Life's Little Ironies, by Thomas Hardy

To Please His Wife

Chapter I

The interior of St. James’s Church, in Havenpool Town, was slowly darkening under the close clouds of a winter afternoon. It was Sunday: service had just ended, the face of the parson in the pulpit was buried in his hands, and the congregation, with a cheerful sigh of release, were rising from their knees to depart.

For the moment the stillness was so complete that the surging of the sea could be heard outside the harbour-bar. Then it was broken by the footsteps of the clerk going towards the west door to open it in the usual manner for the exit of the assembly. Before, however, he had reached the doorway, the latch was lifted from without, and the dark figure of a man in a sailor’s garb appeared against the light.

The clerk stepped aside, the sailor closed the door gently behind him, and advanced up the nave till he stood at the chancel-step. The parson looked up from the private little prayer which, after so many for the parish, he quite fairly took for himself; rose to his feet, and stared at the intruder.

‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ said the sailor, addressing the minister in a voice distinctly audible to all the congregation. ‘I have come here to offer thanks for my narrow escape from shipwreck. I am given to understand that it is a proper thing to do, if you have no objection?’

The parson, after a moment’s pause, said hesitatingly, ‘I have no objection; certainly. It is usual to mention any such wish before service, so that the proper words may be used in the General Thanksgiving. But, if you wish, we can read from the form for use after a storm at sea.’

‘Ay, sure; I ain’t particular,’ said the sailor.

The clerk thereupon directed the sailor to the page in the prayer-book where the collect of thanksgiving would be found, and the rector began reading it, the sailor kneeling where he stood, and repeating it after him word by word in a distinct voice. The people, who had remained agape and motionless at the proceeding, mechanically knelt down likewise; but they continued to regard the isolated form of the sailor who, in the precise middle of the chancel-step, remained fixed on his knees, facing the east, his hat beside him, his hands joined, and he quite unconscious of his appearance in their regard.

When his thanksgiving had come to an end he rose; the people rose also, and all went out of church together. As soon as the sailor emerged, so that the remaining daylight fell upon his face, old inhabitants began to recognize him as no other than Shadrach Jolliffe, a young man who had not been seen at Havenpool for several years. A son of the town, his parents had died when he was quite young, on which account he had early gone to sea, in the Newfoundland trade.

He talked with this and that townsman as he walked, informing them that, since leaving his native place years before, he had become captain and owner of a small coasting-ketch, which had providentially been saved from the gale as well as himself. Presently he drew near to two girls who were going out of the churchyard in front of him; they had been sitting in the nave at his entry, and had watched his doings with deep interest, afterwards discussing him as they moved out of church together. One was a slight and gentle creature, the other a tall, large-framed, deliberative girl. Captain Jolliffe regarded the loose curls of their hair, their backs and shoulders, down to their heels, for some time.

‘Who may them two maids be?’ he whispered to his neighbour.

‘The little one is Emily Hanning; the tall one Joanna Phippard.’

‘Ah! I recollect ’em now, to be sure.’

He advanced to their elbow, and genially stole a gaze at them.

‘Emily, you don’t know me?’ said the sailor, turning his beaming brown eyes on her.

‘I think I do, Mr. Jolliffe,’ said Emily shyly.

The other girl looked straight at him with her dark eyes.

‘The face of Miss Joanna I don’t call to mind so well,’ he continued. ‘But I know her beginnings and kindred.’

They walked and talked together, Jolliffe narrating particulars of his late narrow escape, till they reached the corner of Sloop Lane, in which Emily Hanning dwelt, when, with a nod and smile, she left them. Soon the sailor parted also from Joanna, and, having no especial errand or appointment, turned back towards Emily’s house. She lived with her father, who called himself an accountant, the daughter, however, keeping a little stationery-shop as a supplemental provision for the gaps of his somewhat uncertain business. On entering Jolliffe found father and daughter about to begin tea.

