Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XXXIV

A Reckless Recruit

She lay across a chair, her arms helplessly stretched out, her face unseen. Every now and then a thrill ran through her body: she was talking to herself all the time with incessant low incontinence of words.

Philip stood near her, motionless: he did not know whether she was conscious of his presence; in fact, he knew nothing but that he and she were sundered for ever; he could only take in that one idea, and it numbed all other thought.

Once more her baby cried for the comfort she alone could give.

She rose to her feet, but staggered when she tried to walk; her glazed eyes fell upon Philip as he instinctively made a step to hold her steady. No light came into her eyes any more than if she had looked upon a perfect stranger; not even was there the contraction of dislike. Some other figure filled her mind, and she saw him no more than she saw the inanimate table. That way of looking at him withered him up more than any sign of aversion would have done.

He watched her laboriously climb the stairs, and vanish out of sight; and sat down with a sudden feeling of extreme bodily weakness.

The door of communication between the parlour and the shop was opened. That was the first event of which Philip took note; but Phoebe had come in unawares to him, with the intention of removing the breakfast things on her return from market, and seeing them unused, and knowing that Sylvia had sate up all night with her mother, she had gone back to the kitchen. Philip had neither seen nor heard her.

Now Coulson came in, amazed at Hepburn’s non-appearance in the shop.

‘Why! Philip, what’s ado? How ill yo’ look, man!’ exclaimed he, thoroughly alarmed by Philip’s ghastly appearance. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘I!’ said Philip, slowly gathering his thoughts. ‘Why should there be anything the matter?’

His instinct, quicker to act than his reason, made him shrink from his misery being noticed, much more made any subject for explanation or sympathy.

‘There may be nothing the matter wi’ thee,’ said Coulson, ‘but thou’s the look of a corpse on thy face. I was afeared something was wrong, for it’s half-past nine, and thee so punctual!’

He almost guarded Philip into the shop, and kept furtively watching him, and perplexing himself with Philip’s odd, strange ways.

Hester, too, observed the heavy broken-down expression on Philip’s ashen face, and her heart ached for him; but after that first glance, which told her so much, she avoided all appearance of noticing or watching. Only a shadow brooded over her sweet, calm face, and once or twice she sighed to herself.

It was market-day, and people came in and out, bringing their store of gossip from the country, or the town — from the farm or the quay-side.

Among the pieces of news, the rescue of the smack the night before furnished a large topic; and by-and-by Philip heard a name that startled him into attention.

The landlady of a small public-house much frequented by sailors was talking to Coulson.

‘There was a sailor aboard of her as knowed Kinraid by sight, in Shields, years ago; and he called him by his name afore they were well out o’ t’ river. And Kinraid was no ways set up, for all his lieutenant’s uniform (and eh! but they say he looks handsome in it!); but he tells ‘m all about it — how he was pressed aboard a man-o’-war, an’ for his good conduct were made a warrant officer, boatswain, or something!’

All the people in the shop were listening now; Philip alone seemed engrossed in folding up a piece of cloth, so as to leave no possible chance of creases in it; yet he lost not a syllable of the good woman’s narration.

She, pleased with the enlarged audience her tale had attracted, went on with fresh vigour.

‘An’ there’s a gallant captain, one Sir Sidney Smith, and he’d a notion o’ goin’ smack into a French port, an’ carryin’ off a vessel from right under their very noses; an’ says he, “Which of yo’ British sailors ‘ll go along with me to death or glory?” So Kinraid stands up like a man, an’ “I’ll go with yo’, captain,” he says. So they, an’ some others as brave, went off, an’ did their work, an’ choose whativer it was, they did it famously; but they got caught by them French, an’ were clapped into prison i’ France for iver so long; but at last one Philip — Philip somethin’ (he were a Frenchman, I know)— helped ’em to escape, in a fishin’-boat. But they were welcomed by th’ whole British squadron as was i’ t’ Channel for t’ piece of daring they’d done i’ cuttin’ out t’ ship from a French port; an’ Captain Sir Sidney Smith was made an admiral, an’ him as we used t’ call Charley Kinraid, the specksioneer, is made a lieutenant, an’ a commissioned officer i’ t’ King’s service; and is come to great glory, and slep in my house this very blessed night as is just past!’

