Father and son — a goodly sight, as they paced side by side up and down the gravel walk —(alas! the pretty field-path belonged to days that were!)— up and down the broad, sunshiny walk, in front of the breakfast-room windows of Beechwood Hall.
It was early — little past eight o’clock; but we kept Longfield hours and Longfield ways still. And besides, this was a grand day — the day of Guy’s coming of age. Curious it seemed to watch him, as he walked along by his father, looking every inch “the young heir;” and perhaps not unconscious that he did so; — curious enough, remembering how meekly the boy had come into the world, at a certain old house at Norton Bury, one rainy December morning, twenty-one years ago.
It was a bright day today — bright as all our faces were, I think, as we gathered round the cosy breakfast-table. There, as heretofore, it was the mother’s pride and the father’s pleasure that not one face should be missing — that, summer and winter, all should assemble for an hour of family fun and family chat, before the busy cares of the day; and by general consent, which had grown into habit, every one tried to keep unclouded this little bit of early sunshine, before the father and brothers went away. No sour or dreary looks, no painful topics, were ever brought to the breakfast-table.
Thus it was against all custom when Mr. Halifax, laying down his paper with a grave countenance, said:
“This is very ill news. Ten Bank failures in the Gazette today.”
“But it will not harm us, father.”
“Edwin is always thinking of ‘us,’ and ‘our business,’” remarked Guy, rather sharply. It was one of the slight — the very slight — jars in our household, that these two lads, excellent lads both, as they grew into manhood did not exactly “pull together.”
“Edwin is scarcely wrong in thinking of ‘us,’ since upon us depend so many,” observed the father, in that quiet tone with which, when he did happen to interfere between his sons, he generally smoothed matters down and kept the balance even. “Yet though we are ourselves secure, I trust the losses everywhere around us make it the more necessary that we should not parade our good fortune by launching out into any of Guy’s magnificences — eh, my boy?”
The youth looked down. It was well known in the family that since we came to Beechwood his pleasure-loving temperament had wanted all sorts of improvements on our style of living — fox-hounds, dinner-parties, balls; that the father’s ways, which, though extended to liberal hospitalities, forbade outward show, and made our life a thorough family life still — were somewhat distasteful to that most fascinating young gentleman, Guy Halifax, Esquire, heir of Beechwood Hall.
“You may call it ‘magnificence,’ or what you choose; but I know I should like to live a little more as our neighbours do. And I think we ought too — we that are known to be the wealthiest family —”
He stopped abruptly — for the door opened; and Guy had too much good taste and good feeling to discuss our riches before Maud’s poor governess — the tall, grave, sad-looking, sad-clothed Miss Silver; the same whom John had seen at Mr. Jessop’s bank; and who had been with us four months — ever since we came to Beechwood.
One of the boys rose and offered her a chair; for the parents set the example of treating her with entire respect — nay, would gladly have made her altogether one of the family, had she not been so very reserved.
Miss Silver came forward with the daily nosegay which Mrs. Halifax had confided to her superintendence.
“They are the best I can find, madam — I believe Watkins keeps all his greenhouse flowers for to-night.”
“Thank you, my dear. These will do very well. — Yes, Guy, persuade Miss Silver to take your place by the fire. She looks so cold.”
But Miss Silver, declining the kindness, passed on to her own seat opposite.
Ursula busied herself over the breakfast equipage rather nervously. Though an admirable person, Miss Silver in her extreme and all but repellant quietness was one whom the mother found it difficult to get on with. She was scrupulously kind to her; and the governess was as scrupulously exact in all courtesy and attention; still that impassible, self-contained demeanour, that great reticence — it might be shyness, it might be pride — sometimes, Ursula privately admitted, “fidgeted” her.
To-day was to be a general holiday for both masters and servants; a dinner at the mills; and in the evening something which, though we call it a tea-drinking, began to look, I was amused to see, exceedingly like “a ball.” But on this occasion both parents had yielded to their young people’s wishes, and half the neighbourhood had been invited, by the universally-popular Mr. Guy Halifax to celebrate his coming of age.
“Only once in a way,” said the mother, half ashamed of herself for thus indulging the boy — as, giving his shoulder a fond shake, she called him “a foolish fellow.”
