Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XIV

Partnership

As darkness closed in, and the New Year’s throng became scarce, Philip’s hesitation about accompanying Coulson faded away. He was more comfortable respecting Sylvia, and his going to see her might be deferred; and, after all, he felt that the wishes of his masters ought to be attended to, and the honour of an invitation to the private house of Jeremiah not to be slighted for anything short of a positive engagement. Besides, the ambitious man of business existed strongly in Philip. It would never do to slight advances towards the second great earthly object in his life; one also on which the first depended.

So when the shop was closed, the two set out down Bridge Street to cross the river to the house of Jeremiah Foster. They stood a moment on the bridge to breathe the keen fresh sea air after their busy day. The waters came down, swollen full and dark, with rapid rushing speed from the snow-fed springs high up on the moorland above. The close-packed houses in the old town seemed a cluster of white roofs irregularly piled against the more unbroken white of the hill-side. Lights twinkled here and there in the town, and were slung from stern and bow of the ships in the harbour. The air was very still, settling in for a frost; so still that all distant sounds seemed near: the rumble of a returning cart in the High Street, the voices on board ship, the closing of shutters and barring of doors in the new town to which they were bound. But the sharp air was filled, as it were, with saline particles in a freezing state; little pungent crystals of sea salt burning lips and cheeks with their cold keenness. It would not do to linger here in the very centre of the valley up which passed the current of atmosphere coming straight with the rushing tide from the icy northern seas. Besides, there was the unusual honour of a supper with Jeremiah Foster awaiting them. He had asked each of them separately to a meal before now; but they had never gone together, and they felt that there was something serious in the conjuncture.

They began to climb the steep heights leading to the freshly-built rows of the new town of Monkshaven, feeling as if they were rising into aristocratic regions where no shop profaned the streets. Jeremiah Foster’s house was one of six, undistinguished in size, or shape, or colour; but noticed in the daytime by all passers-by for its spotless cleanliness of lintel and doorstep, window and window frame. The very bricks seemed as though they came in for the daily scrubbing which brightened handle, knocker, all down to the very scraper.

The two young men felt as shy of the interview with their master under such unusual relations of guest and host, as a girl does of her first party. Each rather drew back from the decided step of knocking at the door; but with a rebuffing shake at his own folly, Philip was the one to give a loud single rap. As if they had been waited for, the door flew open, and a middle-aged servant stood behind, as spotless and neat as the house itself; and smiled a welcome to the familiar faces.

‘Let me dust yo’ a bit, William,’ said she, suiting the action to the word. ‘You’ve been leanin’ again some whitewash, a’ll be bound. Ay, Philip,’ continued she, turning him round with motherly freedom, ‘yo’ll do if yo’ll but gi’ your shoon a polishin’ wipe on yon other mat. This’n for takin’ t’ roughest mud off. Measter allays polishes on that.’

In the square parlour the same precise order was observed. Every article of furniture was free from speck of dirt or particle of dust; and everything was placed either in a parallel line, or at exact right-angles with every other. Even John and Jeremiah sat in symmetry on opposite sides of the fire-place; the very smiles on their honest faces seemed drawn to a line of exactitude.

Such formality, however admirable, was not calculated to promote ease: it was not until after supper — until a good quantity of Yorkshire pie had been swallowed, and washed down, too, with the best and most generous wine in Jeremiah’s cellar — that there was the least geniality among them, in spite of the friendly kindness of the host and his brother. The long silence, during which mute thanks for the meal were given, having come to an end, Jeremiah called for pipes, and three of the party began to smoke.

Politics in those days were tickle subjects to meddle with, even in the most private company. The nation was in a state of terror against France, and against any at home who might be supposed to sympathise with the enormities she had just been committing. The oppressive act against seditious meetings had been passed the year before; and people were doubtful to what extremity of severity it might be construed. Even the law authorities forgot to be impartial, but either their alarms or their interests made too many of them vehement partisans instead of calm arbiters, and thus destroyed the popular confidence in what should have been considered the supreme tribunal of justice. Yet for all this, there were some who dared to speak of reform of Parliament, as a preliminary step to fair representation of the people, and to a reduction of the heavy war-taxation that was imminent, if not already imposed. But these pioneers of 1830 were generally obnoxious. The great body of the people gloried in being Tories and haters of the French, with whom they were on tenter-hooks to fight, almost unaware of the rising reputation of the young Corsican warrior, whose name would be used ere a dozen years had passed to hush English babies with a terror such as that of Marlborough once had for the French.

