Dinah Maria Mulock Craik.

John Halifax, gentleman : a novel online

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and mine little feet to go pattering about our house a little

voice to say . Think that by Christmas-time I shall be a


He sat down on the garden-bench and did not speak for a
long time.

"I wonder," he said at last, "if when I was born, my father
was as young as I am; whether he felt as I do now. You can-
not think what an awful joy it is to be looking forward to a
child; a little soul of God's giving, to be made fit for His
eternity. How shall we do it we that are both so ignorant,
so young? She will be only just nineteen when, please God,
her baby is born. Sometimes of an evening we sit for hours
on this bench, she and I, talking of what we ought to do, and
how we ought to rear the little thing until we fall into si-
lence, awed at the blessing that is coming to us."

"God will help you both and make you wise."

"We trust He will; and then we are not afraid."

A little while longer I sat by John's side, catching the dim
outline of his face, half uplifted, looking toward those myriad
worlds, which we are taught to believe, and do believe, are not
more precious in the Almighty's sight than one living human

But he said no more of the hope that was coming, or of the
thoughts which, in the holy hush of that summer night, had


risen out of the deep of his heart. And though, after this
time, they never again formed themselves into words, yet he
knew well that not a hope, or joy, or fear of his, whether un-
derstood or not, could be unshared by me.

In the winter, when the first snow lay on the ground, the
little one came.

It was a girl I think they had wished for a son; but they
forgot all about it when the tiny maiden appeared. She was
a pretty baby at least, all the women-kind said so, from Mrs.
Jessop down to Jael, who left our poor house to its own de-
vices, and trod stately in Mrs. Halifax's, exhibiting to all be-
holders the mass of white draperies with the infinitesimal hu-
man morsel inside them, which she vehemently declared was
the very image of its father.

For that young father

But I what can I say? How should I tell of the joy of a
man over his first-born!

I did not see John till a day afterward, when he came into
our house, calm, happy, smiling. But Jael told me, that when
she first placed his baby in his arms, he had wept like a child.

The little maiden grew with the snow-drops. Winter might
have dropped her out of his very lap, so exceedingly fair, pale,
and pure-looking was she. I had never seen, or at least never
noticed any young baby before; but she crept into my heart
before I was aware. I seem to have a clear remembrance of
all the data in her still and quiet infancy, from the time her
week-old fingers, with their tiny pink nails a ludicrous pic-
ture of her father's hand in little made me smile as they
closed over mine.

She was named Muriel, after the rather peculiar name of
John's mother. Her own mother would have it so; only wish-
ing out of her full heart, happy one! that there should be a
slight alteration made in the second name. Therefore the
baby was called Muriel Joy Muriel Joy Halifax.

That name beautiful, sacred, and never-to-be-forgotten
among us I write it now with tears.

In December, 1802, she was born our Muriel. And on
February 9th alas! I have need to remember that date! she
formally received her name. We all dined at John's house;
Dr. and Mrs. Jessop, my father and I.

It was the first time my father had taken a meal under any
roof but his own for twenty years. We had not expected him;


since, when asked and entreated, he only shook his head; but
just when we were all sitting down to the table, Ursula at the
foot, her cheeks flushed and her lips dimpling with a house-
wifely delight that everything was so nice and neat, she start-
led us by a little cry of pleasure. ' And there, in the door-way,
stood my father!

His broad figure, but slightly bent even now, his smooth-
shaven face, withered, but of a pale brown still, with the hard
lines softening down, and the keen eyes kinder than they used
to be; dressed carefully in his First-day clothes, the stainless
white kerchief supporting his large chin, his Quaker's hat in
one hand, his stick in the other, looking in at us, a half-
amused twitch mingling with the gravity of his mouth thus
he stood thus I see thee, my dear old father.

The young couple seemed as if they never could welcome
him enough. He only said, "I thank thee, John," "I thank
thee, Ursula;" and took his place beside the latter, giving no
reason why he had changed his mind and come. Simple as
the dinner was, simple as befitted those who, their guests
knew, could not honestly afford luxuries, though there were no
ornaments save the center nosegay of laurestines and white
Christmas roses, I do not think King George himself ever sat
down to a nobler feast.

