Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XV

A Difficult Question

Philip went to bed with that kind of humble penitent gratitude in his heart, which we sometimes feel after a sudden revulsion of feeling from despondency to hope. The night before it seemed as if all events were so arranged as to thwart him in his dearest wishes; he felt now as if his discontent and repining, not twenty-four hours before, had been almost impious, so great was the change in his circumstances for the better. Now all seemed promising for the fulfilment of what he most desired. He was almost convinced that he was mistaken in thinking that Kinraid had had anything more than a sailor’s admiration for a pretty girl with regard to Sylvia; at any rate, he was going away tomorrow, in all probability not to return for another year (for Greenland ships left for the northern seas as soon as there was a chance of the ice being broken up), and ere then he himself might speak out openly, laying before her parents all his fortunate prospects, and before her all his deep passionate love.

So this night his prayers were more than the mere form that they had been the night before; they were a vehement expression of gratitude to God for having, as it were, interfered on his behalf, to grant him the desire of his eyes and the lust of his heart. He was like too many of us, he did not place his future life in the hands of God, and only ask for grace to do His will in whatever circumstances might arise; but he yearned in that terrible way after a blessing which, when granted under such circumstances, too often turns out to be equivalent to a curse. And that spirit brings with it the material and earthly idea that all events that favour our wishes are answers to our prayer; and so they are in one sense, but they need prayer in a deeper and higher spirit to keep us from the temptation to evil which such events invariably bring with them.

Philip little knew how Sylvia’s time had been passed that day. If he had, he would have laid down this night with even a heavier heart than he had done on the last.

Charley Kinraid accompanied his cousins as far as the spot where the path to Haytersbank Farm diverged. Then he stopped his merry talk, and announced his intention of going to see farmer Robson. Bessy Corney looked disappointed and a little sulky; but her sister Molly Brunton laughed, and said —

‘Tell truth, lad! Dannel Robson ‘d niver have a call fra’ thee if he hadn’t a pretty daughter.’

‘Indeed, but he would,’ replied Charley, rather annoyed; ‘when I’ve said a thing, I do it. I promised last night to go see him; besides, I like the old man.’

‘Well! when shall we tell mother yo’re comin’ whoam?’

‘Toward eight o’clock — may-be sooner.’

‘Why it’s bare five now! bless t’ lad, does he think o’ staying theere a’ neet, and they up so late last night, and Mrs. Robson ailing beside? Mother ‘ll not think it kind on yo’ either, will she, Bess?’

‘I dunno. Charley mun do as he likes; I daresay no one’ll miss him if he does bide away till eight.’

‘Well, well! I can’t tell what I shall do; but yo’d best not stop lingering here, for it’s getting on, and there’ll be a keen frost by t’ look o’ the stars.’

Haytersbank was closed for the night as far as it ever was closed; there were no shutters to the windows, nor did they care to draw the inside curtains, so few were the passers-by. The house door was fastened; but the shippen door a little on in the same long low block of building stood open, and a dim light made an oblong upon the snowy ground outside. As Kinraid drew near he heard talking there, and a woman’s voice; he threw a passing glance through the window into the fire-lit house-place, and seeing Mrs. Robson asleep by the fireside in her easy-chair, he went on.

There was the intermittent sound of the sharp whistling of milk into the pail, and Kester, sitting on a three-legged stool, cajoling a capricious cow into letting her fragrant burden flow. Sylvia stood near the farther window-ledge, on which a horn lantern was placed, pretending to knit at a gray worsted stocking, but in reality laughing at Kester’s futile endeavours, and finding quite enough to do with her eyes, in keeping herself untouched by the whisking tail, or the occasional kick. The frosty air was mellowed by the warm and odorous breath of the cattle — breath that hung about the place in faint misty clouds. There was only a dim light; such as it was, it was not dearly defined against the dark heavy shadow in which the old black rafters and manger and partitions were enveloped.

