Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XXXII

Rescued from the Waves

Meanwhile Hester came and went as usual; in so quiet and methodical a way, with so even and undisturbed a temper, that she was almost forgotten when everything went well in the shop or household. She was a star, the brightness of which was only recognized in times of darkness. She herself was almost surprised at her own increasing regard for Sylvia. She had not thought she should ever be able to love the woman who had been such a laggard in acknowledging Philip’s merits; and from all she had ever heard of Sylvia before she came to know her, from the angry words with which Sylvia had received her when she had first gone to Haytersbank Farm, Hester had intended to remain on friendly terms, but to avoid intimacy. But her kindness to Bell Robson had won both the mother’s and daughter’s hearts; and in spite of herself, certainly against her own mother’s advice, she had become the familiar friend and welcome guest of the household.

Now the very change in Sylvia’s whole manner and ways, which grieved and vexed Philip, made his wife the more attractive to Hester. Brought up among Quakers, although not one herself, she admired and respected the staidness and outward peacefulness common amongst the young women of that sect. Sylvia, whom she had expected to find volatile, talkative, vain, and wilful, was quiet and still, as if she had been born a Friend: she seemed to have no will of her own; she served her mother and child for love; she obeyed her husband in all things, and never appeared to pine after gaiety or pleasure. And yet at times Hester thought, or rather a flash came across her mind, as if all things were not as right as they seemed. Philip looked older, more care-worn; nay, even Hester was obliged to allow to herself that she had heard him speak to his wife in sharp, aggrieved tones. Innocent Hester! she could not understand how the very qualities she so admired in Sylvia were just what were so foreign to her nature that the husband, who had known her from a child, felt what an unnatural restraint she was putting upon herself, and would have hailed petulant words or wilful actions with an unspeakable thankfulness for relief.

One day — it was in the spring of 1798 — Hester was engaged to stay to tea with the Hepburns, in order that after that early meal she might set to again in helping Philip and Coulson to pack away the winter cloths and flannels, for which there was no longer any use. The tea-time was half-past four; about four o’clock a heavy April shower came on, the hail pattering against the window-panes so as to awaken Mrs. Robson from her afternoon’s nap. She came down the corkscrew stairs, and found Phoebe in the parlour arranging the tea-things.

Phoebe and Mrs. Robson were better friends than Phoebe and her young mistress; and so they began to talk a little together in a comfortable, familiar way. Once or twice Philip looked in, as if he would be glad to see the tea-table in readiness; and then Phoebe would put on a spurt of busy bustle, which ceased almost as soon as his back was turned, so eager was she to obtain Mrs. Robson’s sympathy in some little dispute that had occurred between her and the nurse-maid. The latter had misappropriated some hot water, prepared and required by Phoebe, to the washing of the baby’s clothes; it was a long story, and would have tired the patience of any one in full possession of their senses; but the details were just within poor Bell’s comprehension, and she was listening with the greatest sympathy. Both the women were unaware of the lapse of time; but it was of consequence to Philip, as the extra labour was not to be begun until after tea, and the daylight hours were precious.

At a quarter to five Hester and he came in, and then Phoebe began to hurry. Hester went up to sit by Bell and talk to her. Philip spoke to Phoebe in the familiar words of country-folk. Indeed, until his marriage, Phoebe had always called him by his Christian name, and had found it very difficult to change it into ‘master.’

‘Where’s Sylvie?’ said he.

‘Gone out wi’ t’ babby,’ replied Phoebe.

‘Why can’t Nancy carry it out?’ asked Philip.

It was touching on the old grievance: he was tired, and he spoke with sharp annoyance. Phoebe might easily have told him the real state of the case; Nancy was busy at her washing, which would have been reason enough. But the nursemaid had vexed her, and she did not like Philip’s sharpness, so she only said —

‘It’s noane o’ my business; it’s yo’ t’ look after yo’r own wife and child; but yo’r but a lad after a’.’

This was not conciliatory speech, and just put the last stroke to Philip’s fit of ill-temper.

