Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter X

A Refractory Pupil

Sylvia was still full of the specksioneer and his stories, when Hepburn came up to give her the next lesson. But the prospect of a little sensible commendation for writing a whole page full of flourishing ‘Abednegos,’ had lost all the slight charm it had ever possessed. She was much more inclined to try and elicit some sympathy in her interest in the perils and adventures of the northern seas, than to bend and control her mind to the right formation of letters. Unwisely enough, she endeavoured to repeat one of the narratives that she had heard from Kinraid; and when she found that Hepburn (if, indeed, he did not look upon the whole as a silly invention) considered it only as an interruption to the real business in hand, to which he would try to listen as patiently as he could, in the hope of Sylvia’s applying herself diligently to her copy-book when she had cleared her mind, she contracted her pretty lips, as if to check them from making any further appeals for sympathy, and set about her writing-lesson in a very rebellious frame of mind, only restrained by her mother’s presence from spoken mutiny.

‘After all,’ said she, throwing down her pen, and opening and shutting her weary, cramped hand, ‘I see no good in tiring myself wi’ learning for t’ write letters when I’se never got one in a’ my life. What for should I write answers, when there’s niver a one writes to me? and if I had one, I couldn’t read it; it’s bad enough wi’ a book o’ print as I’ve niver seen afore, for there’s sure to be new-fangled words in ‘t. I’m sure I wish the man were farred who plagues his brains wi’ striking out new words. Why can’t folks just ha’ a set on ’em for good and a’?’

‘Why! you’ll be after using two or three hundred yoursel’ every day as you live, Sylvie; and yet I must use a great many as you never think on about t’ shop; and t’ folks in t’ fields want their set, let alone the high English that parsons and lawyers speak.’

‘Well, it’s weary work is reading and writing. Cannot you learn me something else, if we mun do lessons?’

‘There’s sums — and geography,’ said Hepburn, slowly and gravely.

‘Geography!’ said Sylvia, brightening, and perhaps not pronouncing the word quite correctly, ‘I’d like yo’ to learn me geography. There’s a deal o’ places I want to hear all about.’

‘Well, I’ll bring up a book and a map next time. But I can tell you something now. There’s four quarters in the globe.’

‘What’s that?’ asked Sylvia.

‘The globe is the earth; the place we live on.’

‘Go on. Which quarter is Greenland?’

‘Greenland is no quarter. It is only a part of one.’

‘Maybe it’s a half quarter.’

‘No, not so much as that.’

‘Half again?’

‘No!’ he replied, smiling a little.

She thought he was making it into a very small place in order to tease her; so she pouted a little, and then said —

‘Greenland is all t’ geography I want to know. Except, perhaps, York. I’d like to learn about York, because of t’ races, and London, because King George lives there.’

‘But if you learn geography at all, you must learn ‘bout all places: which of them is hot, and which is cold, and how many inhabitants is in each, and what’s the rivers, and which is the principal towns.’

‘I’m sure, Sylvie, if Philip will learn thee all that, thou’lt be such a sight o’ knowledge as ne’er a one o’ th’ Prestons has been sin’ my great-grandfather lost his property. I should be main proud o’ thee; ‘twould seem as if we was Prestons o’ Slaideburn once more.’

‘I’d do a deal to pleasure yo’, mammy; but weary befa’ riches and land, if folks that has ’em is to write “Abednegos” by t’ score, and to get hard words int’ their brains, till they work like barm, and end wi’ cracking ’em.’

This seemed to be Sylvia’s last protest against learning for the night, for after this she turned docile, and really took pains to understand all that Philip could teach her, by means of the not unskilful, though rude, map which he drew for her with a piece of charred wood on his aunt’s dresser. He had asked his aunt’s leave before beginning what Sylvia called his ‘dirty work;’ but by-and-by even she became a little interested in starting from a great black spot called Monkshaven, and in the shaping of land and sea around that one centre. Sylvia held her round chin in the palms of her hands, supporting her elbows on the dresser; looking down at the progress of the rough drawing in general, but now and then glancing up at him with sudden inquiry. All along he was not so much absorbed in his teaching as to be unconscious of her sweet proximity. She was in her best mood towards him; neither mutinous nor saucy; and he was striving with all his might to retain her interest, speaking better than ever he had done before (such brightness did love call forth!)— understanding what she would care to hear and to know; when, in the middle of an attempt at explaining the cause of the long polar days, of which she had heard from her childhood, he felt that her attention was no longer his; that a discord had come in between their minds; that she had passed out of his power. This certainty of intuition lasted but for an instant; he had no time to wonder or to speculate as to what had affected her so adversely to his wishes before the door opened and Kinraid came in. Then Hepburn knew that she must have heard his coming footsteps, and recognized them.