At such a place as Monkshaven all these opinions were held in excess. One or two might, for the mere sake of argument, dispute on certain points of history or government; but they took care to be very sure of their listeners before such arguments touched on anything of the present day; for it had been not unfrequently found that the public duty of prosecuting opinions not your own overrode the private duty of respecting confidence. Most of the Monkshaven politicians confined themselves, therefore, to such general questions as these: ‘Could an Englishman lick more than four Frenchmen at a time?’ ‘What was the proper punishment for members of the Corresponding Society (correspondence with the French directory), hanging and quartering, or burning?’ ‘Would the forthcoming child of the Princess of Wales be a boy or a girl? If a girl, would it be more loyal to call it Charlotte or Elizabeth?’

The Fosters were quite secure enough of their guests this evening to have spoken freely on politics had they been so inclined. And they did begin on the outrages which had been lately offered to the king in crossing St James’s Park to go and open the House of Lords; but soon, so accustomed were their minds to caution and restraint, the talk dropped down to the high price of provisions. Bread at 1s. 3d. the quartern loaf, according to the London test. Wheat at 120s. per quarter, as the home-baking northerners viewed the matter; and then the conversation died away to an ominous silence. John looked at Jeremiah, as if asking him to begin. Jeremiah was the host, and had been a married man. Jeremiah returned the look with the same meaning in it. John, though a bachelor, was the elder brother. The great church bell, brought from the Monkshaven monastery centuries ago, high up on the opposite hill-side, began to ring nine o’clock; it was getting late. Jeremiah began:

‘It seems a bad time for starting any one on business, wi’ prices and taxes and bread so dear; but John and I are getting into years, and we’ve no children to follow us: yet we would fain draw out of some of our worldly affairs. We would like to give up the shop, and stick to banking, to which there seemeth a plain path. But first there is the stock and goodwill of the shop to be disposed on.’

A dead pause. This opening was not favourable to the hopes of the two moneyless young men who had been hoping to succeed their masters by the more gradual process of partnership. But it was only the kind of speech that had been agreed upon by the two brothers with a view of impressing on Hepburn and Coulson the great and unusual responsibility of the situation into which the Fosters wished them to enter. In some ways the talk of many was much less simple and straightforward in those days than it is now. The study of effect shown in the London diners-out of the last generation, who prepared their conversation beforehand, was not without its parallel in humbler spheres, and for different objects than self-display. The brothers Foster had all but rehearsed the speeches they were about to make this evening. They were aware of the youth of the parties to whom they were going to make a most favourable proposal; and they dreaded that if that proposal was too lightly made, it would be too lightly considered, and the duties involved in it too carelessly entered upon. So the role of one brother was to suggest, that of the other to repress. The young men, too, had their reserves. They foresaw, and had long foreseen, what was coming that evening. They were impatient to hear it in distinct words; and yet they had to wait, as if unconscious, during all the long preamble. Do age and youth never play the same parts now? To return. John Foster replied to his brother:

‘The stock and goodwill! That would take much wealth. And there will be fixtures to be considered. Philip, canst thee tell me the exact amount of stock in the shop at present?’

It had only just been taken; Philip had it at his fingers’ ends. ‘One thousand nine hundred and forty-one pounds, thirteen shillings and twopence.’

Coulson looked at him in a little dismay, and could not repress a sigh. The figures put into words and spoken aloud seemed to indicate so much larger an amount of money than when quickly written down in numerals. But Philip read the countenances, nay, by some process of which he was not himself aware, he read the minds of the brothers, and felt no dismay at what he saw there.

‘And the fixtures?’ asked John Foster.

‘The appraiser valued them at four hundred and thirty-five pounds three and sixpence when father died. We have added to them since, but we will reckon them at that. How much does that make with the value of the stock?’

‘Two thousand one hundred and seventy-six pounds, sixteen shillings and eightpence,’ said Philip.

Coulson had done the sum quicker, but was too much disheartened by the amount to speak.

‘And the goodwill?’ asked the pitiless John. ‘What dost thee set that at?’

‘I think, brother, that that would depend on who came forward with the purchase-money of the stock and fixtures. To some folks we might make it sit easy, if they were known to us, and those as we wished well to. If Philip and William here, for instance, said they’d like to purchase the business, I reckon thee and me would not ask ’em so much as we should ask Millers’ (Millers was an upstart petty rival shop at the end of the bridge in the New Town).

