Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XIII

Perplexities

Coulson and Philip were friendly, but not intimate. They never had had a dispute, they never were confidential with each other; in truth, they were both reserved and silent men, and, probably, respected each other the more for being so self-contained. There was a private feeling in Coulson’s heart which would have made a less amiable fellow dislike Philip. But of this the latter was unconscious: they were not apt to exchange many words in the room which they occupied jointly.

Coulson asked Philip if he had enjoyed himself at the Corneys’, and Philip replied —

‘Not much; such parties are noane to my liking.’

‘And yet thou broke off from t’ watch-night to go there.’

No answer; so Coulson went on, with a sense of the duty laid upon him, to improve the occasion — the first that had presented itself since the good old Methodist minister had given his congregation the solemn warning to watch over the opportunities of various kinds which the coming year would present.

‘Jonas Barclay told us as the pleasures o’ this world were like apples o’ Sodom, pleasant to look at, but ashes to taste.’

Coulson wisely left Philip to make the application for himself. If he did he made no sign, but threw himself on his bed with a heavy sigh.

‘Are yo’ not going to undress?’ said Coulson, as he covered him up in bed.

There had been a long pause of silence. Philip did not answer him, and he thought he had fallen asleep. But he was roused from his first slumber by Hepburn’s soft movements about the room. Philip had thought better of it, and, with some penitence in his heart for his gruffness to the unoffending Coulson, was trying not to make any noise while he undressed.

But he could not sleep. He kept seeing the Corneys’ kitchen and the scenes that had taken place in it, passing like a pageant before his closed eyes. Then he opened them in angry weariness at the recurring vision, and tried to make out the outlines of the room and the furniture in the darkness. The white ceiling sloped into the whitewashed walls, and against them he could see the four rush-bottomed chairs, the looking-glass hung on one side, the old carved oak-chest (his own property, with the initials of forgotten ancestors cut upon it), which held his clothes; the boxes that belonged to Coulson, sleeping soundly in the bed in the opposite corner of the room; the casement window in the roof, through which the snowy ground on the steep hill-side could be plainly seen; and when he got so far as this in the catalogue of the room, he fell into a troubled feverish sleep, which lasted two or three hours; and then he awoke with a start, and a consciousness of uneasiness, though what about he could not remember at first.

When he recollected all that had happened the night before, it impressed him much more favourably than it had done at the time. If not joy, hope had come in the morning; and, at any rate, he could be up and be doing, for the late wintry light was stealing down the hill-side, and he knew that, although Coulson lay motionless in his sleep, it was past their usual time of rising. Still, as it was new year’s Day, a time of some licence, Philip had mercy on his fellow-shopman, and did not waken him till just as he was leaving the room.

Carrying his shoes in his hand, he went softly downstairs for he could see from the top of the flight that neither Alice nor her daughter was down yet, as the kitchen shutters were not unclosed. It was Mrs. Rose’s habit to rise early, and have all bright and clean against her lodgers came down; but then, in general, she went to rest before nine o’clock, whereas the last night she had not gone till past twelve. Philip went about undoing the shutters, and trying to break up the raking coal, with as little noise as might be, for he had compassion on the tired sleepers. The kettle had not been filled, probably because Mrs. Rose had been unable to face the storm of the night before, in taking it to the pump just at the entrance of the court. When Philip came back from filling it, he found Alice and Hester both in the kitchen, and trying to make up for lost time by hastening over their work. Hester looked busy and notable with her gown pinned up behind her, and her hair all tucked away under a clean linen cap; but Alice was angry with herself for her late sleeping, and that and other causes made her speak crossly to Philip, as he came in with his snowy feet and well-filled kettle.

‘Look the’ there! droppin’ and drippin’ along t’ flags as was cleaned last night, and meddlin’ wi’ woman’s work as a man has no business wi’.’

Philip was surprised and annoyed. He had found relief from his own thoughts in doing what he believed would help others. He gave up the kettle to her snatching hands, and sate down behind the door in momentary ill-temper. But the kettle was better filled, and consequently heavier than the old woman expected, and she could not manage to lift it to the crook from which it generally hung suspended. She looked round for Hester, but she was gone into the back-kitchen. In a minute Philip was at her side, and had heaved it to its place for her. She looked in his face for a moment wistfully, but hardly condescended to thank him; at least the sound of the words did not pass the lips that formed them. Rebuffed by her manner, he went back to his old seat, and mechanically watched the preparations for breakfast; but his thoughts went back to the night before, and the comparative ease of his heart was gone. The first stir of a new day had made him feel as if he had had no sufficient cause for his annoyance and despondency the previous evening; but now, condemned to sit quiet, he reviewed looks and words, and saw just reason for his anxiety. After some consideration he resolved to go that very night to Haytersbank, and have some talk with either Sylvia or her mother; what the exact nature of this purposed conversation should be, he did not determine; much would depend on Sylvia’s manner and mood, and on her mother’s state of health; but at any rate something would be learnt.

