Dinah Maria Mulock Craik.

John Halifax, gentleman : a novel online

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a subject which then came so bitterly home to every heart in
Britain many women melted into sobs and tears. At last,
when the orator himself, moved by the pictures he had con-
jured up, paused suddenly, quite exhausted, and asked for a
slight contribution "to help a deed of charity," there was a
general rush toward him.

"No, no, my good people," said Mr. Charles, recovering his
natural manner, though a little clouded, I thought, by a
faint shade of remorse. "No, I will not take from any one
more than a penny; and then only if they are quite sure they
can spare it. Thank you, my worthy man. Thanks, my
bonny young lass I hope your sweetheart will soon be back
from the wars. Thank you all, my 'very worthy and approved
good masters/ and a fair harvest to you."

He bowed them away, in a dignified and graceful manner,
still standing on the hay-cart. The honest folk trooped off,


having "no more time to waste, and left the field in possession
of Mr. Charles, his co-mate, and ourselves, whom I do not
think he had as yet noticed.

He descended from the cart. His companion burst into
roars of laughter; but Mr. Charles looked grave.

"Poor, honest souls!'' said he, wiping his brows I am not
sure that it was only his brows. "Hang me if I'll be at this
trick again, Yates."

"It was a trick then, sir," said John, advancing. "I am
sorry for it."

"So am I, young man,*' returned the other, no way discon-
certed; indeed, he seemed a person whose frank temper noth-
ing could disconcert. "But starvation is excuse me un-
pleasant; and necessity has no law. It is of vital consequence
that I should reach Coltham to-night; and after walking
twenty miles, one cannot easily walk ten more, and afterward
appear as Macbeth to an admiring audience."

"You are an actor?"

"I am, please your worship

" 'A poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is seen no more.' "

There was inexpressible pathos in his tone, and his fine face
looked thin and worn it did not take much to soften both
John's feelings and mine toward the "poor player." Besides,
we had lately been studying Shakespeare, who, for the first
time of reading, generally sends all young people tragedy-

"You acted well to-day," said John; "all the folk here took
you for a Methodist preacher."

"Yet I never meddled with theology only common moral-
ity. You cannot say I did."

John thought a moment and then answered:

"No. But what put the scheme into your head?"

"The fact that under a like necessity, the same amusing
play was played out here years ago, as I told you, by John
Philip no, I will not conceal his name, the greatest actor and
the truest gentleman our English stage has ever seen John
Philip Kemble."

And he raised his hat, with sincere reverence. We too had
heard at least John had of this wonderful man.


I saw the fascination of Mr. Charles' society was strongly
upon him. It was no wonder. More brilliant, more versa-
tile talent, I never saw. He turned "from grave to gay, from
lively to severe" appearing in all phases like the gentleman,
the scholar, and the man of the world. And neither John
nor I had ever met any one of these character, 1 ?, all so irresis-
tibly alluring at our age.

I say our, because though I followed where he led, I always
did it of my own will likewise.

The afternoon began to wane, while we, with our two com-
panions, yet sat talking by the brook-side. Mr. Charles had
washed his face, and his travel-sore, blistered feet, and we had
induced him, and the man he called Yates. to share our rem-
nants of bread and cheese.

"iSTow," he said, starting up, "I am ready to do battle again,
even with the Thane of Fife who, to-night, is one Johnson,
a fellow of six feet and twelve stone. What is the hour, Mr

"Mr. Halifax" (I felt pleased to hear him, for the first
time, so entitled) had, unfortunately, no watch among his
worldly possessions, and candidly owned the fact. But he
made a near guess, by calculating the position of his unfail-
ing time-piece, the sun. It was four o'clock.

"Then I must go. Will you not retract, young gentleman?
Surely you would not lose such a rare treat as 'Macbeth,'
with I will not say my humble self but with that divine
Siddons. Such a woman! Shakespeare himself might lean
out of Elysium to watch her. You will join us?"

John made a silent, dolorous negative, as he had done once
or twice before, when the actor urged us to accompany 'him
to Coltham, for a few hours only we might be back by mid-
night, easily.

"What do you think, Phineas?" said John, when we stood
-in the high-road, waiting for the coach; "I have money and
we have so little pleasure we would send word to your
father. Do you think it would be wrong?''