Afterward, we drew merrily round the fire, or watched out-
side the window the thickly-falling snow.

"It has not snowed these two months," said John; "never
since the day our little girl was born."

And at that moment, as if she heard herself mentioned, and
was indignant at our having forgotten her so long, the little
maid upstairs set up a cry that unmistakable child's cry,
which seems to change the whole atmosphere of a household.

My father gave a start he had never seen or expressed a
wish to see John's daughter. We knew he did not like ba-
bies. Again the little helpless wail; Ursula rose and stole
away Abel Fletcher looked after her with a curious expres-
sion, then began to say something about going back to the

"Do not, pray do not leave us," John entreated; "Ursula
wants to show you our little lady."

My father put out his hands in deprecation; or as if desiring
to thrust from him a host of thronging, battling thoughts.
Still came faintly down at intervals the tiny voice, dropping
into a soft coo of pleasure, like a wood-dove in its nest


every mother knows the sound. And then Mrs. Halifax en-
tered, holding in her arms her little winter-flower, her baby

Abel Fletcher just looked at it and her closed his eyes
against both, and looked no more.

Ursula seemed pained a moment, but soon forgot it in the
general admiration of her treasure.

"She might well come in a snow-storm/' said Mrs. Jessop,
taking the child. "She is just like snow, so soft and white."

"And so soundless she hardly ever cries. She just lies in
this way half the day over, cooing quietly with her eyes shut.
There, she has caught your dress fast. Now, was there ever a
two-months'-old baby so quick at noticing things? and she
does it all with her fingers she touches everything ah! take
care, doctor!" the mother added, reproachfully, at a loud
slam of the door, which made the baby tremble all over.

"I never knew a child so susceptible of sound," said John,
as he began talking to it, and soothing it. How strange it
was to see him! and jet it seemed quite natural already. "I
think even now she knows the difference between her mother's
voice and mine; and any sudden noise always startles her in
this way."

"She must have astonishingly quick hearing," said the doc-
tor, slightly annoyed. Ursula wisely began to talk of some-
thing else showed Muriel's eyelashes, very long for such a
baby and descanted on the color of her eyes, that fruitful and
never-ending theme of mothers and friends.

"I think they are like her father's; yes, certainly like her
father's. But we have not many opportunities of judging, for
she is such a lazy young damsel, she hardly ever opens them
we should often fancy her asleep, but for that little soft coo;
and then she will wake up all of a sudden. There now! do
you see her? Come to the window, my beauty! and show Dr.
Jessop your bonny brown eyes."

They were bonny eyes! lovely in shape and color, delicately
fringed; but there was something strange in their expression
or rather, in their want of it. Many babies have a round,
vacant stare but this was no stare, only a wide, full look a
look of quiet blankness an unseeing look.

It caught Dr. Jessop's notice. I saw his air of vexed dig-
nity change into a certain anxiety.

"Well, whose are they like her father's or mine? his I


hope it will be the better for her beauty. Nay, we'll excuse
all compliments/'

"I I can't exactly tell. I could judge better by candle-

"We'll have candles."

"No no! Had we not better put it off altogether till an-
other day? I'll call in to-morrow and look at her eyes."

His manner was hesitating and troubled. John noticed it.

"Love give her to me. Go and get us lights, will you?"

When she was gone, John took his baby to the window,
gazed long and intently into her little face, then at Dr. Jes-
sop. "Do you think no it's not possible that there can
be anything the matter with the child's eyes?"

Ursula coming in, heard the last words.

"What was that you said about baby's eyes?"

No one answered her. All were gathered in a group at the
window, the child being held on her fathers lap, while Dr.
Jessop was trying to open the small white lids, kept so con-
tinually closed. At last the baby uttered a little cry of pain
the mother darted forward, and clasped it almost savagely to
her breast.

"I will not have my baby hurt! There is nothing wrong
with her sweet eyes. Go away; you shall not touch her, John."


She melted at that low, fond word; leaned against his
shoulder trying to control her tears.

"It shocked me so; the bare thought of such a thing. 0,
husband, don't let her be looked at again!"

"Only once again, my darling. It is best. Then we shall
be quite satisfied. Phineas, give me the candle."

