Winter came early and sudden that year.
It was to me a long, dreary season, worse even than my winters inevitably were. I never stirred from my room, and never saw anybody but my father, Dr. Jessop, and Jael. At last I took courage to say to the former that I wished he would send John Halifax up some day.
“What does thee want the lad for?”
“Only to see him.”
“Pshaw! a lad out o’ the tan-yard is not fit company for thee. Let him alone; he’ll do well enough if thee doesn’t try to lift him out of his place.”
Lift John Halifax out of his “place”! I agreed with my father that that was impossible; but then we evidently differed widely in our definition of what the “place” might be. So, afraid of doing him harm, and feeling how much his future depended on his favour with his master, I did not discuss the matter. Only at every possible opportunity — and they were rare — I managed to send John a little note, written carefully in printed letters, for I knew he could read that; also a book or two, out of which he might teach himself a little more.
Then I waited, eagerly but patiently, until spring came, when, without making any more fruitless efforts, I should be sure to see him. I knew enough of himself, and was too jealous over his dignity, to wish either to force him by entreaties, or bring him by stratagem, into a house where he was not welcome, even though it were the house of my own father.
One February day, when the frost had at last broken up, and soft, plentiful rain had half melted the great snow-drifts, which, Jael told me, lay about the country everywhere, I thought I would just put my head out of doors, to see how long the blessed spring would be in coming. So I crawled down into the parlour, and out of the parlour into the garden; Jael scolding, my father roughly encouraging. My poor father! he always had the belief that people need not be ill unless they chose, and that I could do a great deal if I would.
I felt very strong today. It was delicious to see again the green grass, which had been hidden for weeks; delicious to walk up and down in the sunshine, under the shelter of the yew hedge. I amused myself by watching a pale line of snowdrops which had come up one by one, like prisoners of war to their execution.
But the next minute I felt ashamed of the heartless simile, for it reminded me of poor Bill Watkins, who, taken after the battle of Mentz, last December, had been shot by the French as a spy. Poor, rosy, burly Bill! better had he still been ingloriously driving our cart of skins.
“Have you been to see Sally lately?” said I, to Jael, who was cutting winter cabbages hard by; “is she getting over her trouble?”
“She bean’t rich, to afford fretting. There’s Jem and three little ‘uns yet to feed, to say nought of another big lad as lives there, and eats a deal more than he pays, I’m sure.”
I took the insinuation quietly, for I knew that my father had lately raised John’s wages, and he his rent to Sally. This, together with a few other facts which lay between Sally and me, made me quite easy in the mind as to his being no burthen, but rather a help to the widow — so I let Jael have her say; it did no harm to me nor anybody.
“What bold little things snowdrops are — stop, Jael, you are setting your foot on them.”
But I was too late; she had crushed them under the high-heeled shoe. She was even near pulling me down, as she stepped back in great hurry and consternation.
“Look at that young gentleman coming down the garden; and here I be in my dirty gown, and my apron full o’ cabbages.”
And she dropped the vegetables all over the path as the “gentleman” came towards us.
I smiled — for, in spite of his transformation, I, at least, had no difficulty in recognising John Halifax.
He had on new clothes — let me give the credit due to that wonderful civiliser, the tailor — clothes neat, decent, and plain, such as any ‘prentice lad might wear. They fitted well his figure, which had increased both in height, compactness, and grace. Round his neck was a coarse but white shirt frill; and over it fell, carefully arranged, the bright curls of his bonny hair. Easily might Jael or any one else have “mistaken” him, as she cuttingly said, for a young gentleman.
She looked very indignant, though, when she found out the aforesaid “mistake.”
“What may be thy business here?” she said, roughly.
“Abel Fletcher sent me on a message.”
“Out with it then — don’t be stopping with Phineas here. Thee bean’t company for him, and his father don’t choose it.”
“Jael!” I cried, indignantly. John never spoke, but his cheek burnt furiously.
I took his hand, and told him how glad I was to see him — but, for a minute, I doubt if he heard me.
“Abel Fletcher sent me here,” he repeated, in a well-controlled voice, “that I might go out with Phineas; if HE objects to my company, it’s easy to say so.”
