John Halifax, Gentleman, by Dinah Craik

Chapter 33

Late that night, as I sat up pondering over all that had happened, Mrs. Halifax came into my room.

She looked round; asked me, according to her wont, if there was anything I wanted before she retired for the night? —(Ursula was as good to me as any sister)— then stood by my easy-chair. I would not meet her eyes, but I saw her hands fluttering in their restless way.

I pointed to her accustomed chair.

“No, I can’t sit down. I must say good-night.” Then, coming at once to the point —“Phineas, you are always up first in the morning. Will you — John thinks it had better be you — will you give a message from us to — Maud’s governess?”

“Yes. What shall I say?”

“Merely, that we request she will not leave Beechwood until we have seen her.”

If Miss Silver had overheard the manner and tone of that “request,” I doubt if it would not have hastened rather than delayed her departure. But, God help the poor mother! her wounds were still fresh.

“Would it not be better,” I suggested, “if you were to write to her?”

“I can’t; no, I can’t,”— spoken with the sharpness of exceeding pain. Soon after, as in faint apology, she added, “I am so tired; we are very late to-night.”

“Yes; it is almost morning. I thought you were both in bed.”

“No; we have been sitting talking in Guy’s room. His father thought it would be better.”

“And is all settled?”

“Yes.”

Having told me this, and having as it were by such a conclusion confessed it was right the question should be thus “settled,” Guy’s mother seemed more herself.

“Yes,” she repeated; “John thinks it ought to be. At least, that she should know Guy’s — the feeling with which Guy regards her. If, after the probation of a year, it still remains, and he is content to begin life on a small income, we have given our consent to our son’s marriage.”

It struck me how the mother’s mind entirely dwelt on the one party in this matter —“Guy’s feelings”—“Our son’s marriage”— and so on. The other side of the question, or the possibility of any hindrance there, never seemed to enter her imagination. Perhaps it would not, even into mine, for I shared the family faith in its best-beloved Guy; but for Mrs. Halifax’s so entirely ignoring the idea that any consent except her son’s and his parents’ was necessary to this marriage.

“It will not part him from us so very much, you see, Phineas,” she said, evidently trying to view the bright side —“and she has no relatives living — not one. For income — Guy will have the entire profit of the Norton Bury mills; and they might begin, as we did, in the old Norton Bury house — the dear old house.”

The thought of her own young days seemed to come, soothingly and sweet, taking the sting out of her pain, showing her how it was but right and justice that Nature’s holy law should be fulfilled — that children, in their turn, should love, and marry, and be happy, like their parents.

“Yes,” she answered, as I gently hinted this; “I know you are right; all is quite right, and as it should be, though it was a shock at first. No matter: John esteems her — John likes her. For me — oh, I shall make a capital — what is it? — a capital MOTHER-IN-LAW— in time!”

With that smile, which was almost cheerful, she bade me good-night — rather hastily, perhaps, as if she wished to leave me while her cheerfulness lasted. Then I heard her step along the passage, pausing once — most likely at Guy’s room door; her own closed, and the house was in silence.

I rose early in the morning; — not one whit too early, for I met Miss Silver in the hall, bonneted and shawled, carrying down with her own hands a portion of her chattels. She evidently contemplated an immediate departure. It was with the greatest difficulty that, without betraying my reasons, which, of course, was impossible, I could persuade her to change her determination.

Poor girl! last night’s events had apparently shaken her from that indifference which she seemed to think the best armour of a helpless, proud governess against the world. She would scarcely listen to a word. She was in extreme agitation; half-a-dozen times she insisted on leaving, and then sat down again.

I had not given her credit for so much wholesome irresolution — so much genuine feeling. Her manner almost convinced me of a fact which every one else seemed to hold as certain, but which I myself should have liked to see proved; namely, that Guy, in asking her love, would have — what in every right and happy marriage a man ought to have — the knowledge that the love was his before he asked for it.

Seeing this, my heart warmed to the girl. I respected her brave departure — I rejoiced that it was needless. Willingly I would have quieted her distress with some hopeful, ambiguous word, but that would have been trenching, as no one ever ought to trench, on the lover’s sole right. So I held my tongue, watching with an amused pleasure the colour hovering to and fro over that usually impassive face. At last, at the opening of the study-door — we stood in the hall still — those blushes rose up to her forehead in one involuntary tide.

