Cousin Phillis, by Elizabeth Gaskell


Cousin Holman gave me the weekly county newspaper to read aloud to her, while she mended stockings out of a high piled-up basket, Phillis helping her mother. I read and read, unregardful of the words I was uttering, thinking of all manner of other things; of the bright colour of Phillis’s hair, as the afternoon sun fell on her bending head; of the silence of the house, which enabled me to hear the double tick of the old clock which stood half-way up the stairs; of the variety of inarticulate noises which cousin Holman made while I read, to show her sympathy, wonder, or horror at the newspaper intelligence. The tranquil monotony of that hour made me feel as if I had lived for ever, and should live for ever droning out paragraphs in that warm sunny room, with my two quiet hearers, and the curled-up pussy cat sleeping on the hearth-rug, and the clock on the house-stairs perpetually clicking out the passage of the moments. By-and-by Betty the servant came to the door into the kitchen, and made a sign to Phillis, who put her half-mended stocking down, and went away to the kitchen without a word. Looking at cousin Holman a minute or two afterwards, I saw that she had dropped her chin upon her breast, and had fallen fast asleep. I put the newspaper down, and was nearly following her example, when a waft of air from some unseen source, slightly opened the door of communication with the kitchen, that Phillis must have left unfastened; and I saw part of her figure as she sate by the dresser, peeling apples with quick dexterity of finger, but with repeated turnings of her head towards some book lying on the dresser by her. I softly rose, and as softly went into the kitchen, and looked over her shoulder; before she was aware of my neighbourhood, I had seen that the book was in a language unknown to me, and the running title was L’Inferno. Just as I was making out the relationship of this word to ‘infernal’, she started and turned round, and, as if continuing her thought as she spoke, she sighed out —

‘Oh! it is so difficult! Can you help me?’ putting her finger below a line.

‘Me! I! I don’t even know what language it is in!’

‘Don’t you see it is Dante?’ she replied, almost petulantly; she did so want help.

‘Italian, then?’ said I, dubiously; for I was not quite sure.

‘Yes. And I do so want to make it out. Father can help me a little, for he knows Latin; but then he has so little time.’

‘You have not much, I should think, if you have often to try and do two things at once, as you are doing now.

‘Oh! that’s nothing! Father bought a heap of old books cheap. And I knew something about Dante before; and I have always liked Virgil so much. Paring apples is nothing, if I could only make out this old Italian. I wish you knew it.’

‘I wish I did,’ said I, moved by her impetuosity of tone. ‘If, now, only Mr Holdsworth were here; he can speak Italian like anything, I believe.’

‘Who is Mr Holdsworth?’ said Phillis, looking up.

‘Oh, he’s our head engineer. He’s a regular first-rate fellow! He can do anything;’ my hero-worship and my pride in my chief all coming into play. Besides, if I was not clever and book-learned myself, it was something to belong to some one who was.

‘How is it that he speaks Italian?’ asked Phillis.

‘He had to make a railway through Piedmont, which is in Italy, I believe; and he had to talk to all the workmen in Italian; and I have heard him say that for nearly two years he had only Italian books to read in the queer outlandish places he was in.’

‘Oh, dear!’ said Phillis; ‘I wish —’ and then she stopped. I was not quite sure whether to say the next thing that came into my mind; but I said it.

‘Could I ask him anything about your book, or your difficulties?’

She was silent for a minute or so, and then she made reply —

‘No! I think not. Thank you very much, though. I can generally puzzle a thing out in time. And then, perhaps, I remember it better than if some one had helped me. I’ll put it away now, and you must move off, for I’ve got to make the paste for the pies; we always have a cold dinner on Sabbaths.’

‘But I may stay and help you, mayn’t I?’

‘Oh, yes; not that you can help at all, but I like to have you with me.’ I was both flattered and annoyed at this straightforward avowal. I was pleased that she liked me; but I was young coxcomb enough to have wished to play the lover, and I was quite wise enough to perceive that if she had any idea of the kind in her head she would never have spoken out so frankly. I comforted myself immediately, however, by finding out that the grapes were sour. A great tall girl in a pinafore, half a head taller than I was, reading books that I had never heard of, and talking about them too, as of far more interest than any mere personal subjects; that was the last day on which I ever thought of my dear cousin Phillis as the possible mistress of my heart and life. But we were all the greater friends for this idea being utterly put away and buried out of sight.

Late in the evening the minister came home from Hornby. He had been calling on the different members of his flock; and unsatisfactory work it had proved to him, it seemed from the fragments that dropped out of his thoughts into his talk.

‘I don’t see the men; they are all at their business, their shops, or their warehouses; they ought to be there. I have no fault to find with them; only if a pastor’s teaching or words of admonition are good for anything, they are needed by the men as much as by the women.’

‘Cannot you go and see them in their places of business, and remind them of their Christian privileges and duties, minister?’ asked cousin Holman, who evidently thought that her husband’s words could never be out of place.

‘No!’ said he, shaking his head. ‘I judge them by myself. If there are clouds in the sky, and I am getting in the hay just ready for loading, and rain sure to come in the night, I should look ill upon brother Robinson if he came into the field to speak about serious things.’

‘But, at any rate, father, you do good to the women, and perhaps they repeat what you have said to them to their husbands and children?’

‘It is to be hoped they do, for I cannot reach the men directly; but the women are apt to tarry before coming to me, to put on ribbons and gauds; as if they could hear the message I bear to them best in their smart clothes. Mrs Dobson today — Phillis, I am thankful thou dost not care for the vanities of dress!’ Phillis reddened a little as she said, in a low humble voice —

‘But I do, father, I’m afraid. I often wish I could wear pretty-coloured ribbons round my throat like the squire’s daughters.’

