Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XLIV

First Words

It was the spring of 1800. Old people yet can tell of the hard famine of that year. The harvest of the autumn before had failed; the war and the corn laws had brought the price of corn up to a famine rate; and much of what came into the market was unsound, and consequently unfit for food, yet hungry creatures bought it eagerly, and tried to cheat disease by mixing the damp, sweet, clammy flour with rice or potato meal. Rich families denied themselves pastry and all unnecessary and luxurious uses of wheat in any shape; the duty on hair-powder was increased; and all these palliatives were but as drops in the ocean of the great want of the people.

Philip, in spite of himself, recovered and grew stronger; and as he grew stronger hunger took the place of loathing dislike to food. But his money was all spent; and what was his poor pension of sixpence a day in that terrible year of famine? Many a summer’s night he walked for hours and hours round the house which once was his, which might be his now, with all its homely, blessed comforts, could he but go and assert his right to it. But to go with authority, and in his poor, maimed guise assert that right, he had need be other than Philip Hepburn. So he stood in the old shelter of the steep, crooked lane opening on to the hill out of the market-place, and watched the soft fading of the summer’s eve into night; the closing of the once familiar shop; the exit of good, comfortable William Coulson, going to his own home, his own wife, his comfortable, plentiful supper. Then Philip — there were no police in those days, and scarcely an old watchman in that primitive little town — would go round on the shady sides of streets, and, quickly glancing about him, cross the bridge, looking on the quiet, rippling stream, the gray shimmer foretelling the coming dawn over the sea, the black masts and rigging of the still vessels against the sky; he could see with his wistful, eager eyes the shape of the windows — the window of the very room in which his wife and child slept, unheeding of him, the hungry, broken-hearted outcast. He would go back to his lodging, and softly lift the latch of the door; still more softly, but never without an unspoken, grateful prayer, pass by the poor sleeping woman who had given him a shelter and her share of God’s blessing — she who, like him, knew not the feeling of satisfied hunger; and then he laid him down on the narrow pallet in the lean-to, and again gave Sylvia happy lessons in the kitchen at Haytersbank, and the dead were alive; and Charley Kinraid, the specksioneer, had never come to trouble the hopeful, gentle peace.

For widow Dobson had never taken Sylvia’s advice. The tramp known to her by the name of Freeman — that in which he received his pension — lodged with her still, and paid his meagre shilling in advance, weekly. A shilling was meagre in those hard days of scarcity. A hungry man might easily eat the produce of a shilling in a day.

Widow Dobson pleaded this to Sylvia as an excuse for keeping her lodger on; to a more calculating head it might have seemed a reason for sending him away.

‘Yo’ see, missus,’ said she, apologetically, to Sylvia, one evening, as the latter called upon the poor widow before going to fetch little Bella (it was now too hot for the child to cross the bridge in the full heat of the summer sun, and Jeremiah would take her up to her supper instead)—‘Yo’ see, missus, there’s not a many as ‘ud take him in for a shillin’ when it goes so little way; or if they did, they’d take it out on him some other way, an’ he’s not getten much else, a reckon. He ca’s me granny, but a’m vast mista’en if he’s ten year younger nor me; but he’s getten a fine appetite of his own, choose how young he may be; an’ a can see as he could eat a deal more nor he’s getten money to buy, an’ it’s few as can mak’ victual go farther nor me. Eh, missus, but yo’ may trust me a’ll send him off when times is better; but just now it would be sendin’ him to his death; for a ha’ plenty and to spare, thanks be to God an’ yo’r bonny face.’

So Sylvia had to be content with the knowledge that the money she gladly gave to Kester’s sister went partly to feed the lodger who was neither labourer nor neighbour, but only just a tramp, who, she feared, was preying on the good old woman. Still the cruel famine cut sharp enough to penetrate all hearts; and Sylvia, an hour after the conversation recorded above, was much touched, on her return from Jeremiah Foster’s with the little merry, chattering Bella, at seeing the feeble steps of one, whom she knew by description must be widow Dobson’s lodger, turn up from the newly-cut road which was to lead to the terrace walk around the North Cliff, a road which led to no dwelling but widow Dobson’s. Tramp, and vagrant, he might be in the eyes of the law; but, whatever his character, Sylvia could see him before her in the soft dusk, creeping along, over the bridge, often stopping to rest and hold by some support, and then going on again towards the town, to which she and happy little Bella were wending.

A thought came over her: she had always fancied that this unknown man was some fierce vagabond, and had dreaded lest in the lonely bit of road between widow Dobson’s cottage and the peopled highway, he should fall upon her and rob her if he learnt that she had money with her; and several times she had gone away without leaving the little gift she had intended, because she imagined that she had seen the door of the small chamber in the ‘lean-to’ open softly while she was there, as if the occupant (whom widow Dobson spoke of as never leaving the house before dusk, excepting once a week) were listening for the chink of the coin in her little leathern purse. Now that she saw him walking before her with heavy languid steps, this fear gave place to pity; she remembered her mother’s gentle superstition which had prevented her from ever sending the hungry empty away, for fear lest she herself should come to need bread.

