John Halifax, Gentleman, by Dinah Craik

Chapter 8

After Midnight — I know not how long, for I lost count of the hours by the Abbey chimes, and our light had gone out — after midnight I heard by my father’s breathing that he was asleep. I was thankful to see it for his sake, and also for another reason.

I could not sleep — all my faculties were preternaturally alive; my weak body and timid mind became strong and active, able to compass anything. For that one night, at least, I felt myself a man.

My father was a very sound sleeper. I knew nothing would disturb him till daylight; therefore my divided duty was at an end. I left him, and crept down-stairs into Sally Watkins’ kitchen. It was silent, only the faithful warder, Jem, dozed over the dull fire. I touched him on the shoulder — at which he collared me and nearly knocked me down.

“Beg pardon, Mr. Phineas — hope I didn’t hurt ‘ee, sir?” cried he, all but whimpering; for Jem, a big lad of fifteen, was the most tender-hearted fellow imaginable. “I thought it were some of them folk that Mr. Halifax ha’ gone among.”

“Where is Mr. Halifax?”

“Doan’t know, sir — wish I did! wouldn’t be long a finding out, though — on’y he says: ‘Jem, you stop ’ere wi’ they’” (pointing his thumb up the staircase). “So, Master Phineas, I stop.”

And Jem settled himself with a doggedly obedient, but most dissatisfied air down by the fire-place. It was evident nothing would move him thence: so he was as safe a guard over my poor old father’s slumber as the mastiff in the tan-yard, who was as brave as a lion and as docile as a child. My last lingering hesitation ended.

“Jem, lend me your coat and hat — I’m going out into the town.”

Jem was so astonished, that he stood with open mouth while I took the said garments from him, and unbolted the door. At last it seemed to occur to him that he ought to intercept me.

“But, sir, Mr. Halifax said —”

“I am going to look for Mr. Halifax.”

And I escaped outside. Anything beyond his literal duty did not strike the faithful Jem. He stood on the door-sill, and gazed after me with a hopeless expression.

“I s’pose you mun have your way, sir; but Mr. Halifax said, ‘Jem, you stop y’ere,’— and y’ere I stop.”

He went in, and I heard him bolting the door, with a sullen determination, as if he would have kept guard against it — waiting for John — until doomsday.

I stole along the dark alley into the street. It was very silent — I need not have borrowed Jem’s exterior, in order to creep through a throng of maddened rioters. There was no sign of any such, except that under one of the three oil-lamps that lit the night-darkness at Norton Bury lay a few smouldering hanks of hemp, well resined. They, then, had thought of that dreadful engine of destruction — fire. Had my terrors been true? Our house — and perhaps John within it!

On I ran, speeded by a dull murmur, which I fancied I heard; but still there was no one in the street — no one except the Abbey-watchman lounging in his box. I roused him, and asked if all was safe? — where were the rioters?

“What rioters?”

“At Abel Fletcher’s mill; they may be at his house now —”

“Ay, I think they be.”

“And will not one man in the town help him; no constables — no law?”

“Oh! he’s a Quaker; the law don’t help Quakers.”

That was the truth — the hard, grinding truth — in those days. Liberty, justice, were idle names to Nonconformists of every kind; and all they knew of the glorious constitution of English law was when its iron hand was turned against them.

I had forgotten this; bitterly I remembered it now. So wasting no more words, I flew along the church-yard, until I saw, shining against the boles of the chestnut-trees, a red light. It was one of the hempen torches. Now, at last, I had got in the midst of that small body of men, “the rioters.”

They were a mere handful — not above two score — apparently the relics of the band which had attacked the mill, joined with a few plough-lads from the country around. But they were desperate; they had come up the Coltham road so quietly, that, except this faint murmur, neither I nor any one in the town could have told they were near. Wherever they had been ransacking, as yet they had not attacked my father’s house; it stood up on the other side the road — barred, black, silent.

I heard a muttering —“Th’ old man bean’t there.”—“Nobody knows where he be.” No, thank God!

“Be us all y’ere?” said the man with the torch, holding it up so as to see round him. It was well then that I appeared as Jem Watkins. But no one noticed me, except one man, who skulked behind a tree, and of whom I was rather afraid, as he was apparently intent on watching.

“Ready, lads? Now for the rosin! Blaze ’un out.”

