Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XXXIX

Confidences

It was a little later on in that same summer that Mrs. Brunton came to visit her sister Bessy.

Bessy was married to a tolerably well-to-do farmer who lived at an almost equal distance between Monkshaven and Hartswell; but from old habit and convenience the latter was regarded as the Dawsons’ market-town; so Bessy seldom or never saw her old friends in Monkshaven.

But Mrs. Brunton was far too flourishing a person not to speak out her wishes, and have her own way. She had no notion, she said, of coming such a long journey only to see Bessy and her husband, and not to have a sight of her former acquaintances at Monkshaven. She might have added, that her new bonnet and cloak would be as good as lost if it was not displayed among those who, knowing her as Molly Corney, and being less fortunate in matrimony than she was, would look upon it with wondering admiration, if not with envy.

So one day farmer Dawson’s market-cart deposited Mrs. Brunton in all her bravery at the shop in the market-place, over which Hepburn and Coulson’s names still flourished in joint partnership.

After a few words of brisk recognition to Coulson and Hester, Mrs Brunton passed on into the parlour and greeted Sylvia with boisterous heartiness.

It was now four years and more since the friends had met; and each secretly wondered how they had ever come to be friends. Sylvia had a country, raw, spiritless look to Mrs. Brunton’s eye; Molly was loud and talkative, and altogether distasteful to Sylvia, trained in daily companionship with Hester to appreciate soft slow speech, and grave thoughtful ways.

However, they kept up the forms of their old friendship, though their hearts had drifted far apart. They sat hand in hand while each looked at the other with eyes inquisitive as to the changes which time had made. Molly was the first to speak.

‘Well, to be sure! how thin and pale yo’ve grown, Sylvia! Matrimony hasn’t agreed wi’ yo’ as well as it’s done wi me. Brunton is allays saying (yo’ know what a man he is for his joke) that if he’d ha’ known how many yards o’ silk I should ha’ ta’en for a gown, he’d ha’ thought twice afore he’d ha’ married me. Why, I’ve gained a matter o’ thirty pound o’ flesh sin’ I were married!’

‘Yo’ do look brave and hearty!’ said Sylvia, putting her sense of her companion’s capacious size and high colour into the prettiest words she could.

‘Eh! Sylvia! but I know what it is,’ said Molly, shaking her head. ‘It’s just because o’ that husband o’ thine as has gone and left thee; thou’s pining after him, and he’s not worth it. Brunton said, when he heared on it — I mind he was smoking at t’ time, and he took his pipe out of his mouth, and shook out t’ ashes as grave as any judge —“The man,” says he, “as can desert a wife like Sylvia Robson as was, deserves hanging!” That’s what he says! Eh! Sylvia, but speakin’ o’ hanging I was so grieved for yo’ when I heared of yo’r poor feyther! Such an end for a decent man to come to! Many a one come an’ called on me o’ purpose to hear all I could tell ’em about him!’

‘Please don’t speak on it!’ said Sylvia, trembling all over.

‘Well, poor creature, I wunnot. It is hard on thee, I grant. But to give t’ devil his due, it were good i’ Hepburn to marry thee, and so soon after there was a’ that talk about thy feyther. Many a man would ha’ drawn back, choose howiver far they’d gone. I’m noane so sure about Charley Kinraid. Eh, Sylvia! only think on his being alive after all. I doubt if our Bessy would ha’ wed Frank Dawson if she’d known as he wasn’t drowned. But it’s as well she did, for Dawson’s a man o’ property, and has getten twelve cows in his cow-house, beside three right down good horses; and Kinraid were allays a fellow wi’ two strings to his bow. I’ve allays said and do maintain, that he went on pretty strong wi’ yo’, Sylvie; and I will say I think he cared more for yo’ than for our Bessy, though it were only yesterday at e’en she were standing out that he liked her better than yo’. Yo’ll ha’ heared on his grand marriage?’

‘No!’ said Sylvia, with eager painful curiosity.

‘No! It was in all t’ papers! I wonder as yo’ didn’t see it. Wait a minute! I cut it out o’ t’ Gentleman’s Magazine, as Brunton bought o’ purpose, and put it i’ my pocket-book when I were a-coming here: I know I’ve got it somewheere.’