As Charley came to the door, Kester was saying, ‘Quiet wi’ thee, wench! Theere now, she’s a beauty, if she’ll stand still. There’s niver sich a cow i’ t’ Riding; if she’ll only behave hersel’. She’s a bonny lass, she is; let down her milk, theere’s a pretty!’

‘Why, Kester,’ laughed Sylvia, ‘thou’rt asking her for her milk wi’ as many pretty speeches as if thou wert wooing a wife!’

‘Hey, lass!’ said Kester, turning a bit towards her, and shutting one eye to cock the other the better upon her; an operation which puckered up his already wrinkled face into a thousand new lines and folds. ‘An’ how does thee know how a man woos a wife, that thee talks so knowin’ about it? That’s tellin’. Some un’s been tryin’ it on thee.’

‘There’s niver a one been so impudent,’ said Sylvia, reddening and tossing her head a little; ‘I’d like to see ’em try me!’

‘Well, well!’ said Kester, wilfully misunderstanding her meaning, ‘thou mun be patient, wench; and if thou’s a good lass, may-be thy turn ‘ll come and they ‘ll try it.’

‘I wish thou’d talk of what thou’s some knowledge on, Kester, i’stead of i’ that silly way,’ replied Sylvia.

‘Then a mun talk no more ‘bout women, for they’re past knowin’, an’ druv e’en King Solomon silly.’

At this moment Charley stepped in. Sylvia gave a little start and dropped her ball of worsted. Kester made as though absorbed in his task of cajoling Black Nell; but his eyes and ears were both vigilant.

‘I was going into the house, but I saw yo’r mother asleep, and I didn’t like to waken her, so I just came on here. Is yo’r father to the fore?’

‘No,’ said Sylvia, hanging down her head a little, wondering if he could have heard the way in which she and Kester had been talking, and thinking over her little foolish jokes with anger against herself. ‘Father is gone to Winthrop about some pigs as he’s heerd on. He’ll not be back till seven o’clock or so.’

It was but half-past five, and Sylvia in the irritation of the moment believed that she wished Kinraid would go. But she would have been extremely disappointed if he had. Kinraid himself seemed to have no thought of the kind. He saw with his quick eyes, not unaccustomed to women, that his coming so unexpectedly had fluttered Sylvia, and anxious to make her quite at her ease with him, and not unwilling to conciliate Kester, he addressed his next speech to him, with the same kind of air of interest in the old man’s pursuit that a young man of a different class sometimes puts on when talking to the chaperone of a pretty girl in a ball-room.

‘That’s a handsome beast yo’ve just been milking, master.’

‘Ay; but handsome is as handsome does. It were only yesterday as she aimed her leg right at t’ pail wi’ t’ afterings in. She knowed it were afterings as well as any Christian, and t’ more t’ mischief t’ better she likes it; an’ if a hadn’t been too quick for her, it would have a’ gone swash down i’ t’ litter. This’n ‘s a far better cow i’ t’ long run, she’s just a steady goer,’ as the milky down-pour came musical and even from the stall next to Black Nell’s.

Sylvia was knitting away vigorously, thinking all the while that it was a great pity she had not put on a better gown, or even a cap with brighter ribbon, and quite unconscious how very pretty she looked standing against the faint light, her head a little bent down; her hair catching bright golden touches, as it fell from under her little linen cap; her pink bed-gown, confined by her apron-string, giving a sort of easy grace to her figure; her dark full linsey petticoat short above her trim ancles, looking far more suitable to the place where she was standing than her long gown of the night before would have done. Kinraid was wanting to talk to her, and to make her talk, but was uncertain how to begin. In the meantime Kester went on with the subject last spoken about.

‘Black Nell’s at her fourth calf now, so she ought to ha’ left off her tricks and turned sober-like. But bless yo’, there’s some cows as ‘ll be skittish till they’re fat for t’ butcher. Not but what a like milking her better nor a steady goer; a man has allays summat to be watchin’ for; and a’m kind o’ set up when a’ve mastered her at last. T’ young missus theere, she’s mighty fond o’ comin’ t’ see Black Nell at her tantrums. She’d niver come near me if a’ cows were like this’n.’