Then we all dispersed; Guy and Walter to ride to the manor-house, Edwin vanishing with his sister, to whom he was giving daily Latin lessons in the school-room.
John asked me to take a walk on the hill with him.
“Go, Phineas,” whispered his wife —“it will do him good. And don’t let him talk too much of old times. This is a hard week for him.”
The mother’s eyes were mournful, for Guy and “the child” had been born within a year and three days of each other; but she never hinted — it never would have struck her to hint —“this is a hard week for ME.”
That grief — the one great grief of their life, had come to her more wholesomely than to her husband: either because men, the very best of men, can only suffer, while women can endure; or because in the mysterious ordinance of nature Maud’s baby lips had sucked away the bitterness of the pang from the bereaved mother, while her loss was yet new. It had never been left to rankle in that warm heart, which had room for every living child, while it cherished, in tenderness above all sorrow, the child that was no more.
John and I, in our walk, stood a moment by the low churchyard wall, and looked over at that plain white stone, where was inscribed her name, “Muriel Joy Halifax,”— a line out of that New Testament miracle-story she delighted in, “WHEREAS I WAS BLIND, NOW I SEE,”— and the date when SHE SAW. Nothing more: it was not needed.
“December 5, 1813,” said the father, reading the date. “She would have been quite a woman now. How strange! My little Muriel!”
And he walked thoughtfully along, almost in the same footprints where he had been used to carry his darling up the hillside to the brow of Enderley Flat. He seemed in fancy to bear her in his arms still — this little one, whom, as I have before said, Heaven in its compensating mercy, year by year, through all changes, had made the one treasure that none could take away — the one child left to be a child for ever.
I think, as we rested in the self-same place, the sunshiny nook where we used to sit with her for hours together, the father’s heart took this consolation so closely and surely into itself that memory altogether ceased to be pain. He began talking about the other children — especially Maud — and then of Miss Silver, her governess.
“I wish she were more likeable, John. It vexes me sometimes to see how coldly she returns the mother’s kindness.”
“Poor thing! — she has evidently not been used to kindness. You should have seen how amazed she looked yesterday when we paid her a little more than her salary, and my wife gave her a pretty silk dress to wear to-night. I hardly knew whether she would refuse it, or burst out crying — in girlish fashion.”
“Is she a girl? Why, the boys say she looks thirty at least. Guy and Walter laugh amazingly at her dowdy dress and her solemn, haughty ways.”
“That will not do, Phineas. I must speak to them. They ought to make allowance for poor Miss Silver, of whom I think most highly.”
“I know you do; but do you heartily like her?”
“For most things, yes. And I sincerely respect her, or, of course, she would not be here. I think people should be as particular over choosing their daughter’s governess as their son’s wife; and having chosen, should show her almost equal honour.”
“You’ll have your sons choosing themselves wives soon, John. I fancy Guy has a soft place in his heart for that pretty Grace Oldtower.”
But the father made no answer. He was always tenacious over the slightest approach to such jests as these. And besides, just at this moment Mr. Brown, Lord Luxmore’s steward, passed — riding solemnly along. He barely touched his hat to Mr. Halifax.
“Poor Mr. Brown! He has a grudge against me for those Mexican speculations I refused to embark in; he did, and lost everything but what he gets from Lord Luxmore. I do think, Phineas, the country has been running mad this year after speculation. There is sure to come a panic afterwards, and indeed it seems already beginning.”
“But you are secure? You have not joined in the mania, the crash cannot harm you? Did I not hear you say that you were not afraid of losing a single penny?”
“Yes — unfortunately,” with a troubled smile.
“John, what do you mean?”
“I mean, that to stand upright while one’s neighbours are falling on all sides is a most trying position. Misfortune makes people unjust. The other day at the sessions I got cold looks enough from my brother magistrates — looks that would have set my blood boiling twenty years ago. And — you saw in the Norton Bury Mercury that article about ‘grasping plebeian millionaires’—‘wool-spinners, spinning out of their country’s vitals.’ That’s meant for me, Phineas. Don’t look incredulous. Yes — for me.”
