Dinah Maria Mulock Craik.

John Halifax, gentleman : a novel online

. (page 2 of 41)
Online LibraryDinah Maria Mulock CraikJohn Halifax, gentleman : a novel → online text (page 2 of 41)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

though I've been rather hungry. And as for clothes" he
looked down on his own, light and threadbare, here and there
almost burst into holes by the stout muscles of the big, grow-
ing boy looked rather disconsolately. "I'm afraid she would
be sorry, that's all! She always kept me so tidy."

By the way he spoke "she" must have meant his mother.
There the orphan lad had an advantage over me; alas! I did
not remember mine.

"Come," I said, for now I had quite made up my mind to
take no denial, and fear no rebuff from my father; "cheer
up. Who knows what may turn up?"


"Oh," yes, something always does; I'm not afraid." He
tossed back his curls, and looked smiling out through the win-
dow at the blue sky; that steady, brave, honest smile, which
will meet Fate in every turn, and fairly coax the jade into
good 1 -amor.

"John, do you know you're uncommonly like a childish
hero of mine Dick Whittington? Did you ever hear of


"Come into the garden, then," for I caught another omin-
ous vision of Jael in the door-way, and I did not want to vex
my good old nurse; besides, unlike John, I was anything but
brave. "You will hear the Abbey bells chime presently
not unlike Bow bells, I used to fancy sometimes; and we'll lie
on the grass, and I will tell you the whole true and particular
story of Sir Eichard Whittington."

I lifted myself and began looking for my crutches. John
found and put them into my hand, with a grave, pitiful look.

"You don't need those sort of things," I said, making pre-
tense to laugh, for I had not grown used to them, and felt
often ashamed.

"I hope you will not need them always."

"Perhaps not Doctor Jessop isn't sure. But it doesn't
matter much; most likely I sha'n't live long." For this was,
God forgive me, always the last and greatest comfort I had.

John looked at me surprised, troubled, compassionate
but he did not say a word. I hobbled past him; he following
through the long passage to the garden door. There I
paused, tired out. John Halifax took gentle hold of my

"I think, if you did not mind, I'm sure I could carry you.
I carried a meal-sack once, weighing eight stone."

I burst out laughing, which maybe was what he wanted and
forthwith consented to assume the place of the meal-sack. He _
took me on his back what a strong fellow he was and fairly
trotted with me down the garden-walk. We were both very
merry, and though I was his senior. I seemed with him, out
of my great weakness and infirmity, to feel almost like a child.

"Please take me to that clematis arbor: it looks over the
Avon. Now, how do you like our garden?"

"It's a nice place."

He did not go into ecstasies, as I had half expected; but


gazed about him observantly, while a quiet, intense satisfac-
tion grew and diffused itself over his whole countenance.

"It's a very nice place.'*

Certainly it was. A large square, chiefly grass, level as a
bowling-green, with borders round. Beyond, divided by a
low hedge, was the kitchen and fruit garden my father's
pride, as this old-fashioned pleasance was mine. When, years
ago, I was too weak to walk, I knew, by crawling, every inch
of the soft, green, mossy, daisy-patterned carpet, bounded by
its broad gravel walks and above that, apparently shut in as
with an impassable barrier from the outer world, by a three-
sided fence, the high wall, the yew-hedge, and the river.

John Halifax's comprehensive gaze seemed to take in all.

"Have you lived here long?" he asked me.

"Ever since I was born."

"Ah! well, it's a nice place," he repeated, somewhat sadly.
"This grass-plot is very even thirty yards square, I should
guess. I'd get up and pace it, only I'm rather tired."

"Are you? Yet you would carry "

"Oh, that's nothing. I've often walked farther than to-
day. But still it's a good step across the country since morn-

"How far have you come?"

"From the foot of those hills I forget what they call
them over there. I have seen bigger ones but they are
steep enough bleak and cold, too, especially when one is ly-
ing out among the sheep. At a distance they look pleasant.
This is a very pretty view."

Ay, so I had always thought it; more so than ever new,
when I had some one to say how "very pretty" it was. Let
me describe it this first landscape, the sole picture of my
boyish days, and vivid as all such pictures are.