But, in the eager scuffle, the torch, the only one alight, was knocked down and trodden out. A volley of oaths arose, though whose fault it was no one seemed to know; but I missed my man from behind the tree — nor found him till after the angry throng had rushed on to the nearest lamp. One of them was left behind, standing close to our own railings. He looked round to see if none were by, and then sprang over the gate. Dark as it was I thought I recognized him.

“John?”

“Phineas?” He was beside me in a bound. “How could you do —”

“I could do anything to-night. But you are safe; no one has harmed you. Oh, thank God, you are not hurt!”

And I clung to his arm — my friend, whom I had missed so long, so sorely.

He held me tight — his heart felt as mine, only more silently.

“Now, Phineas, we have a minute’s time. I must have you safe — we must get into the house.”

“Who is there?”

“Jael; she is as good as a host of constables; she has braved the fellows once to-night, but they’re back again, or will be directly.”

“And the mill?”

“Safe, as yet; I have had three of the tan-yard men there since yesterday morning, though your father did not know. I have been going to and fro all night, between there and here, waiting till the rioters should come back from the Severn mills. Hist! — here they are — I say, Jael?”

He tapped at the window. In a few seconds Jael had unbarred the door, let us in, and closed it again securely, mounting guard behind it with something that looked very like my father’s pistols, though I would not discredit her among our peaceful society by positively stating the fact.

“Bravo!” said John, when we stood all together in the barricaded house, and heard the threatening murmur of voices and feet outside. “Bravo, Jael! The wife of Heber the Kenite was no braver woman than you.”

She looked gratified, and followed John obediently from room to room.

“I have done all as thee bade me — thee art a sensible lad, John Halifax. We are secure, I think.”

Secure? bolts and bars secure against fire? For that was threatening us now.

“They can’t mean it — surely they can’t mean it,” repeated John, as the cry of “Burn ’un out!” rose louder and louder.

But they did mean it. From the attic window we watched them light torch after torch, sometimes throwing one at the house — but it fell harmless against the staunch oaken door, and blazed itself out on our stone steps. All it did was to show more plainly than even daylight had shown, the gaunt, ragged forms and pinched faces, furious with famine.

John, as well as I, recoiled at that miserable sight.

“I’ll speak to them,” he said. “Unbar the window, Jael;” and before I could hinder, he was leaning right out. “Holloa, there!”

At his loud and commanding voice a wave of up-turned faces surged forward, expectant.

“My men, do you know what you are about? To burn down a gentleman’s house is — hanging.”

There was a hush, and then a shout of derision.

“Not a Quaker’s! nobody’ll get hanged for burning out a Quaker!”

“That be true enough,” muttered Jael between her teeth. “We must e’en fight, as Mordecai’s people fought, hand to hand, until they slew their enemies.”

“Fight!” repeated John, half to himself, as he stood at the now-closed window, against which more than one blazing torch began to rattle. “Fight — with these? — What are you doing, Jael?”

For she had taken down a large Book — the last Book in the house she would have taken under less critical circumstances, and with it was trying to stop up a broken pane.

“No, my good Jael, not this;” and he carefully replaced the volume; that volume, in which he might have read, as day after day, and year after year, we Christians generally do read, such plain words as these —“Love your enemies;” “bless them that curse you;” “pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you.”

A minute or two John stood with his hand on the Book, thinking. Then he touched me on the shoulder.

“Phineas, I’m going to try a new plan — at least, one so old, that it’s almost new. Whether it succeeds or no, you’ll bear me witness to your father that I did it for the best, and did it because I thought it right. Now for it.”

To my horror, he threw up the window wide, and leant out.

“My men, I want to speak to you.”

He might as well have spoken to the roaring sea. The only answer was a shower of missiles, which missed their aim. The rioters were too far off — our spiked iron railings, eight feet high or more, being a barrier which none had yet ventured to climb. But at length one random stone hit John on the chest.

I pulled him in, but he declared he was not hurt. Terrified, I implored him not to risk his life.

“Life is not always the first thing to be thought of,” said he, gently. “Don’t be afraid — I shall come to no harm. But I MUST do what I think right, if it is to be done.”

While he spoke, I could hardly hear him for the bellowings outside. More savage still grew the cry —

“Burn ’em out! burn ’em out! They be only Quakers!”

“There’s not a minute to lose — stop — let me think — Jael, is that a pistol?”