“Perhaps so — but to them more than to me. I feel sorry, because of the harm it may do me — especially among working people, who know nothing but what they hear, and believe everything that is told them. They see I thrive and others fail — that my mills are the only cloth mills in full work, and I have more hands than I can employ. Every week I am obliged to send new-comers away. Then they raise the old cry — that my machinery has ruined labour. So, you see, for all that Guy says about our prosperity, his father does not sleep exactly upon a bed of roses.”
“It is wicked — atrocious!”
“Not at all. Only natural — the penalty one has to pay for success. It will die out most likely; meantime, we will mind it as little as we can.”
“But are you safe? — your life —” For a sudden fear crossed me — a fear not unwarranted by more than one event of this year — this terrible 1825.
“Safe? — Yes —” and his eyes were lifted, “I believe my life is safe — if I have work to do. Still, for others’ sake, I have carried this month past whenever I go to and from the Coltham bank, besides my cash-box — this.”
He showed me, peering out of his breast-pocket, a small pistol.
I was greatly startled.
“Does your wife know?”
“Of course. But she knows too that nothing but the last extremity would force me to use it: also that my carrying it, and its being noised about that I do so, may prevent my ever having occasion to use it. God grant I never may! Don’t let us talk about this.”
He stopped, gazing with a sad abstraction down the sunshiny valley — most part of which was already his own property. For whatever capital he could spare from his business he never sunk in speculation, but took a patriarchal pleasure in investing it in land, chiefly for the benefit of his mills and those concerned therein.
“My poor people — they might have known me better! But I suppose one never attains one’s desire without its being leavened with some bitterness. If there was one point I was anxious over in my youth, it was to keep up through life a name like the Chevalier Bayard — how folk would smile to hear of a tradesman emulating Bayard —‘sans peur et sans reproche!’ And so things might be-ought to be. So perhaps they shall be yet, in spite of this calumny.”
“How shall you meet it? What shall you do?”
“Nothing. Live it down.”
He stood still, looking across the valley to where the frosty line of the hill-tops met the steel-blue, steadfast sky. Yes, I felt sure he WOULD ‘live it down.’
We dismissed the subject, and spent an hour more in pleasant chat, about many things. Passing homeward through the beech-wood, where through the bare tree-tops a light snow was beginning to fall, John said, musingly:
“It will be a hard winter — we shall have to help our poor people a great deal. Christmas dinners will be much in request.”
“There’s a saying, that the way to an Englishman’s heart is through his stomach. So, perhaps, you’ll get justice by spring.”
“Don’t be angry, Phineas. As I tell my wife, it is not worth while. Half the wrongs people do to us are through sheer ignorance. We must be patient. ‘IN YOUR PATIENCE POSSESS YE YOUR SOULS.’”
He said this, more to himself than aloud, as if carrying out the thread of his own thought. Mine following it, and observing him, involuntarily turned to another passage in our Book of books, about the blessedness of some men, even when reviled and persecuted.
Ay, and for all his many cares, John Halifax looked like a man who was “blessed.”
Blessed, and happy too, throughout that day, especially in the midst of the mill-yard dinner — which reminded me forcibly of that feast at which guests were gathered out of the highways and hedges — guests such as John Halifax liked to have — guests who could not, by any possibility, “recompense”’ him. Yet it did one’s heart good to hear the cheer that greeted the master, ay, and the young master too, who was today for the first time presented as such: as the firm henceforward was to be, “Halifax and Son.”
And full of smiling satisfaction was the father’s look, when in the evening he stood in the midst of his children waiting for “Guy’s visitors,” as he pertinaciously declared them to be-these fine people, for whose entertainment our house had been these three days turned upside down; the sober old dining-room converted into a glittering ball-room, and the entrance-hall a very “bower of bliss”— all green boughs and Chinese lanterns. John protested he should not have known his own study again; and that, if these festive transformations were to happen frequently he should soon not even know himself!
Yet for all that, and in spite of the comical horror he testified at this first bouleversement of our quiet home ways, I think he had a real pleasure in his children’s delight; in wandering with them through the decorated rooms, tapestried with ivy and laurel, and arbor vitae; in making them all pass in review before him, and admiring their handiwork and themselves.