At the end of the arbor the wall which enclosed us on the
riverward side was cut down my father had done it at my
asking so as to make a seat, something after the fashion of
Queen Mary's seat at Stirling, of which I had read. Thence,
one could see a goodly sweep of country. First, close below,
flowed the Avon Shakespeare's Avon here a narrow, slug-
gish stream, but capable, as we at Norton Bury sometimes
knew to our cost, of being roused into fierceness and foam.
Now it slipped on, quietly enough, contenting itself with turn-


ing a flour-mill hard by, the lazy whir of which made a sleepy,
incessant monotone which I was fond of hearing.

From the opposite bank stretched a wide green level, called
the Ham dotted with pasturing cattle of all sorts. Beyond
it was a second river, forming an arc of a circle round the ver-
dant flat. But the stream itself lay so low as to be invisible
from where we sat; you could only trace the line of its
course by the small white sails that glided in and out, oddly
enough, from behind clumps of trees, and across meadow-

They attracted John's attention. "Those can't be boats,
surely. Is there water there?"

"To be sure or you would not see the sails. It is the
Severn though at this distance you can't perceive it; yet it
is deep enough too, as you may see by the boats it carries.
You would hardly believe so to look at it here but I believe
it gets broader and broader, and turns out a noble river by the
time it reaches the King's Koads, and forms the Bristol Chan-

"I've seen that!" cried John, with a bright look. "Ah, I
like the Severn."

He stood gazing at it a good while a new expression
dawning in his eyes. Eyes in which then, for the first time,
I watched a thought grow, and grow, till out of them was
shining a beauty absolutely divine.

All of a sudden the Abbey chimes burst out, and made the
lad start.

"What's that?"

"Turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London," I sang
to the bells; and then it seemed such a commonplace history,
and such a very low degree of honor to arrive at, that I was
really glad I had forgotten to tell John the story. I merely
showed him where, beyond our garden-wall, and in the invisi-
ble high-road that interposed, rose up the grim old Abbey

"Probably this garden belonged to the Abbey in ancient
time our orchard is so fine. The monks may have planted
it; they liked fruit, these old fellows."

"Oh! did they!" He evidently did not quite comprehend,
but was trying without asking to find out what I referred
to. I was almost ashamed, lest he might think I w&ated to
show off my superior knowledge.


"The monks were parsons, John, you know. Very good
men, I dare say, but rather idle."

"Oh, indeed. Do you think they planted that yew-hedge?"
And he went to examine it.

Now, far and near, our yew-hedge was noted. There was
not its like in the whole country. It was about fifteen feet
high, and as many thick. Century and century of growth, with
careful clipping and training, had compacted it into a massive
green barrier, as close and impervious as a wall.

John poked in and about it peering through every in-
terstice leaning his breast against the solid depth of
branches; but their close shield resisted all his strength.

At length he came back to me, his face glowing with the
vain efforts he had made.

"What were you about? Did you want to get through?"

"I wanted justjto see if it were possible."

I shook my head. "What would you do John, if you were
shut up here, and had to get over the yew-hedge? You could
not climb it!"

"I know that, and therefore should not waste time in try-

"Would you give up, then?"

He smiled there was no "giving up" in that smile of his.
"I'll tell you what I'd do I'd begin and break it twig by
twig, till I forced my way through, and got out safe at the
other side."

"Well done, lad! but if it's all the same to thee I would
rather thee did not try that experiment upon my hedge at

My father had come behind, and overheard us, unobserved.
We were both somewhat confounded, though a grim kindli-
ness of aspect showed that he was not displeased nay, even

"Is that thy usual fashion of getting over a difficulty, friend
what's thy name?"

I supplied the answer. For the minute Abel Fletcher ap-
peared, John seemed to lose all his boyish fun, and go back to
that premature gravity and hardness of demeanor which I sup-
posed his harsh experience of the world of men had neces-
sarily taught him, but which was very sad to see in a lad so

My father sat down beside me on the bench pushed aside


an intrusive branch of clematis finally, because it would
come back and tickle his bald pate, broke it off, and threw it
into the river; then leaning on his stick with both hands, eyed
John Halifax sharply all over, from top to toe.

"Didn't thee say thee wanted work? It looks rather like

His glance upon the shabby clothes made the boy color

"Oh, thee need'st not be ashamed; better men than thee
have been in rags. Hast thee any money?"

"The groat you gave me, that is, paid me, I never take what
I don't earn," said the lad, sticking a hand in either poor

"Don't be afraid I was not going to give thee anything
except, maybe would thee like some work?"

