Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XLI

The Bedesman of St Sepulchre

Philip lay long ill on board the hospital ship. If his heart had been light, he might have rallied sooner; but he was so depressed he did not care to live. His shattered jaw-bone, his burnt and blackened face, his many injuries of body, were torture to both his physical frame, and his sick, weary heart. No more chance for him, if indeed there ever had been any, of returning gay and gallant, and thus regaining his wife’s love. This had been his poor, foolish vision in the first hour of his enlistment; and the vain dream had recurred more than once in the feverish stage of excitement which the new scenes into which he had been hurried as a recruit had called forth. But that was all over now. He knew that it was the most unlikely thing in the world to have come to pass; and yet those were happy days when he could think of it as barely possible. Now all he could look forward to was disfigurement, feebleness, and the bare pittance that keeps pensioners from absolute want.

Those around him were kind enough to him in their fashion, and attended to his bodily requirements; but they had no notion of listening to any revelations of unhappiness, if Philip had been the man to make confidences of that kind. As it was, he lay very still in his berth, seldom asking for anything, and always saying he was better, when the ship-surgeon came round with his daily inquiries. But he did not care to rally, and was rather sorry to find that his case was considered so interesting in a surgical point of view, that he was likely to receive a good deal more than the average amount of attention. Perhaps it was owing to this that he recovered at all. The doctors said it was the heat that made him languid, for that his wounds and burns were all doing well at last; and by-and-by they told him they had ordered him ‘home’. His pulse sank under the surgeon’s finger at the mention of the word; but he did not say a word. He was too indifferent to life and the world to have a will; otherwise they might have kept their pet patient a little longer where he was.

Slowly passing from ship to ship as occasion served; resting here and there in garrison hospitals, Philip at length reached Portsmouth on the evening of a September day in 1799. The transport-ship in which he was, was loaded with wounded and invalided soldiers and sailors; all who could manage it in any way struggled on deck to catch the first view of the white coasts of England. One man lifted his arm, took off his cap, and feebly waved it aloft, crying, ‘Old England for ever!’ in a faint shrill voice, and then burst into tears and sobbed aloud. Others tried to pipe up ‘Rule Britannia’, while more sate, weak and motionless, looking towards the shores that once, not so long ago, they never thought to see again. Philip was one of these; his place a little apart from the other men. He was muffled up in a great military cloak that had been given him by one of his officers; he felt the September breeze chill after his sojourn in a warmer climate, and in his shattered state of health.

As the ship came in sight of Portsmouth harbour, the signal flags ran up the ropes; the beloved Union Jack floated triumphantly over all. Return signals were made from the harbour; on board all became bustle and preparation for landing; while on shore there was the evident movement of expectation, and men in uniform were seen pressing their way to the front, as if to them belonged the right of reception. They were the men from the barrack hospital, that had been signalled for, come down with ambulance litters and other marks of forethought for the sick and wounded, who were returning to the country for which they had fought and suffered.

With a dash and a great rocking swing the vessel came up to her appointed place, and was safely moored. Philip sat still, almost as if he had no part in the cries of welcome, the bustling care, the loud directions that cut the air around him, and pierced his nerves through and through. But one in authority gave the order; and Philip, disciplined to obedience, rose to find his knapsack and leave the ship. Passive as he seemed to be, he had his likings for particular comrades; there was one especially, a man as different from Philip as well could be, to whom the latter had always attached himself; a merry fellow from Somersetshire, who was almost always cheerful and bright, though Philip had overheard the doctors say he would never be the man he was before he had that shot through the side. This marine would often sit making his fellows laugh, and laughing himself at his own good-humoured jokes, till so terrible a fit of coughing came on that those around him feared he would die in the paroxysm. After one of these fits he had gasped out some words, which led Philip to question him a little; and it turned out that in the quiet little village of Potterne, far inland, nestled beneath the high stretches of Salisbury Plain, he had a wife and a child, a little girl, just the same age even to a week as Philip’s own little Bella. It was this that drew Philip towards the man; and this that made Philip wait and go ashore along with the poor consumptive marine.

The litters had moved off towards the hospital, the sergeant in charge had given his words of command to the remaining invalids, who tried to obey them to the best of their power, falling into something like military order for their march; but soon, very soon, the weakest broke step, and lagged behind; and felt as if the rough welcomes and rude expressions of sympathy from the crowd around were almost too much for them. Philip and his companion were about midway, when suddenly a young woman with a child in her arms forced herself through the people, between the soldiers who kept pressing on either side, and threw herself on the neck of Philip’s friend.

