Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter III

Buying a New Cloak

Foster’s shop was the shop of Monkshaven. It was kept by two Quaker brothers, who were now old men; and their father had kept it before them; probably his father before that. People remembered it as an old-fashioned dwelling-house, with a sort of supplementary shop with unglazed windows projecting from the lower story. These openings had long been filled with panes of glass that at the present day would be accounted very small, but which seventy years ago were much admired for their size. I can best make you understand the appearance of the place by bidding you think of the long openings in a butcher’s shop, and then to fill them up in your imagination with panes about eight inches by six, in a heavy wooden frame. There was one of these windows on each side the door-place, which was kept partially closed through the day by a low gate about a yard high. Half the shop was appropriated to grocery; the other half to drapery, and a little mercery. The good old brothers gave all their known customers a kindly welcome; shaking hands with many of them, and asking all after their families and domestic circumstances before proceeding to business. They would not for the world have had any sign of festivity at Christmas, and scrupulously kept their shop open at that holy festival, ready themselves to serve sooner than tax the consciences of any of their assistants, only nobody ever came. But on New Year’s Day they had a great cake, and wine, ready in the parlour behind the shop, of which all who came in to buy anything were asked to partake. Yet, though scrupulous in most things, it did not go against the consciences of these good brothers to purchase smuggled articles. There was a back way from the river-side, up a covered entry, to the yard-door of the Fosters, and a peculiar kind of knock at this door always brought out either John or Jeremiah, or if not them, their shopman, Philip Hepburn; and the same cake and wine that the excise officer’s wife might just have been tasting, was brought out in the back parlour to treat the smuggler. There was a little locking of doors, and drawing of the green silk curtain that was supposed to shut out the shop, but really all this was done very much for form’s sake. Everybody in Monkshaven smuggled who could, and every one wore smuggled goods who could, and great reliance was placed on the excise officer’s neighbourly feelings.

The story went that John and Jeremiah Foster were so rich that they could buy up all the new town across the bridge. They had certainly begun to have a kind of primitive bank in connection with their shop, receiving and taking care of such money as people did not wish to retain in their houses for fear of burglars. No one asked them for interest on the money thus deposited, nor did they give any; but, on the other hand, if any of their customers, on whose character they could depend, wanted a little advance, the Fosters, after due inquiries made, and in some cases due security given, were not unwilling to lend a moderate sum without charging a penny for the use of their money. All the articles they sold were as good as they knew how to choose, and for them they expected and obtained ready money. It was said that they only kept on the shop for their amusement. Others averred that there was some plan of a marriage running in the brothers’ heads — a marriage between William Coulson, Mr. Jeremiah’s wife’s nephew (Mr. Jeremiah was a widower), and Hester Rose, whose mother was some kind of distant relation, and who served in the shop along with William Coulson and Philip Hepburn. Again, this was denied by those who averred that Coulson was no blood relation, and that if the Fosters had intended to do anything considerable for Hester, they would never have allowed her and her mother to live in such a sparing way, ekeing out their small income by having Coulson and Hepburn for lodgers. No; John and Jeremiah would leave all their money to some hospital or to some charitable institution. But, of course, there was a reply to this; when are there not many sides to an argument about a possibility concerning which no facts are known? Part of the reply turned on this: the old gentlemen had, probably, some deep plan in their heads in permitting their cousin to take Coulson and Hepburn as lodgers, the one a kind of nephew, the other, though so young, the head man in the shop; if either of them took a fancy to Hester, how agreeably matters could be arranged!

All this time Hester is patiently waiting to serve Sylvia, who is standing before her a little shy, a little perplexed and distracted, by the sight of so many pretty things.

Hester was a tall young woman, sparely yet largely formed, of a grave aspect, which made her look older than she really was. Her thick brown hair was smoothly taken off her broad forehead, and put in a very orderly fashion, under her linen cap; her face was a little square, and her complexion sallow, though the texture of her skin was fine. Her gray eyes were very pleasant, because they looked at you so honestly and kindly; her mouth was slightly compressed, as most have it who are in the habit of restraining their feelings; but when she spoke you did not perceive this, and her rare smile slowly breaking forth showed her white even teeth, and when accompanied, as it generally was, by a sudden uplifting of her soft eyes, it made her countenance very winning. She was dressed in stuff of sober colours, both in accordance with her own taste, and in unasked compliance with the religious customs of the Fosters; but Hester herself was not a Friend.