I could not say; and to this minute, viewing the question
nakedly in a strict and moral sense, I cannot say either,
whether or no it was an absolute crime; therefore, being ac-
customed to read my wrong or right in "David's eyes," I re-
mained perfectly passive.

We waited by the hedge-side for several minutes. Mr.


Charles ceased his urging, half in dudgeon, save that he was
too pleasant a man really to take offense at anything. Kis
conversation was chiefly directed to me. John took no part
therein, but strolled about plucking at the hedge.

When the stage appeared down the winding of the road, I
was utterly ignorant of what he meant us to do, or if 'he had
any definite purpose at all.

It came the coachman was hailed. Mr. Charles shook
hands with us and mounted, paying his own fare and that of
Yates with their handful of charity-pennies, which caused a
few minutes' delay in counting, .and a great deal of good-
humored joking, as good-humoredly borne.

Meanwhile John put his two hands on my shoulders, and
looked hard into my face he was slightly flushed and ex-
cited, I thought.

"Phineas, are you tired?"

"Not at all."

"Do you feel strong enough to go to Coltham? Would it
do you no harm? Would you like to go?"

To all these hurried questions I answered with as hurried
an affirmative. It was sufficient to me that he evidently liked
to go. _

"It is only for once; your father would not grudge us the
pleasure, and he is too busy to be out of the tan-yard before
midnight. We will be home soon after then, if I carry you
on my back all the ten miles. Come, mount, we'll go."

"Bravo!" cried Mr. Charles, and leaned over to help me up
the coach's side. John followed, and the crisis was past.

But I noticed that for several miles he hardly spoke one


as we lived to Coltham, I had only been there once in
my life; but John Halifax knew the town pretty well, having
latterly, in addition to his clerkship, been employed bj my
father in going about the neighborhood buying bark. 1 was
amused when the coach stopped at an inn, <diich bore the
ominous sign of the "Fleece," to see how well accustomed he
seemed to be to the ways of the place. He deported himself
with perfect self -possession; the waiter served him respectfully.


He had evidently taken his position in the world at least,
our little world he was no longer a boy, but a man. I was
glad to see it; leaving everything in his hands, I lay down
where he placed me in the inn parlor, and watched him giving
his orders and walking about. Sometimes I thought his eyes
were restless and unquiet, but his manner was as composed as

Mr. Charles had left us, appointing a meeting at Coffee-
house Yard, where the theater then was.

''A poor, barn-like place, I believe," said John, stopping
in his walk up and down the room, to place my cushions more
easy; "they should build a new one, now Coltiiam is growing
up into such a fashionable town. I wish I could take you to
see the 'Well-walk/ with all the fine people promenading.
But you must rest, Phineas."

I consented, being indeed rather weary.

"You will like to see Mrs. Siddons, whom we have so often
talked about? She is not young now, Mr. Charles says, but
magnificent still. She first came out in this same theater,
more than twenty years ago. Yates saw her. I wonder,
Phineas, if your father ever did?"

"Oh no! my father would not enter a play-house for the


"Nay, John, you need not look so troubled. You know
he did not bring me up in the Society, and its restrictions are
not binding upon me."

"True, true." And he resumed his walk, but not his
cheerfulness. "If it were myself alone now, of course, what
I myself hold to be a lawful pleasure I have a right to enjoy;
or, if not, being yet a lad and under a master well, I will
bear the consequences," added he, rather proudly; "but to
share them Phineas," turning suddenly to me, "would you
like to go home? I'll take you."

I protested earnestly against any such thing; told him I was
sure we were doing nothing wrong which was, indeed, my
belief; entreated him to be merry and enjoy himself, and suc-
ceeded so well that in a few minutes we had started in a flutter
of gayety and excitement for Coffee-house Yard.

It was a poor place little better than a barn, as Mr.
Charles had said built in a lane leading out of the principal
street. This lane was almost blocked up with play-goers of


all ranks and in all sorts of equipages, from the coach-and-
six to the sedan-chair, mingled with a motley crowd on foot,
all jostling, fighting, and screaming, till the place became a
complete bear-garden.

"Oh, John! take care!" and I clung to'his arm.

"Never mind! I'm big enough and strong enough for any
crowd. Hold on, Phineas." If I had been a woman, and
the woman that he loved, he could not have been more tender
over my weakness. The physical weakness which, however
humiliating to myself, and doubtless contemptible in most
men's eyes was yet dealt by the hand of Heaven, and, as
such, regarded by John only with compassion.