‘Oh, Jem!’ she sobbed, ‘I’ve walked all the road from Potterne. I’ve never stopped but for food and rest for Nelly, and now I’ve got you once again, I’ve got you once again, bless God for it!’

She did not seem to see the deadly change that had come over her husband since she parted with him a ruddy young labourer; she had got him once again, as she phrased it, and that was enough for her; she kissed his face, his hands, his very coat, nor would she be repulsed from walking beside him and holding his hand, while her little girl ran along scared by the voices and the strange faces, and clinging to her mammy’s gown.

Jem coughed, poor fellow! he coughed his churchyard cough; and Philip bitterly envied him — envied his life, envied his approaching death; for was he not wrapped round with that woman’s tender love, and is not such love stronger than death? Philip had felt as if his own heart was grown numb, and as though it had changed to a cold heavy stone. But at the contrast of this man’s lot to his own, he felt that he had yet the power of suffering left to him.

The road they had to go was full of people, kept off in some measure by the guard of soldiers. All sorts of kindly speeches, and many a curious question, were addressed to the poor invalids as they walked along. Philip’s jaw, and the lower part of his face, were bandaged up; his cap was slouched down; he held his cloak about him, and shivered within its folds.

They came to a standstill from some slight obstacle at the corner of a street. Down the causeway of this street a naval officer with a lady on his arm was walking briskly, with a step that told of health and a light heart. He stayed his progress though, when he saw the convoy of maimed and wounded men; he said something, of which Philip only caught the words, ‘same uniform,’ ‘for his sake,’ to the young lady, whose cheek blanched a little, but whose eyes kindled. Then leaving her for an instant, he pressed forward; he was close to Philip — poor sad Philip absorbed in his own thoughts — so absorbed that he noticed nothing till he heard a voice at his ear, having the Northumbrian burr, the Newcastle inflections which he knew of old, and that were to him like the sick memory of a deadly illness; and then he turned his muffled face to the speaker, though he knew well enough who it was, and averted his eyes after one sight of the handsome, happy man — the man whose life he had saved once, and would save again, at the risk of his own, but whom, for all that, he prayed that he might never meet more on earth.

‘Here, my fine fellow, take this,’ forcing a crown piece into Philip’s hand. ‘I wish it were more; I’d give you a pound if I had it with me.’

Philip muttered something, and held out the coin to Captain Kinraid, of course in vain; nor was there time to urge it back upon the giver, for the obstacle to their progress was suddenly removed, the crowd pressed upon the captain and his wife, the procession moved on, and Philip along with it, holding the piece in his hand, and longing to throw it far away. Indeed he was on the point of dropping it, hoping to do so unperceived, when he bethought him of giving it to Jem’s wife, the footsore woman, limping happily along by her husband’s side. They thanked him, and spoke in his praise more than he could well bear. It was no credit to him to give that away which burned his fingers as long as he kept it.

Philip knew that the injuries he had received in the explosion on board the Theseus would oblige him to leave the service. He also believed that they would entitle him to a pension. But he had little interest in his future life; he was without hope, and in a depressed state of health. He remained for some little time stationary, and then went through all the forms of dismissal on account of wounds received in service, and was turned out loose upon the world, uncertain where to go, indifferent as to what became of him.

It was fine, warm October weather as he turned his back upon the coast, and set off on his walk northwards. Green leaves were yet upon the trees; the hedges were one flush of foliage and the wild rough-flavoured fruits of different kinds; the fields were tawny with the uncleared-off stubble, or emerald green with the growth of the aftermath. The roadside cottage gardens were gay with hollyhocks and Michaelmas daisies and marigolds, and the bright panes of the windows glittered through a veil of China roses.

The war was a popular one, and, as a natural consequence, soldiers and sailors were heroes everywhere. Philip’s long drooping form, his arm hung in a sling, his face scarred and blackened, his jaw bound up with a black silk handkerchief; these marks of active service were reverenced by the rustic cottagers as though they had been crowns and sceptres. Many a hard-handed labourer left his seat by the chimney corner, and came to his door to have a look at one who had been fighting the French, and pushed forward to have a grasp of the stranger’s hand as he gave back the empty cup into the good wife’s keeping, for the kind homely women were ever ready with milk or homebrewed to slake the feverish traveller’s thirst when he stopped at their doors and asked for a drink of water.

At the village public-house he had had a welcome of a more interested character, for the landlord knew full well that his circle of customers would be large that night, if it was only known that he had within his doors a soldier or a sailor who had seen service. The rustic politicians would gather round Philip, and smoke and drink, and then question and discuss till they were drouthy again; and in their sturdy obtuse minds they set down the extra glass and the supernumerary pipe to the score of patriotism.

