John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XXXIX
Guy and his mother were together. She lay on a sofa in her dressing-room; he sat on a stool beside her, so that her arm could rest on his neck and she could now and then turn his face towards her and look at it—oh, what a look!
She had had him with her for two whole days—two days to be set against eight years! Yet the eight years seemed already to have collapsed into a span of time, and the two days to have risen up a great mountain of happiness, making a barrier complete against the woeful past, as happiness can do—thanks to the All-merciful for His mercies. Most especially for that mercy—true as His truth to the experience of all pure hearts—that one bright, brief season of joy can outweigh, in reality and even in remembrance, whole years of apparently interminable pain.
Two days only since the night Guy came home, and yet it seemed months ago! Already we had grown familiar to the tall, bearded figure; the strange step and voice about the house; all except Maud, who was rather shy and reserved still. We had ceased the endeavour to reconcile this our Guy—this tall, grave man of nearly thirty, looking thirty-five and more—with Guy, the boy that left us, the boy that in all our lives we never should find again. Nevertheless, we took him, just as he was, to our hearts, rejoicing in him one and all with inexpressible joy.
He was much altered, certainly. It was natural, nay, right, that he should be. He had suffered much; a great deal more than he ever told us—at least, not till long after; had gone through poverty, labour, sickness, shipwreck. He had written home by the "Stars-and-Stripes"- -sailed a fortnight later by another vessel—been cast away—picked up by an outward-bound ship—and finally landed in England, he and his partner, as penniless as they left it.
"Was your partner an Englishman, then?" said Maud, who sat at the foot of the sofa, listening. "You have not told us anything about him yet."
Guy half smiled. "I will by and by. It's a long story. Just now I don't want to think of anybody or anything except my mother."
He turned, as he did twenty times a day, to press his rough cheek upon her hand and look up into her thin face, his eyes overflowing with love.
"You must get well now, mother. Promise!"
Her smile promised—and even began the fulfilment of the same.
"I think she looks stronger already—does she, Maud? You know her looks better than I; I don't ever remember her being ill in old times. Oh, mother, I will never leave you again—never!"
"No, my boy."
"No, Guy, no."—John came in, and stood watching them both contentedly. "No, my son, you must never leave your mother."
"I will not leave either of you, father," said Guy, with a reverent affection that must have gladdened the mother's heart to the very core. Resigning his place by her, Guy took Maud's, facing them; and father and son began to talk of various matters concerning their home and business arrangements; taking counsel together, as father and son ought to do. These eight years of separation seemed to have brought them nearer together; the difference between them—in age, far less than between most fathers and sons, had narrowed into a meeting-point. Never in all his life had Guy been so deferent, so loving, to his father. And with a peculiar trust and tenderness, John's heart turned to his eldest son, the heir of his name, his successor at Enderley Mills. For, in order that Guy might at once take his natural place, and feel no longer a waif and stray upon the world, already a plan had been started, that the firm of Halifax and Sons should become Halifax Brothers. Perhaps, ere very long—only the mother said privately, rather anxiously too, that she did not wish this part of the scheme to be mentioned to Guy just now— perhaps, ere long it would be "Guy Halifax, Esquire, of Beechwood;" and "the old people" at happy little Longfield.
As yet Guy had seen nobody but ourselves, and nobody had seen Guy. Though his mother gave various good reasons why he should not make his public appearance as a "ship-wrecked mariner," costume and all, yet it was easy to perceive that she looked forward not without apprehension to some meetings which must necessarily soon occur, but to which Guy made not the smallest allusion. He had asked, cursorily and generally, after "all my brothers and sisters," and been answered in the same tone; but neither he nor we had as yet mentioned the names of Edwin or Louise.
They knew he was come home; but how and where the first momentous meeting should take place we left entirely to chance, or, more rightly speaking, to Providence.
So it happened thus. Guy was sitting quietly on the sofa at his mother's feet, and his father and he were planning together in what way could best be celebrated, by our school-children, tenants, and work-people, an event which we took a great interest in, though not greater than in this year was taken by all classes throughout the kingdom—the day fixed for the abolition of Negro Slavery in our Colonies—the 1st of August, 1834. He sat in an attitude that reminded me of his boyish lounging ways; the picture of content; though a stream of sunshine pouring in upon his head, through the closed Venetian blind, showed many a deep line of care on his forehead, and more than one silver thread among his brown hair.