The crowd grew denser and more fonnidable. I looked be-
yond it, up toward the low hills that rose in various directions
round the town; how green and quiet they were, in the still
June evening! I only wished we were safe back again at
Norton Bury.

But now there came a slight swaying in the crowd, as a
sedan-chair was borne through or attempted to be for the
effort failed. There was a scuffle, and one of the bearers
was knocked down and hurt. Some cried "Shame!" others
seemed to think this incident only added to the frolic. At
last, in the midst of the confusion, a lady put her head out of
the sedan and gazed around her.

It was a remarkable countenance; once seen, you could
never forget it. Pale, rather large and hard in outline, an
aquiline nose full, passionate, yet sensitive lips and very
dark eyes. She spoke, and the voice belonged naturally to
such a face. "Good people, let me pass. I am Sarah Sid-

The crowd divided instantaneously, and, in moving, set
up a cheer that must have rang through all the town. There
was a minute's pause while she bowed and smiled such a
smile! and then the sedan curtain closed.

"Now's the time only hold fast to me!" whispered John,
as he sprang forward, dragging me after him. In another
second he had caught up the pole dropped by the man who
was hurt; and before I well knew what we were about, we
both stood safe inside the entrance of the theater.

Mrs. Siddons stepped out, and turned to pay her bearers
a most simple action but so elevated in the doing, that even
it, I thought, could not bring her to the level of common


humanity. The tall, cloaked, and hooded figure, and the
tones that issued thence, made her, even in that narrow pas-
sage, under the one flaring tallow candle, a veritable Queen of
Tragedy at least, so she seemed to us two.

The one man was paid overpaid, apparently, from his
thankfulness and she turned to John Halifax.

"I regret, young man, that you should have had so much
trouble. Here is some requital."

He took the money, selected from it one silver coin, and
returned the rest.

"I will keep this, madam, if you please, as a memento that
I once had the honor of being useful to Mrs. Siddons."

She looked at him keenly out of her wonderful dark eyes,
then courtesied with grave dignity. "I thank you, sir," she
said, and passed on.

A few minutes after some underling of the theater found
us out and brought us, "by Mrs. Siddons' desire," to the best
places the house could afford.

It was a glorious night. At this distance of time, when
I look back upon it, my old blood leaps and burns. I repeat,
it was a glorious night!

Before the curtain rose we had time to glance about us on
that scene, to both entirely new the inside of a theater.
Shabby and small as the place was, it was filled with all the
beau monde of Coltham, which then, patronized by royalty,
rivaled even Bath in its fashion and folly. Such a dazzle of
diamonds and spangled turbans and Prince-of- Wales' plumes.
Such an odd mingling of costume, which was then in a tran-
sition state, the old ladies clinging tenaciously to the stately
silken petticoats and. long bodices, surmounted by the prim
and decent bouffantes, while the younger belles had begun to
flaunt in the French fashions of flimsy muslins, short-waisted
narrow-skirted. These we had already heard Jael furiously
inveighing against; for Jael, Quakeress as she was, could not
quite smother her original propensity toward the decoration
of "the flesh," and betrayed a suppressed but profound in-
terest in the same.

John and I quite agreed with her that it was painful to see
gentle English girls clad, or rather unclad, after the fashion
of our enemies across the Channel; now, unhappy nation!
sunk to zero in politics, religion and morals where high-
bred ladies went about dressed as heathen goddesses, with bare


amis and bare sandaled feet, gaining none of the pure sim-
plicity of the ancient world, and losing all the decorous dig-
nity of our modern times.

We two who had all a boy's mysterious reverence for wo-
manhood, in its most ideal, most beautiful form, and who, I
believe, were, in our ignorance, expecting to behold in every
woman an Imogen, a Juliet, or a Desdemona felt no par-
ticular attraction toward the ungracefully attired, flaunting,
simpering belles of Coltham.

But the play began.

