Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XL

An Unexpected Messenger

After this agitation, and these partial confidences, no more was said on the subject of Philip for many weeks. They avoided even the slightest allusion to him; and none of them knew how seldom or how often he might be present in the minds of the others.

One day the little Bella was unusually fractious with some slight childish indisposition, and Sylvia was obliged to have recourse to a never-failing piece of amusement; namely, to take the child into the shop, when the number of new, bright-coloured articles was sure to beguile the little girl out of her fretfulness. She was walking along the high terrace of the counter, kept steady by her mother’s hand, when Mr. Dawson’s market-cart once more stopped before the door. But it was not Mrs. Brunton who alighted now; it was a very smartly-dressed, very pretty young lady, who put one dainty foot before the other with care, as if descending from such a primitive vehicle were a new occurrence in her life. Then she looked up at the names above the shop-door, and after ascertaining that this was indeed the place she desired to find, she came in blushing.

‘Is Mrs. Hepburn at home?’ she asked of Hester, whose position in the shop brought her forwards to receive the customers, while Sylvia drew Bella out of sight behind some great bales of red flannel.

‘Can I see her?’ the sweet, south-country voice went on, still addressing Hester. Sylvia heard the inquiry, and came forwards, with a little rustic awkwardness, feeling both shy and curious.

‘Will yo’ please walk this way, ma’am?’ said she, leading her visitor back into her own dominion of the parlour, and leaving Bella to Hester’s willing care.

‘You don’t know me!’ said the pretty young lady, joyously. ‘But I think you knew my husband. I am Mrs. Kinraid!’

A sob of surprise rose to Sylvia’s lips — she choked it down, however, and tried to conceal any emotion she might feel, in placing a chair for her visitor, and trying to make her feel welcome, although, if the truth must be told, Sylvia was wondering all the time why her visitor came, and how soon she would go.

‘You knew Captain Kinraid, did you not?’ said the young lady, with innocent inquiry; to which Sylvia’s lips formed the answer, ‘Yes,’ but no clear sound issued therefrom.

‘But I know your husband knew the captain; is he at home yet? Can I speak to him? I do so want to see him.’

Sylvia was utterly bewildered; Mrs. Kinraid, this pretty, joyous, prosperous little bird of a woman, Philip, Charley’s wife, what could they have in common? what could they know of each other? All she could say in answer to Mrs. Kinraid’s eager questions, and still more eager looks, was, that her husband was from home, had been long from home: she did not know where he was, she did not know when he would come back.

Mrs. Kinraid’s face fell a little, partly from her own real disappointment, partly out of sympathy with the hopeless, indifferent tone of Sylvia’s replies.

‘Mrs. Dawson told me he had gone away rather suddenly a year ago, but I thought he might be come home by now. I am expecting the captain early next month. Oh! how I should have liked to see Mr. Hepburn, and to thank him for saving the captain’s life!’

‘What do yo’ mean?’ asked Sylvia, stirred out of all assumed indifference. ‘The captain! is that’ (not ‘Charley’, she could not use that familiar name to the pretty young wife before her) ‘yo’r husband?’

‘Yes, you knew him, didn’t you? when he used to be staying with Mr Corney, his uncle?’

‘Yes, I knew him; but I don’t understand. Will yo’ please to tell me all about it, ma’am?’ said Sylvia, faintly.

‘I thought your husband would have told you all about it; I hardly know where to begin. You know my husband is a sailor?’

Sylvia nodded assent, listening greedily, her heart beating thick all the time.

‘And he’s now a Commander in the Royal Navy, all earned by his own bravery! Oh! I am so proud of him!’

So could Sylvia have been if she had been his wife; as it was, she thought how often she had felt sure that he would be a great man some day.

‘And he has been at the siege of Acre.’

Sylvia looked perplexed at these strange words, and Mrs. Kinraid caught the look.

‘St Jean d’Acre, you know — though it’s fine saying “you know”, when I didn’t know a bit about it myself till the captain’s ship was ordered there, though I was the head girl at Miss Dobbin’s in the geography class — Acre is a seaport town, not far from Jaffa, which is the modern name for Joppa, where St Paul went to long ago; you’ve read of that, I’m sure, and Mount Carmel, where the prophet Elijah was once, all in Palestine, you know, only the Turks have got it now?’