In a pause—during which no one exactly liked to ask what we were all thinking about—there came a little tap at the door, and a little voice outside.
"Please, me want to come in."
Maud jumped up to refuse admission; but Mr. Halifax forbade her, and himself went and opened the door. A little child stood there—a little girl of three years old.
Apparently guessing who she was, Guy rose up hastily, and sat down in his place again.
"Come in, little maid," said the father; "come in, and tell us what you want."
"Me want to see Grannie and Uncle Guy."
Guy started, but still he kept his seat. The mother took her grandchild in her feeble arms, and kissed her, saying softly,
"There—that is Uncle Guy. Go and speak to him."
And then, touching his knees, Guy felt the tiny, fearless hand. He turned round, and looked at the little thing, reluctantly, inquisitively. Still he did not speak to or touch her.
"Are you Uncle Guy?"
"Why don't you kiss me? Everybody kisses me," said everybody's pet; neither frightened nor shy; never dreaming of a repulse.
Nor did she find it. Her little fingers were suffered to cling round the tightly-closed hand.
"What is your name, my dear?"
"Louise—mamma's little Louise."
Guy put back the curls, and gazed long and wistfully into the childish face, where the inherited beauty was repeated line for line. But softened, spiritualised, as, years after its burial, some ghost of a man's old sorrows may rise up and meet him, the very spirit of peace shining out of its celestial eyes.
"Little Louise, you are very like—"
He stopped—and bending down, kissed her. In that kiss vanished for ever the last shadow of his boyhood's love. Not that he forgot it— God forbid that any good man should ever either forget or be ashamed of his first love! But it and all its pain fled far away, back into the sacred eternities of dreamland.
When, looking up at last, he saw a large, fair, matronly lady sitting by his mother's sofa, Guy neither started nor turned pale. It was another, and not his lost Louise. He rose and offered her his hand.
"You see, your little daughter has made friends with me already. She is very like you; only she has Edwin's hair. Where is my brother Edwin?"
"Here, old fellow. Welcome home."
The two brothers met warmly, nay, affectionately. Edwin was not given to demonstration; but I saw how his features twitched, and how he busied himself over the knots in his little girl's pinafore for a minute or more. When he spoke again it was as if nothing had happened and Guy had never been away.
For the mother, she lay with her arms folded, looking from one to the other mutely, or closing her eyes with a faint stirring of the lips, like prayer. It seemed as if she dared only THUS to meet her exceeding joy.
Soon, Edwin and Louise left us for an hour or two, and Guy went on with the history of his life in America and his partner who had come home with him, and, like himself, had lost his all.
"Harder for him than for me; he is older than I am. He knew nothing whatever of business when he offered himself as my clerk; since then he has worked like a slave. In a fever I had he nursed me; he has been to me these three years the best, truest friend. He is the noblest fellow. Father, if you only knew—"
"Well, my son, let me know him. Invite the gentleman to Beechwood; or shall I write and ask him? Maud, fetch me your mother's desk. Now then, Guy—you are a very forgetful fellow still; you have never yet told us your friend's name."
Guy looked steadily at his father, in his own straightforward way; hesitated—then apparently made up his mind.
"I did not tell you because he wished me not; not till you understood him as well as I do. You knew him yourself once—but he has wisely dropped his title. Since he came over to me in America he has been only Mr. William Ravenel."
This discovery—natural enough when one began to think over it, but incredible at first, astounded us all. For Maud—well was it that the little Louise seated in her lap hid and controlled in some measure the violent agitation of poor Auntie Maud.
Ay—Maud loved him. Perhaps she had guessed the secret cause of his departure, and love creates love often times. Then his brave renunciation of rank, fortune, even of herself—women glory in a moral hero—one who has strength to lose even love, and bear its loss, for the sake of duty or of honour. His absence, too, might have done much:—absence which smothers into decay a rootless fancy, but often nourishes the least seed of a true affection into full- flowering love. Ay—Maud loved him. How, or why, or when, at first no one could tell—perhaps not even herself; but so it was, and her parents saw it.
Both were deeply moved—her brother likewise.
"Father," he whispered, "have I done wrong? I did not know—how could I guess?"
"No, no—my son. It is very strange—all things just now seem so strange. Maud, my child,"—and John roused himself out of a long silence into which he was falling,—"go, and take Louise to her mother."
