It was the year 1812. I had lived for ten years as a brother in my adopted brother’s house, whither he had brought me on the day of my father’s funeral; entreating that I should never leave it again. For, as was shortly afterwards made clear, fate — say Providence — was now inevitably releasing him from a bond, from which, so long as my poor father lived, John would never have released himself. It was discovered that the profits of the tanning trade had long been merely nominal — that of necessity, for the support of our two families, the tan-yard must be sold, and the business confined entirely to the flour-mill.
At this crisis, as if the change of all things broke her stout old heart, which never could bend to any new ways — Jael died. We laid her at my father’s and mother’s feet — poor old Jael! and that grave-yard in St. Mary’s Lane now covered over all who loved me, all who were of my youth day — my very own.
So thought I— or might have thought — but that John and Ursula then demanded with one voice, “Brother, come home.”
I resisted long: for it is one of my decided opinions that married people ought to have no one, be the tie ever so close and dear, living permanently with them, to break the sacred duality — no, let me say the unity of their home.
I wished to try and work for my living, if that were possible — if not, that out of the wreck of my father’s trade might be found enough to keep me, in some poor way. But John Halifax would not hear of that. And Ursula — she was sitting sewing, while the little one lay on her lap, cooing softly with shut eyes — Ursula took my hand to play with Muriel’s. The baby fingers closed over mine —“See there, Phineas; SHE wants you too.” So I stayed.
Perhaps it was on this account that better than all his other children, better than anything on earth except himself, I loved John’s eldest daughter, little blind Muriel.
He had several children now. The dark old house, and the square town garden, were alive with their voices from morning till night. First, and loudest always, was Guy — born the year after Muriel. He was very like his mother, and her darling. After him came two more, Edwin and Walter. But Muriel still remained as “sister”— the only sister either given or desired.
If I could find a name to describe that child it would be not the one her happy mother gave her at her birth, but one more sacred, more tender. She was better than Joy — she was an embodied Peace.
Her motions were slow and tranquil — her voice soft — every expression of her little face extraordinarily serene. Whether creeping about the house, with a foot-fall silent as snow, or sitting among us, either knitting busily at her father’s knee, or listening to his talk and the children’s play, everywhere and always Muriel was the same. No one ever saw her angry, restless, or sad. The soft dark calm in which she lived seemed never broken by the troubles of this our troublous world.
She was, as I have said, from her very babyhood a living peace. And such she was to us all, during those ten struggling years, when our household had much to contend with, much to endure. If at night her father came home jaded and worn, sickened to the soul by the hard battle he had to fight daily, hourly, with the outside world, Muriel would come softly and creep into his bosom, and he was comforted. If, busying herself about, doing faithfully her portion too, that the husband when he came in of evenings might find all cheerful and never know how heavy had been the household cares during the day — if, at times, Ursula’s voice took too sharp a tone, at sight of Muriel it softened at once. No one could speak any but soft and sweet words when the blind child was by.
Yet, I think either parent would have looked amazed had any one pitied them for having a blind child. The loss — a loss only to them, and not to her, the darling! — became familiar, and ceased to wound; the blessedness was ever new. “Ay, and she shall be blessed,” had said my dear father. So she was. From her, or for her, her parents never had to endure a single pain. Even the sicknesses of infancy and childhood, of which the three others had their natural share, always passed her by, as if in pity. Nothing ever ailed Muriel.
The spring of 1812 was an era long remembered in our family. Scarlet fever went through the house — safely, but leaving much care behind. When at last they all came round, and we were able to gather our pale little flock to a garden feast, under the big old pear-tree, it was with the trembling thankfulness of those who have gone through great perils, hardly dared to be recognized as such till they were over.
“Ay, thank God it is over!” said John, as he put his arm round his wife, and looked in her worn face, where still her own smile lingered — her bright, brave smile, that nothing could ever drive away. “And now we must try and make a little holiday for you.”
“Nonsense! I am as well as possible. Did not Dr. Jessop tell me, this morning, I was looking younger than ever? I— a mother of a family, thirty years old? Pray, Uncle Phineas, do I look my age?”
I could not say she did not — especially now. But she wore it so gracefully, so carelessly, that I saw — ay, and truly her husband saw — a sacred beauty about her jaded cheek, more lovely and lovable than all the bloom of her youth. Happy woman! who was not afraid of growing old.