‘It’s but natural, minister!’ said his wife; ‘I’m not above liking a silk gown better than a cotton one myself!’

‘The love of dress is a temptation and a snare,’ said he, gravely. ‘The true adornment is a meek and quiet spirit. And, wife,’ said he, as a sudden thought crossed his mind, ‘in that matter I, too, have sinned. I wanted to ask you, could we not sleep in the grey room, instead of our own?’

‘Sleep in the grey room? — change our room at this time o’ day?’ cousin Holman asked, in dismay.

‘Yes,’ said he. ‘It would save me from a daily temptation to anger. Look at my chin!’ he continued; ‘I cut it this morning — I cut it on Wednesday when I was shaving; I do not know how many times I have cut it of late, and all from impatience at seeing Timothy Cooper at his work in the yard.’

‘He’s a downright lazy tyke!’ said cousin Holman. ‘He’s not worth his wage. There’s but little he can do, and what he can do, he does badly.’

‘True,’ said the minister. ‘He is but, so to speak, a half-wit; and yet he has got a wife and children.’

‘More shame for him!’

‘But that is past change. And if I turn him off; no one else will take him on. Yet I cannot help watching him of a morning as he goes sauntering about his work in the yard; and I watch, and I watch, till the old Adam rises strong within me at his lazy ways, and some day, I am afraid, I shall go down and send him about his business — let alone the way in which he makes me cut myself while I am shaving — and then his wife and children will starve. I wish we could move to the grey room.’

I do not remember much more of my first visit to the Hope Farm. We went to chapel in Heathbridge, slowly and decorously walking along the lanes, ruddy and tawny with the colouring of the coming autumn. The minister walked a little before us, his hands behind his back, his head bent down, thinking about the discourse to be delivered to his people, cousin Holman said; and we spoke low and quietly, in order not to interrupt his thoughts. But I could not help noticing the respectful greetings which he received from both rich and poor as we went along; greetings which he acknowledged with a kindly wave of his hand, but with no words of reply. As we drew near the town, I could see some of the young fellows we met cast admiring looks on Phillis; and that made me look too. She had on a white gown, and a short black silk cloak, according to the fashion of the day. A straw bonnet with brown ribbon strings; that was all. But what her dress wanted in colour, her sweet bonny face had. The walk made her cheeks bloom like the rose; the very whites of her eyes had a blue tinge in them, and her dark eyelashes brought out the depth of the blue eyes themselves. Her yellow hair was put away as straight as its natural curliness would allow. If she did not perceive the admiration she excited, I am sure cousin Holman did; for she looked as fierce and as proud as ever her quiet face could look, guarding her treasure, and yet glad to perceive that others could see that it was a treasure. That afternoon I had to return to Eltham to be ready for the next day’s work. I found out afterwards that the minister and his family were all ‘exercised in spirit,’ as to whether they did well in asking me to repeat my visits at the Hope Farm, seeing that of necessity I must return to Eltham on the Sabbath-day. However, they did go on asking me, and I went on visiting them, whenever my other engagements permitted me, Mr Holdsworth being in this case, as in all, a kind and indulgent friend. Nor did my new acquaintances oust him from my strong regard and admiration. I had room in my heart for all, I am happy to say, and as far as I can remember, I kept praising each to the other in a manner which, if I had been an older man, living more amongst people of the world, I should have thought unwise, as well as a little ridiculous. It was unwise, certainly, as it was almost sure to cause disappointment if ever they did become acquainted; and perhaps it was ridiculous, though I do not think we any of us thought it so at the time. The minister used to listen to my accounts of Mr Holdsworth’s many accomplishments and various adventures in travel with the truest interest, and most kindly good faith; and Mr Holdsworth in return liked to hear about my visits to the farm, and description of my cousin’s life there — liked it, I mean, as much as he liked anything that was merely narrative, without leading to action.

So I went to the farm certainly, on an average, once a month during that autumn; the course of life there was so peaceful and quiet, that I can only remember one small event, and that was one that I think I took more notice of than any one else: Phillis left off wearing the pinafores that had always been so obnoxious to me; I do not know why they were banished, but on one of my visits I found them replaced by pretty linen aprons in the morning, and a black silk one in the afternoon. And the blue cotton gown became a brown stuff one as winter drew on; this sounds like some book I once read, in which a migration from the blue bed to the brown was spoken of as a great family event.

Towards Christmas my dear father came to see me, and to consult Mr Holdsworth about the improvement which has since been known as ‘Manning’s driving wheel’. Mr Holdsworth, as I think I have before said, had a very great regard for my father, who had been employed in the same great machine-shop in which Mr Holdsworth had served his apprenticeship; and he and my father had many mutual jokes about one of these gentlemen-apprentices who used to set about his smith’s work in white wash-leather gloves, for fear of spoiling his hands. Mr Holdsworth often spoke to me about my father as having the same kind of genius for mechanical invention as that of George Stephenson, and my father had come over now to consult him about several improvements, as well as an offer of partnership. It was a great pleasure to me to see the mutual regard of these two men. Mr Holdsworth, young, handsome, keen, well-dressed, an object of admiration to all the youth of Eltham; my father, in his decent but unfashionable Sunday clothes, his plain, sensible face full of hard lines, the marks of toil and thought — his hands, blackened beyond the power of soap and water by years of labour in the foundry; speaking a strong Northern dialect, while Mr Holdsworth had a long soft drawl in his voice, as many of the Southerners have, and was reckoned in Eltham to give himself airs.