‘O, I didn’t know it was tea-time,’ he said. ‘Ay, I’ll have a cup with much pleasure.’

He remained to tea and long afterwards, telling more tales of his seafaring life. Several neighbours called to listen, and were asked to come in. Somehow Emily Hanning lost her heart to the sailor that Sunday night, and in the course of a week or two there was a tender understanding between them.

One moonlight evening in the next month Shadrach was ascending out of the town by the long straight road eastward, to an elevated suburb where the more fashionable houses stood — if anything near this ancient port could be called fashionable — when he saw a figure before him whom, from her manner of glancing back, he took to be Emily. But, on coming up, he found she was Joanna Phippard. He gave a gallant greeting, and walked beside her.

‘Go along,’ she said, ‘or Emily will be jealous!’

He seemed not to like the suggestion, and remained. What was said and what was done on that walk never could be clearly recollected by Shadrach; but in some way or other Joanna contrived to wean him away from her gentler and younger rival. From that week onwards, Jolliffe was seen more and more in the wake of Joanna Phippard and less in the company of Emily; and it was soon rumoured about the quay that old Jolliffe’s son, who had come home from sea, was going to be married to the former young woman, to the great disappointment of the latter.

Just after this report had gone about, Joanna dressed herself for a walk one morning, and started for Emily’s house in the little cross-street. Intelligence of the deep sorrow of her friend on account of the loss of Shadrach had reached her ears also, and her conscience reproached her for winning him away.

Joanna was not altogether satisfied with the sailor. She liked his attentions, and she coveted the dignity of matrimony; but she had never been deeply in love with Jolliffe. For one thing, she was ambitious, and socially his position was hardly so good as her own, and there was always the chance of an attractive woman mating considerably above her. It had long been in her mind that she would not strongly object to give him back again to Emily if her friend felt so very badly about him. To this end she had written a letter of renunciation to Shadrach, which letter she carried in her hand, intending to send it if personal observation of Emily convinced her that her friend was suffering.

Joanna entered Sloop Lane and stepped down into the stationery-shop, which was below the pavement level. Emily’s father was never at home at this hour of the day, and it seemed as though Emily were not at home either, for the visitor could make nobody hear. Customers came so seldom hither that a five minutes’ absence of the proprietor counted for little. Joanna waited in the little shop, where Emily had tastefully set out — as women can — articles in themselves of slight value, so as to obscure the meagreness of the stock-intrade; till she saw a figure pausing without the window apparently absorbed in the contemplation of the sixpenny books, packets of paper, and prints hung on a string. It was Captain Shadrach Jolliffe, peering in to ascertain if Emily were there alone. Moved by an impulse of reluctance to meet him in a spot which breathed of Emily, Joanna slipped through the door that communicated with the parlour at the back. She had frequently done so before, for in her friendship with Emily she had the freedom of the house without ceremony.

Jolliffe entered the shop. Through the thin blind which screened the glass partition she could see that he was disappointed at not finding Emily there. He was about to go out again, when Emily’s form darkened the doorway, hastening home from some errand. At sight of Jolliffe she started back as if she would have gone out again.

‘Don’t run away, Emily; don’t!’ said he. ‘What can make ye afraid?’

‘I’m not afraid, Captain Jolliffe. Only — only I saw you all of a sudden, and — it made me jump!’ Her voice showed that her heart had jumped even more than the rest of her.

‘I just called as I was passing,’ he said.

‘For some paper?’ She hastened behind the counter.

‘No, no, Emily; why do ye get behind there? Why not stay by me? You seem to hate me.’

‘I don’t hate you. How can I?’

‘Then come out, so that we can talk like Christians.’

Emily obeyed with a fitful laugh, till she stood again beside him in the open part of the shop.

‘There’s a dear,’ he said.

‘You mustn’t say that, Captain Jolliffe; because the words belong to somebody else.’

