Dinah Maria Mulock Craik.

John Halifax, gentleman : a novel online

. (page 10 of 41)
Online LibraryDinah Maria Mulock CraikJohn Halifax, gentleman : a novel → online text (page 10 of 41)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


John laughingly denied; then allowed that he always had
a certain pleasure in eliciting information on men and things.

"The wife being indicated, I suppose, by that very com-
plimentary word 'thing.' But what possible interest can you
have in either the old gentleman or the old lady?"

"Stop, Phineas; you have a bad habit of jumping at con-
clusions. And in our great dearth of occupation here, I
think it might be all the better for you to take a little interest
in your neighbors. So I've a great mind to indulge you with
an important idea, suggestion, discovery. Harkee, friend!"
and he put on an air of sentimental mystery, not a bad copy
of our old acquaintance, Mr. Charles. "What if the in-
dividual should not be an old lady at all?"

"What! The old gentleman's wife?"

"Wife? ahem! more jumping at conclusions. No; let us
keep on the safe side, and call her the individual. In short,
the owner of that gray silk gown I saw hanging up in the
kitchen. I've seen it again."

"The gray gown! when and where?"

"This morning early. I walked after it across the Flat, a
good way behind, though; for I thought that it well, let me
say she might not like to be watched or followed. She was
trotting along very fast, and she carried a little basket, I fancy
a basket of eggs."

"Capital housekeeper! excellent wife!"

"Once more I have my doubts on that latter fact. She
walked a great deal quicker and merrier than any wife ought
to walk when her husband is ill."

I could not help laughing at John's original notions of con-
jugal duty.

"Besides, Mrs. Tod always calls her invalid 'the old gentle-
man!' and I don't believe this was an elderly lady."

"Nay, old men do sometimes marry young women."

"Yes, but it is always a pity, and sometimes not quite right.
No," and I was amused to see how gravely and doggedly John
kept to his point. "Though this lady did not look like a
sylph or a wood-nymph, being neither very small nor very
slight, and having a comfortable woolen cloak and hood over



110 JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN.

the gray silk gown, still, I don't believe she's an old woman,
or married either."

"How can you possibly tell? Did you see her face?"

"Of course not," he answered, rather indignantly. "I
should not think it manly to chase a lady as a school-boy does
a butterfly, for the mere gratification of staring at her. I
stayed on the top of the Flat till she had gone in-doors."

''Into Eose Cottage?"

"Why, yes."

"She had, doubtless, gone to fetch new-laid eggs for her
I mean for the sick gentleman's breakfast. Kind soul!"

"You may jest, Phineas, but I think she is a kind soul. On
her way home I saw her stop twice; once to speak to an old
woman who was gathering sticks; and again, to scold a lad for
thrashing a donkey."

"Did you hear her?"

"No; but I judge from the lad's penitent face as I passed
him. I am sure she had been scolding him."

"Then she's not young, depend upon it. Your beautiful
young creatures never scold."

"I'm not so sure of that," said John, meditatively. "For
my part, I should rather not cheat myself, or be cheated after
that manner. Perfection is impossible. Better see the young
woman as she really is, bad and good together."

"The young woman! The fair divinity, you mean!"

"No;" shutting his mouth over the negative in his firm way
"I strongly object to divinities. How unpleasant it would
be to woo an angel of perfection, and find her out at last to be
only only Mrs., "

"Halifax," suggested I; at which he laughed, slightly color-
ing.

"But how woful must be our dearth of subjects when we
talk such nonsense as this! What suggested it?"

"Your friend in the gray gown, I suppose."

"Requiescat in pace! May she enjoy her eggs! And now
I must go saddle the brown mare and be off to Norton Bury.
A lovely day for a ride. How I shall dash along!"

He rose up cheerily. It was like morning sunshine only
to see his face. No morbid follies had ever tainted his
healthy nature, whatsoever romance was there and never
was there a thoroughly noble nature without some romance



JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN. Ill

ill it. But it lay deep down, calm and unawakened. His
heart was as light and free as air.

Stooping over my easy-chair, he wheeled it to the window
in sight of the pleasant view.

"Now, Phineas, what more books do you want? You'll
take a walk before dinner? You'll not be moping?"

No; why should I, who knew I had always, whether absent
or present, the blessing, the infinite blessing of being first in
his thoughts and cares? Who, whether he expressed it or
not the best things never are expressed, or expressible
knew by a thousand little daily acts like these, the depth and
tenderness of his friendship, his brotherly love for me. As
yet, I had it all. And God, who knows how little else I had,
will pardon if in my unspeakable thankfulness lurked a taint
of selfish joy in my sole possession of such a priceless boon.

