Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XXXV

Things Unutterable

After Philip had passed out of the room, Sylvia lay perfectly still, from very exhaustion. Her mother slept on, happily unconscious of all the turmoil that had taken place; yes, happily, though the heavy sleep was to end in death. But of this her daughter knew nothing, imagining that it was refreshing slumber, instead of an ebbing of life. Both mother and daughter lay motionless till Phoebe entered the room to tell Sylvia that dinner was on the table.

Then Sylvia sate up, and put back her hair, bewildered and uncertain as to what was to be done next; how she should meet the husband to whom she had discarded all allegiance, repudiated the solemn promise of love and obedience which she had vowed.

Phoebe came into the room, with natural interest in the invalid, scarcely older than herself.

‘How is t’ old lady?’ asked she, in a low voice.

Sylvia turned her head round to look; her mother had never moved, but was breathing in a loud uncomfortable manner, that made her stoop over her to see the averted face more nearly.

‘Phoebe!’ she cried, ‘come here! She looks strange and odd; her eyes are open, but don’t see me. Phoebe! Phoebe!’

‘Sure enough, she’s in a bad way!’ said Phoebe, climbing stiffly on to the bed to have a nearer view. ‘Hold her head a little up t’ ease her breathin’ while I go for master; he’ll be for sendin’ for t’ doctor, I’ll be bound.’

Sylvia took her mother’s head and laid it fondly on her breast, speaking to her and trying to rouse her; but it was of no avail: the hard, stertorous breathing grew worse and worse.

Sylvia cried out for help; Nancy came, the baby in her arms. They had been in several times before that morning; and the child came smiling and crowing at its mother, who was supporting her own dying parent.

‘Oh, Nancy!’ said Sylvia; ‘what is the matter with mother? yo’ can see her face; tell me quick!’

Nancy set the baby on the bed for all reply, and ran out of the room, crying out,

‘Master! master! Come quick! T’ old missus is a-dying!’

This appeared to be no news to Sylvia, and yet the words came on her with a great shock, but for all that she could not cry; she was surprised herself at her own deadness of feeling.

Her baby crawled to her, and she had to hold and guard both her mother and her child. It seemed a long, long time before any one came, and then she heard muffled voices, and a heavy tramp: it was Phoebe leading the doctor upstairs, and Nancy creeping in behind to hear his opinion.

He did not ask many questions, and Phoebe replied more frequently to his inquiries than did Sylvia, who looked into his face with a blank, tearless, speechless despair, that gave him more pain than the sight of her dying mother.

The long decay of Mrs. Robson’s faculties and health, of which he was well aware, had in a certain manner prepared him for some such sudden termination of the life whose duration was hardly desirable, although he gave several directions as to her treatment; but the white, pinched face, the great dilated eye, the slow comprehension of the younger woman, struck him with alarm; and he went on asking for various particulars, more with a view of rousing Sylvia, if even it were to tears, than for any other purpose that the information thus obtained could answer.

‘You had best have pillows propped up behind her — it will not be for long; she does not know that you are holding her, and it is only tiring you to no purpose!’

Sylvia’s terrible stare continued: he put his advice into action, and gently tried to loosen her clasp, and tender hold. This she resisted; laying her cheek against her poor mother’s unconscious face.

‘Where is Hepburn?’ said he. ‘He ought to be here!’

Phoebe looked at Nancy, Nancy at Phoebe. It was the latter who replied,

‘He’s neither i’ t’ house nor i’ t’ shop. A seed him go past t’ kitchen window better nor an hour ago; but neither William Coulson or Hester Rose knows where he’s gone to.

Dr Morgan’s lips were puckered up into a whistle, but he made no sound.

‘Give me baby!’ he said, suddenly. Nancy had taken her up off the bed where she had been sitting, encircled by her mother’s arm. The nursemaid gave her to the doctor. He watched the mother’s eye, it followed her child, and he was rejoiced. He gave a little pinch to the baby’s soft flesh, and she cried out piteously; again the same action, the same result. Sylvia laid her mother down, and stretched out her arms for her child, hushing it, and moaning over it.

‘So far so good!’ said Dr Morgan to himself. ‘But where is the husband? He ought to be here.’ He went down-stairs to make inquiry for Philip; that poor young creature, about whose health he had never felt thoroughly satisfied since the fever after her confinement, was in an anxious condition, and with an inevitable shock awaiting her. Her husband ought to be with her, and supporting her to bear it.

Dr Morgan went into the shop. Hester alone was there. Coulson had gone to his comfortable dinner at his well-ordered house, with his common-place wife. If he had felt anxious about Philip’s looks and strange disappearance, he had also managed to account for them in some indifferent way.