A goodly group they made — our young folk; there were no “children” now — for even Maud, who was tall and womanly for her age, had bloomed out in a ball dress, all white muslin and camellias, and appeared every inch “Miss Halifax.” Walter, too, had lately eschewed jackets, and began to borrow razors; while Edwin, though still small, had a keen, old-man-like look, which made him seem — as he was, indeed, in character — the eldest of the three. Altogether, they were “a fine family,” such as any man might rejoice to see growing, or grown up, around him.
But my eyes naturally sought the father as he stood among his boys, taller than any of them, and possessing far more than they that quality for which John Halifax had always been remarkable — dignity. True, Nature had favoured him beyond most men, giving him the stately, handsome presence, befitting middle age, throwing a kind of apostolic grace over the high, half-bald crown, and touching with a softened grey the still curly locks behind. But these were mere accidents; the true dignity lay in himself and his own personal character, independent of any exterior.
It was pleasant to watch him, and note how advancing years had given rather than taken away from his outward mien. As ever, he was distinguishable from other men, even to his dress — which had something of the Quaker about it still, in its sober colour, its rarely-changed fashion, and its exceeding neatness. Mrs. Halifax used now and then to laugh at him for being so particular over his daintiest of cambric and finest of lawn — but secretly she took the greatest pride in his appearance.
“John looks well to-night,” she said, coming in and sitting down by me, her eyes following mine. One would not have guessed from her quiet gaze that she knew — what John had told me she knew, this morning. But these two in their perfect union had a wonderful strength — a wonderful fearlessness. And she had learned from him — what perhaps originally was foreign to her impressible and somewhat anxious mind — that steadfast faith, which, while ready to meet every ill when the time comes, until the time waits cheerfully, and will not disquiet itself in vain.
Thus, for all their cares, her face as well as his, was calm and bright. Bright, even with the prettiest girlish blush, when John came up to his wife and admired her — as indeed was not surprising.
She laughed at him, and declared she always intended to grow lovely in her old age. “I thought I ought to dress myself grandly, too, on Guy’s birthday. Do you like me, John?”
“Very much: I like that black velvet gown, substantial, soft, and rich, without any show. And that lace frill round your throat — what sort of lace is it?”
“Valenciennes. When I was a girl, if I had a weakness it was for black velvet and Valenciennes.”
John smiled, with visible pleasure that she had even a “weakness” gratified now. “And you have put on my brooch at last, I see.”
“Yes; but —” and she shook her head —“remember your promise!”
“Phineas, this wife of mine is a vain woman. She knows her own price is ‘far above rubies’— or diamonds either. No, Mrs. Halifax, be not afraid; I shall give you no more jewels.”
She did not need them. She stood amidst her three sons with the smile of a Cornelia. She felt her husband’s eyes rest on her, with that quiet perfectness of love — better than any lover’s love —
“The fulness of a stream that knew no fall”—
the love of a husband who has been married nearly twenty-five years.
Here a troop of company arrived, and John left me to assume his duty as host.
No easy duty, as I soon perceived; for times were hard, and men’s minds troubled. Every one, except the light-heeled, light-hearted youngsters, looked grave.
Many yet alive remember this year — 1825 — the panic year. War having ceased, commerce, in its worst form, started into sudden and unhealthy overgrowth. Speculations of all kinds sprung up like fungi, out of dead wood, flourished a little, and dropped away. Then came ruin, not of hundreds, but thousands, of all ranks and classes. This year, and this month in this year, the breaking of many established firms, especially bankers, told that the universal crash had just begun.
It was felt even in our retired country neighbourhood, and among our friendly guests this night, both gentle and simple — and there was a mixture of both, as only a man in Mr. Halifax’s position could mix such heterogeneous elements — towns-people and country-people, dissenters and church-folk, professional men and men of business. John dared to do it — and did it. But though through his own personal influence many of different ranks whom he liked and respected, meeting in his own house, learned to like and respect one another, still, even to-night, he could not remove the cloud which seemed to hang over all — a cloud so heavy that none present liked referring to it. They hit upon all sorts of extraneous subjects, keeping far aloof from the one which evidently pressed upon all minds — the universal distress abroad, the fear that was knocking at almost every man’s door but ours.
Of course the talk fell on our neighbours — country talk always does. I sat still, listening to Sir Herbert Oldtower, who was wondering that Lord Luxmore suffered the Hall to drop into disgraceful decay, and had begun cutting down the pine-woods round it.
