John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XXXIV
John and I sat over the study fire till long after midnight.
Many an anxious watch I had kept with him, but none sadder than this. Because now, for the first time, our house was divided against itself. A sorrow had entered it, not from without but from within—a sorrow which we could not meet and bear, as a family. Alas! darker and darker had the bitter truth forced itself upon us, that neither joy nor affliction would ever find us as a family again.
I think all parents must feel cruelly a pang like this—the first trouble in which they cannot help their children—the first time when those children must learn to stand alone, each for himself, compelled to carry his own burthen and work out, well or ill, his individual life. When the utmost the wisest or tenderest father can do, is to keep near with outstretched hand that the child may cling to, assured of finding sympathy, counsel, and love.
If this father had stood aloof all his life, on some pinnacle of paternal "pride," paternal "dignity"—if he had not made himself his boys' companion, counsellor, and friend, how great would have been his terrors now!
For, as we both knew well—too well to trust ourselves to say it—if there was one thing in the world that ruins a lad, drives him to desperation, shuts the door of home upon him, and opens many another door, of which the entrance is the very gate of hell—it is such a disappointment as this which had happened to our Guy.
His father saw it all. Saw it clearer, crueller, than even his mother could see. Yet when, very late, almost at dawn, she came in, with the tidings that Guy was himself again now—sleeping as quietly as a child—her husband was able to join in her deep thankfulness, and give her hope for the days to come.
"But what is to be done with Guy?"
"God knows," John answered. But his tone expressed a meaning different from that generally conveyed in the words: a meaning which the mother caught at once, and rested on.
"Ay—you are right. He knows!"—And so they went away together, almost content.
Next morning, I woke late; the sunshine falling across my bed, and the sparrows chattering loud in the ivy. I had been dreaming, with a curious pertinacity, of the old days at Rose Cottage, the days when John first fell in love with Ursula.
"Uncle Phineas." I heard myself called.
It was John's son, who sat opposite, with wan, wild eyes, and a settled anguish on his mouth—that merry, handsome mouth—the only really handsome mouth in the family.
"You are up early, my boy."
"What was the good of lying in bed? I am not ill. Besides, I wish to go about as usual. I don't wish anybody to think that—that I care."
He stopped—evidently fighting hard against himself. A new lesson, alas! for our Guy.
"Was I too violent last night? I did not mean it. I mean to be a man. Not the first man whom a lady has refused—eh?" And braving it out, he began to whistle; but the lips fell—the frank brow grew knotted with pain. The lad broke into a passion of misery.
The chief bitterness was that he had been deceived. Unwittingly, we well believed—but still deceived. Many little things he told me— Guy's was a nature that at once spent and soothed itself by talking— of Miss Silver's extreme gentleness and kindness towards him; a kindness which seemed so like, so cruelly like love.
"Love!—Oh, she loved me. She told me so. Of course!—I was Edwin's brother."
Ay, there was the sting, which never could be removed; which might rankle in the boy's heart for life. He had not only lost his love, but what is more precious than love—faith in womankind. He began to make light of his losings—to think the prize was not so great after all. He sat on my bed, singing—Guy had a fine voice and ear— singing out of mockery, songs which I had an especial aversion to— light songs written by an Irishman, Mr. Thomas Moore, about girls and wine, and being "far from the lips we love," but always ready enough "to make love to the lips we are near." Then, laughing at me, he threw up the window and looked out.
I think it was wrong of those two, wrong and selfish, as all lovers are—young lovers in the flush of their happiness; I think it was cruel of Edwin and Louise to walk up and down there in the elder brother's very eyes.
For a moment he struggled against his passion.
"Uncle Phineas, just look here. How charming! Ha, ha! Did you ever see such a couple of fools?"
Fools, maybe, but happy; happy to the very core—thoroughly engrossed in their happiness. The elder brother was almost maddened by it.
"He must mind what he does—tell him so, Uncle Phineas—it would be safer. He MUST mind, or I will not answer for myself. I was fond of Edwin—I was indeed—but now it seems sometimes as if I HATED him."
"Oh, if it had been a stranger, and not he! If it had been any one in the world except my brother!"
And in that bitter cry the lad's heart melted again; it was such a tender heart—his mother's heart.
After a time he recovered himself, and came down with me to breakfast, as he had insisted upon doing; met them all, even Miss Silver—and Edwin, who had placed himself by her side with an air of right. These lovers, however deeply grieved they looked—and, to do justice, it was really so—needed not to be grieved over by any of us.
Nor, looking at the father and mother, would we have dared to grieve over THEM. In the silent watches of the night, heart to heart, husband and wife had taken council together; together had carried their sorrow to the only Lightener of burthens. It seemed that theirs was lightened; that even in this strange entanglement of fate they were able to wait patiently—trusting unto the Almighty Mercy not only themselves but the children He had given them.