“Love”— John usually called her “Love”— putting it at the beginning of a sentence, as if it had been her natural Christian name — which, as in all infant households, had been gradually dropped or merged into the universal title of “Mother.” My name for her was always emphatically “The Mother”— the truest type of motherhood I ever knew.
“Love,” her husband began again, after a long look in her face — ah, John, thine was altered too, but himself was the last thing he thought of —“say what you like — I know what we’ll do: for the children’s sake. Ah, that’s her weak point; — see, Phineas, she is yielding now. We’ll go for three months to Longfield.”
Now Longfield was the Utopia of our family, old and young. A very simple family we must have been — for this Longfield was only a small farm-house, about six miles off, where once we had been to tea, and where ever since we had longed to live. For, pretty as our domain had grown, it was still in the middle of a town, and the children, like all naturally-reared children, craved after the freedom of the country — after corn-fields, hay-fields, nuttings, blackberryings — delights hitherto known only at rare intervals, when their father could spare a whole long day, and be at once the sun and the shield of the happy little band.
“Hearken, children! father says we shall go for three whole months to live at Longfield.”
The three boys set up a shout of ecstacy.
“I’ll swim boats down the stream, and catch and ride every one of the horses. Hurrah!” shouted Guy.
“And I’ll see after the ducks and chickens, and watch all the threshing and winnowing,” said Edwin, the practical and grave.
“And I’ll get a ‘ittle ‘amb to p’ay wid me,” lisped Walter — still “the baby”— or considered such, and petted accordingly.
“But what does my little daughter say?” said the father, turning — as he always turned, at the lightest touch of those soft, blind fingers, creeping along his coat sleeve. “What will Muriel do at Longfield?”
“Muriel will sit all day and hear the birds sing.”
“So she shall, my blessing!” He often called her his “blessing,” which in truth she was. To see her now leaning her cheek against his — the small soft face, almost a miniature of his own, the hair, a paler shade of the same bright colour, curling in the same elastic rings — they looked less like ordinary father and daughter, than like a man and his good angel; the visible embodiment of the best half of his soul. So she was ever to him, this child of his youth — his first-born and his dearest.
The Longfield plan being once started, father and mother and I began to consult together as to ways and means; what should be given up, and what increased, of our absolute luxuries, in order that the children might this summer — possibly every summer — have the glory of “living in the country.” Of these domestic consultations there was never any dread, for they were always held in public. There were no secrets in our house. Father and mother, though sometimes holding different opinions, had but one thought, one aim — the family good. Thus, even in our lowest estate there had been no bitterness in our poverty; we met it, looked it in the face, often even laughed at it. For it bound us all together, hand in hand; it taught us endurance, self-dependence, and, best of all lessons, self-renunciation. I think, one’s whole after-life is made easier and more blessed by having known what it was to be very poor when one was young.
Our fortunes were rising now, and any little pleasure did not take near so much contrivance. We found we could manage the Longfield visit — ay, and a horse for John to ride to and fro — without any worse sacrifice than that of leaving Jenny — now Mrs. Jem Watkins, but our cook still — in the house at Norton Bury, and doing with one servant instead of two. Also, though this was not publicly known till afterwards, by the mother’s renouncing a long-promised silk dress — the only one since her marriage, in which she had determined to astonish John by choosing the same colour as that identical grey gown he had seen hanging up in the kitchen at Enderley.
“But one would give up anything,” she said, “that the children might have such a treat, and that father might have rides backwards and forwards through green lanes all summer. Oh, how I wish we could always live in the country!”
“Do you?” And John looked — much as he had looked at long-tailed grey ponies in his bridegroom days — longing to give her every thing she desired. “Well, perhaps, we may manage it some time.”
“When our ship comes in-namely, that money which Richard Brithwood will not pay, and John Halifax will not go to law to make him. Nay, father dear, I am not going to quarrel with any one of your crotchets.” She spoke with a fond pride, as she did always, even when arguing against the too Quixotic carrying out of the said crotchets. “Perhaps, as the reward of forbearance, the money will come some day when we least expect it; then John shall have his heart’s desire, and start the cloth-mills at Enderley.”
John smiled, half-sadly. Every man has a hobby — this was his, and had been for fifteen years. Not merely the making a fortune, as he still firmly believed it could be made, but the position of useful power, the wide range of influence, the infinite opportunities of doing good.