‘Lassie,’ said she to little Bella, who held a cake which Jeremiah’s housekeeper had given her tight in her hand, ‘yon poor man theere is hungry; will Bella give him her cake, and mother will make her another tomorrow twice as big?’

For this consideration, and with the feeling of satisfaction which a good supper not an hour ago gives even to the hungry stomach of a child of three years old, Bella, after some thought, graciously assented to the sacrifice.

Sylvia stopped, the cake in her hand, and turned her back to the town, and to the slow wayfarer in front. Under the cover of her shawl she slipped a half-crown deep into the crumb of the cake, and then restoring it to little Bella, she gave her her directions.

‘Mammy will carry Bella; and when Bella goes past the poor man, she shall give him the cake over mammy’s shoulder. Poor man is so hungry; and Bella and mammy have plenty to eat, and to spare.’

The child’s heart was touched by the idea of hunger, and her little arm was outstretched ready for the moment her mother’s hurried steps took her brushing past the startled, trembling Philip.

‘Poor man, eat this; Bella not hungry.’

They were the first words he had ever heard his child utter. The echoes of them rang in his ears as he stood endeavouring to hide his disfigured face by looking over the parapet of the bridge down upon the stream running away towards the ocean, into which his hot tears slowly fell, unheeded by the weeper. Then he changed the intention with which he had set out upon his nightly walk, and turned back to his lodging.

Of course the case was different with Sylvia; she would have forgotten the whole affair very speedily, if it had not been for little Bella’s frequent recurrence to the story of the hungry man, which had touched her small sympathies with the sense of an intelligible misfortune. She liked to act the dropping of the bun into the poor man’s hand as she went past him, and would take up any article near her in order to illustrate the gesture she had used. One day she got hold of Hester’s watch for this purpose, as being of the same round shape as the cake; and though Hester, for whose benefit the child was repeating the story in her broken language for the third or fourth time, tried to catch the watch as it was intended that she should (she being the representative of the ‘hungry man’ for the time being), it went to the ground with a smash that frightened the little girl, and she began to cry at the mischief she had done.

‘Don’t cry, Bella,’ said Hester. ‘Niver play with watches again. I didn’t see thee at mine, or I’d ha’ stopped thee in time. But I’ll take it to old Darley’s on th’ quay-side, and maybe he’ll soon set it to rights again. Only Bella must niver play with watches again.’

‘Niver no more!’ promised the little sobbing child. And that evening Hester took her watch down to old Darley’s.

This William Darley was the brother of the gardener at the rectory; the uncle to the sailor who had been shot by the press-gang years before, and to his bed-ridden sister. He was a clever mechanician, and his skill as a repairer of watches and chronometers was great among the sailors, with whom he did a very irregular sort of traffic, conducted, often without much use of money, but rather on the principle of barter, they bringing him foreign coins and odd curiosities picked up on their travels in exchange for his services to their nautical instruments or their watches. If he had ever had capital to extend his business, he might have been a rich man; but it is to be doubted whether he would have been as happy as he was now in his queer little habitation of two rooms, the front one being both shop and workshop, the other serving the double purpose of bedroom and museum.

The skill of this odd-tempered, shabby old man was sometimes sought by the jeweller who kept the more ostentatious shop in the High Street; but before Darley would undertake any ‘tickle’ piece of delicate workmanship for the other, he sneered at his ignorance, and taunted and abused him well. Yet he had soft places in his heart, and Hester Rose had found her way to one by her patient, enduring kindness to his bed-ridden niece. He never snarled at her as he did at too many; and on the few occasions when she had asked him to do anything for her, he had seemed as if she were conferring the favour on him, not he on her, and only made the smallest possible charge.

She found him now sitting where he could catch the most light for his work, spectacles on nose, and microscope in hand.

He took her watch, and examined it carefully without a word in reply to her. Then he began to open it and take it to pieces, in order to ascertain the nature of the mischief.

Suddenly he heard her catch her breath with a checked sound of surprise. He looked at her from above his spectacles; she was holding a watch in her hand which she had just taken up off the counter.

‘What’s amiss wi’ thee now?’ said Darley. ‘Hast ta niver seen a watch o’ that mak’ afore? or is it them letters on t’ back, as is so wonderful?’

