantly at the vulgar word "jobbing," had been hinted a phrase—which ran oddly in and out of the nooks of my brain, keeping time to the murmur in the street, "Vox populi, vox Dei"—truly, I should have got little credit for my Latinity.
John came out in about half an hour, with a cheerful countenance; told me he was going over to Coltham for an hour or two—would I wait his return?
"And all is settled?" I asked.
"Will be soon, I trust. I can't stay to tell you more now. Goodbye."
I was no man of business, and could assist in nothing. So I thought the best I could do was to pass the time in wandering up and down the familiar garden, idly watching the hoar-frost on the arbutus leaves, and on the dry stems of what had been dear little Mrs. Jessop's favourite roses—the same roses I had seen her among on that momentous evening—the evening when Ursula's bent neck flushed more crimson than the sunset itself, as I told her John Halifax was "too noble to die for any woman's love."
No—he had lived for it—earned it—won it. And musing over these long-ago times, my heart melted—foolish old heart that it was! with a trembling joy, to think that Providence had, in some way, used my poor useless hand to give to him this blessing, a man's chiefest blessing of a virtuous and loving wife—which had crowned his life for all these wonderful years.
As it neared one o'clock, I could see my ancient friend the Abbey clock with not a wrinkle in his old face, staring at me through the bare Abbey trees. I began to feel rather anxious. I went into the deserted office; and thence, none forbidding, ensconced myself behind the sheltering bank blinds.
The crowd had scarcely moved; a very honest, patient, weary crowd dense in the centre, thinning towards the edges. On its extremest verge, waiting in a curricle, was a gentleman, who seemed observing it with a lazy curiosity. I, having like himself apparently nothing better to do, observed this gentleman.
He was dressed in the height of the mode, combined with a novel and eccentric fashion, which had been lately set by that extraordinary young nobleman whom everybody talked about—my Lord Byron. His neckcloth was loose, his throat bare, and his hair fell long and untidy. His face, that of a man about thirty—I fancied I had seen it before, but could not recall where,—was delicate, thin, with an expression at once cynical and melancholy. He sat in his carriage, wrapped in furs, or looked carelessly out on the scene before him, as if he had no interest therein—as if there was nothing in life worth living for.
"Poor fellow!" said I to myself, recalling the bright, busy, laughing faces of our growing up lads, recalling especially their father's— full of all that active energy and wise cheerfulness which gives zest to existence; God forbid any man should die till he has lived to learn it!—"poor fellow! I wish his moodiness could take a lesson from us at home!"
But the gentleman soon retired from my observation under his furs; for the sky had gloomed over, and snow began to fall. Those on the pavement shook it drearily off, and kept turning every minute to the Abbey clock—I feared it would take the patience of Job to enable them to hold out another quarter of an hour.
At length some determined hand again battered at the door. I fancied I heard a clerk speaking out of the first-floor window.
"Gentlemen"—how tremblingly polite the voice was!—"Gentlemen, in five minutes—positively five minutes—the bank will—"
The rest of the speech was drowned and lost. Dashing round the street corner, the horses all in a foam, came our Beechwood carriage. Mr. Halifax leaped out.
Well might the crowd divide for him—well might they cheer him. For he carried a canvas bag—a great, ugly, grimy-coloured bag—a precious, precious bag, with the consolation—perhaps the life—of hundreds in it!
I knew, almost by intuition, what he had done—what, in one or two instances, was afterwards done by other rich and generous Englishmen, during the crisis of this year.
The bank door flew open like magic. The crowd came pushing in; but when John called out to them, "Good people, pray let me pass!" they yielded and suffered him to go in first. He went right up to the desk, behind which, flanked by a tolerable array of similar canvas bags, full of gold—but nevertheless waiting in mortal fear, and as white as his own neck-cloth—the old banker stood.
"Mr. Jessop," John said, in a loud, distinct voice, that all might hear him, "I have the pleasure to open an account with you. I feel satisfied that in these dangerous times no credit is more safe than yours. Allow me to pay in to-day the sum of five thousand pounds."
"Five thousand pounds!"
The rumour of it was repeated from mouth to mouth. In a small provincial bank, such a sum seemed unlimited. It gave universal confidence. Many who had been scrambling, swearing, almost fighting, to reach the counter and receive gold for their notes, put them again into their pockets, uncashed. Others, chiefly women, got them cashed with a trembling hand—nay, with tears of joy. A few who had come to close accounts, changed their minds, and even paid money in. All were satisfied—the run upon the bank ceased.
Mr. Halifax stood aside, looking on. After the first murmur of surprise and pleasure no one seemed to take any notice of him, or of what he had done. Only one old widow woman, as she slipped three bright guineas under the lid of her market-basket, dropped him a curtsey in passing by.
"It's your doing, Mr. Halifax. The Lord reward you, sir."
"Thank you," he said, and shook her by the hand. I thought to myself, watching the many that came and went, unmindful, "ONLY THIS SAMARITAN!"
No—one person more, standing by, addressed him by name. "This is indeed your doing, and an act of benevolence which I believe no man alive would have done, except Mr. Halifax."
And the gentleman who spoke—the same I had seen outside in his curricle—held out a friendly hand.
"I see you do not remember me. My name is Ravenel."
John uttered this exclamation—and no more. I saw that this sudden meeting had brought back, with a cruel tide of memory, the last time they met—by the small nursery bed, in that upper chamber at Enderley.
However, this feeling shortly passed away, as must needs be; and we all three began to converse together.
While he talked, something of the old "Anselmo" came back into Lord Ravenel's face: especially when John asked him if he would drive over with us to Enderley.
"Enderley—how strange the word sounds!—yet I should like to see the place again. Poor old Enderley!"