When, breakfast being over, John according to his custom read the chapter and the prayer—no one rose up or went out; no one refused, even in this anguish of strife, jealousy, and disunion—to repeat after him the "Our Father" of their childhood.
I believe every one of us remembered for years, with an awe that was not altogether pain, this morning's chapter and prayer.
When it was ended, worldly troubles closed round us again.
Nothing seemed natural. We hung about in twos and threes, uncertain what to do. Guy walked up and down, alone. His mother asked him if, seeing his foot was so well, he would like to go down to the mills as usual; but he declined. Miss Silver made some suggestion about "lessons," which Edwin jealously negatived immediately, and proposed that she and Maud should take a drive somewhere.
Mrs. Halifax eagerly assented. "Lady Oldtower has been wanting them both for some time. You would like to go, would you not, for a day or two?" said she, addressing the governess.
Guy caught at this. "Going away, are you? When?"
He put the question to Miss Silver direct—his eyes blazing right into her own. She made some confused reply, about "leaving immediately."
"In the carriage, of course? Shall I have the honour of driving you?"
"No," said Edwin, decisively.
A fierce, vindictive look passed between the brothers—a look terrible in itself—more terrible in its warning of days to come. No wonder the mother shuddered—no wonder the young betrothed, pale and alarmed, slipped out of the room. Edwin followed her. Then Guy, snatching up his sister, lifted her roughly on his knee.
"Come along, Maud. You'll be my girl now. Nobody else wants you. Kiss me, child."
But the little lady drew back.
"So, you hate me too? Edwin has been teaching you? Very well. Get away, you cheat!"
He pushed her violently aside. Maud began to cry.
Her father looked up from his book—the book he had not been reading- -though he had seemingly thought it best to take no notice of what was passing around him.
"Come here, Maud, my child. Guy, you should not be unkind to your little sister. Try and command yourself, my dear boy!"
The words, though spoken gently, almost in a whisper, were more than the lad's chafed spirit could brook.
"Father, you insult me. I will not bear it. I will quit the room."
He went out, shutting the door passionately after him. His mother rose up to follow him—then sat down again. The eyes that she lifted to her husband were deprecating, beseeching, heavy with a speechless pain.
For John—he said nothing. Not though, as was plain to see, this, the first angry or disrespectful word he had ever received from any one of his children, struck him like an arrow; for a moment stirred him even to wrath—holy wrath—the just displeasure of a father who feels that the least portion of his child's sin is the sin against him. Perhaps this very feeling, distinct from, and far beyond, all personal indignation, all sense of offended dignity, made the anger strangely brief—so brief, that when the other children, awed and startled, looked for some ebullition of it—lo! it was all gone. In its stead was something at which the children, more awed still, crept out of the room.
Ursula even, alarmed, looked in his face as if for the first time she could not comprehend her husband.
"John, you should forgive poor Guy! he did not intend any harm."
"And he is so very miserable. Never before did he fail in his duty to you."
"But what if I have failed in mine to him?—What if—you used to say I could not understand Guy—what if I have come short towards him? I, that am accountable to God for every one of my children."
"John—John"—she knelt down and put her arms round his neck. "Husband, do not look unhappy. I did not mean to blame you—we may be wrong, both of us—all of us. But we will not be afraid. We know Who pities us, even as we pity our children."
Thus she spoke, and more to the same purport; but it was a long time before her words brought any consolation. Then the parents talked together, trying to arrange some plan whereby Guy's mind might be occupied and soothed, or else Edwin removed out of his sight for a little while. Once I hinted at the advantage of Guy's leaving home; but Mrs. Halifax seemed to shrink from this project as though it were a foreboding of perpetual exile.
"No, no; anything but that. Beside, Guy would not wish it. He has never left me in his life. His going would seem like the general breaking up of the family."
Alas! she did not, would not see that the family was already "broken." Broken, more than either absence, marriage, or death itself could have effected.
One thing more we had to consider—a thing at once natural and right in any family, namely, how to hide its wounds from the chattering, scandalous world. And so, when by a happy chance there came over that morning our good friend Lady Oldtower and her carriage full of daughters, Mrs. Halifax communicated, with a simple dignity that quelled all comment, the fact of "my son Edwin's engagement," and accepted the invitation for Maud and Miss Silver, which was willingly repeated and pressed.
One thing I noticed, that in speaking of or to the girl who in a single day from merely the governess had become, and was sedulously treated as, our own, Mrs. Halifax invariably called her, as heretofore, "Miss Silver," or "my dear;" never by any chance "Louise," or "Mademoiselle D'Argent."
