John Halifax, Gentleman/Chapter XXXVIII
For nearly three years Lady Caroline lived in our house—if that miserable existence of hers could be called living—bedridden, fallen into second childhood:
"Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw;"
oblivious to both past and present, recognising none of us, and taking no notice of anybody, except now and then of Edwin's little daughter, baby Louise.
We knew that all our neighbours talked us over, making far more than a nine days' wonder of the "very extraordinary conduct" of Mr. and Mrs. Halifax. That even good Lady Oldtower hesitated a little before she suffered her tribe of fair daughters to visit under the same roof where lay, quite out of the way, that poor wreck of womanhood, which would hardly have tainted any woman now. But in process of time the gossip ceased of itself; and when, one summer day, a small decent funeral moved out of our garden gate to Enderley churchyard, all the comment was:
"Oh! is she dead?—What a relief it must be! How very kind of Mr. and Mrs. Halifax!"
Yes, she was dead, and had "made no sign," either of repentance, grief, or gratitude. Unless one could consider as such a moment's lightening before death, which Maud declared she saw in her—Maud, who had tended her with a devotedness which neither father nor mother forbade, believing that a woman cannot too soon learn womanhood's best "mission"—usefulness, tenderness, and charity. Miss Halifax was certain that a few minutes before the last minute, she saw a gleam of sense in the filmy eyes, and stooping down, had caught some feeble murmur about "William—poor William!"
She did not tell me this; she spoke of it to no one but her mother, and to her briefly. So the wretched life, once beautiful and loveful, was now ended, or perhaps born in some new sphere to begin again its struggle after the highest beauty, the only perfect love. What are we that we should place limits to the infinite mercy of the Lord and Giver of Life, unto whom all life returns?
We buried her and left her—poor Lady Caroline!
No one interfered with us, and we appealed to no one. In truth, there was no one unto whom we could appeal. Lord Luxmore, immediately after his father's funeral, had disappeared, whither, no one knew except his solicitor; who treated with and entirely satisfied the host of creditors, and into whose hands the sole debtor, John Halifax, paid his yearly rent. Therewith, he wrote several times to Lord Luxmore; but the letters were simply acknowledged through the lawyer: never answered. Whether in any of them John alluded to Lady Caroline I do not know; but I rather think not, as it would have served no purpose and only inflicted pain. No doubt, her brother had long since believed her dead, as we and the world had done.
In that same world one man, even a nobleman, is of little account. Lord Ravenel sank in its wide waste of waters, and they closed over him. Whether he were drowned or saved was of small moment to any one. He was soon forgotten—everywhere except at Beechwood; and sometimes it seemed as if he were even forgotten there. Save that in our family we found it hard to learn this easy, convenient habit—to forget.
Hard, though seven years had passed since we saw Guy's merry face, to avoid missing it keenly still. The mother, as her years crept on, oftentimes wearied for him with a yearning that could not be told. The father, as Edwin became engrossed in his own affairs, and Walter's undecided temperament kept him a boy long after boyhood, often seemed to look round vaguely for an eldest son's young strength to lean upon, often said anxiously, "I wish Guy were at home."
Yet still there was no hint of his coming; better he never came at all than came against his will, or came to meet the least pain, the shadow of disgrace. And he was contented and prosperous in the western world, leading an active and useful life, earning an honourable name. He had taken a partner, he told us; there was real friendship between them, and they were doing well; perhaps might make, in a few years, one of those rapid fortunes which clever men of business do make in America, and did especially at that time.
He was also eager and earnest upon other and higher cares than mere business; entered warmly into his father's sympathy about many political measures now occupying men's minds. A great number of comparative facts concerning the factory children in England and America; a mass of evidence used by Mr. Fowell Buxton in his arguments for the abolition of slavery; and many other things, originated in the impulsive activity, now settled into mature manly energy, of Mr. Guy Halifax, of Boston, U.S.—"our Guy."