‘Do you often come and see the cows milked?’ asked Kinraid,

‘Many a time,’ said Sylvia, smiling a little. ‘Why, when we’re throng, I help Kester; but now we’ve only Black Nell and Daisy giving milk. Kester knows as I can milk Black Nell quite easy,’ she continued, half vexed that Kester had not named this accomplishment.

‘Ay! when she’s in a good frame o’ mind, as she is sometimes. But t’ difficulty is to milk her at all times.’

‘I wish I’d come a bit sooner. I should like t’ have seen you milk Black Nell,’ addressing Sylvia.

‘Yo’d better come tomorrow e’en, and see what a hand she’ll mak’ on her,’ said Kester.

‘To-morrow night I shall be far on my road back to Shields.’

‘To-morrow!’ said Sylvia, suddenly looking up at him, and then dropping her eyes, as she found he had been watching for the effect of his intelligence on her.

‘I mun be back at t’ whaler, where I’m engaged,’ continued he. ‘She’s fitting up after a fresh fashion, and as I’ve been one as wanted new ways, I mun be on the spot for t’ look after her. Maybe I shall take a run down here afore sailing in March. I’m sure I shall try.’

There was a good deal meant and understood by these last few words. The tone in which they were spoken gave them a tender intensity not lost upon either of the hearers. Kester cocked his eye once more, but with as little obtrusiveness as he could, and pondered the sailor’s looks and ways. He remembered his coming about the place the winter before, and how the old master had then appeared to have taken to him; but at that time Sylvia had seemed to Kester too little removed from a child to have either art or part in Kinraid’s visits; now, however, the case was different. Kester in his sphere — among his circle of acquaintance, narrow though it was — had heard with much pride of Sylvia’s bearing away the bell at church and at market, wherever girls of her age were congregated. He was a north countryman, so he gave out no further sign of his feelings than his mistress and Sylvia’s mother had done on a like occasion.

‘T’ lass is weel enough,’ said he; but he grinned to himself, and looked about, and listened to the hearsay of every lad, wondering who was handsome, and brave, and good enough to be Sylvia’s mate. Now, of late, it had seemed to the canny farm-servant pretty clear that Philip Hepburn was ‘after her’; and to Philip, Kester had an instinctive objection, a kind of natural antipathy such as has existed in all ages between the dwellers in a town and those in the country, between agriculture and trade. So, while Kinraid and Sylvia kept up their half-tender, half-jesting conversation, Kester was making up his slow persistent mind as to the desirability of the young man then present as a husband for his darling, as much from his being other than Philip in every respect, as from the individual good qualities he possessed. Kester’s first opportunity of favouring Kinraid’s suit consisted in being as long as possible over his milking; so never were cows that required such ‘stripping,’ or were expected to yield such ‘afterings’, as Black Nell and Daisy that night. But all things must come to an end; and at length Kester got up from his three-legged stool, on seeing what the others did not — that the dip-candle in the lantern was coming to an end — and that in two or three minutes more the shippen would be in darkness, and so his pails of milk be endangered. In an instant Sylvia had started out of her delicious dreamland, her drooping eyes were raised, and recovered their power of observation; her ruddy arms were freed from the apron in which she had enfolded them, as a protection from the gathering cold, and she had seized and adjusted the wooden yoke across her shoulders, ready to bear the brimming milk-pails to the dairy.

‘Look yo’ at her!’ exclaimed Kester to Charley, as he adjusted the fragrant pails on the yoke. ‘She thinks she’s missus a ready, and she’s allays for carrying in t’ milk since t’ rhumatiz cotched my shouther i’ t’ back end; and when she says “Yea,” it’s as much as my heed’s worth to say “Nay.”’