‘But I don’t understand yet,’ said Sylvia, plaintively; ‘I daresay it’s all very true about St Paul, but please, ma’am, will yo’ tell me about yo’r husband and mine — have they met again?’

‘Yes, at Acre, I tell you,’ said Mrs. Kinraid, with pretty petulance. ‘The Turks held the town, and the French wanted to take it; and we, that is the British Fleet, wouldn’t let them. So Sir Sidney Smith, a commodore and a great friend of the captain’s, landed in order to fight the French; and the captain and many of the sailors landed with him; and it was burning hot; and the poor captain was wounded, and lay a-dying of pain and thirst within the enemy’s — that is the French — fire; so that they were ready to shoot any one of his own side who came near him. They thought he was dead himself, you see, as he was very near; and would have been too, if your husband had not come out of shelter, and taken him up in his arms or on his back (I couldn’t make out which), and carried him safe within the walls.’

‘It couldn’t have been Philip,’ said Sylvia, dubiously.

‘But it was. The captain says so; and he’s not a man to be mistaken. I thought I’d got his letter with me; and I would have read you a part of it, but I left it at Mrs. Dawson’s in my desk; and I can’t send it to you,’ blushing as she remembered certain passages in which ‘the captain’ wrote very much like a lover, ‘or else I would. But you may be quite sure it was your husband that ventured into all that danger to save his old friend’s life, or the captain would not have said so.’

‘But they weren’t — they weren’t — not to call great friends.’

‘I wish I’d got the letter here; I can’t think how I could be so stupid; I think I can almost remember the very words, though — I’ve read them over so often. He says, “Just as I gave up all hope, I saw one Philip Hepburn, a man whom I had known at Monkshaven, and whom I had some reason to remember well”—(I’m sure he says so —“remember well”), “he saw me too, and came at the risk of his life to where I lay. I fully expected he would be shot down; and I shut my eyes not to see the end of my last chance. The shot rained about him, and I think he was hit; but he took me up and carried me under cover.” I’m sure he says that, I’ve read it over so often; and he goes on and says how he hunted for Mr. Hepburn all through the ships, as soon as ever he could; but he could hear nothing of him, either alive or dead. Don’t go so white, for pity’s sake!’ said she, suddenly startled by Sylvia’s blanching colour. ‘You see, because he couldn’t find him alive is no reason for giving him up as dead; because his name wasn’t to be found on any of the ships’ books; so the captain thinks he must have been known by a different name to his real one. Only he says he should like to have seen him to have thanked him; and he says he would give a deal to know what has become of him; and as I was staying two days at Mrs. Dawson’s, I told them I must come over to Monkshaven, if only for five minutes, just to hear if your good husband was come home, and to shake his hands, that helped to save my own dear captain.’

‘I don’t think it could have been Philip,’ reiterated Sylvia.

‘Why not?’ asked her visitor; ‘you say you don’t know where he is; why mightn’t he have been there where the captain says he was?’

‘But he wasn’t a sailor, nor yet a soldier.’

‘Oh! but he was. I think somewhere the captain calls him a marine; that’s neither one nor the other, but a little of both. He’ll be coming home some day soon; and then you’ll see!’

Alice Rose came in at this minute, and Mrs. Kinraid jumped to the conclusion that she was Sylvia’s mother, and in her overflowing gratitude and friendliness to all the family of him who had ‘saved the captain’ she went forward, and shook the old woman’s hand in that pleasant confiding way that wins all hearts.

‘Here’s your daughter, ma’am!’ said she to the half-astonished, half-pleased Alice. ‘I’m Mrs. Kinraid, the wife of the captain that used to be in these parts, and I’m come to bring her news of her husband, and she don’t half believe me, though it’s all to his credit, I’m sure.’

Alice looked so perplexed that Sylvia felt herself bound to explain.

‘She says he’s either a soldier or a sailor, and a long way off at some place named in t’ Bible.’

‘Philip Hepburn led away to be a soldier!’ said she, ‘who had once been a Quaker?’