She took out her smart crimson pocket-book, and rummaged in the pocket until she produced a little crumpled bit of printed paper, from which she read aloud,

‘On January the third, at St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, Charles Kinraid, Esq., lieutenant Royal Navy, to Miss Clarinda Jackson, with a fortune of 10,000l.’

‘Theere!’ said she, triumphantly, ‘it’s something as Brunton says, to be cousin to that.’

‘Would yo’ let me see it?’ said Sylvia, timidly.

Mrs. Brunton graciously consented; and Sylvia brought her newly acquired reading-knowledge, hitherto principally exercised on the Old Testament, to bear on these words.

There was nothing wonderful in them, nothing that she might not have expected; and yet the surprise turned her giddy for a moment or two. She never thought of seeing him again, never. But to think of his caring for another woman as much as he had done for her, nay, perhaps more!

The idea was irresistibly forced upon her that Philip would not have acted so; it would have taken long years before he could have been induced to put another on the throne she had once occupied. For the first time in her life she seemed to recognize the real nature of Philip’s love.

But she said nothing but ‘Thank yo’,’ when she gave the scrap of paper back to Molly Brunton. And the latter continued giving her information about Kinraid’s marriage.

‘He were down in t’ west, Plymouth or somewheere, when he met wi’ her. She’s no feyther; he’d been in t’ sugar-baking business; but from what Kinraid wrote to old Turner, th’ uncle as brought him up at Cullercoats, she’s had t’ best of edications: can play on t’ instrument and dance t’ shawl dance; and Kinraid had all her money settled on her, though she said she’d rayther give it all to him, which I must say, being his cousin, was very pretty on her. He’s left her now, having to go off in t’ Tigre, as is his ship, to t’ Mediterranean seas; and she’s written to offer to come and see old Turner, and make friends with his relations, and Brunton is going to gi’e me a crimson satin as soon as we know for certain when she’s coming, for we’re sure to be asked out to Cullercoats.’

‘I wonder if she’s very pretty?’ asked Sylvia, faintly, in the first pause in this torrent of talk.

‘Oh! she’s a perfect beauty, as I understand. There was a traveller as come to our shop as had been at York, and knew some of her cousins theere that were in t’ grocery line — her mother was a York lady — and they said she was just a picture of a woman, and iver so many gentlemen had been wantin’ to marry her, but she just waited for Charley Kinraid, yo’ see!’

‘Well, I hope they’ll be happy; I’m sure I do!’ said Sylvia.

‘That’s just luck. Some folks is happy i’ marriage, and some isn’t. It’s just luck, and there’s no forecasting it. Men is such unaccountable animals, there’s no prophesyin’ upon ’em. Who’d ha’ thought of yo’r husband, him as was so slow and sure — steady Philip, as we lasses used to ca’ him — makin’ a moonlight flittin’, and leavin’ yo’ to be a widow bewitched?’

‘He didn’t go at night,’ said Sylvia, taking the words ‘moonlight flitting’ in their literal sense.

‘No! Well, I only said “moonlight flittin’” just because it come uppermost and I knowed no better. Tell me all about it, Sylvie, for I can’t mak’ it out from what Bessy says. Had he and yo’ had words? — but in course yo’ had.’

At this moment Hester came into the room; and Sylvia joyfully availed herself of the pretext for breaking off the conversation that had reached this painful and awkward point. She detained Hester in the room for fear lest Mrs. Brunton should repeat her inquiry as to how it all happened that Philip had gone away; but the presence of a third person seemed as though it would be but little restraint upon the inquisitive Molly, who repeatedly bore down upon the same questions till she nearly drove Sylvia distracted, between her astonishment at the news of Kinraid’s marriage; her wish to be alone and quiet, so as to realize the full meaning of that piece of intelligence; her desire to retain Hester in the conversation; her efforts to prevent Molly’s recurrence to the circumstances of Philip’s disappearance, and the longing — more vehement every minute — for her visitor to go away and leave her in peace. She became so disturbed with all these thoughts and feelings that she hardly knew what she was saying, and assented or dissented to speeches without there being either any reason or truth in her words.