But it was only Edwin, who had lately taken to a habit of getting up very early — to study mathematics. He looked surprised at seeing me with Miss Silver.

“What is that box? She is not going?”

“No; I have been entreating her not. Add your persuasions, Edwin.”

For Edwin, with all his quietness, was a lad of much wisdom, great influence, and no little penetration. I felt inclined to believe that though as yet he had not been let into the secret of last night, he guessed it pretty well already.

He might have done, by the peculiar manner in which he went up to the governess and took her hand.

“Pray stay; I beg of you.”

She made no more ado, but stayed.

I left her with Edwin, and took my usual morning walk, up and down the garden, till breakfast-time.

A strange and painful breakfast it was, even though the most important element in its painfulness, Guy, was happily absent. The rest of us kept up a fragmentary, awkward conversation, every one round the table looking as indeed one might have expected they would look — with one exception.

Miss Silver, who, from her behaviour last night, and her demeanour to me this morning, I had supposed would now have gathered up all her haughtiness to resist Guy’s parents — as, ignorant both of his feelings and their intentions towards her, a young lady of her proud spirit might well resist — was, to my astonishment, as mild and meek as this soft spring morning. Nay, like it, seemed often on the very verge of the melting mood. More than once her drooping eyelashes were gemmed with tears. And when, the breakfast-table being quickly deserted — Edwin, indeed, had left it almost immediately — she, sitting absently in her place, was gently touched by Mrs. Halifax, she started up, with the same vivid rush of colour that I had before noticed. It completely altered the expression of her face; made her look ten years younger — ten years happier, and, being happier, ten times more amiable.

This expression — I was not the only one to notice it — was, by some intuition, reflected on the mother’s. It made softer than any speech of hers to Miss Silver — the few words —

“My dear, will you come with me into the study?”

“To lessons? Yes. I beg your pardon! Maud — where is Maud?”

“Never mind lessons just yet. We will have a little chat with my son. Uncle Phineas, you’ll come? Will you come, too, my dear?”

“If you wish it.” And with an air of unwonted obedience, she followed Mrs. Halifax.

Poor Guy! — confused young lover! — meeting for the first time after his confession the acknowledged object of his preference — I really felt sorry for him! And, except that women have generally twice as much self-control in such cases as men — and Miss Silver proved it — I might even have been sorry for her. But then her uncertainties would soon be over. She had not to make — all her family being aware she was then and there making it — that terrible “offer of marriage,” which, I am given to understand, is, even under the most favourable circumstances, as formidable as going up to the cannon’s mouth.

I speak of it jestingly, as we all jested uneasily that morning, save Mrs. Halifax, who scarcely spoke a word. At length, when Miss Silver, growing painfully restless, again referred to “lessons,” she said:

“Not yet. I want Maud for half an hour. Will you be so kind as to take my place, and sit with my son the while?”

“Oh, certainly!”

I was vexed with her — really vexed — for that ready assent; but then, who knows the ins and outs of women’s ways? At any rate, for Guy’s sake this must be got over — the quicker the better. His mother rose.

“My son, my dear boy!” She leant over him, whispering — I think she kissed him — then slowly, quietly, she walked out of the study. I followed. Outside the door we parted, and I heard her go up-stairs to her own room.

It might have been half an hour afterwards, when Maud and I, coming in from the garden, met her standing in the hall. No one was with her, and she was doing nothing; two very remarkable facts in the daily life of the mother of the family.

Maud ran up to her with some primroses.

“Very pretty, very pretty, my child.”

“But you don’t look at them — you don’t care for them — I’ll go and show them to Miss Silver.”

“No,” was the hasty answer. “Come back, Maud — Miss Silver is occupied.”

Making some excuse, I sent the child away, for I saw that even Maud’s presence was intolerable to her mother. That poor mother, whose suspense was growing into positive agony.

She waited — standing at the dining-room window — listening — going in and out of the hall — for another ten minutes.