"0, sir!"

"0, father!"

I hardly know which was the most grateful cry.

Abel Fletcher looked surprised, but on the whole not ill-
pleased. Putting on and pulling down his broad-brimmed
hat, he sat meditatively for a minute or so, making circles in
the gravel walk with the end of his stick. People said
nay, Jael herself, once, in a passion, had thrown the fact at
me that the wealthy Friend himself had come to Norton
Bury without a shilling in his pocket.

"Well, what work canst thee do, lad?"

"An}'thing," was the eager answer.

"Anything generally means nothing," sharply said my fa-
ther. "What hast thee been at all this year? The truth,

John's eyes flashed, but a look from mine seemed to set him
right again,. He said quietly and respectfully, "Let me think
a minute, and I'll tell you. All spring I was at a farmer's,
riding the plow-horses, hoeing turnips; then I went up the
hills with some sheep; in June I tried hay-making, and caught
a fever you needn't start, sir, Fve been well these six weeks,
or I wouldn't have come near your son then "

"That will do lad I'm satisfied."

"Thank you, sir."

"Thee need not say 'sir 5 it is folly. I am Abel Fletcher."
For my father retained scrupulously the Friends' mode of
speech, though he was practically but a lax member of the


Society, and had married out of its pale. In this announce-
ment of his plain name appeared, I fancy, more pride than

"Very well, I will remember," answered the boy fearlessly,
though with an amused twist of his mouth, speedily re-
strained. "And now, Abel Fletcher, I shall be willing and
thankful for any work you can give me."

"We'll see about it."

I looked gratefully and hopefully at my father; but his next
words rather modified my pleasure.

"Phineas, one of my men at the tan-yard has gone and
'listed this day left an honest livelihood to be a paid cut-
throat. Now if I could get a lad one too young to be caught
hold of at every pot-house by that man of blood, the recruiting
sergeant. Dost thee think this lad is fit to take the place?"

"Whose place, father?"

"Bill Watkins'?"

I was dumfounded! I had occasionally seen the said Bill
Watkins, whose business it was to collect the skins which my
father had bought from the farmers round about. A distinct
vision presented itself to me of Bill and his cart, from which
dangled the sanguinary exuviae of defunct animals, while in
front the said Bill sat enthroned, dirty-clad, and dirty-handed,
with his pipe in his mouth. The idea of John Halifax in such
a position was not agreeable.

"But, father "

He read deprecation in my looks alas! he knew too well
how I disliked the tan-yard and all belonging to it. "Thee'rt
a fool, and the lad's another. He may go about his business
for me."

"But, father, isn't there anything else?"

"I have nothing else, or if I had I wouldn't give it. 'He
that will not work, neither shall he eat.' "

"I will work," said John, sturdily he had listened, scarcely
comprehending, to my father and me. "I don't care what it
is, if only it's honest work."

Abel Fletcher was mollified. He turned his back on me
but that I little minded and addressed himself solely to John

"Canst thee drive?"

"That I can!" and his eyes brightened with boyish delight.


"Tut! it's only a cart the cart with the skins. Dost thee
know anything of tanning?"

"No, but I can learn."

"Hey, not so fast! still, better be fast than slow. In the
meantime, thee can drive the cart."

"'Thank you, sir Abel Fletcher I mean I'll do it well.
That is, as well as I can."

"And mind! no stopping on the road. No drinking, to find
the King's cursed shilling at the bottom of the glass, like poor
Bill, for thy mother to come crying and pestering. Thee
hasn't got one, eh? So much the better all women are
born fools especially mothers."

"Sir!" The lad's face was all crimson and quivering; his
voice choked; it was with difficulty he smothered down a
burst of tears. Perhaps this self-control was more moving
than if he had wept at least it answered better with my fa-

After a few minutes more, during which his stick had made
a little grave in the middle of the walk, and buried something
there I think something beside the pebble Abel Fletcher
said, not unkindly:

"Well, I'll take thee; though it isn't often I take a lad
without a character of some sort. I suppose thee hast none."

"None," was the answer, while the straightforward, steady
gaze which accompanied it unconsciously contradicted the
statement; his own honest face was the lad's best witness at
all events, I thought so.