The girl rose, eager to get away. As she crossed the room—the little creature clinging round her neck, and she clasping it close, in the sweet motherliness of character which had come to her so early—I thought—I hoped—
"Maud!" said John, catching her hand as she passed him by—"Maud is not afraid of her father?"
"No,"—in troubled uncertainty—then with a passionate decision, as if ashamed of herself—
She leaned over his chair-back and kissed him—then went out.
Guy told, in his own frank way, all the history of himself and William Ravenel; how the latter had come to America, determined to throw his lot for good or ill, to sink or swim, with Maud's brother— chiefly, as Guy had slowly discovered, because he was Maud's brother. At last—in the open boat, on the Atlantic, with death the great revealer of all things staring them in the face—the whole secret came out. It made them better than friends—brothers.
This was Guy's story, told with a certain spice of determination too, as if—let his father's will be what it might, his own, which had now also settled into the strong "family" will, was resolute on his friend's behalf. Yet when he saw how grave, nay sad, the father sat, he became humble again, and ended his tale even as he had begun, with the entreaty—"Father, if you only knew—"
"My knowing and my judging seem to have been of little value, my son. Be it so. There is One wiser than I—One in whose hands are the issues of all things."
The sort of contrition with which he spoke—thus retracting, as it costs most men so much to retract, a decision given however justly at the time, but which fate has afterwards pronounced unjust, affected his son deeply.
"Father, your decision was right—William says it was. He says also, that it could not have been otherwise; that whatever he has become since, he owes it all to you, and to what passed that day. Though he loves her still, will never love any one else; yet he declares his loss of her has proved his salvation."
"He is right," said Mrs. Halifax. "Love is worth nothing that will not stand trial—a fiery trial, if needs be. And as I have heard John say many and many a time—as he said that very night—in this world there is not, ought not to be, any such words as 'too late.'"
John made no answer. He sat, his chin propped on his right hand, the other pressed against his bosom—his favourite attitude. Once or twice, with a deep-drawn, painful breath, he sighed.
Guy's eagerness could not rest. "Father, I told him I would either write to or see him to-day."
"Where is he?"
"At Norton Bury. Nothing could induce him to come here, unless certain that you desired it."
"I do desire it."
Guy started up with great joy. "Shall I write, then?"
"I will write myself."
But John's hand shook so much, that instead of his customary free, bold writing, he left only blots upon the page. He leant back in his chair, and said faintly—
"I am getting an old man, I see. Guy, it was high time you came home."
Mrs. Halifax thought he was tired, and made a place for his head on her pillow, where he rested some minutes, "just to please her," he said. Then he rose and declared he would himself drive over to Norton Bury for our old friend.
"Nay, let me write, father. To-morrow will do just as well."
The father shook his head. "No—it must be to-day."
Bidding good-bye to his wife—he never by any chance quitted her for an hour without a special tender leave-taking—John went away.
Guy was, he avouched, "as happy as a king." His old liveliness returned; he declared that in this matter, which had long weighed heavily on his mind, he had acted like a great diplomatist, or like the gods themselves, whom some unexacting, humble youth calls upon to
"Annihilate both time and space,
And make two lovers happy!"
"And I'm sure I shall be happy too, in seeing them. They shall be married immediately. And we'll take William into partnership—that was a whim of his, mother—we call one another 'Guy' and 'William,' just like brothers. Heigho! I'm very glad. Are not you?"
The mother smiled.
"You will soon have nobody left but me. No matter. I shall have you all to myself, and be at once a spoiled child, and an uncommonly merry old bachelor."
Again the mother smiled, without reply. She, too, doubtless thought herself a great diplomatist.
William Ravenel—he was henceforward never anything to us but William—came home with Mr. Halifax. First, the mother saw him; then I heard the father go to the maiden bower where Maud had shut herself up all day—poor child!—and fetch his daughter down. Lastly, I watched the two—Mr. Ravenel and Miss Halifax—walk together down the garden and into the beech-wood, where the leaves were whispering and the stock-doves cooing; and where, I suppose, they told and listened to the old tale—old as Adam—yet for ever beautiful and new.
That day was a wonderful day. That night we gathered, as we never thought we should gather again in this world, round the family table- -Guy, Edwin, Walter, Maud, Louise, and William Ravenel—all changed, yet not one lost. A true love-feast it was: a renewed celebration of the family bond, which had lasted through so much sorrow, now knitted up once more, never to be broken.