‘I’m not for my tea to-night,’ said he, to Hester, when all was ready. ‘Sylvie’s not here, and nothing is nice, or as it should be. I’ll go and set to on t’ stock-taking. Don’t yo’ hurry, Hester; stop and chat a bit with th’ old lady.’

‘Nay, Philip,’ said Hester, ‘thou’s sadly tired; just take this cup o’ tea; Sylvia ‘ll be grieved if yo’ haven’t something.’

‘Sylvia doesn’t care whether I’m full or fasting,’ replied he, impatiently putting aside the cup. ‘If she did she’d ha’ taken care to be in, and ha’ seen to things being as I like them.’

Now in general Philip was the least particular of men about meals; and to do Sylvia justice, she was scrupulously attentive to every household duty in which old Phoebe would allow her to meddle, and always careful to see after her husband’s comforts. But Philip was too vexed at her absence to perceive the injustice of what he was saying, nor was he aware how Bell Robson had been attending to what he said. But she was sadly discomfited by it, understanding just enough of the grievance in hand to think that her daughter was neglectful of those duties which she herself had always regarded as paramount to all others; nor could Hester convince her that Philip had not meant what he said; neither could she turn the poor old woman’s thoughts from the words which had caused her distress.

Presently Sylvia came in, bright and cheerful, although breathless with hurry.

‘Oh,’ said she, taking off her wet shawl, ‘we’ve had to shelter from such a storm of rain, baby and me — but see! she’s none the worse for it, as bonny as iver, bless her.’

Hester began some speech of admiration for the child in order to prevent Bell from delivering the lecture she felt sure was coming down on the unsuspecting Sylvia; but all in vain.

‘Philip’s been complaining on thee, Sylvie,’ said Bell, in the way in which she had spoken to her daughter when she was a little child; grave and severe in tone and look, more than in words. ‘I forget justly what about, but he spoke on thy neglecting him continual. It’s not right, my lass, it’s not right; a woman should — but my head’s very tired, and all I can think on to say is, it’s not right.’

‘Philip been complaining of me, and to mother!’ said Sylvia, ready to burst into tears, so grieved and angry was she.

‘No!’ said Hester, ‘thy mother has taken it a little too strong; he were vexed like at his tea not being ready.’

Sylvia said no more, but the bright colour faded from her cheek, and the contraction of care returned to her brow. She occupied herself with taking off her baby’s walking things. Hester lingered, anxious to soothe and make peace; she was looking sorrowfully at Sylvia, when she saw tears dropping on the baby’s cloak, and then it seemed as if she must speak a word of comfort before going to the shop-work, where she knew she was expected by both Philip and Coulson. She poured out a cup of tea, and coming close up to Sylvia, and kneeling down by her, she whispered —

‘Just take him this into t’ ware-room; it’ll put all to rights if thou’ll take it to him wi’ thy own hands.’

Sylvia looked up, and Hester then more fully saw how she had been crying. She whispered in reply, for fear of disturbing her mother —

‘I don’t mind anything but his speaking ill on me to mother. I know I’m for iver trying and trying to be a good wife to him, an’ it’s very dull work; harder than yo’ think on, Hester — an’ I would ha’ been home for tea to-night only I was afeared of baby getting wet wi’ t’ storm o’ hail as we had down on t’ shore; and we sheltered under a rock. It’s a weary coming home to this dark place, and to find my own mother set against me.’

‘Take him his tea, like a good lassie. I’ll answer for it he’ll be all right. A man takes it hardly when he comes in tired, a-thinking his wife ‘11 be there to cheer him up a bit, to find her off, and niver know nought of t’ reason why.’

‘I’m glad enough I’ve getten a baby,’ said Sylvia, ‘but for aught else I wish I’d niver been married, I do!’

‘Hush thee, lass!’ said Hester, rising up indignant; ‘now that is a sin. Eh! if thou only knew the lot o’ some folk. But let’s talk no more on that, that cannot be helped; go, take him his tea, for it’s a sad thing to think on him fasting all this time.’