" 'Tis done then," said my father, concluding the business
more quickly than I had ever before known his cautious tem-
per settle even such a seemingly trifling matter* I say seem-
ingly. How blindly we talk when we talk of "trifles."

Carelessly rising he, from some kindly impulse, or else to
mark the closing of the bargain, shook the boy's hand, and
left in it a shilling.

"What is this for?"

"To show I have hired thee as my servant."

"Servant!" John repeated hastily, and rather proudly.
"Oh yes; I understand well, I will try and serve you well."

My father did not notice that manly, self-dependent smile.
He was too busy calculating how many more of those said
shillings would be a fair equivalent for such Jabor as a lad,
even so much the junior of Bill Watkins, could supply. After


some cogitation he hit upon the right sum. I forget how
much be sure it was not overmuch; for money was scarce
enough in this war-time; and, besides, there was a belief afloat,
so widely that it tainted even my worthy father, that plenty
was not good for the working classes; they required to be kept

Having settled the question of wages, which John Halifax
did not debate at all, my father left us, but turned back when
half-way across the green-turfed square.

"Thee said thee had no money; there's a week in advance,
my son being witness I pay it thee; and I can pay thee a shill-
ing less every Saturday till we get straight."

"Very well, sir; good-afternoon, and thank you."

John took off his cap as he spoke; Abel Fletcher, involun-
tarily almost, touched his hat in return of the salutation.
Then he walked away, and we had the garden all to ourselves
we, Jonathan and his new-found David.

I did not "fall upon his neck," like the princely Hebrew to
whom I have likened myself, but whom, alas! I resembled in
nothing save my loving. But I grasped his hand, for the first
time, and looking up at him, as he stood thoughtfully by me,
whispered "that I was very glad."

"Thank you, so am I," said he, in a low tone. Then all
his own manner returned; he threw his battered cap high up
in the air, and shouted out, "Hurrah 1" a thorough boy.

-And I in my poor, quavering voice, shouted too.


When I was young, and long after then, at intervals, I had
the very useless, sometimes harmful, and invariably foolish
habit of keeping a diary. To me, at least, it has been less
foolish and harmful than to most; and out of it, together
with much drawn out of the stores of memory, made preter-
naturally vivid by a long introverted life, which, colorless
itself, had nothing to do but to reflect and retain clear images
of the lives around it out of these two sources I have com-
piled the present history.

Therein, necessarily, many blank epochs occur. These I


shall not try to fill up, but merely resume the thread of nar-
ration as recollection serves.

Thus, after this first day, many days came and went before
I again saw John Halifax almost before I again thought of
him. For it- was one of my seasons of excessive pain; when I
found it difficult to think of anything beyond those four gray-
painted walls; where morning, noon and night slipped wearily
awaj', marked by no changes, save from daylight to candle-
light, from candlelight to dawn.

Afterward, as my pain abated, I began to be haunted by oc-
casional memories of something pleasant that had crossed my
dreary life; visions of a brave, bright young face, ready alike
to do battle with and enjoy the world. I could hear the
voice, that, speaking to me, was always tender with pity, yet
not pity enough to wound; I could see the peculiar smile just
creeping round his grave mouth, that irrepressible smile, in-
dicating the atmosphere of thorough heart-cheerfulness,
which ripens all the fruits of a noble nature, and without
which' the very noblest has about it something unwholesome,
blank and cold.

I wondered if John had ever asked for me. At length I
put the question.

Jael "thought he had but wasn't sure. Didn't bother her
head about such folk."

"If he asked again, might he come upstairs?"


I was too weak to combat, and Jael was too strong an ad-
versary; so I lay for days and days in my sick-room often
thinking, but never speaking, about the lad. Never once
asking for him to come to me. Not though it would have
been life to me to see his merry face I longed after him so.

At last I broke the bonds of sickness which Jael always
riveted as long and as tightly as she could and plunged into
the outer world again.

It was one market-day Jael being absent that I came
down-stairs. A soft, bright, autumn morning, mild as spring,
coaxing a wandering robin to come and sing to me, loud as a
choir of birds, out of the thin trees of the Abbey yard. I
opened the window to hear him, though all the while in mor-
tal fear of Jael. I listened, but caught no tone of her sharp
voice, which usually came painfully from the back regions of
the house; it would ill have harmonized with the sweet au-


tumn day and the robin's song. I sat, idly thinking so, and
wondering whether it were a necessary and universal fact
that human beings, unlike the year, should become harsh and
unlovely as they grew old.