And he turned to me. I think he must have been satisfied then.
Jael retired discomfited, and in her wrath again dropped half of her cabbages. John picked them up and restored them; but got for thanks only a parting thrust.
“Thee art mighty civil in thy new clothes. Be off, and be back again sharp; and, I say, don’t thee be leaving the cart o’ skins again under the parlour windows.”
“I don’t drive the cart now,” was all he replied.
“Not drive the cart?” I asked, eagerly, when Jael had disappeared, for I was afraid some ill chance had happened.
“Only, that this winter I’ve managed to teach myself to read and add up, out of your books, you know; and your father found it out, and he says I shall go round collecting money instead of skins, and it’s much better wages, and — I like it better — that’s all.”
But, little as he said, his whole face beamed with pride and pleasure. It was, in truth, a great step forward.
“He must trust you very much, John,” said I, at last, knowing how exceedingly particular my father was in his collectors.
“That’s it — that’s what pleases me so. He is very good to me, Phineas, and he gave me a special holiday, that I might go out with you. Isn’t that grand?”
“Grand, indeed. What fun we’ll have! I almost think I could take a walk myself.”
For the lad’s company invariably gave me new life, and strength, and hope. The very sight of him was as good as the coming of spring.
“Where shall we go?” said he, when we were fairly off, and he was guiding my carriage down Norton Bury streets.
“I think to the Mythe.” The Mythe was a little hill on the outskirts of the town, breezy and fresh, where Squire Brithwood had built himself a fine house ten years ago.
“Ay, that will do; and as we go, you will see the floods out — a wonderful sight, isn’t it? The river is rising still, I hear; at the tan-yard they are busy making a dam against it. How high are the floods here, generally, Phineas?”
“I’m sure I can’t remember. But don’t look so serious. Let us enjoy ourselves.”
And I did enjoy, intensely, that pleasant stroll. The mere sunshine was delicious; delicious, too, to pause on the bridge at the other end of the town, and feel the breeze brought in by the rising waters, and hear the loud sound of them, as they poured in a cataract over the flood-gates hard by.
“Your lazy, muddy Avon looks splendid now. What masses of white foam it makes, and what wreaths of spray; and see! ever so much of the Ham is under water. How it sparkles in the sun.”
“John, you like looking at anything pretty.”
“Ah! don’t I!” cried he, with his whole heart. My heart leaped too, to see him so happy.
“You can’t think how fine this is from my window; I have watched it for a week. Every morning the water seems to have made itself a fresh channel. Look at that one, by the willow-tree — how savagely it pours!”
“Oh, we at Norton Bury are used to floods.”
“Are they ever very serious?”
“Have been — but not in my time. Now, John, tell me what you have been doing all winter.”
It was a brief and simple chronicle — of hard work, all day over, and from the Monday to the Saturday — too hard work to do anything of nights, save to drop into the sound, dreamless sleep of youth and labour.
“But how did you teach yourself to read and add up, then?”
“Generally at odd minutes going along the road. It’s astonishing what a lot of odd minutes one can catch during the day, if one really sets about it. And then I had Sunday afternoons besides. I did not think it wrong —”
“No,” said I; decisively. “What books have you got through?”
“All you sent — Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and the Arabian Nights. That’s fine, isn’t it?” and his eyes sparkled.
“Also the one you gave me at Christmas. I have read it a good deal.”
I liked the tone of quiet reverence in which he spoke. I liked to hear him own, nor be ashamed to own — that he read “a good deal” in that rare book for a boy to read — the Bible.
But on this subject I did not ask him any more questions; indeed, it seemed to me, and seems still, that no more were needed.
“And you can read quite easily now, John?”
“Pretty well, considering.” Then, turning suddenly to me: “You read a great deal, don’t you? I overheard your father say you were very clever. How much do you know?”
“Oh — nonsense!” But he pressed me, and I told him. The list was short enough; I almost wished it were shorter when I saw John’s face.
“For me — I can only just read, and I shall be fifteen directly!”