A murmur of applause and interest and rejoicing buzzed all around Philip. All this was publicly known about Kinraid — and how much more? All Monkshaven might hear tomorrow — nay, today — of Philip’s treachery to the hero of the hour; how he had concealed his fate, and supplanted him in his love.

Philip shrank from the burst of popular indignation which he knew must follow. Any wrong done to one who stands on the pinnacle of the people’s favour is resented by each individual as a personal injury; and among a primitive set of country-folk, who recognize the wild passion in love, as it exists untamed by the trammels of reason and self-restraint, any story of baulked affections, or treachery in such matters, spreads like wildfire.

Philip knew this quite well; his doom of disgrace lay plain before him, if only Kinraid spoke the word. His head was bent down while he thus listened and reflected. He half resolved on doing something; he lifted up his head, caught the reflection of his face in the little strip of glass on the opposite side, in which the women might look at themselves in their contemplated purchases, and quite resolved.

The sight he saw in the mirror was his own long, sad, pale face, made plainer and grayer by the heavy pressure of the morning’s events. He saw his stooping figure, his rounded shoulders, with something like a feeling of disgust at his personal appearance as he remembered the square, upright build of Kinraid; his fine uniform, with epaulette and sword-belt; his handsome brown face; his dark eyes, splendid with the fire of passion and indignation; his white teeth, gleaming out with the terrible smile of scorn.

The comparison drove Philip from passive hopelessness to active despair.

He went abruptly from the crowded shop into the empty parlour, and on into the kitchen, where he took up a piece of bread, and heedless of Phoebe’s look and words, began to eat it before he even left the place; for he needed the strength that food would give; he needed it to carry him out of the sight and the knowledge of all who might hear what he had done, and point their fingers at him.

He paused a moment in the parlour, and then, setting his teeth tight together, he went upstairs.

First of all he went into the bit of a room opening out of theirs, in which his baby slept. He dearly loved the child, and many a time would run in and play a while with it; and in such gambols he and Sylvia had passed their happiest moments of wedded life.

The little Bella was having her morning slumber; Nancy used to tell long afterwards how he knelt down by the side of her cot, and was so strange she thought he must have prayed, for all it was nigh upon eleven o’clock, and folk in their senses only said their prayers when they got up, and when they went to bed.

Then he rose, and stooped over, and gave the child a long, lingering, soft, fond kiss. And on tip-toe he passed away into the room where his aunt lay; his aunt who had been so true a friend to him! He was thankful to know that in her present state she was safe from the knowledge of what was past, safe from the sound of the shame to come.

He had not meant to see Sylvia again; he dreaded the look of her hatred, her scorn, but there, outside her mother’s bed, she lay, apparently asleep. Mrs. Robson, too, was sleeping, her face towards the wall. Philip could not help it; he went to have one last look at his wife. She was turned towards her mother, her face averted from him; he could see the tear-stains, the swollen eyelids, the lips yet quivering: he stooped down, and bent to kiss the little hand that lay listless by her side. As his hot breath neared that hand it was twitched away, and a shiver ran through the whole prostrate body. And then he knew that she was not asleep, only worn out by her misery — misery that he had caused.

He sighed heavily; but he went away, down-stairs, and away for ever. Only as he entered the parlour his eyes caught on two silhouettes, one of himself, one of Sylvia, done in the first month of their marriage, by some wandering artist, if so he could be called. They were hanging against the wall in little oval wooden frames; black profiles, with the lights done in gold; about as poor semblances of humanity as could be conceived; but Philip went up, and after looking for a minute or so at Sylvia’s, he took it down, and buttoned his waistcoat over it.