Altogether human nature turned its sunny side out to Philip just now; and not before he needed the warmth of brotherly kindness to cheer his shivering soul. Day after day he drifted northwards, making but the slow progress of a feeble man, and yet this short daily walk tired him so much that he longed for rest — for the morning to come when he needed not to feel that in the course of an hour or two he must be up and away.

He was toiling on with this longing at his heart when he saw that he was drawing near a stately city, with a great old cathedral in the centre keeping solemn guard. This place might be yet two or three miles distant; he was on a rising ground looking down upon it. A labouring man passing by, observed his pallid looks and his languid attitude, and told him for his comfort, that if he turned down a lane to the left a few steps farther on, he would find himself at the Hospital of St Sepulchre, where bread and beer were given to all comers, and where he might sit him down and rest awhile on the old stone benches within the shadow of the gateway. Obeying these directions, Philip came upon a building which dated from the time of Henry the Fifth. Some knight who had fought in the French wars of that time, and had survived his battles and come home to his old halls, had been stirred up by his conscience, or by what was equivalent in those days, his confessor, to build and endow a hospital for twelve decayed soldiers, and a chapel wherein they were to attend the daily masses he ordained to be said till the end of all time (which eternity lasted rather more than a century, pretty well for an eternity bespoken by a man), for his soul and the souls of those whom he had slain. There was a large division of the quadrangular building set apart for the priest who was to say these masses; and to watch over the well-being of the bedesmen. In process of years the origin and primary purpose of the hospital had been forgotten by all excepting the local antiquaries; and the place itself came to be regarded as a very pleasant quaint set of almshouses; and the warden’s office (he who should have said or sung his daily masses was now called the warden, and read daily prayers and preached a sermon on Sundays) an agreeable sinecure.

Another legacy of old Sir Simon Bray was that of a small croft of land, the rent or profits of which were to go towards giving to all who asked for it a manchet of bread and a cup of good beer. This beer was, so Sir Simon ordained, to be made after a certain receipt which he left, in which ground ivy took the place of hops. But the receipt, as well as the masses, was modernized according to the progress of time.

Philip stood under a great broad stone archway; the back-door into the warden’s house was on the right side; a kind of buttery-hatch was placed by the porter’s door on the opposite side. After some consideration, Philip knocked at the closed shutter, and the signal seemed to be well understood. He heard a movement within; the hatch was drawn aside, and his bread and beer were handed to him by a pleasant-looking old man, who proved himself not at all disinclined for conversation.

‘You may sit down on yonder bench,’ said he. ‘Nay, man! sit i’ the sun, for it’s a chilly place, this, and then you can look through the grate and watch th’ old fellows toddling about in th’ quad.’

Philip sat down where the warm October sun slanted upon him, and looked through the iron railing at the peaceful sight.

A great square of velvet lawn, intersected diagonally with broad flag-paved walks, the same kind of walk going all round the quadrangle; low two-storied brick houses, tinted gray and yellow by age, and in many places almost covered with vines, Virginian creepers, and monthly roses; before each house a little plot of garden ground, bright with flowers, and evidently tended with the utmost care; on the farther side the massive chapel; here and there an old or infirm man sunning himself, or leisurely doing a bit of gardening, or talking to one of his comrades — the place looked as if care and want, and even sorrow, were locked out and excluded by the ponderous gate through which Philip was gazing.

‘It’s a nice enough place, bean’t it?’ said the porter, interpreting Philip’s looks pretty accurately. ‘Leastways, for them as likes it. I’ve got a bit weary on it myself; it’s so far from th’ world, as a man may say; not a decent public within a mile and a half, where one can hear a bit o’ news of an evening.’

‘I think I could make myself very content here,’ replied Philip. ‘That’s to say, if one were easy in one’s mind.’

‘Ay, ay, my man. That’s it everywhere. Why, I don’t think that I could enjoy myself — not even at th’ White Hart, where they give you as good a glass of ale for twopence as anywhere i’ th’ four kingdoms — I couldn’t, to say, flavour my ale even there, if my old woman lay a-dying; which is a sign as it’s the heart, and not the ale, as makes the drink.’

Just then the warden’s back-door opened, and out came the warden himself, dressed in full clerical costume.

He was going into the neighbouring city, but he stopped to speak to Philip, the wounded soldier; and all the more readily because his old faded uniform told the warden’s experienced eye that he had belonged to the Marines.

‘I hope you enjoy the victual provided for you by the founder of St Sepulchre,’ said he, kindly. ‘You look but poorly, my good fellow, and as if a slice of good cold meat would help your bread down.’

‘Thank you, sir!’ said Philip. ‘I’m not hungry, only weary, and glad of a draught of beer.’