Yes, it was those letters — that interlaced, old-fashioned cipher. That Z. H. that she knew of old stood for Zachary Hepburn, Philip’s father. She knew how Philip valued this watch. She remembered having seen it in his hands the very day before his disappearance, when he was looking at the time in his annoyance at Sylvia’s detention in her walk with baby. Hester had no doubt that he had taken this watch as a matter of course away with him. She felt sure that he would not part with this relic of his dead father on any slight necessity. Where, then, was Philip? — by what chance of life or death had this, his valued property, found its way once more to Monkshaven?

‘Where did yo’ get this?’ she asked, in as quiet a manner as she could assume, sick with eagerness as she was.

To no one else would Darley have answered such a question. He made a mystery of most of his dealings; not that he had anything to conceal, but simply because he delighted in concealment. He took it out of her hands, looked at the number marked inside, and the maker’s name —‘Natteau Gent, York’— and then replied —

‘A man brought it me yesterday, at nightfall, for t’ sell it. It’s a matter o’ forty years old. Natteau Gent has been dead and in his grave pretty nigh as long as that. But he did his work well when he were alive; and so I gave him as brought it for t’ sell about as much as it were worth, i’ good coin. A tried him first i’ t’ bartering line, but he wouldn’t bite; like enough he wanted food — many a one does now-a-days.’

‘Who was he?’ gasped Hester.

‘Bless t’ woman! how should I know?’

‘What was he like? — how old? — tell me.’

‘My lass, a’ve summut else to do wi’ my eyes than go peering into men’s faces i’ t’ dusk light.’

‘But yo’ must have had light for t’ judge about the watch.’

‘Eh! how sharp we are! A’d a candle close to my nose. But a didn’t tak’ it up for to gaze int’ his face. That wouldn’t be manners, to my thinking.’

Hester was silent. Then Darley’s heart relented.

‘If yo’re so set upo’ knowing who t’ fellow was, a could, mebbe, put yo’ on his tracks.’

‘How?’ said Hester, eagerly. ‘I do want to know. I want to know very much, and for a good reason.’

‘Well, then, a’ll tell yo’. He’s a queer tyke, that one is. A’ll be bound he were sore pressed for t’ brass; yet he out’s wi’ a good half-crown, all wrapped up i’ paper, and he axes me t’ make a hole in it. Says I, “It’s marring good king’s coin, at after a’ve made a hole in’t, it’ll never pass current again.” So he mumbles, and mumbles, but for a’ that it must needs be done; and he’s left it here, and is t’ call for ‘t tomorrow at e’en.’

‘Oh, William Darley!’ said Hester, clasping her hands tight together. ‘Find out who he is, where he is — anything — everything about him — and I will so bless yo’.’

Darley looked at her sharply, but with some signs of sympathy on his grave face. ‘My woman,’ he said ‘a could ha’ wished as you’d niver seen t’ watch. It’s poor, thankless work thinking too much on one o’ God’s creatures. But a’ll do thy bidding,’ he continued, in a lighter and different tone. ‘A’m a ‘cute old badger when need be. Come for thy watch in a couple o’ days, and a’ll tell yo’ all as a’ve learnt.’

So Hester went away, her heart beating with the promise of knowing something about Philip — how much, how little, in these first moments, she dared not say even to herself. Some sailor newly landed from distant seas might have become possessed of Philip’s watch in far-off latitudes; in which case, Philip would be dead. That might be. She tried to think that this was the most probable way of accounting for the watch. She could be certain as to the positive identity of the watch — being in William Darley’s possession. Again, it might be that Philip himself was near at hand — was here in this very place — starving, as too many were, for insufficiency of means to buy the high-priced food. And then her heart burnt within her as she thought of the succulent, comfortable meals which Sylvia provided every day — nay, three times a day — for the household in the market-place, at the head of which Philip ought to have been; but his place knew him not. For Sylvia had inherited her mother’s talent for housekeeping, and on her, in Alice’s decrepitude and Hester’s other occupations in the shop, devolved the cares of due provision for the somewhat heterogeneous family.

And Sylvia! Hester groaned in heart over the remembrance of Sylvia’s words, ‘I can niver forgive him the wrong he did to me,’ that night when Hester had come, and clung to her, making the sad, shameful confession of her unreturned love.

What could ever bring these two together again? Could Hester herself — ignorant of the strange mystery of Sylvia’s heart, as those who are guided solely by obedience to principle must ever be of the clue to the actions of those who are led by the passionate ebb and flow of impulse? Could Hester herself? Oh! how should she speak, how should she act, if Philip were near — if Philip were sad and in miserable estate? Her own misery at this contemplation of the case was too great to bear; and she sought her usual refuge in the thought of some text, some promise of Scripture, which should strengthen her faith.

‘With God all things are possible,’ said she, repeating the words as though to lull her anxiety to rest.

Yes; with God all things are possible. But ofttimes He does his work with awful instruments. There is a peacemaker whose name is Death.

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