‘Ah! I know what you mean. But, Emily, upon my life I didn’t know till this morning that you cared one bit about me, or I should not have done as I have done. I have the best of feelings for Joanna, but I know that from the beginning she hasn’t cared for me more than in a friendly way; and I see now the one I ought to have asked to be my wife. You know, Emily, when a man comes home from sea after a long voyage he’s as blind as a bat — he can’t see who’s who in women. They are all alike to him, beautiful creatures, and he takes the first that comes easy, without thinking if she loves him, or if he might not soon love another better than her. From the first I inclined to you most, but you were so backward and shy that I thought you didn’t want me to bother ’ee, and so I went to Joanna.’

‘Don’t say any more, Mr. Jolliffe, don’t!’ said she, choking. ‘You are going to marry Joanna next month, and it is wrong to — to —’

‘O, Emily, my darling!’ he cried, and clasped her little figure in his arms before she was aware.

Joanna, behind the curtain, turned pale, tried to withdraw her eyes, but could not.

‘It is only you I love as a man ought to love the woman he is going to marry; and I know this from what Joanna has said, that she will willingly let me off! She wants to marry higher I know, and only said “Yes” to me out of kindness. A fine, tall girl like her isn’t the sort for a plain sailor’s wife: you be the best suited for that.’

He kissed her and kissed her again, her flexible form quivering in the agitation of his embrace.

‘I wonder — are you sure — Joanna is going to break off with you? O, are you sure? Because —’

‘I know she would not wish to make us miserable. She will release me.’

‘O, I hope — I hope she will! Don’t stay any longer, Captain Jolliffe!’

He lingered, however, till a customer came for a penny stick of sealing-wax, and then he withdrew.

Green envy had overspread Joanna at the scene. She looked about for a way of escape. To get out without Emily’s knowledge of her visit was indispensable. She crept from the parlour into the passage, and thence to the front door of the house, where she let herself noiselessly into the street.

The sight of that caress had reversed all her resolutions. She could not let Shadrach go. Reaching home she burnt the letter, and told her mother that if Captain Jolliffe called she was too unwell to see him.

Shadrach, however, did not call. He sent her a note expressing in simple language the state of his feelings; and asked to be allowed to take advantage of the hints she had given him that her affection, too, was little more than friendly, by cancelling the engagement.

Looking out upon the harbour and the island beyond he waited and waited in his lodgings for an answer that did not come. The suspense grew to be so intolerable that after dark he went up the High Street. He could not resist calling at Joanna’s to learn his fate.

Her mother said her daughter was too unwell to see him, and to his questioning admitted that it was in consequence of a letter received from himself; which had distressed her deeply.

‘You know what it was about, perhaps, Mrs. Phippard?’ he said.

Mrs. Phippard owned that she did, adding that it put them in a very painful position. Thereupon Shadrach, fearing that he had been guilty of an enormity, explained that if his letter had pained Joanna it must be owing to a misunderstanding, since he had thought it would be a relief to her. If otherwise, he would hold himself bound by his word, and she was to think of the letter as never having been written.

Next morning he received an oral message from the young woman, asking him to fetch her home from a meeting that evening. This he did, and while walking from the Town Hall to her door, with her hand in his arm, she said:

‘It is all the same as before between us, isn’t it, Shadrach? Your letter was sent in mistake?’

‘It is all the same as before,’ he answered, ‘if you say it must be.’

‘I wish it to be,’ she murmured, with hard lineaments, as she thought of Emily.

Shadrach was a religious and scrupulous man, who respected his word as his life. Shortly afterwards the wedding took place, Jolliffe having conveyed to Emily as gently as possible the error he had fallen into when estimating Joanna’s mood as one of indifference.

Chapter II

A month after the marriage Joanna’s mother died, and the couple were obliged to turn their attention to very practical matters. Now that she was left without a parent, Joanna could not bear the notion of her husband going to sea again, but the question was, What could he do at home? They finally decided to take on a grocer’s shop in High Street, the goodwill and stock of which were waiting to be disposed of at that time. Shadrach knew nothing of shopkeeping, and Joanna very little, but they hoped to learn.