Although most of my father’s leisure time was occupied with conversations about the business I have mentioned, he felt that he ought not to leave Eltham without going to pay his respects to the relations who had been so kind to his son. So he and I ran up on an engine along the incomplete line as far as Heathbridge, and went, by invitation, to spend a day at the farm.

It was odd and yet pleasant to me to perceive how these two men, each having led up to this point such totally dissimilar lives, seemed to come together by instinct, after one quiet straight look into each other’s faces. My father was a thin, wiry man of five foot seven; the minister was a broad-shouldered, fresh-coloured man of six foot one; they were neither of them great talkers in general — perhaps the minister the most so — but they spoke much to each other. My father went into the fields with the minister; I think I see him now, with his hands behind his back, listening intently to all explanations of tillage, and the different processes of farming; occasionally taking up an implement, as if unconsciously, and examining it with a critical eye, and now and then asking a question, which I could see was considered as pertinent by his companion. Then we returned to look at the cattle, housed and bedded in expectation of the snow-storm hanging black on the western horizon, and my father learned the points of a cow with as much attention as if he meant to turn farmer. He had his little book that he used for mechanical memoranda and measurements in his pocket, and he took it out to write down ‘straight back’, small muzzle’, ‘deep barrel’, and I know not what else, under the head ‘cow’. He was very critical on a turnip-cutting machine, the clumsiness of which first incited him to talk; and when we went into the house he sate thinking and quiet for a bit, while Phillis and her mother made the last preparations for tea, with a little unheeded apology from cousin Holman, because we were not sitting in the best parlour, which she thought might be chilly on so cold a night. I wanted nothing better than the blazing, crackling fire that sent a glow over all the house-place, and warmed the snowy flags under our feet till they seemed to have more heat than the crimson rug right in front of the fire. After tea, as Phillis and I were talking together very happily, I heard an irrepressible exclamation from cousin Holman —

‘Whatever is the man about!’

And on looking round, I saw my father taking a straight burning stick out of the fire, and, after waiting for a minute, and examining the charred end to see if it was fitted for his purpose, he went to the hard-wood dresser, scoured to the last pitch of whiteness and cleanliness, and began drawing with the stick; the best substitute for chalk or charcoal within his reach, for his pocket-book pencil was not strong or bold enough for his purpose. When he had done, he began to explain his new model of a turnip-cutting machine to the minister, who had been watching him in silence all the time. Cousin Holman had, in the meantime, taken a duster out of a drawer, and, under pretence of being as much interested as her husband in the drawing, was secretly trying on an outside mark how easily it would come off, and whether it would leave her dresser as white as before. Then Phillis was sent for the book on dynamics about which I had been consulted during my first visit, and my father had to explain many difficulties, which he did in language as clear as his mind, making drawings with his stick wherever they were needed as illustrations, the minister sitting with his massive head resting on his hands, his elbows on the table, almost unconscious of Phillis, leaning over and listening greedily, with her hand on his shoulder, sucking in information like her father’s own daughter. I was rather sorry for cousin Holman; I had been so once or twice before; for do what she would, she was completely unable even to understand the pleasure her husband and daughter took in intellectual pursuits, much less to care in the least herself for the pursuits themselves, and was thus unavoidably thrown out of some of their interests. I had once or twice thought she was a little jealous of her own child, as a fitter companion for her husband than she was herself; and I fancied the minister himself was aware of this feeling, for I had noticed an occasional sudden change of subject, and a tenderness of appeal in his voice as he spoke to her, which always made her look contented and peaceful again. I do not think that Phillis ever perceived these little shadows; in the first place, she had such complete reverence for her parents that she listened to them both as if they had been St Peter and St Paul; and besides, she was always too much engrossed with any matter in hand to think about other people’s manners and looks.

This night I could see, though she did not, how much she was winning on my father. She asked a few questions which showed that she had followed his explanations up to that point; possibly, too, her unusual beauty might have something to do with his favourable impression of her; but he made no scruple of expressing his admiration of her to her father and mother in her absence from the room; and from that evening I date a project of his which came out to me a day or two afterwards, as we sate in my little three-cornered room in Eltham. ‘Paul,’ he began, ‘I never thought to be a rich man; but I think it’s coming upon me. Some folk are making a deal of my new machine (calling it by its technical name), and Ellison, of the Borough Green Works, has gone so far as to ask me to be his partner.’

‘Mr Ellison the Justice! — who lives in King Street? why, he drives his carriage!’ said I, doubting, yet exultant.

‘Ay, lad, John Ellison. But that’s no sign that I shall drive my carriage. Though I should like to save thy mother walking, for she’s not so young as she was. But that’s a long way off; anyhow. I reckon I should start with a third profit. It might be seven hundred, or it might be more. I should like to have the power to work out some fancies o’ mine. I care for that much more than for th’ brass. And Ellison has no lads; and by nature the business would come to thee in course o’ time. Ellison’s lasses are but bits o’ things, and are not like to come by husbands just yet; and when they do, maybe they’ll not be in the mechanical line. It will be an opening for thee, lad, if thou art steady. Thou’rt not great shakes, I know, in th’ inventing line; but many a one gets on better without having fancies for something he does not see and never has seen. I’m right down glad to see that mother’s cousins are such uncommon folk for sense and goodness. I have taken the minister to my heart like a brother; and she is a womanly quiet sort of a body. And I’ll tell you frank, Paul, it will be a happy day for me if ever you can come and tell me that Phillis Holman is like to be my daughter. I think if that lass had not a penny, she would be the making of a man; and she’ll have yon house and lands, and you may be her match yet in fortune if all goes well.’