When we came quietly to examine one another and fall into one another's old ways, there was less than one might have expected even of outward change. The table appeared the same; all took instinctively their old places, except that the mother lay on her sofa and Maud presided at the urn.
It did one's heart good to look at Maud, as she busied herself about, in her capacity as vice-reine of the household; perhaps, with a natural feeling, liking to show some one present how mature and sedate she was—not so very young after all. You could see she felt deeply how much he loved her—how her love was to him like the restoring of his youth. The responsibility, sweet as it was, made her womanly, made her grave. She would be to him at once wife and child, plaything and comforter, sustainer and sustained. Ay, love levels all things. They were not ill-matched, in spite of those twenty years.
And so I left them, and went and sat with John and Ursula—we, the generation passing away, or ready to pass, in Heaven's good time, to make room for these. We talked but little, our hearts were too full. Early, before anybody thought of moving, John carried his wife up-stairs again, saying that, well as she looked, she must be compelled to economise both her good looks and her happiness.
When he came down again he stood talking for some time with Mr. Ravenel. While he talked I thought he looked wearied—pallid even to exhaustion; a minute or two afterwards he silently left the room.
I followed him, and found him leaning against the chimney-piece in his study.
"Who's that?" He spoke feebly; he looked—ghastly!
I called him by his name.
"Come in. Fetch no one. Shut the door."
The words were hoarse and abrupt, but I obeyed.
"Phineas," he said, again holding out a hand, as if he thought he had grieved me; "don't mind. I shall be better presently. I know quite well what it is—ah, my God—my God!"
Sharp, horrible pain—such as human nature shrinks from—such as makes poor mortal flesh cry out in its agony to its Maker, as if, for the time being, life itself were worthless at such a price. I know now what it must have been; I know now what he must have endured.
He held me fast, half unconscious as he was, lest I should summon help; and when a step was heard in the passage, as once before—the day Edwin was married—how, on a sudden, I remembered all!—he tottered forward and locked, double-locked, the door.
After a few minutes the worst suffering abated, and he sat down again in his chair. I got some water; he drank, and let me bathe his face with it—his face, grey and death-like—John's face!
But I am telling the bare facts—nothing more.
A few heavy sighs, gasped as it were for life, and he was himself again.
"Thank God, it is over now! Phineas, you must try and forget all you have seen. I wish you had not come to the door."
He said this, not in any tone that could wound me, but tenderly, as if he were very sorry for me.
"What is it?"
"There is no need for alarm;—no more than that day—you recollect?— in this room. I had an attack once before then—a few times since. It is horrible pain while it lasts, you see; I can hardly bear it. But it goes away again, as you also see. It would be a pity to tell my wife, or anybody; in fact, I had rather not. You understand?"
He spoke thus in a matter-of-fact way, as if he thought the explanation would satisfy me and prevent my asking further. He was mistaken.
"John, what is it?"
"What is it? Why, something like what I had then; but it comes rarely, and I am well again directly. I had much rather not talk about it. Pray forget it."
But I could not; nor, I thought, could he. He took up a book and sat still; though often times I caught his eyes fixed on my face with a peculiar earnestness, as if he would fain test my strength—fain find out how much I loved him; and loving, how much I could bear.
"You are not reading, John; you are thinking—what about?"
He paused a little, as if undetermined whether or not to tell me; then said: "About your father. Do you remember him?"
I looked surprised at the question.
"I mean, do you remember how he died?"
Somehow—though, God knows, not at that dear and sacred remembrance— I shuddered. "Yes; but why should we talk of it now?"
"Why not? I have often thought what a happy death it was—painless, instantaneous, without any wasting sickness beforehand—his sudden passing from life present to life eternal. Phineas, your father's was the happiest death I ever knew."
"It may be—I am not sure. John," for again something in his look and manner struck me—"why do you say this to me?"
"I scarcely know. Yes, I do know."
"Tell me, then."
He looked at me across the table—steadily, eye to eye, as if he would fain impart to my spirit the calmness that was in his own. "I believe, Phineas, that when I die my death will be not unlike your father's."
Something came wildly to my lips about "impossibility," the utter impossibility, of any man's thus settling the manner of his death, or the time.
"I know that. I know that I may live ten or twenty years, and die of another disease after all."