“No, love; I shall never be ‘patriarch of the valley,’ as Phineas used to call it. The yew-hedge is too thick for me, eh, Phineas?”
“No!” cried Ursula — we had told her this little incident of our boyhood —“you have got half through it already. Everybody in Norton Bury knows and respects you. I am sure, Phineas, you might have heard a pin fall at the meeting last night when he spoke against hanging the Luddites. And such a shout as rose when he ended — oh, how proud I was!”
“Of the shout, love?”
“Nonsense! — but of the cause of it. Proud to see my husband defending the poor and the oppressed — proud to see him honoured and looked up to, more and more every year, till —”
“Till it may come at last to the prophecy in your birthday verse —‘Her husband is known in the gates; he sitteth among the elders of the land.’”
Mrs. Halifax laughed at me for reminding her of this, but allowed that she would not dislike its being fulfilled.
“And it will be too. He is already ‘known in the gates’; known far and near. Think how many of our neighbours come to John to settle their differences, instead of going to law! And how many poachers has he not persuaded out of their dishonest —”
“Illegal,” corrected John.
“Well, their illegal ways, and made decent, respectable men of them! Then, see how he is consulted, and his opinion followed, by rich folk as well as poor folk, all about the neighbourhood. I am sure John is as popular, and has as much influence, as many a member of parliament.”
John smiled with an amused twitch about his mouth, but he said nothing. He rarely did say anything about himself — not even in his own household. The glory of his life was its unconsciousness — like our own silent Severn, however broad and grand its current might be, that course seemed the natural channel into which it flowed.
“There’s Muriel,” said the father, listening.
Often thus the child slipped away, and suddenly we heard all over the house the sweet sounds of “Muriel’s voice,” as some one had called the old harpsichord. When almost a baby she would feel her way to it, and find out first harmonies, then tunes, with that quickness and delicacy of ear peculiar to the blind.
“How well she plays! I wish I could buy her one of those new instruments they call ‘pianofortes;’ I was looking into the mechanism of one the other day.”
“She would like an organ better. You should have seen her face in the Abbey church this morning.”
“Hark! she has stopped playing. Guy, run and bring your sister here,” said the father, ever yearning after his darling.
Guy came back with a wonderful story of two gentlemen in the parlour, one of whom had patted his head —“Such a grand gentleman, a great deal grander than father!”
That was true, as regarded the bright nankeens, the blue coat with gold buttons, and the showiest of cambric kerchiefs swathing him up to the very chin. To this “grand” personage John bowed formally, but his wife flushed up in surprised recognition.
“It is so long since I had the happiness of meeting Miss March, that I conclude Mrs. Halifax has forgotten me?”
“No, Lord Luxmore, allow me to introduce my husband.”
And, I fancied, some of Miss March’s old hauteur returned to the mother’s softened and matronly mien; — pride, but not for herself or in herself, now. For, truly, as the two men stood together — though Lord Luxmore had been handsome in his youth, and was universally said to have as fine manners as the Prince Regent himself — any woman might well have held her head loftily, introducing John Halifax as “my husband.”
Of the two, the nobleman was least at his ease, for the welcome of both Mr. and Mrs. Halifax, though courteous, was decidedly cold. They did not seem to feel — and, if rumour spoke true, I doubt if any honest, virtuous, middle-class fathers and mothers would have felt — that their house was greatly honoured or sanctified by the presence of the Earl of Luxmore.
But the nobleman was, as I have said, wonderfully fine-mannered. He broke the ice at once.
“Mr. Halifax, I have long wished to know you. Mrs. Halifax, my daughter encouraged me to pay this impromptu visit.”
Here ensued polite inquiries after Lady Caroline Brithwood; we learned that she was just returned from abroad, and was entertaining, at the Mythe House, her father and brother.
“Pardon — I was forgetting my son — Lord Ravenel.”
The youth thus presented merely bowed. He was about eighteen or so, tall and spare, with thin features and large soft eyes. He soon retreated to the garden-door, where he stood, watching the boys play, and shyly attempting to make friends with Muriel.
“I believe Ravenel has seen you years ago, Mrs. Halifax. His sister made a great pet of him as a child. He has just completed his education — at the College of St. Omer, was it not, William?”
