Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XXIV

Brief Rejoicing

Daniel’s unusually late absence from home disturbed Bell and Sylvia not a little. He was generally at home between eight and nine on market days. They expected to see him the worse for liquor at such times; but this did not shock them; he was no worse than most of his neighbours, indeed better than several, who went off once or twice a year, or even oftener, on drinking bouts of two or three days’ duration, returning pale, sodden, and somewhat shame-faced, when all their money was gone; and, after the conjugal reception was well over, settling down into hard-working and decently sober men until the temptation again got power over them. But, on market days, every man drank more than usual; every bargain or agreement was ratified by drink; they came from greater or less distances, either afoot or on horseback, and the ‘good accommodation for man and beast’ (as the old inn-signs expressed it) always included a considerable amount of liquor to be drunk by the man.

Daniel’s way of announcing his intention of drinking more than ordinary was always the same. He would say at the last moment, ‘Missus, I’ve a mind to get fuddled to-neet,’ and be off, disregarding her look of remonstrance, and little heeding the injunctions she would call after him to beware of such and such companions, or to attend to his footsteps on his road home.

But this night he had given no such warning. Bell and Sylvia put the candle on the low window-seat at the usual hour to guide him through the fields — it was a habit kept up even on moonlight nights like this — and sate on each side of the fire, at first scarcely caring to listen, so secure were they of his return. Bell dozed, and Sylvia sate gazing at the fire with abstracted eyes, thinking of the past year and of the anniversary which was approaching of the day when she had last seen the lover whom she believed to be dead, lying somewhere fathoms deep beneath the surface of that sunny sea on which she looked day by day without ever seeing his upturned face through the depths, with whatsoever heart-sick longing for just one more sight she yearned and inwardly cried. If she could set her eyes on his bright, handsome face, that face which was fading from her memory, overtasked in the too frequent efforts to recall it; if she could but see him once again, coming over the waters beneath which he lay with supernatural motion, awaiting her at the stile, with the evening sun shining ruddy into his bonny eyes, even though, after that one instant of vivid and visible life, he faded into mist; if she could but see him now, sitting in the faintly flickering fire-light in the old, happy, careless way, on a corner of the dresser, his legs dangling, his busy fingers playing with some of her woman’s work; — she wrung her hands tight together as she implored some, any Power, to let her see him just once again — just once — for one minute of passionate delight. Never again would she forget that dear face, if but once more she might set her eyes upon it.

Her mother’s head fell with a sudden jerk, and she roused herself up; and Sylvia put by her thought of the dead, and her craving after his presence, into that receptacle of her heart where all such are kept closed and sacred from the light of common day.

‘Feyther’s late,’ said Bell.

‘It’s gone eight,’ replied Sylvia.

‘But our clock is better nor an hour forrard,’ answered Bell.

‘Ay, but t’ wind brings Monkshaven bells clear to-night. I heerd t’ eight o’clock bell ringing not five minutes ago.’

It was the fire-bell, but she had not distinguished the sound.

There was another long silence; both wide awake this time.

‘He’ll have his rheumatics again,’ said Bell.

‘It’s cold for sartin,’ said Sylvia. ‘March weather come afore its time. But I’ll make him a treacle-posset, it’s a famous thing for keeping off hoasts.’

The treacle-posset was entertainment enough for both while it was being made. But once placed in a little basin in the oven, there was again time for wonder and anxiety.

‘He said nought about having a bout, did he, mother?’ asked Sylvia at length.

‘No,’ said Bell, her face a little contracting. After a while she added, ‘There’s many a one as has husbands that goes off drinking without iver saying a word to their wives. My master is none o’ that mak’.’

‘Mother,’ broke in Sylvia again, ‘I’ll just go and get t’ lantern out of t’ shippen, and go up t’ brow, and mebbe to t’ ash-field end.’

‘Do, lass,’ said her mother. ‘I’ll get my wraps and go with thee.’

‘Thou shall do niver such a thing,’ said Sylvia. ‘Thou’s too frail to go out i’ t’ night air such a night as this.’

