Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XII

New Year’s Fete

All this enlargement of interest in the shop occupied Philip fully for some months after the period referred to in the preceding chapter. Remembering his last conversation with his aunt, he might have been uneasy at his inability to perform his promise and look after his pretty cousin, but that about the middle of November Bell Robson had fallen ill of a rheumatic fever, and that her daughter had been entirely absorbed in nursing her. No thought of company or gaiety was in Sylvia’s mind as long as her mother’s illness lasted; vehement in all her feelings, she discovered in the dread of losing her mother how passionately she was attached to her. Hitherto she had supposed, as children so often do, that her parents would live for ever; and now when it was a question of days, whether by that time the following week her mother might not be buried out of her sight for ever, she clung to every semblance of service to be rendered, or affection shown, as if she hoped to condense the love and care of years into the few days only that might remain. Mrs. Robson lingered on, began slowly to recover, and before Christmas was again sitting by the fireside in the house-place, wan and pulled down, muffled up with shawls and blankets, but still there once more, where not long before Sylvia had scarcely expected to see her again. Philip came up that evening and found Sylvia in wild spirits. She thought that everything was done, now that her mother had once come downstairs again; she laughed with glee; she kissed her mother; she shook hands with Philip, she almost submitted to a speech of more than usual tenderness from him; but, in the midst of his words, her mother’s pillows wanted arranging and she went to her chair, paying no more heed to his words than if they had been addressed to the cat, that lying on the invalid’s knee was purring out her welcome to the weak hand feebly stroking her back. Robson himself soon came in, looking older and more subdued since Philip had seen him last. He was very urgent that his wife should have some spirits and water; but on her refusal, almost as if she loathed the thought of the smell, he contented himself with sharing her tea, though he kept abusing the beverage as ‘washing the heart out of a man,’ and attributing all the degeneracy of the world, growing up about him in his old age, to the drinking of such slop. At the same time, his little self-sacrifice put him in an unusually good temper; and, mingled with his real gladness at having his wife once more on the way to recovery, brought back some of the old charm of tenderness combined with light-heartedness, which had won the sober Isabella Preston long ago. He sat by her side, holding her hand, and talking of old times to the young couple opposite; of his adventures and escapes, and how he had won his wife. She, faintly smiling at the remembrance of those days, yet half-ashamed at having the little details of her courtship revealed, from time to time kept saying —

‘For shame wi’ thee, Dannel — I never did,’ and faint denials of a similar kind.

‘Niver believe her, Sylvie. She were a woman, and there’s niver a woman but likes to have a sweetheart, and can tell when a chap’s castin’ sheep’s-eyes at her; ay, an’ afore he knows what he’s about hissen. She were a pretty one then, was my old ‘ooman, an’ liked them as thought her so, though she did cock her head high, as bein’ a Preston, which were a family o’ standin’ and means i’ those parts aforetime. There’s Philip there, I’ll warrant, is as proud o’ bein’ Preston by t’ mother’s side, for it runs i’ t’ blood, lass. A can tell when a child of a Preston tak’s to being proud o’ their kin, by t’ cut o’ their nose. Now Philip’s and my missus’s has a turn beyond common i’ their nostrils, as if they was sniffin’ at t’ rest of us world, an’ seein’ if we was good enough for ’em to consort wi’. Thee an’ me, lass, is Robsons — oat-cake folk, while they’s pie-crust. Lord! how Bell used to speak to me, as short as though a wasn’t a Christian, an’ a’ t’ time she loved me as her very life, an’ well a knew it, tho’ a’d to mak’ as tho’ a didn’t. Philip, when thou goes courtin’, come t’ me, and a’ll give thee many a wrinkle. A’ve shown, too, as a know well how t’ choose a good wife by tokens an’ signs, hannot a, missus? Come t’ me, my lad, and show me t’ lass, an’ a’ll just tak’ a squint at her, an’ tell yo’ if she’ll do or not; an’ if she’ll do, a’ll teach yo’ how to win her.’

‘They say another o’ yon Corney girls is going to be married,’ said Mrs. Robson, in her faint deliberate tones.

‘By gosh, an’ it’s well thou’st spoke on ’em; a was as clean forgettin’ it as iver could be. A met Nanny Corney i’ Monkshaven last neet, and she axed me for t’ let our Sylvia come o’ New Year’s Eve, an’ see Molly an’ her man, that ‘n as is wed beyond Newcassel, they’ll be over at her feyther’s, for t’ New Year, an’ there’s to be a merry-making.’

Sylvia’s colour came, her eyes brightened, she would have liked to go; but the thought of her mother came across her, and her features fell. Her mother’s eye caught the look and the change, and knew what both meant as well as if Sylvia had spoken out.

‘Thursday se’nnight,’ said she. ‘I’ll be rare and strong by then, and Sylvie shall go play hersen; she’s been nurse-tending long enough.’

‘You’re but weakly yet,’ said Philip shortly; he did not intend to say it, but the words seemed to come out in spite of himself.

‘A said as our lass should come, God willin’, if she only came and went, an’ thee goin’ on sprightly, old ‘ooman. An’ a’ll turn nurse-tender mysen for t’ occasion, ‘special if thou can stand t’ good honest smell o’ whisky by then. So, my lass, get up thy smart clothes, and cut t’ best on ’em out, as becomes a Preston. Maybe, a’ll fetch thee home, an’ maybe Philip will convoy thee, for Nanny Corney bade thee to t’ merry-making, as well. She said her measter would be seem’ thee about t’ wool afore then.’

‘I don’t think as I can go,’ said Philip, secretly pleased to know that he had the opportunity in his power; ‘I’m half bound to go Wi’ Hester Rose and her mother to t’ watch-night.’

‘Is Hester a Methodee?’ asked Sylvia in surprise.