"Nay—it is nothing to be afraid of. You see I am not afraid. I have guessed it for many years. I have known it for a certainty ever since I was in Paris."
"Were you ill in Paris?—You never said so."
"No—because—Phineas, do you think you could bear the truth? You know it makes no real difference. I shall not die an hour sooner for being aware of it."
"Aware of—what? Say quickly."
"Dr. K—— told me—I was determined to be told—that I had the disease I suspected; beyond medical power to cure. It is not immediately fatal; he said I might live many years, even to old age; and I might die, suddenly, at any moment, just as your father died."
He said this gently and quietly—more quietly than I am writing the words down now; and I listened—I listened.
I felt the pressure of his warm hand on my shoulder—the hand which had led me like a brother's all my life.
"Phineas, we have known one another these forty years. Is our love, our faith, so small, that either of us, for himself or his brother, need be afraid of death?—"
"Phineas!"—and the second time he spoke there was some faint reproach in the tone; "no one knows this but you. I see I was right to hesitate; I almost wish I had not told you at all."
Then I rose.
At my urgent request, he explained to me fully and clearly the whole truth. It was, as most truths are, less terrible when wholly known. It had involved little suffering as yet, the paroxysms being few and rare. They had always occurred when he was alone, or when feeling them coming on he could go away and bear them in solitude.
"I have always been able to do so until to-night. She has not the least idea—my wife, I mean."
His voice failed.
"It has been terrible to me at times, the thought of my wife. Perhaps I ought to have told her. Often I resolved I would, and then changed my mind. Latterly, since she has been ill, I have believed, almost hoped, that she would not need to be told at all."
"Would you rather, then, that she—"
John calmly took up the word I shrank from uttering. "Yes; I would rather of the two that she went away first. She would suffer less, and it would be such a short parting."
He spoke as one would speak of a new abode, an impending journey. To him the great change, the last terror of humanity, was a thought— solemn indeed, but long familiar and altogether without fear. And, as we sat there, something of his spirit passed into mine; I felt how narrow is the span between the life mortal and the life immortal— how, in truth, both are one with God.
"Ay," he said, "that is exactly what I mean. To me there is always something impious in the 'preparing for death' that people talk about; as if we were not continually, whether in the flesh or out of it, living in the Father's presence; as if, come when He will, the Master should not find all of us watching? Do you remember saying so to me, one day?"
Ah, that day!
"Does it pain you, my talking thus? Because if so, we will cease."
"That is right. I thought, this attack having been somewhat worse than my last, some one ought to be told. It has been a comfort to me to tell you—a great comfort, Phineas. Always remember that."
I have remembered it.
"Now, one thing more, and my mind is at ease. You see, though I may have years of life—I hope I shall—many busy years—I am never sure of a day, and I have to take many precautions. At home I shall be quite safe now." He smiled again, with evident relief. "And rarely I go anywhere without having one of my boys with me. Still, for fear—look here."
He showed me his pocket-book; on a card bearing his name and address was written in his own legible hand, "HOME, AND TELL MY WIFE CAREFULLY."
I returned the book. As I did so, there dropped out a little note— all yellow and faded—his wife's only "love-letter,"—signed, "Yours sincerely, Ursula March."
John picked it up, looked at it, and put it back in its place.
"Poor darling! poor darling!" He sighed, and was silent for a while. "I am very glad Guy has come home; very glad that my little Maud is so happily settled. Hark! how those children are laughing!"
For the moment a natural shade of regret crossed the father's face, the father to whom all the delights of home had been so dear. But it soon vanished.
"How merry they are!—how strangely things have come about for us and ours! As Ursula was saying to-night, at this moment we have not a single care."
I grasped at that, for Dr. K—— had declared that if John had a quiet life—a life without many anxieties—he might, humanly speaking, attain a good old age.
"Ay, your father did. Who knows? we may both be old men yet, Phineas."
And as he rose, he looked strong in body and mind, full of health and cheer—scarcely even on the verge of that old age of which he spoke. And I was older than he.
"Now, will you come with me to say good-night to the children?"
At first I thought I could not—then, I could. After the rest had merrily dispersed, John and I stood for a long time in the empty parlour, his hand on my shoulder, as he used to stand when we were boys, talking.
What we said I shall not write, but I remember it, every word. And he—I KNOW he remembers it still.
Then we clasped hands.