To the management of this grocery business they now devoted all their energies, and continued to conduct it for many succeeding years, without great success. Two sons were born to them, whom their mother loved to idolatry, although she had never passionately loved her husband; and she lavished upon them all her forethought and care. But the shop did not thrive, and the large dreams she had entertained of her sons’ education and career became attenuated in the face of realities. Their schooling was of the plainest, but, being by the sea, they grew alert in all such nautical arts and enterprises as were attractive to their age.

The great interest of the Jolliffes’ married life, outside their own immediate household, had lain in the marriage of Emily. By one of those odd chances which lead those that lurk in unexpected corners to be discovered, while the obvious are passed by, the gentle girl had been seen and loved by a thriving merchant of the town, a widower, some years older than herself, though still in the prime of life. At first Emily had declared that she never, never could marry any one; but Mr. Lester had quietly persevered, and had at last won her reluctant assent. Two children also were the fruits of this union, and, as they grew and prospered, Emily declared that she had never supposed that she could live to be so happy.

The worthy merchant’s home, one of those large, substantial brick mansions frequently jammed up in old-fashioned towns, faced directly on the High Street, nearly opposite to the grocery shop of the Jolliffes, and it now became the pain of Joanna to behold the woman whose place she had usurped out of pure covetousness, looking down from her position of comparative wealth upon the humble shop-window with its dusty sugar-loaves, heaps of raisins, and canisters of tea, over which it was her own lot to preside. The business having so dwindled, Joanna was obliged to serve in the shop herself; and it galled and mortified her that Emily Lester, sitting in her large drawing-room over the way, could witness her own dancings up and down behind the counter at the beck and call of wretched twopenny customers, whose patronage she was driven to welcome gladly: persons to whom she was compelled to be civil in the street, while Emily was bounding along with her children and her governess, and conversing with the genteelest people of the town and neighbourhood. This was what she had gained by not letting Shadrach Jolliffe, whom she had so faintly loved, carry his affection elsewhere.

Shadrach was a good and honest man, and he had been faithful to her in heart and in deed. Time had clipped the wings of his love for Emily in his devotion to the mother of his boys: he had quite lived down that impulsive earlier fancy, and Emily had become in his regard nothing more than a friend. It was the same with Emily’s feelings for him. Possibly, had she found the least cause for jealousy, Joanna would almost have been better satisfied. It was in the absolute acquiescence of Emily and Shadrach in the results she herself had contrived that her discontent found nourishment.

Shadrach was not endowed with the narrow shrewdness necessary for developing a retail business in the face of many competitors. Did a customer inquire if the grocer could really recommend the wondrous substitute for eggs which a persevering bagman had forced into his stock, he would answer that ‘when you did not put eggs into a pudding it was difficult to taste them there’; and when he was asked if his ‘real Mocha coffee’ was real Mocha, he would say grimly, ‘as understood in small shops.’

One summer day, when the big brick house opposite was reflecting the oppressive sun’s heat into the shop, and nobody was present but husband and wife, Joanna looked across at Emily’s door, where a wealthy visitor’s carriage had drawn up. Traces of patronage had been visible in Emily’s manner of late.

‘Shadrach, the truth is, you are not a business-man,’ his wife sadly murmured. ‘You were not brought up to shopkeeping, and it is impossible for a man to make a fortune at an occupation he has jumped into, as you did into this.’

Jolliffe agreed with her, in this as in everything else.

‘Not that I care a rope’s end about making a fortune,’ he said cheerfully. ‘I am happy enough, and we can rub on somehow.’

She looked again at the great house through the screen of bottled pickles.

‘Rub on — yes,’ she said bitterly. ‘But see how well off Emmy Lester is, who used to be so poor! Her boys will go to College, no doubt; and think of yours — obliged to go to the Parish School!’