He angrily stiffened himself up into coldness of demeanour. Almost to his surprise, Sylvia’s greeting to the new comer was as cold as his own. She stood rather behind him; so perhaps she did not see the hand which Kinraid stretched out towards her, for she did not place her own little palm in it, as she had done to Philip an hour ago. And she hardly spoke, but began to pore over the rough black map, as if seized with strong geographical curiosity, or determined to impress Philip’s lesson deep on her memory.

Still Philip was dismayed by seeing the warm welcome which Kinraid received from the master of the house, who came in from the back premises almost at the same time as the specksioneer entered at the front. Hepburn was uneasy, too, at finding Kinraid take his seat by the fireside, like one accustomed to the ways of the house. Pipes were soon produced. Philip disliked smoking. Possibly Kinraid did so too, but he took a pipe at any rate, and lighted it, though he hardly used it at all, but kept talking to farmer Robson on sea affairs. He had the conversation pretty much to himself. Philip sat gloomily by; Sylvia and his aunt were silent, and old Robson smoked his long clay pipe, from time to time taking it out of his mouth to spit into the bright copper spittoon, and to shake the white ashes out of the bowl. Before he replaced it, he would give a short laugh of relishing interest in Kinraid’s conversation; and now and then he put in a remark. Sylvia perched herself sideways on the end of the dresser, and made pretence to sew; but Philip could see how often she paused in her work to listen.

By-and-by, his aunt spoke to him, and they kept up a little side conversation, more because Bell Robson felt that her nephew, her own flesh and blood, was put out, than for any special interest they either of them felt in what they were saying. Perhaps, also, they neither of them disliked showing that they had no great faith in the stories Kinraid was telling. Mrs. Robson, at any rate, knew so little as to be afraid of believing too much.

Philip was sitting on that side of the fire which was nearest to the window and to Sylvia, and opposite to the specksioneer. At length he turned to his cousin and said in a low voice —

‘I suppose we can’t go on with our spell at geography till that fellow’s gone?’

The colour came into Sylvia’s cheek at the words ‘that fellow’; but she only replied with a careless air —

‘Well, I’m one as thinks enough is as good as a feast; and I’ve had enough of geography this one night, thank you kindly all the same.’

Philip took refuge in offended silence. He was maliciously pleased when his aunt made so much noise with her preparation for supper as quite to prevent the sound of the sailor’s words from reaching Sylvia’s ears. She saw that he was glad to perceive that her efforts to reach the remainder of the story were baulked! this nettled her, and, determined not to let him have his malicious triumph, and still more to put a stop to any attempt at private conversation, she began to sing to herself as she sat at her work; till, suddenly seized with a desire to help her mother, she dexterously slipped down from her seat, passed Hepburn, and was on her knees toasting cakes right in front of the fire, and just close to her father and Kinraid. And now the noise that Hepburn had so rejoiced in proved his foe. He could not hear the little merry speeches that darted backwards and forwards as the specksioneer tried to take the toasting-fork out of Sylvia’s hand.

‘How comes that sailor chap here?’ asked Hepburn of his aunt. ‘He’s none fit to be where Sylvia is.’

‘Nay, I dunnot know,’ said she; ‘the Corneys made us acquaint first, and my master is quite fain of his company.’

‘And do you like him, too, aunt?’ asked Hepburn, almost wistfully; he had followed Mrs. Robson into the dairy on pretence of helping her.

‘I’m none fond on him; I think he tells us traveller’s tales, by way o’ seeing how much we can swallow. But the master and Sylvia think that there never was such a one.’

‘I could show them a score as good as he down on the quayside.’

‘Well, laddie, keep a calm sough. Some folk like some folk and others don’t. Wherever I am there’ll allays be a welcome for thee.’

For the good woman thought that he had been hurt by the evident absorption of her husband and daughter with their new friend, and wished to make all easy and straight. But do what she would, he did not recover his temper all evening: he was uncomfortable, put out, not enjoying himself, and yet he would not go. He was determined to assert his greater intimacy in that house by outstaying Kinraid. At length the latter got up to go; but before he went, he must needs bend over Sylvia and say something to her in so low a tone that Philip could not hear it; and she, seized with a sudden fit of diligence, never looked up from her sewing; only nodded her head by way of reply. At last he took his departure, after many a little delay, and many a quick return, which to the suspicious Philip seemed only pretences for taking stolen glances at Sylvia. As soon as he was decidedly gone, she folded up her work, and declared that she was so much tired that she must go to bed there and then. Her mother, too, had been dozing for the last half-hour, and was only too glad to see signs that she might betake herself to her natural place of slumber.

