John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XXXII
In the home-light.
It was a scene—glowing almost as those evening pictures at Longfield. Those pictures, photographed on memory by the summer sun of our lives, and which no paler after-sun could have power to reproduce. Nothing earthly is ever reproduced in the same form. I suppose Heaven meant it to be so; that in the perpetual progression of our existence we should be reconciled to loss, and taught that change itself is but another form for aspiration. Aspiration which never can rest, or ought to rest, in anything short of the One absolute Perfection—the One all-satisfying Good "IN WHOM IS NO VARIABLENESS, NEITHER SHADOW OF TURNING."
I say this, to excuse myself for thoughts, which at times made me grave—even in the happy home-light of John's study; where, for several weeks after the last incident I have recorded, the family were in the habit of gathering every evening. For poor Guy was a captive. The "mere trifle" had turned out to be a sprained foot, which happening to a tall and strong young man became serious. He bore his imprisonment restlessly enough at first, but afterwards grew more reconciled—took to reading, drawing, and society—and even began to interest himself in the pursuits of his sister Maud, who every morning had her lessons in the study.
Miss Silver first proposed this. She had evinced more feeling than was usual to her, since Guy's accident; showed him many little feminine kindnesses—out of compunction, it seemed; and altogether was much improved. Of evenings, as now, she always made one of the "young people," who were generally grouped together round Guy's sofa- -Edwin, Walter, and little Maud. The father and mother sat opposite- -as usual, side by side, he with his newspaper, she with her work. Or sometimes, falling into pleasant idleness, they would slip hand in hand, and sit talking to one another in an under-tone, or silently and smilingly watch the humours of their children.
For me, I generally took to my nook in the chimney-corner—it was a very ancient fire-place, with settles on each side, and dogs instead of a grate, upon which many a faggot hissed and crackled its merry brief life away. Nothing could be more cheery and comfortable than this old-fashioned, low-roofed room, three sides of which were peopled with books—all the books which John had gathered up during the course of his life. Perhaps it was their long-familiar, friendly faces which made this his favourite room, his own especial domain. But he did not keep it tabooed from his family; he liked to have them about him, even in his studious hours.
So, of evenings, we all sat together as now, each busy, and none interrupting the rest. At intervals, flashes of talk or laughter broke out, chiefly from Guy, Walter, or Maud, when Edwin would look up from his everlasting book, and even the grave governess relax into a smile. Since she had learnt to smile, it became more and more apparent how very handsome Miss Silver was. "Handsome" is, I think, the fittest word for her; that correctness of form and colour which attracts the eye chiefly, and perhaps the eye of men rather than of women;—at least, Mrs. Halifax could never be brought to see it. But then her peculiar taste was for slender, small brunettes, like Grace Oldtower; whereas Miss Silver was large and fair.
Fair, in every sense, most decidedly. And now that she evidently began to pay a little more attention to her dress and her looks, we found out that she was also young.
"Only twenty-one to-day, Guy says," I remarked one day to Ursula.
"How did Guy know it?"
"I believe he discovered the wonderful secret from Maud."
"Maud and her brother Guy have grown wonderful friends since his illness. Do you not think so?"
"Yes, I found the two of them—and even Miss Silver—as merry as possible, when I came into the study this morning."
"Did you?" said the mother, with an involuntary glance at the group opposite.
There was nothing particular to observe. They all sat in most harmless quietude, Edwin reading, Maud at his feet, playing with the cat, Miss Silver busy at a piece of that delicate muslin-work with which young women then used to ornament their gowns. Guy had been drawing a pattern from it, and now leant back upon his sofa, shading off the fire with his hand, and from behind it gazing, as I had often seen him gaze lately, with a curious intentness—at the young governess.
"Guy," said his mother (and Guy started), "what were you thinking about?"
"Oh, nothing; that is—" here, by some accident, Miss Silver quitted the room. "Mother, come over here, I want your opinion. There, sit down—though it's nothing of the least importance."
Nevertheless, it was with some hesitation that he brought out the mighty question, namely, that it was Miss Silver's birthday to-day; that he thought we ought to remember it, and give her some trifle as a present.
"And I was considering this large Flora I ordered from London,—she would like it extremely: she is so fond of botany."
"What do you know about botany?" said Edwin, sharply and rather irrelevantly as it seemed, till I remembered how he plumed himself upon his knowledge of this science, and how he had persisted in taking Maud, and her governess also, long wintry walks across the country, "in order to study the cryptogamia."