Shadrach’s thoughts had flown to Emily.

‘Nobody,’ he said good-humouredly, ‘ever did Emily a better turn than you did, Joanna, when you warned her off me and put an end to that little simpering nonsense between us, so as to leave it in her power to say “Aye” to Lester when he came along.’ This almost maddened her.

‘Don’t speak of bygones!’ she implored, in stern sadness. ‘But think, for the boys’ and my sake, if not for your own, what are we to do to get richer?’

‘Well,’ he said, becoming serious, ‘to tell the truth, I have always felt myself unfit for this business, though I’ve never liked to say so. I seem to want more room for sprawling; a more open space to strike out in than here among friends and neighbours. I could get rich as well as any man, if I tried my own way.’

‘I wish you would! What is your way?’

‘To go to sea again.’

She had been the very one to keep him at home, hating the semi-widowed existence of sailors’ wives. But her ambition checked her instincts now, and she said: ‘Do you think success really lies that way?’

‘I am sure it lies in no other.’

‘Do you want to go, Shadrach?’

‘Not for the pleasure of it, I can tell ’ee. There’s no such pleasure at sea, Joanna, as I can find in my back parlour here. To speak honest, I have no love for the brine. I never had much. But if it comes to a question of a fortune for you and the lads, it is another thing. That’s the only way to it for one born and bred a seafarer as I.’

‘Would it take long to earn?’

‘Well, that depends; perhaps not.’

The next morning Shadrach pulled from a chest of drawers the nautical jacket he had worn during the first months of his return, brushed out the moths, donned it, and walked down to the quay. The port still did a fair business in the Newfoundland trade, though not so much as formerly.

It was not long after this that he invested all he possessed in purchasing a part-ownership in a brig, of which he was appointed captain. A few months were passed in coast-trading, during which interval Shadrach wore off the land-rust that had accumulated upon him in his grocery phase; and in the spring the brig sailed for Newfoundland.

Joanna lived on at home with her sons, who were now growing up into strong lads, and occupying themselves in various ways about the harbour and quay.

‘Never mind, let them work a little,’ their fond mother said to herself. ‘Our necessities compel it now, but when Shadrach comes home they will be only seventeen and eighteen, and they shall be removed from the port, and their education thoroughly taken in hand by a tutor; and with the money they’ll have they will perhaps be as near to gentlemen as Emmy Lester’s precious two, with their algebra and their Latin!’

The date for Shadrach’s return drew near and arrived, and he did not appear. Joanna was assured that there was no cause for anxiety, sailing-ships being so uncertain in their coming; which assurance proved to be well grounded, for late one wet evening, about a month after the calculated time, the ship was announced as at hand, and presently the slip-slop step of Shadrach as the sailor sounded in the passage, and he entered. The boys had gone out and had missed him, and Joanna was sitting alone.

As soon as the first emotion of reunion between the couple had passed, Jolliffe explained the delay as owing to a small speculative contract, which had produced good results.

‘I was determined not to disappoint ’ee,’ he said; ‘and I think you’ll own that I haven’t!’

With this he pulled out an enormous canvas bag, full and rotund as the money-bag of the giant whom Jack slew, untied it, and shook the contents out into her lap as she sat in her low chair by the fire. A mass of sovereigns and guineas (there were guineas on the earth in those days) fell into her lap with a sudden thud, weighing down her gown to the floor.

‘There!’ said Shadrach complacently. ‘I told ’ee, dear, I’d do it; and have I done it or no?’

Somehow her face, after the first excitement of possession, did not retain its glory.

‘It is a lot of gold, indeed,’ she said. ‘And — is this ALL?’

‘All? Why, dear Joanna, do you know you can count to three hundred in that heap? It is a fortune!’