‘I wish Philip and William was to come after us,’ said John. ‘But that’s out of the question,’ he continued, knowing all the while that, far from being out of the question, it was the very question, and that it was as good as settled at this very time.

No one spoke. Then Jeremiah went on:

‘It’s out of the question, I reckon?’

He looked at the two young men. Coulson shook his head. Philip more bravely said —

‘I have fifty-three pounds seven and fourpence in yo’r hands, Master John, and it’s all I have i’ the world.’

‘It’s a pity,’ said John, and again they were silent. Half-past nine struck. It was time to be beginning to make an end. ‘Perhaps, brother, they have friends who could advance ’em the money. We might make it sit light to them, for the sake of their good service?’

Philip replied —

‘There’s no one who can put forwards a penny for me: I have but few kin, and they have little to spare beyond what they need.’

Coulson said —

‘My father and mother have nine on us.’

‘Let alone, let alone!’ said John, relenting fast; for he was weary of his part of cold, stern prudence. ‘Brother, I think we have enough of this world’s goods to do what we like wi’ our own.’

Jeremiah was a little scandalized at the rapid melting away of assumed character, and took a good pull at his pipe before he replied —

‘Upwards of two thousand pounds is a large sum to set on the well-being and well-doing of two lads, the elder of whom is not three-and-twenty. I fear we must look farther a-field.’

‘Why, John,’ replied Jeremiah, ‘it was but yesterday thee saidst thee would rather have Philip and William than any men o’ fifty that thee knowed. And now to bring up their youth again them.’

‘Well, well! t’ half on it is thine, and thou shall do even as thou wilt. But I think as I must have security for my moiety, for it’s a risk — a great risk. Have ye any security to offer? any expectations? any legacies, as other folk have a life-interest in at present?’

No; neither of them had. So Jeremiah rejoined —

‘Then, I suppose, I mun do as thee dost, John, and take the security of character. And it’s a great security too, lads, and t’ best o’ all, and one that I couldn’t ha’ done without; no, not if yo’d pay me down five thousand for goodwill, and stock, and fixtures. For John Foster and Son has been a shop i’ Monkshaven this eighty years and more; and I dunnot think there’s a man living — or dead, for that matter — as can say Fosters wronged him of a penny, or gave short measure to a child or a Cousin Betty.’

They all four shook hands round with the same heartiness as if it had been a legal ceremony necessary to the completion of the partnership. The old men’s faces were bright with smiles; the eyes of the young ones sparkled with hope.

‘But, after all,’ said Jeremiah, ‘we’ve not told you particulars. Yo’re thanking us for a pig in a poke; but we had more forethought, and we put all down on a piece o’ paper.’

He took down a folded piece of paper from the mantel-shelf, put on his horn spectacles, and began to read aloud, occasionally peering over his glasses to note the effect on the countenances of the young men. The only thing he was in the habit of reading aloud was a chapter in the Bible daily to his housekeeper servant; and, like many, he reserved a peculiar tone for that solemn occupation — a tone which he unconsciously employed for the present enumeration of pounds, shillings, and pence.

‘Average returns of the last three years, one hundred and twenty-seven pounds, three shillings, and seven penny and one-sixth a week. Profits thereupon thirty-four per cent. — as near as may be. Clear profits of the concern, after deducting all expenses except rent — for t’ house is our own — one thousand two hundred and two pound a year.’

This was far more than either Hepburn or Coulson had imagined it to be; and a look of surprise, almost amounting to dismay, crept over their faces, in spite of their endeavour to keep simply motionless and attentive.

‘It’s a deal of money, lads, and the Lord give you grace to guide it,’ said Jeremiah, putting down his paper for a minute.

‘Amen,’ said John, shaking his head to give effect to his word.

‘Now what we propose is this,’ continued Jeremiah, beginning afresh to refer to his paper: ‘We will call t’ value of stock and fixtures two thousand one hundred and fifty. You may have John Holden, appraiser and auctioneer, in to set a price on them if yo’ will; or yo’ may look over books and bills; or, better still, do both, and so check one again t’other; but for t’ sake o’ making the ground o’ the bargain, I state the sum as above; and I reckon it so much capital left in yo’r hands for the use o’ which yo’re bound to pay us five per cent. quarterly — that’s one hundred and seven pound ten per annum at least for t’ first year; and after it will be reduced by the gradual payment on our money, which must be at the rate of twenty per cent., thus paying us our principal back in five years. And the rent, including all back yards, right of wharfage, warehouse, and premises, is reckoned by us to be sixty-five pound per annum. So yo’ will have to pay us, John and Jeremiah Foster, brothers, six hundred and twelve pound ten out of the profits of the first year, leaving, at the present rate of profits, about five hundred and eighty-nine pound ten, for the share to be divided between yo’.’