"The lad is making a stir in the world," said his father one day, when we had read his last letter. "I shall not wonder if when he comes home a deputation from his native Norton Bury were to appear, requesting him to accept the honour of representing them in Parliament. He would suit them—at least, as regards the canvassing and the ladies—a great deal better than his old father—eh, love?"
Mrs. Halifax smiled, rather unwillingly, for her husband referred to a subject which had cost her some pain at the time. After the Reform Bill passed, many of our neighbours, who had long desired that one of John's high character, practical knowledge, and influence in the town, should be its M.P., and were aware that his sole objection to entering the House was the said question of Reform, urged him very earnestly to stand for Norton Bury.
To everybody's surprise, and none more than our own, he refused.
Publicly he assigned no reason for this except his conviction that he could not discharge as he ought, and as he would once have done, duties which he held so sacred and indispensable. His letter, brief and simple, thanking his "good neighbours," and wishing them "a younger and worthier" member, might be found in some old file of the Norton Bury Herald still. Even the Norton Bury Mercury, in reprinting it, commented on its touching honesty and brevity, and— concluding his political career was ended with it—condescended to bestow on Mr. Halifax the usual obituary line—
"We could have better spared a better man."
When his family, and even his wife, reasoned with him, knowing that to enter Parliament had long been his thought, nay, his desire, and perhaps herself taking a natural pride in the idea of seeing M.P.— M.P. of a new and unbribed House of Commons—after his well-beloved name; to us and to her he gave no clearer motive for his refusal than to the electors of Norton Bury.
"But you are not old, John," I argued with him one day; "you possess to the full the mens sana in corpore sano. No man can be more fitted than yourself to serve his country, as you used to say it might be served, and you yourself might serve it, after Reform was gained."
He smiled, and jocularly thanked me for my good opinion.
"Nay, such service is almost your duty; you yourself once thought so too. Why have you changed your mind?"
"I have not changed my mind, but circumstances have changed my actions. As for duty—duty begins at home. Believe me, I have thought well over the subject. Brother, we will not refer to it again."
I saw that something in the matter pained him, and obeyed his wish. Even when, a few days after, perhaps as some compensation for the mother's disappointment, he gave this hint of Guy's taking his place and entering Parliament in his room.
For any one—nay, his own son—to take John's place, to stand in John's room, was not a pleasant thought, even in jest; we let it pass by unanswered, and John himself did not recur to it.
Thus time went on, placidly enough; the father and mother changed into grandfather and grandmother, and little Maud into Auntie Maud. She bore her new honours and fulfilled her new duties with great delight and success. She had altered much of late years: at twenty was as old as many a woman of thirty—in all the advantages of age. She was sensible, active, resolute, and wise; sometimes thoughtful, or troubled with fits of what in any less wholesome temperament would have been melancholy; but as it was, her humours only betrayed themselves in some slight restlessness or irritability, easily soothed by a few tender words or a rush out to Edwin's, and a peaceful coming back to that happy home, whose principal happiness she knew that she, the only daughter, made.
She more than once had unexceptionable chances of quitting it; for Miss Halifax possessed plenty of attractions, both outwardly and inwardly, to say nothing of her not inconsiderable fortune. But she refused all offers, and to the best of our knowledge was a free-hearted damsel still. Her father and mother seemed rather glad of this than otherwise. They would not have denied her any happiness she wished for; still it was evidently a relief to them that she was slow in choosing it; slow in quitting their arms of love to risk a love untried. Sometimes, such is the weakness of parental humanity, I verily believe they looked forward with complacency to the possibility of her remaining always Miss Halifax. I remember one day, when Lady Oldtower was suggesting—half jest, half earnest— "better any marriage than no marriage at all;" Maud's father replied, very seriously—
"Better no marriage, than any marriage that is less than the best."
"How do you mean?"