The accent of shame, despondency, even despair, went to my very heart.
“Don’t mind,” I said, laying my feeble, useless hand upon that which guided me on so steady and so strong; “how could you have had time, working as hard as you do?”
“But I ought to learn; I must learn.”
“You shall. It’s little I can teach; but, if you like, I’ll teach you all I know.”
“O Phineas!” One flash of those bright, moist eyes, and he walked hastily across the road. Thence he came back, in a minute or two, armed with the tallest, straightest of briar-rose shoots.
“You like a rose-switch, don’t you? I do. Nay, stop till I’ve cut off the thorns.” And he walked on beside me, working at it with his knife, in silence.
I was silent, too, but I stole a glance at his mouth, as seen in profile. I could almost always guess at his thoughts by that mouth, so flexible, sensitive, and, at times, so infinitely sweet. It wore that expression now. I was satisfied, for I knew the lad was happy.
We reached the Mythe. “David,” I said (I had got into a habit of calling him “David;” and now he had read a certain history in that Book I supposed he had guessed why, for he liked the name), “I don’t think I can go any further up the hill.”
“Oh! but you shall! I’ll push behind; and when we come to the stile I’ll carry you. It’s lovely on the top of the Mythe — look at the sunset. You cannot have seen a sunset for ever so long.”
No — that was true. I let John do as he would with me — he who brought into my pale life the only brightness it had ever known.
Ere long we stood on the top of the steep mound. I know not if it be a natural hill, or one of those old Roman or British remains, plentiful enough hereabouts, but it was always called the Mythe. Close below it, at the foot of a precipitous slope, ran the Severn, there broad and deep enough, gradually growing broader and deeper as it flowed on, through a wide plain of level country, towards the line of hills that bounded the horizon. Severn looked beautiful here; neither grand nor striking, but certainly beautiful; a calm, gracious, generous river, bearing strength in its tide and plenty in its bosom, rolling on through the land slowly and surely, like a good man’s life, and fertilising wherever it flows.
“Do you like Severn still, John?”
“I love it.”
I wondered if his thoughts had been anything like mine.
“What is that?” he cried, suddenly, pointing to a new sight, which even I had not often seen on our river. It was a mass of water, three or four feet high, which came surging along the midstream, upright as a wall.
“It is the eger; I’ve often seen it on Severn, where the swift seaward current meets the spring-tide. Look what a crest of foam it has, like a wild boar’s mane. We often call it the river-boar.”
“But it is only a big wave.”
“Big enough to swamp a boat, though.”
And while I spoke I saw, to my horror, that there actually was a boat, with two men in it, trying to get out of the way of the eger.
“They never can! they’ll assuredly be drowned! O John!”
But he had already slipped from my side and swung himself by furze-bushes and grass down the steep slope to the water’s edge.
It was a breathless moment. The eger travelled slowly in its passage, changing the smooth, sparkling river to a whirl of conflicting currents, in which no boat could live — least of all that light pleasure-boat, with its toppling sail. In it was a youth I knew by sight, Mr. Brithwood of the Mythe House, and another gentleman.
They both pulled hard — they got out of the mid-stream, but not close enough to land; and already there was but two oars’ length between them and the “boar.”
“Swim for it!” I heard one cry to the other: but swimming would not have saved them.
“Hold there!” shouted John at the top of his voice; “throw that rope out and I will pull you in!”
It was a hard tug: I shuddered to see him wade knee-deep in the stream — but he succeeded. Both gentlemen leaped safe on shore. The younger tried desperately to save his boat, but it was too late. Already the “water-boar” had clutched it — the rope broke like a gossamer-thread — the trim, white sail was dragged down — rose up once, broken and torn, like a butterfly caught in a mill-stream — then disappeared.
“So it’s all over with her, poor thing!”
“Who cares? — We might have lost our lives,” sharply said the other, an older and sickly-looking gentleman, dressed in mourning, to whom life did not seem a particularly pleasant thing, though he appeared to value it so highly.
They both scrambled up the Mythe, without noticing John Halifax: then the elder turned.
“But who pulled us ashore? Was it you, my young friend?”