“Loaded,” she said, handing it over to him with a kind of stern delight. Certainly, Jael was not meant to be a Friend.

John ran down-stairs, and before I guessed his purpose, had unbolted the hall-door, and stood on the flight of steps, in full view of the mob.

There was no bringing him back, so of course I followed. A pillar sheltered me — I do not think he saw me, though I stood close behind him.

So sudden had been his act, that even the rioters did not seem to have noticed, or clearly understood it, till the next lighted torch showed them the young man standing there, with his back to the door — OUTSIDE the door.

The sight fairly confounded them. Even I felt that for the moment he was safe. They were awed — nay, paralyzed, by his daring.

But the storm raged too fiercely to be lulled, except for one brief minute. A confusion of voices burst out afresh —

“Who be thee?”—“It’s one o’ the Quakers.”—“No, he bean’t.”—“Burn ’un, anyhow.”—“Touch ’un, if ye dare.”

There was evidently a division arising. One big man, who had made himself very prominent all along, seemed trying to calm the tumult.

John stood his ground. Once a torch was flung at him — he stooped and picked it up. I thought he was going to hurl it back again, but he did not; he only threw it down, and stamped it out safely with his foot. This simple action had a wonderful effect on the crowd.

The big fellow advanced to the gate and called John by his name.

“Is that you, Jacob Baines? I am sorry to see you here.”

“Be ye, sir.”

“What do you want?”

“Nought wi’ thee. We wants Abel Fletcher. Where is ‘um?”

“I shall certainly not tell you.”

As John said this again the noise arose, and again Jacob Baines seemed to have power to quiet the rest.

John Halifax never stirred. Evidently he was pretty well known. I caught many a stray sentence, such as “Don’t hurt the lad.”—“He were kind to my lad, he were.”—“No, he be a real gentleman.”—“No, he comed here as poor as us,” and the like. At length one voice, sharp and shrill, was heard above the rest.

“I zay, young man, didst ever know what it was to be pretty nigh vamished?”

“Ay, many a time.”

The answer, so brief, so unexpected, struck a great hush into the throng. Then the same voice cried —

“Speak up, man! we won’t hurt ‘ee! You be one o’ we!”

“No, I am not one of you. I’d be ashamed to come in the night and burn my master’s house down.”

I expected an outbreak, but none came. They listened, as it were by compulsion, to the clear, manly voice that had not in it one shade of fear.

“What do you do it for?” John continued. “All because he would not sell you, or give you, his wheat. Even so — it was HIS wheat, not yours. May not a man do what he likes with his own?”

The argument seemed to strike home. There is always a lurking sense of rude justice in a mob — at least a British mob.

“Don’t you see how foolish you were? — You tried threats, too. Now you all know Mr. Fletcher; you are his men — some of you. He is not a man to be threatened.”

This seemed to be taken rather angrily; but John went on speaking, as if he did not observe the fact.

“Nor am I one to be threatened, neither. Look here — the first one of you who attempted to break into Mr. Fletcher’s house I should most certainly have shot. But I’d rather not shoot you, poor, starving fellows! I know what it is to be hungry. I’m sorry for you — sorry from the bottom of my heart.”

There was no mistaking that compassionate accent, nor the murmur which followed it.

“But what must us do, Mr. Halifax?” cried Jacob Baines: “us be starved a’most. What’s the good o’ talking to we?”

John’s countenance relaxed. I saw him lift his head and shake his hair back, with that pleased gesture I remember so well of old. He went down to the locked gate.

“Suppose I gave you something to eat, would you listen to me afterwards?”

There arose up a frenzied shout of assent. Poor wretches! they were fighting for no principle, true or false, only for bare life. They would have bartered their very souls for a mouthful of bread.

“You must promise to be peaceable,” said John again, very resolutely, as soon as he could obtain a hearing. “You are Norton Bury folk, I know you. I could get every one of you hanged, even though Abel Fletcher is a Quaker. Mind, you’ll be peaceable?”

“Ay — ay! Some’at to eat; give us some’at to eat.”

John Halifax called out to Jael; bade her bring all the food of every kind that there was in the house, and give it to him out of the parlour-window. She obeyed — I marvel now to think of it — but she implicitly obeyed. Only I heard her fix the bar to the closed front door, and go back, with a strange, sharp sob, to her station at the hall-window.

