Dinah Maria Mulock Craik.

John Halifax, gentleman : a novel online

. (page 31 of 41)
Online LibraryDinah Maria Mulock CraikJohn Halifax, gentleman : a novel → online text (page 31 of 41)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


high, half-bald crown, and touching with a softened gray the
still curly locks behind. But these were mere accidents; the
true dignity lay in himself and his own personal character,
independent of a'ny exterior.

It was pleasant to watch him, and note how advancing years
had given rather than taken away from his outward mien.
As ever, he was distinguishable from other men, even to his
dress, which had something of the Quaker about it still,
and its sober color, its rarely-changed fashion, and its
exceeding neatness. Mrs. Halifax used now and then to
laugh at him for being so particular over his daintiest of
cambric and finest of lawn, but secretly she took the greatest
pride in his appearance.

"John looks well to-night," she said, coming in and sitting
down by me, her eyes following mine. One would not have
guessed from her quiet gaze that she knew what John had
told me she knew, this morning. But these two in their per-
fect union had a wonderful strength a wonderful fearless-
ness. And she had learned from him, what perhaps originally
was foreign to her impressible and sometimes anxious mind
that steadfast faith, which, while ready to meet every ill when
the time comes, until the time waits cheerfully, and will not
disquiet itself in vain.

Thus, for all their cares, her face as well as his was calm
and bright. Bright, even with the prettiest girlish blush, when
John came to his wife and admired her as indeed was not
surprising.

She laughed at him, and declared she always intended to
grow lovely in her old age. "I thought I ought to dress my-
self grandly, too, on Guy's birthday. Do you like me, John?'*

"Very much: I like that black velvet gown, substantial, soft
and rich, without any show. And that lace frill round your
throat what sort of lace is it?"

"Valenciennes. When I was a girl, if I had a weakness, it
was for black velvet and Valenciennes."

John smiled, with visible pleasure that she had even a
"weakness" gratified now. "And you have put on my brooch
at last, I see."

"Yes; but" and she shook her head "remember your
promise."

"Phineas, this wife of mine is a vain woman. She knows



344 JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN.

her own price is 'far above rubies' or diamonds either. No,
Mrs. Halifax, be not afraid; I shall give you no more jewels/'
She did not need them. She stood amid her three sons
with the smile of a Cornelia. She felt her husband's eyes rest
on her, with that quiet perfectness of love, better than any
lover's love

"The fulness of a stream that knew no fall"

the love of a husband who has been married nearly twenty-
five years.

Here a troop of company arrived, and John left me to
assume his duty as host.

No easy duty, as I soon perceived; for times were hard, and
men's minds troubled. Every one, except the light-heeled,
light-hearted youngsters, looked grave.

Many yet alive remember this year, 1825 the panic year.
War having ceased, commerce, in its worst form, started into
sudden and unhealthy overgrowth. Speculations of all kinds
sprung up like fungi, out of dead-wood, flourished a little,
and dropped away. Then came ruin, not of hundreds, but thou-
sands, of all ranks and classes. This year, and this month in
this year, the breaking of many established firms, especially
bankers, foretold that the universal crash had just begun.

It was felt even in our retired country neighborhood, and
among our friendly guests this night, both gentle and simple
and there was a mixture of both as only a man in Mr. Hali-
fax's position could mix such heterogeneous elements towns-
people and country-people, dissenters and church-folk, pro-
fessional men and men of business. John dared to do it and
did it. But though through his own personal influence, many
of different ranks whom he liked and respected, meeting in
his house, learned to like and respect one another, still, even
to-night, he could not remove the cloud which semed to hang
over all a cloud so heavy, that none present liked referring
to it. They hit upon all sorts of extraneous subjects, keeping
far aloof from the one which evidently pressed upon all minds
the universal distress abroad, and the fear that was knock-
ing at almost every man's door but ours.

Of course, the talk fell on our neighbors country talk
always does. I sat still, listening to Sir Herbert Oldtower,
who was wondering that Lord Luxmore suffered the hall to



JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN. 345

drop into disgraceful decay, and had begun cutting down the
pine-woods round it.

"Woods older than his title by many a century down-
right sacrilege! And the property being entailed, too actual
robbery of the heir! But I understand anybody may do any-
thing with Lord Kavenel a mere selfish, cynical, idle volupt-
uary!"