Mrs. Brunton had arranged to remain with Sylvia while the horse rested, and had no compunction about the length of her visit. She expected to be asked to tea, as Sylvia found out at last, and this she felt would be the worst of all, as Alice Rose was not one to tolerate the coarse, careless talk of such a woman as Mrs. Brunton without uplifting her voice in many a testimony against it. Sylvia sate holding Hester’s gown tight in order to prevent her leaving the room, and trying to arrange her little plans so that too much discordance should not arise to the surface. Just then the door opened, and little Bella came in from the kitchen in all the pretty, sturdy dignity of two years old, Alice following her with careful steps, and protecting, outstretched arms, a slow smile softening the sternness of her grave face; for the child was the unconscious darling of the household, and all eyes softened into love as they looked on her. She made straight for her mother with something grasped in her little dimpled fist; but half-way across the room she seemed to have become suddenly aware of the presence of a stranger, and she stopped short, fixing her serious eyes full on Mrs. Brunton, as if to take in her appearance, nay, as if to penetrate down into her very real self, and then, stretching out her disengaged hand, the baby spoke out the words that had been hovering about her mother’s lips for an hour past.

‘Do away!’ said Bella, decisively.

‘What a perfect love!’ said Mrs. Brunton, half in real admiration, half in patronage. As she spoke, she got up and went towards the child, as if to take her up.

‘Do away! do away!’ cried Bella, in shrill affright at this movement.

‘Dunnot,’ said Sylvia; ‘she’s shy; she doesn’t know strangers.’

But Mrs. Brunton had grasped the struggling, kicking child by this time, and her reward for this was a vehement little slap in the face.

‘Yo’ naughty little spoilt thing!’ said she, setting Bella down in a hurry. ‘Yo’ deserve a good whipping, yo’ do, and if yo’ were mine yo’ should have it.’

Sylvia had no need to stand up for the baby who had run to her arms, and was soothing herself with sobbing on her mother’s breast; for Alice took up the defence.

‘The child said, as plain as words could say, “go away,” and if thou wouldst follow thine own will instead of heeding her wish, thou mun put up with the wilfulness of the old Adam, of which it seems to me thee hast getten thy share at thirty as well as little Bella at two.’

‘Thirty!’ said Mrs. Brunton, now fairly affronted. ‘Thirty! why, Sylvia, yo’ know I’m but two years older than yo’; speak to that woman an’ tell her as I’m only four-and-twenty. Thirty, indeed!’

‘Molly’s but four-and-twenty,’ said Sylvia, in a pacificatory tone.

‘Whether she be twenty, or thirty, or forty, is alike to me,’ said Alice. ‘I meant no harm. I meant but for t’ say as her angry words to the child bespoke her to be one of the foolish. I know not who she is, nor what her age may be.’

‘She’s an old friend of mine,’ said Sylvia. ‘She’s Mrs. Brunton now, but when I knowed her she was Molly Corney.’

‘Ay! and yo’ were Sylvia Robson, and as bonny and light-hearted a lass as any in a’ t’ Riding, though now yo’re a poor widow bewitched, left wi’ a child as I mustn’t speak a word about, an’ living wi’ folk as talk about t’ old Adam as if he wasn’t dead and done wi’ long ago! It’s a change, Sylvia, as makes my heart ache for yo’, to think on them old days when yo’ were so thought on yo’ might have had any man, as Brunton often says; it were a great mistake as yo’ iver took up wi’ yon man as has run away. But seven year ‘11 soon be past fro’ t’ time he went off, and yo’ll only be six-and-twenty then; and there’ll be a chance of a better husband for yo’ after all, so keep up yo’r heart, Sylvia.’

Molly Brunton had put as much venom as she knew how into this speech, meaning it as a vengeful payment for the supposition of her being thirty, even more than for the reproof for her angry words about the child. She thought that Alice Rose must be either mother or aunt to Philip, from the serious cast of countenance that was remarkable in both; and she rather exulted in the allusion to a happier second marriage for Sylvia, with which she had concluded her speech. It roused Alice, however, as effectually as if she had been really a blood relation to Philip; but for a different reason. She was not slow to detect the intentional offensiveness to herself in what had been said; she was indignant at Sylvia for suffering the words spoken to pass unanswered; but in truth they were too much in keeping with Molly Brunton’s character to make as much impression on Sylvia as they did on a stranger; and besides, she felt as if the less reply Molly received, the less likely would it be that she would go on in the same strain. So she coaxed and chattered to her child and behaved like a little coward in trying to draw out of the conversation, while at the same time listening attentively.

