John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XXXV
Two years rolled over Beechwood—two uneventful years. The last of the children ceased to be a child; and we prepared for that great era in all household history, the first marriage in the family. It was to be celebrated very quietly, as Edwin and Louise both desired. Time had healed over many a pang, and taught many a soothing lesson; still it could not be supposed that this marriage was without its painfulness.
Guy still remained abroad; his going had produced the happy result intended. Month after month his letters came, each more hopeful than the last, each bringing balm to the mother's heart. Then he wrote to others beside his mother: Maud and Walter replied to him in long home-histories; and began to talk without hesitation—nay, with great pride and pleasure—"of my brother who is abroad."
The family wound was closing, the family peace about to be restored; Maud even fancied Guy ought to come home to "our wedding;"—but then she had never been told the whole of past circumstances; and, besides, she was still too young to understand love matters. Yet so mercifully had time smoothed down all things, that it sometimes appeared even to us elders as if those three days of bitterness were a mere dream—as if the year we dreaded had passed as calmly as any other year. Save that in this interval Ursula's hair had begun to turn from brown to grey; and John first mentioned, so cursorily that I cannot even now remember when or where, that slight pain, almost too slight to complain of, which he said warned him in climbing Enderley Hill that he could not climb so fast as when he was young. And I returned his smile, telling him we were evidently growing old men; and must soon set our faces to descend the hill of life. Easy enough I was in saying this, thinking, as I often did, with great content, that there was not the faintest doubt which of us would reach the bottom first.
Yet I was glad to have safely passed my half century of life—glad to have seen many of John's cares laid to rest, more especially those external troubles which I have not lately referred to—for, indeed, they were absorbed and forgotten in the home-troubles that came after. He had lived down all slanders, as he said he would. Far and near travelled the story of the day when Jessop's bank was near breaking; far and near, though secretly—for we found it out chiefly by its results—poor people whispered the tale of a gentleman who had been attacked on the high roads, and whose only attempt at bringing the robbers to justice was to help the widow of one and send the others safe out of the country, at his own expense, not Government's. None of these were notable or showy deeds—scarcely one of them got, even under the disguise of asterisks, into the newspaper; the Norton Bury Mercury, for its last dying sting, still complained (and very justly) that there was not a gentleman in the county whose name so seldom headed a charity subscription as that of John Halifax, Esquire, of Beechwood. But the right made its way, as, soon or late, the right always does; he believed his good name was able to defend itself, and it did defend itself; he had faith in the only victory worth having—the universal victory of Truth; and Truth conquered at last.
To drive with him across the country—he never carried pistols now,— or to walk with him, as one day before Edwin's wedding we walked, a goodly procession, through the familiar streets of Norton Bury, was a perpetual pleasure to the rest of the family. Everybody knew him, everybody greeted him, everybody smiled as he passed—as though his presence and his recognition were good things to have and to win. His wife often laughed, and said she doubted whether even Mr. O'Connell of Derrynane, who was just now making a commotion in Ireland, lighting the fire of religious and political discord from one end to the other of County Clare;—she doubted if even Daniel O'Connell had more popularity among his own people than John Halifax had in the primitive neighbourhood where he had lived so long.
Mrs. Halifax herself was remarkably gay this morning. She had had letters from Guy; together with a lovely present, for which he said he had ransacked all the magazins des modes in Paris—a white embroidered China shawl. It had arrived this morning—Lord Ravenel being the bearer. This was not the first time by many that he had brought us news of our Guy, and thereby made himself welcome at Beechwood. More welcome than he might have been otherwise; for his manner of life was so different from ours. Not that Lord Ravenel could be accused of any likeness to his father; but blood is blood, and education and habits are not to be easily overcome. The boys laughed at him for his aristocratic, languid ways; Maud teased him for his mild cynicism and the little interest he seemed to take in anything; while the mother herself was somewhat restless about his coming, wondering what possible good his acquaintance could do to us, or ours to him, seeing we moved in totally different spheres. But John himself was invariably kind, nay, tender over him—we all guessed why. And perhaps even had not the young man had so many good points, while his faults were more negations than positive ill qualities, we likewise should have been tender over him—for Muriel's sake.