‘Yes — yes. A fortune — judged by sea; but judged by land —’

However, she banished considerations of the money for the nonce. Soon the boys came in, and next Sunday Shadrach returned thanks to God — this time by the more ordinary channel of the italics in the General Thanksgiving. But a few days after, when the question of investing the money arose, he remarked that she did not seem so satisfied as he had hoped.

‘Well you see, Shadrach,’ she answered, ‘WE count by hundreds; THEY count by thousands’ (nodding towards the other side of the Street). ‘They have set up a carriage and pair since you left.’

‘O, have they?’

‘My dear Shadrach, you don’t know how the world moves. However, we’ll do the best we can with it. But they are rich, and we are poor still!’

The greater part of a year was desultorily spent. She moved sadly about the house and shop, and the boys were still occupying themselves in and around the harbour.

‘Joanna,’ he said, one day, ‘I see by your movements that it is not enough.’

‘It is not enough,’ said she. ‘My boys will have to live by steering the ships that the Lesters own; and I was once above her!’

Jolliffe was not an argumentative man, and he only murmured that he thought he would make another voyage.

He meditated for several days, and coming home from the quay one afternoon said suddenly:

‘I could do it for ’ee, dear, in one more trip, for certain, if — if — ‘

‘Do what, Shadrach?’

‘Enable ’ee to count by thousands instead of hundreds.’

‘If what?’

‘If I might take the boys.’

She turned pale.

‘Don’t say that, Shadrach,’ she answered hastily.

‘Why?’

‘I don’t like to hear it! There’s danger at sea. I want them to be something genteel, and no danger to them. I couldn’t let them risk their lives at sea. O, I couldn’t ever, ever!’

‘Very well, dear, it shan’t be done.’

Next day, after a silence, she asked a question:

‘If they were to go with you it would make a great deal of difference, I suppose, to the profit?’

‘‘Twould treble what I should get from the venture single-handed. Under my eye they would be as good as two more of myself.’

Later on she said: ‘Tell me more about this.’

‘Well, the boys are almost as clever as master-mariners in handling a craft, upon my life! There isn’t a more cranky place in the Northern Seas than about the sandbanks of this harbour, and they’ve practised here from their infancy. And they are so steady. I couldn’t get their steadiness and their trustworthiness in half a dozen men twice their age.’

‘And is it VERY dangerous at sea; now, too, there are rumours of war?’ she asked uneasily.

‘O, well, there be risks. Still . . . ’

The idea grew and magnified, and the mother’s heart was crushed and stifled by it. Emmy was growing TOO patronizing; it could not be borne. Shadrach’s wife could not help nagging him about their comparative poverty. The young men, amiable as their father, when spoken to on the subject of a voyage of enterprise, were quite willing to embark; and though they, like their father, had no great love for the sea, they became quite enthusiastic when the proposal was detailed.

Everything now hung upon their mother’s assent. She withheld it long, but at last gave the word: the young men might accompany their father. Shadrach was unusually cheerful about it: Heaven had preserved him hitherto, and he had uttered his thanks. God would not forsake those who were faithful to him.

All that the Jolliffes possessed in the world was put into the enterprise. The grocery stock was pared down to the least that possibly could afford a bare sustenance to Joanna during the absence, which was to last through the usual ‘New-f’nland spell.’ How she would endure the weary time she hardly knew, for the boys had been with her formerly; but she nerved herself for the trial.

The ship was laden with boots and shoes, ready-made clothing, fishing-tackle, butter, cheese, cordage, sailcloth, and many other commodities; and was to bring back oil, furs, skins, fish, cranberries, and what else came to hand. But much trading to other ports was to be undertaken between the voyages out and homeward, and thereby much money made.

Chapter III

The brig sailed on a Monday morning in spring; but Joanna did not witness its departure. She could not bear the sight that she had been the means of bringing about. Knowing this, her husband told her overnight that they were to sail some time before noon next day hence when, awakening at five the next morning, she heard them bustling about downstairs, she did not hasten to descend, but lay trying to nerve herself for the parting, imagining they would leave about nine, as her husband had done on his previous voyage. When she did descend she beheld words chalked upon the sloping face of the bureau; but no husband or sons. In the hastily-scrawled lines Shadrach said they had gone off thus not to pain her by a leave-taking; and the sons had chalked under his words: ‘Good-bye, mother!’