‘As for Sylvia Hepburn as was Sylvia Robson, she knows my mind,’ said Alice, in grim indignation. ‘She’s humbling herself now, I trust and pray, but she was light-minded and full of vanity when Philip married her, and it might ha’ been a lift towards her salvation in one way; but it pleased the Lord to work in a different way, and she mun wear her sackcloth and ashes in patience. So I’ll say naught more about her. But for him as is absent, as thee hast spoken on so lightly and reproachfully, I’d have thee to know he were one of a different kind to any thee ever knew, I reckon. If he were led away by a pretty face to slight one as was fitter for him, and who had loved him as the apple of her eye, it’s him as is suffering for it, inasmuch as he’s a wanderer from his home, and an outcast from wife and child.’

To the surprise of all, Molly’s words of reply were cut short even when they were on her lips, by Sylvia. Pale, fire-eyed, and excited, with Philip’s child on one arm, and the other stretched out, she said —

‘Noane can tell — noane know. No one shall speak a judgment ‘twixt Philip and me. He acted cruel and wrong by me. But I’ve said my words to him hissel’, and I’m noane going to make any plaint to others; only them as knows should judge. And it’s not fitting, it’s not’ (almost sobbing), ‘to go on wi’ talk like this afore me.’

The two — for Hester, who was aware that her presence had only been desired by Sylvia as a check to an unpleasant tete-a-tete conversation, had slipped back to her business as soon as her mother came in-the two looked with surprise at Sylvia; her words, her whole manner, belonged to a phase of her character which seldom came uppermost, and which had not been perceived by either of them before.

Alice Rose, though astonished, rather approved of Sylvia’s speech; it showed that she had more serious thought and feeling on the subject than the old woman had given her credit for; her general silence respecting her husband’s disappearance had led Alice to think that she was too childish to have received any deep impression from the event. Molly Brunton gave vent to her opinion on Sylvia’s speech in the following words:—

‘Hoighty-toighty! That tells tales, lass. If yo’ treated steady Philip to many such looks an’ speeches as yo’n given us now, it’s easy t’ see why he took hisself off. Why, Sylvia, I niver saw it in yo’ when yo’ was a girl; yo’re grown into a regular little vixen, theere wheere yo’ stand!’

Indeed she did look defiant, with the swift colour flushing her cheeks to crimson on its return, and the fire in her eyes not yet died away. But at Molly’s jesting words she sank back into her usual look and manner, only saying quietly —

‘It’s for noane to say whether I’m vixen or not, as doesn’t know th’ past things as is buried in my heart. But I cannot hold them as my friends as go on talking on either my husband or me before my very face. What he was, I know; and what I am, I reckon he knows. And now I’ll go hurry tea, for yo’ll be needing it, Molly!’

The last clause of this speech was meant to make peace; but Molly was in twenty minds as to whether she should accept the olive-branch or not. Her temper, however, was of that obtuse kind which is not easily ruffled; her mind, stagnant in itself, enjoyed excitement from without; and her appetite was invariably good, so she stayed, in spite of the inevitable tete-a-tete with Alice. The latter, however, refused to be drawn into conversation again; replying to Mrs. Brunton’s speeches with a curt yes or no, when, indeed, she replied at all.

When all were gathered at tea, Sylvia was quite calm again; rather paler than usual, and very attentive and subduced in her behaviour to Alice; she would evidently fain have been silent, but as Molly was her own especial guest, that could not be, so all her endeavours went towards steering the conversation away from any awkward points. But each of the four, let alone little Bella, was thankful when the market-cart drew up at the shop door, that was to take Mrs. Brunton back to her sister’s house.

When she was fairly off, Alice Rose opened her mouth in strong condemnation; winding up with —

‘And if aught in my words gave thee cause for offence, Sylvia, it was because my heart rose within me at the kind of talk thee and she had been having about Philip; and her evil and light-minded counsel to thee about waiting seven years, and then wedding another.’

Hard as these words may seem when repeated, there was something of a nearer approach to an apology in Mrs. Rose’s manner than Sylvia had ever seen in it before. She was silent for a few moments, then she said —

‘I ha’ often thought of telling yo’ and Hester, special-like, when yo’ve been so kind to my little Bella, that Philip an’ me could niver come together again; no, not if he came home this very night ——’

She would have gone on speaking, but Hester interrupted her with a low cry of dismay.