Before she left Beechwood, Edwin came in and hurriedly spoke to his mother. What he said was evidently painful to both.
"I am not aware of it, Edwin; I had not the slightest intention of offending her. Is she already made your judge and referee as to the actions of your mother?"
Edwin was a good lad, though perhaps a little less loving than the rest of the boys. His self-restraint, his exceeding patience, lulled the threatened storm.
"But you will be kind to her, mother?—I know you will."
"Did I not say so?"
"And may I bring her to you here?"
"If you choose."
It was the first open recognition between the mother and her son's betrothed. Their other meeting had been in public, when, with a sedulous dread, both had behaved exactly as usual, and no word or manner had betrayed their altered relations. Now, when for the first time it was needful for Miss Silver to be received as a daughter elect, with all the natural sympathy due from one woman to another under similar circumstances, all the warmth of kindness due from a mother to her son's chosen wife—then the want, the mournful want, made itself felt.
Mrs. Halifax stood at the dining-room window, trying vainly to regain self-control.
"If I could only love her! If only she had made me love her!" she muttered, over and over again.
I hoped, from the bottom of my soul, that Edwin had not heard her— had not seen her involuntarily recoil, as he led to his mother his handsome girl that he seemed so proud of, his happy, affianced wife. Happiness melts some natures, like spring and sunshine. Louise looked up with swimming eyes.
"Oh! be kind to me! Nobody was ever kind to me till I came here!"
The good heart gave way: Mrs. Halifax opened her arms.
"Be true to Edwin—love Edwin, and I shall love you—I am sure I shall."
Kissing her once or twice, the mother let fall a few tears; then sat down, still keeping the girl's hand, and busying herself with various little kindnesses about her.
"Are you sure you are well wrapped up? Edwin, see that she has my fur cloak in the carriage. What cold fingers! Have some wine before you start, my dear."
Miss Silver altogether melted; sobbing, she murmured something about forgiveness.
"Nay, did I say a word about forgiveness? Then, do not you. Let us be patient—we shall all be happy in time."
"Guy will be himself soon," returned the mother, rather proudly. "We will not mention him, if you please, my dear."
At this moment, Guy must have heard the carriage-wheels and guessed Miss Silver was going, for he appeared at the parlour door. He found his mother toying with Miss Silver's hand; Edwin standing by, proud and glad, with his arm clasped round Louise.
He did not remove it. In his brother's very face—perhaps because of the expression of that face—the lover held fast his own.
Mrs. Halifax rose up, alarmed. "She is just going, Guy. Shake hands, and bid her good-bye."
The girl's hand, which was sorrowfully and kindly extended, Guy snatched and held fast.
"Let her pass," cried Edwin, angrily.
"Most certainly. I have not the least wish to detain her. Good-bye! A pleasant journey!" And, still keeping her hand, he gazed with burning eyes on the features he had so loved—as boys do love—with a wild imaginative passion, kindled by beauty alone. "I shall claim my right—just for once—may I, sister Louise?"
With a glance of defiance at Edwin, Guy caught his brother's betrothed round the waist and kissed her—once—twice—savagely.
It was done so suddenly and under such an ingenious disguise of "right," that open vengeance was impossible. But as Edwin hurried Louise away, the look that passed between the two young men was enough to blot out henceforward all friendship, all brotherhood. That insult would never be forgotten.
She was gone—the house was free of her and Edwin too. Guy was left alone with me and his mother.
Mrs. Halifax sat sewing. She seemed to take no note of his comings and goings—his restless starts—his fits of dark musing, when his face grew like the face of some stranger, some one whom he would have shrunk from—any one but our own merry Guy.
"Mother,"—the voice startled me, such irritable, intolerable bitterness marred its once pleasant tones—"when do they come back?"
"Do you mean—"
"I mean those people."
"In a week or so. Your brother returns to-night, of course."
"My BROTHER, eh? Better not say it—it's an ugly word."
Mrs. Halifax attempted no reproof; she knew that it would have been useless—worse than useless—then.
"Mother," Guy said at last, coming up and leaning against her chair, "you must let me go."
"Where, my son?"
"Anywhere—out of their sight—those two. You see, I cannot bear it. It maddens me—makes me wicked—makes me not myself. Or rather makes me truly MYSELF, which is altogether wicked."
"No, Guy—no, my own boy. Have patience—all this will pass away."
"It might, if I had anything to do. Mother," kneeling down by her with a piteous gaze—"mother, you need not look so wretched. I wouldn't harm Edwin—would not take from him his happiness; but to live in sight of it day after day, hour after hour—I can't do it! Do not ask me—let me get away."
"Anywhere, as I said; only let me go far away from them, where no possible news of them can reach me. In some place, oh, mother darling! where I can trouble no one and make no one miserable."