He lingered about, making me "all right," as he called it,
and planning out my solitary day. With much merriment,
too, for we were the gayest couple of young bachelors, when,
as John said, "the duties of our responsible position" would
allow.

"Eesponsible position! It's our good landlady who ought
to talk about that. With two sets of lodgers, a husband, and
an indefinite number of children. There's one of them got
into mischief at last. Hark!"

"It's Jack, my namesake. Bless my life! I knew he would
come to grief with that donkey. Hey, lad! never mind, get
up again."

But soon he perceived that the accident was more serious,
and disappeared like a shot, leaping out through the open
window. The next minute I saw him carrying in the unlucky
Jack, who was bleeding from a cut on the forehead, and
screaming vociferously.

"Don't be frightened, Mrs. Tod; it is very slight. I saw
it .done. Jack my lad! be a man, and never mind it. Don't
scream so; you alarm your mother."

But as soon as the good woman was satisfied that there was
no real cause for terror, hers changed into hearty wrath
against Jack for his carelessness, and for giving so much
trouble to the gentleman.

"But he be always getting into mischief, sir that boy.
Three months back, the very day Mr. March came, he got
playing with the carriage-horse, and it kicked him and broke



112 JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN.

his arm. A deal he cares; he be just as sprack as ever. As
I say to Tod it bean't no use fretting over that boy."

"Have patience/' answered John, who had again carried
the unfortunate young scapegrace from our parlor into Mrs.
Tod's kitchen the center room of the cottage; and was try-
ing to divert the torrent of maternal indignation, while he
helped her plaster up the still ugly-looking wound. "Come,
forgive the lad. He will be more sorry afterward than if you
had punished him."

"Do'ee think so?" said the woman, as struck either by the
words, the manner, or the tone, she looked up straight at
him. "Do'ee really think so, Mr. Halifax?"

"I am sure of it. Nothing makes one so good as being for-
given when one has been naughty. Isn't it so, Jack, my
namesake?"

"Jack ought to be proud o' that, sir," said the mother, re-
spectfully; "and there's some sense in what you say, too. You
talk like my man does, o' Sundays. Tod be a Scotchman,
Mr. Halifax; and they're good folks, the Scotch, and read their
Bibles hard. There's a deal about forgiving in the Bible,
isn't there, sir?"

"Exactly," John answered, smiling. "And so, Jack, you're
safe this time; only you must not disobey your mother again,
for the sake of donkeys or anything else."

"No, sir thank'ee, sir," sobbed Ja<ck, humbly. "Yon be
a gentleman Mr. March bean't he said it served me right
for getting under his horses."

"Hold thy tongue!" said Jack's mother, sharply; for the
latch of the opposite door was just then lifted, and a lady
stood there.

"Mrs. Tod, my father says "

Seeing strangers, the lady paused. At the sound of her
voice a pleasant voice, though somewhat quick and decided
in tone John and I both involuntarily turned. We felt awk-
ward! doubtful whether to stay, or retire abruptly. She
saved us the choice.

"Mrs. Tod, my father will take his soup at eleven. You
will remember?"

"Yes, Miss March."

Upon which, Miss March shut the door at once, and van-
ished.

She wore a gray silken gown. I glanced at John, but he



JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN. 113

did not see me; his eyes were fixed on the door, which had
disclosed and concealed the momentary picture. Its mo-
mentariness impressed it the more vividly on my memory. I
have it there still.

A girl, in early but not precocious maturity, rather tall, of
a figure built more for activity and energy than the mere
fragility of sylph-like grace; dark-complexioned, dark-eyed,
dark-haired the whole coloring being of that soft darkness
of tone which gives atsense of something at once warm and
tender, strong and womanly. Thorough woman she seemed
not a bit of the angel about her. Scarcely beautiful; and
"pretty" would have been the very last word to have applied
to her; but there was around her an atmosphere of freshness,
health, and youth, pleasant as a breeze in spring.

For her attire, it was that notable gray silk gown very
simply made, with no fripperies or fandangoes of any sort
reaching up to her throat and down to her wrists, where it
had some kind of trimming of white fur, which made the skin
beneath show exquisitely delicate.

"That i& Miss March," said our landlady, when she had dis-
appeared.

"Is it?" said John, removing his eyes from the shut door.