‘No! she’s neither a Methodee, nor a Friend, nor a Church person; but she’s a turn for serious things, choose wherever they’re found.’

‘Well, then,’ said good-natured farmer Robson, only seeing the surface of things, ‘a’ll make shift to fetch Sylvie back fra’ t’ merry-making, and thee an’ thy young woman can go to t’ prayer-makin’; it’s every man to his taste, say I.’

But in spite of his half-promise, nay against his natural inclination, Philip was lured to the Corneys’ by the thought of meeting Sylvia, of watching her and exulting in her superiority in pretty looks and ways to all the other girls likely to be assembled. Besides (he told his conscience) he was pledged to his aunt to watch over Sylvia like a brother. So in the interval before New Year’s Eve, he silently revelled as much as any young girl in the anticipation of the happy coming time.

At this hour, all the actors in this story having played out their parts and gone to their rest, there is something touching in recording the futile efforts made by Philip to win from Sylvia the love he yearned for. But, at the time, any one who had watched him might have been amused to see the grave, awkward, plain young man studying patterns and colours for a new waistcoat, with his head a little on one side, after the meditative manner common to those who are choosing a new article of dress. They might have smiled could they have read in his imagination the frequent rehearsals of the coming evening, when he and she should each be dressed in their gala attire, to spend a few hours under a bright, festive aspect, among people whose company would oblige them to assume a new demeanour towards each other, not so familiar as their every-day manner, but allowing more scope for the expression of rustic gallantry. Philip had so seldom been to anything of the kind, that, even had Sylvia not been going, he would have felt a kind of shy excitement at the prospect of anything so unusual. But, indeed, if Sylvia had not been going, it is very probable that Philip’s rigid conscience might have been aroused to the question whether such parties did not savour too much of the world for him to form one in them.

As it was, however, the facts to him were simply these. He was going and she was going. The day before, he had hurried off to Haytersbank Farm with a small paper parcel in his pocket — a ribbon with a little briar-rose pattern running upon it for Sylvia. It was the first thing he had ever ventured to give her — the first thing of the kind would, perhaps, be more accurate; for when he had first begun to teach her any lessons, he had given her Mavor’s Spelling-book, but that he might have done, out of zeal for knowledge, to any dunce of a little girl of his acquaintance. This ribbon was quite a different kind of present; he touched it tenderly, as if he were caressing it, when he thought of her wearing it; the briar-rose (sweetness and thorns) seemed to be the very flower for her; the soft, green ground on which the pink and brown pattern ran, was just the colour to show off her complexion. And she would in a way belong to him: her cousin, her mentor, her chaperon, her lover! While others only admired, he might hope to appropriate; for of late they had been such happy friends! Her mother approved of him, her father liked him. A few months, perhaps only a few weeks more of self-restraint, and then he might go and speak openly of his wishes, and what he had to offer. For he had resolved, with the quiet force of his character, to wait until all was finally settled between him and his masters, before he declared himself to either Sylvia or her parents. The interval was spent in patient, silent endeavours to recommend himself to her.

He had to give his ribbon to his aunt in charge for Sylvia, and that was a disappointment to his fancy, although he tried to reason himself into thinking that it was better so. He had not time to wait for her return from some errand on which she had gone, for he was daily more and more occupied with the affairs of the shop.

Sylvia made many a promise to her mother, and more to herself, that she would not stay late at the party, but she might go as early as she liked; and before the December daylight had faded away, Sylvia presented herself at the Corneys’. She was to come early in order to help to set out the supper, which was arranged in the large old flagged parlour, which served as best bed-room as well. It opened out of the house-place, and was the sacred room of the house, as chambers of a similar description are still considered in retired farmhouses in the north of England. They are used on occasions like the one now described for purposes of hospitality; but in the state bed, overshadowing so large a portion of the floor, the births and, as far as may be, the deaths, of the household take place. At the Corneys’, the united efforts of some former generation of the family had produced patchwork curtains and coverlet; and patchwork was patchwork in those days, before the early Yates and Peels had found out the secret of printing the parsley-leaf. Scraps of costly Indian chintzes and palempours were intermixed with commoner black and red calico in minute hexagons; and the variety of patterns served for the useful purpose of promoting conversation as well as the more obvious one of displaying the work-woman ‘s taste. Sylvia, for instance, began at once to her old friend, Molly Brunton, who had accompanied her into this chamber to take off her hat and cloak, with a remark on one of the chintzes. Stooping over the counterpane, with a face into which the flush would come whether or no, she said to Molly —

‘Dear! I never seed this one afore — this — for all t’ world like th’ eyes in a peacock’s tail.’

‘Thou’s seen it many a time and oft, lass. But weren’t thou surprised to find Charley here? We picked him up at Shields, quite by surprise like; and when Brunton and me said as we was comin’ here, nought would serve him but comin’ with us, for t’ see t’ new year in. It’s a pity as your mother’s ta’en this time for t’ fall ill and want yo’ back so early.’

Sylvia had taken off her hat and cloak by this time, and began to help Molly and a younger unmarried sister in laying out the substantial supper.

‘Here,’ continued Mrs. Brunton; ‘stick a bit o’ holly i’ yon pig’s mouth, that’s the way we do things i’ Newcassel; but folks is so behindhand in Monkshaven. It’s a fine thing to live in a large town, Sylvia; an’ if yo’re looking out for a husband, I’d advise yo’ to tak’ one as lives in a town. I feel as if I were buried alive comin’ back here, such an out-o’-t’-way place after t’ Side, wheere there’s many a hundred carts and carriages goes past in a day. I’ve a great mind for t’ tak yo’ two lassies back wi’ me, and let yo’ see a bit o’ t’ world; may-be, I may yet.