She rushed to the quay, and looked down the harbour towards the blue rim of the sea, but she could only see the masts and bulging sails of the Joanna; no human figures. ‘’Tis I have sent them!’ she said wildly, and burst into tears. In the house the chalked ‘Good-bye’ nearly broke her heart. But when she had re-entered the front room, and looked across at Emily’s, a gleam of triumph lit her thin face at her anticipated release from the thraldom of subservience.

To do Emily Lester justice, her assumption of superiority was mainly a figment of Joanna’s brain. That the circumstances of the merchant’s wife were more luxurious than Joanna’s, the former could not conceal; though whenever the two met, which was not very often now, Emily endeavoured to subdue the difference by every means in her power.

The first summer lapsed away; and Joanna meagrely maintained herself by the shop, which now consisted of little more than a window and a counter. Emily was, in truth, her only large customer; and Mrs. Lester’s kindly readiness to buy anything and everything without questioning the quality had a sting of bitterness in it, for it was the uncritical attitude of a patron, and almost of a donor. The long dreary winter moved on; the face of the bureau had been turned to the wall to protect the chalked words of farewell, for Joanna could never bring herself to rub them out; and she often glanced at them with wet eyes. Emily’s handsome boys came home for the Christmas holidays; the University was talked of for them; and still Joanna subsisted as it were with held breath, like a person submerged. Only one summer more, and the ‘spell’ would end. Towards the close of the time Emily called on her quondam friend. She had heard that Joanna began to feel anxious; she had received no letter from husband or sons for some months. Emily’s silks rustled arrogantly when, in response to Joanna’s almost dumb invitation, she squeezed through the opening of the counter and into the parlour behind the shop.

‘YOU are all success, and I am all the other way!’ said Joanna.

‘But why do you think so?’ said Emily. ‘They are to bring back a fortune, I hear.’

‘Ah! will they come? The doubt is more than a woman can bear. All three in one ship — think of that! And I have not heard of them for months!’

‘But the time is not up. You should not meet misfortune half-way.’

‘Nothing will repay me for the grief of their absence!’

‘Then why did you let them go? You were doing fairly well.’

‘I made them go!’ she said, turning vehemently upon Emily. ‘And I’ll tell you why! I could not bear that we should be only muddling on, and you so rich and thriving! Now I have told you, and you may hate me if you will!’

‘I shall never hate you, Joanna.’

And she proved the truth of her words afterwards. The end of autumn came, and the brig should have been in port; but nothing like the Joanna appeared in the channel between the sands. It was now really time to be uneasy. Joanna Jolliffe sat by the fire, and every gust of wind caused her a cold thrill. She had always feared and detested the sea; to her it was a treacherous, restless, slimy creature, glorying in the griefs of women. ‘Still,’ she said, ‘they MUST come!’

She recalled to her mind that Shadrach had said before starting that if they returned safe and sound, with success crowning their enterprise, he would go as he had gone after his shipwreck, and kneel with his sons in the church, and offer sincere thanks for their deliverance. She went to church regularly morning and afternoon, and sat in the most forward pew, nearest the chancel-step. Her eyes were mostly fixed on that step, where Shadrach had knelt in the bloom of his young manhood: she knew to an inch the spot which his knees had pressed twenty winters before; his outline as he had knelt, his hat on the step beside him. God was good. Surely her husband must kneel there again: a son on each side as he had said; George just here, Jim just there. By long watching the spot as she worshipped it became as if she saw the three returned ones there kneeling; the two slim outlines of her boys, the more bulky form between them; their hands clasped, their heads shaped against the eastern wall. The fancy grew almost to an hallucination: she could never turn her worn eyes to the step without seeing them there.