The words caressing, and by strong constraint, made calm
and soothing were yet firm. Ursula resisted no more, but
let him take Muriel little, unconscious, cooing dove! Lulled
by her father's voice, she once more opened her eyes wide. Dr.
Jessop passed the candle before them many times, once so close
that it almost touched her face, but the full, quiet eyes never
blanched nor closed. He set the light down.

"Doctor!" whispered the father, in a wild appeal against
ay, it was against certainty. He snatched the candle, and
tried the experiment himself.

"She does not see at all. Can she be blind?"

"Born blind."

Yes, those pretty baby eyes were dark quite dark. There



was nothing painful nor unnatural in their look, save, per-
haps, the blankness of gaze which I have before noticed. Out-
wardly, their organization was perfect; but in the fine inner
mechanism was something wrong something wanting. She
never had seen never would see in this world.

"Blind!" The word was uttered softly hardly above a
breath, yet the mother heard it. She pushed every one aside,
and took the child herself. Herself, with a desperate incre-
dulity, she looked into those eyes, which never could look back
either her agony or her love. Poor mother!

"John! John, oh, John!" the name rising into a cry, as if
he could surely help her. He came and took her in his arms
took both, wife and babe. She laid her head on his shoul-
der in bitter weeping. "Oh, John! it is so hard! Our pretty
one our own little child!"

John did not speak, but only held her to him close and
fast. When she was a little calmer, he whispered to her the
comfort the sole comfort even her husband could give her
through Whose will it was that this affliction came.

"And it is more an affliction to you than it will be to her,
poor pet!" said Mrs. Jessop, as she wiped her friendly eyes.
"She will not miss what she never knew. She may be a happy
little child. Look, how she lies and smiles."

But the mother could not take that consolation yet. She
walked to and fro, and stood rocking her baby, mute indeed,
but with tears falling in showers. Gradually- her anguish
wept itself away, or was smothered down, lest it should dis-
turb the little creature asleep on her breast.

Some one came behind her, and placed her in the arm-chair
gently. It was my father. He sat down by her, taking her

"Grieve not, Ursula. I had a little brother who was blind.
He was the happiest creature I ever knew."

My father sighed. We all marveled to see the wonderful
softness, even tenderness, which had come into him.

"Give me thy child for a minute." Ursula laid it across his
knees; he put his hand solemnly on the baby-breast. "God
bless this little one! Ay, and she shall be blessed."

These words, spoken with as full assurance as the prophetic
benediction of the departing patriarchs of old, struck us all.
"We looked at little Muriel as if the blessing were already upon
her; as if the mysterious touch which had sealed up her eyes


forever, had left on her a sanctity like as of one who has been
touched by the finger of God.

"Now, children, I must go home," said my father.

They did not detain us: it was indeed best that the poor
young parents should be left alone.

"You will come again soon?" begged Ursula, tenderly clasp-
ing the hand which he had laid upon her curls as he rose,
with another murmured "God bless thee!"

"Perhaps. We never know. Be a good wife to thy hus-
band, my girl. And John, never be thou harsh to her, nor
too hard upon her little failings. She is but young but

He sighed again. It was plain to see he was thinking of
another than Ursula.

As we walked down the street, he spoke to me only once or
twice, and then of things which startled me by their strange-
ness things which had happened a long time ago; sayings
and doings of mine in my childhood, which I had not the
least idea he had either known of or remembered.

When we got in-doors, I asked if I should come and sit with
him till his bedtime.

"No, no; thee looks tired, and I have a business letter to
write. Better go to thy bed as usual."

"I bade him good-night and was going, when he called me

"How old art thee, Phineas twenty-four or five?"

"Twenty-five, father."

"Eh! so much?" He put his hand on my shoulder, and
looked down on me kindly, even tenderly. "Thee art but
weakly still, but thee must pick up, and live to be as old a man
as thy father. Good-night. God be with thee, my son!"

I left him. I was happy. Once I had never expected my
old father and I would have got on together so well, or loved
one another so dearly.

In the middle of the night Jael came into my room, and sat
down on my bed's foot, looking at me. I had been dreaming
strangely, about my own childish days, and about my father
and mother when we were young.