And along the wall, round the corner, down the round slippery stones of the rambling farmyard, behind the buildings, did Sylvia trip, safe and well-poised, though the ground wore all one coating of white snow, and in many places was so slippery as to oblige Kinraid to linger near Kester, the lantern-bearer. Kester did not lose his opportunity, though the cold misty night air provoked his asthmatic cough when-ever he breathed, and often interrupted his words.

‘She’s a good wench — a good wench as iver was — an come on a good stock, an’ that’s summat, whether in a cow or a woman. A’ve known her from a baby; she’s a reet down good un.’

By this time they had reached the back-kitchen door, just as Sylvia had unladen herself, and was striking a light with flint and tinder. The house seemed warm and inviting after the piercing outer air, although the kitchen into which they entered contained only a raked and slumbering fire at one end, over which, on a crook, hung the immense pan of potatoes cooking for the evening meal of the pigs. To this pan Kester immediately addressed himself, swinging it round with ease, owing to the admirable simplicity of the old-fashioned machinery. Kinraid stood between Kester and the door into the dairy, through which Sylvia had vanished with the milk. He half wished to conciliate Kester by helping him, but he seemed also attracted, by a force which annihilated his will, to follow her wherever she went. Kester read his mind.

‘Let alone, let alone,’ said he; ‘pigs’ vittle takes noan such dainty carryin’ as milk. A may set it down an’ niver spill a drop; she’s noan fit for t’ serve swine, nor yo’ other, mester; better help her t’ teem t’ milk.’

So Kinraid followed the light — his light — into the icy chill of the dairy, where the bright polished tin cans were quickly dimmed with the warm, sweet-smelling milk, that Sylvia was emptying out into the brown pans. In his haste to help her, Charley took up one of the pails.

‘Eh? that’n ‘s to be strained. Yo’ have a’ the cow’s hair in. Mother’s very particular, and cannot abide a hair.’

So she went over to her awkward dairymaid, and before she — but not before he — was aware of the sweet proximity, she was adjusting his happy awkward arms to the new office of holding a milk-strainer over the bowl, and pouring the white liquid through it.

‘There!’ said she, looking up for a moment, and half blushing; ‘now yo’ll know how to do it next time.’

‘I wish next time was to come now,’ said Kinraid; but she had returned to her own pail, and seemed not to hear him. He followed her to her side of the dairy. ‘I’ve but a short memory, can yo’ not show me again how t’ hold t’ strainer?’

‘No,’ said she, half laughing, but holding her strainer fast in spite of his insinuating efforts to unlock her fingers. ‘But there’s no need to tell me yo’ve getten a short memory.’

‘Why? what have I done? how dun you know it?’

‘Last night,’ she began, and then she stopped, and turned away her head, pretending to be busy in her dairy duties of rinsing and such like.

‘Well!’ said he, half conjecturing her meaning, and flattered by it, if his conjecture were right. ‘Last night — what?’

‘Oh, yo’ know!’ said she, as if impatient at being both literally and metaphorically followed about, and driven into a corner.

‘No; tell me,’ persisted he.

‘Well,’ said she, ‘if yo’ will have it, I think yo’ showed yo’d but a short memory when yo’ didn’t know me again, and yo’ were five times at this house last winter, and that’s not so long sin’. But I suppose yo’ see a vast o’ things on yo’r voyages by land or by sea, and then it’s but natural yo’ should forget.’ She wished she could go on talking, but could not think of anything more to say just then; for, in the middle of her sentence, the flattering interpretation he might put upon her words, on her knowing so exactly the number of times he had been to Haytersbank, flashed upon her, and she wanted to lead the conversation a little farther afield — to make it a little less personal. This was not his wish, however. In a tone which thrilled through her, even in her own despite, he said —

‘Do yo’ think that can ever happen again, Sylvia?’

She was quite silent; almost trembling. He repeated the question as if to force her to answer. Driven to bay, she equivocated.

‘What happen again? Let me go, I dunno what yo’re talking about, and I’m a’most numbed wi’ cold.’

