Dinah Maria Mulock Craik.

John Halifax, gentleman : a novel online

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caught through living, as he still persisted in doing, in this old
attic, in that unhealthy alley where was Sally Watkins' house.
It must have been coming on, the doctor said, for a long time;
but it had no doubt now reached its crisis. He would be bet-
ter soon.

But he did not get better. Days slid into weeks, and still
he lay there, never complaining, scarcely appearing to suffer,


except from the wasting of the fever; yet when I spoke of re-
covery he "turned his face unto the wall" weary of living.

Once, when he had lain thus a whole morning, hardly
speaking a word, I began to feel growing palpable the truth
which day by day I had thrust behind me as some intangible,
impossible dread that ere now people had died of mere soul-
sickness, without any bodily disease. I took up his poor hand
that lay on the counterpane once, at Enderley, he had re-
gretted its somewhat coarse strength: now Ursula's own was
not thinner or whiter. He drew it back.

"Oh, Phineas, lad, don't touch me only let me rest."

The weak, querulous voice that awful longing for rest!
What if, despite of all the physician's assurances, he might be
sinking, sinking my friend, my hope, my pride, all my com-
fort in this life passing from it and from me into another,
where, let me call never so wildly, he could not answer me any
more, nor come back to me any more.

Oh, God of mercy! if I were to be left in this world without
my brother!

I had many a time thought over the leaving him, going
quietly away when it should please the Giver of all breath to
recall mine, falling asleep, encompassed and sustained by his
love until the last; then a burden no longer, leaving him to
work out a glorious life, whose rich web should include and
bring to beautiful perfection all the poor broken threads in
mine. But now, if this should be all vain if he should go
from me, not I from him! I slid down to the ground to my
knees, and the dumb cry of my agony went up on high.

How could I save him?

There seemed to be but one way; I sprung at it; stayed not
to think if it were right or wrong, honorable or dishonorable.
His life hung in the balance, and there was but one way; be-
sides, had I not cried unto God for help?

I put aside the blind, and looked out-of-doors.

For weeks I had not crossed the threshold; I almost started
to find that it was spring. Everything looked lovely in the
colored twilight; a blackbird was singing loudly in the Abbey
trees across the way; all things were fresh and glowing, laden
with the hope of the advancing year. And there he lay, on
his sick-bed dying!

All he said, as I drew the curtain back, was a faint moan
"No light! I can't bear the light! Do let me rest!"


In half an hour, without saying a word to human being, I
was on my way to Ursula March.

She sat knitting in the summer-parlor alone. The doctor
was out; Mrs. Jessop I saw down the long garden, bonneted
and shawled, busy among her gooseberry-bushes so we were

As I have said, Ursula sat knitting, but her eyes had a soft
dreaminess. My entrance had evidently startled her and driv-
en some sweet, shy thought away.

But she met me cordially; said she was glad to see me; that
she had not seen either of us lately; and the knitting-pins be-
gan to move quickly again.

Those dainty fingers that soft, tremulous smile I could
have hated her!

"No wonder you did not see us, Miss March; John has been
very ill, is ill now almost dying."

I hurled the words at her, sharp as javelins, and watched to
see them strike.

They struck they wounded; I could see her shiver.

"111! and no one ever told me?"

"You? How could it affect you? To me, now" and my
savage words, for they were savage, broke down in a burst of
misery "nothing in this world to me is worth a straw, in
comparison with John. If he dies "

I let loose the flood of my misery. I dashed it over her,
that she might see it, feel it; that it might enter all the fair
and sightly chambers of her happy life and make them desolate
as mine. For was she not the cause?

"Forgive me! I was cruel to thee, Ursula; and thou wert so
good, so kind!"

She rose, came to me, and took my hand. Hers was very
cold, and her voice trembled much.

"Be comforted. He is young, and God is very merciful."

She could say no more, but sat down, nervously twisting
and untwisting her fingers. There was in her looks a wild,
sorrow, a longing to escape from notice; but mine held her
fast, mercilessly, as a snake holds a little bird. She sat cow-
ering, almost like a bird, a poor, broken-winged, helpless little
bird whom the storm has overtaken.

Rising, she made an attempt to quit the room.

"I will call Mrs. Jessop; she may be of use"

"She cannot. Stay!"