Sylvia, standing opposite, not looking at Hester, but gazing at the ribbons in the shop window, as if hardly conscious that any one awaited the expression of her wishes, was a great contrast; ready to smile or to pout, or to show her feelings in any way, with a character as undeveloped as a child’s, affectionate, wilful, naughty, tiresome, charming, anything, in fact, at present that the chances of an hour called out. Hester thought her customer the prettiest creature ever seen, in the moment she had for admiration before Sylvia turned round and, recalled to herself, began —

‘Oh, I beg your pardon, miss; I was thinking what may the price of yon crimson ribbon be?’

Hester said nothing, but went to examine the shop-mark.

‘Oh! I did not mean that I wanted any, I only want some stuff for a cloak. Thank you, miss, but I am very sorry — some duffle, please.’

Hester silently replaced the ribbon and went in search of the duffle. While she was gone Sylvia was addressed by the very person she most wished to avoid, and whose absence she had rejoiced over on first entering the shop, her cousin Philip Hepburn.

He was a serious-looking young man, tall, but with a slight stoop in his shoulders, brought on by his occupation. He had thick hair standing off from his forehead in a peculiar but not unpleasing manner; a long face, with a slightly aquiline nose, dark eyes, and a long upper lip, which gave a disagreeable aspect to a face that might otherwise have been good-looking.

‘Good day, Sylvie,’ he said; ‘what are you wanting? How are all at home? Let me help you!’

Sylvia pursed up her red lips, and did not look at him as she replied,

‘I’m very well, and so is mother; feyther’s got a touch of rheumatiz, and there’s a young woman getting what I want.’

She turned a little away from him when she had ended this sentence, as if it had comprised all she could possibly have to say to him. But he exclaimed,

‘You won’t know how to choose,’ and, seating himself on the counter, he swung himself over after the fashion of shop-men.

Sylvia took no notice of him, but pretended to be counting over her money.

‘What do you want, Sylvie?’ asked he, at last annoyed at her silence.

‘I don’t like to be called “Sylvie;” my name is Sylvia; and I’m wanting duffle for a cloak, if you must know.’

Hester now returned, with a shop-boy helping her to drag along the great rolls of scarlet and gray cloth.

‘Not that,’ said Philip, kicking the red duffle with his foot, and speaking to the lad. ‘It’s the gray you want, is it not, Sylvie?’ He used the name he had had the cousin’s right to call her by since her childhood, without remembering her words on the subject not five minutes before; but she did, and was vexed.

‘Please, miss, it is the scarlet duffle I want; don’t let him take it away.’

Hester looked up at both their countenances, a little wondering what was their position with regard to each other; for this, then, was the beautiful little cousin about whom Philip had talked to her mother, as sadly spoilt, and shamefully ignorant; a lovely little dunce, and so forth. Hester had pictured Sylvia Robson, somehow, as very different from what she was: younger, more stupid, not half so bright and charming (for, though she was now both pouting and cross, it was evident that this was not her accustomed mood). Sylvia devoted her attention to the red cloth, pushing aside the gray.

Philip Hepburn was vexed at his advice being slighted; and yet he urged it afresh.

‘This is a respectable, quiet-looking article that will go well with any colour; you niver will be so foolish as to take what will mark with every drop of rain.’

‘I’m sorry you sell such good-for-nothing things,’ replied Sylvia, conscious of her advantage, and relaxing a little (as little as she possibly could) of her gravity.

Hester came in now.

‘He means to say that this cloth will lose its first brightness in wet or damp; but it will always be a good article, and the colour will stand a deal of wear. Mr. Foster would not have had it in his shop else.’

Philip did not like that even a reasonable peace-making interpreter should come between him and Sylvia, so he held his tongue in indignant silence.

Hester went on:

‘To be sure, this gray is the closer make, and would wear the longest.’

‘I don’t care,’ said Sylvia, still rejecting the dull gray. ‘I like this best. Eight yards, if you please, miss.’