He had arrived at Beechwood this morning, and falling as usual into our family routine, had come with us to Norton Bury. He looked up with more interest than usual in his pensive eyes, as he crossed the threshold of our old house, and told Maud how he had come there many years ago with his father.
"That was the first time I ever met your father," I overheard him say to Maud—not without feeling; as if he thought he owed fate some gratitude for the meeting.
Mrs. Halifax, in the casual civil inquiry which was all the old earl ever won in our house, asked after the health of Lord Luxmore.
"He is still at Compiegne. Does not Guy mention him? Lord Luxmore takes the greatest pleasure in Guy's society."
By her start, this was evidently new and not welcome tidings to Guy's mother. No wonder. Any mother in England would have shrank from the thought that her best-beloved son—especially a young man of Guy's temperament, and under Guy's present circumstances—was thrown into the society which now surrounded the debauched dotage of the too-notorious Earl of Luxmore.
"My son did not mention it. He has been too much occupied in business matters to write home frequently, since he reached Paris. However his stay there is limited;" and this seemed to relieve her. "I doubt if he will have much time left to visit Compiegne."
She said no more than this, of course, to Lord Luxmore's son; but her disquiet was sufficiently apparent.
"It was I who brought your son to Compiegne—where he is a universal favourite, from his wit and liveliness. I know no one who is a more pleasant companion than Guy."
Guy's mother bowed—but coldly.
"I think, Mrs. Halifax, you are aware that the earl's tastes and mine differ widely—have always differed. But he is an old man, and I am his only son. He likes to see me sometimes, and I go:—though, I must confess, I take little pleasure in the circle he has around him."
"In which circle, as I understand, my son is constantly included?"
"Why not? It is a very brilliant circle. The whole court of Charles Dix can afford none more amusing. For the rest, what matters? One learns to take things as they seem, without peering below the surface. One wearies of impotent Quixotism against unconquerable evils."
"That is not our creed at Beechwood," said Mrs. Halifax, abruptly, as she ceased the conversation. But ever and anon it seemed to recur to her mind—ay, through all the mirth of the young people, all the graver pleasure which the father took in the happiness of his son Edwin; his good son, who had never given him a single care. He declared this settling of Edwin had been to him almost like the days when he himself used to come of evenings, hammer in hand, to put up shelves in the house, or nail the currant-bushes against the wall, doing everything con amore, and with the utmost care, knowing it would come under the quick observant eyes of Ursula March.
"That is, of Ursula Halifax—for I don't think I let her see a single one of my wonderful doings until she was Ursula Halifax. Do you remember, Phineas, when you came to visit us the first time, and found us gardening?"
"And she had on a white gown and a straw hat with blue ribbons. What a young thing she looked!—hardly older than Mistress Maud here."
John put his arm round his wife's waist—not so slender as it had been, but comely and graceful still, repeating—with something of the musical cadence of his boyish readings of poetry—a line or two from the sweet old English song:
"And when with envy Time transported
Shall think to rob us of our joys,
You'll in your girls again be courted,
And I'll go wooing with my boys."
Ursula laughed, and for the time being the shadow passed from her countenance. Her husband had happily not noticed it: and apparently, she did not wish to tell him her trouble. She let him spend a happy day, even grew happy herself in response to his care to make her so, by the resolute putting away of all painful present thoughts, and calling back of sweet and soothing memories belonging to this their old married home. John seemed determined that, if possible, the marriage that was to be should be as sacred and as hopeful as their own.
So full of it were we all, that not until the day after, when Lord Ravenel had left us,—longing apparently to be asked to stay for the wedding, but John did not ask him,—I remembered what he had said about Guy's association with Lord Luxmore's set. It was recalled to me by the mother's anxious face, as she gave me a foreign letter to post.
"Post it yourself, will you, Phineas? I would not have it miscarry, or be late in its arrival, on any account."
No, for I saw it was to her son, at Paris.
"It will be the last letter I shall need to write," she added, again lingering over it, to be certain that all was correct—the address being somewhat illegible for that free, firm hand of hers. "My boy is coming home."
"Guy coming home! To the marriage?"
"No; but immediately after. He is quite himself now. He longs to come home."
"And his mother?"
His mother could not speak. Like light to her eyes, like life to her heart, was the thought of Guy's coming home. All that week she looked ten years younger. With a step buoyant as any girl's she went about the marriage preparations; together with other preparations, perhaps dearer still to the motherly heart, where, if any preference did lurk, it was for the one for whom—possibly from whom—she had suffered most, of all her children.