“It is very strange — very strange indeed. He promised to come and tell me; surely at least he ought to come and tell me first — me, his mother —”

She stopped at the word, oppressed by exceeding pain.

“Hark! was that the study door?”

“I think so; one minute more and you will be quite certain.”

Ay! one minute more, and we WERE quite certain. The young lover entered — his bitter tidings written on his face.

“She has refused me, mother. I never shall be happy more.”

Poor Guy! — I slipped out of his sight and left the lad alone with his mother.

Another hour passed of this strange, strange day. The house seemed painfully quiet. Maud, disconsolate and cross, had taken herself away to the beech-wood with Walter; the father and Edwin were busy at the mills, and had sent word that neither would return to dinner. I wandered from room to room, always excepting that shut-up room where, as I took care, no one should disturb the mother and son.

At last I heard them both going up-stairs — Guy was still too lame to walk without assistance. I heard the poor lad’s fretful tones, and the soothing, cheerful voice that answered them. “Verily,” thought I, “if, since he must fall in love, Guy had only fixed his ideal standard of womanhood a little nearer home — if he had only chosen for his wife a woman a little more like his mother!” But I suppose that would have been expecting impossibilities.

Well, he had been refused! — our Guy, whom we all would have imagined irresistible — our Guy, “whom to look on was to love.” Some harsh folk might say this might be a good lesson for the lad — nay, for most lads; but I deny it. — I doubt if any young man, meeting at the outset of life a rejection like this, which either ignorance or heedlessness on the woman’s part had made totally unexpected, ever is the better for it: perhaps, for many years, cruelly the worse. For, most women being quick-sighted about love, and most men — especially young men — blind enough in its betrayal — any woman who wilfully allows an offer only to refuse it, lowers not only herself but her whole sex, for a long, long time after, in the lover’s eyes. At least, I think so; — as I was thinking, in the way old bachelors are prone to moralize over such things, when, coming out of Guy’s room, I met Mrs. Halifax.

She crossed the passage, hastily but noiselessly, to a small ante-room which Miss Silver had for her own private study — out of which half-a-dozen stairs led to the chamber where she and her pupil slept. The ante-room was open, the bed-chamber door closed.

“She is in there?”

“I believe she is.”

Guy’s mother stood irresolute. Her knit brow and nervous manner betrayed some determination she had come to, which had cost her hard: suddenly she turned to me.

“Keep the children out of the way, will you, Phineas? Don’t let them know — don’t let anybody know — about Guy.”

“Of course not.”

“There is some mistake — there MUST be some mistake. Perhaps she is not sure of our consent — his father’s and mine; very right of her — very right! I honour her for her indecision. But she must be assured to the contrary — my boy’s peace must not be sacrificed. You understand, Phineas?”

Ay, perhaps better than she did herself, poor mother!

Yet, when in answer to the hasty knock, I caught a glimpse of Miss Silver opening the door — Miss Silver, with hair all falling down dishevelled, and features swollen with crying — I went away completely at fault, as the standers-by seemed doomed to be in all love affairs. I began to hope that this would settle itself somehow — in all parties understanding one another after the good old romantic fashion, and “living very happy to the end of their lives.”

I saw nothing more of any one until tea-time; when Mrs. Halifax and the governess came in together. Something in their manner struck me — one being subdued and gentle, the other tender and kind. Both, however, were exceedingly grave — nay, sad, but it appeared to be that sadness which is received as inevitable, and is quite distinct from either anger or resentment.

Neither Guy nor Edwin, nor the father were present. When John’s voice was heard in the hall, Miss Silver had just risen to retire with Maud.

“Good-night, for I shall not come down-stairs again,” she said hastily.

“Good-night,” the mother answered in the same whisper — rose, kissed her kindly, and let her go.

When Edwin and his father appeared, they too looked remarkably grave — as grave as if they had known by intuition all the trouble in the house. Of course, no one referred to it. The mother merely noticed how late they were, and how tired they both looked. Supper passed in silence, and then Edwin took up his candle to go to bed.

His father called him back. “Edwin, you will remember?”

“I will, father.”

“Something is amiss with Edwin,” said his mother, when the two younger boys had closed the door behind them. “What did you wish him to remember?”