‘Then call Kester up.’

‘Not I. I’m noane afraid o’ t’ dark.’

‘But of what thou mayst meet i’ t’ dark, lass?’

Sylvia shivered all over at the sudden thought, suggested by this speech of her mother’s, that the idea that had flashed into her own mind of going to look for her father might be an answer to the invocation to the Powers which she had made not long ago, that she might indeed meet her dead lover at the ash-field stile; but though she shivered as this superstitious fancy came into her head, her heart beat firm and regular; not from darkness nor from the spirits of the dead was she going to shrink; her great sorrow had taken away all her girlish nervous fear.

She went; and she came back. Neither man nor spirit had she seen; the wind was blowing on the height enough to sweep all creatures before it; but no one was coming.

So they sate down again to keep watch. At length his step was heard close to the door; and it startled them even in their state of expectation.

‘Why, feyther!’ cried Sylvia as he entered; while his wife stood up trembling, but not saying a word.

‘A’m a’most done up,’ said he, sitting heavily down on the chair nearest the door.

‘Poor old feyther!’ said Sylvia, stooping to take off his heavy clogged shoes; while Bell took the posset out of the oven.

‘What’s this? posset? what creatures women is for slops,’ said he; but he drank it all the same, while Sylvia fastened the door, and brought the flaring candle from the window-seat. The fresh arrangement of light displayed his face blackened with smoke, and his clothes disarranged and torn.

‘Who’s been melling wi’ thee?’ asked Bell.

‘No one has melled wi’ me; but a’ve been mellin’ wi’ t’ gang at last.’

‘Thee: they niver were for pressing thee!’ exclaimed both the women at once.

‘No! they knowed better. They’n getten their belly-full as it is. Next time they try it on, a reckon they’ll ax if Daniel Robson is wi’in hearin’. A’ve led a resky this neet, and saved nine or ten honest chaps as was pressed, and carried off to t’ Randyvowse. Me and some others did it. And Hobbs’ things and t’ lieutenant’s is a’ burnt; and by this time a reckon t’ Randyvowse is pretty nigh four walls, ready for a parish-pound.’

‘Thou’rt niver for saying thou burnt it down wi’ t’ gang in it, for sure?’ asked Bell.

‘Na, na, not this time. T’ ‘gang fled up t’ hill like coneys; and Hobbs and his folks carried off a bag o’ money; but t’ oud tumbledown place is just a heap o’ brick and mortar; an’ t’ furniture is smoulderin’ int’ ashes; and, best of a’, t’ men is free, and will niver be cotched wi’ a fire-bell again.’

And so he went on to tell of the ruse by which they had been enticed into the market-place; interrupted from time to time by their eager questions, and interrupting himself every now and then with exclamations of weariness and pain, which made him at last say —

‘Now a’m willing to tell yo’ a’ about it tomorrow, for it’s not ivery day a man can do such great things; but to-neet a mun go to bed, even if King George were wantin’ for to know how a managed it a’.’

He went wearily upstairs, and wife and daughter both strove their best to ease his aching limbs, and make him comfortable. The warming-pan, only used on state occasions, was taken down and unpapered for his service; and as he got between the warm sheets, he thanked Sylvia and her mother in a sleepy voice, adding —

‘It’s a vast o’ comfort to think on yon poor lads as is sleepin’ i’ their own homes this neet,’ and then slumber fell upon him, and he was hardly roused by Bell’s softly kissing his weather-beaten cheek, and saying low —

‘God bless thee, my man! Thou was allays for them that was down and put upon.’

He murmured some monosyllabic reply, unheard by his wife, who stole away to undress herself noiselessly, and laid herself down on her side of the bed as gently as her stiffened limbs would permit.

