Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XLV

Saved and Lost

Hester went out on the evening of the day after that on which the unknown owner of the half-crown had appointed to call for it again at William Darley’s. She had schooled herself to believe that time and patience would serve her best. Her plan was to obtain all the knowledge about Philip that she could in the first instance; and then, if circumstances allowed it, as in all probability they would, to let drop by drop of healing, peacemaking words and thoughts fall on Sylvia’s obdurate, unforgiving heart. So Hester put on her things, and went out down towards the old quay-side on that evening after the shop was closed.

Poor little Sylvia! She was unforgiving, but not obdurate to the full extent of what Hester believed. Many a time since Philip went away had she unconsciously missed his protecting love; when folks spoke shortly to her, when Alice scolded her as one of the non-elect, when Hester’s gentle gravity had something of severity in it; when her own heart failed her as to whether her mother would have judged that she had done well, could that mother have known all, as possibly she did by this time. Philip had never spoken otherwise than tenderly to her during the eighteen months of their married life, except on the two occasions before recorded: once when she referred to her dream of Kinraid’s possible return, and once again on the evening of the day before her discovery of his concealment of the secret of Kinraid’s involuntary disappearance.

After she had learnt that Kinraid was married, her heart had still more strongly turned to Philip; she thought that he had judged rightly in what he had given as the excuse for his double dealing; she was even more indignant at Kinraid’s fickleness than she had any reason to be; and she began to learn the value of such enduring love as Philip’s had been — lasting ever since the days when she first began to fancy what a man’s love for a woman should be, when she had first shrunk from the tone of tenderness he put into his especial term for her, a girl of twelve —‘Little lassie,’ as he was wont to call her.

But across all this relenting came the shadow of her vow — like the chill of a great cloud passing over a sunny plain. How should she decide? what would be her duty, if he came again, and once more called her ‘wife’? She shrank from such a possibility with all the weakness and superstition of her nature; and this it was which made her strengthen herself with the re-utterance of unforgiving words; and shun all recurrence to the subject on the rare occasion when Hester had tried to bring it back, with a hope of softening the heart which to her appeared altogether hardened on this one point.

Now, on this bright summer evening, while Hester had gone down to the quay-side, Sylvia stood with her out-of-door things on in the parlour, rather impatiently watching the sky, full of hurrying clouds, and flushing with the warm tints of the approaching sunset. She could not leave Alice: the old woman had grown so infirm that she was never left by her daughter and Sylvia at the same time; yet Sylvia had to fetch her little girl from the New Town, where she had been to her supper at Jeremiah Foster’s. Hester had said that she should not be away more than a quarter of an hour; and Hester was generally so punctual that any failure of hers, in this respect, appeared almost in the light of an injury on those who had learnt to rely upon her. Sylvia wanted to go and see widow Dobson, and learn when Kester might be expected home. His two months were long past; and Sylvia had heard through the Fosters of some suitable and profitable employment for him, of which she thought he would be glad to know as soon as possible. It was now some time since she had been able to get so far as across the bridge; and, for aught she knew, Kester might already be come back from his expedition to the Cheviots. Kester was come back. Scarce five minutes had elapsed after these thoughts had passed through her mind before his hasty hand lifted the latch of the kitchen-door, his hurried steps brought him face to face with her. The smile of greeting was arrested on her lips by one look at him: his eyes staring wide, the expression on his face wild, and yet pitiful.

‘That’s reet,’ said he, seeing that her things were already on. ‘Thou’re wanted sore. Come along.’

‘Oh! dear God! my child!’ cried Sylvia, clutching at the chair near her; but recovering her eddying senses with the strong fact before her that whatever the terror was, she was needed to combat it.

‘Ay; thy child!’ said Kester, taking her almost roughly by the arm, and drawing her away with him out through the open doors on to the quay-side.

‘Tell me!’ said Sylvia, faintly, ‘is she dead?’

‘She’s safe now,’ said Kester. ‘It’s not her — it’s him as saved her as needs yo’, if iver husband needed a wife.’

‘He? — who? O Philip! Philip! is it yo’ at last?’

Unheeding what spectators might see her movements, she threw up her arms and staggered against the parapet of the bridge they were then crossing.