‘Take another glass, Philip,’ said farmer Robson.

But Hepburn refused the offer rather abruptly. He drew near to Sylvia instead. He wanted to make her speak to him, and he saw that she wished to avoid it. He took up the readiest pretext. It was an unwise one as it proved, for it deprived him of his chances of occasionally obtaining her undivided attention.

‘I don’t think you care much for learning geography, Sylvie?’

‘Not much to-night,’ said she, making a pretence to yawn, yet looking timidly up at his countenance of displeasure.

‘Nor at any time,’ said he, with growing anger; ‘nor for any kind of learning. I did bring some books last time I came, meaning to teach you many a thing — but now I’ll just trouble you for my books; I put them on yon shelf by the Bible.’

He had a mind that she should bring them to him; that, at any rate, he should have the pleasure of receiving them out of her hands.

Sylvia did not reply, but went and took down the books with a languid, indifferent air.

‘And so you won’t learn any more geography,’ said Hepburn.

Something in his tone struck her, and she looked up in his face. There were marks of stern offence upon his countenance, and yet in it there was also an air of wistful regret and sadness that touched her.

‘Yo’re niver angry with me, Philip? Sooner than vex yo’, I’ll try and learn. Only, I’m just stupid; and it mun be such a trouble to you.’

Hepburn would fain have snatched at this half proposal that the lessons should be continued, but he was too stubborn and proud to say anything. He turned away from the sweet, pleading face without a word, to wrap up his books in a piece of paper. He knew that she was standing quite still by his side, though he made as if he did not perceive her. When he had done he abruptly wished them all ‘good-night,’ and took his leave.

There were tears in Sylvia’s eyes, although the feeling in her heart was rather one of relief. She had made a fair offer, and it had been treated with silent contempt. A few days afterwards, her father came in from Monkshaven market, and dropped out, among other pieces of news, that he had met Kinraid, who was bound for his own home at Cullercoats. He had desired his respects to Mrs. Robson and her daughter; and had bid Robson say that he would have come up to Haytersbank to wish them good-by, but that as he was pressed for time, he hoped they would excuse him. But Robson did not think it worth while to give this long message of mere politeness. Indeed, as it did not relate to business, and was only sent to women, Robson forgot all about it, pretty nearly as soon as it was uttered. So Sylvia went about fretting herself for one or two days, at her hero’s apparent carelessness of those who had at any rate treated him more like a friend than an acquaintance of only a few weeks’ standing; and then, her anger quenching her incipient regard, she went about her daily business pretty much as though he had never been. He had gone away out of her sight into the thick mist of unseen life from which he had emerged — gone away without a word, and she might never see him again. But still there was a chance of her seeing him when he came to marry Molly Corney. Perhaps she should be bridesmaid, and then what a pleasant merry time the wedding-day would be! The Corneys were all such kind people, and in their family there never seemed to be the checks and restraints by which her own mother hedged her round. Then there came an overwhelming self-reproaching burst of love for that ‘own mother’; a humiliation before her slightest wish, as penance for the moment’s unspoken treason; and thus Sylvia was led to request her cousin Philip to resume his lessons in so meek a manner, that he slowly and graciously acceded to a request which he was yearning to fulfil all the time.

During the ensuing winter, all went on in monotonous regularity at Haytersbank Farm for many weeks. Hepburn came and went, and thought Sylvia wonderfully improved in docility and sobriety; and perhaps also he noticed the improvement in her appearance. For she was at that age when a girl changes rapidly, and generally for the better. Sylvia shot up into a tall young woman; her eyes deepened in colour, her face increased in expression, and a sort of consciousness of unusual good looks gave her a slight tinge of coquettish shyness with the few strangers whom she ever saw. Philip hailed her interest in geography as another sign of improvement. He had brought back his book of maps to the farm; and there he sat on many an evening teaching his cousin, who had strange fancies respecting the places about which she wished to learn, and was coolly indifferent to the very existence of other towns, and countries, and seas far more famous in story. She was occasionally wilful, and at times very contemptuous as to the superior knowledge of her instructor; but, in spite of it all, Philip went regularly on the appointed evenings to Haytersbank — through keen black east wind, or driving snow, or slushing thaw; for he liked dearly to sit a little behind her, with his arm on the back of her chair, she stooping over the outspread map, with her eyes — could he have seen them — a good deal fixed on one spot in the map, not Northumberland, where Kinraid was spending the winter, but those wild northern seas about which he had told them such wonders.

