Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XXI

A Rejected Suitor

There were many domestic arrangements to be made in connection with the new commercial ones which affected Hepburn and Coulson.

The Fosters, with something of the busybodiness which is apt to mingle itself with kindly patronage, had planned in their own minds that the Rose household should be removed altogether to the house belonging to the shop; and that Alice, with the assistance of the capable servant, who, at present, managed all John’s domestic affairs, should continue as mistress of the house, with Philip and Coulson for her lodgers.

But arrangements without her consent did not suit Alice at any time, and she had very good reasons for declining to accede to this. She was not going to be uprooted at her time of life, she said, nor would she consent to enter upon a future which might be so uncertain. Why, Hepburn and Coulson were both young men, she said, and they were as likely to marry as not; and then the bride would be sure to wish to live in the good old-fashioned house at the back of the shop.

It was in vain she was told by every one concerned, that, in case of such an event, the first married partner should take a house of his own, leaving her in undisputed possession. She replied, with apparent truth, that both might wish to marry, and surely the wife of one ought to take possession of the house belonging to the business; that she was not going to trust herself to the fancies of young men, who were always, the best of them, going and doing the very thing that was most foolish in the way of marriage; of which state, in fact, she spoke with something of acrimonious contempt and dislike, as if young people always got mismatched, yet had not the sense to let older and wiser people choose for them.

‘Thou’ll not have been understanding why Alice Rose spoke as she did this morning,’ said Jeremiah Foster to Philip, on the afternoon succeeding the final discussion of this plan. ‘She was a-thinking of her youth, I reckon, when she was a well-favoured young woman, and our John was full of the thought of marrying her. As he could not have her, he has lived a bachelor all his days. But if I am not a vast mistaken, all that he has will go to her and to Hester, for all that Hester is the child of another man. Thee and Coulson should have a try for Hester, Philip. I have told Coulson this day of Hester’s chances. I told him first because he is my wife’s nephew; but I tell thee now, Philip. It would be a good thing for the shop if one of ye was married.’

Philip reddened. Often as the idea of marriage had come into his mind, this was the first time it had been gravely suggested to him by another. But he replied quietly enough.

‘I don’t think Hester Rose has any thought of matrimony.’

‘To be sure not; it is for thee, or for William Coulson, to make her think. She, may-be, remembers enough of her mother’s life with her father to make her slow to think on such things. But it’s in her to think on matrimony; it’s in all of us.’

‘Alice’s husband was dead before I knew her,’ said Philip, rather evading the main subject.

‘It was a mercy when he were taken. A mercy to them who were left, I mean. Alice was a bonny young woman, with a smile for everybody, when he wed her — a smile for every one except our John, who never could do enough to try and win one from her. But, no! she would have none of him, but set her heart on Jack Rose, a sailor in a whale-ship. And so they were married at last, though all her own folks were against it. And he was a profligate sinner, and went after other women, and drank, and beat her. She turned as stiff and as grey as thou seest her now within a year of Hester’s birth. I believe they’d have perished for want and cold many a time if it had not been for John. If she ever guessed where the money came from, it must have hurt her pride above a bit, for she was always a proud woman. But mother’s love is stronger than pride.’

Philip fell to thinking; a generation ago something of the same kind had been going on as that which he was now living through, quick with hopes and fears. A girl beloved by two — nay, those two so identical in occupation as he and Kinraid were — Rose identical even in character with what he knew of the specksioneer; a girl choosing the wrong lover, and suffering and soured all her life in consequence of her youth’s mistake; was that to be Sylvia’s lot? — or, rather, was she not saved from it by the event of the impressment, and by the course of silence he himself had resolved upon? Then he went on to wonder if the lives of one generation were but a repetition of the lives of those who had gone before, with no variation but from the internal cause that some had greater capacity for suffering than others. Would those very circumstances which made the interest of his life now, return, in due cycle, when he was dead and Sylvia was forgotten?