I am not going to follow it; all the world has heard of the
Lady Macbeth of Mrs. Siddons. This, the first and last play
I ever witnessed, stands out to my memory, after more than
half a century, as clear as on that night. Still I can see her
in her first scene, "reading a letter" that wondrous woman,
who, in spite of her modern black velvet and point-lace, did
not act, but was Lady Macbeth; still I hear the awe-struck,
questioning, weird-like tone, that sent an involuntary shud-
der through the house, as if supernatural things were abroad
"They made themselves air!" And still there quivers
through the silence that piteous cry of a strong heart broken
"All the perfumes of Arabia will never sweeten this little

Well, she is gone, like the brief three hours when we hung
on her every breath, as if it could stay even the wheels of
time. But they have whirled on whirled her away with them
into the infinite, and into earthly oblivion! People tell me
that a new generation only smiles at the traditional glory of
Sarah Siddons. They never saw her. For me, I shall go
down to the grave worshiping her still.

Of him whom I call Mr. Charles, I have little to say. John
and I both smiled when we saw his fine, frank face and manly
bearing subdued into that poor, whining, sentimental craven,
the stage Macbeth. Yet I believe he acted it well. But we
irresistibly associated this idea with that of turnip-munching
and hay-cart oratory. And when, during the first colloquy
of Bar. quo with the witches, Macbeth took the opportunity of
winking privately at us over the foot-lights, all the parapher-
nalia of the stage failed to make the murderous Thane of
Cawclor aught else than our humorous and good-natured Mr.
Charles. I never saw him after that night. He is still liv-


ing may his old age have been as peaceful as his youth was
kind and gay.

The play ended. There was some buffoonery still to come,
but we would not stay for that. We staggered, half -blind and
dazzled both in eyes and brain, out into the dark streets,
John almost carrying me. Then we paused, and leaning
against a post which was surmounted by one of the half-dozen
oil-lamps, which illumined the town, tried to regain our men-
tal equilibrium.

John was the first to do it. Passing his hand over his
brow, he bared it to the fresh night-air, and drew a deep, hard
breath. He was very pale, I saw.


He turned, and laid a hand on my shoulder. "What did
you say? Are you cold?"

"No." He put his arm so as to shield the wind from me,

"Well," said he, after a pause, "we have had our pleasure,
and it is over. Now we must go back to the old ways again.
I wonder what o'clock it is?"

He was answered by a church clock striking, heard clearly
over the silent town. I counted the strokes eleven!

Horrified, we looked at one another by the light of the
lamp. Until this minute we had taken no note of time.
Eleven o'clock! How should we get home to Norton Bury
that night?

For, now the excitement was over, I turned sick and faint;
my limbs almost sank under me.

"What must we do, John?"

"Do! Oh! 'tis quite easy. You cannot walk you shall
not walk we must hire a gig, and drive home. I have
enough money all my month's wages see!" He felt in his
pockets one after the other; his countenance grew blank.
"Why, where is my money gone to?"

Where, indeed! But that it was gone and irretrievably-
most likely stolen when we were so wedged in the crowd
there could be no manner of doubt. And I had not a groat.
I had little use for money, and rarely carried any.

"Would not somebody trust us?" suggested I.

"I never asked an}'body for credit in my life and for a
horse and gig they'd laugh at me. Still yes stay here a
minute and I'll try."


He came back, though not immediately, and took my arm
with a reckless laugh.

"It's of no use, Phineas, I'm not so respectable as I
thought. What's to be done?"

Ayl what indeed! Here we were, two friendless youths,
with not a penny in our pockets, and ten miles away from
home. How to get there, and at midnight, too, was a very
serious question. We consulted a minute and then John
said, firmly:

"We must make the best of it and start. Every instant is
precious. Your father will think we have fallen into some
harm. Come, Phineas, I'll help you on."

His strong, cheery voice, added to the necessity of the cir-
cumstances, braced up my nerves. I took hold of his arm,
and we marched on bravely through the shut-up town, and
for a mile or two along the high-road leading to Norton Bury.
There was a cool, fresh breeze; and I often think one can
walk so much further by night than by day. For some time,
listening to John's talk about the stars he had lately added
astronomy to the many things he tried to learn and recall-
ing with him all that we had heard and seen this day, I hardly
felt my weariness.

But gradually it grew upon me; my pace lagged slower and
slower even the scented air of the midsummer night im-
parted no freshness. John wound his young arm, strong and
firm as iron, round my waist, and we got on awhile in that

"Keep up, Phineas. There's a hay-rick near; I'll wrap you
in my coat, and you shall rest there; an hour or two will not
matter now we shall get home by daybreak."