Guy vouchsafed no answer to his brother; he was too much absorbed in turning over the pages of the beautiful Flora on his knee.
"What do you say, all of you? Father, don't you think she would like it? Then, suppose you give it to her?"
At this inopportune moment Miss Silver returned.
She might have been aware that she was under discussion—at least so much of discussion as was implied by Guy's eager words and his mother's silence, for she looked around her uneasily, and was about to retire.
"Do not go," Guy exclaimed, anxiously.
"Pray do not," his mother added; "we were just talking about you, Miss Silver. My son hopes you will accept this book from him, and from us all, with all kind birthday wishes."
And rising, with a little more gravity than was her wont, Mrs. Halifax touched the girl's forehead with her lips, and gave her the present.
Miss Silver coloured, and drew back. "You are very good, but indeed I would much rather not have it."
"Why so? Do you dislike gifts, or this gift in particular?"
"Oh, no; certainly not."
"Then," said John, as he too came forward and shook hands with her with an air of hearty kindness, "pray take the book. Do let us show how much we respect you; how entirely we regard you as one of the family."
Guy turned a look of grateful pleasure to his father; but Miss Silver, colouring more than ever, still held back.
"No, I cannot; indeed I cannot."
"Why can you not?"
"For several reasons."
"Give me only one of them—as much as can be expected from a young lady," said Mr. Halifax, good-humouredly.
"Mr. Guy ordered the Flora for himself. I must not allow him to renounce his pleasure for me."
"It would not be renouncing it if YOU had it," returned the lad, in a low tone, at which once more his younger brother looked up, angrily.
"What folly about nothing! how can one read with such a clatter going on?"
"You old book-worm! you care for nothing and nobody but yourself," Guy answered, laughing. But Edwin, really incensed, rose and settled himself in the far corner of the room.
"Edwin is right," said the father, in a tone which indicated his determination to end the discussion, a tone which even Miss Silver obeyed. "My dear young lady, I hope you will like your book; Guy, write her name in it at once."
Guy willingly obeyed, but was a good while over the task; his mother came and looked over his shoulder.
"Louisa Eugenie—how did you know that, Guy? Louisa Eugenie Sil—is that your name, my dear?"
The question, simple as it was, seemed to throw the governess into much confusion, even agitation. At last, she drew herself up with the old repulsive gesture, which of late had been slowly wearing off.
"No—I will not deceive you any longer. My right name is Louise Eugenie D'Argent."
Mrs. Halifax started. "Are you a Frenchwoman?"
"On my father's side—yes."
"Why did you not tell me so?"
"Because, if you remember, at our first interview, you said no Frenchwoman should educate your daughter. And I was homeless— friendless."
"Better starve than tell a falsehood," cried the mother, indignantly.
"I told no falsehood. You never asked me of my parentage."
"Nay," said John, interfering, "you must not speak in that manner to Mrs. Halifax. Why did you renounce your father's name?"
"Because English people would have scouted my father's daughter. You knew him—everybody knew him—he was D'Argent the Jacobin—D'Argent the Bonnet Rouge."
She threw out these words defiantly, and quitted the room.
"This is a dreadful discovery. Edwin, you have seen most of her—did you ever imagine—"
"I knew it, mother," said Edwin, without lifting his eyes from his book. "After all, French or English, it makes no difference."
"I should think not, indeed!" cried Guy, angrily. "Whatever her father is, if any one dared to think the worse of her—"
"Hush!—till another time," said the father, with a glance at Maud, who, with wide-open eyes, in which the tears were just springing, had been listening to all these revelations about her governess.
But Maud's tears were soon stopped, as well as this painful conversation, by the entrance of our daily, or rather nightly, visitor for these six weeks past, Lord Ravenel. His presence, always welcome, was a great relief now. We never discussed family affairs before people. The boys began to talk to Lord Ravenel: and Maud took her privileged place on a footstool beside him. From the first sight she had been his favourite, he said, because of her resemblance to Muriel. But I think, more than any fancied likeness to that sweet lost face, which he never spoke of without tenderness inexpressible, there was something in Maud's buoyant youth—just between childhood and girlhood, having the charms of one and the immunities of the other—which was especially attractive to this man, who, at three-and-thirty, found life a weariness and a burthen—at least, he said so.