Her sister Bessy looked much pleased with this plan, but Sylvia was rather inclined to take offence at Molly’s patronizing ways, and replied —

‘I’m none so fond o’ noise and bustle; why, yo’ll not be able to hear yoursels speak wi’ all them carts and carriages. I’d rayther bide at home; let alone that mother can’t spare me.’

It was, perhaps, a rather ungracious way of answering Molly Brunton’s speech, and so she felt it to be, although her invitation had been none of the most courteously worded. She irritated Sylvia still further by repeating her last words —

‘“Mother can’t spare me;” why, mother ‘ll have to spare thee sometime, when t’ time for wedding comes.’

‘I’m none going to be wed,’ said Sylvia; ‘and if I were, I’d niver go far fra’ mother.’

‘Eh! what a spoilt darling it is. How Brunton will laugh when I tell him about yo’; Brunton’s a rare one for laughin’. It’s a great thing to have got such a merry man for a husband. Why! he has his joke for every one as comes into t’ shop; and he’ll ha’ something funny to say to everything this evenin’.’

Bessy saw that Sylvia was annoyed, and, with more delicacy than her sister, she tried to turn the conversation.

‘That’s a pretty ribbon in thy hair, Sylvia; I’d like to have one o’ t’ same pattern. Feyther likes pickled walnuts stuck about t’ round o’ beef, Molly.’

‘I know what I’m about,’ replied Mrs. Brunton, with a toss of her married head.

Bessy resumed her inquiry.

‘Is there any more to be had wheere that come fra’, Sylvia?’

‘I don’t know,’ replied Sylvia. ‘It come fra’ Foster’s, and yo’ can ask.’

‘What might it cost?’ said Betsy, fingering an end of it to test its quality.

‘I can’t tell,’ said Sylvia, ‘it were a present.’

‘Niver mak’ ado about t’ price,’ said Molly; ‘I’ll gi’e thee enough on ‘t to tie up thy hair, just like Sylvia’s. Only thou hastn’t such wealth o’ curls as she has; it’ll niver look t’ same i’ thy straight locks. And who might it be as give it thee, Sylvia?’ asked the unscrupulous, if good-natured Molly.

‘My cousin Philip, him as is shopman at Foster’s,’ said Sylvia, innocently. But it was far too good an opportunity for the exercise of Molly’s kind of wit for her to pass over.

‘Oh, oh! our cousin Philip, is it? and he’ll not be living so far away from your mother? I’ve no need be a witch to put two and two together. He’s a coming here to-night, isn’t he, Bessy?’

‘I wish yo’ wouldn’t talk so, Molly,’ said Sylvia; ‘me and Philip is good enough friends, but we niver think on each other in that way; leastways, I don’t.’

‘(Sweet butter! now that’s my mother’s old-fashioned way; as if folks must eat sweet butter now-a-days, because her mother did!) That way,’ continued Molly, in the manner that annoyed Sylvia so much, repeating her words as if for the purpose of laughing at them. ‘“That way?” and pray what is t’ way yo’re speaking on? I niver said nought about marrying, did I, that yo’ need look so red and shamefaced about yo’r cousin Philip? But, as Brunton says, if t’ cap fits yo’, put it on. I’m glad he’s comin’ to-night tho’, for as I’m done makin’ love and courtin’, it’s next best t’ watch other folks; an’ yo’r face, Sylvia, has letten me into a secret, as I’d some glimpses on afore I was wed.’

Sylvia secretly determined not to speak a word more to Philip than she could help, and wondered how she could ever have liked Molly at all, much less have made a companion of her. The table was now laid out, and nothing remained but to criticize the arrangement a little.

Bessy was full of admiration.

‘Theere, Molly!’ said she. ‘Yo’ niver seed more vittle brought together i’ Newcassel, I’ll be bound; there’ll be above half a hundredweight o’ butcher’s meat, beside pies and custards. I’ve eaten no dinner these two days for thinking on ‘t; it’s been a weary burden on my mind, but it’s off now I see how well it looks. I told mother not to come near it till we’d spread it all out, and now I’ll go fetch her.’

Bessy ran off into the house-place.

‘It’s well enough in a country kind o’ way,’ said Molly, with the faint approbation of condescension. ‘But if I’d thought on, I’d ha’ brought ’em down a beast or two done i’ sponge-cake, wi’ currants for his eyes to give t’ table an air.’

The door was opened, and Bessy came in smiling and blushing with proud pleasure. Her mother followed her on tip-toe, smoothing down her apron, and with her voice subdued to a whisper:—

‘Ay, my lass, it is fine! But dunnot mak’ an ado about it, let ’em think it’s just our common way. If any one says aught about how good t’ vittle is, tak’ it calm, and say we’n better i’ t’ house — it’ll mak’ ’em eat wi’ a better appetite, and think the more on us. Sylvie, I’m much beholden t’ ye for comin’ so early, and helpin’ t’ lasses, but yo’ mun come in t’ house-place now, t’ folks is gatherin’, an’ yo’r cousin’s been asking after yo’ a’ready.’

Molly gave her a nudge, which made Sylvia’s face go all aflame with angry embarrassment. She was conscious that the watching which Molly had threatened her with began directly; for Molly went up to her husband, and whispered something to him which set him off in a chuckling laugh, and Sylvia was aware that his eyes followed her about with knowing looks all the evening. She would hardly speak to Philip, and pretended not to see his outstretched hand, but passed on to the chimney-corner, and tried to shelter herself behind the broad back of farmer Corney, who had no notion of relinquishing his customary place for all the young people who ever came to the house — or for any old people either, for that matter. It was his household throne, and there he sat with no more idea of abdicating in favour of any comer than King George at St James’s. But he was glad to see his friends; and had paid them the unwonted compliment of shaving on a week-day, and putting on his Sunday coat. The united efforts of wife and children had failed to persuade him to make any farther change in his attire; to all their arguments on this head he had replied —

‘Them as doesn’t like t’ see me i’ my work-a-day wescut and breeches may bide away.’