“The Catholic college of St. Omer,” repeated the boy.
“Tut — what matters!” said the father, sharply. “Mr. Halifax, do not imagine we are a Catholic family still. I hope the next Earl of Luxmore will be able to take the oaths and his seat, whether or no we get Emancipation. By the by, you uphold the Bill?”
John assented; expressing his conviction, then unhappily a rare one, that every one’s conscience is free; and that all men of blameless life ought to be protected by, and allowed to serve, the state, whatever be their religious opinions.
“Mr. Halifax, I entirely agree with you. A wise man esteems all faiths alike worthless.”
“Excuse me, my lord, that was the very last thing I meant to say. I hold every man’s faith so sacred, that no other man has a right to interfere with it, or to question it. The matter lies solely between himself and his Maker.”
“Exactly! What facility of expression your husband has, Mrs. Halifax! He must be-indeed, I have heard he is — a first-rate public speaker.”
The wife smiled, wife-like; but John said, hurriedly:
“I have no pretention or ambition of the kind. I merely now and then try to put plain truths, or what I believe to be such, before the people, in a form they are able to understand.”
“Ay, that is it. My dear sir, the people have no more brains than the head of my cane (his Royal Highness’s gift, Mrs. Halifax); they must be led or driven, like a flock of sheep. We”— a lordly “we!”—“are their proper shepherds. But, then, we want a middle class — at least, an occasional voice from it, a —”
“A shepherd’s dog, to give tongue,” said John, dryly. “In short, a public orator. In the House, or out of it?”
“Both.” And the earl tapped his boot with that royal cane, smiling. “Yes; I see you apprehend me. But, before we commence that somewhat delicate subject, there was another on which I desired my agent, Mr. Brown, to obtain your valuable opinion.”
“You mean, when, yesterday, he offered me, by your lordship’s express desire, the lease, lately fallen in, of your cloth-mills at Enderley?”
Now, John had not told us that! — why, his manner too plainly showed.
“And all will be arranged, I trust? Brown says you have long wished to take the mills; I shall be most happy to have you for a tenant.”
“My lord, as I told your agent, it is impossible. We will say no more about it.”
John crossed over to his wife with a cheerful air. She sat looking grave and sad.
Lord Luxmore had the reputation of being a keen-witted, diplomatic personage; undoubtedly he had, or could assume, that winning charm of manner which had descended in perfection to his daughter. Both qualities it pleased him to exercise now. He rose, addressing with kindly frankness the husband and wife.
“If I may ask — being a most sincere well-wisher of yours, and a sort of connection of Mrs. Halifax’s, too — why is it impossible?”
“I have no wish to disguise the reason: it is because I have no capital.”
Lord Luxmore looked surprised. “Surely — excuse me, but I had the honour of being well acquainted with the late Mr. March — surely, your wife’s fortune —”
Ursula rose, in her old impetuous way —“His wife’s fortune! (John, let me say it! — I will, I must!)— of his wife’s fortune, Lord Luxmore, he has never received one farthing. Richard Brithwood keeps it back; and my husband would work day and night for me and our children rather than go to law.”
“Oh! on principle, I suppose? I have heard of such opinions,” said the earl, with the slightest perceptible sneer. “And you agree with him?”
“I do, heartily. I would rather we lived poor all our days than that he should wear his life out, trouble his spirit, perhaps even soil his conscience, by squabbling with a bad man over money matters.”
It was good to see Ursula as she spoke; good to see the look that husband and his wife interchanged — husband and wife, different in many points, yet so blessedly, so safely ONE! Then John said, in his quiet way,
“Love, perhaps another subject than our own affairs would be more interesting to Lord Luxmore.”
“Not at all — not at all!” And the earl was evidently puzzled and annoyed. “Such extraordinary conduct,” he muttered: “so very — ahem! — unwise. If the matter were known — caught up by those newspapers — I must really have a little conversation with Brithwood.”
The conversation paused, and John changed it entirely by making some remarks on the present minister, Mr. Perceval.
“I liked his last speech much. He seems a clear-headed, honest man, for all his dogged opposition to the Bill.”
“He will never oppose it more.”
“Nay, I think he will, my lord — to the death.”
“That may be-and yet —” his lordship smiled. “Mr. Halifax, I have just had news by a carrier pigeon — my birds fly well — most important news for us and our party. Yesterday, in the lobby of the House of Commons, Mr. Perceval was shot.”