‘A cloak takes nine yards, at least,’ said Philip, decisively.

‘Mother told me eight,’ said Sylvia, secretly conscious that her mother would have preferred the more sober colour; and feeling that as she had had her own way in that respect, she was bound to keep to the directions she had received as to the quantity. But, indeed, she would not have yielded to Philip in anything that she could help.

There was a sound of children’s feet running up the street from the river-side, shouting with excitement. At the noise, Sylvia forgot her cloak and her little spirit of vexation, and ran to the half-door of the shop. Philip followed because she went. Hester looked on with passive, kindly interest, as soon as she had completed her duty of measuring. One of those girls whom Sylvia had seen as she and Molly left the crowd on the quay, came quickly up the street. Her face, which was handsome enough as to feature, was whitened with excess of passionate emotion, her dress untidy and flying, her movements heavy and free. She belonged to the lowest class of seaport inhabitants. As she came near, Sylvia saw that the tears were streaming down her cheeks, quite unconsciously to herself. She recognized Sylvia’s face, full of interest as it was, and stopped her clumsy run to speak to the pretty, sympathetic creature.

‘She’s o’er t’ bar! She’s o’er t’ bar! I’m boun’ to tell mother!’

She caught at Sylvia’s hand, and shook it, and went on breathless and gasping.

‘Sylvia, how came you to know that girl?’ asked Philip, sternly. ‘She’s not one for you to be shaking hands with. She’s known all down t’ quay-side as “Newcastle Bess.”’

‘I can’t help it,’ said Sylvia, half inclined to cry at his manner even more than his words. ‘When folk are glad I can’t help being glad too, and I just put out my hand, and she put out hers. To think o’ yon ship come in at last! And if yo’d been down seeing all t’ folk looking and looking their eyes out, as if they feared they should die afore she came in and brought home the lads they loved, yo’d ha’ shaken hands wi’ that lass too, and no great harm done. I never set eyne upon her till half an hour ago on th’ staithes, and maybe I’ll niver see her again.’

Hester was still behind the counter, but had moved so as to be near the window; so she heard what they were saying, and now put in her word:

‘She can’t be altogether bad, for she thought o’ telling her mother first thing, according to what she said.’

Sylvia gave Hester a quick, grateful look. But Hester had resumed her gaze out of the window, and did not see the glance.

And now Molly Corney joined them, hastily bursting into the shop.

‘Hech!’ said she. ‘Hearken! how they’re crying and shouting down on t’ quay. T’ gang’s among ’em like t’ day of judgment. Hark!’

No one spoke, no one breathed, I had almost said no heart beat for listening. Not long; in an instant there rose the sharp simultaneous cry of many people in rage and despair. Inarticulate at that distance, it was yet an intelligible curse, and the roll, and the roar, and the irregular tramp came nearer and nearer.

‘They’re taking ’em to t’ Randyvowse,’ said Molly. ‘Eh! I wish I’d King George here just to tell him my mind.’

The girl clenched her hands, and set her teeth.

‘It’s terrible hard!’ said Hester; ‘there’s mothers, and wives, looking out for ’em, as if they were stars dropt out o’ t’ lift.’

‘But can we do nothing for ’em?’ cried Sylvia. ‘Let us go into t’ thick of it and do a bit of help; I can’t stand quiet and see ‘t!’ Half crying, she pushed forwards to the door; but Philip held her back.

‘Sylvie! you must not. Don’t be silly; it’s the law, and no one can do aught against it, least of all women and lasses.

By this time the vanguard of the crowd came pressing up Bridge Street, past the windows of Foster’s shop. It consisted of wild, half-amphibious boys, slowly moving backwards, as they were compelled by the pressure of the coming multitude to go on, and yet anxious to defy and annoy the gang by insults, and curses half choked with their indignant passion, doubling their fists in the very faces of the gang who came on with measured movement, armed to the teeth, their faces showing white with repressed and determined energy against the bronzed countenances of the half-dozen sailors, who were all they had thought it wise to pick out of the whaler’s crew, this being the first time an Admiralty warrant had been used in Monkshaven for many years; not since the close of the American war, in fact. One of the men was addressing to his townspeople, in a high pitched voice, an exhortation which few could hear, for, pressing around this nucleus of cruel wrong, were women crying aloud, throwing up their arms in imprecation, showering down abuse as hearty and rapid as if they had been a Greek chorus. Their wild, famished eyes were strained on faces they might not kiss, their cheeks were flushed to purple with anger or else livid with impotent craving for revenge. Some of them looked scarce human; and yet an hour ago these lips, now tightly drawn back so as to show the teeth with the unconscious action of an enraged wild animal, had been soft and gracious with the smile of hope; eyes, that were fiery and bloodshot now, had been loving and bright; hearts, never to recover from the sense of injustice and cruelty, had been trustful and glad only one short hour ago.