"Further advice, perhaps? Dr. Jessop you must want
help "

"None save that which will never come. His bodily sick-
ness is conquered; it is his mind. Oh, Miss March!" and I
looked up at her like a wretch begging for life, "do you not
know of what my brother is dying?"

"Dying!" A long shudder passed over her from head to
foot, but I relented not.

"Think a life like his, that might be made a blessing to all
he loves to all the world is it to be sacrificed thus? It may
be I do not say it will but it may be. While in health, he
could fight against this this which I must not speak of; but
now his health is gone. He cannot rally. Without some
change, I see clearly, even I, who love him better than any one
can love him "

She stirred a little here.

"Far better," I repeated; "for while John does not love me
best, lie to me is more than any one else in the world. Yet

even I have given up hope, unless . But I have no right

to say more!"

There was no need. She began to understand. A deep,
soft red, sunrise color, dawned all over her face and neck, nay,
tinged her very arms her delicate, bare arms. She looked at
me once just once with a mute but keen inquiry.

"It is the truth, Miss March ay, ever since last year. You
will respect it? You will, you shall respect it."

She bent her head in acquiescence that was all. She had
not uttered a single syllable. Her silence almost drove me

"What! not one word? not one ordinary message from a
friend to a friend? one who is lying ill, too?"

Still silence.

"Better so!" I cried, made desperate at last. "Better, if it
must be, that he should die and go to the God who made him
ay, made him, as you shall yet see, too noble a man to die
for any woman's love."

I left her left her where she sat, and went my way.

Of the hours that followed, the less I say the better. My
mind was in a tumult of pain, in which right and wrong were
strangely confused. I could not decide I can scarcely decide
now whether what I had done ought to have been done; I
only know that I did it did it under an impulse so sudden
and impetuous that it seemed to me like the guidance of Provi-


dence. All I could do afterward was to trust the result where
we say we trust all things, and yet are forever disquieting our-
selves in vain we of little faith!

I have said, and I say again, that I believe every true mar-
riage of which there is probably one in every five thousand
of conjugal unions is brought about by Heaven, and Heaven
only; and that all human influence is powerless either to make
e* 1 to mar that happy end. Therefore, to Heaven I left this
marriage, if such it was destined to be. And so, after a season,
I calmed myself enough to dare entering that quiet sick-cham-
ber, where no one ever entered but Jael and me.

The old woman met me at the door.

"Come in gently, Phineas; I do think there is a change."

A change! that awful word! I staggered rather than
walked to John's bedside.

Ay, there was a change, but not that one which made my
blood run cold in my veins even to think of. Thank God for
evermore for His great mercies not that change!

John was sitting up in bed. ]S~ew life shone in his eyes, in
his whole aspect. Life and no, not hope, but something far
better, diviner.

"Phineas, how tired you look; it is time you were in bed."

The old way of speaking the old, natural voice, as I had
not heard it for weeks. I flung myself by the bedside per-
haps I wept outright, God knows! It is thought a shame for
a man to weep; yet One Man wept, and that, too, was over His
friend His brother.

"You must not grieve over me any more, dear lad; to-mor-
row, please God! I mean to be quite well again."

Amid all my joy, I marveled over what could be the cause
of so miraculous a change.

"You would smile if I told you only a dream."

No, I did not smile; for I believed in the Ruler of all our
spirits, sleeping or waking.

"A dream so curious that I have scarcely lost the impression
of it yet. Do you know, Phineas, she has been sitting by me,
just where you sit now."



If I could express the tone in which he uttered the word,
which had never fallen from his lips before it was always
either "Miss March," or the impersonal form used by all lovers
to disguise the beloved name "Ursula," spoken as no man


speaks any woman's name save the one which is the music of
his heart, which he forsees shall be the one fireside tune of his
life, ever familiar, yet ever sweet.

"Yes, she sat there talking. She told me she knew I loved
her loved her so much that I was dying for her; that it was
very wrong; that I must rise up, and do my work in the world
do it for Heaven's sake, not for her's; that a true man should
live, and live nohly, for the woman he loves; it is only a coward
who dies for her."

I listened, wonder-struck; for these were the very words that
Ursula March might have uttered; the very spirit that seemed
to shine in her eyes that night the last night she and John
spoke to one another. I asked him if there was any more of
the dream?