Hester’s voice was raised by the simple fact of her change of position; and the word fasting caught Mrs. Robson’s ear, as she sate at her knitting by the chimney-corner.

‘Fasting? he said thou didn’t care if he were full or fasting. Lassie! it’s not right in thee, I say; go, take him his tea at once.’

Sylvia rose, and gave up the baby, which she had been suckling, to Nancy, who having done her washing, had come for her charge, to put it to bed. Sylvia kissed it fondly, making a little moan of sad, passionate tenderness as she did so. Then she took the cup of tea; but she said, rather defiantly, to Hester —

‘I’ll go to him with it, because mother bids me, and it’ll ease her mind.’

Then louder to her mother, she added —

‘Mother, I’ll take him his tea, though I couldn’t help the being out.’

If the act itself was conciliatory, the spirit in which she was going to do it was the reverse. Hester followed her slowly into the ware-room, with intentional delay, thinking that her presence might be an obstacle to their mutually understanding one another. Sylvia held the cup and plate of bread and butter out to Philip, but avoided meeting his eye, and said not a word of explanation, or regret, or self-justification. If she had spoken, though ever so crossly, Philip would have been relieved, and would have preferred it to her silence. He wanted to provoke her to speech, but did not know how to begin.

‘Thou’s been out again wandering on that sea-shore!’ said he. She did not answer him. ‘I cannot think what’s always taking thee there, when one would ha’ thought a walk up to Esdale would be far more sheltered, both for thee and baby in such weather as this. Thou’ll be having that baby ill some of these days.’

At this, she looked up at him, and her lips moved as though she were going to say something. Oh, how he wished she would, that they might come to a wholesome quarrel, and a making friends again, and a tender kissing, in which he might whisper penitence for all his hasty words, or unreasonable vexation. But she had come resolved not to speak, for fear of showing too much passion, too much emotion. Only as she was going away she turned and said —

‘Philip, mother hasn’t many more years to live; dunnot grieve her, and set her again’ me by finding fault wi’ me afore her. Our being wed were a great mistake; but before t’ poor old widow woman let us make as if we were happy.’

‘Sylvie! Sylvie!’ he called after her. She must have heard, but she did not turn. He went after her, and seized her by the arm rather roughly; she had stung him to the heart with her calm words, which seemed to reveal a long-formed conviction.

‘Sylvie!’ said he, almost fiercely, ‘what do yo’ mean by what you’ve said? Speak! I will have an answer.’

He almost shook her: she was half frightened by his vehemence of behaviour, which she took for pure anger, while it was the outburst of agonized and unrequited love.

‘Let me go! Oh, Philip, yo’ hurt me!’

Just at this moment Hester came up; Philip was ashamed of his passionate ways in her serene presence, and loosened his grasp of his wife, and she ran away; ran into her mother’s empty room, as to a solitary place, and there burst into that sobbing, miserable crying which we instinctively know is too surely lessening the length of our days on earth to be indulged in often.

When she had exhausted that first burst and lay weak and quiet for a time, she listened in dreading expectation of the sound of his footstep coming in search of her to make friends. But he was detained below on business, and never came. Instead, her mother came clambering up the stairs; she was now in the habit of going to bed between seven and eight, and to-night she was retiring at even an earlier hour.

Sylvia sprang up and drew down the window-blind, and made her face and manner as composed as possible, in order to soothe and comfort her mother’s last waking hours. She helped her to bed with gentle patience; the restraint imposed upon her by her tender filial love was good for her, though all the time she was longing to be alone to have another wild outburst. When her mother was going off to sleep, Sylvia went to look at her baby, also in a soft sleep. Then she gazed out at the evening sky, high above the tiled roofs of the opposite houses, and the longing to be out under the peaceful heavens took possession of her once more.

‘It’s my only comfort,’ said she to herself; ‘and there’s no earthly harm in it. I would ha’ been at home to his tea, if I could; but when he doesn’t want me, and mother doesn’t want me, and baby is either in my arms or asleep; why, I’ll go any cry my fill out under yon great quiet sky. I cannot stay in t’ house to be choked up wi’ my tears, nor yet to have him coming about me either for scolding or peace-making.’