“Woods, older than his title by many a century — downright sacrilege! And the property being entailed, too — actual robbery of the heir! But I understand anybody may do anything with Lord Ravenel — a mere selfish, cynical, idle voluptuary!”
“Indeed you are mistaken, Sir Herbert!” cried Mr. Jessop of Norton Bury — a very honest fellow was Josiah Jessop. “He banks with me — that is, there are some poor Catholics in this neighbourhood whom I pay — but bless me! he told me not to tell. No, indeed. Cynical he may be; idle, perhaps — most men of fashion are — but Lord Ravenel is not the least like his father — is he, Mr. Halifax?”
“I have not seen Lord Ravenel for many years.”
And as if, even to this day, the mention of the young man’s name brought back thoughts of the last day we had seen him — a day which, its sadness having gone by, still kept its unspoken sacredness, distinct from all other days — John moved away and went and talked to a girl whom both he and the mother liked above most young girls we knew — simple, sunny-faced Grace Oldtower.
Dancing began. Spite of my Quaker education, or perhaps for that very reason, I delighted to see dancing. Dancing, such as it was then, when young folk moved breezily and lightly, as if they loved it; skimming like swallows down the long lines of the Triumph — gracefully winding in and out through the graceful country dance — lively always, but always decorous. In those days people did not think it necessary to the pleasures of dancing that any stranger should have liberty to snatch a shy, innocent girl round the waist, and whirl her about in mad waltz or awkward polka, till she stops, giddy and breathless, with burning cheek and tossed hair, looking — as I would not have liked to see our pretty Maud look.
No; though while watching the little lady to-night, I was inclined to say to her:
“When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that.”
And in her unwearied spirits she seemed as if she would readily have responded to the wish.
We did not see Guy among the dancers, who were now forming in a somewhat confused square, in order to execute a new dance called quadrilles, of which Miss Grace Oldtower was to be the instructress.
“Where is Guy?” said the mother, who would have missed him among a room full of people. “Have you seen Guy anywhere, Miss Silver?”
Miss Silver, who sat playing tunes — she had declined dancing — turned, colouring visibly.
“Yes, I have seen him; he is in the study.”
“Would you be so kind as to fetch him?”
The governess rose and crossed the room, with a stately walk — statelier than usual. Her silk gown, of some rich soft colour, fashioned after Mrs. Halifax’s taste, and the chaplet of bay-leaves, which Maud had insisted upon putting in her dark hair, made an astonishing change in Miss Silver. I could not help noticing it to Mrs. Halifax.
“Yes, indeed, she looks well. John says her features are fine; but for my part, I don’t care for your statuesque faces; I like colour — expression. See that bright little Grace Oldtower! — a thoroughly English rose; — I like HER. Poor Miss Silver! I wish —”
What, out of compunction for a certain sharpness with which she had spoken, Mrs. Halifax was about to wish, remained undeclared. For, just this minute, Guy entered, and leaning his handsome head and his tender petits soins over the “English rose,” as his mother called her, led her out to the dancing.
We sat down and looked on.
“Guy dances lazily; he is rather pale too, I fancy.”
“Tired, probably. He was out far too long on the ice today, with Maud and Miss Silver. What a pretty creature his partner is!” added Ursula, thoughtfully.
“The children are growing up fast,” I said.
“Ay, indeed. To think that Guy is actually twenty-one — the age when his father was married!”
“Guy will be reminding you of that fact some day soon.”
Mrs. Halifax smiled. “The sooner the better, if only he makes a worthy choice — if only he brings me a daughter whom I can love.”
And I fancied there was love — motherly love — in the eyes that followed through the graceful mazes of her dancing, the bonny English rose.
Guy and his partner sat down beside us. His mother noticed that he had turned very pale again, and the lad owned to be in some pain: he had twisted his foot that morning, in helping Maud and Miss Silver across the ice; but it was a mere trifle — not worth mentioning.
It passed over, with one or two anxious inquiries on the mother’s part, and a soft, dewy shadow over the down-dropped cheek of the little rose, who evidently did not like to think of any harm coming to her old play-fellow. Then Sir Herbert appeared to lead Mrs. Halifax in to supper, Guy limped along with pretty Grace on his arm, and all the guests, just enough to fill our longest table in John’s study, came thronging round in a buzz of mirthfulness.
