John Halifax, Gentleman, by Dinah Craik

Chapter 6

Near 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 by my father in going about the neighbourhood buying bark. I was amused when the coach stopped at an inn, which 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 parlour, 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 usual.

Mr. Charles had left us, appointing a meeting at Coffee-house Yard, where the theatre 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 Coltham 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 theatre 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 world.”

“What!”

“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 succeeded so well, that in a few minutes we had started in a flutter of gaiety 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 formidable. I looked beyond it, up towards 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, 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 Siddons.”

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 theatre.

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 passage, under the one flaring tallow-candle, a veritable Queen of tragedy — at least so she seemed to us two.

The one man was paid — over-paid, 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 honour of being useful to Mrs. Siddons.”

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

A few minutes after some underling of the theatre 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 theatre. Shabby and small as the place was, it was filled with all the beau monde of Coltham, which then, patronized by royalty, rivalled 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 transition 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, shortwaisted — narrow-skirted. These we had already heard Jael furiously inveighing against: for Jael, Quakeress as she was, could not quite smother her original propensity towards the decoration of “the flesh,” and betrayed a suppressed but profound interest 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 arms and bare sandalled feet, gaining none of the pure simplicity of the ancient world, and losing all the decorous dignity of our modern times.

We two — who had all a boy’s mysterious reverence for womanhood 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 particular attraction towards 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 shudder 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 HAND!”

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 worshipping 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 his idea with that of turnip munching and hay-cart oratory. And when, during the first colloquy of Banquo with the witches, Macbeth took the opportunity of winking privately at us over the foot-lights, all the paraphernalia of the stage failed to make the murderous Thane of Cawdor aught else than our humorous and good-natured Mr. Charles. I never saw him after that night. He is still living — 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 mental 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.

“John?”

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, nevertheless.

“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 anybody 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?”

Ay! 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 circumstances, 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 recalling 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 imparted no freshness. John wound his young arm, strong and firm as iron, round my waist, and we got on awhile in that way.

“Keep up, Phineas. There’s a hayrick 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 roadside, my head resting on John’s knees. He was bathing my forehead: I could not see him, but I heard his smothered moan.

“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 David’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 sunshine 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 watchers there. All the windows were closed, as if the whole peaceful establishment were taking its sleep, prior to the early stirring of Norton Bury households. Even John’s loud knocking 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 neighbour 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 parlour, 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 theatre at Coltham. It was my fault. He went because I wished to go.”

“And wherefore didst thee wish to go?”

“Wherefore?” 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 you!”

I tried to smile at him, being past speaking — but my father 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 mistaken in thee!”

If my father had gone into a passion, had accused us, reproached 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 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?”

Abel Fletcher hesitated, looked at the poor lad before him (oh, David! how unlike to thee), then said, “No — I do not wish that. At least, not at present.”

I cried out in the joy and relief of my heart. John came over to me, and we clasped hands.

“John, you will not go?”

“No, I will stay to redeem my character with your father. Be content, Phineas — I won’t part with you.”

“Young man, thou must,” said my father, turning round.

“But —”

“I have said it, Phineas. I accuse him of no dishonesty, no crime, but of weakly yielding, and selfishly causing another to yield, to the temptation of the world. Therefore, as my clerk I retain him; as my son’s companion — never!”

We felt that “never” was irrevocable.

Yet I tried, blindly and despairingly, to wrestle with it; I might as well have flung myself against a stone wall.

John stood perfectly silent.

“Don’t, Phineas,” he whispered at last; “never mind me. Your father is right — at least so far as he sees. Let me go — perhaps I may come back to you some time. If not —”

I moaned out bitter words — I hardly knew what I was saying. My father took no notice of them, only went to the door and called Jael.

Then, before the woman came, I had strength enough to bid John go.

“Good-bye — don’t forget me, don’t!”

“I will not,” he said; “and if I live we shall be friends again. Good-bye, Phineas.” He was gone.

After that day, though he kept his word, and remained in the tan-yard, and though from time to time I heard of him — always accidentally — after that day for two long years I never once saw the face of John Halifax.

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