Nevertheless they did not come. Heaven was merciful, but it was not yet pleased to relieve her soul. This was her purgation for the sin of making them the slaves of her ambition. But it became more than purgation soon, and her mood approached despair. Months had passed since the brig had been due, but it had not returned.

Joanna was always hearing or seeing evidences of their arrival. When on the hill behind the port, whence a view of the open Channel could be obtained, she felt sure that a little speck on the horizon, breaking the eternally level waste of waters southward, was the truck of the Joana’s mainmast. Or when indoors, a shout or excitement of any kind at the corner of the Town Cellar, where the High Street joined the Quay, caused her to spring to her feet and cry: ‘’Tis they!’

But it was not. The visionary forms knelt every Sunday afternoon on the chancel-step, but not the real. Her shop had, as it were, eaten itself hollow. In the apathy which had resulted from her loneliness and grief she had ceased to take in the smallest supplies, and thus had sent away her last customer.

In this strait Emily Lester tried by every means in her power to aid the afflicted woman; but she met with constant repulses.

‘I don’t like you! I can’t bear to see you!’ Joanna would whisper hoarsely when Emily came to her and made advances.

‘But I want to help and soothe you, Joanna,’ Emily would say.

‘You are a lady, with a rich husband and fine sons! What can you want with a bereaved crone like me!’

‘Joanna, I want this: I want you to come and live in my house, and not stay alone in this dismal place any longer.’

‘And suppose they come and don’t find me at home? You wish to separate me and mine! No, I’ll stay here. I don’t like you, and I can’t thank you, whatever kindness you do me!’

However, as time went on Joanna could not afford to pay the rent of the shop and house without an income. She was assured that all hope of the return of Shadrach and his sons was vain, and she reluctantly consented to accept the asylum of the Lesters’ house. Here she was allotted a room of her own on the second floor, and went and came as she chose, without contact with the family. Her hair greyed and whitened, deep lines channeled her forehead, and her form grew gaunt and stooping. But she still expected the lost ones, and when she met Emily on the staircase she would say morosely: ‘I know why you’ve got me here! They’ll come, and be disappointed at not finding me at home, and perhaps go away again; and then you’ll be revenged for my taking Shadrach away from ’ee!’

Emily Lester bore these reproaches from the grief-stricken soul. She was sure — all the people of Havenpool were sure — that Shadrach and his sons could not return. For years the vessel had been given up as lost.

Nevertheless, when awakened at night by any noise, Joanna would rise from bed and glance at the shop opposite by the light from the flickering lamp, to make sure it was not they.

It was a damp and dark December night, six years after the departure of the brig Joanna. The wind was from the sea, and brought up a fishy mist which mopped the face like moist flannel. Joanna had prayed her usual prayer for the absent ones with more fervour and confidence than she had felt for months, and had fallen asleep about eleven. It must have been between one and two when she suddenly started up. She had certainly heard steps in the street, and the voices of Shadrach and her sons calling at the door of the grocery shop. She sprang out of bed, and, hardly knowing what clothing she dragged on herself; hastened down Emily’s large and carpeted staircase, put the candle on the hall-table, unfastened the bolts and chain, and stepped into the street. The mist, blowing up the street from the Quay, hindered her seeing the shop, although it was so near; but she had crossed to it in a moment. How was it? Nobody stood there. The wretched woman walked wildly up and down with her bare feet — there was not a soul. She returned and knocked with all her might at the door which had once been her own — they might have been admitted for the night, unwilling to disturb her till the morning.

It was not till several minutes had elapsed that the young man who now kept the shop looked out of an upper window, and saw the skeleton of something human standing below half-dressed.

‘Has anybody come?’ asked the form.

‘O, Mrs. Jolliffe, I didn’t know it was you,’ said the young man kindly, for he was aware how her baseless expectations moved her. ‘No; nobody has come.’

June 1891.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:22