John Halifax, emptying his soaked boots, answered, “I suppose so.”
“Indeed, we owe you much.”
“Not more than a crown will pay,” said young Brithwood, gruffly; “I know him, Cousin March. He works in Fletcher the Quaker’s tan-yard.”
“Nonsense!” cried Mr. March, who had stood looking at the boy with a kindly, even half-sad air. “Impossible! Young man, will you tell me to whom I am so much obliged?”
“My name is John Halifax.”
“Yes; but WHAT are you?”
“What he said. Mr. Brithwood knows me well enough: I work in the tan-yard.”
“Oh!” Mr. March turned away with a resumption of dignity, though evidently both surprised and disappointed. Young Brithwood laughed.
“I told you so, cousin. Hey, lad!” eyeing John over, “you’ve been out at grass, and changed your coat for the better: but you’re certainly the same lad that my curricle nearly ran over one day; you were driving a cart of skins — pah! I remember.”
“So do I,” said John, fiercely; but when the youth’s insolent laughter broke out again he controlled himself. The laughter ceased.
“Well, you’ve done me a good turn for an ill one, young — what’s-your-name, so here’s a guinea for you.” He threw it towards him; it fell on the ground, and lay there.
“Nay, nay, Richard,” expostulated the sickly gentleman, who, after all, WAS a gentleman. He stood apparently struggling with conflicting intentions, and not very easy in his mind. “My good fellow,” he said at last, in a constrained voice, “I won’t forget your bravery. If I could do anything for you — and meanwhile if a trifle like this”— and he slipped something into John’s hand.
John returned it with a bow, merely saying “that he would rather not take any money.”
The gentleman looked very much astonished. There was a little more of persistence on one side and resistance on the other; and then Mr. March put the guineas irresolutely back into his pocket, looking the while lingeringly at the boy — at his tall figure, and flushed, proud face.
“How old are you?”
“Ah!” it was almost a sigh. He turned away, and turned back again. “My name is March — Henry March; if you should ever —”
“Thank you, sir. Good-day.”
“Good-day.” I fancied he was half inclined to shake hands — but John did not, or would not, see it. Mr. March walked on, following young Brithwood; but at the stile he turned round once more and glanced at John. Then they disappeared.
“I’m glad they’re gone: now we can be comfortable.” He flung himself down, wrung out his wet stockings, laughed at me for being so afraid he would take cold, and so angry at young Brithwood’s insults. I sat wrapped in my cloak, and watched him making idle circles in the sandy path with the rose-switch he had cut.
A thought struck me. “John, hand me the stick and I’ll give you your first writing lesson.”
So there, on the smooth gravel, and with the rose-stem for a pen, I taught him how to form the letters of the alphabet and join them together. He learned them very quickly — so quickly, that in a little while the simple copy-book that Mother Earth obliged us with was covered in all directions with “J O H N— John.”
“Bravo!” he cried, as we turned homeward, he flourishing his gigantic pen, which had done such good service; “bravo! I have gained something today!”
Crossing the bridge over the Avon, we stood once more to look at the waters that were “out.” They had risen considerably, even in that short time, and were now pouring in several new channels, one of which was alongside of the high road; we stopped a good while watching it. The current was harmless enough, merely flooding a part of the Ham; but it awed us to see the fierce power of waters let loose. An old willow-tree, about whose roots I had often watched the king-cups growing, was now in the centre of a stream as broad as the Avon by our tan-yard, and thrice as rapid. The torrent rushed round it — impatient of the divisions its great roots caused — eager to undermine and tear it up. Inevitably, if the flood did not abate, within a few hours more there would be nothing left of the fine old tree.
“I don’t quite like this,” said John, meditatively, as his quick eye swept down the course of the river, with the houses and wharves that abutted on it, all along one bank. “Did you ever see the waters thus high before?”
“Yes, I believe I have; nobody minds it at Norton Bury; it is only the sudden thaw, my father says, and he ought to know, for he has had plenty of experience, the tan-yard being so close to the river.”
“I was thinking of that; but come, it’s getting cold.”