"Nothing clear. I thought we were on the Flat at Ender-
ley, and I was following her; whether I reached her or not, I
cannot tell. And whether I shall ever reach her, I cannot
tell. But this I know, Phineas, I will do as she bade me; I will
arise and walk."

And so he did. He slept quietly as an infant all that night.
Next morning I found him up and dressed. Looking like a
specter, indeed; but with health, courage, and hope in his
eyes. Even my father noticed it when, at dinner-time, with
Jael's help poor old Jael! how proud she was John crawled

"Why, thee art picking up, lad! Thee'lt be a man again in
no time."

"I hope so. And a better man than ever I was before."

"Thee might be better and thee might be worse. Anyhow,
we couldn't do without thee, John. Hey, Phineas, who's
been meddling with my spectacles?"

The old man turned his back upon us, and busily read his
newspaper upside down.

We never had a happier meal in our house than that dinner.

In the afternoon my father stayed at home a rare thing
for him to do; nay, more, he went and smoked his peaceful
pipe in the garden. John lay on an extempore sofa, made of
three of our high-backed chairs and the window-sill. I read
to him, trying to keep his attention, and mine, too, solely to
the Great Plague of London and Daniel Defoe. When, just
as I was stealthily glancing at his face, fancying it looked
whiter or more sunken, that his smile was fading, and his
thoughts were wandering, Jael burst in.


"John Halifax, there be a woman asking for thee!"

No, John no need for that start that rush of impetuous
blood to thy poor thin cheek, as if there were but one woman
in all the world. No, it was only Mrs. Jessop.

At sight of him, standing up, tall, and gaunt, and pale, the
good lady's eyes brimmed over.

"You have been very ill, my poor boy! Forgive me but I
am an old woman, you know. Lie down again."

With gentle force she compelled him, and sat down by his

"I had no idea why did you not let us know the doctor
and me? How long have you been ill?"

"I am quite well now I am, indeed. I shall be about
again to-morrow, shall I not, Phineas?" and he looked eagerly
to me for confirmation.

I gave it firmly and proudly. I was glad she should know
it glad she should see that the priceless jewel of his heart
would not lie tossing in the mire, because a haughty gir^
scorned to wear it. Glad that she might one day find out
there lived not the woman of whom John Halifax was not

"But you must be very careful very careful of yourself,

'Tie will, Mrs. Jessop. Or, if not, he has many to take care
of him. Many to whom his life is most precious and most

I spoke perhaps more abruptly than I ought to have spok-
en to that good old lady but her gentle answer seemed at once
to understand and forgive me.

"I well believe that, Mr. Fletcher. And I think Mr. Halifax
hardly knows how much we we all esteem him." And
with a kind motherly gesture she took John's hand. "You
must make haste and get well now. My husband will come
and see you to-morrow. For Ursula " here she carefully
busied herself in the depths of her pocket "my dear child
sends you this."

It was a little note, unsealed. The superscription was sim-
ply his name, in her clear, round, fair handwriting "John

His fingers closed over it convulsively. "I she is very
kind." The words died away the hand which grasped, ay,
far more than a minute, the unopened letter, trembled like an
aspen leaf.



"Yes, hers is a grateful nature," observed Mrs. Jessop, sedu-
lously looking at and speaking to me. "I would not wish it
otherwise I would not wish her to forget those whose worth
she proved in her season of trouble."

I was silent. The old lady's tongue likewise failed her.
She took off her glove, wiped a finger across each eyelash, and
sat still.

"Have you read your little note, Mr. Halifax?"

No answer.

"I will take your message back. She told me what she had
said to you."

Ay, all the world might have read those simple lines:

"My Dear Friend: I did not know till yesterday that you had
been ill. I have not forgotten how kind you were to my poor
father. I should like to come and see you, if you would allow me.
"Yours sincerely, URSULA MARCH."

This was all the note. I saw it, more than thirty years
afterward, yellow and faded, in the corner of his pocketbook.

"Well, what shall I say to my child?"

"Say" he half rose, struggling to speak "ask her to

He turned his head toward the window, and the sunshine
glittered on two great drops, large as a child's tear.

Mrs. Jessop went away. And now for a long hour we
waited, scarcely moving. John lay, his eyes sometimes closed,
sometimes fixed dreamily on the bit of blue sky that shone out
above the iron railings, between the Abbey trees. More than
once they wandered to the little letter which lay buried in his
hands. He felt it there that was enough.