It was the longest sentence he said that day, but he repeated it several times over. He was glad enough to see all the young people, but they were not ‘of his kidney,’ as he expressed it to himself, and he did not feel any call upon himself to entertain them. He left that to his bustling wife, all smartness and smiles, and to his daughters and son-inlaw. His efforts at hospitality consisted in sitting still, smoking his pipe; when any one came, he took it out of his mouth for an instant, and nodded his head in a cheerful friendly way, without a word of speech; and then returned to his smoking with the greater relish for the moment’s intermission. He thought to himself:—

‘They’re a set o’ young chaps as thinks more on t’ lasses than on baccy; — they’ll find out their mistake in time; give ’em time, give ’em time.’

And before eight o’clock, he went as quietly as a man of twelve stone can upstairs to bed, having made a previous arrangement with his wife that she should bring him up about two pounds of spiced beef, and a hot tumbler of stiff grog. But at the beginning of the evening he formed a good screen for Sylvia, who was rather a favourite with the old man, for twice he spoke to her.

‘Feyther smokes?’

‘Yes,’ said Sylvia.

‘Reach me t’ baccy-box, my lass.’

And that was all the conversation that passed between her and her nearest neighbour for the first quarter of an hour after she came into company.

But, for all her screen, she felt a pair of eyes were fixed upon her with a glow of admiration deepening their honest brightness. Somehow, look in what direction she would, she caught the glance of those eyes before she could see anything else. So she played with her apron-strings, and tried not to feel so conscious. There were another pair of eyes — not such beautiful, sparkling eyes — deep-set, earnest, sad, nay, even gloomy, watching her every movement; but of this she was not aware. Philip had not recovered from the rebuff she had given him by refusing his offered hand, and was standing still, in angry silence, when Mrs. Corney thrust a young woman just arrived upon his attention.

‘Come, Measter Hepburn, here’s Nancy Pratt wi’out ev’n a soul to speak t’ her, an’ yo’ mopin’ theere. She says she knows yo’ by sight fra’ having dealt at Foster’s these six year. See if yo’ can’t find summut t’ say t’ each other, for I mun go pour out tea. Dixons, an’ Walkers, an’ Elliotts, an’ Smiths is come,’ said she, marking off the families on her fingers, as she looked round and called over their names; ‘an’ there’s only Will Latham an’ his two sisters, and Roger Harbottle, an’ Taylor t’ come; an’ they’ll turn up afore tea’s ended.’

So she went off to her duty at the one table, which, placed alongside of the dresser, was the only article of furniture left in the middle of the room: all the seats being arranged as close to the four walls as could be managed. The candles of those days gave but a faint light compared to the light of the immense fire, which it was a point of hospitality to keep at the highest roaring, blazing pitch; the young women occupied the seats, with the exception of two or three of the elder ones, who, in an eager desire to show their capability, insisted on helping Mrs. Corney in her duties, very much to her annoyance, as there were certain little contrivances for eking out cream, and adjusting the strength of the cups of tea to the worldly position of the intended drinkers, which she did not like every one to see. The young men — whom tea did not embolden, and who had as yet had no chance of stronger liquor — clustered in rustic shyness round the door, not speaking even to themselves, except now and then, when one, apparently the wag of the party, made some whispered remark, which set them all off laughing; but in a minute they checked themselves, and passed the back of their hands across their mouths to compose that unlucky feature, and then some would try to fix their eyes on the rafters of the ceiling, in a manner which was decorous if rather abstracted from the business in hand. Most of these were young farmers, with whom Philip had nothing in common, and from whom, in shy reserve, he had withdrawn himself when he first came in. But now he wished himself among them sooner than set to talk to Nancy Pratt, when he had nothing to say. And yet he might have had a companion less to his mind, for she was a decent young woman of a sober age, less inclined to giggle than many of the younger ones. But all the time that he was making commonplace remarks to her he was wondering if he had offended Sylvia, and why she would not shake hands with him, and this preoccupation of his thoughts did not make him an agreeable companion. Nancy Pratt, who had been engaged for some years to a mate of a whaling-ship, perceived something of his state of mind, and took no offence at it; on the contrary, she tried to give him pleasure by admiring Sylvia.

‘I’ve often heerd tell on her,’ said she, ‘but I niver thought she’s be so pretty, and so staid and quiet-like too. T’ most part o’ girls as has looks like hers are always gape-gazing to catch other folks’s eyes, and see what is thought on ’em; but she looks just like a child, a bit flustered wi’ coming into company, and gettin’ into as dark a corner and bidin’ as still as she can.

Just then Sylvia lifted up her long, dark lashes, and catching the same glance which she had so often met before — Charley Kinraid was standing talking to Brunton on the opposite side of the fire-place — she started back into the shadow as if she had not expected it, and in so doing spilt her tea all over her gown. She could almost have cried, she felt herself so awkward, and as if everything was going wrong with her; she thought that every one would think she had never been in company before, and did not know how to behave; and while she was thus fluttered and crimson, she saw through her tearful eyes Kinraid on his knees before her, wiping her gown with his silk pocket handkerchief, and heard him speaking through all the buzz of commiserating voices.

‘Your cupboard handle is so much i’ th’ way — I hurt my elbow against it only this very afternoon.’

So perhaps it was no clumsiness of hers — as they would all know, now, since he had so skilfully laid the blame somewhere else; and after all it turned out that her accident had been the means of bringing him across to her side, which was much more pleasant than having him opposite, staring at her; for now he began to talk to her, and this was very pleasant, although she was rather embarrassed at their tete-a-tete at first.

‘I did not know you again when I first saw you,’ said he, in a tone which implied a good deal more than was uttered in words.