He took me safe home, and we parted cordially — nay, affectionately — at my own door.
“When will you come again, David?”
“When your father sends me.”
And I felt that HE felt that our intercourse was always to be limited to this. Nothing clandestine, nothing obtrusive, was possible, even for friendship’s sake, to John Halifax.
My father came in late that evening; he looked tired and uneasy, and instead of going to bed, though it was after nine o’clock, sat down to his pipe in the chimney-corner.
“Is the river rising still, father? Will it do any harm to the tan-yard?”
“What dost thee know about the tan-yard!”
“Only John Halifax was saying —”
“John Halifax had better hold his tongue.”
I held mine.
My father puffed away in silence till I came to bid him good-night. I think the sound of my crutches on the floor stirred him out of a long meditation, in which his ill-humour had ebbed away.
“Where didst thee go out today, Phineas? — thee and the lad I sent.”
“To the Mythe:” and I told him the incident that had happened there. He listened without reply.
“Wasn’t it a brave thing to do, father?”
“Um!”— and a few meditative puffs. “Phineas, the lad thee hast such a hankering after is a good lad — a very decent lad — if thee doesn’t make too much of him. Remember; he is but my servant; thee’rt my son — my only son.”
Alas! my poor father, it was hard enough for him to have such an “only son” as I.
In the middle of the night — or else to me, lying awake, it seemed so — there was a knocking at our hall door. I slept on the ground flat, in a little room opposite the parlour. Ere I could well collect my thoughts, I saw my father pass, fully dressed, with a light in his hand. And, man of peace though he was, I was very sure I saw in the other — something which always lay near his strong box, at his bed’s head at night. Because ten years ago a large sum had been stolen from him, and the burglar had gone free of punishment. The law refused to receive Abel Fletcher’s testimony — he was “only a Quaker.”
The knocking grew louder, as if the person had no time to hesitate at making a noise. “Who’s there?” called out my father; and at the answer he opened the front door, first shutting mine.
A minute afterwards I heard some one in my room. “Phineas, are you here? — don’t be frightened.”
I was not — as soon as his voice reached me, John’s own familiar voice. “It’s something about the tan-yard?”
“Yes; the waters are rising, and I have come to fetch your father; he may save a good deal yet. I am ready, sir”— in answer to a loud call. “Now, Phineas, lie you down again, the night’s bitter cold. Don’t stir — you’ll promise? — I’ll see after your father.”
They went out of the house together, and did not return the whole night.
That night, February 5, 1795, was one long remembered at Norton Bury. Bridges were destroyed — boats carried away — houses inundated, or sapped at their foundations. The loss of life was small, but that of property was very great. Six hours did the work of ruin, and then the flood began to turn.
It was a long waiting until they came home — my father and John. At daybreak I saw them standing on the doorstep. A blessed sight!
“O father! my dear father!” and I drew him in, holding fast his hands — faster and closer than I had done since I was a child. He did not repel me.
“Thee’rt up early, and it’s a cold morning for thee, my son. Go back to the fire.”
His voice was gentle; his ruddy countenance pale; two strange things in Abel Fletcher.
“Father, tell me what has befallen thee?”
“Nothing, my son, save that the Giver of all worldly goods has seen fit to take back a portion of mine. I, like many another in this town, am poorer by some thousands than I went to bed last night.”
He sat down. I knew he loved his money, for it had been hardly earned. I had not thought he would have borne its loss so quietly.
“Father, never mind; it might have been worse.”
“Of a surety. I should have lost everything I had in the world — save for — Where is the lad? What art thee standing outside for? Come in, John, and shut the door.”
John obeyed, though without advancing. He was cold and wet. I wanted him to sit down by the fireside.
“Ay! do, lad,” said my father, kindly.
I stood between the two — afraid to ask what they had undergone; but sure, from the old man’s grave face, and the lad’s bright one — flushed all over with that excitement of danger so delicious to the young — that the peril had not been small.
“Jael,” cried my father, rousing himself, “give us some breakfast; the lad and me — we have had a hard night’s work together.”