During breakfast something was learnt nearer home; though not all that a man less unconscious and more vain than Philip might have discovered. He only found out that Mrs. Rose was displeased with him for not having gone to the watch-night with Hester, according to the plan made some weeks before. But he soothed his conscience by remembering that he had made no promise; he had merely spoken of his wish to be present at the service, about which Hester was speaking; and although at the time and for a good while afterwards, he had fully intended going, yet as there had been William Coulson to accompany her, his absence could not have been seriously noticed. Still he was made uncomfortable by Mrs. Rose’s change of manner; once or twice he said to himself that she little knew how miserable he had been during his ‘gay evening,’ as she would persist in calling it, or she would not talk at him with such persevering bitterness this morning. Before he left for the shop, he spoke of his intention of going to see how his aunt was, and of paying her a new year’s day visit.

Hepburn and Coulson took it in turns week and week about to go first home to dinner; the one who went first sate down with Mrs. Rose and her daughter, instead of having his portion put in the oven to keep warm for him. To-day it was Hepburn’s turn to be last. All morning the shop was full with customers, come rather to offer good wishes than to buy, and with an unspoken remembrance of the cake and wine which the two hospitable brothers Foster made a point of offering to all comers on new year’s day. It was busy work for all — for Hester on her side, where caps, ribbons, and women’s gear were exclusively sold — for the shopmen and boys in the grocery and drapery department. Philip was trying to do his business with his mind far away; and the consequence was that his manner was not such as to recommend him to the customers, some of whom recollected it as very different, courteous and attentive, if grave and sedate. One buxom farmer’s wife noticed the change to him. She had a little girl with her, of about five years old, that she had lifted up on the counter, and who was watching Philip with anxious eyes, occasionally whispering in her mother’s ear, and then hiding her face against her cloak.

‘She’s thought a deal o’ coming to see yo’, and a dunnot think as yo’ mind her at all. My pretty, he’s clean forgotten as how he said last new year’s day, he’d gi’ thee a barley-sugar stick, if thou’d hem him a handkercher by this.’

The child’s face was buried in the comfortable breadth of duffle at these words, while the little outstretched hand held a small square of coarse linen.

‘Ay, she’s noane forgotten it, and has done her five stitches a day, bless her; and a dunnot believe as yo’ know her again. She’s Phoebe Moorsom, and a’m Hannah, and a’ve dealt at t’ shop reg’lar this fifteen year.’

‘I’m very sorry,’ said Philip. ‘I was up late last night, and I’m a bit dazed today. Well! this is nice work, Phoebe, and I’m sure I’m very much beholden to yo’. And here’s five sticks o’ barley-sugar, one for every stitch, and thank you kindly, Mrs. Moorsom, too.’

Philip took the handkerchief and hoped he had made honourable amends for his want of recognition. But the wee lassie refused to be lifted down, and whispered something afresh into her mother’s ear, who smiled and bade her be quiet. Philip saw, however, that there was some wish ungratified on the part of the little maiden which he was expected to inquire into, and, accordingly, he did his duty.

‘She’s a little fool; she says yo’ promised to gi’e her a kiss, and t’ make her yo’r wife.’

The child burrowed her face closer into her mother’s neck, and refused to allow the kiss which Philip willingly offered. All he could do was to touch the back of the little white fat neck with his lips. The mother carried her off only half satisfied, and Philip felt that he must try and collect his scattered wits, and be more alive to the occasion.

Towards the dinner-hour the crowd slackened; Hester began to replenish decanters and bottles, and to bring out a fresh cake before she went home to dinner; and Coulson and Philip looked over the joint present they always made to her on this day. It was a silk handkerchief of the prettiest colours they could pick out of the shop, intended for her to wear round her neck. Each tried to persuade the other to give it to her, for each was shy of the act of presentation. Coulson was, however, the most resolute; and when she returned from the parlour the little parcel was in Philip’s hands.

‘Here, Hester,’ said he, going round the counter to her, just as she was leaving the shop. ‘It’s from Coulson and me; a handkerchief for yo’ to wear; and we wish yo’ a happy New Year, and plenty on ’em; and there’s many a one wishes the same.’

He took her hand as he said this. She went a little paler, and her eyes brightened as though they would fill with tears as they met his; she could not have helped it, do what she would. But she only said, ‘Thank yo’ kindly,’ and going up to Coulson she repeated the words and action to him; and then they went off together to dinner.