Irresolutely—all his gestures seemed dreamy and irresolute—he drew his hand across his eyes—the same white long-fingered, womanish hand which had used to guide Muriel's over the organ keys.
"Yes—I think I will go back with you to Enderley. But first I must speak to Mr. Jessop here."
It was about some poor Catholic families, who, as we had before learnt, had long been his pensioners.
"You are a Catholic still then?" I asked. "We heard the contrary."
"Did you?—Oh, of course. One hears such wonderful facts about oneself. Probably you heard also that I have been to the Holy Land, and turned Jew—called at Constantinople, and come back a Mohammedan."
"But are you of your old faith?" John said. "Still a sincere Catholic?"
"If you take Catholic in its original sense, certainly. I am a Universalist. I believe everything—and nothing. Let us change the subject." The contemptuous scepticism of his manner altered, as he inquired after Mrs. Halifax and the children. "No longer children now, I suppose?"
"Scarcely. Guy and Walter are as tall as yourself; and my daughter— "
"Your daughter?"—with a start—"oh yes, I recollect. Baby Maud. Is she at all like—like—"
Neither said more than this; but it seemed as if their hearts warmed to one another, knitted by the same tender remembrance.
We drove home. Lord Ravenel muffled himself up in his furs, complaining bitterly of the snow and sleet.
"Yes, the winter is setting in sharply," John replied, as he reined in his horses at the turnpike gate. "This will be a hard Christmas for many."
"Ay, indeed, sir," said the gate-keeper, touching his hat.
"And if I might make so bold—it's a dark night and the road's lonely—" he added, in a mysterious whisper.
"Thank you, my friend. I am aware of all that." But as John drove on, he remained for some time very silent.
On, across the bleak country, with the snow pelting in our faces— along roads so deserted, that our carriage-wheels made the only sound audible, and that might have been heard distinctly for miles.
All of a sudden, the horses were pulled up. Three or four ill- looking figures had started out of a ditch-bank, and caught hold of the reins.
"Holloa there!—What do you want?"
"Let go my horses! They're spirited beasts. You'll get trampled on."
This brief colloquy passed in less than a minute. It showed at once our position—miles away from any house—on this desolate moor; showed plainly our danger—John's danger.
He himself did not seem to recognize it. He stood upright on the box seat, the whip in his hand.
"Get away, you fellows, or I must drive over you!"
"Thee'd better!" With a yell, one of the men leaped up and clung to the neck of the plunging mare—then was dashed to the ground between her feet. The poor wretch uttered one groan and no more. John sprang out of his carriage, caught the mare's head, and backed her.
"Hold off!—the poor fellow is killed, or may be in a minute. Hold off, I say."
If ever these men, planning perhaps their first ill deed, were struck dumb with astonishment, it was to see the gentleman they were intending to rob take up their comrade in his arms, drag him towards the carriage-lamps, rub snow on his face, and chafe his heavy hands. But all in vain. The blood trickled down from a wound in the temples—the head, with its open mouth dropping, fell back upon John's knee.
"He is quite dead."
The others gathered round in silence, watching Mr. Halifax, as he still knelt, with the dead man's head leaning against him, mournfully regarding it.
"I think I know him. Where does his wife live?"
Some one pointed across the moor, to a light, faint as a glow-worm. "Take that rug out of my carriage—wrap him in it." The order was at once obeyed. "Now carry him home. I will follow presently."
"Surely not," expostulated Lord Ravenel, who had got out of the carriage and stood, shivering and much shocked, beside Mr. Halifax. "You would not surely put yourself in the power of these scoundrels? What brutes they are—the lower orders!"
"Not altogether—when you know them. Phineas, will you drive Lord Ravenel on to Beechwood?"
"Excuse me—certainly not," said Lord Ravenel, with dignity. "We will stay to see the result of the affair. What a singular man Mr. Halifax is, and always was," he added, thoughtfully, as he muffled himself up again in his furs, and relapsed into silence.
Soon, following the track of those black figures across the snow, we came to a cluster of peat huts, alongside of the moorland road. John took one of the carriage-lamps in his hand, and went in, without saying a word. To my surprise Lord Ravenel presently dismounted and followed him. I was left with the reins in my hand, and two or three of those ill-visaged men hovered about the carriage; but no one attempted to do me any harm. Nay, when John reappeared, after a lapse of some minutes, one of them civilly picked up the whip and put it into his hand.
"Thank you. Now, my men, tell me what did you want with me just now?"
"Money," cried one. "Work," shouted another.
"And a likely way you went about to get it! Stopping me in the dark, on a lonely road, just like common robbers. I did not think any Enderley men would have done a thing so cowardly."
"We bean't cowards," was the surly answer. "Thee carries pistols, Mr. Halifax."
"You forced me to do it. My life is as precious to my wife and children, as—as that poor fellow's to his." John stopped. "God help us, my men! it's a hard world for us all sometimes. Why did you not know me better? Why not come to my house and ask honestly for a dinner and a half-crown?—you should have had both, any day."
"Thank'ee sir," was the general cry. "And, sir," begged one old man, "you'll hush up the 'crowner's 'quest—you and this gentleman here. You won't put us in jail, for taking to the road, Mr. Halifax?"
"No;—unless you attack me again. But I am not afraid—I'll trust you. Look here!" He took the pistol out of his breast-pocket, cocked it, and fired its two barrels harmlessly into the air. "Now, good-night; and if ever I carry fire-arms again, it will be your fault, not mine."
So saying, he held the carriage-door open for Lord Ravenel, who took his place with a subdued and thoughtful air: then mounting the box-seat, John drove, in somewhat melancholy silence, across the snowy, starlit moors to Beechwood.