‘He! — Philip! — saved Bella? Bella, our little Bella, as got her dinner by my side, and went out wi’ Jeremiah, as well as could be. I cannot take it in; tell me, Kester.’ She kept trembling so much in voice and in body, that he saw she could not stir without danger of falling until she was calmed; as it was, her eyes became filmy from time to time, and she drew her breath in great heavy pants, leaning all the while against the wall of the bridge.

‘It were no illness,’ Kester began. ‘T’ little un had gone for a walk wi’ Jeremiah Foster, an’ he were drawn for to go round t’ edge o’ t’ cliff, wheere they’s makin’ t’ new walk reet o’er t’ sea. But it’s but a bit on a pathway now; an’ t’ one was too oud, an’ t’ other too young for t’ see t’ water comin’ along wi’ great leaps; it’s allays for comin’ high up again’ t’ cliff, an’ this spring-tide it’s comin’ in i’ terrible big waves. Some one said as they passed t’ man a-sittin’ on a bit on a rock up above — a dunnot know, a only know as a heared a great fearful screech i’ t’ air. A were just a-restin’ me at after a’d comed in, not half an hour i’ t’ place. A’ve walked better nor a dozen mile today; an’ a ran out, an’ a looked, an’ just on t’ walk, at t’ turn, was t’ swish of a wave runnin’ back as quick as t’ mischief int’ t’ sea, an’ oud Jeremiah standin’ like one crazy, lookin’ o’er int’ t’ watter; an’ like a stroke o’ leeghtnin’ comes a man, an’ int’ t’ very midst o’ t’ great waves like a shot; an’ then a knowed summut were in t’ watter as were nearer death than life; an’ a seemed to misdoubt me that it were our Bella; an’ a shouts an’ a cries for help, an’ a goes mysel’ to t’ very edge o’ t’ cliff, an’ a bids oud Jeremiah, as was like one beside hissel’, houd tight on me, for he were good for nought else; an’ a bides my time, an’ when a sees two arms houdin’ out a little drippin’ streamin’ child, a clutches her by her waist-band, an’ hauls her to land. She’s noane t’ worse for her bath, a’ll be bound.’

‘I mun go — let me,’ said Sylvia, struggling with his detaining hand, which he had laid upon her in the fear that she would slip down to the ground in a faint, so ashen-gray was her face. ‘Let me — Bella, I mun go see her.’

He let go, and she stood still, suddenly feeling herself too weak to stir.

‘Now, if you’ll try a bit to be quiet, a’ll lead yo’ along; but yo’ mun be a steady and brave lass.’

‘I’ll be aught if yo’ only let me see Bella,’ said Sylvia, humbly.

‘An’ yo’ niver ax at after him as saved her,’ said Kester, reproachfully.

‘I know it’s Philip,’ she whispered, ‘and yo’ said he wanted me; so I know he’s safe; and, Kester, I think I’m ‘feared on him, and I’d like to gather courage afore seeing him, and a look at Bella would give me courage. It were a terrible time when I saw him last, and I did say —’

‘Niver think on what thou did say; think on what thou will say to him now, for he lies a-dyin’! He were dashed again t’ cliff an’ bruised sore in his innards afore t’ men as come wi’ a boat could pick him up.’

She did not speak; she did not even tremble now; she set her teeth together, and, holding tight by Kester, she urged him on; but when they came to the end of the bridge, she seemed uncertain which way to turn.

‘This way,’ said Kester. ‘He’s been lodgin’ wi’ Sally this nine week, an’ niver a one about t’ place as knowed him; he’s been i’ t’ wars an’ getten his face brunt.’

‘And he was short o’ food,’ moaned Sylvia, ‘and we had plenty, and I tried to make yo’r sister turn him out, and send him away. Oh! will God iver forgive me?’

Muttering to herself, breaking her mutterings with sharp cries of pain, Sylvia, with Kester’s help, reached widow Dobson’s house. It was no longer a quiet, lonely dwelling. Several sailors stood about the door, awaiting, in silent anxiety, for the verdict of the doctor, who was even now examining Philip’s injuries. Two or three women stood talking eagerly, in low voices, in the doorway.