There was a lull of business for the next hour. John and Jeremiah were dining like the rest of the world. Even the elder errand-boy had vanished. Philip rearranged disorderly goods; and then sate down on the counter by the window; it was the habitual place for the one who stayed behind; for excepting on market-day there was little or no custom during the noon-hour. Formerly he used to move the drapery with which the window was ornamented, and watch the passers-by with careless eye. But now, though he seemed to gaze abroad, he saw nothing but vacancy. All the morning since he got up he had been trying to fight through his duties — leaning against a hope — a hope that first had bowed, and then had broke as soon as he really tried its weight. There was not a sign of Sylvia’s liking for him to be gathered from the most careful recollection of the past evening. It was of no use thinking that there was. It was better to give it up altogether and at once. But what if he could not? What if the thought of her was bound up with his life; and that once torn out by his own free will, the very roots of his heart must come also?

No; he was resolved he would go on; as long as there was life there was hope; as long as Sylvia remained unpledged to any one else, there was a chance for him. He would remodel his behaviour to her. He could not be merry and light-hearted like other young men; his nature was not cast in that mould; and the early sorrows that had left him a lonely orphan might have matured, but had not enlivened, his character. He thought with some bitterness on the power of easy talking about trifles which some of those he had met with at the Corneys’ had exhibited. But then he felt stirring within him a force of enduring love which he believed to be unusual, and which seemed as if it must compel all things to his wish in the end. A year or so ago he had thought much of his own cleverness and his painfully acquired learning, and he had imagined that these were the qualities which were to gain Sylvia. But now, whether he had tried them and had failed to win even her admiration, or whether some true instinct had told him that a woman’s love may be gained in many ways sooner than by mere learning, he was only angry with himself for his past folly in making himself her school — nay, her taskmaster. To-night, though, he would start off on a new tack. He would not even upbraid her for her conduct the night before; he had shown her his displeasure at the time; but she should see how tender and forgiving he could be. He would lure her to him rather than find fault with her. There had perhaps been too much of that already.

When Coulson came back Philip went to his solitary dinner. In general he was quite alone while eating it; but today Alice Rose chose to bear him company. She watched him with cold severe eye for some time, until he had appeased his languid appetite. Then she began with the rebuke she had in store for him; a rebuke the motives to which were not entirely revealed even to herself.

‘Thou ‘re none so keen after thy food as common,’ she began. ‘Plain victuals goes ill down after feastin’.’

Philip felt the colour mount to his face; he was not in the mood for patiently standing the brunt of the attack which he saw was coming, and yet he had a reverent feeling for woman and for age. He wished she would leave him alone; but he only said —‘I had nought but a slice o’ cold beef for supper, if you’ll call that feasting.’

‘Neither do godly ways savour delicately after the pleasures of the world,’ continued she, unheeding his speech. ‘Thou wert wont to seek the house of the Lord, and I thought well on thee; but of late thou’st changed, and fallen away, and I mun speak what is in my heart towards thee.’

‘Mother,’ said Philip, impatiently (both he and Coulson called Alice ‘mother’ at times), ‘I don’t think I am fallen away, and any way I cannot stay now to be-it’s new year’s Day, and t’ shop is throng.’

But Alice held up her hand. Her speech was ready, and she must deliver it.

‘Shop here, shop there. The flesh and the devil are gettin’ hold on yo’, and yo’ need more nor iver to seek t’ ways o’ grace. New year’s day comes and says, “Watch and pray,” and yo’ say, “Nay, I’ll seek feasts and market-places, and let times and seasons come and go without heedin’ into whose presence they’re hastening me.” Time was, Philip, when thou’d niver ha’ letten a merry-making keep thee fra’ t’ watch-night, and t’ company o’ the godly.’

‘I tell yo’ it was no merry-making to me,’ said Philip, with sharpness, as he left the house.

Alice sat down on the nearest seat, and leant her head on her wrinkled hand.

‘He’s tangled and snared,’ said she; ‘my heart has yearned after him, and I esteemed him as one o’ the elect. And more nor me yearns after him. O Lord, I have but one child! O Lord, spare her! But o’er and above a’ I would like to pray for his soul, that Satan might not have it, for he came to me but a little lad.’

At that moment Philip, smitten by his conscience for his hard manner of speech, came back; but Alice did not hear or see him till he was close by her, and then he had to touch her to recall her attention.

‘Mother,’ said he, ‘I was wrong. I’m fretted by many things. I shouldn’t ha’ spoken so. It was ill-done of me.’

‘Oh, my lad!’ said she, looking up and putting her thin arm on his shoulder as he stooped, ‘Satan is desiring after yo’ that he may sift yo’ as wheat. Bide at whoam, bide at whoam, and go not after them as care nought for holy things. Why need yo’ go to Haytersbank this night?’

Philip reddened. He could not and would not give it up, and yet it was difficult to resist the pleading of the usually stern old woman.