John, too, though the father's joy was graver and not unmixed with some anxiety—anxiety which he always put aside in his wife's presence—seemed eager to have his son at home.
"He is the eldest son," he repeated more than once, when talking to me of his hope that Guy would now settle permanently at Beechwood. "After myself, the head of the family."
After John! It was almost ridiculous to peer so far into the future as that.
Of all the happy faces I saw the day before the marriage, I think the happiest was Mrs. Halifax's, as I met her coming out of Guy's room, which ever since he left had been locked up, unoccupied. Now his mother threw open the door with a cheerful air.
"You may go in if you like, Uncle Phineas. Does it not look nice?"
It did indeed, with the fresh white curtains; the bed laid all in order; the book-shelves arranged, and even the fowling-piece and fishing-rod put in the right places.
The room looked very neat, I said, with an amused doubt as to how long it was to remain so.
"That is true, indeed. How he used to throw his things about! A sad untidy boy!" And his mother laughed; but I saw all her features were trembling with emotion.
"He will not be exactly a boy now. I wonder if we shall find him much changed."
"Very likely. Brown, with a great beard; he said so in one of his letters. I shall hardly know my boy again."—With a lighting-up of the eye that furnished a flat contradiction to the mother's statement.
"Here are some of Mrs. Tod's roses, I see."
"She made me take them. She said Master Guy always used to stop and pick a bunch as he rode past. She hopes she shall see him ride past on Sunday next. Guy must pay her one of his very first visits; the good old soul!"
I hinted that Guy would have to pay visits half over the country, to judge by the number of invitations I had heard of.
"Yes. Everybody wants to steal my boy. Everybody has a welcome for him.—How bright old Watkins has polished that gun!—Sir Herbert says, Guy must come over to the shooting next week. He used to be exceedingly fond of going to the manor-house."
I smiled to see the innocent smile of this good mother, who would have recoiled at the accusation of match-making. Yet I knew she was thinking of her great favourite, pretty Grace Oldtower; who was Grace Oldtower still, and had refused, gossip said, half the brilliant matches in the county, to the amazement and strong disapprobation of all her friends—excepting Mrs. Halifax.
"Come away, Phineas!" slightly sighing, as if her joy weighed her down, or as if conscious that she was letting fancy carry her too far into the unknown future. "His room is quite ready now, whatever time the boy arrives. Come away."
She shut and locked the door. To be opened—when?
Morning broke, and none could have desired a brighter marriage- morning. Sunshine out of doors—sunshine on all the faces within; only family faces,—for no other guests had been invited, and we had kept the day as secret as we could; there was nothing John disliked more than a show-wedding. Therefore it was with some surprise that while they were all up-stairs adorning themselves for church, Maud and I, standing at the hall-door, saw Lord Ravenel's travelling carriage drive up to it, and Lord Ravenel himself, with a quicker and more decided gesture than was natural to him, spring out.
Maud ran into the porch; startling him much, apparently; for indeed she was a sweet vision of youth, happiness, and grace, in her pretty bridesmaid's dress.
"Is this the wedding-morning? I did not know—I will come again to-morrow;" and he seemed eager to escape back to his carriage.
This action relieved me from a vague apprehension of ill tidings, and made less painful the first question which rose to my lips, "Had he seen Guy?"
"We thought for the moment it might be Guy come home," Maud cried. "We are expecting him. Have you heard of him since we saw you? Is he quite well?"
"I believe so."
I thought the answer brief; but then he was looking intently upon Guy's sister, who held his hands in her childish, affectionate way; she had not yet relinquished her privilege of being Lord Ravenel's "pet." When, hesitatingly, he proposed returning to Luxmore, unwilling to intrude upon the marriage, the little lady would not hear of it for a moment. She took the unexpected guest to the study, left him there with her father, explained to her mother all about his arrival and his having missed seeing Guy—appearing entirely delighted.
I came into the drawing-room, and sat watching the sun shining on marriage-garments and marriage-faces, all as bright as bright could be,—including the mother's. It had clouded over for a few moments when the postman's ring was heard; but she said at once that it was most unlikely Guy would write—she had told him there was no need to write. So she stood content, smoothing down the soft folds of her beautiful shawl, which Guy meant her to wear to-day. This, together with his fond remembrance of her, seemed almost as comfortable as the visible presence of her boy. Her boy, who was sure to come to-morrow.