It was the only thing he took away from his home.

He went down the entry on to the quay. The river was there, and waters, they say, have a luring power, and a weird promise of rest in their perpetual monotony of sound. But many people were there, if such a temptation presented itself to Philip’s mind; the sight of his fellow-townsmen, perhaps of his acquaintances, drove him up another entry — the town is burrowed with such — back into the High Street, which he straightway crossed into a well-known court, out of which rough steps led to the summit of the hill, and on to the fells and moors beyond.

He plunged and panted up this rough ascent. From the top he could look down on the whole town lying below, severed by the bright shining river into two parts. To the right lay the sea, shimmering and heaving; there were the cluster of masts rising out of the little port; the irregular roofs of the houses; which of them, thought he, as he carried his eye along the quay-side to the market-place, which of them was his? and he singled it out in its unfamiliar aspect, and saw the thin blue smoke rising from the kitchen chimney, where even now Phoebe was cooking the household meal that he never more must share.

Up at that thought and away, he knew not nor cared not whither. He went through the ploughed fields where the corn was newly springing; he came down upon the vast sunny sea, and turned his back upon it with loathing; he made his way inland to the high green pastures; the short upland turf above which the larks hung poised ‘at heaven’s gate’. He strode along, so straight and heedless of briar and bush, that the wild black cattle ceased from grazing, and looked after him with their great blank puzzled eyes.

He had passed all enclosures and stone fences now, and was fairly on the desolate brown moors; through the withered last year’s ling and fern, through the prickly gorse, he tramped, crushing down the tender shoots of this year’s growth, and heedless of the startled plover’s cry, goaded by the furies. His only relief from thought, from the remembrance of Sylvia’s looks and words, was in violent bodily action.

So he went on till evening shadows and ruddy evening lights came out upon the wild fells.

He had crossed roads and lanes, with a bitter avoidance of men’s tracks; but now the strong instinct of self-preservation came out, and his aching limbs, his weary heart, giving great pants and beats for a time, and then ceasing altogether till a mist swam and quivered before his aching eyes, warned him that he must find some shelter and food, or lie down to die. He fell down now, often; stumbling over the slightest obstacle. He had passed the cattle pastures; he was among the black-faced sheep; and they, too, ceased nibbling, and looked after him, and somehow, in his poor wandering imagination, their silly faces turned to likenesses of Monkshaven people — people who ought to be far, far away.

‘Thou’ll be belated on these fells, if thou doesn’t tak’ heed,’ shouted some one.

Philip looked abroad to see whence the voice proceeded.

An old stiff-legged shepherd, in a smock-frock, was within a couple of hundred yards. Philip did not answer, but staggered and stumbled towards him.

‘Good lork!’ said the man, ‘wheere hast ta been? Thou’s seen Oud Harry, I think, thou looks so scared.’

Philip rallied himself, and tried to speak up to the old standard of respectability; but the effort was pitiful to see, had any one been by, who could have understood the pain it caused to restrain cries of bodily and mental agony.

‘I’ve lost my way, that’s all.’

‘‘Twould ha’ been enough, too, I’m thinkin’, if I hadn’t come out after t’ ewes. There’s t’ Three Griffins near at hand: a sup o’ Hollands ‘ll set thee to reeghts.’

Philip followed faintly. He could not see before him, and was guided by the sound of footsteps rather than by the sight of the figure moving onwards. He kept stumbling; and he knew that the old shepherd swore at him; but he also knew such curses proceeded from no ill-will, only from annoyance at the delay in going and ‘seem’ after t’ ewes.’ But had the man’s words conveyed the utmost expression of hatred, Philip would neither have wondered at them, nor resented them.

They came into a wild mountain road, unfenced from the fells. A hundred yards off, and there was a small public-house, with a broad ruddy oblong of firelight shining across the tract.

‘Theere!’ said the old man. ‘Thee cannot well miss that. A dunno tho’, thee bees sich a gawby.’

So he went on, and delivered Philip safely up to the landlord.

