Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XXXIII

An Apparition

Mrs. Robson was very poorly all night long. Uneasy thoughts seemed to haunt and perplex her brain, and she neither slept nor woke, but was restless and uneasy in her talk and movements.

Sylvia lay down by her, but got so little sleep, that at length she preferred sitting in the easy-chair by the bedside. Here she dropped off to slumber in spite of herself; the scene of the evening before seemed to be repeated; the cries of the many people, the heavy roar and dash of the threatening waves, were repeated in her ears; and something was said to her through all the conflicting noises — what it was she could not catch, though she strained to hear the hoarse murmur that, in her dream, she believed to convey a meaning of the utmost importance to her.

This dream, that mysterious, only half-intelligible sound, recurred whenever she dozed, and her inability to hear the words uttered distressed her so much, that at length she sate bolt upright, resolved to sleep no more. Her mother was talking in a half-conscious way; Philip’s speech of the evening before was evidently running in her mind.

‘Sylvie, if thou’re not a good wife to him, it’ll just break my heart outright. A woman should obey her husband, and not go her own gait. I never leave the house wi’out telling father, and getting his leave.’

And then she began to cry pitifully, and to say unconnected things, till Sylvia, to soothe her, took her hand, and promised never to leave the house without asking her husband’s permission, though in making this promise, she felt as if she were sacrificing her last pleasure to her mother’s wish; for she knew well enough that Philip would always raise objections to the rambles which reminded her of her old free open-air life.

But to comfort and cherish her mother she would have done anything; yet this very morning that was dawning, she must go and ask his permission for a simple errand, or break her word.

She knew from experience that nothing quieted her mother so well as balm-tea; it might be that the herb really possessed some sedative power; it might be only early faith, and often repeated experience, but it had always had a tranquillizing effect; and more than once, during the restless hours of the night, Mrs. Robson had asked for it; but Sylvia’s stock of last year’s dead leaves was exhausted. Still she knew where a plant of balm grew in the sheltered corner of Haytersbank Farm garden; she knew that the tenants who had succeeded them in the occupation of the farm had had to leave it in consequence of a death, and that the place was unoccupied; and in the darkness she had planned that if she could leave her mother after the dawn came, and she had attended to her baby, she would walk quickly to the old garden, and gather the tender sprigs which she was sure to find there.

Now she must go and ask Philip; and till she held her baby to her breast, she bitterly wished that she were free from the duties and chains of matrimony. But the touch of its waxen fingers, the hold of its little mouth, made her relax into docility and gentleness. She gave it back to Nancy to be dressed, and softly opened the door of Philip’s bed-room.

‘Philip!’ said she, gently. ‘Philip!’

He started up from dreams of her; of her, angry. He saw her there, rather pale with her night’s watch and anxiety, but looking meek, and a little beseeching.

‘Mother has had such a bad night! she fancied once as some balm-tea would do her good — it allays used to: but my dried balm is all gone, and I thought there’d be sure to be some in t’ old garden at Haytersbank. Feyther planted a bush just for mother, wheere it allays came up early, nigh t’ old elder-tree; and if yo’d not mind, I could run theere while she sleeps, and be back again in an hour, and it’s not seven now.’

‘Thou’s not wear thyself out with running, Sylvie,’ said Philip, eagerly; ‘I’ll get up and go myself, or, perhaps,’ continued he, catching the shadow that was coming over her face, ‘thou’d rather go thyself: it’s only that I’m so afraid of thy tiring thyself.’

‘It’ll not tire me,’ said Sylvia. ‘Afore I was married, I was out often far farther than that, afield to fetch up t’ kine, before my breakfast.’

‘Well, go if thou will,’ said Philip. ‘But get somewhat to eat first, and don’t hurry; there’s no need for that.’

She had got her hat and shawl, and was off before he had finished his last words.

The long High Street was almost empty of people at that early hour; one side was entirely covered by the cool morning shadow which lay on the pavement, and crept up the opposite houses till only the topmost story caught the rosy sunlight. Up the hill-road, through the gap in the stone wall, across the dewy fields, Sylvia went by the very shortest path she knew.