My father came in from the garden, and settled to his after-
noon doze; but I think John hardly noticed him nor I. My
poor old father! Yet we were all young once let youth en-
joy its day!

At length Ursula came. She stood at the parlor-door, rosy
with walking a vision of youth and candid innocence, which
blushed not, nor had need to blush, at any intent or act that
was sanctified by the law of God, and by her own heart.

John rose to meet her. They did not speak, but only
clasped hands.

He was not strong enough for disguises now in his first
look she might have seen, have felt, that I had told her the


truth. For hers but it dropped down, down, as Ursula
March's clear glance had never dropped before. Then, I
knew how all would end.

Jael's voice broke in sharply. "Abel Fletcher, the doctor's
wife is wanting thee down in the kitchen-garden, and she
says her green gooseberries bean't half as big as our'n."

My father awoke rubbed his eyes became aware of a
lady's presence rubbed them again, and sat staring.

John led Ursula to the old man's chair.

"Mr. Fletcher, this is Miss March, a friend of mine, who,
hearing I was ill, out of her great kindness "

His voice faltered. Miss March added, in a low tone, with
downcast e} r elids:

"I am an orphan, and he was kind to my dear father."

Abel Fletcher nodded adjusted his spectacles eyed her
all over and nodded again; slowly, gravely, with a satisfied
inspection. His hard gaze lingered, and softened while it lin-
gered, on that young face, whereon was written simplicity,
dignity, truth.

"If thee be a friend of John's, welcome to my house. Wilt
thee sit down?"

Offering his hand with a mixture of kindness and ceremon-
ious grace that I had never before seen in my Quaker father,
he placed her in his own arm-chair. How well I remember
her sitting there, in her black silk pelisse, trimmed with the
white fur she was so fond of wearing, and her riding-hat, the
soft feathers of which drooped on her shoulder, trembling as
<$he trembled! For she did tremble very much.

Gradually the old man's perception opened to the facts be-
fore him. He ceased his sharp scrutiny and half-smiled.

"Wilt thee stay and have a dish of tea with us?"

So it came to pass, I hardly remember how, that in an
hour's space our parlor beheld the strangest sight it had be-
held since . Ah, no wonder that when she took her place

at the table's foot and gave him his dish of tea with her own
hand her pretty ringed lady's hand my old father started,
as if it had been another than Miss March who was sitting
there. No wonder that, more than once, catching the sound
of her low, quiet, gentlewoman-like speech, different from any
female voices here, he turned round suddenly with a glance,
half-scared, half-eager, as if she had been a ghost from the

But Mrs. Jessop engaged him in talk, and, woman-hater as


he was, he could not resist the pleasantness of the* doctor's lit-
tle wife. The doctor, too, came in after tea, and the old folk
all settled themselves for a cosy chat, taking very little notice
of us three.

Miss March sat at a little table near the window, admiring
some hyacinths that Mrs. Jessop had brought us. A wise
present; for all Norton Bury knew that if Abel Fletcher had
a soft place in his heart, it was for his garden and his flowers.
These were very lovely; in color and scent delicious to one
who had been long ill. John lay looking at them and at her
as if, oblivious of past and future, his whole life were ab-
sorbed into that one exquisite hour.

For me where I sat I do not clearly know, nor probably
did any one else.

"There," said Miss March to herself, in a tone of almost
childish satisfaction, as she arranged the last hyacinth to her

"They are very beautiful," I heard John's voice answer,
with a strange tremble in it. "It is growing too dark to judge
colors; but the scent is delicious, even here."

"I could move the table closer to you."

"Thank you; let me do it: will you sit down?"

She did so, after a very slight hesitation, by John's side.
Neither spoke; but sat quietly there, with the sunset light on
their two heads, softly touching them both, and then as softly
melting away.

"There is a new moon to-night," Miss March remarked, ap-
positely and gravely.

"Is there? Then I have been ill a whole month. For I re-
member noticing it through the trees the night when

He did not say what night, and she did not ask. To sueli
a very unimportant conversation as they were apparently hold-
ing, my involuntary listening could do no harm.

"You will be able to walk out soon, I hope," said Miss
March again. "Norton Bury is a pretty town."