But when Sylvia drew near the men fell back; and the women moved aside as though to allow her to pass, all looking upon her with a certain amount of sympathy, but perhaps with rather more of antagonistic wonder as to how she was taking it — she who had been living in ease and comfort while her husband’s shelter was little better than a hovel, her husband’s daily life a struggle with starvation; for so much of the lodger at widow Dobson’s was popularly known; and any distrust of him as a stranger and a tramp was quite forgotten now.

Sylvia felt the hardness of their looks, the hardness of their silence; but it was as nothing to her. If such things could have touched her at this moment, she would not have stood still right in the midst of their averted hearts, and murmured something to Kester. He could not hear the words uttered by that hoarse choked voice, until he had stooped down and brought his ear to the level of her mouth.

‘We’d better wait for t’ doctors to come out,’ she said again. She stood by the door, shivering all over, almost facing the people in the road, but with her face turned a little to the right, so that they thought she was looking at the pathway on the cliff-side, a hundred yards or so distant, below which the hungry waves still lashed themselves into high ascending spray; while nearer to the cottage, where their force was broken by the bar at the entrance to the river, they came softly lapping up the shelving shore.

Sylvia saw nothing of all this, though it was straight before her eyes. She only saw a blurred mist; she heard no sound of waters, though it filled the ears of those around. Instead she heard low whispers pronouncing Philip’s earthly doom.

For the doctors were both agreed; his internal injury was of a mortal kind, although, as the spine was severely injured above the seat of the fatal bruise, he had no pain in the lower half of his body.

They had spoken in so low a tone that John Foster, standing only a foot or so away, had not been able to hear their words. But Sylvia heard each syllable there where she stood outside, shivering all over in the sultry summer evening. She turned round to Kester.

‘I mun go to him, Kester; thou’ll see that noane come in to us, when t’ doctors come out.’

She spoke in a soft, calm voice; and he, not knowing what she had heard, made some easy conditional promise. Then those opposite to the cottage door fell back, for they could see the grave doctors coming out, and John Foster, graver, sadder still, following them. Without a word to them — without a word even of inquiry — which many outside thought and spoke of as strange — white-faced, dry-eyed Sylvia slipped into the house out of their sight.

And the waves kept lapping on the shelving shore.

The room inside was dark, all except the little halo or circle of light made by a dip candle. Widow Dobson had her back to the bed — her bed — on to which Philip had been borne in the hurry of terror as to whether he was alive or whether he was dead. She was crying — crying quietly, but the tears down-falling fast, as, with her back to the lowly bed, she was gathering up the dripping clothes cut off from the poor maimed body by the doctors’ orders. She only shook her head as she saw Sylvia, spirit-like, steal in-white, noiseless, and upborne from earth.

But noiseless as her step might be, he heard, he recognized, and with a sigh he turned his poor disfigured face to the wall, hiding it in the shadow.

He knew that she was by him; that she had knelt down by his bed; that she was kissing his hand, over which the languor of approaching death was stealing. But no one spoke.

At length he said, his face still averted, speaking with an effort.

‘Little lassie, forgive me now! I cannot live to see the morn!’

There was no answer, only a long miserable sigh, and he felt her soft cheek laid upon his hand, and the quiver that ran through her whole body.

‘I did thee a cruel wrong,’ he said, at length. ‘I see it now. But I’m a dying man. I think that God will forgive me — and I’ve sinned against Him; try, lassie — try, my Sylvie — will not thou forgive me?’

He listened intently for a moment. He heard through the open window the waves lapping on the shelving shore. But there came no word from her; only that same long shivering, miserable sigh broke from her lips at length.

‘Child,’ said he, once more. ‘I ha’ made thee my idol; and if I could live my life o’er again I would love my God more, and thee less; and then I shouldn’t ha’ sinned this sin against thee. But speak one word of love to me — one little word, that I may know I have thy pardon.’

‘Oh, Philip! Philip!’ she moaned, thus adjured.

Then she lifted her head, and said,

‘Them were wicked, wicked words, as I said; and a wicked vow as I vowed; and Lord God Almighty has ta’en me at my word. I’m sorely punished, Philip, I am indeed.’