‘I knowed yo’ at once,’ she replied, softly, and then she blushed and played with her apron-string, and wondered if she ought to have confessed to the clearness of her recollection.

‘You’re grown up into — well, perhaps it’s not manners to say what you’re grown into — anyhow, I shan’t forget yo’ again.’

More playing with her apron-string, and head hung still lower down, though the corners of her mouth would go up in a shy smile of pleasure. Philip watched it all as greedily as if it gave him delight.

‘Yo’r father, he’ll be well and hearty, I hope?’ asked Charley.

‘Yes,’ replied Sylvia, and then she wished she could originate some remark; he would think her so stupid if she just kept on saying such little short bits of speeches, and if he thought her stupid he might perhaps go away again to his former place.

But he was quite far enough gone in love of her beauty, and pretty modest ways, not to care much whether she talked or no, so long as she showed herself so pleasingly conscious of his close neighbourhood.

‘I must come and see the old gentleman; and your mother, too,’ he added more slowly, for he remembered that his visits last year had not been quite so much welcomed by Bell Robson as by her husband; perhaps it was because of the amount of drink which he and Daniel managed to get through of an evening. He resolved this year to be more careful to please the mother of Sylvia.

When tea was ended there was a great bustle and shifting of places, while Mrs. Corney and her daughters carried out trays full of used cups, and great platters of uneaten bread and butter into the back-kitchen, to be washed up after the guests were gone. Just because she was so conscious that she did not want to move, and break up the little conversation between herself and Kinraid, Sylvia forced herself to be as active in the service going on as became a friend of the house; and she was too much her mother’s own daughter to feel comfortable at leaving all the things in the disorder which to the Corney girls was second nature.

‘This milk mun go back to t’ dairy, I reckon,’ said she, loading herself with milk and cream.

‘Niver fash thysel’ about it,’ said Nelly Corney, ‘Christmas comes but onest a year, if it does go sour; and mother said she’d have a game at forfeits first thing after tea to loosen folks’s tongues, and mix up t’ lads and lasses, so come along.’

But Sylvia steered her careful way to the cold chill of the dairy, and would not be satisfied till she had carried away all the unused provision into some fresher air than that heated by the fires and ovens used for the long day’s cooking of pies and cakes and much roast meat.

When they came back a round of red-faced ‘lads,’ as young men up to five-and-thirty are called in Lancashire and Yorkshire if they are not married before, and lasses, whose age was not to be defined, were playing at some country game, in which the women were apparently more interested than the men, who looked shamefaced, and afraid of each other’s ridicule. Mrs. Corney, however, knew how to remedy this, and at a sign from her a great jug of beer was brought in. This jug was the pride of her heart, and was in the shape of a fat man in white knee-breeches, and a three-cornered hat; with one arm he supported the pipe in his broad, smiling mouth, and the other was placed akimbo and formed the handle. There was also a great china punch-bowl filled with grog made after an old ship-receipt current in these parts, but not too strong, because if their visitors had too much to drink at that early part of the evening ‘it would spoil t’ fun,’ as Nelly Corney had observed. Her father, however, after the notions of hospitality prevalent at that time in higher circles, had stipulated that each man should have ‘enough’ before he left the house; enough meaning in Monkshaven parlance the liberty of getting drunk, if they thought fit to do it.

Before long one of the lads was seized with a fit of admiration for Toby — the name of the old gentleman who contained liquor — and went up to the tray for a closer inspection. He was speedily followed by other amateurs of curious earthenware; and by-and-by Mr. Brunton (who had been charged by his mother-inlaw with the due supplying of liquor — by his father-inlaw that every man should have his fill, and by his wife and her sisters that no one should have too much, at any rate at the beginning of the evening,) thought fit to carry out Toby to be replenished; and a faster spirit of enjoyment and mirth began to reign in the room.

Kinraid was too well seasoned to care what amount of liquor he drank; Philip had what was called a weak head, and disliked muddling himself with drink because of the immediate consequence of intense feelings of irritability, and the more distant one of a racking headache next day; so both these two preserved very much the same demeanour they had held at the beginning of the evening.

Sylvia was by all acknowledged and treated as the belle. When they played at blind-man’s-buff go where she would, she was always caught; she was called out repeatedly to do what was required in any game, as if all had a pleasure in seeing her light figure and deft ways. She was sufficiently pleased with this to have got over her shyness with all except Charley. When others paid her their rustic compliments she tossed her head, and made her little saucy repartees; but when he said something low and flattering, it was too honey-sweet to her heart to be thrown off thus. And, somehow, the more she yielded to this fascination the more she avoided Philip. He did not speak flatteringly — he did not pay compliments — he watched her with discontented, longing eyes, and grew more inclined every moment, as he remembered his anticipation of a happy evening, to cry out in his heart vanitas vanitatum.

And now came crying the forfeits. Molly Brunton knelt down, her face buried in her mother’s lap; the latter took out the forfeits one by one, and as she held them up, said the accustomed formula —

‘A fine thing and a very fine thing, what must he (or she) do who owns this thing.’

One or two had been told to kneel to the prettiest, bow to the wittiest, and kiss those they loved best; others had had to bite an inch off the poker, or such plays upon words. And now came Sylvia’s pretty new ribbon that Philip had given her (he almost longed to snatch it out of Mrs. Corney’s hands and burn it before all their faces, so annoyed was he with the whole affair.)

‘A fine thing and a very fine thing — a most particular fine thing — choose how she came by it. What must she do as owns this thing?’

‘She must blow out t’ candle and kiss t’ candlestick.’

In one instant Kinraid had hold of the only candle within reach, all the others had been put up high on inaccessible shelves and other places. Sylvia went up and blew out the candle, and before the sudden partial darkness was over he had taken the candle into his fingers, and, according to the traditional meaning of the words, was in the place of the candlestick, and as such was to be kissed. Every one laughed at innocent Sylvia’s face as the meaning of her penance came into it, every one but Philip, who almost choked.