"John, is that you? How softly you came in. And Lord Ravenel! He knows we are glad to see him. Shall we make him one of our own family for the time being, and take him with us to see Edwin married?"
Lord Ravenel bowed.
"Maud tells us you have not seen Guy. I doubt if he will be able to arrive to-day; but we fully expect him tomorrow."
Lord Ravenel bowed again. Mrs. Halifax said something about this unexpected arrival of his.
"He came on business," John answered quickly, and Ursula made no more inquiries.
She stood, talking with Lord Ravenel—as I could see her stand now, playing with the deep fringe of her shawl; the sun glancing on that rich silk dress, of her favourite silver-grey; a picture of matronly grace and calm content, as charming as even the handsome, happy bride.
I was still looking at her, when John called me aside. I followed him to the study.
"Shut the door."
By his tone and look I knew in a moment that something had happened.
"Yes. I'll tell you presently—if there's time."
While he was speaking some violent pain—physical or mental, or both- -seemed to seize him. I had my hand on the door to call Ursula, but he held me fast with a kind of terror.
"Call no one. I am used to it. Water!"
He drank a glassful, which stood by, breathed once or twice heavily, and gradually recovered himself. The colour had scarcely come back into his face when he heard Maud run laughing through the hall.
"Father, where are you? We are waiting for you."
"I will come in two minutes, my child."
Having said this, in his own natural voice, he closed the door again, and spoke to me rapidly.
"Phineas, I want you to stay away from church; make some excuse, or I will for you. Write a letter for me to this address in Paris. Say— Guy Halifax's father will be there, without fail, within a week, to answer all demands."
"All demands!" I echoed, bewildered.
He repeated the sentence word for word. "Can you remember it? Literally, mind! And post it at once, before we return from church."
Here the mother's call was heard. "John, are you coming?"
"In a moment, love," for her hand was on the door outside; but her husband held the other handle fast. He then went on, breathlessly, "You understand, Phineas? And you will be careful, very careful? SHE MUST NOT KNOW—not till tonight."
"One word. Guy is alive and well?"
But Guy's father was gone while I spoke. Heavy as the news might be- -this ill news which had struck me with apprehension the moment I saw Lord Ravenel—it was still endurable. I could not conjure up any grief so bitter as the boy's dying.
Therefore, with a quietness that came naturally under the compulsion of such a necessity as the present, I rejoined the rest, made my excuses, and answered all objections. I watched the marriage-party leave the house. A simple procession—the mother first, leaning on Edwin; then Maud, Walter, and Lord Ravenel; John walked last, with Louise upon his arm. Thus I saw them move up the garden, and through the beech-wood, to the little church on the hill.
I then wrote the letter and sent it off. That done, I went back into the study. Knowing nothing—able to guess nothing—a dull patience came over me, the patience with which we often wait for unknown, inevitable misfortunes. Sometimes I almost forgot Guy in my startled remembrance of his father's look as he called me away, and sat down— or rather dropped down—into his chair. Was it illness? yet he had not complained; he hardly ever complained, and scarcely had a day's sickness from year to year. And as I watched him and Louise up the garden, I had noticed his free, firm gait, without the least sign of unsteadiness or weakness. Besides, he was not one to keep any but a necessary secret from those who loved him. He could not be seriously ill, or we should have known it.
Thus I pondered, until I heard the church bells ring out merrily. The marriage was over.
I was just in time to meet them at the front gates, which they entered—our Edwin and his wife—through a living line of smiling faces, treading upon a carpet of strewn flowers. Enderley would not be defrauded of its welcome—all the village escorted the young couple in triumph home. I have a misty recollection of how happy everybody looked, how the sun was shining, and the bells ringing, and the people cheering—a mingled phantasmagoria of sights and sounds, in which I only saw one person distinctly,—John.
He waited while the young folk passed in—stood on the hall-steps—in a few words thanked his people, and bade them to the general rejoicing. They, uproarious, answered in loud hurrahs, and one energetic voice cried out:
"One cheer more for Master Guy!"
Guy's mother turned delighted—her eyes shining with proud tears.