They were late in rising the next morning. Kester was long since up and at his work among the cattle before he saw the house-door open to admit the fresh chill morning air; and even then Sylvia brushed softly, and went about almost on tip-toe. When the porridge was ready, Kester was called in to his breakfast, which he took sitting at the dresser with the family. A large wooden platter stood in the middle; and each had a bowl of the same material filled with milk. The way was for every one to dip his pewter spoon into the central dish, and convey as much or as little as he liked at a time of the hot porridge into his pure fresh milk. But today Bell told Kester to help himself all at once, and to take his bowl up to the master’s room and keep him company. For Daniel was in bed, resting from his weariness, and bemoaning his painful bruises whenever he thought of them. But his mind was still so much occupied with the affair of the previous night, that Bell judged rightly that a new listener would give ease to his body as well as to his mind, and her proposal of Kester’s carrying up his breakfast had been received by Daniel with satisfaction.

So Kester went up slowly, carrying his over-full basin tenderly, and seated himself on the step leading down into the bed-room (for levels had not been calculated when the old house was built) facing his master, who, half sitting up in the blue check bed, not unwillingly began his relation again; to which Kester listened so attentively, that his spoon was often arrested in its progress from the basin to his mouth, open ready to receive it, while he gazed with unwinking eyes at Daniel narrating his exploits.

But after Daniel had fought his battle o’er again to every auditor within his reach, he found the seclusion of his chamber rather oppressive, without even the usual week-days’ noises below; so after dinner, though far from well, he came down and wandered about the stable and the fields nearest to the house, consulting with Kester as to crops and manure for the most part; but every now and then breaking out into an episodical chuckle over some part of last night’s proceedings. Kester enjoyed the day even more than his master, for he had no bruises to remind him that, although a hero, he was also flesh and blood.

When they returned to the house they found Philip there, for it was already dusk. It was Kester’s usual Sunday plan to withdraw to bed at as early an hour as he could manage to sleep, often in winter before six; but now he was too full of interest in what Philip might have to tell of Monkshaven news to forego his Sabbath privilege of spending the evening sitting on the chair at the end of the dresser behind the door.

Philip was as close to Sylvia as he could possibly get without giving her offence, when they came in. Her manner was listless and civil; she had lost all that active feeling towards him which made him positively distasteful, and had called out her girlish irritation and impertinence. She now was rather glad to see him than otherwise. He brought some change into the heavy monotony of her life — monotony so peaceful until she had been stirred by passion out of that content with the small daily events which had now become burdensome recurrences. Insensibly to herself she was becoming dependent on his timid devotion, his constant attention; and he, lover-like, once so attracted, in spite of his judgment, by her liveliness and piquancy, now doted on her languor, and thought her silence more sweet than words.

He had only just arrived when master and man came in. He had been to afternoon chapel; none of them had thought of going to the distant church; worship with them was only an occasional duty, and this day their minds had been too full of the events of the night before. Daniel sate himself heavily down in his accustomed chair, the three-cornered arm-chair in the fireside corner, which no one thought of anybody else ever occupying on any occasion whatever. In a minute or two he interrupted Philip’s words of greeting and inquiry by breaking out into the story of the rescue of last night. But to the mute surprise of Sylvia, the only one who noticed it, Philip’s face, instead of expressing admiration and pleasant wonder, lengthened into dismay; once or twice he began to interrupt, but stopped himself as if he would consider his words again. Kester was never tired of hearing his master talk; by long living together they understood every fold of each other’s minds, and small expressions had much significance to them. Bell, too, sate thankful that her husband should have done such deeds. Only Sylvia was made uneasy by Philip’s face and manner. When Daniel had ended there was a great silence, instead of the questions and compliments he looked to receive. He became testy, and turning to Bell, said —

‘My nephew looks as though he was a-thinking more on t’ little profit he has made on his pins an’ bobs, than as if he was heeding how honest men were saved from being haled out to yon tender, an’ carried out o’ sight o’ wives and little ‘uns for iver. Wives an’ little ‘uns may go t’ workhouse or clem for aught he cares.

Philip went very red, and then more sallow than usual. He had not been thinking of Charley Kinraid, but of quite another thing, while Daniel had told his story; but this last speech of the old man’s brought up the remembrance that was always quick, do what he would to smother or strangle it. He did not speak for a moment or two, then he said —

‘To-day has not been like Sabbath in Monkshaven. T’ rioters, as folks call ’em, have been about all night. They wanted to give battle to t’ men-o’-war’s men; and it were taken up by th’ better end, and they’ve sent to my Lord Malton for t’ militia; and they’re come into t’ town, and they’re hunting for a justice for t’ read th’ act; folk do say there’ll be niver a shop opened tomorrow.’