"Indeed you are mistaken, Sir Herbert!" cried Mr. Jessop,
of Norton Bury a very honest fellow was Josiah Jessop.
"He banks with me that is, there are some poor Catholics
in this neighborhood whom I pay but bless me! he told me
not to tell. No, indeed. Cynical he may be; idle, perhaps
most men of fashion are but Lord Ravenel is not the least
like his father, is he, Mr. Halifax?"

"I have not seen Lord Ravenel for many years."

And as if, even to this day, the mention of the young man's
name brought back thoughts of the last day we had seen him
a day which, its sadness having gone by, still kept its un-
spoken sacredness, distinct from all other days John moved
away and went and talked to a girl whom both he and the
mother liked above most young girls we knew simple,
sunny-faced Grace Oldtower.

Dancing began. Spite of my Quaker education, or perhaps
for that very reason, I delighted to see dancing. Dancing,
such as was then, when young folk moved breezily and light-
ly, as if they loved it; skimming like swallows down the long
lines of the Triumph gracefully winding in and out through
the graceful country dance lively always, but always decor-
ous. In those days people did not think it necessary to the
pleasures of dancing that any stranger should have liberty to
snatch a shy, innocent girl round the waist, and whirl her
about in mad waltz or awkward polka, till she stops, giddy
and breathless, with burning cheeks and tossed hair, looking
as I would not have liked to see our pretty Maud look.

No; though while watching the little lady to-night, I was
inclined to say to her:

"When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o' the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that."

And in her unwearied spirits she seemed as if she would
readily have responded to the wish.

We did not see Guy among the dancers who were now



346 JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN.

forming in a somewhat confused square, in order to execute
a new dance called quadrilles, of which Miss Grace Oldtower
was to be the instructress.

"Where is Guy?" said the mother, who would have missed
him among a room full of people. "Have you seen Guy any-
where, Miss Silver?"

Miss Silver, who sat playing tunes she had declined danc-
ing turned, coloring visibly.

"Yes, I have seen him; he is in the study."

"Would you be so kind as to fetch him?"

The governess rose and crossed the room with a stately
walk statelier than usual. Her silk gown, of some rich soft
color, fashioned after Mrs. .Halifax's taste, and the chaplet of
bay-leaves, which Maud had insisted upon putting in her dark
hair, made an astonishing change in Miss Silver. I could not
help noticing it to Mrs. Halifax.

"Yes, indeed, she looks well. John says her features are
fine; but, for my part, I don't care for your statuesque faces;
I like color expression. See that bright little Grace Old-
tower a thoroughly English rose; I like her. Poor Miss
Silver! I wish "

What, out of compunction for a certain sharpness with
which she had spoken, Mrs. Halifax was about to wish, re-
mained undeclared. For just at this minute Guy entered, and
leaning his handsome head and his tender petits soins over
the "English rose," as his mother called her, led her out to
the dancing.

We sat down and looked on.

"Guy dances lazily; he is rather pale too, I fancy."

"Tired, probably. He was out far too long on the ice to-
day with Maud and Miss Silver. What a pretty creature his
partner is!" added Ursula, thoughtfully.

"The children are growing up fast," I said.

"Ay, indeed. To think that Guy is actually twenty-one
the age when his father was married!"

"Guy will be reminding you of that fact some day soon."

Mrs. Halifax smiled. "The sooner the better, if only he
makes a worthy choice if only he brings me a daughter
whom I can love."

And I fancied there was love motherly love in the eyes
that followed through the graceful mazes of her dancing the
bonny English rose.

Guy and his partner sat down beside us. His mother



JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN. 347

noticed that he had turned very pale again, and the lad
owned to be in some pain; he had twisted his foot that morn-
ing in helping Maud and Miss Silver across the ice; but it
was a mere trifle not worth mentioning.

It passed over, with one or two anxious inquiries on the
mother's part, and a soft, dewy shadow over the down-dropped
cheek of the little Rose, who evidently did not like to think
of any harm coming to her old playfellow. Then Sir Herbert
appeared to lead Mrs. Halifax in to supper, Guy limped along
with pretty Grace on his arm, and all the guests, just enough
co fill our longest table in John's study, came thronging round
in a buzz of mirthf ulness.