I was growing as red as fire; I did not know what to say, and yet I wanted to say something; but the idea of having a wife of my own at some future day, though it had often floated about in my own head, sounded so strange when it was thus first spoken about by my father. He saw my confusion, and half smiling said —

‘Well, lad, what dost say to the old father’s plans? Thou art but young, to be sure; but when I was thy age, I would ha’ given my right hand if I might ha’ thought of the chance of wedding the lass I cared for —’

‘My mother?’ asked I, a little struck by the change of his tone of voice.

‘No! not thy mother. Thy mother is a very good woman — none better. No! the lass I cared for at nineteen ne’er knew how I loved her, and a year or two after and she was dead, and ne’er knew. I think she would ha’ been glad to ha’ known it, poor Molly; but I had to leave the place where we lived for to try to earn my bread and I meant to come back but before ever I did, she was dead and gone: I ha’ never gone there since. But if you fancy Phillis Holman, and can get her to fancy you, my lad, it shall go different with you, Paul, to what it did with your father.’

I took counsel with myself very rapidly, and I came to a clear conclusion. ‘Father,’ said I, ‘if I fancied Phillis ever so much, she would never fancy me. I like her as much as I could like a sister; and she likes me as if I were her brother — her younger brother.’

I could see my father’s countenance fall a little.

‘You see she’s so clever she’s more like a man than a woman — she knows Latin and Greek.’

‘She’d forget ’em, if she’d a houseful of children,’ was my father’s comment on this.

‘But she knows many a thing besides, and is wise as well as learned; she has been so much with her father. She would never think much of me, and I should like my wife to think a deal of her husband.’

‘It is not just book-learning or the want of it as makes a wife think much or little of her husband,’ replied my father, evidently unwilling to give up a project which had taken deep root in his mind. ‘It’s a something I don’t rightly know how to call it — if he’s manly, and sensible, and straightforward; and I reckon you’re that, my boy.’

‘I don’t think I should like to have a wife taller than I am, father,’ said I, smiling; he smiled too, but not heartily.

‘Well,’ said he, after a pause. ‘It’s but a few days I’ve been thinking of it, but I’d got as fond of my notion as if it had been a new engine as I’d been planning out. Here’s our Paul, thinks I to myself, a good sensible breed o’ lad, as has never vexed or troubled his mother or me; with a good business opening out before him, age nineteen, not so bad-looking, though perhaps not to call handsome, and here’s his cousin, not too near cousin, but just nice, as one may say; aged seventeen, good and true, and well brought up to work with her hands as well as her head; a scholar — but that can’t be helped, and is more her misfortune than her fault, seeing she is the only child of scholar — and as I said afore, once she’s a wife and a she’ll forget it all, I’ll be bound — with a good fortune in land and house when it shall please the Lord to take her parents to himself; with eyes like poor Molly’s for beauty, a colour that comes and goes on a milk-white skin, and as pretty a mouth  —

‘Why, Mr Manning, what fair lady are you describing?’ asked Mr Holdsworth, who had come quickly and suddenly upon our tete-a-tete, and had caught my father’s last words as he entered the room. Both my father and I felt rather abashed; it was such an odd subject for us to be talking about; but my father, like a straightforward simple man as he was, spoke out the truth.

‘I’ve been telling Paul of Ellison’s offer, and saying how good an opening it made for him —’

‘I wish I’d as good,’ said Mr Holdsworth. ‘But has the business a “pretty mouth”?

‘You’re always so full of your joking, Mr Holdsworth,’ said my father. ‘I was going to say that if he and his cousin Phillis Holman liked to make it up between them, I would put no spoke in the wheel.’

‘Phillis Holman!’ said Mr Holdsworth. ‘Is she the daughter of the minister-farmer out at Heathbridge? Have I been helping on the course of true love by letting you go there so often? I knew nothing of it.’

‘There is nothing to know,’ said I, more annoyed than I chose to show. ‘There is no more true love in the case than may be between the first brother and sister you may choose to meet. I have been telling father she would never think of me; she’s a great deal taller and cleverer; and I’d rather be taller and more learned than my wife when I have one.’

‘And it is she, then, that has the pretty mouth your father spoke about? I should think that would be an antidote to the cleverness and learning. But I ought to apologize for breaking in upon your last night; I came upon business to your father.’

And then he and my father began to talk about many things that had no interest for me just then, and I began to go over again my conversation with my father. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that I had spoken truly about my feelings towards Phillis Holman. I loved her dearly as a sister, but I could never fancy her as my wife. Still less could I think of her ever — yes, condescending, that is the word — condescending to marry me. I was roused from a reverie on what I should like my possible wife to be, by hearing my father’s warm praise of the minister, as a most unusual character; how they had got back from the diameter of driving-wheels to the subject of the Holmans I could never tell; but I saw that my father’s weighty praises were exciting some curiosity in Mr Holdsworth’s mind; indeed, he said, almost in a voice of reproach —

‘Why, Paul, you never told me what kind of a fellow this minister-cousin of yours was!’

‘I don’t know that I found out, sir,’ said I. ‘But if I had, I don’t think you’d have listened to me, as you have done to my father.’

‘No! most likely not, old fellow,’ replied Mr Holdsworth, laughing. And again and afresh I saw what a handsome pleasant clear face his was; and though this evening I had been a bit put out with him — through his sudden coming, and his having heard my father’s open-hearted confidence — my hero resumed all his empire over me by his bright merry laugh.

And if he had not resumed his old place that night, he would have done so the next day, when, after my father’s departure, Mr Holdsworth spoke about him with such just respect for his character, such ungrudging admiration of his great mechanical genius, that I was compelled to say, almost unawares —

‘Thank you, sir. I am very much obliged to you.’