I feebly assented; but it seemed to me that we never should
get home at least, I never should. For a short way more, I
dragged myself or rather, was dragged along; then the stars,
the shadowy fields, and the winding, white high-road mingled
and faded from me. I lost all consciousness!

When I came to myself, I was lying by a tiny brook at the
road-side, my head resting on John's knees. He was bathing
my forehead; I could not see him, but I heard his smothered

"David, don't mind. I shall be well directly."

"Oh, Phineas, Phineas! I thought I had killed you."

He said no more; but I fancied that under cover of the


night he yielded to what his manhood might have been
ashamed of yet need not a few tears.

I tried to rise. There was a faint streak in the east. "Why,
it is daybreak! How far are we from Norton Bury?"
"Not very far. Don't stir a step. I shall carry you."
"Impossible!" ,

"Nonsense; I have done it for half a mile already. Come,
mount! I am not going to have Jonathan's death laid at Da-
vid's door."

And so, masking command with a jest, he had his way.
What strength supported him I cannot tell; but he certainly
carried me with many rests between, and pauses, during
which I walked a quarter of a mile or so the whole way to
Norton Bury.

The light broadened and broadened; when we reached my
father's door, haggard and miserable, it was in the pale sun-
shine of a summer morning.

"Thank God!" murmured John, as he set me down at the
foot of the steps. "You are safe at home."

"And you. You will come in you would not leave me
now ?"

He thought a moment then said, "No!"
We looked up doubtfully at the house; there were no watch-
ers there. All the windows were closed, as if the whole
peaceful establishment were taking its sleep, prior to the early
stirring of Norton Bury household. Even John's loud knock-
ing was some time before it was answered.

I was too exhausted to feel much; but I know those five
awful minutes seemed interminable. I could not have borne
them, save for John's voice in my ear.

"Courage, I'll bear all the blame. We have committed no
absolute sin, and have paid dearly for any folly. Courage!"
At the five minutes' end, my father opened the door. He
was dressed as usual, looked as usual. Whether he had sat
up watching, or had suffered any anxiety, I never found out.
He said nothing; merely opened the door, admitted us, and
closed it behind us. But we were certain from his face that
he knew all. It was so; some neighbor driving home from
Coltham had taken pains to tell Abel Fletcher where he had
seen his son at the very last place a Friend's son ought to
be seen the play-house. We knew that it was by no means
to learn the truth, but to confront us with it, that my father


reaching the parlor, and opening the shutters, that the
hard daylight should shame us more and more asked the
stern question:

"Phineas, where hast thee been?"

John answered for me. "At the theater at Coltham. It
was my fault. He went because I wished to go."

"And wherefore didst thee wish to go?"

^Ylierefore?" the answer seemed hard to find. "Oh, Mr.
Fletcher, were you never young like me?"

My father made no reply; John gathered courage.

"It was, as I say, all my fault. It might have been wrong
I think now that it was but the temptation was hard. My
life here is dull; I long sometimes for a little amusement a
little change."

"Thee shall have it."

That voice, slow and quiet as it was, struck us both dumb.

"And how long hast thee planned this, John Halifax?"

"Not a day not an hour. It was a sudden freak of mine."
(My father shook his head with contemptuous incredulity.)
'"Sir Abel Fletcher did I ever tell you a lie? If you will
not believe me, believe your own son. Ask Phineas no, no,
ask him nothing!" And he came in great distress to the sofa
where I had fallen. "Oh, Phineas! how cruel I have been to

I tried to smile at him, being past speaking but my fa-
ther put John aside.

"Young man, I can take care of my son. Thee shalt not
lead him into harm's way any more. Go I have been mis-
taken in thee!"

If my father had gone into a passion, had accused us, re-
proached us, and stormed at us with all the ill-language that
men of the world use! but that quiet, cold, irrevocable, "I
have been mistaken in thee!" was ten times worse.

John lifted to him a mute look, from which all pride had
ebbed away.

"I repeat, I have been mistaken in thee. Thee seemed a
lad to my mind; I trusted thee. This day, by my son's wish,
I meant to have bound thee 'prentice to me, and in good time
to have taken thee into the business. Now "

There was a silence. At last John muttered, in a low,
broken-hearted voice, "I deserve it all. I can go away. I
might, perhaps, earn my living elsewhere; shall I?"

Online LibraryDinah Maria Mulock CraikJohn Halifax, gentleman : a novel → online text (page 6 of 41)