Either the warm, hospitable atmosphere, or the sight of the merry youngsters, or the general influence of social pleasantness, had for the time being dispelled the cloud. But certainly it was dispelled. The master of the feast looked down two long lines of happy faces — his own as bright as theirs — down to where, at the foot of the table, the mother and mistress sat. She had been slightly nervous at times during the evening, but now she appeared thoroughly at ease and glad — glad to see her husband take his place at the head of his own hospitable board, in the midst of his own friends and his own people honoured and beloved. It seemed a good omen — an omen that the bitter things outside would pass away.
How bitter they had been, and how sore the wife’s heart still felt, I could see from the jealous way in which, smiling and cheerful as her demeanour was, she caught every look, every word of those around her which might chance to bear reference to her husband; in her quick avoidance of every topic connected with these disastrous times, and, above all, in her hurried grasp of a newspaper that some careless servant brought in fresh from the night-mail, wet with sleet and snow.
“Do you get your country paper regularly?” asked some one at table. And then some others appeared to recollect the Norton Bury Mercury, and its virulent attacks on their host — for there ensued an awkward pause, during which I saw Ursula’s face beginning to burn. But she conquered her wrath.
“There is often much interest in our provincial papers, Sir Herbert. My husband makes a point of taking them all in-bad and good — of every shade of politics. He believes it is only by hearing all sides that you can truly judge of the state of the country.”
“Just as a physician must hear all symptoms before he decides on the patient’s case. At least, so our good old friend Doctor Jessop used to say.”
“Eh?” said Mr. Jessop the banker, catching his own name, and waking up from a brown study, in which he had seemed to see nothing — except, perhaps, the newspaper, which, in its printed cover, lay between himself and Mrs. Halifax. “Eh? did any one — Oh, I beg pardon — beg pardon — Sir Herbert,” hastily added the old man; who was a very meek and worthy soul, and had been perhaps more subdued than usual this evening.
“I was referring,” said Sir Herbert, with his usual ponderous civility, “to your excellent brother, who was so much respected among us — for which respect, allow me to say, he did not leave us without an inheritor.”
The old banker answered the formal bow with a kind of nervous hurry; and then Sir Herbert, with a loud premise of his right as the oldest friend of our family, tried to obtain silence for the customary speech, prefatory to the customary toast of “Health and prosperity to the heir of Beechwood.”
There was great applause and filling of glasses; great smiling and whispering; everybody glancing at poor Guy, who turned red and white, and evidently wished himself a hundred miles off. In the confusion I felt my sleeve touched, and saw leaning towards me, hidden by Maud’s laughing happy face, the old banker. He held in his hand the newspaper which seemed to have so fascinated him.
“It’s the London Gazette. Mr. Halifax gets it three hours before any of us. I may open it? It is important to me. Mrs. Halifax would excuse, eh?”
Of course she would. Especially if she had seen the old man’s look, as his trembling fingers vainly tried to unfold the sheet without a single rustle’s betraying his surreptitious curiosity.
Sir Herbert rose, cleared his throat, and began:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I speak as a father myself, and as son of a father whom — whom I will not refer to here, except to say that his good heart would have rejoiced to see this day. The high esteem in which Sir Ralph always held Mr. Halifax, has descended, and will descend —”
Here some one called out:
“Mr. Jessop! Look at Mr. Jessop!”
The old man had suddenly sank back, with a sort of choking groan. His eyes were staring blankly, his cheek was the colour of ashes. But when he saw every one looking at him he tried desperately to recover himself.
“’Tis nothing. Nothing of the slightest moment. Eh?” clutching tightly at the paper which Mrs. Halifax was kindly removing out of his hand. “There’s no news in it — none, I assure you.”
But from his agitation — from the pitiful effort he made to disguise it — it was plain enough that there was news. Plain also, as in these dangerous and critical times men were only too quick to divine, in what that news consisted. Tidings, which now made every newspaper a sight of fear — especially this — the London Gazette.
Edwin caught and read the fatal page — the fatal column — known only too well.
“W——‘s have stopped payment.”