‘Oh, you’re not at all. I am only speaking the truth. Here’s a Birmingham workman, self-educated, one may say — having never associated with stimulating minds, or had what advantages travel and contact with the world may be supposed to afford — working out his own thoughts into steel and iron, making a scientific name for himself — a fortune, if it pleases him to work for money — and keeping his singleness of heart, his perfect simplicity of manner; it puts me out of patience to think of my expensive schooling, my travels hither and thither, my heaps of scientific books, and I have done nothing to speak of. But it’s evidently good blood; there’s that Mr Holman, that cousin of yours, made of the same stuff’

‘But he’s only cousin because he married my mother’s second cousin,’ said I.

‘That knocks a pretty theory on the head, and twice over, too. I should like to make Holman’s acquaintance.’

‘I am sure they would be so glad to see you at Hope Farm,’ said I, eagerly. ‘In fact, they’ve asked me to bring you several times: only I thought you would find it dull.’

‘Not at all. I can’t go yet though, even if you do get me an invitation; for the —— Company want me to go to the —— Valley, and look over the ground a bit for them, to see if it would do for a branch line; it’s a job which may take me away for some time; but I shall be backwards and forwards, and you’re quite up to doing what is needed in my absence; the only work that may be beyond you is keeping old Jevons from drinking.’ He went on giving me directions about the management of the men employed on the line, and no more was said then, or for several months, about his going to Rope Farm. He went off into —— Valley, a dark overshadowed dale, where the sun seemed to set behind the hills before four o’clock on midsummer afternoon. Perhaps it was this that brought on the attack of low fever which he had soon after the beginning of the new year; he was very ill for many weeks, almost many months; a married sister — his only relation, I think — came down from London to nurse him, and I went over to him when I could, to see him, and give him ‘masculine news,’ as he called it; reports of the progress of the line, which, I am glad to say, I was able to carry on in his absence, in the slow gradual way which suited the company best, while trade was in a languid state, and money dear in the market. Of course, with this occupation for my scanty leisure, I did not often go over to Hope Farm. Whenever I did go, I met with a thorough welcome; and many inquiries were made as to Holdsworth’s illness, and the progress of his recovery.

At length, in June I think it was, he was sufficiently recovered to come back to his lodgings at Eltham, and resume part at least of his work. His sister, Mrs Robinson, had been obliged to leave him some weeks before, owing to some epidemic amongst her own children. As long as I had seen Mr Holdsworth in the rooms at the little inn at Hensleydale, where I had been accustomed to look upon him as an invalid, I had not been aware of the visible shake his fever had given to his health. But, once back in the old lodgings, where I had always seen him so buoyant, eloquent, decided, and vigorous in former days, my spirits sank at the change in one whom I had always regarded with a strong feeling of admiring affection. He sank into silence and despondency after the least exertion; he seemed as if he could not make up his mind to any action, or else that, when it was made up, he lacked strength to carry out his purpose. Of course, it was but the natural state of slow convalescence, after so sharp an illness; but, at the time, I did not know this, and perhaps I represented his state as more serious than it was to my kind relations at Hope Farm; who, in their grave, simple, eager way, immediately thought of the only help they could give.

‘Bring him out here,’ said the minister. ‘Our air here is good to a proverb; the June days are fine; he may loiter away his time in the hay-field, and the sweet smells will be a balm in themselves — better than physic.’

‘And,’ said cousin Holman, scarcely waiting for her husband to finish his sentence, ‘tell him there is new milk and fresh eggs to be had for the asking; it’s lucky Daisy has just calved, for her milk is always as good as other cows’ cream; and there is the plaid room with the morning sun all streaming in.’ Phillis said nothing, but looked as much interested in the project as any one. I took it upon myself. I wanted them to see him; him to know them. I proposed it to him when I got home. He was too languid after the day’s fatigue, to be willing to make the little exertion of going amongst strangers; and disappointed me by almost declining to accept the invitation I brought. The next morning it was different; he apologized for his ungraciousness of the night before; and told me that he would get all things in train, so as to be ready to go out with me to Hope Farm on the following Saturday.

‘For you must go with me, Manning,’ said he; ‘I used to be as impudent a fellow as need be, and rather liked going amongst strangers, and making my way; but since my illness I am almost like a girl, and turn hot and cold with shyness, as they do, I fancy.’

So it was fixed. We were to go out to Hope Farm on Saturday afternoon; and it was also understood that if the air and the life suited Mr Holdsworth, he was to remain there for a week or ten days, doing what work he could at that end of the line, while I took his place at Eltham to the best of my ability. I grew a little nervous, as the time drew near, and wondered how the brilliant Holdsworth would agree with the quiet quaint family of the minister; how they would like him, and many of his half-foreign ways. I tried to prepare him, by telling him from time to time little things about the goings-on at Hope Farm.

‘Manning,’ said he, ‘I see you don’t think I am half good enough for your friends. Out with it, man.’

‘No,’ I replied, boldly. ‘I think you are good; but I don’t know if you are quite of their kind of goodness.’

‘And you’ve found out already that there is greater chance of disagreement between two “kinds of goodness”, each having its own idea of right, than between a given goodness and a moderate degree of naughtiness — which last often arises from an indifference to right?’

‘I don’t know. I think you’re talking metaphysics, and I am sure that is bad for you.’

‘“When a man talks to you in a way that you don’t understand about a thing which he does not understand, them’s metaphysics.” You remember the clown’s definition, don’t you, Manning?’

‘No, I don’t,’ said I. ‘But what I do understand is, that you must go to bed; and tell me at what time we must start tomorrow, that I may go to Hepworth, and get those letters written we were talking about this morning.’