“Now, my lads, come in!” and he unlocked the gate.

They came thronging up the steps, not more than two score, I imagined, in spite of the noise they had made. But two score of such famished, desperate men, God grant I may never again see!

John divided the food as well as he could among them; they fell to it like wild beasts. Meat, cooked or raw, loaves, vegetables, meal; all came alike, and were clutched, gnawed, and scrambled for, in the fierce selfishness of hunger. Afterwards there was a call for drink.

“Water, Jael; bring them water.”

“Beer!” shouted some.

“Water,” repeated John. “Nothing but water. I’ll have no drunkards rioting at my master’s door.”

And, either by chance or design, he let them hear the click of his pistol. But it was hardly needed. They were all cowed by a mightier weapon still — the best weapon a man can use — his own firm indomitable will.

At length all the food we had in the house was consumed. John told them so; and they believed him. Little enough, indeed, was sufficient for some of them; wasted with long famine, they turned sick and faint, and dropped down even with bread in their mouths, unable to swallow it. Others gorged themselves to the full, and then lay along the steps, supine as satisfied brutes. Only a few sat and ate like rational human beings; and there was but one, the little, shrill-voiced man, who asked me if he might “tak a bit o’ bread to the old wench at home?”

John, hearing, turned, and for the first time noticed me.

“Phineas, it was very wrong of you; but there is no danger now.”

No, there was none — not even for Abel Fletcher’s son. I stood safe by John’s side, very happy, very proud.

“Well, my men,” he said, looking round with a smile, “have you had enough to eat?”

“Oh, ay!” they all cried.

And one man added —“Thank the Lord!”

“That’s right, Jacob Baines: and, another time, trust the Lord. You wouldn’t then have been abroad this summer morning”— and he pointed to the dawn just reddening in the sky —“this quiet, blessed summer morning, burning and rioting, bringing yourselves to the gallows, and your children to starvation.”

“They be nigh that a’ready,” said Jacob, sullenly. “Us men ha’ gotten a meal, thankee for it; but what’ll become o’ the little ‘uns at home? I say, Mr. Halifax,” and he seemed waxing desperate again, “we must get some food somehow.”

John turned away, his countenance very sad. Another of the men plucked at him from behind.

“Sir, when thee was a poor lad I lent thee a rug to sleep on; I doan’t grudge ‘ee getting on; you was born for a gentleman, sure-ly. But Master Fletcher be a hard man.”

“And a just one,” persisted John. “You that work for him, did he ever stint you of a halfpenny? If you had come to him and said, ‘Master, times are hard, we can’t live upon our wages,’ he might — I don’t say that he would — but he MIGHT even have given you the food you tried to steal.”

“D’ye think he’d give it us now?” And Jacob Baines, the big, gaunt, savage fellow, who had been the ringleader — the same, too, who had spoken of his “little ‘uns”— came and looked steadily in John’s face.

“I knew thee as a lad; thee’rt a young man now, as will be a father some o’ these days. Oh! Mr. Halifax, may ‘ee ne’er want a meal o’ good meat for the missus and the babbies at home, if ee’ll get a bit o’ bread for our’n this day.”

“My man, I’ll try.”

He called me aside, explained to me, and asked my advice and consent, as Abel Fletcher’s son, to a plan that had come into his mind. It was to write orders, which each man presenting at our mill, should receive a certain amount of flour.

“Do you think your father would agree?”

“I think he would.”

“Yes,” John added, pondering —“I am sure he would. And besides, if he does not give some, he may lose all. But he would not do it for fear of that. No, he is a just man — I am not afraid. Give me some paper, Jael.”

He sat down as composedly as if he had been alone in the counting-house, and wrote. I looked over his shoulder, admiring his clear, firm hand-writing; the precision, concentrativeness, and quickness, with which he first seemed to arrange and then execute his ideas. He possessed to the full that “business” faculty, so frequently despised, but which, out of very ordinary material, often makes a clever man; and without which the cleverest man alive can never be altogether a great man.

When about to sign the orders, John suddenly stopped. “No; I had better not.”

“Why so?”

“I have no right; your father might think it presumption.”

“Presumption? after to-night!”

“Oh, that’s nothing! Take the pen. It is your part to sign them, Phineas.”

I obeyed.