There were men there, too, sullen and silent, brooding on remedial revenge; but not many, the greater proportion of this class being away in the absent whalers.

The stormy multitude swelled into the market-place and formed a solid crowd there, while the press-gang steadily forced their way on into High Street, and on to the rendezvous. A low, deep growl went up from the dense mass, as some had to wait for space to follow the others — now and then going up, as a lion’s growl goes up, into a shriek of rage.

A woman forced her way up from the bridge. She lived some little way in the country, and had been late in hearing of the return of the whaler after her six months’ absence; and on rushing down to the quay-side, she had been told by a score of busy, sympathizing voices, that her husband was kidnapped for the service of the Government.

She had need pause in the market-place, the outlet of which was crammed up. Then she gave tongue for the first time in such a fearful shriek, you could hardly catch the words she said.

‘Jamie! Jamie! will they not let you to me?’

Those were the last words Sylvia heard before her own hysterical burst of tears called every one’s attention to her.

She had been very busy about household work in the morning, and much agitated by all she had seen and heard since coming into Monkshaven; and so it ended in this.

Molly and Hester took her through the shop into the parlour beyond — John Foster’s parlour, for Jeremiah, the elder brother, lived in a house of his own on the other side of the water. It was a low, comfortable room, with great beams running across the ceiling, and papered with the same paper as the walls — a piece of elegant luxury which took Molly’s fancy mightily! This parlour looked out on the dark courtyard in which there grew two or three poplars, straining upwards to the light; and through an open door between the backs of two houses could be seen a glimpse of the dancing, heaving river, with such ships or fishing cobles as happened to be moored in the waters above the bridge.

They placed Sylvia on the broad, old-fashioned sofa, and gave her water to drink, and tried to still her sobbing and choking. They loosed her hat, and copiously splashed her face and clustering chestnut hair, till at length she came to herself; restored, but dripping wet. She sate up and looked at them, smoothing back her tangled curls off her brow, as if to clear both her eyes and her intellect.

‘Where am I? — oh, I know! Thank you. It was very silly, but somehow it seemed so sad!’

And here she was nearly going off again, but Hester said —

‘Ay, it were sad, my poor lass — if I may call you so, for I don’t rightly know your name — but it’s best not think on it for we can do no mak’ o’ good, and it’ll mebbe set you off again. Yo’re Philip Hepburn’s cousin, I reckon, and yo’ bide at Haytersbank Farm?’

‘Yes; she’s Sylvia Robson,’ put in Molly, not seeing that Hester’s purpose was to make Sylvia speak, and so to divert her attention from the subject which had set her off into hysterics. ‘And we came in for market,’ continued Molly, ‘and for t’ buy t’ new cloak as her feyther’s going to give her; and, for sure, I thought we was i’ luck’s way when we saw t’ first whaler, and niver dreaming as t’ press-gang ‘ud be so marred.’

She, too, began to cry, but her little whimper was stopped by the sound of the opening door behind her. It was Philip, asking Hester by a silent gesture if he might come in.

Sylvia turned her face round from the light, and shut her eyes. Her cousin came close up to her on tip-toe, and looked anxiously at what he could see of her averted face; then he passed his hand so slightly over her hair that he could scarcely be said to touch it, and murmured —

‘Poor lassie! it’s a pity she came today, for it’s a long walk in this heat!’

But Sylvia started to her feet, almost pushing him along. Her quickened senses heard an approaching step through the courtyard before any of the others were aware of the sound. In a minute afterwards, the glass-door at one corner of the parlour was opened from the outside, and Mr. John stood looking in with some surprise at the group collected in his usually empty parlour.