For the frosty air came sharp in through the open lattice window, and the ice was already forming on the milk. Kinraid would have found a ready way of keeping his cousins, or indeed most young women, warm; but he paused before he dared put his arm round Sylvia; she had something so shy and wild in her look and manner; and her very innocence of what her words, spoken by another girl, might lead to, inspired him with respect, and kept him in check. So he contented himself with saying —

‘I’ll let yo’ go into t’ warm kitchen if yo’ll tell me if yo’ think I can ever forget yo’ again.’

She looked up at him defiantly, and set her red lips firm. He enjoyed her determination not to reply to this question; it showed she felt its significance. Her pure eyes looked steadily into his; nor was the expression in his such as to daunt her or make her afraid. They were like two children defying each other; each determined to conquer. At last she unclosed her lips, and nodding her head as if in triumph, said, as she folded her arms once more in her check apron —

‘Yo’ll have to go home sometime.’

‘Not for a couple of hours yet,’ said he; ‘and yo’ll be frozen first; so yo’d better say if I can ever forget yo’ again, without more ado.’

Perhaps the fresh voices breaking on the silence — perhaps the tones were less modulated than they had been before, but anyhow Bell Robson’s voice was heard calling Sylvia through the second door, which opened from the dairy to the house-place, in which her mother had been till this moment asleep. Sylvia darted off in obedience to the call; glad to leave him, as at the moment Kinraid resentfully imagined. Through the open door he heard the conversation between mother and daughter, almost unconscious of its meaning, so difficult did he find it to wrench his thoughts from the ideas he had just been forming with Sylvia’s bright lovely face right under his eyes.

‘Sylvia!’ said her mother, ‘who’s yonder?’ Bell was sitting up in the attitude of one startled out of slumber into intensity of listening; her hands on each of the chair-arms, as if just going to rise. ‘There’s a fremd man i’ t’ house. I heerd his voice!’

‘It’s only — it’s just Charley Kinraid; he was a-talking to me i’ t’ dairy.’

‘I’ t’ dairy, lass! and how com’d he i’ t’ dairy?’

‘He com’d to see feyther. Feyther asked him last night,’ said Sylvia, conscious that he could overhear every word that was said, and a little suspecting that he was no great favourite with her mother.

‘Thy feyther’s out; how com’d he i’ t’ dairy?’ persevered Bell.

‘He com’d past this window, and saw yo’ asleep, and didn’t like for t’ waken yo’; so he com’d on to t’ shippen, and when I carried t’ milk in —’

But now Kinraid came in, feeling the awkwardness of his situation a little, yet with an expression so pleasant and manly in his open face, and in his exculpatory manner, that Sylvia lost his first words in a strange kind of pride of possession in him, about which she did not reason nor care to define the grounds. But her mother rose from her chair somewhat formally, as if she did not intend to sit down again while he stayed, yet was too weak to be kept in that standing attitude long.

‘I’m afeared, sir, Sylvie hasn’t told yo’ that my master’s out, and not like to be in till late. He’ll be main and sorry to have missed yo’.’

There was nothing for it after this but to go. His only comfort was that on Sylvia’s rosy face he could read unmistakable signs of regret and dismay. His sailor’s life, in bringing him suddenly face to face with unexpected events, had given him something of that self-possession which we consider the attribute of a gentleman; and with an apparent calmness which almost disappointed Sylvia, who construed it into a symptom of indifference as to whether he went or stayed, he bade her mother good-night, and only said, in holding her hand a minute longer than was absolutely necessary —

‘I’m coming back ere I sail; and then, may-be, you’ll answer yon question.’

He spoke low, and her mother was rearranging herself in her chair, else Sylvia would have had to repeat the previous words. As it was, with soft thrilling ideas ringing through her, she could get her wheel, and sit down to her spinning by the fire; waiting for her mother to speak first, Sylvia dreamt her dreams.