John asked suddenly "Are you going to leave it?"

"Not yet; I do not know for certain; perhaps not at all. I
mean," she added, hurriedly, "that being independent, and
having entirely separated from, and been given up by my
cousins, I prefer residing with Mrs. Jessop altogether."

"Of course, most natural." The words were formally spok-
en, and John did not speak again for some time.


"I hope," said Ursula, breaking the pause, and then stop-
ping, as if her own voice frightened her.

"What do you hope?"

"That long before this moon has grown old, you will be
quite strong again."

"Thank you! I hope so, too. I have need for strength
God knows!" He sighed heavily.

"And you will have what you need, so as to do your work in
the world. You must not be afraid."

"I am not afraid. I shall bear my burden like other men.
Every one has some inevitable burden to bear."

"So I believe."

And now the room darkened so fast that I could not see
them; but their voices seemed a great way off, as the children's
voices playing at the old well-head used to sound to me when I
lay under the brow of the Flat, in the dim twilights at Ender-

"I intend," John said, "as soon as I am able, to leave Norton
Bury, and go abroad for some time."


"To America. It is the best country for a young man who
has neither money, nor kindred, nor position nothing, in
fact, but his own right hand with which to carve out his for-
tunes as I will, if I can."

She murmured something about this being "quite right."

"I am glad you think so." But his voice had resumed that
formal tone which ever and anon mingled strangely with its
low, deep tenderness. "In any case I must quit England. I
have reasons for so doing."

"What reasons?"

The question seemed to startle John he did not reply at

"If you wish, I will tell you; in order that, should I ever
come back or if I should not come back at all, you who were
kind enough to be my friend, will know I did not go away
from mere youthful recklessness, or love of change."

He waited, apparently for some answer but it came not,
and he continued:

"I am going away, because there has befallen me a great
trouble, which, while I stay here, I cannot get free from or
overcome. I do not wish to sink under it I had rather, as
you said, 'do my work in the world/ as a man ought. No man


has a right to say unto his Maker: 'My burden is heavier than
I can bear/ Do you not think so?"

"I do."

"Do you think I am right in .thus meeting, and trying to
conquer an inevitable ill?"

"Is it inevitable?"

"Hush!" John answered, wildly. "Don't reason with me
you cannot judge you do not know. It is enough that I
must go. If I stay I shall become unworthy of myself, un-
worthy of . Forgive me, I have no right to talk thus;

but } r ou called me 'friend/ and I would like you to think kind-
ly of me always. Because because ." And his voice

shook broke down utterly. "God love thee and take care
of thee, wherever I may go!"

"John, stay!"

It was but a low, faint cry, like that of a little bird. But
he heard it felt it. In the silence of the dark she crept up to
him, like a young bird to its mate, and he took her into the
shelter of his love for evermore. At once all was made clear
between them; for whatever the world might say, they were in
the sight of Heaven equal, and she received as much as she

When Jael brought in lights, the room seemed to me, at
first, all in a wild dazzle. Then I saw John rise, and Miss
March with him. Holding her hand, he led her across the
room. His head was erect, his eyes shining his whole as-
pect that of a man who declares before all the world, "This is
my own."

"Eh?" said my father, gazing at them from over his specta-

John spoke brokenly, "We have no parents, neither she nor
I. Bless her for she has promised to be my wife."

And the old man blessed her with tears.


"I hardly like taking thee out this wet day, Phineas but it
is a comfort to have thee."

Perhaps it was, for John was bent on a trying errand. He
was going to communicate to Mr. Brithwood of the Mythe,


Ursula's legal guardian and trustee, the fact that she had
promised him her hand him, John Halifax, the tanner. He
did it nay, insisted upon doing it the day after he came of
age, and just one week after they had been betrothed, this
nineteenth day of June, one thousand eight hundred and one.

We reached the iron gates of the My the House; John hesi-
tated a minute, and then pulled the bell with a resolute hand.

"Do you remember the last time we stood here, John?"

"I do, well."

But soon the happy smile faded from his lips, and left them
pressed together in a firm, almost painful gravity. He was
not only a lover, but a man. And no man could go to meet,
what he knew he must meet, in this house, and on this errand,

Online LibraryDinah Maria Mulock CraikJohn Halifax, gentleman : a novel → online text (page 17 of 41)