‘Wait till tomorrow, and let us see what the day is like,’ he answered, with such languid indecision as showed me he was over-fatigued. So I went my way. The morrow was blue and sunny, and beautiful; the very perfection of an early summer’s day. Mr Holdsworth was all Impatience to be off into the country; morning had brought back his freshness and strength, and consequent eagerness to be doing. I was afraid we were going to my cousin’s farm rather too early, before they would expect us; but what could I do with such a restless vehement man as Holdsworth was that morning? We came down upon the Hope Farm before the dew was off the grass on the shady side of the lane; the great house-dog was loose, basking in the sun, near the closed side door. I was surprised at this door being shut, for all summer long it was open from morning to night; but it was only on latch. I opened it, Rover watching me with half-suspicious, half-trustful eyes. The room was empty.

‘I don’t know where they can be,’ said I. ‘But come in and sit down while I go and look for them. You must be tired.’

‘Not I. This sweet balmy air is like a thousand tonics. Besides, this room is hot, and smells of those pungent wood-ashes. What are we to do?’

‘Go round to the kitchen. Betty will tell us where they are.’ So we went round into the farmyard, Rover accompanying us out of a grave sense of duty. Betty was washing out her milk-pans in the cold bubbling spring-water that constantly trickled in and out of a stone trough. In such weather as this most of her kitchen-work was done out of doors.

‘Eh, dear!’ said she, ‘the minister and missus is away at Hornby! They ne’er thought of your coming so betimes! The missus had some errands to do, and she thought as she’d walk with the minister and be back by dinner-time.’

‘Did not they expect us to dinner?’ said I.

‘Well, they did, and they did not, as I may say. Missus said to me the cold lamb would do well enough if you did not come; and if you did I was to put on a chicken and some bacon to boil; and I’ll go do it now, for it is hard to boil bacon enough.’

‘And is Phillis gone, too?’ Mr Holdsworth was making friends with Rover.

‘No! She’s just somewhere about. I reckon you’ll find her in the kitchen-garden, getting peas.

‘Let us go there,’ said Holsworth, suddenly leaving off his play with the dog. So I led the way into the kitchen-garden. It was in the first promise of a summer profuse in vegetables and fruits. Perhaps it was not so much cared for as other parts of the property; but it was more attended to than most kitchen-gardens belonging to farm-houses. There were borders of flowers along each side of the gravel walks; and there was an old sheltering wail on the north side covered with tolerably choice fruit-trees; there was a slope down to the fish-pond at the end, where there were great strawberry-beds; and raspberry-bushes and rose-bushes grew wherever there was a space; it seemed a chance which had been planted. Long rows of peas stretched at right angles from the main walk, and I saw Phillis stooping down among them, before she saw us. As soon as she heard our cranching steps on the gravel, she stood up, and shading her eyes from the sun, recognized us. She was quite still for a moment, and then came slowly towards us, blushing a little from evident shyness. I had never seen Phillis shy before.

‘This is Mr Holdsworth, Phillis,’ said I, as soon as I had shaken hands with her. She glanced up at him, and then looked down, more flushed than ever at his grand formality of taking his hat off and bowing; such manners had never been seen at Hope Farm before.

‘Father and mother are out. They will be so sorry; you did not write, Paul, as you said you would.’

‘It was my fault,’ said Holdsworth, understanding what she meant as well as if she had put it more fully into words. ‘I have not yet given up all the privileges of an invalid; one of which is indecision. Last night, when your cousin asked me at what time we were to start, I really could not make up my mind.’

Phillis seemed as if she could not make up her mind as to what to do with us. I tried to help her —

‘Have you finished getting peas?’ taking hold of the half-filled basket she was unconsciously holding in her hand; ‘or may we stay and help you?’

‘If you would. But perhaps it will tire you, sir?’ added she, speaking now to Holdsworth.

‘Not a bit,’ said he. ‘It will carry me back twenty years in my life, when I used to gather peas in my grandfather’s garden. I suppose I may eat a few as I go along?’

‘Certainly, sir. But if you went to the strawberry-beds you would find some strawberries ripe, and Paul can show you where they are.’

‘I am afraid you distrust me. I can assure you I know the exact fulness at which peas should be gathered. I take great care not to pluck them when they are unripe. I will not be turned off, as unfit for my work.’ This was a style of half-joking talk that Phillis was not accustomed to. She looked for a moment as if she would have liked to defend herself from the playful charge of distrust made against her, but she ended by not saying a word. We all plucked our peas in busy silence for the next five minutes. Then Holdsworth lifted himself up from between the rows, and said, a little wearily,

‘I am afraid I must strike work. I am not as strong as I fancied myself.’ Phillis was full of penitence immediately. He did, indeed, look pale; and she blamed herself for having allowed him to help her.

‘It was very thoughtless of me. I did not know — I thought, perhaps, you really liked it. I ought to have offered you something to eat, sir! Oh, Paul, we have gathered quite enough; how stupid I was to forget that Mr Holdsworth had been ill!’ And in a blushing hurry she led the way towards the house. We went in, and she moved a heavy cushioned chair forwards, into which Holdsworth was only too glad to sink. Then with deft and quiet speed she brought in a little tray, wine, water, cake, home-made bread, and newly-churned butter. She stood by in some anxiety till, after bite and sup, the colour returned to Mr Holdsworth’s face, and he would fain have made us some laughing apologies for the fright he had given us. But then Phillis drew back from her innocent show of care and interest, and relapsed into the cold shyness habitual to her when she was first thrown into the company of strangers. She brought out the last week’s county paper (which Mr Holdsworth had read five days ago), and then quietly withdrew; and then he subsided into languor, leaning back and shutting his eyes as if he would go to sleep. I stole into the kitchen after Phillis; but she had made the round of the corner of the house outside, and I found her sitting on the horse-mount, with her basket of peas, and a basin into which she was shelling them. Rover lay at her feet, snapping now and then at the flies. I went to her, and tried to help her, but somehow the sweet crisp young peas found their way more frequently into my mouth than into the basket, while we talked together in a low tone, fearful of being overheard through the open casements of the house-place in which Holdsworth was resting.