He pressed her hand, he stroked her cheek. But he asked for yet another word.

‘I did thee a wrong. In my lying heart I forgot to do to thee as I would have had thee to do to me. And I judged Kinraid in my heart.’

‘Thou thought as he was faithless and fickle,’ she answered quickly; ‘and so he were. He were married to another woman not so many weeks at after thou went away. Oh, Philip, Philip! and now I have thee back, and —’

‘Dying’ was the word she would have said, but first the dread of telling him what she believed he did not know, and next her passionate sobs, choked her.

‘I know,’ said he, once more stroking her cheek, and soothing her with gentle, caressing hand. ‘Little lassie!’ he said, after a while when she was quiet from very exhaustion, ‘I niver thought to be so happy again. God is very merciful.’

She lifted up her head, and asked wildly, ‘Will He iver forgive me, think yo’? I drove yo’ out fra’ yo’r home, and sent yo’ away to t’ wars, wheere yo’ might ha’ getten yo’r death; and when yo’ come back, poor and lone, and weary, I told her for t’ turn yo’ out, for a’ I knew yo’ must be starving in these famine times. I think I shall go about among them as gnash their teeth for iver, while yo’ are wheere all tears are wiped away.’

‘No!’ said Philip, turning round his face, forgetful of himself in his desire to comfort her. ‘God pities us as a father pities his poor wandering children; the nearer I come to death the clearer I see Him. But you and me have done wrong to each other; yet we can see now how we were led to it; we can pity and forgive one another. I’m getting low and faint, lassie; but thou must remember this: God knows more, and is more forgiving than either you to me, or me to you. I think and do believe as we shall meet together before His face; but then I shall ha’ learnt to love thee second to Him; not first, as I have done here upon the earth.’

Then he was silent — very still. Sylvia knew — widow Dobson had brought it in-that there was some kind of medicine, sent by the hopeless doctors, lying upon the table hard by, and she softly rose and poured it out and dropped it into the half-open mouth. Then she knelt down again, holding the hand feebly stretched out to her, and watching the faint light in the wistful loving eyes. And in the stillness she heard the ceaseless waves lapping against the shelving shore.

Something like an hour before this time, which was the deepest midnight of the summer’s night, Hester Rose had come hurrying up the road to where Kester and his sister sate outside the open door, keeping their watch under the star-lit sky, all others having gone away, one by one, even John and Jeremiah Foster having returned to their own house, where the little Bella lay, sleeping a sound and healthy slumber after her perilous adventure.

Hester had heard but little from William Darley as to the owner of the watch and the half-crown; but he was chagrined at the failure of all his skilful interrogations to elicit the truth, and promised her further information in a few days, with all the more vehemence because he was unaccustomed to be baffled. And Hester had again whispered to herself ‘Patience! Patience!’ and had slowly returned back to her home to find that Sylvia had left it, why she did not at once discover. But, growing uneasy as the advancing hours neither brought Sylvia nor little Bella to their home, she had set out for Jeremiah Foster’s as soon as she had seen her mother comfortably asleep in her bed; and then she had learnt the whole story, bit by bit, as each person who spoke broke in upon the previous narration with some new particular. But from no one did she clearly learn whether Sylvia was with her husband, or not; and so she came speeding along the road, breathless, to where Kester sate in wakeful, mournful silence, his sister’s sleeping head lying on his shoulder, the cottage door open, both for air and that there might be help within call if needed; and the dim slanting oblong of the interior light lying across the road.

Hester came panting up, too agitated and breathless to ask how much was truth of the fatal, hopeless tale which she had heard. Kester looked at her without a word. Through this solemn momentary silence the lapping of the ceaseless waves was heard, as they came up close on the shelving shore.

‘He? Philip?’ said she. Kester shook his head sadly.

‘And his wife — Sylvia?’ said Hester.

‘In there with him, alone,’ whispered Kester.

Hester turned away, and wrung her hands together.

‘Oh, Lord God Almighty!’ said she, ‘was I not even worthy to bring them together at last?’ And she went away slowly and heavily back to the side of her sleeping mother. But ‘Thy will be done’ was on her quivering lips before she lay down to her rest.