Perplexed thoughts of this and a similar kind kept returning into Philip’s mind whenever he had leisure to give himself up to consideration of anything but the immediate throng of business. And every time he dwelt on this complication and succession of similar events, he emerged from his reverie more and more satisfied with the course he had taken in withholding from Sylvia all knowledge of her lover’s fate.

It was settled at length that Philip was to remove to the house belonging to the shop, Coulson remaining with Alice and her daughter. But in the course of the summer the latter told his partner that he had offered marriage to Hester on the previous day, and been refused. It was an awkward affair altogether, as he lived in their house, and was in daily companionship with Hester, who, however, seemed to preserve her gentle calmness, with only a tinge more of reserve in her manner to Coulson.

‘I wish yo’ could find out what she has again’ me, Philip,’ said Coulson, about a fortnight after he had made the proposal. The poor young man thought that Hester’s composure of manner towards him since the event argued that he was not distasteful to her; and as he was now on very happy terms with Philip, he came constantly to him, as if the latter could interpret the meaning of all the little occurrences between him and his beloved. ‘I’m o’ right age, not two months betwixt us; and there’s few in Monkshaven as would think on her wi’ better prospects than me; and she knows my folks; we’re kind o’ cousins, in fact; and I’d be like a son to her mother; and there’s noane i’ Monkshaven as can speak again’ my character. There’s nought between yo’ and her, is there, Philip?’

‘I ha’ telled thee many a time that she and me is like brother and sister. She’s no more thought on me nor I have for her. So be content wi’t, for I’se not tell thee again.’

‘Don’t be vexed, Philip; if thou knew what it was to be in love, thou’d be always fancying things, just as I am.’

‘I might be,’ said Philip; ‘but I dunnut think I should be always talking about my fancies.’

‘I wunnot talk any more after this once, if thou’ll just find out fra’ thysel’, as it were, what it is she has again’ me. I’d go to chapel for iver with her, if that’s what she wants. Just ask her, Philip.’

‘It’s an awkward thing for me to be melling wi’,’ said Hepburn, reluctantly.

‘But thou said thee and she were like brother and sister; and a brother would ask a sister, and niver think twice about it.’

‘Well, well,’ replied Philip, ‘I’ll see what I can do; but, lad, I dunnot think she’ll have thee. She doesn’t fancy thee, and fancy is three parts o’ love, if reason is t’ other fourth.’

But somehow Philip could not begin on the subject with Hester. He did not know why, except that, as he said, ‘it was so awkward.’ But he really liked Coulson so much as to be anxious to do what the latter wished, although he was almost convinced that it would be of no use. So he watched his opportunity, and found Alice alone and at leisure one Sunday evening.

She was sitting by the window, reading her Bible, when he went in. She gave him a curt welcome, hearty enough for her, for she was always chary in her expressions of pleasure or satisfaction. But she took off her horn spectacles and placed them in the book to keep her place; and then turning more fully round on her chair, so as to face him, she said —

‘Well, lad! and how does it go on? Though it’s not a day for t’ ask about worldly things. But I niver see thee now but on Sabbath day, and rarely then. Still we munnot speak o’ such things on t’ Lord’s day. So thee mun just say how t’ shop is doing, and then we’ll leave such vain talk.’

‘T’ shop is doing main an’ well, thank ye, mother. But Coulson could tell yo’ o’ that any day.’

‘I’d a deal rayther hear fra’ thee, Philip. Coulson doesn’t know how t’ manage his own business, let alone half the business as it took John and Jeremiah’s heads — ay, and tasked ’em, too — to manage. I’ve no patience with Coulson.’

‘Why? he’s a decent young fellow as ever there is in Monkshaven.’

‘He may be. He’s noane cut his wisdom-teeth yet. But, for that matter, there’s other folks as far fra’ sense as he is.’

‘Ay, and farther. Coulson mayn’t be so bright at all times as he might be, but he’s a steady-goer, and I’d back him again’ any chap o’ his age i’ Monkshaven.’