Either the warm, hospitable atmosphere, or the sight of
the merry youngsters, or the general influence of social pleas-
antness, had for the time being dispelled the cloud. But cer-
tainly it was dispelled. The master of the feast looked down
two long lines of happy faces his own as bright as theirs
down to where, at the foot of the table, the mother and mis-
tress sat. She had been slightly nervous at times during the
evening, but now she appeared thoroughly at ease and glad
glad to see her husband take his place at the head of his own
hospitable board, in the midst of his own friends and his own
people, honored and beloved. It seemed a good omen an
omen that the bitter things outside would pass away.

How bitter they had been, and how sore the wife's heart
still felt, I could see from the jealous way in which, smiling
and cheerful as her demeanor was, she caught every look,
every word of those around her, which might chance to bear
reference to her husband; in her quick avoidance of every
topic connected with these disastrous times, and, above all,
in her hurried grasp of a newspaper that some careless serv-
ant brought in fresh from the night-mail, wet with sleet and
snow.

"Do you get your country paper regularly?" asked some
one at the table. And then some others appeared to recollect
the Norton Bury Mercury, and its virulent attacks on their
host for there ensued an awkward pause, during which I saw
Ursula's face beginning to burn. But she conquered her
wrath.

"There is often much interest in our provincial papers. Sir
Herbert. My husband makes a point of taking them all in
bad and good of every shade of politics. He believes it is



348 JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN.

only by hearing all sides that you can truly judge of the state
of the country."

"Just as a physician must hear all symptoms before he de-
cides on the patient's case. At least, so our good old friend
Dr. Jessop used to say."

"Eh?" said Mr. Jessop, the banker, catching his own nairn-.
and waking up from a brown-study, in which he had seemed
to see nothing except, perhaps, the newspaper, which, in its
printed cover, lay between himself and Mrs. Halifax. "Eh?
did any one Oh, I beg pardon beg pardon Sir Her-
bert," hastily added the old man, who was a very meek and
worthy soul, and had been, perhaps, more subdued than usual
this evening.

"I was referring," said Sir Herbert, with his usual pon-
derous civility, "to your excellent brother, who was so much
respected among us for which respect, allow me to say, he
did not leave us without an inheritor."

The old banker answered the formal bow with a kind of
nervous hurry; and then Sir Herbert, with a loud premise
of his right as the oldest friend of our family, tried to ob-
tain silence for the customary speech, prefatory to the cus-
tomary toast of "Health and prosperity to the heir of Beech-
wood."

There was great applause and filling of glasses; great
smiling and whispering; everybody glanced at poor Guy, who
turned red and white, and evidently wished himself a hundred
miles off. In the confusion, I felt my sleeve touched, and
saw leaning toward me, hidden by Maud's laughing, happy
face, the old banker. He held in his hand the newspaper,
which seemed to have so fascinated him.

"It's the London Gazette. Mr. Halifax gets it three hours
before any of us. I may open it? It is important to me. Mrs.
Halifax would excuse, eh?"

Of course she would. Especially if she had seen the old
man's look, as his trembling fingers vainly tried to unfold the
sheet without a single rustle's betraying his surreptitious
curiosity.

Sir Herbert rose, cleared his throat, and began.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I speak as a father myself, and as
the son of a father whom whom I will not refer to here, ex-
cept to say that his good heart would have rejoiced to see this
day. The high esteem in which Sir Ralph always held Mr.
Halifax has descended, and will descend "



JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN. 349

Here some one called out,

"Mr. Jessop! Look at Mr. Jessop!"

The old man had suddenly sunk back with a sort of chok-
ing groan. His eyes were staring blankly, his cheek was the
color of ashes. But when he saw every one looking at him,
he tried desperately to recover himself.

" "Pis nothing. Nothing of the slightest moment. Eh?"
clutching tightly at the paper which Mrs. Halifax was kindly
removing out of his hand. "There's no news in it none, I
assure you."

But from his agitation from the pitiful effort he made
to disguise it it was plain enough that there was news.
Plain, also, as in these dangerous and critical times men were
only too quick to divine in what that news consisted. Tid-
ings which now made every newspaper a sight of fear
especially this the London Gazette.

Edwin caught and read the fatal page the fatal column
known only too well.

"W 's have stopped payment."

W 's was a great London house, the favorite banking-
house in our county, with which many provincial banks, and
Jessop's especially, were widely connected, and would be no
one knew how widely involved.

"W 's stopped payment!"