"She be very sensible-like, for a young body of seventeen;
more sensible and pleasanter than her father, who is always
ailing, and always grumbling. Poor gentleman! most like
he can't help it. But it be terrible hard for the daughter
bean't it, sir?"

"Very," said John. His laconism was extraordinary.

Still, he kept standing by the kitchen-table, waiting till the
last bandage had been sewn on Jack's cut forehead, and even
some minutes after his protege had begun playing about as
usual. It was I who had to suggest that we should not in-
trude on Mrs. Tod's kitchen any longer.

"No, certainly not. Come, Phineas. Mrs. Tod, I hope
our presence did not inconvenience the young lady?"

"Bless your heart, sir! nothing ever inconveniences she.
There bean't a pleasanter young body alive. She'll often
come into this kitchen just as you did, gentlemen, and very
happy to see you always,'* added Mrs. Tod, courtesying.
"When Mr. March is asleep, she'll come and sit for half an
hour, talking to Tod and me, and playing with the baby '*

Here, probably at the sound of its name, the individual

8



114 JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN.

alluded to set up, from its cradle in the corner, such a terrific
squall that we young men beat a precipitate retreat.

"So John, your gray gown is discovered at last. She's
young certainly but not exactly a beauty."

"I never said she was."

"A pleasant person, though; hearty, cheerful-looking, and
strong. I can easily imagine her trotting over the common
with her basket of eggs chatting to the old woman and
scolding the naughty boy."

"Don't make fun of her. She must have a hard life with
her old father."

Of course, seeing him take it up so seriously, I jested no
more.

"By-the-by, did not the father's name strike you? March
suppose it should turn out to be the very Mr. March you
pulled out of the Severn five years ago. What a romantic
conjuncture of circumstances!"

"Nonsense," said John, quickly more quickly than he
usually spoke to me; then came back to wish me a kind good-
by. "Take care of yourself, old fellow. It will be nightfall
before I am back from Norton Bury."

I watched him mount, and ride slowly down the bit of com-
mon turning once to look back at Eose Cottage, ere he
finally disappeared between the chestnut-trees; a goodly
sight, for he was an admirable horseman.

When he was gone I, glancing lazily iip at Mr. March's
window, saw a hand, and, I fancied, a white-furred wrist,
pulling down the blind. It amused me to think Miss March
might possibly have been watching him likewise.

I spent the whole long day alone in the cottage parlor,
chiefly meditating; though more than once friendly Mrs. Tod
broke in upon my solitude. She treated me in a motherly,
free-and-easy way; not half so deferentially as she treated
John Halifax.

The sun had gone down over Nunnely Hill, behind the four
tall Italian poplars which stood on the border of our bit of
wilderness three together and one apart. They were our
landmarks and skymarks too for the first sunbeam com-
ing across the common struck their tops of a morning, and
the broad western glimmer showed their forms distinctly un-
til far in the night. They were just near enough for me to
hear their faint rustling in windy weather; on calm days they



JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN. 115

stood up straight against the sky like memorial columns.
They were friends of mine those four poplars; sometimes
they almost seemed alive. We made acquaintance on this
first night, when I sat watching for John; and we kept up the
friendship ever afterward.

It was nine o'clock before I heard the old mare's hoofs clat-
tering up the road; joyfully I ran out.

David was not quite his youthful, gay self that night; not
quite, as he expressed it, "the David of the sheep-folds." He
was very tired, and had what he called the "tan-yard feeling/'
the oppression of business cares.

"Times are hard," said he, when we had finally shut out the
starlight, and Mrs. Tod had lit candies, bade us good-night in
her free, independent way, and "hoped Mr. Halifax had every-
thing he wanted." She always seemed to consider him the
head of our little menage.

"The times are very hard," repeated John, thoughtfully.
"I don't see how your father can rightly be left with so many
anxieties on his shoulders. I must manage to get to Norton
Bury at least five days a week. You will have enough of soli-
tude, I fear."

"And you will have little enough of the pleasant country
life you planned, and which you seem so to delight in."

"Never mind, perhaps it is good for me. I have a life of
hard work before me, and can't afford to get used to too much
pleasure. But we'll make the most of every bit of time we
have. How have you felt to-day? Strong?"

"Very strong. Now, what would you like us to do to-mor-
row?"

"I want to show you the common in early morning; the
view there is so lovely."

"Of nature, or human nature?"