‘I’m candlestick,’ said Kinraid, with less of triumph in his voice than he would have had with any other girl in the room.

‘Yo’ mun kiss t’ candlestick,’ cried the Corneys, ‘or yo’ll niver get yo’r ribbon back.’

‘And she sets a deal o’ store by that ribbon,’ said Molly Brunton, maliciously.

‘I’ll none kiss t’ candlestick, nor him either,’ said Sylvia, in a low voice of determination, turning away, full of confusion.

‘Yo’ll not get yo’r ribbon if yo’ dunnot,’ cried one and all.

‘I don’t care for t’ ribbon,’ said she, flashing up with a look at her tormentors, now her back was turned to Kinraid. ‘An’ I wunnot play any more at such like games,’ she added, with fresh indignation rising in her heart as she took her old place in the corner of the room a little away from the rest.

Philip’s spirits rose, and he yearned to go to her and tell her how he approved of her conduct. Alas, Philip! Sylvia, though as modest a girl as ever lived, was no prude, and had been brought up in simple, straightforward country ways; and with any other young man, excepting, perhaps, Philip’s self, she would have thought no more of making a rapid pretence of kissing the hand or cheek of the temporary ‘candlestick’, than our ancestresses did in a much higher rank on similar occasions. Kinraid, though mortified by his public rejection, was more conscious of this than the inexperienced Philip; he resolved not to be baulked, and watched his opportunity. For the time he went on playing as if Sylvia’s conduct had not affected him in the least, and as if he was hardly aware of her defection from the game. As she saw others submitting, quite as a matter of course, to similar penances, she began to be angry with herself for having thought twice about it, and almost to dislike herself for the strange consciousness which had made it at the time seem impossible to do what she was told. Her eyes kept filling with tears as her isolated position in the gay party, the thought of what a fool she had made of herself, kept recurring to her mind; but no one saw her, she thought, thus crying; and, ashamed to be discovered when the party should pause in their game, she stole round behind them into the great chamber in which she had helped to lay out the supper, with the intention of bathing her eyes, and taking a drink of water. One instant Charley Kinraid was missing from the circle of which he was the life and soul; and then back he came with an air of satisfaction on his face, intelligible enough to those who had seen his game; but unnoticed by Philip, who, amidst the perpetual noise and movements around him, had not perceived Sylvia’s leaving the room, until she came back at the end of about a quarter of an hour, looking lovelier than ever, her complexion brilliant, her eyes drooping, her hair neatly and freshly arranged, tied with a brown ribbon instead of that she was supposed to have forfeited. She looked as if she did not wish her return to be noticed, stealing softly behind the romping lads and lasses with noiseless motions, and altogether such a contrast to them in her cool freshness and modest neatness, that both Kinraid and Philip found it difficult to keep their eyes off her. But the former had a secret triumph in his heart which enabled him to go on with his merry-making as if it absorbed him; while Philip dropped out of the crowd and came up to where she was standing silently by Mrs. Corney, who, arms akimbo, was laughing at the frolic and fun around her. Sylvia started a little when Philip spoke, and kept her soft eyes averted from him after the first glance; she answered him shortly, but with unaccustomed gentleness. He had only asked her when she would like him to take her home; and she, a little surprised at the idea of going home when to her the evening seemed only beginning, had answered —

‘Go home? I don’t know! It’s New Year’s eve!’

‘Ay! but yo’r mother ‘ll lie awake till yo’ come home, Sylvie!’

But Mrs. Corney, having heard his question, broke in with all sorts of upbraidings. ‘Go home! Not see t’ New Year in! Why, what should take ’em home these six hours? Wasn’t there a moon as clear as day? and did such a time as this come often? And were they to break up the party before the New Year came in? And was there not supper, with a spiced round of beef that had been in pickle pretty nigh sin’ Martinmas, and hams, and mince-pies, and what not? And if they thought any evil of her master’s going to bed, or that by that early retirement he meant to imply that he did not bid his friends welcome, why he would not stay up beyond eight o’clock for King George upon his throne, as he’d tell them soon enough, if they’d only step upstairs and ask him. Well; she knowed what it was to want a daughter when she was ailing, so she’d say nought more, but hasten supper.

And this idea now took possession of Mrs. Corney’s mind, for she would not willingly allow one of her guests to leave before they had done justice to her preparations; and, cutting her speech short, she hastily left Sylvia and Philip together.

His heart beat fast; his feeling towards her had never been so strong or so distinct as since her refusal to kiss the ‘candlestick.’ He was on the point of speaking, of saying something explicitly tender, when the wooden trencher which the party were using at their play, came bowling between him and Sylvia, and spun out its little period right betwixt them. Every one was moving from chair to chair, and when the bustle was over Sylvia was seated at some distance from him, and he left standing outside the circle, as if he were not playing. In fact, Sylvia had unconsciously taken his place as actor in the game while he remained spectator, and, as it turned out, an auditor of a conversation not intended for his ears. He was wedged against the wall, close to the great eight-day clock, with its round moon-like smiling face forming a ludicrous contrast to his long, sallow, grave countenance, which was pretty much at the same level above the sanded floor. Before him sat Molly Brunton and one of her sisters, their heads close together in too deep talk to attend to the progress of the game. Philip’s attention was caught by the words —

‘I’ll lay any wager he kissed her when he ran off into t’ parlour.’

‘She’s so coy she’d niver let him,’ replied Bessy Corney.

‘She couldn’t help hersel’; and for all she looks so demure and prim now’ (and then both heads were turned in the direction of Sylvia), ‘I’m as sure as I’m born that Charley is not t’ chap to lose his forfeit; and yet yo’ see he says nought more about it, and she’s left off being ‘feared of him.’