She had only once been at Haytersbank since her wedding-day. On that occasion the place had seemed strangely and dissonantly changed by the numerous children who were diverting themselves before the open door, and whose playthings and clothes strewed the house-place, and made it one busy scene of confusion and untidiness, more like the Corneys’ kitchen in former times, than her mother’s orderly and quiet abode. Those little children were fatherless now; and the house was shut up, awaiting the entry of some new tenant. There were no shutters to shut; the long low window was blinking in the rays of the morning sun; the house and cow-house doors were closed, and no poultry wandered about the field in search of stray grains of corn, or early worms. It was a strange and unfamiliar silence, and struck solemnly on Sylvia’s mind. Only a thrush in the old orchard down in the hollow, out of sight, whistled and gurgled with continual shrill melody.

Sylvia went slowly past the house and down the path leading to the wild, deserted bit of garden. She saw that the last tenants had had a pump sunk for them, and resented the innovation, as though the well she was passing could feel the insult. Over it grew two hawthorn trees; on the bent trunk of one of them she used to sit, long ago: the charm of the position being enhanced by the possible danger of falling into the well and being drowned. The rusty unused chain was wound round the windlass; the bucket was falling to pieces from dryness. A lean cat came from some outhouse, and mewed pitifully with hunger; accompanying Sylvia to the garden, as if glad of some human companionship, yet refusing to allow itself to be touched. Primroses grew in the sheltered places, just as they formerly did; and made the uncultivated ground seem less deserted than the garden, where the last year’s weeds were rotting away, and cumbering the ground.

Sylvia forced her way through the berry bushes to the herb-plot, and plucked the tender leaves she had come to seek; sighing a little all the time. Then she retraced her steps; paused softly before the house-door, and entered the porch and kissed the senseless wood.

She tried to tempt the poor gaunt cat into her arms, meaning to carry it home and befriend it; but it was scared by her endeavour and ran back to its home in the outhouse, making a green path across the white dew of the meadow. Then Sylvia began to hasten home, thinking, and remembering — at the stile that led into the road she was brought short up.

Some one stood in the lane just on the other side of the gap; his back was to the morning sun; all she saw at first was the uniform of a naval officer, so well known in Monkshaven in those days.

Sylvia went hurrying past him, not looking again, although her clothes almost brushed his, as he stood there still. She had not gone a yard — no, not half a yard — when her heart leaped up and fell again dead within her, as if she had been shot.

‘Sylvia!’ he said, in a voice tremulous with joy and passionate love. ‘Sylvia!’

She looked round; he had turned a little, so that the light fell straight on his face. It was bronzed, and the lines were strengthened; but it was the same face she had last seen in Haytersbank Gully three long years ago, and had never thought to see in life again.

He was close to her and held out his fond arms; she went fluttering towards their embrace, as if drawn by the old fascination; but when she felt them close round her, she started away, and cried out with a great pitiful shriek, and put her hands up to her forehead as if trying to clear away some bewildering mist.

Then she looked at him once more, a terrible story in her eyes, if he could but have read it.

Twice she opened her stiff lips to speak, and twice the words were overwhelmed by the surges of her misery, which bore them back into the depths of her heart.

He thought that he had come upon her too suddenly, and he attempted to soothe her with soft murmurs of love, and to woo her to his outstretched hungry arms once more. But when she saw this motion of his, she made a gesture as though pushing him away; and with an inarticulate moan of agony she put her hands to her head once more, and turning away began to run blindly towards the town for protection.

For a minute or so he was stunned with surprise at her behaviour; and then he thought it accounted for by the shock of his accost, and that she needed time to understand the unexpected joy. So he followed her swiftly, ever keeping her in view, but not trying to overtake her too speedily.

‘I have frightened my poor love,’ he kept thinking. And by this thought he tried to repress his impatience and check the speed he longed to use; yet he was always so near behind that her quickened sense heard his well-known footsteps following, and a mad notion flashed across her brain that she would go to the wide full river, and end the hopeless misery she felt enshrouding her. There was a sure hiding-place from all human reproach and heavy mortal woe beneath the rushing waters borne landwards by the morning tide.

No one can tell what changed her course; perhaps the thought of her sucking child; perhaps her mother; perhaps an angel of God; no one on earth knows, but as she ran along the quay-side she all at once turned up an entry, and through an open door.

He, following all the time, came into a quiet dark parlour, with a cloth and tea-things on the table ready for breakfast; the change from the bright sunny air out of doors to the deep shadow of this room made him think for the first moment that she had passed on, and that no one was there, and he stood for an instant baffled, and hearing no sound but the beating of his own heart; but an irrepressible sobbing gasp made him look round, and there he saw her cowered behind the door, her face covered tight up, and sharp shudders going through her whole frame.