‘I know who I’d sooner back in many a thing, Philip!’ She said it with so much meaning that he could not fail to understand that he himself was meant, and he replied, ingenuously enough —

‘If yo’ mean me, mother, I’ll noane deny that in a thing or two I may be more knowledgeable than Coulson. I’ve had a deal o’ time on my hands i’ my youth, and I’d good schooling as long as father lived.’

‘Lad! it’s not schooling, nor knowledge, nor book-learning as carries a man through t’ world. It’s mother-wit. And it’s noane schooling, nor knowledge, nor book-learning as takes a young woman. It’s summat as cannot be put into words.’

‘That’s just what I told Coulson!’ said Philip, quickly. ‘He were sore put about because Hester had gi’en him the bucket, and came to me about it.’

‘And what did thou say?’ asked Alice, her deep eyes gleaming at him as if to read his face as well as his words. Philip, thinking he could now do what Coulson had begged of him in the neatest manner, went on —

‘I told him I’d help him all as I could ——’

‘Thou did, did thou? Well, well, there’s nought sa queer as folks, that a will say,’ muttered Alice, between her teeth.

‘— but that fancy had three parts to do wi’ love,’ continued Philip, ‘and it would be hard, may-be, to get a reason for her not fancying him. Yet I wish she’d think twice about it; he so set upon having her, I think he’ll do himself a mischief wi’ fretting, if it goes on as it is.’

‘It’ll noane go on as it is,’ said Alice, with gloomy oracularness.

‘How not?’ asked Philip. Then, receiving no answer, he went on, ‘He loves her true, and he’s within a month or two on her age, and his character will bear handling on a’ sides; and his share on t’ shop will be worth hundreds a year afore long.’

Another pause. Alice was trying to bring down her pride to say something, which she could not with all her efforts.

‘Maybe yo’ll speak a word for him, mother,’ said Philip, annoyed at her silence.

‘I’ll do no such thing. Marriages are best made wi’out melling. How do I know but what she likes some one better?’

‘Our Hester’s not th’ lass to think on a young man unless he’s been a-wooing on her. And yo’ know, mother, as well as I do — and Coulson does too — she’s niver given any one a chance to woo her; living half her time here, and t’ other half in t’ shop, and niver speaking to no one by t’ way.’

‘I wish thou wouldn’t come here troubling me on a Sabbath day wi’ thy vanity and thy worldly talk. I’d liefer by far be i’ that world wheere there’s neither marrying nor giving in marriage, for it’s all a moithering mess here.’ She turned to the closed Bible lying on the dresser, and opened it with a bang. While she was adjusting her spectacles on her nose, with hands trembling with passion, she heard Philip say —

‘I ask yo’r pardon, I’m sure. I couldn’t well come any other day.’

‘It’s a’ t’ same — I care not. But thou might as well tell truth. I’ll be bound thou’s been at Haytersbank Farm some day this week?’

Philip reddened; in fact, he had forgotten how he had got to consider his frequent visits to the farm as a regular piece of occupation. He kept silence.

Alice looked at him with a sharp intelligence that read his silence through.

‘I thought so. Next time thou thinks to thyself, ‘I’m more knowledgeable than Coulson,’ just remember Alice Rose’s words, and they are these:— If Coulson’s too thick-sighted to see through a board, thou’rt too blind to see through a window. As for comin’ and speakin’ up for Coulson, why he’ll be married to some one else afore t’ year’s out, for all he thinks he’s so set upon Hester now. Go thy ways, and leave me to my Scripture, and come no more on Sabbath days wi’ thy vain babbling.’

So Philip returned from his mission rather crestfallen, but quite as far as ever from ‘seeing through a glass window.’

Before the year was out, Alice’s prophecy was fulfilled. Coulson, who found the position of a rejected lover in the same house with the girl who had refused him, too uncomfortable to be endured, as soon as he was convinced that his object was decidedly out of his reach, turned his attention to some one else. He did not love his new sweetheart as he had done Hester: there was more of reason and less of fancy in his attachment. But it ended successfully; and before the first snow fell, Philip was best man at his partner’s wedding.

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