Bell Robson was partly aware of the state of things, as far as it lay on the surface. She was not aware how deep down certain feelings had penetrated into the girl’s heart who sat on the other side of the fire, with a little sad air diffused over her face and figure. Bell looked upon Sylvia as still a child, to be warned off forbidden things by threats of danger. But the forbidden thing was already tasted, and possible danger in its full acquisition only served to make it more precious-sweet.

Bell sat upright in her chair, gazing into the fire. Her milk-white linen mob-cap fringed round and softened her face, from which the usual apple-red was banished by illness, and the features, from the same cause, rendered more prominent and stern. She had a clean buff kerchief round her neck, and stuffed into the bosom of her Sunday woollen gown of dark blue — if she had been in working-trim she would have worn a bedgown like Sylvia’s. Her sleeves were pinned back at the elbows, and her brown arms and hard-working hands lay crossed in unwonted idleness on her check apron. Her knitting was by her side; and if she had been going through any accustomed calculation or consideration she would have had it busily clinking in her fingers. But she had something quite beyond common to think about, and, perhaps, to speak about; and for the minute she was not equal to knitting.

‘Sylvie,’ she began at length, ‘did I e’er tell thee on Nancy Hartley as I knew when I were a child? I’m thinking a deal on her to-night; may-be it’s because I’ve been dreaming on yon old times. She was a bonny lass as ever were seen, I’ve heerd folk say; but that were afore I knew her. When I knew her she were crazy, poor wench; wi’ her black hair a-streaming down her back, and her eyes, as were a’most as black, allays crying out for pity, though never a word she spoke but “He once was here.” Just that o’er and o’er again, whether she were cold or hot, full or hungry, “He once was here,” were all her speech. She had been farm-servant to my mother’s brother — James Hepburn, thy great-uncle as was; she were a poor, friendless wench, a parish ‘prentice, but honest and gaum-like, till a lad, as nobody knowed, come o’er the hills one sheep-shearing fra’ Whitehaven; he had summat to do wi’ th’ sea, though not rightly to be called a sailor: and he made a deal on Nancy Hartley, just to beguile the time like; and he went away and ne’er sent a thought after her more. It’s the way as lads have; and there’s no holding ’em when they’re fellows as nobody knows — neither where they come fro’, nor what they’ve been doing a’ their lives, till they come athwart some poor wench like Nancy Hartley. She were but a softy after all: for she left off doing her work in a proper manner. I’ve heerd my aunt say as she found out as summat was wrong wi’ Nancy as soon as th’ milk turned bingy, for there ne’er had been such a clean lass about her milk-cans afore that; and from bad it grew to worse, and she would sit and do nothing but play wi’ her fingers fro’ morn till night, and if they asked her what ailed her, she just said, “He once was here;” and if they bid her go about her work, it were a’ the same. And when they scolded her, and pretty sharp too, she would stand up and put her hair from her eyes, and look about her like a crazy thing searching for her wits, and ne’er finding them, for all she could think on was just, “He once was here.” It were a caution to me again thinking a man t’ mean what he says when he’s a-talking to a young woman.’

‘But what became on poor Nancy?’ asked Sylvia.

‘What should become on her or on any lass as gives hersel’ up to thinking on a man who cares nought for her?’ replied her mother, a little severely. ‘She were crazed, and my aunt couldn’t keep her on, could she? She did keep her a long weary time, thinking as she would, may-be, come to hersel’, and, anyhow, she were a motherless wench. But at length she had for t’ go where she came fro’— back to Keswick workhouse: and when last I heerd on her she were chained to th’ great kitchen dresser i’ t’ workhouse; they’d beaten her till she were taught to be silent and quiet i’ th’ daytime, but at night, when she were left alone, she would take up th’ oud cry, till it wrung their heart, so they’d many a time to come down and beat her again to get any peace. It were a caution to me, as I said afore, to keep fro’ thinking on men as thought nought on me.’

‘Poor crazy Nancy!’ sighed Sylvia. The mother wondered if she had taken the ‘caution’ to herself, or was only full of pity for the mad girl, dead long before.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gaskell/elizabeth/sylvia/chapter15.html

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