A murmur a hush of momentary suspense, as the Gazette
was passed hurriedly from hand to hand; and then our guests,
one and all, sat looking at one another in breathless fear, sus-
picion, or assured dismay. For, as every one was aware (we
knew our neighbors' affairs so well about innocent Enderley),
there was not a single household of that merry little company
upon whom, near or remote, the blow would not fall except
ours.

No polite disguise could gloss over the general consterna-
tion. Few thought of Jessop only of themselves. Many a
father turned pale; many a mother melted into smothered
tears. More than one honest countenance that five minutes
before had beamed like the rising sun, all friendliness and
jocularity, I saw shrink into a wizened, worldly face, with
greedy selfishness peering out of the corners of its eyes, eager
to conceal its own alarms, and dive as far as possible into the
terrors of its neighbors.

"There will be a run on Jessop's bank to-morrow," I heard
one person say, glancing to where the poor old banker still sat,



860 JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN.

with a vacant, stupefied smile, assuring all around him that
"nothing had happened; really nothing."

"A run? I suppose so. Then it will be 'Sauve qui peut,'
and the devil take the hindmost."

"What say you to all this, Mr. Halifax?"

John still kept his place. He sat perfectly quiet, and had
never spoken a syllable.

When Sir Herbert, who was the first to recover from the
shock of these ill-tidings, called him by his name, Mr. Hali-
fax looked quickly up. It was to see, instead of those two
lines of happy faces, faces already gathering in troubled
groups, faces angry, sullen, or miserable, all of which, with a
vague distrust, seemed instinctively turned upon him.

"Mr. Halifax," said the baronet and one could see how,
in spite of his steadfast politeness, he too was not without
his anxieties "this is an unpleasant breaking-in upon your
kindly hospitalities. I suppose through this unpropitious
event, each of us must make up our minds to some loss. Let
me hope yours will be trifling."

John made no answer.

"Or, perhaps though I can hardly hope anything so for-
tunate perhaps this failure will not affect you at all?"

He waited, as did many others, for Mr. Halifax's reply;
which was long in coming. However, since all seemed to ex-
pect it, it did come at last; but grave and sad, as if it were the
announcement of some great misfortune.

"No, Sir Herbert; it will not affect me at all."

Sir Herbert, and not he alone, looked surprised uneasily
surprised. Some mutters there were of "congratulation."
Then arose a troubled murmur of talking, in which the master
of the house was forgotten; until the baronet said, "My friends,
I think we are forgetting our courtesy. Allow me to give
you, without more delay, the toast I was about to propose
'Health, long life and happiness to Mr. Guy Halifax.' "

And so poor Guy's birthday toast was drunk, almost in
silence; and the few words he said in acknowledgment were
just listened to, scarcely heard. Every one rose from table,
and the festivities were over.

One by one all our guests began to make excuse. One by
one, involuntarily perhaps, yet not the less painfully and
plainly they all shrunk away from us, as if in the universal
trouble we, who had nothing to fear, had no part nor lot.
Formal congratulations, given with pale lips and wandering



JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN. 351

eyes; brusque adieus, as some of the more honest or less
courteous showed, but too obviously how cruelly, even resent-
fully, they felt the inequalities of fortune; hasty departures,
full of dismay that rejected angrily every shadow of consola-
tion all things John had to meet and to bear.

He met them with composure; scarcely speaking a word, as
indeed what was there to say? To all the friendly speeches,
real or pretended, he listened with a kind of sad gravity: of
all harsher words than these and there were not a few he
took not the least notice, but held his place as master of the
house; generously deaf and blind to everything that it were as
well the master of the house should neither hear nor see.

At last he was left, a very Pariah of prosperity by his own
hearth, quite alone.

The last carriage had rolled away; the tired household had
gone to bed; there was not one in the study but me. John
came in and stood leaning with both his arms against the fire-
place, motionless and silent. He leaned there so long that at
last I touched him.

"Well, Phineas!"

I saw this night's events had wounded him to the core.

"Are you thinking of these honest, friendly, disinterested
guests of ours. Don't! They are not worth a single thought."

"Not an angry thought, certainly." And he smiled at my
wrath a sad smile.

"Ah, Phineas! now I begin to understand what is meant by
the curse of prosperity."



CHAPTER XXXI.

A great, eager, but doggedly-quiet crowd, of which each had
his or her for it was half women individual terror to hide,
his or her individual interest to fight for, and cared not a straw
for that of any one else.