The mother feebly shook her head. As if such a spot could be found on earth, while SHE lived.
But she saw that Guy was right. To expect him to remain at home was cruelty. As he had said, he could not bear it—few could. Few even among women—of men much fewer. One great renunciation is possible, sometimes easy, as death may be; but to "die daily?" In youth, too, with all the passions vehement, the self-knowledge and self-control small? No; Nature herself, in that universal desire to escape, which comes with such a trial, hints at the unnaturalness of the ordeal; in which, soon or late, the weak become paralysed or callous; the strong—God help them!—are apt to turn wicked.
Guy's instinct of flight was, his mother felt, wisest, safest, best.
"My boy, you shall have your desire; you shall go."
I had not expected it of her—at least, not so immediately. I had thought, bound up in him as she was, accustomed to his daily sight, his daily fondness—for he was more with her, and "petted" her more than any other of the children—I had thought to have seen some reluctance, some grieved entreaty—but no! Not even when, gaining her consent, the boy looked up as if her allowing him to quit her was the greatest kindness she had ever in his life bestowed.
"And when shall I go?"
"Whenever you choose."
"To-day; perhaps I might get away to-day?"
"You can, if you wish, my dear boy."
But no sooner had she said it, than the full force and meaning of the renunciation seemed to burst upon her. Her fingers, which had been smoothing Guy's hand as it lay on her lap, tightly closed round it; with the other hand she put back his hair, gazing—gazing, as if it were impossible to part with him.
"Guy—oh, Guy, my heart is breaking! Promise that you will try to be yourself again—that you will never be anything other than my own good boy, if I agree to let you go?" What he answered, or what further passed between them, was not for me either to hear or to know. I left the room immediately.
When, some time after John's hour for returning from the mills, I also returned to the house, I found that everything was settled for Guy's immediate departure.
There was some business in Spain—something about Andalusian wool— which his father made the ostensible reason for the journey. It would occupy him and distract his mind, besides giving him constant necessity of change. And, they say, travel is the best cure for the heart-ache. We hoped it might prove so.
Perhaps the sorest point, and one that had been left undecided till both parents saw that in Guy's present mood any opposition was hurtful, even dangerous, was the lad's obstinate determination to depart alone. He refused his mother's companionship to London, even his father's across the country to the nearest point where one of those new and dangerous things called railways tempted travellers to their destruction. But Guy would go by it—the maddest and strangest way of locomotion pleased him best. So it was settled he should go, as he pleaded, this very day.
A strange day it seemed—long and yet how short! Mrs. Halifax was incessantly busy. I caught sight of her now and then, flitting from room to room, with Guy's books in her hand—Guy's linen thrown across her arm. Sometimes she stood a few minutes by the window, doing a few stitches of necessary work, which, when even nurse Watkins offered to do—Jenny, who had been a rosy lass when Guy was born—she refused abruptly, and went stitching on.
There were no regular meals that day; better not, perhaps. I saw John come up to his wife as she stood sewing, and bring her a piece of bread and a glass of wine—but she could not touch either.
"Mother, try," whispered Guy, mournfully. "What will become of me if I have made you ill?"
"Oh, no fear, no fear!" She smiled, took the wine and swallowed it— broke off a bit of the bread,—and went on with her work.
The last hour or two passed so confusedly that I do not well remember them. I can only call to mind seeing Guy and his mother everywhere side by side, doing everything together, as if grudging each instant remaining till the final instant came. I have also a vivid impression of her astonishing composure, of her calm voice when talking to Guy about indefinite trifles, or, though that was seldom, to any other of us. It never faltered—never lost its rich, round, cheerfulness of tone; as if she wished him to carry it as such, and no other—the familiar mother's voice—in his memory across the seas.
Once only it grew sharp, when Walter, who hovered about disconsolately, knelt down to fasten his brother's portmanteau.
"No! Let go! I can do everything myself."
And now the time was fast flying—her boy must depart.
All the household collected in the hall to bid Mr. Guy good-bye—Mr. Guy whom everybody was so fond of. They believed—which was all that any one, save ourselves, ever knew—that sudden business had called him away on a long and anxious journey. They lingered about him, respectfully, with eager, honest blessings, such as it was good the lad should have—good that he should bear away with him from England and from home.
Finally, Guy, his father, and his mother went into the study by themselves. Soon even his father came out and shut the door, that there should be not a single witness to the last few words between mother and son. These being over, they both came into the hall together, brave and calm—which calmness was maintained even to the last good-bye.
Thus we sent our Guy away, cheerfully and with blessings—away into the wide, dangerous world; alone, with no guard or restraint, except (and in that EXCEPT lay the whole mystery of our cheerfulness)—the fear of God, his father's counsels, and his mother's prayers.