‘My love, my darling!’ said he, going up to her, and trying to raise her, and to loosen her hands away from her face. ‘I’ve been too sudden for thee: it was thoughtless in me; but I have so looked forward to this time, and seeing thee come along the field, and go past me, but I should ha’ been more tender and careful of thee. Nay! let me have another look of thy sweet face.’

All this he whispered in the old tones of manoeuvring love, in that voice she had yearned and hungered to hear in life, and had not heard, for all her longing, save in her dreams.

She tried to crouch more and more into the corner, into the hidden shadow — to sink into the ground out of sight.

Once more he spoke, beseeching her to lift up her face, to let him hear her speak.

But she only moaned.

‘Sylvia!’ said he, thinking he could change his tactics, and pique her into speaking, that he would make a pretence of suspicion and offence.

‘Sylvia! one would think you weren’t glad to see me back again at length. I only came in late last night, and my first thought on wakening was of you; it has been ever since I left you.’

Sylvia took her hands away from her face; it was gray as the face of death; her awful eyes were passionless in her despair.

‘Where have yo’ been?’ she asked, in slow, hoarse tones, as if her voice were half strangled within her.

‘Been!’ said he, a red light coming into his eyes, as he bent his looks upon her; now, indeed, a true and not an assumed suspicion entering his mind.

‘Been!’ he repeated; then, coming a step nearer to her, and taking her hand, not tenderly this time, but with a resolution to be satisfied.

‘Did not your cousin — Hepburn, I mean — did not he tell you? — he saw the press-gang seize me — I gave him a message to you — I bade you keep true to me as I would be to you.’

Between every clause of this speech he paused and gasped for her answer; but none came. Her eyes dilated and held his steady gaze prisoner as with a magical charm — neither could look away from the other’s wild, searching gaze. When he had ended, she was silent for a moment, then she cried out, shrill and fierce —

‘Philip!’ No answer.

Wilder and shriller still, ‘Philip!’ she cried.

He was in the distant ware-room completing the last night’s work before the regular shop hours began; before breakfast, also, that his wife might not find him waiting and impatient.

He heard her cry; it cut through doors, and still air, and great bales of woollen stuff; he thought that she had hurt herself, that her mother was worse, that her baby was ill, and he hastened to the spot whence the cry proceeded.

On opening the door that separated the shop from the sitting-room, he saw the back of a naval officer, and his wife on the ground, huddled up in a heap; when she perceived him come in, she dragged herself up by means of a chair, groping like a blind person, and came and stood facing him.

The officer turned fiercely round, and would have come towards Philip, who was so bewildered by the scene that even yet he did not understand who the stranger was, did not perceive for an instant that he saw the realization of his greatest dread.

But Sylvia laid her hand on Kinraid’s arm, and assumed to herself the right of speech. Philip did not know her voice, it was so changed.

‘Philip,’ she said, ‘this is Kinraid come back again to wed me. He is alive; he has niver been dead, only taken by t’ press-gang. And he says yo’ saw it, and knew it all t’ time. Speak, was it so?’

Philip knew not what to say, whither to turn, under what refuge of words or acts to shelter.

Sylvia’s influence was keeping Kinraid silent, but he was rapidly passing beyond it.

‘Speak!’ he cried, loosening himself from Sylvia’s light grasp, and coming towards Philip, with a threatening gesture. ‘Did I not bid you tell her how it was? Did I not bid you say how I would be faithful to her, and she was to be faithful to me? Oh! you damned scoundrel! have you kept it from her all that time, and let her think me dead, or false? Take that!’

His closed fist was up to strike the man, who hung his head with bitterest shame and miserable self-reproach; but Sylvia came swift between the blow and its victim.

‘Charley, thou shan’t strike him,’ she said. ‘He is a damned scoundrel’ (this was said in the hardest, quietest tone) ‘but he is my husband.’

‘Oh! thou false heart!’ exclaimed Kinraid, turning sharp on her. ‘If ever I trusted woman, I trusted you, Sylvia Robson.’

He made as though throwing her from him, with a gesture of contempt that stung her to life.