Hester was alone with the shop-boy; few people came in during the universal Monkshaven dinner-hour. She was resting her head on her hand, and puzzled and distressed about many things — all that was implied by the proceedings of the evening before between Philip and Sylvia; and that was confirmed by Philip’s miserable looks and strange abstracted ways today. Oh! how easy Hester would have found it to make him happy! not merely how easy, but what happiness it would have been to her to merge her every wish into the one great object of fulfiling his will. To her, an on-looker, the course of married life, which should lead to perfect happiness, seemed to plain! Alas! it is often so! and the resisting forces which make all such harmony and delight impossible are not recognized by the bystanders, hardly by the actors. But if these resisting forces are only superficial, or constitutional, they are but the necessary discipline here, and do not radically affect the love which will make all things right in heaven.

Some glimmering of this latter comforting truth shed its light on Hester’s troubled thoughts from time to time. But again, how easy would it have been to her to tread the maze that led to Philip’s happiness; and how difficult it seemed to the wife he had chosen!

She was aroused by Dr Morgan’s voice.

‘So both Coulson and Hepburn have left the shop to your care, Hester. I want Hepburn, though; his wife is in a very anxious state. Where is he? can you tell me?’

‘Sylvia in an anxious state! I’ve not seen her today, but last night she looked as well as could be.’

‘Ay, ay; but many a thing happens in four-and-twenty hours. Her mother is dying, may be dead by this time; and her husband should be there with her. Can’t you send for him?’

‘I don’t know where he is,’ said Hester. ‘He went off from here all on a sudden, when there was all the market-folks in t’ shop; I thought he’d maybe gone to John Foster’s about th’ money, for they was paying a deal in. I’ll send there and inquire.’

No! the messenger brought back word that he had not been seen at their bank all morning. Further inquiries were made by the anxious Hester, by the doctor, by Coulson; all they could learn was that Phoebe had seen him pass the kitchen window about eleven o’clock, when she was peeling the potatoes for dinner; and two lads playing on the quay-side thought they had seen him among a group of sailors; but these latter, as far as they could be identified, had no knowledge of his appearance among them.

Before night the whole town was excited about his disappearance. Before night Bell Robson had gone to her long home. And Sylvia still lay quiet and tearless, apparently more unmoved than any other creature by the events of the day, and the strange vanishing of her husband.

The only thing she seemed to care for was her baby; she held it tight in her arms, and Dr Morgan bade them leave it there, its touch might draw the desired tears into her weary, sleepless eyes, and charm the aching pain out of them.

They were afraid lest she should inquire for her husband, whose non-appearance at such a time of sorrow to his wife must (they thought) seem strange to her. And night drew on while they were all in this state. She had gone back to her own room without a word when they had desired her to do so; caressing her child in her arms, and sitting down on the first chair she came to, with a heavy sigh, as if even this slight bodily exertion had been too much for her. They saw her eyes turn towards the door every time it was opened, and they thought it was with anxious expectation of one who could not be found, though many were seeking for him in all probable places.

When night came some one had to tell her of her husband’s disappearance; and Dr Morgan was the person who undertook this.

He came into her room about nine o’clock; her baby was sleeping in her arms; she herself pale as death, still silent and tearless, though strangely watchful of gestures and sounds, and probably cognizant of more than they imagined.

‘Well, Mrs. Hepburn,’ said he, as cheerfully as he could, ‘I should advise your going to bed early; for I fancy your husband won’t come home to-night. Some journey or other, that perhaps Coulson can explain better than I can, will most likely keep him away till tomorrow. It’s very unfortunate that he should be away at such a sad time as this, as I’m sure he’ll feel when he returns; but we must make the best of it.’

He watched her to see the effect of his words.

She sighed, that was all. He still remained a little while. She lifted her head up a little and asked,

‘How long do yo’ think she was unconscious, doctor? Could she hear things, think yo’, afore she fell into that strange kind o’ slumber?’

‘I cannot tell,’ said he, shaking his head. ‘Was she breathing in that hard snoring kind of way when you left her this morning?’

‘Yes, I think so; I cannot tell, so much has happened.’

‘When you came back to her, after your breakfast, I think you said she was in much the same position?’

‘Yes, and yet I may be telling yo’ lies; if I could but think: but it’s my head as is aching so; doctor, I wish yo’d go, for I need being alone, I’m so mazed.’

‘Good-night, then, for you’re a wise woman, I see, and mean to go to bed, and have a good night with baby there.’

But he went down to Phoebe, and told her to go in from time to time, and see how her mistress was.

He found Hester Rose and the old servant together; both had been crying, both were evidently in great trouble about the death and the mystery of the day.

Hester asked if she might go up and see Sylvia, and the doctor gave his leave, talking meanwhile with Phoebe over the kitchen fire. Hester came down again without seeing Sylvia. The door of the room was bolted, and everything quiet inside.