"I believe," he said, smiling, "that somewhere in the world every man has his right wife, every woman her right husband. If my Maud's come he shall have her. If not, I shall be well content to see her a happy old maid."
Thus after many storms, came this lull in our lives; a season of busy yet monotonous calm,—I have heard say that peace itself, to be perfect, ought to be monotonous. We had enough of it to satisfy our daily need; we looked forward to more of it in time to come, when Guy should be at home, when we should see safely secured the futures of all the children, and for ourselves a green old age,
"Journeying in long serenity away."
A time of heavenly calm—which as I look back upon it grows heavenlier still! Soft summer days and autumn afternoons, spent under the beech-wood, or on the Flat. Quiet winter evenings, all to ourselves—Maud and her mother working, Walter drawing. The father sitting with his back to the lamp—its light making a radiance over his brow and white bald crown, and as it thrilled through the curls behind, restoring somewhat of the youthful colour to his fading hair. Nay, the old youthful ring of his voice I caught at times, when he found something funny in his book and read it out loud to us; or laying it down, sat talking as he liked to talk about things speculative, philosophical, or poetical—things which he had necessarily let slip in the hurry and press of his business life, in the burthen and heat of the day; but which now, as the cool shadows of evening were drawing on, assumed a beauty and a nearness, and were again caught up by him—precious as the dreams of his youth.
Happy, happy time—sunshiny summer, peaceful winter—we marked neither as they passed; but now we hold both—in a sacredness inexpressible—a foretaste of that Land where there is neither summer nor winter, neither days nor years.
The first break in our repose came early in the new year. There had been no Christmas letter from Guy, and he never once in all his wanderings had missed writing home at Christmas time. When the usual monthly mail came in, and no word from him—a second month, and yet nothing, we began to wonder about his omission less openly—to cease scolding him for his carelessness. Though over and over again we still eagerly brought up instances of the latter—"Guy is such a thoughtless boy about his correspondence."
Gradually, as his mother's cheek grew paler, and his father more anxious-eyed, more compulsorily cheerful, we gave up discussing publicly the many excellent reasons why no letters should come from Guy. We had written, as usual, by every mail. By the last—by the March mail, I saw that in addition to the usual packet for Mr. Guy Halifax—his father, taking another precautionary measure, had written in business form to "Messrs. Guy Halifax and Co." Guy had always, "just like his carelessness!" omitted to give the name of his partner; but addressed thus, in case of any sudden journey or illness of Guy's, the partner, whoever he was, would be sure to write.
In May—nay, it was on May day, I remember, for we were down in the mill-meadows with Louise and her little ones going a-maying—there came in the American mail.
It brought a large packet—all our letters of this year sent back again, directed in a strange hand, to "John Halifax, Esquire, Beechwood," with the annotation, "By Mr. Guy Halifax's desire."
Among the rest—though the sickening sight of them had blinded even his mother at first, so that her eye did not catch it, was one that explained—most satisfactorily explained, we said—the reason they were thus returned. It was a few lines from Guy himself, stating that unexpected good fortune had made him determine to come home at once. If circumstances thwarted this intention, he would write without fail; otherwise he should most likely sail by an American merchantman—the "Stars-and-Stripes."
"Then he is coming home. On his way home!"
And the mother, as with one shaking hand she held fast the letter, with the other steadied herself by the rail of John's desk—I guessed now why he had ordered all the letters to be brought first to his counting-house. "When do you think we shall see—Guy?"
At thought of that happy sight, her bravery broke down. She wept heartily and long.
John sat still, leaning over the front of his desk. By his sigh, deep and glad, one could tell what a load was lifted off the father's heart at the prospect of his son's return.
"The liners are only a month in sailing; but this is a barque most likely, which takes longer time. Love, show me the date of the boy's letter."
She looked for it herself. It was in JANUARY!
The sudden fall from certainty to uncertainty—the wild clutch at that which hardly seemed a real joy until seen fading down to a mere hope, a chance, a possibility—who has not known all this?