The soft gray dawn lightens the darkness of a midsummer night soon after two o’clock. Philip watched it come, knowing that it was his last sight of day — as we reckon days on earth.

He had been often near death as a soldier; once or twice, as when he rushed into fire to save Kinraid, his chances of life had been as one to a hundred; but yet he had had a chance. But now there was the new feeling — the last new feeling which we shall any of us experience in this world — that death was not only close at hand, but inevitable.

He felt its numbness stealing up him — stealing up him. But the head was clear, the brain more than commonly active in producing vivid impressions.

It seemed but yesterday since he was a little boy at his mother’s knee, wishing with all the earnestness of his childish heart to be like Abraham, who was called the friend of God, or David, who was said to be the man after God’s own heart, or St John, who was called ‘the Beloved.’ As very present seemed the day on which he made resolutions of trying to be like them; it was in the spring, and some one had brought in cowslips; and the scent of those flowers was in his nostrils now, as he lay a-dying — his life ended, his battles fought, his time for ‘being good’ over and gone — the opportunity, once given in all eternity, past.

All the temptations that had beset him rose clearly before him; the scenes themselves stood up in their solid materialism — he could have touched the places; the people, the thoughts, the arguments that Satan had urged in behalf of sin, were reproduced with the vividness of a present time. And he knew that the thoughts were illusions, the arguments false and hollow; for in that hour came the perfect vision of the perfect truth: he saw the ‘way to escape’ which had come along with the temptation; now, the strong resolve of an ardent boyhood, with all a life before it to show the world ‘what a Christian might be’; and then the swift, terrible now, when his naked, guilty soul shrank into the shadow of God’s mercy-seat, out of the blaze of His anger against all those who act a lie.

His mind was wandering, and he plucked it back. Was this death in very deed? He tried to grasp at the present, the earthly present, fading quick away. He lay there on the bed — on Sally Dobson’s bed in the house-place, not on his accustomed pallet in the lean-to. He knew that much. And the door was open into the still, dusk night; and through the open casement he could hear the lapping of the waves on the shelving shore, could see the soft gray dawn over the sea — he knew it was over the sea — he saw what lay unseen behind the poor walls of the cottage. And it was Sylvia who held his hand tight in her warm, living grasp; it was his wife whose arm was thrown around him, whose sobbing sighs shook his numbed frame from time to time.

‘God bless and comfort my darling,’ he said to himself. ‘She knows me now. All will be right in heaven — in the light of God’s mercy.’

And then he tried to remember all that he had ever read about, God, and all that the blessed Christ — that bringeth glad tidings of great joy unto all people, had said of the Father, from whom He came. Those sayings dropped like balm down upon his troubled heart and brain. He remembered his mother, and how she had loved him; and he was going to a love wiser, tenderer, deeper than hers.

As he thought this, he moved his hands as if to pray; but Sylvia clenched her hold, and he lay still, praying all the same for her, for his child, and for himself. Then he saw the sky redden with the first flush of dawn; he heard Kester’s long-drawn sigh of weariness outside the open door.

He had seen widow Dobson pass through long before to keep the remainder of her watch on the bed in the lean-to, which had been his for many and many a sleepless and tearful night. Those nights were over — he should never see that poor chamber again, though it was scarce two feet distant. He began to lose all sense of the comparative duration of time: it seemed as long since kind Sally Dobson had bent over him with soft, lingering look, before going into the humble sleeping-room — as long as it was since his boyhood, when he stood by his mother dreaming of the life that should be his, with the scent of the cowslips tempting him to be off to the woodlands where they grew. Then there came a rush and an eddying through his brain — his soul trying her wings for the long flight. Again he was in the present: he heard the waves lapping against the shelving shore once again.

And now his thoughts came back to Sylvia. Once more he spoke aloud, in a strange and terrible voice, which was not his. Every sound came with efforts that were new to him.

‘My wife! Sylvie! Once more — forgive me all.’

She sprang up, she kissed his poor burnt lips; she held him in her arms, she moaned, and said,

‘Oh, wicked me! forgive me — me — Philip!’