Jael brought the mug of ale and the bread and cheese; but either did not or could not notice that the meal had been ordered for more than one.
“Another plate,” said my father, sharply.
“The lad can go into the kitchen, Abel Fletcher: his breakfast is waiting there.”
My father winced — even her master was sometimes rather afraid of Jael. But conscience or his will conquered.
“Woman, do as I desired. Bring another plate, and another mug of ale.”
And so, to Jael’s great wrath, and to my great joy, John Halifax was bidden, and sat down to the same board as his master. The fact made an ineffaceable impression on our household.
After breakfast, as we sat by the fire, in the pale haze of that February morning, my father, contrary to his wont, explained to me all his losses; and how, but for the timely warning he had received, the flood might have nearly ruined him.
“So it was well John came,” I said, half afraid to say more.
“Ay, and the lad has been useful, too: it is an old head on young shoulders.”
John looked very proud of this praise, though it was grimly given. But directly after it some ill or suspicious thought seemed to come into Abel Fletcher’s mind.
“Lad,” suddenly turning round on John Halifax, “thee told me thee saw the river rising by the light of the moon. What wast THEE doing then, out o’ thy honest bed and thy quiet sleep, at eleven o’clock at night?”
John coloured violently; the quick young blood was always ready enough to rise in his face. It spoke ill for him with my father.
“Answer. I will not be hard upon thee — to-night, at least.”
“As you like, Abel Fletcher,” answered the boy, sturdily. “I was doing no harm. I was in the tan-yard.”
“Thy business there?”
“None at all. I was with the men — they were watching, and had a candle; and I wanted to sit up, and had no light.”
“What didst thee want to sit up for?” pursued my father, keen and sharp as a ferret at a field-rat’s hole, or a barrister hunting a witness in those courts of law that were never used by, though often used against, us Quakers.
John hesitated, and again his painful, falsely-accusing blushes tried him sore. “Sir, I’ll tell you; it’s no disgrace. Though I’m such a big fellow I can’t write; and your son was good enough to try and teach me. I was afraid of forgetting the letters; so I tried to make them all over again, with a bit of chalk, on the bark-shed wall. It did nobody any harm that I know of.”
The boy’s tone, even though it was rather quick and angry, won no reproof. At last my father said gently enough —
“Is that all, lad?”
Again Abel Fletcher fell into a brown study. We two lads talked softly to each other — afraid to interrupt. He smoked through a whole pipe — his great and almost his only luxury, and then again called out —
“It’s time thee went away to thy work.”
“I’m going this minute. Good-bye, Phineas. Good day, sir. Is there anything you want done?”
He stood before his master, cap in hand, with an honest manliness pleasant to see. Any master might have been proud of such a servant — any father of such a son. My poor father — no, he did not once look from John Halifax to me. He would not have owned for the world that half-smothered sigh, or murmured because Heaven had kept back from him — as, Heaven knows why, it often does from us all! — the one desire of the heart.
“John Halifax, thee hast been of great service to me this night. What reward shall I give thee?”
And instinctively his hand dived down into his pocket. John turned away.
“Thank you — I’d rather not. It is quite enough reward that I have been useful to my master, and that he acknowledges it.”
My father thought a minute, and then offered his hand. “Thee’rt in the right, lad. I am very much obliged to thee, and I will not forget it.”
And John — blushing brightly once more — went away, looking as proud as an emperor, and as happy as a poor man with a bag of gold.
“Is there nothing thou canst think of, Phineas, that would pleasure the lad?” said my father, after we had been talking some time — though not about John.
I had thought of something — something I had long desired, but which seemed then all but an impossibility. Even now it was with some doubt and hesitation that I made the suggestion that he should spend every Sunday at our house.
“Nonsense! — thee know’st nought of Norton Bury lads. He would not care. He had rather lounge about all First-day at street corners with his acquaintance.”
“John has none, father. He knows nobody — cares for nobody — but me. Do let him come.”
“We’ll see about it.”
My father never broke or retracted his word. So after that John Halifax came to us every Sunday; and for one day of the week, at least, was received in his master’s household as our equal and my friend.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52