‘Does she know where her husband is, think you?’ asked the doctor at this account of Hester’s. ‘She’s not anxious about him at any rate: or else the shock of her mother’s death has been too much for her. We must hope for some change in the morning; a good fit of crying, or a fidget about her husband, would be more natural. Good-night to you both,’ and off he went.

Phoebe and Hester avoided looking at each other at these words. Both were conscious of the probability of something having gone seriously wrong between the husband and wife. Hester had the recollection of the previous night, Phoebe the untasted breakfast of today to go upon.

She spoke first.

‘A just wish he’d come home to still folks’ tongues. It need niver ha’ been known if t’ old lady hadn’t died this day of all others. It’s such a thing for t’ shop t’ have one o’ t’ partners missin’, an’ no one for t’ know what’s comed on him. It niver happened i’ Fosters’ days, that’s a’ I know.’

‘He’ll maybe come back yet,’ said Hester. ‘It’s not so very late.’

‘It were market day, and a’,’ continued Phoebe, ‘just as if iverything mun go wrong together; an’ a’ t’ country customers’ll go back wi’ fine tale i’ their mouths, as Measter Hepburn was strayed an’ missin’ just like a beast o’ some kind.’

‘Hark! isn’t that a step?’ said Hester suddenly, as a footfall sounded in the now quiet street; but it passed the door, and the hope that had arisen on its approach fell as the sound died away.

‘He’ll noane come to-night,’ said Phoebe, who had been as eager a listener as Hester, however. ‘Thou’d best go thy ways home; a shall stay up, for it’s not seemly for us a’ t’ go to our beds, an’ a corpse in t’ house; an’ Nancy, as might ha’ watched, is gone to her bed this hour past, like a lazy boots as she is. A can hear, too, if t’ measter does come home; tho’ a’ll be bound he wunnot; choose wheere he is, he’ll be i’ bed by now, for it’s well on to eleven. I’ll let thee out by t’ shop-door, and stand by it till thou’s close at home, for it’s ill for a young woman to be i’ t’ street so late.’

So she held the door open, and shaded the candle from the flickering outer air, while Hester went to her home with a heavy heart.

Heavily and hopelessly did they all meet in the morning. No news of Philip, no change in Sylvia; an unceasing flow of angling and conjecture and gossip radiating from the shop into the town.

Hester could have entreated Coulson on her knees to cease from repeating the details of a story of which every word touched on a raw place in her sensitive heart; moreover, when they talked together so eagerly, she could not hear the coming footsteps on the pavement without.

Once some one hit very near the truth in a chance remark.

‘It seems strange,’ she said, ‘how as one man turns up, another just disappears. Why, it were but upo’ Tuesday as Kinraid come back, as all his own folk had thought to be dead; and next day here’s Measter Hepburn as is gone no one knows wheere!’

‘That’s t’ way i’ this world,’ replied Coulson, a little sententiously. ‘This life is full o’ changes o’ one kind or another; them that’s dead is alive; and as for poor Philip, though he was alive, he looked fitter to be dead when he came into t’ shop o’ Wednesday morning.’

‘And how does she take it?’ nodding to where Sylvia was supposed to be.

‘Oh! she’s not herself, so to say. She were just stunned by finding her mother was dying in her very arms when she thought as she were only sleeping; yet she’s never been able to cry a drop; so that t’ sorrow’s gone inwards on her brain, and from all I can hear, she doesn’t rightly understand as her husband is missing. T’ doctor says if she could but cry, she’d come to a juster comprehension of things.’

‘And what do John and Jeremiah Foster say to it all?’

‘They’re down here many a time in t’ day to ask if he’s come back, or how she is; for they made a deal on ’em both. They’re going t’ attend t’ funeral tomorrow, and have given orders as t’ shop is to be shut up in t’ morning.’

To the surprise of every one, Sylvia, who had never left her room since the night of her mother’s death, and was supposed to be almost unconscious of all that was going on in the house, declared her intention of following her mother to the grave. No one could do more than remonstrate: no one had sufficient authority to interfere with her. Dr Morgan even thought that she might possibly be roused to tears by the occasion; only he begged Hester to go with her, that she might have the solace of some woman’s company.

She went through the greater part of the ceremony in the same hard, unmoved manner in which she had received everything for days past.

But on looking up once, as they formed round the open grave, she saw Kester, in his Sunday clothes, with a bit of new crape round his hat, crying as if his heart would break over the coffin of his good, kind mistress.

His evident distress, the unexpected sight, suddenly loosed the fountain of Sylvia’s tears, and her sobs grew so terrible that Hester feared she would not be able to remain until the end of the funeral. But she struggled hard to stay till the last, and then she made an effort to go round by the place where Kester stood.

‘Come and see me,’ was all she could say for crying: and Kester only nodded his head — he could not speak a word.

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