Then he spoke, and said, ‘Lord, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive each other!’ And after that the power of speech was conquered by the coming death. He lay very still, his consciousness fast fading away, yet coming back in throbs, so that he knew it was Sylvia who touched his lips with cordial, and that it was Sylvia who murmured words of love in his ear. He seemed to sleep at last, and so he did — a kind of sleep, but the light of the red morning sun fell on his eyes, and with one strong effort he rose up, and turned so as once more to see his wife’s pale face of misery.

‘In heaven,’ he cried, and a bright smile came on his face, as he fell back on his pillow.

Not long after Hester came, the little Bella scarce awake in her arms, with the purpose of bringing his child to see him ere yet he passed away. Hester had watched and prayed through the livelong night. And now she found him dead, and Sylvia, tearless and almost unconscious, lying by him, her hand holding his, her other thrown around him.

Kester, poor old man, was sobbing bitterly; but she not at all.

Then Hester bore her child to her, and Sylvia opened wide her miserable eyes, and only stared, as if all sense was gone from her. But Bella suddenly rousing up at the sight of the poor, scarred, peaceful face, cried out —

‘Poor man who was so hungry. Is he not hungry now?’

‘No,’ said Hester, softly. ‘The former things are passed away — and he is gone where there is no more sorrow, and no more pain.’

But then she broke down into weeping and crying. Sylvia sat up and looked at her.

‘Why do yo’ cry, Hester?’ she said. ‘Yo’ niver said that yo’ wouldn’t forgive him as long as yo’ lived. Yo’ niver broke the heart of him that loved yo’, and let him almost starve at yo’r very door. Oh, Philip! my Philip, tender and true.’

Then Hester came round and closed the sad half-open eyes; kissing the calm brow with a long farewell kiss. As she did so, her eye fell on a black ribbon round his neck. She partly lifted it out; to it was hung a half-crown piece.

‘This is the piece he left at William Darley’s to be bored,’ said she, ‘not many days ago.’

Bella had crept to her mother’s arms as a known haven in this strange place; and the touch of his child loosened the fountains of her tears. She stretched out her hand for the black ribbon, put it round her own neck; after a while she said,

‘If I live very long, and try hard to be very good all that time, do yo’ think, Hester, as God will let me to him where he is?’

* * * * *

Monkshaven is altered now into a rising bathing place. Yet, standing near the site of widow Dobson’s house on a summer’s night, at the ebb of a spring-tide, you may hear the waves come lapping up the shelving shore with the same ceaseless, ever-recurrent sound as that which Philip listened to in the pauses between life and death.

And so it will be until ‘there shall be no more sea’.

But the memory of man fades away. A few old people can still tell you the tradition of the man who died in a cottage somewhere about this spot — died of starvation while his wife lived in hard-hearted plenty not two good stone-throws away. This is the form into which popular feeling, and ignorance of the real facts, have moulded the story. Not long since a lady went to the ‘Public Baths’, a handsome stone building erected on the very site of widow Dobson’s cottage, and finding all the rooms engaged she sat down and had some talk with the bathing woman; and, as it chanced, the conversation fell on Philip Hepburn and the legend of his fate.

‘I knew an old man when I was a girl,’ said the bathing woman, ‘as could niver abide to hear t’ wife blamed. He would say nothing again’ th’ husband; he used to say as it were not fit for men to be judging; that she had had her sore trial, as well as Hepburn hisself.’

The lady asked, ‘What became of the wife?’

‘She was a pale, sad woman, allays dressed in black. I can just remember her when I was a little child, but she died before her daughter was well grown up; and Miss Rose took t’ lassie, as had always been like her own.’

‘Miss Rose?’

‘Hester Rose! have yo’ niver heared of Hester Rose, she as founded t’ alms-houses for poor disabled sailors and soldiers on t’ Horncastle road? There’s a piece o’ stone in front to say that “This building is erected in memory of P. H.”— and some folk will have it P. H. stands for t’ name o’ th’ man as was starved to death.’

‘And the daughter?’

‘One o’ th’ Fosters, them as founded t’ Old Bank, left her a vast o’ money; and she were married to distant cousin of theirs, and went off to settle in America many and many a year ago.’

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