Life was never either weary or burthensome in our house—not even to-night, though our friend found us less lively than usual—though John maintained more than his usual silence, and Mrs. Halifax fell into troubled reveries. Guy and Edwin, both considerably excited, argued and contradicted one another more warmly than even the Beechwood liberty of speech allowed. For Miss Silver, she did not appear again.
Lord Ravenel seemed to take these slight desagremens very calmly. He stayed his customary time, smiling languidly as ever at the boys' controversies, or listening with a half-pleased, half-melancholy laziness to Maud's gay prattle, his eye following her about the room with the privileged tenderness that twenty years' seniority allows a man to feel and show towards a child. At his wonted hour he rode away, sighingly contrasting pleasant Beechwood with dreary and solitary Luxmore.
After his departure we did not again close round the fire. Maud vanished; the younger boys also; Guy settled himself on his sofa, having first taken the pains to limp across the room and fetch the Flora, which Edwin had carefully stowed away in the book-case. Then making himself comfortable, as the pleasure-loving lad liked well enough to do, he lay dreamily gazing at the title-page, where was written her name, and "From Guy Halifax, with—"
"What are you going to add, my son?"
He, glancing up at his mother, made her no answer, and hastily closed the book.
She looked hurt; but, saying nothing more, began moving about the room, putting things in order before retiring. John sat in the arm-chair—meditative. She asked him what he was thinking about?
"About that man, Jacques D'Argent."
"You have heard of him, then?"
"Few had not, twenty years ago. He was one of the most 'blatant beasts' of the Reign of Terror. A fellow without honesty, conscience, or even common decency."
"And that man's daughter we have had in our house, teaching our innocent child!"
Alarm and disgust were written on every feature of the mother's face. It was scarcely surprising. Now that the ferment which had convulsed society in our younger days was settling down,—though still we were far from that ultimate calm which enables posterity to judge fully and fairly such a remarkable historical crisis as the French Revolution,—most English people looked back with horror on the extreme opinions of that time. If Mrs. Halifax had a weak point, it was her prejudice against anything French or Jacobinical. Partly, from that tendency to moral conservatism which in most persons, especially women, strengthens as old age advances; partly, I believe, from the terrible warning given by the fate of one—of whom for years we had never heard—whose very name was either unknown to, or forgotten by, our children.
"John, can't you speak? Don't you see the frightful danger?"
"Love, try and be calmer."
"How can I? Remember—remember Caroline."
"Nay, we are not talking of her, but of a girl whom we know, and have had good opportunity of knowing. A girl, who, whatever may have been her antecedents, has lived for six months blamelessly in our house."
"Would to Heaven she had never entered it! But it is not too late. She may leave—she shall leave, immediately."
"Mother!" burst out Guy. Never since she bore him had his mother heard her name uttered in such a tone.
She stood petrified.
"Mother, you are unjust, heartless, cruel. She shall NOT leave; she shall NOT, I say!"
"Guy, how dare you speak to your mother in that way?"
"Yes, father, I dare. I'll dare anything rather than—"
"Stop. Mind what you are saying—or you may repent it."
And Mr. Halifax, speaking in that low tone to which his voice fell in serious displeasure, laid a heavy hand on the lad's shoulder. Father and son exchanged fiery glances. The mother, terrified, rushed between them.
"Don't, John! Don't be angry with him. He could not help it,—my poor boy!"
At her piteous look Guy and his father both drew back. John put his arm round his wife, and made her sit down. She was trembling exceedingly.
"You see, Guy, how wrong you have been. How could you wound your mother so?"
"I did not mean to wound her," the lad answered. "I only wished to prevent her from being unjust and unkind to one to whom she must show all justice and kindness. One whom I respect, esteem—whom I LOVE."
"Yes, mother! Yes, father! I love her. I intend to marry her."
Guy said this with an air of quiet determination, very different from the usual impetuosity of his character. It was easy to perceive that a great change had come over him; that in this passion, the silent growth of which no one had suspected, he was most thoroughly in earnest. From the boy he had suddenly started up into the man; and his parents saw it.
They looked at him, and then mournfully at one another. The father was the first to speak.
"All this is very sudden. You should have told us of it before."
"I did not know it myself till—till very lately," the youth answered more softly, lowering his head and blushing.
"Is Miss Silver—is the lady aware of it?"
"That is well," said the father, after a pause. "In this silence you have acted as an honourable lover should towards her; as a dutiful son should act towards his parents."