‘Oh, Charley!’ she cried, springing to him, ‘dunnot cut me to the quick; have pity on me, though he had none. I did so love thee; it was my very heart-strings as gave way when they told me thou was drowned — feyther, and th’ Corneys, and all, iverybody. Thy hat and t’ bit o’ ribbon I gave thee were found drenched and dripping wi’ sea-water; and I went mourning for thee all the day long — dunnot turn away from me; only hearken this once, and then kill me dead, and I’ll bless yo’ — and have niver been mysel’ since; niver ceased to feel t’ sun grow dark and th’ air chill and dreary when I thought on t’ time when thou was alive. I did, my Charley, my own love! And I thought thou was dead for iver, and I wished I were lying beside thee. Oh, Charley! Philip, theere, where he stands, could tell yo’ this was true. Philip, wasn’t it so?’

‘Would God I were dead!’ moaned forth the unhappy, guilty man. But she had turned to Kinraid, and was speaking again to him, and neither of them heard or heeded him — they were drawing closer and closer together — she, with her cheeks and eyes aflame, talking eagerly.

‘And feyther was taken up, and all for setting some free as t’ press-gang had gotten by a foul trick; and he were put i’ York prison, and tried, and hung! — hung! Charley! — good kind feyther was hung on a gallows; and mother lost her sense and grew silly in grief, and we were like to be turned out on t’ wide world, and poor mother dateless — and I thought yo’ were dead — oh! I thought yo’ were dead, I did — oh, Charley, Charley!’

By this time they were in each other’s arms, she with her head on his shoulder, crying as if her heart would break.

Philip came forwards and took hold of her to pull her away; but Charley held her tight, mutely defying Philip. Unconsciously she was Philip’s protection, in that hour of danger, from a blow which might have been his death if strong will could have aided it to kill.

‘Sylvie!’ said he, grasping her tight. ‘Listen to me. He didn’t love yo’ as I did. He had loved other women. I, yo’— yo’ alone. He loved other girls before yo’, and had left off loving ’em. I— I wish God would free my heart from the pang; but it will go on till I die, whether yo’ love me or not. And then — where was I? Oh! that very night that he was taken, I was a-thinking on yo’ and on him; and I might ha’ given yo’ his message, but I heard them speaking of him as knew him well; talking of his false fickle ways. How was I to know he would keep true to thee? It might be a sin in me, I cannot say; my heart and my sense are gone dead within me. I know this, I’ve loved yo’ as no man but me ever loved before. Have some pity and forgiveness on me, if it’s only because I’ve been so tormented with my love.’

He looked at her with feverish eager wistfulness; it faded away into despair as she made no sign of having even heard his words. He let go his hold of her, and his arm fell loosely by his side.

‘I may die,’ he said, ‘for my life is ended!’

‘Sylvia!’ spoke out Kinraid, bold and fervent, ‘your marriage is no marriage. You were tricked into it. You are my wife, not his. I am your husband; we plighted each other our troth. See! here is my half of the sixpence.’

He pulled it out from his bosom, tied by a black ribbon round his neck.

‘When they stripped me and searched me in th’ French prison, I managed to keep this. No lies can break the oath we swore to each other. I can get your pretence of a marriage set aside. I’m in favour with my admiral, and he’ll do a deal for me, and back me out. Come with me; your marriage shall be set aside, and we’ll be married again, all square and above-board. Come away. Leave that damned fellow to repent of the trick he played an honest sailor; we’ll be true, whatever has come and gone. Come, Sylvia.’

His arm was round her waist, and he was drawing her towards the door, his face all crimson with eagerness and hope. Just then the baby cried.

‘Hark!’ said she, starting away from Kinraid, ‘baby’s crying for me. His child — yes, it is his child — I’d forgotten that — forgotten all. I’ll make my vow now, lest I lose mysel’ again. I’ll never forgive yon man, nor live with him as his wife again. All that’s done and ended. He’s spoilt my life — he’s spoilt it for as long as iver I live on this earth; but neither yo’ nor him shall spoil my soul. It goes hard wi’ me, Charley, it does indeed. I’ll just give yo’ one kiss — one little kiss — and then, so help me God, I’ll niver see nor hear till — no, not that, not that is needed — I’ll niver see — sure that’s enough — I’ll never see yo’ again on this side heaven, so help me God! I’m bound and tied, but I’ve sworn my oath to him as well as yo’: there’s things I will do, and there’s things I won’t. Kiss me once more. God help me, he’s gone!’

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