The plan had, in all its details, been carefully arranged by the two brothers. They were afraid lest Hepburn and Coulson should be dazzled by the amount of profits, and had so arranged the sliding-scale of payment as to reduce the first year’s income to what the elder men thought a very moderate sum, but what to the younger ones appeared an amount of wealth such as they, who had neither of them ever owned much more than fifty pounds, considered almost inexhaustible. It was certainly a remarkable instance of prosperity and desert meeting together so early in life.

For a moment or two the brothers were disappointed at not hearing any reply from either of them. Then Philip stood up, for he felt as if anything he could say sitting down would not be sufficiently expressive of gratitude, and William instantly followed his example. Hepburn began in a formal manner, something the way in which he had read in the York newspapers that honourable members returned thanks when their health was given.

‘I can hardly express my feelings’ (Coulson nudged him) ‘his feelings, too — of gratitude. Oh, Master John! Master Jeremiah, I thought it might come i’ time; nay, I’ve thought it might come afore long; but I niver thought as it would be so much, or made so easy. We’ve got good kind friends — we have, have we not, William? — and we’ll do our best, and I hope as we shall come up to their wishes.’

Philip’s voice quivered a little, as some remembrance passed across his mind; at this unusual moment of expansion out it came. ‘I wish mother could ha’ seen this day.’

‘She shall see a better day, my lad, when thy name and William’s is painted over t’ shop-door, and J. and J. Foster blacked out.’

‘Nay, master,’ said William, ‘that mun never be. I’d a’most sooner not come in for the business. Anyhow, it must be ‘late J. and J. Foster,’ and I’m not sure as I can stomach that.’

‘Well, well, William,’ said John Foster, highly gratified, ‘there be time enough to talk over that. There was one thing more to be said, was there not, brother Jeremiah? We do not wish to have this talked over in Monkshaven until shortly before the time when yo’ must enter on the business. We have our own arrangements to make wi’ regard to the banking concern, and there’ll be lawyer’s work to do, after yo’ve examined books and looked over stock again together; may-be we’ve overstated it, or t’ fixtures aren’t worth so much as we said. Anyhow yo’ must each on yo’ give us yo’r word for to keep fra’ naming this night’s conversation to any one. Meantime, Jeremiah and I will have to pay accounts, and take a kind of farewell of the merchants and manufacturers with whom Fosters have had dealings this seventy or eighty year; and when and where it seems fitting to us we will take one of yo’ to introduce as our successors and friends. But all that’s to come. But yo’ must each give us yo’r word not to name what has passed here to any one till further speech on the subject has passed between us.’

Coulson immediately gave the promise. Philip’s assent came lagging. He had thought of Sylvia living, almost as much as of the dead mother, whose last words had been a committal of her child to the Father of the friendless; and now that a short delay was placed between the sight of the cup and his enjoyment of it, there was an impatient chafing in the mind of the composed and self-restrained Philip; and then repentance quick as lightning effaced the feeling, and he pledged himself to the secrecy which was enjoined. Some few more details as to their mode of procedure — of verifying the Fosters’ statements, which to the younger men seemed a perfectly unnecessary piece of business — of probable journeys and introductions, and then farewell was bidden, and Hepburn and Coulson were in the passage donning their wraps, and rather to their indignation being assisted therein by Martha, who was accustomed to the office with her own master. Suddenly they were recalled into the parlour.

John Foster was fumbling with the papers a little nervously: Jeremiah spoke —

‘We have not thought it necessary to commend Hester Rose to you; if she had been a lad she would have had a third o’ the business along wi’ yo’. Being a woman, it’s ill troubling her with a partnership; better give her a fixed salary till such time as she marries.’

He looked a little knowingly and curiously at the faces of the young men he addressed. William Coulson seemed sheepish and uncomfortable, but said nothing, leaving it as usual to Philip to be spokesman.

‘If we hadn’t cared for Hester for hersel’, master, we should ha’ cared for her as being forespoken by yo’. Yo’ and Master John shall fix what we ought t’ pay her; and I think I may make bold to say that, as our income rises, hers shall too — eh, Coulson?’ (a sound of assent quite distinct enough); ‘for we both look on her as a sister and on Alice like a mother, as I told her only this very day.’

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