We all started. An hour ago we had been reading his speech. Mr. Perceval shot!
“Oh, John,” cried the mother, her eyes full of tears; “his poor wife — his fatherless children!”
And for many minutes they stood, hearing the lamentable history, and looking at their little ones at play in the garden; thinking, as many an English father and mother did that day, of the stately house in London, where the widow and orphans bewailed their dead. He might or might not be a great statesman, but he was undoubtedly a good man; many still remember the shock of his untimely death, and how, whether or not they liked him living, all the honest hearts of England mourned for Mr. Perceval.
Possibly that number did not include the Earl of Luxmore.
“Requiescat in pace! I shall propose the canonization of poor Bellingham. For now Perceval is dead there will be an immediate election; and on that election depends Catholic Emancipation. Mr. Halifax,” turning quickly round to him, “you would be of great use to us in parliament.”
“Will you — I like plain speaking — will you enter it?”
Enter parliament! John Halifax in parliament! His wife and I were both astounded by the suddenness of the possibility; which, however, John himself seemed to receive as no novel idea.
Lord Luxmore continued. “I assure you nothing is more easy; I can bring you in at once, for a borough near here — my family borough.”
“Which you wish to be held by some convenient person till Lord Ravenel comes of age? So Mr. Brown informed me yesterday.”
Lord Luxmore slightly frowned. Such transactions, as common then in the service of the country as they still are in the service of the Church, were yet generally glossed over, as if a certain discredit attached to them. The young lord seemed to feel it; at sound of his name he turned round to listen, and turned back again, blushing scarlet. Not so the earl, his father.
“Brown is —(may I offer you a pinch, Mr. Halifax? — what, not the Prince Regent’s own mixture?)— is indeed a worthy fellow, but too hasty in his conclusions. As it happens, my son is yet undecided between the Church — that is, the priesthood, and politics. But to our conversation — Mrs. Halifax, may I not enlist you on my side? We could easily remove all difficulties, such as qualification, etc. Would you not like to see your husband member for the old and honourable borough of Kingswell?”
“Kingswell!” It was a tumble-down village, where John held and managed for me the sole remnant of landed property which my poor father had left me. “Kingswell! why there are not a dozen houses in the place.”
“The fewer the better, my dear madam. The election would cost me scarcely any — trouble; and the country be vastly the gainer by your husband’s talents and probity. Of course he will give up the — I forget what is his business now — and live independent. He is made to shine as a politician: it will be both happiness and honour to myself to have in some way contributed to that end. Mr. Halifax, you will accept my borough?”
“Not on any consideration your lordship could offer me.”
Lord Luxmore scarcely credited his ears. “My dear sir — you are the most extraordinary — may I again inquire your reasons?”
“I have several; one will suffice. Though I wish to gain influence — power perhaps; still the last thing I should desire would be political influence.”
“You might possibly escape that unwelcome possession,” returned the earl. “Half the House of Commons is made up of harmless dummies, who vote as we bid them.”
“A character, my lord, for which I am decidedly unfitted. Until political conscience ceases to be a thing of traffic, until the people are allowed honestly to choose their own honest representatives, I must decline being of that number. Shall we dismiss the subject?”
“With pleasure, sir.”
And courtesy being met by courtesy, the question so momentous was passed over, and merged into trivialities. Perhaps the earl, who, as his pleasures palled, was understood to be fixing his keen wits upon the pet profligacy of old age, politics — saw, clearly enough, that in these chaotic days of contending parties, when the maddened outcry of the “people” was just being heard and listened to, it might be as well not to make an enemy of this young man, who, with a few more, stood as it were midway in the gulf, now slowly beginning to narrow, between the commonalty and the aristocracy. He stayed some time longer, and then bowed himself away with a gracious condescension worthy of the Prince of Wales himself, carrying with him the shy, gentle Lord Ravenel, who had spoken scarcely six words the whole time.
When he was gone the father and mother seemed both relieved.
“Truly, John, he has gained little by his visit, and I hope it may be long before we see an earl in our quiet house again. Come in to dinner, my children.”
But his lordship had left an uncomfortable impression behind him. It lasted even until that quiet hour — often the quietest and happiest of our day — when, the children being all in bed, we elders closed in round the fire.