So she put on her things and went out again; this time along the High Street, and up the long flights of steps towards the parish church, and there she stood and thought that here she had first met Kinraid, at Darley’s burying, and she tried to recall the very look of all the sad, earnest faces round the open grave — the whole scene, in fact; and let herself give way to the miserable regrets she had so often tried to control. Then she walked on, crying bitterly, almost unawares to herself; on through the high, bleak fields at the summit of the cliffs; fields bounded by loose stone fences, and far from all sight of the habitation of man. But, below, the sea rose and raged; it was high water at the highest tide, and the wind blew gustily from the land, vainly combating the great waves that came invincibly up with a roar and an impotent furious dash against the base of the cliffs below.

Sylvia heard the sound of the passionate rush and rebound of many waters, like the shock of mighty guns, whenever the other sound of the blustering gusty wind was lulled for an instant. She was more quieted by this tempest of the elements than she would have been had all nature seemed as still as she had imagined it to be while she was yet indoors and only saw a part of the serene sky.

She fixed on a certain point, in her own mind, which she would reach, and then turn back again. It was where the outline of the land curved inwards, dipping into a little bay. Here the field-path she had hitherto followed descended somewhat abruptly to a cluster of fishermen’s cottages, hardly large enough to be called a village; and then the narrow roadway wound up the rising ground till it again reached the summit of the cliffs that stretched along the coast for many and many a mile.

Sylvia said to herself that she would turn homewards when she came within sight of this cove — Headlington Cove, they called it. All the way along she had met no one since she had left the town, but just as she had got over the last stile, or ladder of stepping-stones, into the field from which the path descended, she came upon a number of people — quite a crowd, in fact; men moving forward in a steady line, hauling at a rope, a chain, or something of that kind; boys, children, and women holding babies in their arms, as if all were fain to come out and partake in some general interest.

They kept within a certain distance from the edge of the cliff, and Sylvia, advancing a little, now saw the reason why. The great cable the men held was attached to some part of a smack, which could now be seen by her in the waters below, half dismantled, and all but a wreck, yet with her deck covered with living men, as far as the waning light would allow her to see. The vessel strained to get free of the strong guiding cable; the tide was turning, the wind was blowing off shore, and Sylvia knew without being told, that almost parallel to this was a line of sunken rocks that had been fatal to many a ship before now, if she had tried to take the inner channel instead of keeping out to sea for miles, and then steering in straight for Monkshaven port. And the ships that had been thus lost had been in good plight and order compared to this vessel, which seemed nothing but a hull without mast or sail.

By this time, the crowd — the fishermen from the hamlet down below, with their wives and children — all had come but the bedridden — had reached the place where Sylvia stood. The women, in a state of wild excitement, rushed on, encouraging their husbands and sons by words, even while they hindered them by actions; and, from time to time, one of them would run to the edge of the cliff and shout out some brave words of hope in her shrill voice to the crew on the deck below. Whether these latter heard it or not, no one could tell; but it seemed as if all human voice must be lost in the tempestuous stun and tumult of wind and wave. It was generally a woman with a child in her arms who so employed herself. As the strain upon the cable became greater, and the ground on which they strove more uneven, every hand was needed to hold and push, and all those women who were unencumbered held by the dear rope on which so many lives were depending. On they came, a long line of human beings, black against the ruddy sunset sky. As they came near Sylvia, a woman cried out —

‘Dunnot stand idle, lass, but houd on wi’ us; there’s many a bonny life at stake, and many a mother’s heart a-hangin’ on this bit o’ hemp. Tak’ houd, lass, and give a firm grip, and God remember thee i’ thy need.’