I remember how we all stood, mute and panic-struck, in the dark little counting-house. I remember seeing Louise, with her children in the door-way, trying to hush their laughing, and whispering to them something about "poor Uncle Guy."
John was the first to grasp the unspoken dread, and show that it was less than at first appeared.
"We ought to have had this letter two months ago; this shows how often delays occur—we ought not to be surprised or uneasy at anything. Guy does not say when the ship was to sail—she may be on her voyage still. If he had but given the name of her owners! But I can write to Lloyd's and find out everything. Cheer up, mother. Please God, you shall have that wandering, heedless boy of yours back before long."
He replaced the letters in their enclosure—held a general consultation, into which he threw a passing gleam of faint gaiety, as to whether being ours we had a right to burn them, or whether having passed through the post-office they were not the writer's but the owner's property, and Guy could claim them, with all their useless news, on his arrival in England. This was finally decided, and the mother, with faint smile, declared that nobody should touch them; she would put them under lock and key "till Guy came home."
Then she took her husband's arm; and the rest of us followed them as they walked slowly up the hill to Beechwood.
But after that day Mrs. Halifax's strength decayed. Not suddenly, scarcely perceptibly; not with any outward complaint, except what she jested over as "the natural weakness of old age;" but there was an evident change. Week by week her long walks shortened; she gave up her village school to me; and though she went about the house still and insisted on keeping the keys, gradually, "just for the sake of practice," the domestic surveillance fell into the hands of Maud.
An answer arrived from Lloyd's: the "Stars-and-Stripes" was an American vessel, probably of small tonnage and importance, was the under-writers knew nothing of it.
More delay—more suspense. The summer days came—but not Guy. No news of him—not a word—not a line.
His father wrote to America—pursuing inquiries in all directions. At last some tangible clue was caught. The "Stars-and-Stripes" had sailed, had been spoken with about the Windward Isles—and never heard of afterwards.
Still, there was a hope. John told the hope first, before he ventured to speak of the missing ship, and even then had to break the news gently, for the mother had grown frail and weak, and could not bear things as she used to do. She clung as if they had been words of life or death to the ship-owner's postscript—"that they had no recollection of the name of Halifax; there might have been such a gentleman on board—they could not say. But it was not probable; for the 'Stars-and-Stripes' was a trading vessel, and had not good accommodation for passengers."
Then came week after week—I know not how they went by—one never does, afterwards. At the time they were frightfully vivid, hour by hour; we rose each morning, sure that some hope would come in the course of the day; we went to bed at night, heavily, as if there were no such thing as hope in the world. Gradually, and I think that was the worst consciousness of all, our life of suspense became perfectly natural; and everything in and about the house went on as usual, just as though we knew quite well—what the Almighty Father alone knew!— where our poor lad was, and what had become of him. Or rather, as if we had settled in the certainty, which perhaps the end of our own lives alone would bring us, that he had slipped out of life altogether, and there was no such being as Guy Halifax under this pitiless sun.
The mother's heart was breaking. She made no moan, but we saw it in her face. One morning—it was the morning after John's birthday, which we had made a feint of keeping, with Grace Oldtower, the two little grandchildren, Edwin and Louise—she was absent at breakfast and dinner; she had not slept well, and was too tired to rise. Many days following it happened the same; with the same faint excuse, or with no excuse at all. How we missed her about the house!—ay, changed as she had been. How her husband wandered about, ghost-like, from room to room!—could not rest anywhere, or do anything. Finally, he left our company altogether, and during the hours that he was at home rarely quitted for more than a few minutes the quiet bed- chamber, where, every time his foot entered it, the poor pale face looked up and smiled.