‘Here’s a felly as a fund on t’ fell side, just as one as if he were drunk; but he’s sober enough, a reckon, only summat’s wrong i’ his head, a’m thinkin’.’

‘No!’ said Philip, sitting down on the first chair he came to. ‘I’m right enough; just fairly wearied out: lost my way,’ and he fainted.

There was a recruiting sergeant of marines sitting in the house-place, drinking. He, too, like Philip, had lost his way; but was turning his blunder to account by telling all manner of wonderful stories to two or three rustics who had come in ready to drink on any pretence; especially if they could get good liquor without paying for it.

The sergeant rose as Philip fell back, and brought up his own mug of beer, into which a noggin of gin had been put (called in Yorkshire ‘dog’s-nose’). He partly poured and partly spilt some of this beverage on Philip’s face; some drops went through the pale and parted lips, and with a start the worn-out man revived.

‘Bring him some victual, landlord,’ called out the recruiting sergeant. ‘I’ll stand shot.’

They brought some cold bacon and coarse oat-cake. The sergeant asked for pepper and salt; minced the food fine and made it savoury, and kept administering it by teaspoonfuls; urging Philip to drink from time to time from his own cup of dog’s-nose.

A burning thirst, which needed no stimulant from either pepper or salt, took possession of Philip, and he drank freely, scarcely recognizing what he drank. It took effect on one so habitually sober; and he was soon in that state when the imagination works wildly and freely.

He saw the sergeant before him, handsome, and bright, and active, in his gay red uniform, without a care, as it seemed to Philip, taking life lightly; admired and respected everywhere because of his cloth.

If Philip were gay, and brisk, well-dressed like him, returning with martial glory to Monkshaven, would not Sylvia love him once more? Could not he win her heart? He was brave by nature, and the prospect of danger did not daunt him, if ever it presented itself to his imagination.

He thought he was cautious in entering on the subject of enlistment with his new friend, the sergeant; but the latter was twenty times as cunning as he, and knew by experience how to bait his hook.

Philip was older by some years than the regulation age; but, at that time of great demand for men, the question of age was lightly entertained. The sergeant was profuse in statements of the advantages presented to a man of education in his branch of the service; how such a one was sure to rise; in fact, it would have seemed from the sergeant’s account, as though the difficulty consisted in remaining in the ranks.

Philip’s dizzy head thought the subject over and over again, each time with failing power of reason.

At length, almost, as it would seem, by some sleight of hand, he found the fatal shilling in his palm, and had promised to go before the nearest magistrate to be sworn in as one of his Majesty’s marines the next morning. And after that he remembered nothing more.

He wakened up in a little truckle-bed in the same room as the sergeant, who lay sleeping the sleep of full contentment; while gradually, drop by drop, the bitter recollections of the day before came, filling up Philip’s cup of agony.

He knew that he had received the bounty-money; and though he was aware that he had been partly tricked into it, and had no hope, no care, indeed, for any of the advantages so liberally promised him the night before, yet he was resigned, with utterly despondent passiveness, to the fate to which he had pledged himself. Anything was welcome that severed him from his former life, that could make him forget it, if that were possible; and also welcome anything which increased the chances of death without the sinfulness of his own participation in the act. He found in the dark recess of his mind the dead body of his fancy of the previous night; that he might come home, handsome and glorious, to win the love that had never been his.

But he only sighed over it, and put it aside out of his sight — so full of despair was he. He could eat no breakfast, though the sergeant ordered of the best. The latter kept watching his new recruit out of the corner of his eye, expecting a remonstrance, or dreading a sudden bolt.

But Philip walked with him the two or three miles in the most submissive silence, never uttering a syllable of regret or repentance; and before Justice Cholmley, of Holm–Fell Hall, he was sworn into his Majesty’s service, under the name of Stephen Freeman. With a new name, he began a new life. Alas! the old life lives for ever!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gaskell/elizabeth/sylvia/chapter34.html

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