One day towards spring, she saw Molly Corney coming towards the farm. The companions had not met for many weeks, for Molly had been from home visiting her relations in the north. Sylvia opened the door, and stood smiling and shivering on the threshold, glad to see her friend again. Molly called out, when a few paces off —

‘Why, Sylvia, is that thee! Why, how thou’rt growed, to be sure! What a bonny lass thou is!’

‘Dunnot talk nonsense to my lass,’ said Bell Robson, hospitably leaving her ironing and coming to the door; but though the mother tried to look as if she thought it nonsense, she could hardly keep down the smile that shone out of her eyes, as she put her hand on Sylvia’s shoulder, with a fond sense of proprietorship in what was being praised.

‘Oh! but she is,’ persisted Molly. ‘She’s grown quite a beauty sin’ I saw her. And if I don’t tell her so, the men will.’

‘Be quiet wi’ thee,’ said Sylvia, more than half offended, and turning away in a huff at the open barefaced admiration.

‘Ay; but they will,’ persevered Molly. ‘Yo’ll not keep her long, Mistress Robson. And as mother says, yo’d feel it a deal more to have yer daughters left on hand.’

‘Thy mother has many, I have but this one,’ said Mrs. Robson, with severe sadness; for now Molly was getting to talk as she disliked. But Molly’s purpose was to bring the conversation round to her own affairs, of which she was very full.

‘Yes! I tell mother that wi’ so many as she has, she ought to be thankful to t’ one as gets off quickest.’

‘Who? which is it?’ asked Sylvia, a little eagerly, seeing that there was news of a wedding behind the talk.

‘Why! who should it be but me?’ said Molly, laughing a good deal, and reddening a little. ‘I’ve not gone fra’ home for nought; I’se picked up a measter on my travels, leastways one as is to be.’

‘Charley Kinraid,’ said Sylvia smiling, as she found that now she might reveal Molly’s secret, which hitherto she had kept sacred.

‘Charley Kinraid be hung!’ said Molly, with a toss of her head. ‘Whatten good’s a husband who’s at sea half t’ year? Ha ha, my measter is a canny Newcassel shopkeeper, on t’ Side. A reckon a’ve done pretty well for mysel’, and a’ll wish yo’ as good luck, Sylvia. For yo’ see,’ (turning to Bell Robson, who, perhaps, she thought would more appreciate the substantial advantages of her engagement than Sylvia,) ‘though Measter Brunton is near upon forty if he’s a day, yet he turns over a matter of two hundred pound every year; an he’s a good-looking man of his years too, an’ a kind, good-tempered feller int’ t’ bargain. He’s been married once, to be sure; but his childer are dead a’ ‘cept one; an’ I don’t mislike childer either; an’ a’ll feed ’em well, an’ get ’em to bed early, out o’ t’ road.’

Mrs. Robson gave her her grave good wishes; but Sylvia was silent. She was disappointed; it was a coming down from the romance with the specksioneer for its hero. Molly laughed awkwardly, understanding Sylvia’s thoughts better than the latter imagined.

‘Sylvia’s noane so well pleased. Why, lass! it’s a’ t’ better for thee. There’s Charley to t’ fore now, which if a’d married him, he’d not ha’ been; and he’s said more nor once what a pretty lass yo’d grow into by-and-by.’

Molly’s prosperity was giving her an independence and fearlessness of talk such as had seldom appeared hitherto; and certainly never before Mrs. Robson. Sylvia was annoyed at Molly’s whole tone and manner, which were loud, laughing, and boisterous; but to her mother they were positively repugnant. She said shortly and gravely —

‘Sylvia’s none so set upo’ matrimony; she’s content to bide wi’ me and her father. Let a be such talking, it’s not i’ my way.’

Molly was a little subdued; but still her elation at the prospect of being so well married kept cropping out of all the other subjects which were introduced; and when she went away, Mrs. Robson broke out in an unwonted strain of depreciation.

‘That’s the way wi’ some lasses. They’re like a cock on a dunghill, when they’ve teased a silly chap into wedding ’em. It’s cock-a-doodle-do, I’ve cotched a husband, cock-a-doodle-doo, wi’ ’em. I’ve no patience wi’ such like; I beg, Sylvie, thou’lt not get too thick wi’ Molly. She’s not pretty behaved, making such an ado about men-kind, as if they were two-headed calves to be run after.’

‘But Molly’s a good-hearted lass, mother. Only I never dreamt but what she was troth-plighted wi’ Charley Kinraid,’ said Sylvia, meditatively.

‘That wench ‘ll be troth-plight to th’ first man as ‘ll wed her and keep her i’ plenty; that’s a’ she thinks about,’ replied Bell, scornfully.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:18