My robin had done singing, and I amused myself with
watching a spot of scarlet winding down the rural road, our
house being on the verge where Norton Bury melted into "the
country." It turned out to be the clqak of a well-to-do young
farmer's wife riding to market in her cart beside her jolly-
looking spouse. Very spruce and self-satisfied she appeared,
and the market people turned to stare after her, for her cos-
tume was a novelty then. Doubtless many thought as I did,
how much prettier was scarlet than duffle gray.

Behind the farmer's cart came another, which at first I
scarcely noticed, being engrossed by the ruddy face under the
red cloak. The farmer himself nodded good humoredly, but
Mrs. Scarlet-cloak turned up her nose. "Oh, pride, pride!"
I thought, amused, and watched the two carts, the second of
which was with difficulty passing the farmer's on the opposite
side of the narrow road. At last it succeeded in getting in
advance, to the young woman's evident annoyance, until the
driver, turning, lifted his hat to her with such a merry, frank,
pleasant smile.

Surely, I knew that smile, and the well-set head with its
light curly hair. Also, alas! I knew the cart with relics of
departed sheep dangling out behind. It was our cart of skins
and John Halifax was driving it.

"John! John!" I called out, but he did not hear, for his
horse had taken fright at the red cloak, and required a steady
hand. Very steady the boy's hand was, so that the farmer
clapped his two great fists, and shouted "Bravo!"

But John my John Halifax he sat in his cart and drove.
His appearance was much as when I first saw him shabbier,
perhaps, as if through repeated drenchings; this had been a
wet autumn, Jael had told me. Poor John! well might he
look gratefully up at the clear blue sky to-day; ay, and the sky
never looked down on a brighter, cheerier face the same
face, which, whatever rags it surmounted, would, I believe,
have ennobled them all.

I leaned out, watching him approach our house; watching
him with so great pleasure that I forget to wonder whether or
no he would notice me. He did not at first, being busy over


his horse; until, just as the notion flashed across my mind
that he was passing by our house also, how keenly his doing
so would pain me the lad looked up.

A beaming smile of surprise and pleasure, a friendly nod,
then all at once his manner changed; he took off his cap and
bowed ceremoniously to his master's son.

For the moment I was hurt; then I could not but respect
the honest pride which thus intimated that he knew his own
position and wished neither to ignore nor to alter it; all ad-
vances between us must evidently come from my side. So,
having made his salutation, he was driving on, when I called
after him :

"John! John!"

"Yes, sir. I am so glad you're better again."

"Stop one minute till I come out to you." And I crawled
on my crutches to the front door, forgetting everything but
the pleasure of meeting him forgetting even my terror of
Jael. What could she say? even though she held nominally
the Friends' doctrine obeyed in the letter at least, "Call no
man your master'' what would Jael say if she found me,
Phineas Fletcher, talking in front of my father's respectable
mansion with the vagabond lad who drove my father's cart of
skins ?

But I braved her, and opened the door. "John, where are

"Here" (he stood at the foot of the steps, with the reins
on his arm); "did you want me?"

"Yes. Come up here; never mind the cart."

But that was not John's way. He led the refractory horse,
settled him comfortably under a tree, and gave him. in charge
to a small boy. Then he bounded back across the road, and
was up the steps to my side in a single leap.

"I had no notion of seeing you. They said you were in bed
yesterday." (Then he had been inquiring for me!) "Ought
you to be standing at the door this cold day?"

"It's quite warm," I said, looking up at the sunshine, and

"Please, go in."

"If you'll come too."

He nodded, then put his arm around mine, and helped me
in, as if he had been a big elder brother, and I a little ailing
child. Well nursed and carefully guarded as I had always


been, it was the first time in my life I ever knew the meaning
of that rare thing tenderness. A quality different from
kindliness, affectionateness, or benevolence; a quality which
can exist only in strong, deep, and undemonstrative natures,
and therefore in its perfection is oftenest found in men. John
Halifax had it more than any one, woman or man, that I ever

"I'm glad you're better/' he said, and said no more. But
one look of his expressed as much as half a dozen sympathetic
sentences of other people.

"And how have you been, John? How do you like the tan-

Online LibraryDinah Maria Mulock CraikJohn Halifax, gentleman : a novel → online text (page 2 of 41)