He half-smiled, though only at my mischievousness. I
could see it did not affect him in the least. "Nay, I know
what you mean; but I had forgotten her; or, if not absolutely
forgotten, she was not in my mind just then. We will go
another way, as indeed I had intended; it might annoy the
young lady, our meeting her again."

His grave, easy manner of treating and dismissing the sub-
ject was a tacit reproach to me. I let the matter drop; we
had much more serious topics afloat than gossip about our
neighbors.



116 JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN.

At seven the next morning we were out on the Flat.

"I'm not going to let you stand here in the dews, Phineas.
Come a little further on, to my terrace, as I call it. There's
a panorama!"

It was indeed. All around the high flat a valley lay, like a
moat, or as if some broad river had been dried up in its course,
and, century after century, gradually converted into meadow,
woodland, and town. For a little white town sat demurely at
the bottom of the hollow, and a score or two of white cot-
tages scattered themselves from this small nucleus of civiliza-
tion over the opposite bank of this imaginary river, which was
now a lovely hill-side. Gorges, purple with shadow, yellow
cornfields, and dark clumps of woodland dressed this broad
hill-side in many colors; its highest point, Xunnely Hill,
forming the horizon where last night I had seen the sun go
down, and which now was tinted with the tenderest western
morning gray.

"Do you like this, Phineas? I do very much. A dear,
smiling English valley, holding many a little nest of an Eng-
lish home. Fancy being patriarch -over such a region; hav-
ing the whole valley in one's hand, to do good to, or ill. You
can't think what primitive people they are hereabouts; de-
scendants from an old colony of French cloth-weavers, they
keep to the trade. Down in the valley if one could see
through the beech-wood is the grand support of the neigh-
borhood, a large cloth-mill!"

"That's quite in your line, John;" and I saw his face
brighten up as it had done, when, as a boy, he had talked to
me about his machinery. "What has become of that won-
derful little loom you made?"

"Oh! I have it still. But this is such a fine cloth-mill! I
have been all over it. , If the owner would put aside his old
Flemish stolidity!, I do believe he and his ancestors have gone
on in the same way, and with almost the same machinery, ever
since Queen Elizabeth's time. Now, just one or two of our
modern improvements, such as but I forget, you never could
understand mechanics."

"You can, though. Explain dearly, and I'll try my best."

He did so, and so did I. I think he even managed to knock
something of the matter into my stupid head, where it re-
mained for ten minutes! Much longer remained the im-
pression of his energetic talk his clear-headed way of put-



JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN. 117

ting before another what he understood so well himself. I
marvelled how he had gained all his information.

"Oh! it's easy enough, when one has a natural propensity
for catching hold of facts; and then, you know I always had a
weakness for machinery; I could stand for an hour watching a
mill at work, especially if it's worked by a great water-wheel."

"Would you like to be a mill-owner?"

"Shouldn't I!" with a sunshiny flash, which soon clouded
over. "However, 'tis idle talking; one cannot choose one's
calling at least, very few can. After all, it isn't the trade
that signifies it's the man. I'm a tanner, and a capital tan-
ner I intend to be. By-the-by, I wonder if Mrs. Tod, who
talks so much about 'gentle-folk,' knows that latter fact about
you and me?"

"I think not; I hope not. Oh, David! this one month at
least let us get rid of the tan-yard."

For I hated it more than ever now, in our quiet, free Arca-
dian life; the very thought of it was insupportable, not only
for myself, but for John.

He gently blamed me, yet I think he involuntarily felt
much as I did, if he would have allowed himself so to feel.

"Who would guess now that I who stand here delighting
myself in this fresh air and pleasant view, this dewy common,
all thick with flowers what a pretty blue cluster that is at
your foot, Phineas! who would guess that all yesterday I
had been stirring up tan-pits, handling raw hides? Faugh!
I wonder the little harebells don't sicken in these my hands
such ugly hands, too!"

"Nonsense, John! they're not so bad, indeed; and if they
were, what does it matter?"

"You are right, lad; it does not matter. They have done
me good service, and will yet, though they were not made for
carrying nosegays."

"There is somebody besides yourself plucking posies on the
Flat. See, how large the figure looks against the sky. It
might be your Titaness, John

" 'Like Proserpina gathering flowers,
Herself the fairest '

no, not fairest; for I declare she looks very like your friend
Gray-gown I beg her pardon Miss March."



118 JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN.

"It is she," said John, so indifferently that I suspect that
fact had presented itself to him for at least two minutes bc-
fcre I found it out.

''There's certainly a fatality about your meeting her."