‘Don’t you think him handsome?’ asked I.

‘Perhaps — yes — I have hardly looked at him,’ she replied ‘But is not he very like a foreigner?’

‘Yes, he cuts his hair foreign fashion,’ said I.

‘I like an Englishman to look like an Englishman.’

‘I don’t think he thinks about it. He says he began that way when he was in Italy, because everybody wore it so, and it is natural to keep it on in England.’

‘Not if he began it in Italy because everybody there wore it so. Everybody here wears it differently.’

I was a little offended with Phillis’s logical fault-finding with my friend; and I determined to change the subject.

‘When is your mother coming home?’

‘I should think she might come any time now; but she had to go and see Mrs Morton, who was ill, and she might be kept, and not be home till dinner. Don’t you think you ought to go and see how Mr Holdsworth is going on, Paul? He may be faint again.’

I went at her bidding; but there was no need for it. Mr Holdsworth was up, standing by the window, his hands in his pockets; he had evidently been watching us. He turned away as I entered.

‘So that is the girl I found your good father planning for your wife, Paul, that evening when I interrupted you! Are you of the same coy mind still? It did not look like it a minute ago.’

‘Phillis and I understand each other,’ I replied, sturdily. ‘We are like brother and sister. She would not have me as a husband if there was not another man in the world; and it would take a deal to make me think of her — as my father wishes’ (somehow I did not like to say ‘as a wife’), ‘but we love each other dearly.’

‘Well, I am rather surprised at it — not at your loving each other in a brother-and-sister kind of way — but at your finding it so impossible to fall in love with such a beautiful woman.’ Woman! beautiful woman! I had thought of Phillis as a comely but awkward girl; and I could not banish the pinafore from my mind’s eye when I tried to picture her to myself. Now I turned, as Mr Holdsworth had done, to look at her again out of the window: she had just finished her task, and was standing up, her back to us, holding the basket, and the basin in it, high in air, out of Rover’s reach, who was giving vent to his delight at the probability of a change of place by glad leaps and barks, and snatches at what he imagined to be a withheld prize. At length she grew tired of their mutual play, and with a feint of striking him, and a ‘Down, Rover! do hush!’ she looked towards the window where we were standing, as if to reassure herself that no one had been disturbed by the noise, and seeing us, she coloured all over, and hurried away, with Rover still curving in sinuous lines about her as she walked.

‘I should like to have sketched her,’ said Mr Holdsworth, as he turned away. He went back to his chair, and rested in silence for a minute or two. Then he was up again.

‘I would give a good deal for a book,’ he said. ‘It would keep me quiet.’ He began to look round; there were a few volumes at one end of the shovel-board. ‘Fifth volume of Matthew Henry’s Commentary,’ said he, reading their titles aloud. ‘Housewife’s complete Manual; Berridge on Prayer; L’Inferno — Dante!’ in great surprise. ‘Why, who reads this?’

‘I told you Phillis read it. Don’t you remember? She knows Latin and Greek, too.’

‘To be sure! I remember! But somehow I never put two and two together. That quiet girl, full of household work, is the wonderful scholar, then, that put you to rout with her questions when you first began to come here. To be sure, “Cousin Phillis!” What’s here: a paper with the hard, obsolete words written out. I wonder what sort of a dictionary she has got. Baretti won’t tell her all these words. Stay! I have got a pencil here. I’ll write down the most accepted meanings, and save her a little trouble.’

So he took her book and the paper back to the little round table, and employed himself in writing explanations and definitions of the words which had troubled her. I was not sure if he was not taking a liberty: it did not quite please me, and yet I did not know why. He had only just done, and replaced the paper in the book, and put the latter back in its place, when I heard the sound of wheels stopping in the lane, and looking out, I saw cousin Holman getting out of a neighbour’s gig, making her little curtsey of acknowledgment, and then coming towards the house. I went to meet her.

‘Oh, Paul!’ said she, ‘I am so sorry I was kept; and then Thomas Dobson said if I would wait a quarter of an hour he would — But where’s your friend Mr Holdsworth? I hope he is come?’

Just then he came out, and with his pleasant cordial manner took her hand, and thanked her for asking him to come out here to get strong.

‘I’m sure I am very glad to see you, sir. It was the minister’s thought. I took it into my head you would be dull in our quiet house, for Paul says you’ve been such a great traveller; but the minister said that dulness would perhaps suit you while you were but ailing, and that I was to ask Paul to be here as much as he could. I hope you’ll find yourself happy with us, I’m sure, sir. Has Phillis given you something to eat and drink, I wonder? there’s a deal in eating a little often, if one has to get strong after an illness.’ And then she began to question him as to the details of his indisposition in her simple, motherly way. He seemed at once to understand her, and to enter into friendly relations with her. It was not quite the same in the evening when the minister came home. Men have always a little natural antipathy to get over when they first meet as strangers. But in this case each was disposed to make an effort to like the other; only each was to each a specimen of an unknown class. I had to leave the Hope Farm on Sunday afternoon, as I had Mr Holdsworth’s work as well as my own to look to in Eltham; and I was not at all sure how things would go on during the week that Holdsworth was to remain on his visit; I had been once or twice in hot water already at the near clash of opinions between the minister and my much-vaunted friend. On the Wednesday I received a short note from Holdsworth; he was going to stay on, and return with me on the following Sunday, and he wanted me to send him a certain list of books, his theodolite, and other surveying instruments, all of which could easily be conveyed down the line to Heathbridge. I went to his lodgings and picked out the books. Italian, Latin, trigonometry; a pretty considerable parcel they made, besides the implements. I began to be curious as to the general progress of affairs at Hope Farm, but I could not go over till the Saturday. At Heathbridge I found Holdsworth, come to meet me. He was looking quite a different man to what I had left him; embrowned, sparkles in his eyes, so languid before. I told him how much stronger he looked.