W——‘s was a great London house, the favourite banking-house in our country, with which many provincial banks, and Jessop’s especially, were widely connected, and would be no one knew how widely involved.
“W——‘s stopped payment!”
A murmur — a hush of momentary suspense, as the Gazette was passed hurriedly from hand to hand; and then our guests, one and all, sat looking at one another in breathless fear, suspicion, or assured dismay. For, as every one was aware (we knew our neighbours’ affairs so well about innocent Enderley), there was not a single household of that merry little company upon whom, near or remote, the blow would not fall — except ours.
No polite disguise could gloss over the general consternation. Few thought of Jessop — only of themselves. Many a father turned pale; many a mother melted into smothered tears. More than one honest countenance that five minutes before had beamed like the rising sun, all friendliness and jocularity, I saw shrink into a wizened, worldly face with greedy selfishness peering out of the corners of its eyes, eager to conceal its own alarms and dive as far as possible into the terrors of its neighbours.
“There will be a run on Jessop’s bank tomorrow,” I heard one person saying; glancing to where the poor old banker still sat, with a vacant, stupefied smile, assuring all around him that “nothing had happened; really, nothing.”
“A run? I suppose so. Then it will be ‘Sauve qui peut,’ and the devil take the hindmost.”
“What say you to all this, Mr. Halifax?”
John still kept his place. He sat perfectly quiet, and had never spoken a syllable.
When Sir Herbert, who was the first to recover from the shock of these ill-tidings, called him by his name, Mr. Halifax looked quickly up. It was to see, instead of those two lines of happy faces, faces already gathering in troubled groups, faces angry, sullen, or miserable, all of which, with a vague distrust, seemed instinctively turned upon him.
“Mr. Halifax,” said the baronet, and one could see how, in spite of his steadfast politeness, he too was not without his anxieties —“this is an unpleasant breaking-in upon your kindly hospitalities. I suppose, through this unpropitious event, each of us must make up our minds to some loss. Let me hope yours will be trifling.”
John made no answer.
“Or, perhaps — though I can hardly hope anything so fortunate — perhaps this failure will not affect you at all?”
He waited — as did many others, for Mr. Halifax’s reply; which was long in coming. However, since all seemed to expect it, it did come at last; but grave and sad as if it were the announcement of some great misfortune.
“No, Sir Herbert; it will not affect me at all.”
Sir Herbert, and not he alone — looked surprised — uneasily surprised. Some mutters there were of “congratulation.” Then arose a troubled murmur of talking, in which the master of the house was forgotten; until the baronet said, “My friends, I think we are forgetting our courtesy. Allow me to give you without more delay — the toast I was about to propose — ‘Health, long life, and happiness to Mr. Guy Halifax.’”
And so poor Guy’s birthday toast was drunk; almost in silence; and the few words he said in acknowledgment were just listened to, scarcely heard. Every one rose from table, and the festivities were over.
One by one all our guests began to make excuse. One by one, involuntarily perhaps, yet not the less painfully and plainly, they all shrunk away from us, as if in the universal trouble we, who had nothing to fear, had no part nor lot. Formal congratulations, given with pale lips and wandering eyes; brusque adieux, as some of the more honest or less courteous showed but too obviously how cruelly, even resentfully, they felt the inequalities of fortune; hasty departures, full of a dismay that rejected angrily every shadow of consolation; — all these things John had to meet and to bear.
He met them with composure; scarcely speaking a word, as indeed what was there to say? To all the friendly speeches, real or pretended, he listened with a kind of sad gravity: of all harsher words than these — and there were not a few — he took not the least notice, but held his place as master of the house; generously deaf and blind to everything that it were as well the master of the house should neither hear nor see.
At last he was left, a very Pariah of prosperity, by his own hearth, quite alone.
The last carriage had rolled away; the tired household had gone to bed; there was no one in the study but me. John came in and stood leaning with both his arms against the fireplace, motionless and silent. He leant there so long, that at last I touched him.
I saw this night’s events had wounded him to the core.
“Are you thinking of these honest, friendly, disinterested guests of ours? Don’t! They are not worth a single thought.”
“Not an angry thought, certainly.” And he smiled at my wrath — a sad smile.
“Ah, Phineas! now I begin to understand what is meant by the curse of prosperity.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06