"John—thank them; tell them that Guy will thank them himself to-morrow."
The master thanked them, but either he did not explain—or the honest rude voices drowned all mention of the latter fact—that Guy would be home to-morrow.
All this while, and at the marriage-breakfast likewise, Mr. Halifax kept the same calm demeanour. Once only, when the rest were all gathered round the bride and bridegroom, he said to me:
"Phineas, is it done?"
"What is done?" asked Ursula, suddenly passing.
"A letter I asked him to write for me this morning."
Now I had all my life been proud of John's face—that it was a safe face to trust in—that it could not, or if it could, it would not, boast that stony calm under which some men are so proud of disguising themselves and their emotions from those nearest and dearest to them. If he were sad, we knew it; if he were happy, we knew it too. It was his principle, that nothing but the strongest motive should make a man stoop to even the smallest hypocrisy.
Therefore, hearing him thus speak to his wife, I was struck with great alarm. Mrs. Halifax herself seemed uneasy.
"A business letter, I suppose?"
"Partly on business. I will tell you all about it this evening."
She looked re-assured. "Just as you like; you know I am not curious." But passing on, she turned back. "John, if it was anything important to be done—anything that I ought to know at once, you would not keep me in ignorance?"
"No—my dearest! No!"
Then what had happened must be something in which no help availed; something altogether past and irremediable; something which he rightly wished to keep concealed, for a few hours at least, from his other children, so as not to mar the happiness of this day, of which there could be no second, this crowning day of their lives—this wedding-day of Edwin and Louise.
So, he sat at the marriage-table; he drank the marriage-health; he gave them both a marriage-blessing. Finally, he sent them away, smiling and sorrowful—as is the bounden duty of young married couples to depart—Edwin pausing even on the carriage-step to embrace his mother with especial tenderness, and whisper her to "give his love to Guy."
"It reminds one of Guy's leaving," said the mother, hastily brushing back the tears that would spring and roll down her smiling face. She had never, until this moment, reverted to that miserable day. "John, do you think it possible the boy can be at home to-night?"
John answered emphatically, but very softly, "No."
"Why not? My letter would reach him in full time. Lord Ravenel has been to Paris and back since then. But—" turning full upon the young nobleman—"I think you said you had not seen Guy?"
"Did you hear anything of him?"
Exceedingly distressed, almost beyond his power of self-restraint, the young man looked appealingly to John, who replied for him:
"Lord Ravenel brought me a letter from Guy this morning."
"A letter from Guy—and you never told me. How very strange!"
Still, she seemed only to think it "strange." Some difficulty or folly perhaps—you could see by the sudden flushing of her cheek, and her quick, distrustful glance at Lord Ravenel, what she imagined it was—that the boy had confessed to his father. With an instinct of concealment—the mother's instinct—for the moment she asked no questions.
We were all still standing at the hall-door. Unresisting, she suffered her husband to take her arm in his and bring her into the study.
"Now—the letter, please! Children, go away; I want to speak to your father. The letter, John?"
Her hand, which she held out, shook much. She tried to unfold the paper—stopped, and looked up piteously.
"It is not to tell me he is not coming home? I can bear anything, you know—but he MUST come."
John only answered, "Read,"—and took firm hold of her hand while she read—as we hold the hand of one undergoing great torture,—which must be undergone, and which no human love can either prepare for, or remove, or alleviate.
The letter, which I saw afterwards, was thus;
- "DEAR FATHER AND MOTHER,
- "I have disgraced you all. I have been drunk—in a gaming house. A man insulted me—it was about my father—but you will hear—all the world will hear presently. I struck him—there wa something in my hand, and—the man was hurt.
- "He may be dead by this time. I don't know.
- "I am away to America to-night. I shall never come home an more. God bless you all.
- "GUY HALIFAX.
- "P.S. I got my mother's letter to-day. Mother—I was not in m right senses, or I should not have done it. Mother, darling! forge me. Don't let me have broken your heart."
Alas, he had broken it!
"Never come home any more!—Never come home any more!"
She repeated this over and over again, vacantly: nothing but these five words.
Nature refused to bear it; or rather, Nature mercifully helped her to bear it. When John took his wife in his arms she was insensible; and remained so, with intervals, for hours.
This was the end of Edwin's wedding-day.