Alice said —

‘Hush thee, Hester. It’s no business o’ thine. Sylvia Hepburn, thou’rt speaking like a silly child.’

‘No. I’m speaking like a woman; like a woman as finds out she’s been cheated by men as she trusted, and as has no help for it. I’m noane going to say any more about it. It’s me as has been wronged, and as has to bear it: only I thought I’d tell yo’ both this much, that yo’ might know somewhat why he went away, and how I said my last word about it.’

So indeed it seemed. To all questions and remonstrances from Alice, Sylvia turned a deaf ear. She averted her face from Hester’s sad, wistful looks; only when they were parting for the night, at the top of the little staircase, she turned, and putting her arms round Hester’s neck she laid her head on her neck, and whispered —

‘Poor Hester — poor, poor Hester! if yo’ an’ he had but been married together, what a deal o’ sorrow would ha’ been spared to us all!’

Hester pushed her away as she finished these words; looked searchingly into her face, her eyes, and then followed Sylvia into her room, where Bella lay sleeping, shut the door, and almost knelt down at Sylvia’s feet, clasping her, and hiding her face in the folds of the other’s gown.

‘Sylvia, Sylvia,’ she murmured, ‘some one has told you — I thought no one knew — it’s no sin — it’s done away with now — indeed it is — it was long ago — before yo’ were married; but I cannot forget. It was a shame, perhaps, to have thought on it iver, when he niver thought o’ me; but I niver believed as any one could ha’ found it out. I’m just fit to sink into t’ ground, what wi’ my sorrow and my shame.’

Hester was stopped by her own rising sobs, immediately she was in Sylvia’s arms. Sylvia was sitting on the ground holding her, and soothing her with caresses and broken words.

‘I’m allays saying t’ wrong things,’ said she. ‘It seems as if I were all upset today; and indeed I am;’ she added, alluding to the news of Kinraid’s marriage she had yet to think upon.

‘But it wasn’t yo’, Hester: it were nothing yo’ iver said, or did, or looked, for that matter. It were yo’r mother as let it out.’

‘Oh, mother! mother!’ wailed out Hester; ‘I niver thought as any one but God would ha’ known that I had iver for a day thought on his being more to me than a brother.’

Sylvia made no reply, only went on stroking Hester’s smooth brown hair, off which her cap had fallen. Sylvia was thinking how strange life was, and how love seemed to go all at cross purposes; and was losing herself in bewilderment at the mystery of the world; she was almost startled when Hester rose up, and taking Sylvia’s hands in both of hers, and looking solemnly at her, said —

‘Sylvia, yo’ know what has been my trouble and my shame, and I’m sure yo’re sorry for me — for I will humble myself to yo’, and own that for many months before yo’ were married, I felt my disappointment like a heavy burden laid on me by day and by night; but now I ask yo’, if yo’ve any pity for me for what I went through, or if yo’ve any love for me because of yo’r dead mother’s love for me, or because of any fellowship, or daily breadliness between us two — put the hard thoughts of Philip away from out yo’r heart; he may ha’ done yo’ wrong, anyway yo’ think that he has; I niver knew him aught but kind and good; but if he comes back from wheriver in th’ wide world he’s gone to (and there’s not a night but I pray God to keep him, and send him safe back), yo’ put away the memory of past injury, and forgive it all, and be, what yo’ can be, Sylvia, if you’ve a mind to, just the kind, good wife he ought to have.’

‘I cannot; yo’ know nothing about it, Hester.’

‘Tell me, then,’ pleaded Hester.

‘No!’ said Sylvia, after a moment’s hesitation; ‘I’d do a deal for yo’, I would, but I daren’t forgive Philip, even if I could; I took a great oath again’ him. Ay, yo’ may look shocked at me, but it’s him as yo’ ought for to be shocked at if yo’ knew all. I said I’d niver forgive him; I shall keep to my word.’

‘I think I’d better pray for his death, then,’ said Hester, hopelessly, and almost bitterly, loosing her hold of Sylvia’s hands.

‘If it weren’t for baby theere, I could think as it were my death as ‘ud be best. Them as one thinks t’ most on, forgets one soonest.’

It was Kinraid to whom she was alluding; but Hester did not understand her; and after standing for a moment in silence, she kissed her, and left her for the night.

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