Guy looked pleased. He stole his hand nearer his mother's, but she neither took it nor repelled it; she seemed quite stunned.
At this point I noticed that Maud had crept into the room;—I sent her out again as quickly as I could. Alas! this was the first secret that needed to be kept from her; the first painful mystery in our happy, happy home!
In any such home the "first falling in love," whether of son or daughter, necessarily makes a great change. Greater if the former than the latter. There is often a pitiful truth—I know not why it should be so, but so it is—in the foolish rhyme which the mother had laughingly said over to me this morning!
"My son's my son till he gets him a wife,
My daughter's my daughter all her life."
And when, as in this case, the son wishes to marry one whom his father may not wholly approve, whom his mother does not heartily love, surely the pain is deepened tenfold.
Those who in the dazzled vision of youth see only the beauty and splendour of love—first love, who deem it comprises the whole of life, beginning, aim, and end—may marvel that I, who have been young and now am old, see as I saw that night, not only the lover's but the parents' side of the question. I felt overwhelmed with sadness, as, viewing the three, I counted up in all its bearings and consequences, near and remote, this attachment of poor Guy's.
"Well, father," he said at last, guessing by intuition that the father's heart would best understand his own.
"Well, my son," John answered, sadly.
"YOU were young once."
"So I was;" with a tender glance upon the lad's heated and excited countenance. "Do not suppose I cannot feel with you. Still, I wish you had been less precipitate."
"You were little older than I am when you married?"
"But my marriage was rather different from this projected one of yours. I knew your mother well, and she knew me. Both of us had been tried—by trouble which we shared together, by absence, by many and various cares. We chose one another, not hastily or blindly, but with free will and open eyes. No, Guy," he added, speaking earnestly and softly, "mine was no sudden fancy, no frantic passion. I honoured your mother above all women. I loved her as my own soul."
"So do I love Louise. I would die for her any day."
At the son's impetuosity the father smiled; not incredulously, only sadly.
All this while the mother had sat motionless, never uttering a sound. Suddenly, hearing a footstep and a light knock at the door, she darted forward and locked it, crying, in a voice that one could hardly have recognized as hers—
"No admittance! Go away."
A note was pushed in under the door. Mrs. Halifax picked it up— opened it, read it mechanically, and sat down again; taking no notice, even when Guy, catching sight of the hand-writing, eagerly seized the paper.
It was merely a line, stating Miss Silver's wish to leave Beechwood immediately; signed, with her full name—her right name—"Louise Eugenie D'Argent."
A postscript added: "Your silence I shall take as permission to depart; and shall be gone early to-morrow."
"To-morrow! Gone to-morrow! And she does not even know that—that I love her. Mother, you have ruined my happiness. I will never forgive you—never!"
Never forgive his mother! His mother, who had borne him, nursed him, reared him; who had loved him with that love—like none other in the world—the love of a woman for her firstborn son, all these twenty-one years!
It was hard. I think the most passionate lover, in reasonable moments, would allow that it was hard. No marvel that even her husband's clasp could not remove the look of heart-broken, speechless suffering which settled stonily down in Ursula's face, as she watched her boy—storming about, furious with uncontrollable passion and pain.
At last, mother-like, she forgot the passion in pity of the pain.
"He is not strong yet; he will do himself harm. Let me go to him! John, let me!" Her husband released her.
Faintly, with a weak, uncertain walk, she went up to Guy and touched his arm.
"You must keep quiet, or you will be ill. I cannot have my son ill— not for any girl. Come, sit down—here, beside your mother."
She was obeyed. Looking into her eyes, and seeing no anger there, nothing but grief and love, the young man's right spirit came into him again.
"O mother, mother, forgive me! I am so miserable—so miserable."
He laid his head on her shoulder. She kissed and clasped him close— her boy who never could be wholly hers again, who had learned to love some one else dearer than his mother.
After a while she said, "Father, shake hands with Guy. Tell him that we forgive his being angry with us; that perhaps, some day—"
She stopped, uncertain as to the father's mind, or seeking strength for her own.
"Some day," John continued, "Guy will find out that we can have nothing in the world—except our children's good—so dear to us as their happiness."
Guy looked up, beaming with hope and joy. "O father! O mother! will you, indeed—"
"We will indeed say nothing," the father answered, smiling; "nothing, until to-morrow. Then we will all three talk the matter quietly over, and see what can be done."
Of course I knew to a certainty the conclusion they would come to.