‘Yes!’ said he. ‘I am fidging fain to be at work again. Last week I dreaded the thoughts of my employment: now I am full of desire to begin. This week in the country has done wonders for me.’

‘You have enjoyed yourself, then?’

‘Oh! it has been perfect in its way. Such a thorough country life! and yet removed from the dulness which I always used to fancy accompanied country life, by the extraordinary intelligence of the minister. I have fallen into calling him “the minister”, like every one else.’

‘You get on with him, then?’ said I. ‘I was a little afraid.’

‘I was on the verge of displeasing him once or twice, I fear, with random assertions and exaggerated expressions, such as one always uses with other people, and thinks nothing of; but I tried to check myself when I saw how it shocked the good man; and really it is very wholesome exercise, this trying to make one’s words represent one’s thoughts, instead of merely looking to their effect on others.’

‘Then you are quite friends now?’ I asked.

‘Yes, thoroughly; at any rate as far as I go. I never met with a man with such a desire for knowledge. In information, as far as it can be gained from books, he far exceeds me on most subjects; but then I have travelled and seen — Were not you surprised at the list of things I sent for?’

‘Yes; I thought it did not promise much rest.’

‘Oh! some of the books were for the minister, and some for his daughter. (I call her Phillis to myself, but I use XX in speaking about her to others. I don’t like to seem familiar, and yet Miss Holman is a term I have never heard used.)’

‘I thought the Italian books were for her.’

‘Yes! Fancy her trying at Dante for her first book in Italian! I had a capital novel by Manzoni, I Promessi Sposi, just the thing for a beginner; and if she must still puzzle out Dante, my dictionary is far better than hers.’

‘Then she found out you had written those definitions on her list of words?’

‘Oh! yes’— with a smile of amusement and pleasure. He was going to tell me what had taken place, but checked himself.

‘But I don’t think the minister will like your having given her a novel to read?’

‘Pooh! What can be more harmless? Why make a bugbear of a word? It is as pretty and innocent a tale as can be met with. You don’t suppose they take Virgil for gospel?’

By this time we were at the farm. I think Phillis gave me a warmer welcome than usual, and cousin Holman was kindness itself. Yet somehow I felt as if I had lost my place, and that Holdsworth had taken it. He knew all the ways of the house; he was full of little filial attentions to cousin Holman; he treated Phillis with the affectionate condescension of an elder brother; not a bit more; not in any way different. He questioned me about the progress of affairs in Eltham with eager interest.

‘Ah!’ said cousin Holman, ‘you’ll be spending a different kind of time next week to what you have done this! I can see how busy you’ll make yourself! But if you don’t take care you’ll be ill again, and have to come back to our quiet ways of going on.

‘Do you suppose I shall need to be ill to wish to come back here?’ he answered, warmly. ‘I am only afraid you have treated me so kindly that I shall always be turning up on your hands.’

‘That’s right,’ she replied. ‘Only don’t go and make yourself ill by over-work. I hope you’ll go on with a cup of new milk every morning, for I am sure that is the best medicine; and put a teaspoonful of rum in it, if you like; many a one speaks highly of that, only we had no rum in the house.’ I brought with me an atmosphere of active life which I think he had begun to miss; and it was natural that he should seek my company, after his week of retirement. Once I saw Phillis looking at us as we talked together with a kind of wistful curiosity; but as soon as she caught my eye, she turned away, blushing deeply.

That evening I had a little talk with the minister. I strolled along the Hornby road to meet him; for Holdsworth was giving Phillis an Italian lesson, and cousin Holman had fallen asleep over her work. Somehow, and not unwillingly on my part, our talk fell on the friend whom I had introduced to the Hope Farm.

‘Yes! I like him!’ said the minister, weighing his words a little as he spoke. ‘I like him. I hope I am justified in doing it, but he takes hold of me, as it were; and I have almost been afraid lest he carries me away, in spite of my judgment.’

‘He is a good fellow; indeed he is,’ said I. ‘My father thinks well of him; and I have seen a deal of him. I would not have had him come here if I did not know that you would approve of him.’

‘Yes,’ (once more hesitating,) ‘I like him, and I think he is an upright man; there is a want of seriousness in his talk at times, but, at the same time, it is wonderful to listen to him! He makes Horace and Virgil living, instead of dead, by the stories he tells me of his sojourn in the very countries where they lived, and where to this day, he says — But it is like dram-drinking. I listen to him till I forget my duties, and am carried off my feet. Last Sabbath evening he led us away into talk on profane subjects ill befitting the day.’ By this time we were at the house, and our conversation stopped. But before the day was out, I saw the unconscious hold that my friend had got over all the family. And no wonder: he had seen so much and done so much as compared to them, and he told about it all so easily and naturally, and yet as I never heard any one else do; and his ready pencil was out in an instant to draw on scraps of paper all sorts of illustrations — modes of drawing up water in Northern Italy, wine-carts, buffaloes, stone-pines, I know not what. After we had all looked at these drawings, Phillis gathered them together, and took them. It is many years since I have seen thee, Edward Holdsworth, but thou wast a delightful fellow! Ay, and a good one too; though much sorrow was caused by thee!

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55