Her husband’s sole reply was to draw her to him with that peculiarly tender gaze, which she knew well to be the forewarning of trouble; trouble he could not save her from — could only help her to bear. Ursula laid her head on his shoulder with one deep sob of long-smothered pain.

“I suppose you know all. I thought you would soon guess. Oh, John, our happy days are over! Our children are children no more.”

“But ours still, love — always will be ours.”

“What of that when we can no longer make them happy? When they look for happiness to others and not to us? My own poor boy! To think that his mother can neither give him comfort, nor save him pain, any more.”

She wept bitterly.

When she was somewhat soothed, John, making her sit down by him, but turning a little from her, bade her tell him all that had happened today. A few words explained the history of Guy’s rejection and its cause.

“She loves some one else. When I— as his mother — went and asked her the question she confessed this.”

“And what did you say?”

“What could I say? I could not blame her. I was even sorry for her. She cried so bitterly, and begged me to forgive her. I said I did freely, and hoped she would be happy.”

“That was right. I am glad you said so. Did she tell you who he — this lover, was?”

“No. She said she could not, until he gave her permission. That whether they would ever be married she did not know. She knew nothing, save that he was good and kind, and the only creature in the world who had ever cared for her.”

“Poor girl!”

“John,”— startled by his manner —“you have something to tell me? You know who this is — this man who has stood between my son and his happiness?”

“Yes, I do know.”

I cannot say how far the mother saw — what, as if by a flash of lightning, I did; but she looked up in her husband’s face, with a sudden speechless dread.

“Love, it is a great misfortune, but it is no one’s blame — neither ours, nor theirs — they never thought of Guy’s loving her. He says so — Edwin himself.”

“Is it Edwin?”— in a cry as if her heart was breaking. “His own brother — his very own brother! Oh, my poor Guy!”

Well might the mother mourn! Well might the father look as if years of care had been added to his life that day! For a disaster like this happening in any household — especially a household where love is recognized as a tangible truth, neither to be laughed at, passed carelessly over, nor lectured down — makes the family cease to be a family, in many things, from henceforward. The two strongest feelings of life clash; the bond of brotherly unity, in its perfectness, is broken for ever.

For some minutes we sat, bewildered as it were, thinking of the tale as if it had been told of some other family than ours. Mechanically the mother raised her eyes; the first object they chanced to meet was a rude water-colour drawing, kept, coarse daub as it was, because it was the only reminder we had of what never could be recalled — one red-cheeked child with a hoop, staring at another red-cheeked child with a nosegay — supposed to represent little Edwin and little Guy.

“Guy taught Edwin to walk. Edwin made Guy learn his letters. How fond they were of one another — those two boys. Now — brother will be set against brother! They will never feel like brothers — never again.”

“Love —”

“Don’t, John! don’t speak to me just yet. It is so terrible to think of. Both my boys — both my two noble boys! to be made miserable for that girl’s sake. Oh! that she had never darkened our doors. Oh! that she had never been born.”

“Nay, you must not speak thus. Remember — Edwin loves her — she will be Edwin’s wife.”

“Never!” cried the mother, desperately; “I will not allow it. Guy is the eldest. His brother has acted meanly. So has she. No, John, I will NOT allow it.”

“You will not allow what has already happened — what Providence has permitted to happen? Ursula, you forget — they love one another.”

This one fact — this solemn upholding of the preeminent right and law of love — which law John believed in, they both believed in, so sacredly and firmly — appeared to force itself upon Mrs. Halifax’s mind. Her passion subsided.

“I cannot judge clearly. You can — always. Husband, help me!”

“Poor wife! — poor mother!” he muttered, caressing her, and in that caress himself all but giving way —“Alas! that I should have brought thee into such a sea of trouble.”

Perhaps he referred to the circumstance of his bringing Miss Silver into our house; perhaps to his own blindness, or want of parental caution, in throwing the young people continually together. However, John was not one to lament over things inevitable; or by overweening blame of his own want of foresight, to imply a doubt of the foreseeing of Providence.