Ursula and I sat there, longer alone than usual.
“John is late to-night,” she said more than once; and I could see her start, listening to every foot under the window, every touch at the door-bell; not stirring, though: she knew his foot and his ring quite well always.
“There he is!” we both said at once — much relieved; and John came in.
Brightness always came in with him. Whatever cares he had without — and they were heavy enough, God knows — they always seemed to slip off the moment he entered his own door; and whatever slight cares we had at home, we put them aside; as they could not but be put aside, nay, forgotten — at the sight of him.
“Well, Uncle Phineas! Children all right, my darling? A fire! I’m glad of it. Truly to-night is as cold as November.”
“John, if you have a weakness, it is for fire. You’re a regular salamander.”
He laughed — warming his hands at the blaze. “Yes, I would rather be hungry than cold, any day. Love, our one extravagance is certainly coals. A grand fire this! I do like it so!”
She called him “foolish;” but smoothed down with a quiet kiss the forehead he lifted up to her as she stood beside him, looking as if she would any day have converted the whole house into fuel for his own private and particular benefit.
“Little ones all in bed, of course?”
“Indeed, they would have lain awake half the night — those naughty boys — talking of Longfield. You never saw children so delighted.”
“Are they?” I thought the tone was rather sad, and that the father sat listening with less interest than usual to the pleasant little household chronicle, always wonderful and always new, which it was his custom to ask for and have, night after night, when he came home — saying it was to him, after his day’s toil, like a “babbling o’ green fields.” Soon it stopped.
“John dear, you are very tired?”
“Have you been very busy all day?”
I understood, almost as well as his wife did, what those brief answers indicated; so, stealing away to the table where Guy’s blurred copy-book and Edwin’s astonishing addition sums were greatly in need of Uncle Phineas, I left the fire-side corner to those two. Soon John settled himself in my easy chair, and then one saw how very weary he was — weary in body and soul alike — weary as we seldom beheld him. It went to my heart to watch the listless stretch of his large, strong frame — the sharp lines about his mouth — lines which ought not to have come there in his two-and-thirty years. And his eyes — they hardly looked like John’s eyes, as they gazed in a sort of dull quietude, too anxious to be dreamy, into the red coals — and nowhere else.
At last he roused himself, and took up his wife’s work.
“More little coats! Love, you are always sewing.”
“Mothers must — you know. And I think never did boys outgrow their things like our boys. It is pleasant, too. If only clothes did not wear out so fast.”
“Ah!” A sigh — from the very depths of the father’s heart.
“Not a bit too fast for my clever fingers, though,” said Ursula, quickly. “Look, John, at this lovely braiding. But I’m not going to do any more of it. I shall certainly have no time to waste over fineries at Longfield.”
Her husband took up the fanciful work, admired it, and laid it down again. After a pause he said:
“Should you be very much disappointed if — if we do not go to Longfield after all?”
“Not go to Longfield!” The involuntary exclamation showed how deep her longing had been.
“Because I am afraid — it is hard, I know — but I am afraid we cannot manage it. Are you very sorry?”
“Yes,” she said frankly and truthfully. “Not so much for myself, but — the children.”
“Ay, the poor children.”
Ursula stitched away rapidly for some moments, till the grieved look faded out of her face; then she turned it, all cheerful once more, to her husband. “Now, John, tell me. Never mind about the children. Tell me.”
He told her, as was his habit at all times, of some losses which had today befallen him — bad debts in his business — which would make it, if not impracticable, at least imprudent, to enter on any new expenses that year. Nay, he must, if possible, retrench a little. Ursula listened, without question, comment, or complaint.
“Is that all?” she said at last, very gently.
“Then never mind. I do not. We will find some other pleasures for the children. We have so many pleasures, ay, all of us. Husband, it is not so hard to give up this one.”
He said, in a whisper, low almost as a lover’s, “I could give up anything in the world but them and thee.”
So, with a brief information to me at supper-time —“Uncle Phineas, did you hear? we cannot go to Longfield,”— the renunciation was made, and the subject ended. For this year, at least, our Arcadian dream was over.