This was rather a more serious account of the progress of the affair than any one had calculated upon. They looked grave upon it awhile, then Daniel took heart and said —

‘A think we’d done a’most enough last neet; but men’s not to be stopped wi’ a straw when their blood is up; still it’s hard lines to call out t’ sojers, even if they be but militia. So what we seven hatched in a dark entry has ta’en a lord to put a stop to ‘t!’ continued he, chuckling a little, but more faintly this time.

Philip went on, still graver than before, boldly continuing to say what he knew would be discordant to the family he loved so well.

‘I should ha’ telled yo’ all about it; I thought on it just as a bit o’ news; I’d niver thought on such a thing as uncle there having been in it, and I’m main sorry to hear on it, I am.’

‘Why?’ said Sylvia, breathlessly.

‘It’s niver a thing to be sorry on. I’m proud and glad,’ said Bell.

‘Let-a-be, let-a-be,’ said Daniel, in much dudgeon. ‘A were a fool to tell him o’ such-like doings, they’re noane i’ his line; we’ll talk on yard measures now.

Philip took no notice of this poor attempt at sarcasm: he seemed as if lost in thought, then he said —

‘I’m vexed to plague yo’, but I’d best say all I’ve got i’ my mind. There was a vast o’ folk at our chapel speaking about it — last night’s doings and this morning’s work — and how them as set it afoot was assured o’ being clapt int’ prison and tried for it; and when I heered uncle say as he was one, it like ran through me; for they say as t’ justices will be all on t’ Government side, and mad for vengeance.’

For an instant there was dead silence. The women looked at each other with blank eyes, as if they were as yet unable to take in the new idea that the conduct which had seemed to them a subject for such just pride could be regarded by any one as deserving of punishment or retribution. Daniel spoke before they had recovered from their amazement.

‘A’m noane sorry for what a did, an’ a’d do it again to-neet, if need were. So theere’s for thee. Thou may tell t’ justices fra’ me that a reckon a did righter nor them, as letten poor fellys be carried off i’ t’ very midst o’ t’ town they’re called justices for.’

Perhaps Philip had better have held his tongue; but he believed in the danger, which he was anxious to impress upon his uncle, in order that, knowing what was to be apprehended, the latter might take some pains to avert it.

He went on.

‘But they’re making a coil about the Randyvowse being all destroyed!’

Daniel had taken down his pipe from the shelf in the chimney corner, and was stuffing tobacco into the bowl. He went on pretending to do this a little while after it was filled; for, to tell the truth, he was beginning to feel uncomfortable at the new view of his conduct presented to him. Still he was not going to let this appear, so lifting up his head with an indifferent air he lighted the pipe, blew into it, took it out and examined it as something were wrong about it, and until that was put to rights he was unable to attend to anything else; all the while the faithful three who hung upon his well-being, gazing, breathless, at his proceedings, and anxious for his reply.

‘Randyvowse!’ said he at length, ‘it were a good job it were brenned down, for such a harbour for vermin a never seed: t’ rats ran across t’ yard by hunders an’ thousands; an’ it were no man’s property as a’ve heerd tell, but belonged to Chancery, up i’ Lunnon; so wheere’s t’ harm done, my fine felly?’

Philip was silent. He did not care to brave any further his uncle’s angry frown and contracted eye. If he had only known of Daniel Robson’s part in the riot before he had left the town, he would have taken care to have had better authority for the reality of the danger which he had heard spoken about, and in which he could not help believing. As it was, he could only keep quiet until he had ascertained what was the legal peril overhanging the rioters, and how far his uncle had been recognized.