There was something in Sylvia’s look, ay, and in Charley Kinraid’s, too, that shot conviction into Philip’s mind. He watched them incessantly during the interval before supper; they were intimate, and yet shy with each other, in a manner that enraged while it bewildered Philip. What was Charley saying to her in that whispered voice, as they passed each other? Why did they linger near each other? Why did Sylvia look so dreamily happy, so startled at every call of the game, as if recalled from some pleasant idea? Why did Kinraid’s eyes always seek her while hers were averted, or downcast, and her cheeks all aflame? Philip’s dark brow grew darker as he gazed. He, too, started when Mrs. Corney, close at his elbow, bade him go in to supper along with some of the elder ones, who were not playing; for the parlour was not large enough to hold all at once, even with the squeezing and cramming, and sitting together on chairs, which was not at all out of etiquette at Monkshaven. Philip was too reserved to express his disappointment and annoyance at being thus arrested in his painful watch over Sylvia; but he had no appetite for the good things set before him, and found it hard work to smile a sickly smile when called upon by Josiah Pratt for applause at some country joke. When supper was ended, there was some little discussion between Mrs. Corney and her son-inlaw as to whether the different individuals of the company should be called upon for songs or stories, as was the wont at such convivial meetings. Brunton had been helping his mother-inlaw in urging people to eat, heaping their plates over their shoulders with unexpected good things, filling the glasses at the upper end of the table, and the mugs which supplied the deficiency of glasses at the lower. And now, every one being satisfied, not to say stuffed to repletion, the two who had been attending to their wants stood still, hot and exhausted.

‘They’re a’most stawed,’ said Mrs. Corney, with a pleased smile. ‘It’ll be manners t’ ask some one as knows how to sing.’

‘It may be manners for full men, but not for fasting,’ replied Brunton. ‘Folks in t’ next room will be wanting their victual, and singing is allays out o’ tune to empty bellies.’

‘But there’s them here as ‘ll take it ill if they’re not asked. I heerd Josiah Pratt a-clearing his throat not a minute ago, an’ he thinks as much on his singin’ as a cock does on his crowin’.’

‘If one sings I’m afeard all on ’em will like to hear their own pipes.’

But their dilemma was solved by Bessy Corney, who opened the door to see if the hungry ones outside might not come in for their share of the entertainment; and in they rushed, bright and riotous, scarcely giving the first party time to rise from their seats ere they took their places. One or two young men, released from all their previous shyness, helped Mrs. Corney and her daughters to carry off such dishes as were actually empty. There was no time for changing or washing of plates; but then, as Mrs. Corney laughingly observed —

‘We’re a’ on us friends, and some on us mayhap sweethearts; so no need to be particular about plates. Them as gets clean ones is lucky; and them as doesn’t, and cannot put up wi’ plates that has been used, mun go without.’

It seemed to be Philip’s luck this night to be pent up in places; for again the space between the benches and the wall was filled up by the inrush before he had time to make his way out; and all he could do was to sit quiet where he was. But between the busy heads and over-reaching arms he could see Charley and Sylvia, sitting close together, talking and listening more than eating. She was in a new strange state of happiness not to be reasoned about, or accounted for, but in a state of more exquisite feeling than she had ever experienced before; when, suddenly lifting her eyes, she caught Philip’s face of extreme displeasure.

‘Oh,’ said she, ‘I must go. There’s Philip looking at me so.’

‘Philip!’ said Kinraid, with a sudden frown upon his face.

‘My cousin,’ she replied, instinctively comprehending what had flashed into his mind, and anxious to disclaim the suspicion of having a lover. ‘Mother told him to see me home, and he’s noan one for staying up late.’

‘But you needn’t go. I’ll see yo’ home.’

‘Mother’s but ailing,’ said Sylvia, a little conscience-smitten at having so entirely forgotten everything in the delight of the present, ‘and I said I wouldn’t be late.’

‘And do you allays keep to your word?’ asked he, with a tender meaning in his tone.

‘Allays; leastways I think so,’ replied she, blushing.

‘Then if I ask you not to forget me, and you give me your word, I may be sure you’ll keep it.’

‘It wasn’t I as forgot you,’ said Sylvia, so softly as not to be heard by him.

He tried to make her repeat what she had said, but she would not, and he could only conjecture that it was something more tell-tale than she liked to say again, and that alone was very charming to him.

‘I shall walk home with you,’ said he, as Sylvia at last rose to depart, warned by a further glimpse of Philip’s angry face.

‘No!’ said she, hastily, ‘I can’t do with yo’’; for somehow she felt the need of pacifying Philip, and knew in her heart that a third person joining their tete-a-tete walk would only increase his displeasure.

‘Why not?’ said Charley, sharply.

‘Oh! I don’t know, only please don’t!’

By this time her cloak and hood were on, and she was slowly making her way down her side of the room followed by Charley, and often interrupted by indignant remonstrances against her departure, and the early breaking-up of the party. Philip stood, hat in hand, in the doorway between the kitchen and parlour, watching her so intently that he forgot to be civil, and drew many a jest and gibe upon him for his absorption in his pretty cousin.

When Sylvia reached him, he said —

‘Yo’re ready at last, are yo’?’

‘Yes,’ she replied, in her little beseeching tone. ‘Yo’ve not been wanting to go long, han yo’? I ha’ but just eaten my supper.’

‘Yo’ve been so full of talk, that’s been the reason your supper lasted so long. That fellow’s none going wi’ us?’ said he sharply, as he saw Kinraid rummaging for his cap in a heap of men’s clothes, thrown into the back-kitchen.

‘No,’ said Sylvia, in affright at Philip’s fierce look and passionate tone. ‘I telled him not.’