But John’s troubled looks did not pass away. It seemed as if this night his long toil had come to that crisis when the strongest man breaks down — or trembles within a hair’s breadth of breaking down; conscious too, horribly conscious, that if so, himself will be the least part of the universal ruin. His face was haggard, his movements irritable and restless; he started nervously at every sound. Sometimes even a hasty word, an uneasiness about trifles, showed how strong was the effort he made at self-control. Ursula, usually by far the most quick-tempered of the two, became to-night mild and patient. She neither watched nor questioned him — wise woman as she was; she only sat still, busying herself over her work, speaking now and then of little things, lest he should notice her anxiety about him. He did at last.
“Nay, I am not ill, do not be afraid. Only my head aches so — let me lay it here as the children do.”
His wife made a place for it on her shoulder; there it rested — the poor tired head, until gradually the hard and painful expression of the features relaxed, and it became John’s own natural face — as quiet as any of the little faces on their pillows up-stairs, whence, doubtless, slumber had long banished all anticipation of Longfield. At last he too fell asleep.
Ursula held up her finger, that I might not stir. The clock in the corner, and the soft sobbing of the flame on the hearth, were the only sounds in the parlour. She sewed on quietly, to the end of her work; then let it drop on her lap, and sat still. Her cheek leaned itself softly against John’s hair, and in her eyes, which seemed so intently contemplating the little frock, I saw large bright tears gather — fall. But her look was serene, nay, happy; as if she thought of these beloved ones, husband and children — her very own — preserved to her in health and peace — ay, and in that which is better than either, the unity of love. For that priceless blessing, for the comfort of being HIS comfort, for the sweetness of bringing up these his children in the fear of God and in the honour of their father — she, true wife and mother as she was, would not have exchanged the wealth of the whole world.
“What’s that?” We all started, as a sudden ring at the bell pealed through the house, waking John, and frightening the very children in their beds. All for a mere letter too, brought by a lacquey of Lord Luxmore’s. Having — somewhat indignantly — ascertained this fact, the mother ran upstairs to quiet her little ones. When she came down, John still stood with the letter in his hand. He had not told me what it was; when I chanced to ask he answered in a low tone —“Presently!” On his wife’s entrance he gave her the letter without a word.
Well might it startle her into a cry of joy. Truly the dealings of heaven to us were wonderful!
“Mr. John Halifax.
“Your wife, Ursula Halifax, having some time since attained the age fixed by her late father as her majority, I will, within a month after date, pay over to your order all moneys, principal and interest, accruing to her, and hitherto left in my hands, as trustee, according to the will of the late Henry March, Esquire.
“I am, sir,
“Wonderful — wonderful!”
It was all I could say. That one bad man, for his own purposes, should influence another bad man to an act of justice — and that their double evil should be made to work out our good! Also, that this should come just in our time of need — when John’s strength seemed ready to fail.
“Oh John — John! now you need not work so hard!”
That was his wife’s first cry, as she clung to him almost in tears.
He too was a good deal agitated. This sudden lifting of the burthen made him feel how heavy it had been — how terrible the responsibility — how sickening the fear.
“Thank God! In any case, you are quite safe now — you and the children!”
He sat down, very pale. His wife knelt beside him, and put her arms around his neck — I quietly went out of the room.
When I came in again, they were standing by the fire-side — both cheerful, as two people to whom had happened such unexpected good fortune might naturally be expected to appear. I offered my congratulations in rather a comical vein than otherwise; we all of us had caught John’s habit of putting things in a comic light whenever he felt them keenly.
“Yes, he is a rich man now — mind you treat your brother with extra respect, Phineas.”
“And your sister too.
‘For she sall walk in silk attire,
And siller hae to spare.’
She’s quite young and handsome still — isn’t she? How magnificent she’ll look in that grey silk gown!”
“John, you ought to be ashamed of yourself! you — the father of a family! you — that are to be the largest mill-owner at Enderley —”
He looked at her fondly, half deprecatingly. “Not till I have made you and the children all safe — as I said.”
“We are safe — quite safe — when we have you. Oh, Phineas! make him see it as I do. Make him understand that it will be the happiest day in his wife’s life when she knows him happy in his heart’s desire.”
We sat a little while longer, talking over the strange change in our fortunes — for they wished to make me feel that now, as ever, what was theirs was mine; then Ursula took her candle to depart.
“Love!” John cried, calling her back as she shut the door, and watching her stand there patient — watching with something of the old mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “Mrs. Halifax, when shall I have the honour of ordering your long-tailed grey ponies?”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48