Sylvia needed no second word; a place was made for her, and in an instant more the rope was pulling against her hands till it seemed as though she was holding fire in her bare palms. Never a one of them thought of letting go for an instant, though when all was over many of their hands were raw and bleeding. Some strong, experienced fishermen passed a word along the line from time to time, giving directions as to how it should be held according to varying occasions; but few among the rest had breath or strength enough to speak. The women and children that accompanied them ran on before, breaking down the loose stone fences, so as to obviate delay or hindrance; they talked continually, exhorting, encouraging, explaining. From their many words and fragmentary sentences, Sylvia learnt that the vessel was supposed to be a Newcastle smack sailing from London, that had taken the dangerous inner channel to save time, and had been caught in the storm, which she was too crazy to withstand; and that if by some daring contrivance of the fishermen who had first seen her the cable had not been got ashore, she would have been cast upon the rocks before this, and ‘all on board perished’.

‘It were dayleet then,’ quoth one woman; ‘a could see their faces, they were so near. They were as pale as dead men, an’ one was prayin’ down on his knees. There was a king’s officer aboard, for I saw t’ gowd about him.’

‘He’d maybe come from these hom’ard parts, and be comin’ to see his own folk; else it’s no common for king’s officers to sail in aught but king’s ships.’

‘Eh! but it’s gettin’ dark! See there’s t’ leeghts in t’ houses in t’ New Town! T’ grass is crispin’ wi’ t’ white frost under out feet. It’ll be a hard tug round t’ point, and then she’ll be gettin’ into still waters.’

One more great push and mighty strain, and the danger was past; the vessel — or what remained of her — was in the harbour, among the lights and cheerful sounds of safety. The fishermen sprang down the cliff to the quay-side, anxious to see the men whose lives they had saved; the women, weary and over-excited, began to cry. Not Sylvia, however; her fount of tears had been exhausted earlier in the day: her principal feeling was of gladness and high rejoicing that they were saved who had been so near to death not half an hour before.

She would have liked to have seen the men, and shaken hands with them all round. But instead she must go home, and well would it be with her if she was in time for her husband’s supper, and escaped any notice of her absence. So she separated herself from the groups of women who sate on the grass in the churchyard, awaiting the return of such of their husbands as could resist the fascinations of the Monkshaven public houses. As Sylvia went down the church steps, she came upon one of the fishermen who had helped to tow the vessel into port.

‘There was seventeen men and boys aboard her, and a navy-lieutenant as had comed as passenger. It were a good job as we could manage her. Good-neet to thee, thou’ll sleep all t’ sounder for havin’ lent a hand.’

The street air felt hot and close after the sharp keen atmosphere of the heights above; the decent shops and houses had all their shutters put up, and were preparing for their early bed-time. Already lights shone here and there in the upper chambers, and Sylvia scarcely met any one.

She went round up the passage from the quay-side, and in by the private door. All was still; the basins of bread and milk that she and her husband were in the habit of having for supper stood in the fender before the fire, each with a plate upon them. Nancy had gone to bed, Phoebe dozed in the kitchen; Philip was still in the ware-room, arranging goods and taking stock along with Coulson, for Hester had gone home to her mother.

Sylvia was not willing to go and seek out Philip, after the manner in which they had parted. All the despondency of her life became present to her again as she sate down within her home. She had forgotten it in her interest and excitement, but now it came back again.

Still she was hungry, and youthful, and tired. She took her basin up, and was eating her supper when she heard a cry of her baby upstairs, and ran away to attend to it. When it had been fed and hushed away to sleep, she went in to see her mother, attracted by some unusual noise in her room.

She found Mrs. Robson awake, and restless, and ailing; dwelling much on what Philip had said in his anger against Sylvia. It was really necessary for her daughter to remain with her; so Sylvia stole out, and went quickly down-stairs to Philip — now sitting tired and worn out, and eating his supper with little or no appetite — and told him she meant to pass the night with her mother.

His answer of acquiescence was so short and careless, or so it seemed to her, that she did not tell him any more of what she had done or seen that evening, or even dwell upon any details of her mother’s indisposition.

As soon as she had left the room, Philip set down his half-finished basin of bread and milk, and sate long, his face hidden in his folded arms. The wick of the candle grew long and black, and fell, and sputtered, and guttered; he sate on, unheeding either it or the pale gray fire that was dying out — dead at last.

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