But at that moment the heavy outer door was opened by Daniel Robson himself — bright, broad, and rosy, a jolly impersonation of Winter. His large drover’s coat was covered with snow-flakes, and through the black frame of the doorway might be seen a white waste world of sweeping fell and field, with the dark air filled with the pure down-fall. Robson stamped his snow-laden feet and shook himself well, still standing on the mat, and letting a cold frosty current of fresh air into the great warm kitchen. He laughed at them all before he spoke.

‘It’s a coud new year as I’m lettin’ in though it’s noan t’ new year yet. Yo’ll a’ be snowed up, as sure as my name s Dannel, if yo’ stop for twel’ o’clock. Yo’d better mak’ haste and go whoam. Why, Charley, my lad! how beest ta? who’d ha’ thought o’ seeing thee i’ these parts again! Nay, missus, nay, t’ new year mun find its way int’ t’ house by itsel’ for me; for a ha’ promised my oud woman to bring Sylvie whoam as quick as may-be; she’s lyin’ awake and frettin’ about t’ snow and what not. Thank yo’ kindly, missus, but a’ll tak’ nought to eat; just a drop o’ somethin’ hot to keep out coud, and wish yo’ a’ the compliments o’ the season. Philip, my man, yo’ll not be sorry to be spared t’ walk round by Haytersbank such a neet. My missus were i’ such a way about Sylvie that a thought a’d just step off mysel’, and have a peep at yo’ a’, and bring her some wraps. Yo’r sheep will be a’ folded, a reckon, Measter Pratt, for there’ll niver be a nibble o’ grass to be seen this two month, accordin’ to my readin’; and a’ve been at sea long enough, and on land long enough t’ know signs and wonders. It’s good stuff that, any way, and worth comin’ for,’ after he had gulped down a tumblerful of half-and-half grog. ‘Kinraid, if ta doesn’t come and see me afore thou’rt many days ouder, thee and me’ll have words. Come, Sylvie, what art ta about, keepin’ me here? Here’s Mistress Corney mixin’ me another jorum. Well, this time a’ll give “T’ married happy, and t’ single wed!”’

Sylvia was all this while standing by her father quite ready for departure, and not a little relieved by his appearance as her convoy home.

‘I’m ready to see Haytersbank to-night, master!’ said Kinraid, with easy freedom — a freedom which Philip envied, but could not have imitated, although he was deeply disappointed at the loss of his walk with Sylvia, when he had intended to exercise the power his aunt had delegated to him of remonstrance if her behaviour had been light or thoughtless, and of warning if he saw cause to disapprove of any of her associates.

After the Robsons had left, a blank fell upon both Charley and Philip. In a few minutes, however, the former, accustomed to prompt decision, resolved that she and no other should be his wife. Accustomed to popularity among women, and well versed in the incipient signs of their liking for him, he anticipated no difficulty in winning her. Satisfied with the past, and pleasantly hopeful about the future, he found it easy to turn his attention to the next prettiest girl in the room, and to make the whole gathering bright with his ready good temper and buoyant spirit.

Mrs. Corney had felt it her duty to press Philip to stay, now that, as she said, he had no one but himself to see home, and the new year so near coming in. To any one else in the room she would have added the clinching argument, ‘A shall take it very unkind if yo’ go now’; but somehow she could not say this, for in truth Philip’s look showed that he would be but a wet blanket on the merriment of the party. So, with as much civility as could be mustered up between them, he took leave. Shutting the door behind him, he went out into the dreary night, and began his lonesome walk back to Monkshaven. The cold sleet almost blinded him as the sea-wind drove it straight in his face; it cut against him as it was blown with drifting force. The roar of the wintry sea came borne on the breeze; there was more light from the whitened ground than from the dark laden sky above. The field-paths would have been a matter of perplexity, had it not been for the well-known gaps in the dyke-side, which showed the whitened land beyond, between the two dark stone walls. Yet he went clear and straight along his way, having unconsciously left all guidance to the animal instinct which coexists with the human soul, and sometimes takes strange charge of the human body, when all the nobler powers of the individual are absorbed in acute suffering. At length he was in the lane, toiling up the hill, from which, by day, Monkshaven might be seen. Now all features of the landscape before him were lost in the darkness of night, against which the white flakes came closer and nearer, thicker and faster. On a sudden, the bells of Monkshaven church rang out a welcome to the new year, 1796. From the direction of the wind, it seemed as if the sound was flung with strength and power right into Philip’s face. He walked down the hill to its merry sound — its merry sound, his heavy heart. As he entered the long High Street of Monkshaven he could see the watching lights put out in parlour, chamber, or kitchen. The new year had come, and expectation was ended. Reality had begun.

He turned to the right, into the court where he lodged with Alice Rose. There was a light still burning there, and cheerful voices were heard. He opened the door; Alice, her daughter, and Coulson stood as if awaiting him. Hester’s wet cloak hung on a chair before the fire; she had her hood on, for she and Coulson had been to the watch-night.

The solemn excitement of the services had left its traces upon her countenance and in her mind. There was a spiritual light in her usually shadowed eyes, and a slight flush on her pale cheek. Merely personal and self-conscious feelings were merged in a loving good-will to all her fellow-creatures. Under the influence of this large charity, she forgot her habitual reserve, and came forward as Philip entered to meet him with her new year’s wishes — wishes that she had previously interchanged with the other two.

‘A happy new year to you, Philip, and may God have you in his keeping all the days thereof!’

He took her hand, and shook it warmly in reply. The flush on her cheek deepened as she withdrew it. Alice Rose said something curtly about the lateness of the hour and her being much tired; and then she and her daughter went upstairs to the front chamber, and Philip and Coulson to that which they shared at the back of the house.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gaskell/elizabeth/sylvia/chapter12.html

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