Ay, smiled; for I noticed, as many another may have done in similar cases, that when her physical health definitely gave way, her mental health returned. The heavy burthen was lighter; she grew more cheerful, more patient; seemed to submit herself to the Almighty will, whatever it might be. As she lay on her sofa in the study, where one or two evenings John carried her down, almost as easily as he used to carry little Muriel, his wife would rest content with her hand in his, listening to his reading, or quietly looking at him, as though her lost son's face, which a few weeks since she said haunted her continually, were now forgotten in his father's. Perhaps she thought the one she should soon see—while the other—
"Phineas," she whispered one day, when I was putting a shawl over her feet, or doing some other trifle that she thanked me for,—"Phineas, if anything happens to me, you will comfort John!"
Then first I began seriously to contemplate a possibility, hitherto as impossible and undreamed of as that the moon should drop out of the height of heaven—What would the house be without the mother?
Her children never suspected this, I saw; but they were young. For her husband—
I could not understand John. He, so quick-sighted; he who meeting any sorrow looked steadily up at the Hand that smote him, knowing neither the coward's dread nor the unbeliever's disguise of pain— surely he must see what was impending. Yet he was as calm as if he saw it not. Calm, as no man could be contemplating the supreme parting between two who nearly all their lives had been not two, but one flesh.
Yet I had once heard him say that a great love, and only that, makes parting easy. Could it be that this love of his, which had clasped his wife so firmly, faithfully, and long, fearlessly clasped her still, by its own perfectness assured of its immortality?
But all the while his human love clung about her, showing itself in a thousand forms of watchful tenderness. And hers clung to him, closely, dependently; she let herself be taken care of, ruled and guided, as if with him she found helplessness restful and submission sweet. Many a little outward fondness, that when people have been long married naturally drops into disuse, was revived again; he would bring her flowers out of the garden, or new books from the town; and many a time, when no one noticed, I have seen him stoop and press his lips upon the faded hand, where the wedding-ring hung so loosely;— his own for so many years, his own till the dust claimed it, that well-beloved hand!
Ay, he was right. Loss, affliction, death itself, are powerless in the presence of such a love as theirs.
It was already the middle of July. From January to July—six months! Our neighbours without—and there were many who felt for us—never asked now, "Is there any news of Mr. Guy?" Even pretty Grace Oldtower—pretty still, but youthful no longer—only lifted her eyes inquiringly as she crossed our doorway, and dropped them again with a hopeless sigh. She had loved us all, faithfully and well, for a great many years.
One night, when Miss Oldtower had just gone home after staying with us the whole day—Maud and I sat in the study by ourselves, where we generally sat now. The father spent all his evenings up-stairs. We could hear his step overhead as he crossed the room or opened the window, then drew his chair back to its constant place by his wife's bedside. Sometimes there was a faint murmur of reading or talk; then long silence.
Maud and I sat in silence too. She had her own thoughts—I mine. Perhaps they were often one and the same: perhaps—for youth is youth after all—they may have diverged widely. Hers were deep, absorbed thoughts, at any rate, travelling fast—fast as her needle travelled; for she had imperceptibly fallen into her mother's ways and her mother's work.
We had the lamp lit, but the windows were wide open; and through the sultry summer night we could hear the trickle of the stream and the rustle of the leaves in the beech-wood. We sat very still, waiting for nothing, expecting nothing; in the dull patience which always fell upon us about this hour—the hour before bed-time, when nothing more was to be looked for but how best to meet another dreary day.
"Maud, was that the click of the front gate swinging?"
"No, I told Walter to lock it before he went to bed. Last night it disturbed my mother."
Again silence. So deep that the maid's opening the door made us both start.
"Miss Halifax—there's a gentleman wanting to see Miss Halifax."
Maud sprung up in her chair, breathless.
"Any one you know, is it?"
"Show the gentleman in."
He stood already in the doorway,—tall, brown, bearded. Maud just glanced at him, then rose, bending stiffly, after the manner of Miss Halifax of Beechwood.
"Will you be seated? My father—"
"Maud, don't you know me? Where's my mother? I am Guy."