‘It’s my cousin,’ said Philip, reddening a little; ‘she came wi’ her friend in to market, and to make purchases; and she’s got a turn wi’ seeing the press-gang go past carrying some of the crew of the whaler to the Randyvowse.

‘Ay, ay,’ said Mr. John, quickly passing on into the shop on tip-toe, as if he were afraid he were intruding in his own premises, and beckoning Philip to follow him there. ‘Out of strife cometh strife. I guessed something of the sort was up from what I heard on t’ bridge as I came across fra’ brother Jeremiah’s.’ Here he softly shut the door between the parlour and the shop. ‘It beareth hard on th’ expectant women and childer; nor is it to be wondered at that they, being unconverted, rage together (poor creatures!) like the very heathen. Philip,’ he said, coming nearer to his ‘head young man,’ ‘keep Nicholas and Henry at work in the ware-room upstairs until this riot be over, for it would grieve me if they were misled into violence.’

Philip hesitated.

‘Speak out, man! Always ease an uneasy heart, and never let it get hidebound.’

‘I had thought to convoy my cousin and the other young woman home, for the town is like to be rough, and it’s getting dark.’

‘And thou shalt, my lad,’ said the good old man; ‘and I myself will try and restrain the natural inclinations of Nicholas and Henry.’

But when he went to find the shop-boys with a gentle homily on his lips, those to whom it should have been addressed were absent. In consequence of the riotous state of things, all the other shops in the market-place had put their shutters up; and Nicholas and Henry, in the absence of their superiors, had followed the example of their neighbours, and, as business was over, they had hardly waited to put the goods away, but had hurried off to help their townsmen in any struggle that might ensue.

There was no remedy for it, but Mr. John looked rather discomfited. The state of the counters, and of the disarranged goods, was such also as would have irritated any man as orderly but less sweet-tempered. All he said on the subject was: ‘The old Adam! the old Adam!’ but he shook his head long after he had finished speaking.

‘Where is William Coulson?’ he next asked. ‘Oh! I remember. He was not to come back from York till the night closed in.’

Philip and his master arranged the shop in the exact order the old man loved. Then he recollected the wish of his subordinate, and turned round and said —

‘Now go with thy cousin and her friend. Hester is here, and old Hannah. I myself will take Hester home, if need be. But for the present I think she had best tarry here, as it isn’t many steps to her mother’s house, and we may need her help if any of those poor creatures fall into suffering wi’ their violence.’

With this, Mr. John knocked at the door of the parlour, and waited for permission to enter. With old-fashioned courtesy he told the two strangers how glad he was that his room had been of service to them; that he would never have made so bold as to pass through it, if he had been aware how it was occupied. And then going to a corner cupboard, high up in the wall, he pulled a key out of his pocket and unlocked his little store of wine, and cake, and spirits; and insisted that they should eat and drink while waiting for Philip, who was taking some last measures for the security of the shop during the night.

Sylvia declined everything, with less courtesy than she ought to have shown to the offers of the hospitable old man. Molly took wine and cake, leaving a good half of both, according to the code of manners in that part of the country; and also because Sylvia was continually urging her to make haste. For the latter disliked the idea of her cousin’s esteeming it necessary to accompany them home, and wanted to escape from him by setting off before he returned. But any such plans were frustrated by Philip’s coming back into the parlour, full of grave content, which brimmed over from his eyes, with the parcel of Sylvia’s obnoxious red duffle under his arm; anticipating so keenly the pleasure awaiting him in the walk, that he was almost surprised by the gravity of his companions as they prepared for it. Sylvia was a little penitent for her rejection of Mr. John’s hospitality, now she found out how unavailing for its purpose such rejection had been, and tried to make up by a modest sweetness of farewell, which quite won his heart, and made him praise her up to Hester in a way to which she, observant of all, could not bring herself fully to respond. What business had the pretty little creature to reject kindly-meant hospitality in the pettish way she did, thought Hester. And, oh! what business had she to be so ungrateful and to try and thwart Philip in his thoughtful wish of escorting them through the streets of the rough, riotous town? What did it all mean?

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