‘Nay,’ said he, withdrawing himself ever so little from her hold; ‘my aunt is but ailing, they’re my own flesh and blood, and as good folks as needs be, though they mayn’t be o’ our — o’ your way o’ thinking in a’ things.’

‘Our ways — your ways o’ thinking, says he, as if they were no longer his’n. And as good folks as need be,’ repeated she, with returning severity. ‘Them’s Satan’s words, tho’ yo’ spoke ’em, Philip. I can do nought again Satan, but I can speak to them as can; an’ we’ll see which pulls hardest, for it’ll be better for thee to be riven and rent i’ twain than to go body and soul to hell.’

‘But don’t think, mother,’ said Philip, his last words of conciliation, for the clock had given warning for two, ‘as I’m boun’ for hell, just because I go t’ see my own folks, all I ha’ left o’ kin.’ And once more, after laying his hand with as much of a caress as was in his nature on hers, he left the house.

Probably Alice would have considered the first words that greeted Philip on his entrance into the shop as an answer to her prayer, for they were such as put a stop to his plan of going to see Sylvia that evening; and if Alice had formed her inchoate thoughts into words, Sylvia would have appeared as the nearest earthly representative of the spirit of temptation whom she dreaded for Philip.

As he took his place behind the counter, Coulson said to him in a low voice —

‘Jeremiah Foster has been round to bid us to sup wi’ him to-night. He says that he and John have a little matter o’ business to talk over with us.’

A glance from his eyes to Philip told the latter that Coulson believed the business spoken of had something to do with the partnership, respecting which there had been a silent intelligence for some time between the shopmen.

‘And what did thou say?’ asked Philip, doggedly unwilling, even yet, to give up his purposed visit.

‘Say! why, what could a say, but that we’d come? There was summat up, for sure; and summat as he thought we should be glad on. I could tell it fra’ t’ look on his face.’

‘I don’t think as I can go,’ said Philip, feeling just then as if the long-hoped-for partnership was as nothing compared to his plan. It was always distasteful to him to have to give up a project, or to disarrange an intended order of things, such was his nature; but today it was absolute pain to yield his own purpose.

‘Why, man alive?’ said Coulson, in amaze at his reluctance.

‘I didn’t say I mightn’t go,’ said Philip, weighing consequences, until called off to attend to customers.

In the course of the afternoon, however, he felt himself more easy in deferring his visit to Haytersbank till the next evening. Charley Kinraid entered the shop, accompanied by Molly Brunton and her sisters; and though they all went towards Hester’s side of the shop, and Philip and Coulson had many people to attend to, yet Hepburn’s sharpened ears caught much of what the young women were saying. From that he gathered that Kinraid had promised them new year’s gifts, for the purchase of which they were come; and after a little more listening he learnt that Kinraid was returning to Shields the next day, having only come over to spend a holiday with his relations, and being tied with ship’s work at the other end. They all talked together lightly and merrily, as if his going or staying was almost a matter of indifference to himself and his cousins. The principal thought of the young women was to secure the articles they most fancied; Charley Kinraid was (so Philip thought) especially anxious that the youngest and prettiest should be pleased. Hepburn watched him perpetually with a kind of envy of his bright, courteous manner, the natural gallantry of the sailor. If it were but clear that Sylvia took as little thought of him as he did of her, to all appearance, Philip could even have given him praise for manly good looks, and a certain kind of geniality of disposition which made him ready to smile pleasantly at all strangers, from babies upwards.

As the party turned to leave the shop they saw Philip, the guest of the night before; and they came over to shake hands with him across the counter; Kinraid’s hand was proffered among the number. Last night Philip could not have believed it possible that such a demonstration of fellowship should have passed between them; and perhaps there was a slight hesitation of manner on his part, for some idea or remembrance crossed Kinraid’s mind which brought a keen searching glance into the eyes which for a moment were fastened on Philip’s face. In spite of himself, and during the very action of hand-shaking, Philip felt a cloud come over his face, not altering or moving his features, but taking light and peace out of his countenance.

Molly Brunton began to say something, and he gladly turned to look at her. She was asking him why he went away so early, for they had kept it up for four hours after he left, and last of all, she added (turning to Kinraid), her cousin Charley had danced a hornpipe among the platters on the ground.

Philip hardly knew what he said in reply, the mention of that pas seul lifted such a weight off his heart. He could smile now, after his grave fashion, and would have shaken hands again with Kinraid had it been required; for it seemed to him that no one, caring ever so little in the way that he did for Sylvia, could have borne four mortal hours of a company where she had been, and was not; least of all could have danced a hornpipe, either from gaiety of heart, or even out of complaisance. He felt as if the yearning after the absent one would have been a weight to his legs, as well as to his spirit; and he imagined that all men were like himself.

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