“Isn’t this better than hanging?” said John to the men, when he had distributed the little bits of paper — precious as pound-notes — and made them all fully understand the same. “Why, there isn’t another gentleman in Norton Bury, who, if you had come to burn HIS house down, would not have had the constables or the soldiers, have shot down one-half of you like mad dogs, and sent the other half to the county gaol. Now, for all your misdoings, we let you go quietly home, well fed, and with food for children, too. WHY, think you?”

“I don’t know,” said Jacob Baines, humbly.

“I’ll tell you. Because Abel Fletcher is a Quaker and a Christian.”

“Hurrah for Abel Fletcher! hurrah for the Quakers!” shouted they, waking up the echoes down Norton Bury streets; which, of a surety, had never echoed to THAT shout before. And so the riot was over.

John Halifax closed the hall-door and came in-unsteadily — staggering. Jael placed a chair for him — worthy soul! she was wiping her old eyes. He sat down, shivering, speechless. I put my hand on his shoulder; he took it and pressed it hard.

“Oh! Phineas, lad, I’m glad; glad it’s safe over.”

“Yes, thank God!”

“Ay, indeed; thank God!”

He covered his eyes for a minute or two, then rose up pale, but quite himself again.

“Now let us go and fetch your father home.”

We found him on John’s bed, still asleep. But as we entered he woke. The daylight shone on his face — it looked ten years older since yesterday — he stared, bewildered and angry, at John Halifax.

“Eh, young man — oh! I remember. Where is my son — where’s my Phineas?”

I fell on his neck as if I had been a child. And almost as if it had been a child’s feeble head, mechanically he smoothed and patted mine.

“Thee art not hurt? Nor any one?”

“No,” John answered; “nor is either the house or the tan-yard injured.”

He looked amazed. “How has that been?”

“Phineas will tell you. Or, stay — better wait till you are at home.”

But my father insisted on hearing. I told the whole, without any comments on John’s behaviour; he would not have liked it; and, besides, the facts spoke for themselves. I told the simple, plain story — nothing more.

Abel Fletcher listened at first in silence. As I proceeded he felt about for his hat, put it on, and drew its broad brim close down over his eyes. Not even when I told him of the flour we had promised in his name, the giving of which would, as we had calculated, cost him considerable loss, did he utter a word or move a muscle.

John at length asked him if he were satisfied.

“Quite satisfied.”

But, having said this, he sat so long, his hands locked together on his knees, and his hat drawn down, hiding all the face except the rigid mouth and chin — sat so long, so motionless, that we became uneasy.

John spoke to him gently, almost as a son would have spoken.

“Are you very lame still? Could I help you to walk home?”

My father looked up, and slowly held out his hand.

“Thee hast been a good lad, and a kind lad to us; I thank thee.”

There was no answer, none. But all the words in the world could not match that happy silence.

By degrees we got my father home. It was just such another summer morning as the one, two years back, when we two had stood, exhausted and trembling, before that sternly-bolted door. We both thought of that day: I knew not if my father did also.

He entered, leaning heavily on John. He sat down in the very seat, in the very room, where he had so harshly judged us — judged him.

Something, perhaps, of that bitterness rankled in the young man’s spirit now, for he stopped on the threshold.

“Come in,” said my father, looking up.

“If I am welcome; not otherwise.”

“Thee art welcome.”

He came in-I drew him in-and sat down with us. But his manner was irresolute, his fingers closed and unclosed nervously. My father, too, sat leaning his head on his two hands, not unmoved. I stole up to him, and thanked him softly for the welcome he had given.

“There is nothing to thank me for,” said he, with something of his old hardness. “What I once did, was only justice — or I then believed so. What I have done, and am about to do, is still mere justice. John, how old art thee now?”

“Twenty.”

“Then, for one year from this time I will take thee as my ‘prentice, though thee knowest already nearly as much of the business as I do. At twenty-one thee wilt be able to set up for thyself, or I may take thee into partnership — we’ll see. But”— and he looked at me, then sternly, nay, fiercely, into John’s steadfast eyes —“remember, thee hast in some measure taken that lad’s place. May God deal with thee as thou dealest with my son Phineas — my only son!”

“Amen!” was the solemn answer.

And God, who sees us both now — ay, NOW! and, perhaps, not so far apart as some may deem — He knows whether or no John Halifax kept that vow.

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