“Love,” he said, “I fear we have been too anxious to play Deus ex machina with our children, forgetting in whose Hands are marrying and giving in marriage — life’s crosses and life’s crowns. Trouble has come when we looked not for it. We can but try to see the right course, and seeing it, to act upon it.”

Ursula assented — with a bursting heart it seemed — but still she assented, believing, even as in her young days, that her husband’s will was wisest, best.

He told her, in few words, all that Edwin had that day confessed to his father; how these two, being much together, had become attached to one another, as young folks will — couples whom no one would ever think suited each for each, except Nature, and the instinct of their own hearts. Absorbed in this love — which, Edwin solemnly declared, was never openly declared till this morning — they neither of them thought of Guy. And thus things had befallen — things which no earthly power could remove or obliterate — things in which, whatever way we looked, all seemed darkness. We could but walk blindly on, a step at a time, trusting to that Faith, of which all our lives past had borne confirmation — the firm faith that evil itself is to the simple and God-fearing but the disguised messenger of good.

Something like this John said, talking as his wife loved to hear him talk — every quiet, low word dropping like balm upon her grieved heart; not trying to deceive her into the notion that pain is not pain, but showing her how best to bear it. At length she looked up, as if with God’s help — and her husband’s comforting — she could bear it.

“Only one thing — Guy does not know. He need not know just yet — not till he is stronger. Surely, Edwin will not tell him?”

“No; he promised me he would not. Do not start so. Indeed, there is no fear.”

But that very assurance seemed to rouse it. She began straining her ears to catch the least noise in the rooms overhead — the boys’ rooms. Guy and Walter shared one; Edwin had his to himself.

“They surely will not meet. Yet Guy sometimes likes sitting over Edwin’s fire. Hark! — was not that the creaking of Guy’s room-door?”

“Love —” detaining her.

“I know, John. I am not thinking of going. Guy might suspect something. No, indeed I am not afraid. They were always fond of one another — my boys.”

She sat down, violently forcing herself not to listen, not to fear. But the truth was too strong for her.

“Hark! I am sure they are talking. John, you said Edwin promised?”

“Faithfully promised.”

“But if, by some accident, Guy found out the truth? Hark! they are talking very loud. That is a chair fallen. Oh, John — don’t keep me! My boys — my boys.” And she ran up-stairs in an agony.

What a sight for a mother’s eyes. Two brothers of whom it had been our boast that from babyhood they had never been known to lift a hand against each other — now struggling together like Cain and Abel. And from the fury in their faces, the quarrel might have had a similar ending.

“Guy! — Edwin!” But the mother might as well have shrieked to the winds.

The father came and parted them. “Boys, are you gone mad? fighting like brutes in this way. Shame, Guy! Edwin, I trusted you.”

“I could not help it, father. He had no right to steal into my room; no right to snatch her letter from me.”

“It was her letter, then?” cried Guy, furiously. “She writes to you? You were writing back to her?”

Edwin made no answer; but held out his hand for the letter, with that look of white passion in him so rarely seen — perhaps not thrice since his infancy. Guy took no heed.

“Give it me back, Guy; I warn you.”

“Not till I have read it. I have a right.”

“You have none. She is mine.”

“Yours?” Guy laughed in his face.

“Yes, mine. Ask my father — ask my mother. They know.”

“Mother!”— the letter fell from the poor lad’s hand. “Mother, YOU would not deceive me. He only says it to vex me. I was in a passion, I know. Mother, it isn’t true?”

His piteous tone — the almost childish way in which he caught at her sleeve, as she turned from him — ah, poor Guy!

“Edwin, is it my brother Edwin? Who would have thought it?” Half-bewildered, he looked from one to the other of us all; but no one spoke, no one contradicted him.

Edwin, his passion quite gone, stooped in a sorrowful and humble way to pick up his betrothed’s letter. Then Guy flew at him, and caught him by the collar.

“You coward! — how dared you? — No, I won’t hurt him; she is fond of him. Go away, every one of you. Oh, mother, mother, mother!”

He fell on her neck, sobbing. She gathered him in her arms, as she had used to do in his childhood; and so we left them.

“AS ONE WHOM HIS MOTHER COMFORTETH.”

Ay, Prophet of Israel, thou wert wise.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06