What Jael told me by slow degrees, and as tenderly as
when she was my nurse years ago seemed at first so unreal
as to be like a part of the dream.

At ten o'clock, when she had locked up the house, she had
come as usual to the parlor-door to tell my father it was bed-


time. He did not answer, being sitting with his back to the
door, apparently busy writing. So she went away.

Half an hour afterward she came again. He sat there still
he had not moved. One hand supported his head; the
other, the fingers stiffly holding the pen, lay on the table. He
seemed intently gazing on what he had written. It ran thus:

"Good Friend: To-morrow I shall be "

But there the hand had stopped forever.

Oh, dear father! on that to-morrow thou wert with God!


It was the year 1812. I had lived for ten years as a brother,
in my adopted brother's house, whither he had brought me on
the day of my father's funeral; entreating that I should never
leave it again. For, as was shortly afterward made clear, fate
say Providence was now inevitably releasing him from a
bond, from which, so long as my poor father lived, John would
never have released himself. It was discovered that the prof-
its of the tanning-trade had long been merely nominal that
of necessity, for the support of our two families, the tan-yard
must be sold and the business confined entirely to the flour

At this crisis as if the change of all things broke her stout
old heart, which never could bend to any new ways Jael died.
We laid her at my father's and mothers feet poor old Jael!
and that grave-yard in St. Mary's Lane now covered all who
ever loved me, all who were of my youth-day my very own.

So thought I or might have thought but that John and
Ursula then demanded with one voice, "Brother, come home."

I resisted long; for it is one of my decided opinions that
married people ought to have no one, be the tie ever so close
and dear, living permanently with them to break the sacred
duality no, let me say the unity of their home.

I wished to try and work for my living, if that were possible
if not, that out of the wreck of my father's trade might be
found enough to keep me, in some poor way. But John Hali-
fax would not hear of that. And Ursula she was sitting
sewing, while the little one lay on her lap, cooing softly


with shut eyes Ursula took my hand to play with Muriel's.
The baby-fingers closed over mine "See there Phineas; she
wants you, too/' So I stayed.

Perhaps it was on this account, that better than all his other
children, better than anything on earth except himself, I loved
John's eldest daughter, little blind Muriel.

He had several children now. The dark old house and the
square old garden were alive with their voices from morning
till night. First, and loudest always was Guy born the year
after Muriel. He was very like his mother, and her darling.
After him came two more, Edwin and Walter. But Muriel
still remained as "sister" the only sister either given or de-

If I could find a name to describe that child, it would be
not the one her happy mother gave her at her birth, but one
more sacred, more tender. She was better than Joy she was
an embodied Peace.

Her motions were slow and tranquil, her voice soft, every
expression of her little face extraordinarily serene. Whether
creeping about the house, with a footfall silent as snow, or
sitting among us, either knitting busily at her father's knee,
or listening to his talk and the children's play, everywhere
and always, Muriel was the same. No one ever saw her angr} r ,
restless or sad. The soft dark calm in which she lived seemed
never broken by the troubles of this our troublous world.

She was, as I have said, from her very babyhood, a living
peace. And such she was to us, all during those ten strug-
gling years, when our household had much to contend with,
much to endure. If at night her father came home jaded
and worn, sickened to the soul by the hard battle he had
to fight daily, hourly, with the outside world, Muriel would
come softly and creep into his bosom, and he was comforted.
If, busying herself about, doing faithfully her portion too,
that the husband, when he came in of evenings might find
all cheerful, and never know how heavy had been the house-
hold cares during the day if, at times, Ursula's voice took
too sharp a tone at sight of Muriel it softened at once. Xo
one could speak any but soft and sweet words when the blind
child was by.

Yet, I think either parent would have looked amazed, had
any one pitied them for having a blind child. The loss
a loss only to them, and not to her, the darling became
familiar and ceased to wound! the blessedness was ever new.


"Ay, and she shall be blessed," had said my dear father. So
she was. From her, or for her, her parents never had to en-
dure a single pain. Even the sickness of infancy and child-
hood, of which the three others had their natural share, al-
ways passed her by, as if in pity. Nothing ever ailed Muriel.