Daniel went on puffing angrily. Kester sighed audibly, and then was sorry he had done so, and began to whistle. Bell, full of her new fear, yet desirous to bring all present into some kind of harmony, said —

‘It’ll ha’ been a loss to John Hobbs — all his things burnt, or trampled on. Mebbe he desarved it all, but one’s a kind o’ tender feeling to one’s tables and chairs, special if one’s had t’ bees-waxing on ’em.’

‘A wish he’d been burnt on t’ top on ’em, a do,’ growled out Daniel, shaking the ash out of his pipe.

‘Don’t speak so ill o’ thysel’,’ said his wife. ‘Thou’d ha’ been t’ first t’ pluck him down if he’d screeched out.’

‘An’ a’ll warrant if they come about wi’ a paper asking for feyther’s name to make up for what Hobbs has lost by t’ fire, feyther ‘ll be for giving him summut,’ said Sylvia.

‘Thou knows nought about it,’ said Daniel. ‘Hold thy tongue next time till thou’s axed to speak, my wench.’

His sharp irritated way of speaking was so new to Sylvia, that the tears sprang to her eyes, and her lip quivered. Philip saw it all, and yearned over her. He plunged headlong into some other subject to try and divert attention from her; but Daniel was too ill at ease to talk much, and Bell was obliged to try and keep up the semblance of conversation, with an occasional word or two from Kester, who seemed instinctively to fall into her way of thinking, and to endeavour to keep the dark thought in the background.

Sylvia stole off to bed; more concerned at her father’s angry way of speaking than at the idea of his being amenable to law for what he had done; the one was a sharp present evil, the other something distant and unlikely. Yet a dim terror of this latter evil hung over her, and once upstairs she threw herself on her bed and sobbed. Philip heard her where he sate near the bottom of the short steep staircase, and at every sob the cords of love round his heart seemed tightened, and he felt as if he must there and then do something to console her.

But, instead, he sat on talking of nothings, a conversation in which Daniel joined with somewhat of surliness, while Bell, grave and anxious, kept wistfully looking from one to the other, desirous of gleaning some further information on the subject, which had begun to trouble her mind. She hoped some chance would give her the opportunity of privately questioning Philip, but it seemed to be equally her husband’s wish to thwart any such intention of hers. He remained in the house-place, till after Philip had left, although he was evidently so much fatigued as to give some very distinct, though unintentional, hints to his visitor to be gone.

At length the house-door was locked on Philip, and then Daniel prepared to go to bed. Kester had left for his loft above the shippen more than an hour before. Bell had still to rake the fire, and then she would follow her husband upstairs.

As she was scraping up the ashes, she heard, intermixed with the noise she was making, the sound of some one rapping gently at the window. In her then frame of mind she started a little; but on looking round, she saw Kester’s face pressed against the glass, and, reassured, she softly opened the door. There he stood in the dusk outer air, distinct against the gray darkness beyond, and in his hand something which she presently perceived was a pitchfork.

‘Missus!’ whispered he, ‘a’ve watched t’ maister t’ bed; an’ now a’d be greatly beholden to yo’ if yo’d let me just lay me down i’ t’ house-place. A’d warrant niver a constable i’ a’ Monkshaven should get sight o’ t’ maister, an’ me below t’ keep ward.’

Bell shivered a little.

‘Nay, Kester,’ she said, patting her hand kindly on his shoulder; ‘there’s nought for t’ fear. Thy master is not one for t’ hurt nobody; and I dunnot think they can harm him for setting yon poor chaps free, as t’ gang catched i’ their wicked trap.’

Kester stood still; then he shook his head slowly.

‘It’s t’ work at t’ Randyvowse as a’m afeared on. Some folks thinks such a deal o’ a bonfire. Then a may lay me down afore t’ fire, missus?’ said he, beseechingly.

‘Nay, Kester —’ she began; but suddenly changing, she said, ‘God bless thee, my man; come in and lay thee down on t’ settle, and I’ll cover thee up wi’ my cloak as hangs behind t’ door. We’re not many on us that love him, an’ we’ll be all on us under one roof, an’ niver a stone wall or a lock betwixt us.’

So Kester took up his rest in the house-place that night, and none knew of it besides Bell.

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