‘You’ve been in the Marines, I see. Where have you been serving?’

‘I was at the siege of Acre, last May, sir.’

‘At Acre! Were you, indeed? Then perhaps you know my boy Harry? He was in the —— th.’

‘It was my company,’ said Philip, warming up a little. Looking back upon his soldier’s life, it seemed to him to have many charms, because it was so full of small daily interests.

‘Then, did you know my son, Lieutenant Pennington?’

‘It was he that gave me this cloak, sir, when they were sending me back to England. I had been his servant for a short time before I was wounded by the explosion on board the Theseus, and he said I should feel the cold of the voyage. He’s very kind; and I’ve heard say he promises to be a first-rate officer.’

‘You shall have a slice of roast beef, whether you want it or not,’ said the warden, ringing the bell at his own back-door. ‘I recognize the cloak now — the young scamp! How soon he has made it shabby, though,’ he continued, taking up a corner where there was an immense tear not too well botched up. ‘And so you were on board the Theseus at the time of the explosion? Bring some cold meat here for the good man — or stay! Come in with me, and then you can tell Mrs. Pennington and the young ladies all you know about Harry — and the siege — and the explosion.’

So Philip was ushered into the warden’s house and made to eat roast beef almost against his will; and he was questioned and cross-questioned by three eager ladies, all at the same time, as it seemed to him. He had given all possible details on the subjects about which they were curious; and was beginning to consider how he could best make his retreat, when the younger Miss Pennington went up to her father — who had all this time stood, with his hat on, holding his coat-tails over his arms, with his back to the fire. He bent his ear down a very little to hear some whispered suggestion of his daughter’s, nodded his head, and then went on questioning Philip, with kindly inquisitiveness and patronage, as the rich do question the poor.

‘And where are you going to now?’

Philip did not answer directly. He wondered in his own mind where he was going. At length he said,

‘Northwards, I believe. But perhaps I shall never reach there.’

‘Haven’t you friends? Aren’t you going to them?’

There was again a pause; a cloud came over Philip’s countenance. He said,

‘No! I’m not going to my friends. I don’t know that I’ve got any left.’

They interpreted his looks and this speech to mean that he had either lost his friends by death, or offended them by enlisting.

The warden went on,

‘I ask, because we’ve got a cottage vacant in the mead. Old Dobson, who was with General Wolfe at the taking of Quebec, died a fortnight ago. With such injuries as yours, I fear you’ll never be able to work again. But we require strict testimonials as to character,’ he added, with as penetrating a look as he could summon up at Philip.

Philip looked unmoved, either by the offer of the cottage, or the illusion to the possibility of his character not being satisfactory. He was grateful enough in reality, but too heavy at heart to care very much what became of him.

The warden and his family, who were accustomed to consider a settlement at St Sepulchre’s as the sum of all good to a worn-out soldier, were a little annoyed at Philip’s cool way of receiving the proposition. The warden went on to name the contingent advantages.

‘Besides the cottage, you would have a load of wood for firing on All Saints’, on Christmas, and on Candlemas days — a blue gown and suit of clothes to match every Michaelmas, and a shilling a day to keep yourself in all other things. Your dinner you would have with the other men, in hall.’

‘The warden himself goes into hall every day, and sees that everything is comfortable, and says grace,’ added the warden’s lady.

‘I know I seem stupid,’ said Philip, almost humbly, ‘not to be more grateful, for it’s far beyond what I iver expected or thought for again, and it’s a great temptation, for I’m just worn out with fatigue. Several times I’ve thought I must lie down under a hedge, and just die for very weariness. But once I had a wife and a child up in the north,’ he stopped.

‘And are they dead?’ asked one of the young ladies in a soft sympathizing tone. Her eyes met Philip’s, full of dumb woe. He tried to speak; he wanted to explain more fully, yet not to reveal the truth.

‘Well!’ said the warden, thinking he perceived the real state of things, ‘what I propose is this. You shall go into old Dobson’s house at once, as a kind of probationary bedesman. I’ll write to Harry, and get your character from him. Stephen Freeman I think you said your name was? Before I can receive his reply you’ll have been able to tell how you’d like the kind of life; and at any rate you’ll have the rest you seem to require in the meantime. You see, I take Harry’s having given you that cloak as a kind of character,’ added he, smiling kindly. ‘Of course you’ll have to conform to rules just like all the rest — chapel at eight, dinner at twelve, lights out at nine; but I’ll tell you the remainder of our regulations as we walk across quad to your new quarters.’

And thus Philip, almost in spite of himself, became installed in a bedesman’s house at St Sepulchre.

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