The spring of 1812 was an era long remembered in our
family. Scarlet fever went through the house safely, but
leaving much care behind. When at last they all came round,
and we were able to gather our pale little flock to a garden
feast, under the big old pear-tree, it was with the trembling
thankfulness of those who have gone through great perils,
hardly dared to be recognized as such till they were over.

"Ay, thank God it is over!" said John, as he put his arm
round his wife, and looked in her worn face, where still her
own smile lingered her bright, brave smile, that nothing
could ever drive away. "And now we must try and make a
little holiday for you."

"Nonsense! I am as well as possible. Did not Dr. Jessop
tell me, this morning, I was looking younger than ever? I
a mother of a family, thirty years old? Pray, Uncle Phineas,
do I. look my age ?"

I could not say that she did not especially now. But
she wore it so gracefully, so carelessly, that I saw ay, and
truly her husband saw a sacred beauty about her faded
cheek, more lovely and lovable than all the bloom of her
youth. Happy woman! who was not afraid of growing old.

"Love," John usually called her "Love" putting it at
the beginning of a sentence, as if it had been her natural
Christian name, which, as in all infant households, had been
gradually dropped or merged into the universal title of
"mother." My name for her was always emphatically "The
Mother," the truest type of motherhood I ever knew.

"Love," her husband began again, after a long look in
her face ah, John, thine was altered too, but himself was
the last thing he thought of "say what you like, I know
what we'll do; for the children's sake. Ah, that's her weak
point! see, Phineas, she is yielding now. We'll go for three
months to Longfield."

Now Longfield was the Utopia of our family, old and
young. A very simple family we must have been, for this
Longfield was only a small farm-house, about six miles off,
where once we had been to tea, and where ever since we had
longed to live. For, pretty as our domain had grown, it was


still in the middle of a town, and the children, like all natur-
ally-reared children, craved ai'ter the freedom <xf the coun-
try; after cornfields, hay fields, nuttings, black berryings; de-
lights hitherto known only at rare intervals, when their father
could spare a whole long day, and be at once the defense and
cheer, the sun and the shield, of the happy little band.

"Hearken, children! father says we shall go for three whole
months to live at Longfield."

The three boys set up a shout of ecstacy.
"I'll swim boats down the stream, and catch and ride every
one of the horses. Hurrah!" shouted Guy.

"And I'll see after the ducks and chickens, and watch
all the threshing and winnowing," said Edwin, the practical
and grave.

"And I'll get a 'ittle 'amb to p'ay wid me," lisped Walter,
still "the baby," or considered such, and petted accordingly.

"But what does my little daughter say?" said the father,
turning, as he always turned, at the slightest touch of those
soft blind fingers creeping along his coat-sleeve. "^VTiat will
Muriel do at Longfield?"

"Muriel will sit all day and hear the birds sing."
"So she shall, my blessing!" He often called her his "bless-
ing," which in truth she was. To see her now, leaning her
cheek against his, the small soft face, almost a miniature of
his own, the hair, a paler shade of the same bright color,
curling in the same elastic rings they looked less like or-
dinary father and daughter, than like a man and his good
angel; the visible embodiment of the best half of his soul.
So she was ever to him, this child of his youth, his first-born
and his dearest.

The Longfield plan being once started, father and mother
and I began to consult together as to ways and means, what
should be given up, and what increased, of our absolute lux-
uries in order that the children might this summer possibly
every summer have the glory of "living in the country." Of
these domestic consultations there was never any dread, for
they were always held in public. There were no secrets in our
house. Father and mother, though sometimes holding differ-
ent opinions, had but one thought, one aim the family good.
Thus, even in our lowest estate, there had been no bitterness
in our poverty; we met it, looked it in the face, often even
laughed at it. For it bound us all together, hand in hand;
it taught us endurance, self-dependence, and, best of all les-


sons, self-renunciation. I think one's whole after-life is made
easier and more blessed by having known what it was to be
very poor when one was young.

Our fortunes were rising now, and any little pleasure did
not take near so much contrivance. We found we could
manage the Longfield visit ay, and a horse for John to ride

Online LibraryDinah Maria Mulock CraikJohn Halifax, gentleman : a novel → online text (page 20 of 41)