‘Yes, and a very brave one too, and one that it would do my heart good to look upon,’ exclaimed Mrs. Kinraid. ‘He’s been saving my husband’s life in the Holy Land, where Jerusalem is, you know.’

‘Nay!’ said Alice, a little scornfully. ‘I can forgive Sylvia for not being over keen to credit thy news. Her man of peace becoming a man of war; and suffered to enter Jerusalem, which is a heavenly and a typical city at this time; while me, as is one of the elect, is obliged to go on dwelling in Monkshaven, just like any other body.’

‘Nay, but,’ said Mrs. Kinraid, gently, seeing she was touching on delicate ground, ‘I did not say he had gone to Jerusalem, but my husband saw him in those parts, and he was doing his duty like a brave, good man; ay, and more than his duty; and, you may take my word for it, he’ll be at home some day soon, and all I beg is that you’ll let the captain and me know, for I’m sure if we can, we’ll both come and pay our respects to him. And I’m very glad I’ve seen you,’ said she, rising to go, and putting out her hand to shake that of Sylvia; ‘for, besides being Hepburn’s wife, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard the captain speak of you; and if ever you come to Bristol I hope you’ll come and see us on Clifton Downs.’

She went away, leaving Sylvia almost stunned by the new ideas presented to her. Philip a soldier! Philip in a battle, risking his life. Most strange of all, Charley and Philip once more meeting together, not as rivals or as foes, but as saviour and saved! Add to all this the conviction, strengthened by every word that happy, loving wife had uttered, that Kinraid’s old, passionate love for herself had faded away and vanished utterly: its very existence apparently blotted out of his memory. She had torn up her love for him by the roots, but she felt as if she could never forget that it had been.

Hester brought back Bella to her mother. She had not liked to interrupt the conversation with the strange lady before; and now she found her mother in an obvious state of excitement; Sylvia quieter than usual.

‘That was Kinraid’s wife, Hester! Him that was th’ specksioneer as made such a noise about t’ place at the time of Darley’s death. He’s now a captain — a navy captain, according to what she says. And she’d fain have us believe that Philip is abiding in all manner of Scripture places; places as has been long done away with, but the similitude whereof is in the heavens, where the elect shall one day see them. And she says Philip is there, and a soldier, and that he saved her husband’s life, and is coming home soon. I wonder what John and Jeremiah ‘ll say to his soldiering then? It’ll noane be to their taste, I’m thinking.’

This was all very unintelligible to Hester, and she would dearly have liked to question Sylvia; but Sylvia sate a little apart, with Bella on her knee, her cheek resting on her child’s golden curls, and her eyes fixed and almost trance-like, as if she were seeing things not present.

So Hester had to be content with asking her mother as many elucidatory questions as she could; and after all did not gain a very clear idea of what had really been said by Mrs. Kinraid, as her mother was more full of the apparent injustice of Philip’s being allowed the privilege of treading on holy ground — if, indeed, that holy ground existed on this side heaven, which she was inclined to dispute — than to confine herself to the repetition of words, or narration of facts.

Suddenly Sylvia roused herself to a sense of Hester’s deep interest and balked inquiries, and she went over the ground rapidly.

‘Yo’r mother says right — she is his wife. And he’s away fighting; and got too near t’ French as was shooting and firing all round him; and just then, according to her story, Philip saw him, and went straight into t’ midst o’ t’ shots, and fetched him out o’ danger. That’s what she says, and upholds.’

‘And why should it not be?’ asked Hester, her cheek flushing.

But Sylvia only shook her head, and said,

‘I cannot tell. It may be so. But they’d little cause to be friends, and it seems all so strange — Philip a soldier, and them meeting theere after all!’

Hester laid the story of Philip’s bravery to her heart — she fully believed in it. Sylvia pondered it more deeply still; the causes for her disbelief, or, at any rate, for her wonder, were unknown to Hester! Many a time she sank to sleep with the picture of the event narrated by Mrs. Kinraid as present to her mind as her imagination or experience could make it: first one figure prominent, then another. Many a morning she wakened up, her heart beating wildly, why, she knew not, till she shuddered at the remembrance of the scenes that had passed in her dreams: scenes that might be acted in reality that very day; for Philip might come back, and then?

And where was Philip all this time, these many weeks, these heavily passing months?

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