It was market-day, and this crowd was collected and collect-
ing every minute before the bank at Norton Bury. It includ-
ed all classes, from the stout farmer's wife, or market-woman,
to the pale, frightened lady of "limited income" who had
never been in such a throng before; from the aproned mechan-
ic, to the gentleman who sat in his carriage at the street cor-
ner, confident that whatever poor chance there was, his would
be the best.



352 JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN.

Everybody was, as I have said, extremely quiet. You heard
none of the jokes that always rise in and circulate through a
crowd; none of the loud outcries of a mob. All were intent
on themselves and their own business; on that fast-bolted red-
baize door, and on the green blind of the windows, which
informed them that it was "open from ten till four."

The Abbey clock struck three-quarters. Then there was a
slight stirring, a rustling here and there of paper as some one
drew out and examined his bank-notes openly, with small f ear
of theft they were not worth stealing.

John and I, a little way off, stood looking on, where we had
once watched a far different crowd; for Mr. Jessop owned the
doctor's former house, and in sight of the green bank blinds
were my dear old father's known windows,

Guy's birthday had fallen on a Saturday. This was Mon-
day morning. We had driven over to Norton Bury, John and
I, at an unusually early hour. He did not exactly tell me
why, but it was not difficult to guess. Not difficult to per-
ceive how strongly he was interested, even affected as any
man, knowing all the circumstances, could not but be affected
by the sight of that crowd, all the sadder for its being such
a patient, decent, respectable crowd, out of which so large a
proportion was women.

I noticed this latter fact to John.

"Yes, I was sure it -would be so. Jessop's bank has such a
number of small depositors, and issues so many small notes.
He cannot cash above half of them without some notice. If
there comes a run, he may have to stop payment this very day;
and then, how wide the misery would spread among the poor,
God knows."

His eye wandered pitifully over the heaving mass of anxious
faces, blue with cold, and growing more and more despondent
as every minute they turned with a common impulse from the
closed bank door to the Abbey clock, glittering far up in the
sunshiny atmosphere of morning.

Its finger touched the one heel of the great striding X
glided on to the other the ten strokes fell leisurely and regu-
larly upon the clear, frosty air; then the chimes Norton Bury
was proud of its Abbey chimes burst out in the tune of
<r Life let us cherish."

The bells went through all the tune to the very last note;
then ensued silence. The crowd was silent, too almost



JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN. 353

breathless with intent listening, but alas! not to the merry Ab-
bey chimes.

The bank door remained closed not a rattle at the bolts,
not a clerk's face peering out above the blind. The house was
as shut up and desolate as if it were entirely empty.

Five whole minutes, by the Abbey clock, did that poor, pa-
tient crowd wait on the pavement. Then a murmur arose.
One or two men hammered at the door; some frightened wo-
men, jostled in the press, began to scream.

John could bear it no longer. "Come along with me," he
said, hurriedly. "I must see Jessop we can get in at the
garden door."

This was a little gate round the corner of the street, well
known to us both in those brief "courting days," when we
came to tea of evenings and found Mrs. Jessop and Ursula
March in the garden watering the plants and tying up the
roses. Nay, we passed out of it into the same summer parlor,
where I cannot tell if John ever knew of the incident, at all
events he never mentioned it to me there had been transacted
a certain momentous event in Ursula's life and mine. Enter-
ing by the French window, there rose up to my mental vision,
in vivid contrast to all present scenes, the picture of a young
girl I had once seen sitting there, with head drooped, knitting.
Could that day be twenty-five years ago?

No summer parlor now its atmosphere was totally
changed. It was a dull, dusty room, of which the only lively
object was a large fire, the under half of which had burned
itself away unstirred into black dingy caverns. Before it,
with breakfast untasted, sat Josiah Jessop, his feet on the fen-
der, his elbows on his knees, the picture qf despair.

"Mr. Jessop, my good friend!"

"No, I haven't a friend in the world, or shall not have, an
hour hence. Oh! it's you, Mr. Halifax! You have not an ac-
count to close? You don't hold any notes of mine, do you?"

John put his hand on the old man's shoulder, and repeated
that lie only came as a friend.

"Not the first 'friend' I have received this morning. I
knew I should be early honored with visitors;" and the banker
attempted a. dreary smile. ''Sir Herbert and half a dozen
more are waiting for me upstairs. The biggest fish must have



Online LibraryDinah Maria Mulock CraikJohn Halifax, gentleman : a novel → online text (page 31 of 41)