"Not the least. She has this morning taken a walk in a
different direction, as I did; and we both chanced again to hit
upon the same," answered John, gravely and explanatorily.
"Come away down the slope. We must not intrude upon a
lady's enjoyments."

He carried me off, much against my will, for I had a great
wish to see again that fresh young face, so earnest, cheerful,
and good. Also, as I labored in vain to convince my com-
panion, the said face indicated an independent dignity which
would doubtless make its owner perfectly indifferent whether
her solitary walk were crossed by two gentlemen, or two hun-
dred.

John agreed to this; nevertheless, he was inexorable. And,
since he was "a man of the world" having in his journeys up
and down the country for my father occasionally fallen into
"polite" society I yielded the point to him, and submitted
to his larger experience of good-breeding.

However, Fate, kinder than he, took the knot of etiquette
into her own hands and broke it.

Close to the cottage door, our two paths converging, and
probably our breakfast hours likewise, brought us suddenly
face to face with Miss March.

She saw us, and we had a distinct sight of her.

I was right; we and our contiguity were not of the smallest
importance to Miss March. Her fresh morning roses did not
deepen, nor her eyes droop, as she looked for a moment at us
both a quiet, maidenly look of mere observation. Of course,
no recognition passed; but there was a merry dimple beside
her mouth, as if she quite well knew who we were, and owned
to a little harmless feminine curiosity in observing us.

She had to pass our door, where stood Mrs. Tod and the
baby. It stretched out its little arms to come to her, with
that pretty, babyish gesture which I suppose no woman can
resist. Miss March could not. She stopped and began toss-
ing up the child.

Truly, they made a pleasant picture, the two she with her
hooded cloak dropping off, showing her graceful shape, and
her dark-brown hair, all gathered up in a mass of curls at the



JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN. 119

top of her head, as the fashion then was. As she stood, with
her eyes sparkling, and the young blood flushing through her
clear, brunette cheeks, I was not sure whether I had not judged
too hastily in calling her "no beauty."

Probably, by his look, John thought the same.

She stood right before our wicket-gate; but she had evi-
dently quite forgotten us, so happy was she with Mrs. Tod's
bonny boy, until the landlady made some remark about "let-
ting the gentlemen by." Then, with a slight start, drawing
her hood back over her head, the young lady stepped aside.

In passing her, John raised his eyes, as was natural enough.
For me, I could hardly take mine from her, such a pleasant
creature was she to behold. She half smiled, he bowed, which
she returned, courteously, and we both went in-doors. I told
him, this was a good beginning of acquaintance with our
neighbor.

"Not at all, no acquaintance; a mere civility between two
people living under the same roof. It will never be more."

"Probably not."

I am afraid John was disappointed at my "probably." I
am afraid that when he stood at our window, contemplating
the little group which rilled up our wicket-gate, he missed
some one out of the three, which, I suspect, was neither Mrs.
Tod nor yet the baby.

"I like her face very much better now, David. Do you?"

It was a very curious fact, which I never noticed till after-
ward, that though there had been some lapse of time before I
hazarded this remark, we both intuitively supplied the noun
to that indefinite personal pronoun.

"A good, nay, a noble face; though still, with those irregular
features, I can't, really I can't, call her beautiful."

"Nor I."

"She bowed with remarkable grace, too. I think, John,
for the first time in our lives, we may say we have seen a lady."

"Most certainly a lady."

"Nay, I only meant that, girl as she is, she is evidently ac-
customed to what is called 'society/ Which makes it the
more likely that her father is the Mr. March who was cousin
to the Brithwoods. An odd coincidence."

"A very odd coincidence."

After which brief reply John relapsed into taciturnity.

More than once that morning we recurred to the subject of



120 JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN.

our neighbors; that is, I did, but John was rather saturnine
and uncommunicative. Nay, when, as Mrs. Tod was remov-
ing the breakfast, I ventured to ask her a harmless question
or two who Mr. March was, and where he came from? I was
abruptly reproached, the very minute our good landlady had
shut the door, for iny tendency to "gossip."

At which I only laughed and reminded him that he had in-
geniously scolded me after, not before, I had gained the de-
sired information, namely, that Mr. March was a gentleman
of independent property; that he had no friends hereabouts;
and that he usually lived in Wales.

"He cannot be our Mr. March, then."

"No," said John, with an air of great relief.



Online LibraryDinah Maria Mulock CraikJohn Halifax, gentleman : a novel → online text (page 10 of 41)