Cousin Phillis, by Elizabeth Gaskell


Just after this I went home for a week’s holiday. Everything was prospering there; my father’s new partnership gave evident satisfaction to both parties. There was no display of increased wealth in our modest household; but my mother had a few extra comforts provided for her by her husband. I made acquaintance with Mr and Mrs Ellison, and first saw pretty Margaret Ellison, who is now my wife. When I returned to Eltham, I found that a step was decided upon, which had been in contemplation for some time; that Holdsworth and I should remove our quarters to Hornby; our daily presence, and as much of our time as possible, being required for the completion of the line at that end.

Of course this led to greater facility of intercourse with the Hope Farm people. We could easily walk out there after our day’s work was done, and spend a balmy evening hour or two, and yet return before the summer’s twilight had quite faded away. Many a time, indeed, we would fain have stayed longer — the open air, the fresh and pleasant country, made so agreeable a contrast to the close, hot town lodgings which I shared with Mr Holdsworth; but early hours, both at eve and morn, were an imperative necessity with the minister, and he made no scruple at turning either or both of us out of the house directly after evening prayer, or ‘exercise’, as he called it. The remembrance of many a happy day, and of several little scenes, comes back upon me as I think of that summer. They rise like pictures to my memory, and in this way I can date their succession; for I know that corn harvest must have come after hay-making, apple-gathering after corn-harvest.

The removal to Hornby took up some time, during which we had neither of us any leisure to go out to the Hope Farm. Mr Holdsworth had been out there once during my absence at home. One sultry evening, when work was done, he proposed our walking out and paying the Holmans a visit. It so happened that I had omitted to write my usual weekly letter home in our press of business, and I wished to finish that before going out. Then he said that he would go, and that I could follow him if I liked. This I did in about an hour; the weather was so oppressive, I remember, that I took off my coat as I walked, and hung it over my arm. All the doors and windows at the farm were open when I arrived there, and every tiny leaf on the trees was still. The silence of the place was profound; at first I thought that it was entirely deserted; but just as I drew near the door I heard a weak sweet voice begin to sing; it was cousin Holman, all by herself in the house-place, piping up a hymn, as she knitted away in the clouded light. She gave me a kindly welcome, and poured out all the small domestic news of the fortnight past upon me, and, in return, I told her about my own people and my visit at home.

‘Where were the rest?’ at length I asked.

Betty and the men were in the field helping with the last load of hay, for the minister said there would be rain before the morning. Yes, and the minister himself, and Phillis, and Mr Holdsworth, were all there helping. She thought that she herself could have done something; but perhaps she was the least fit for hay-making of any one; and somebody must stay at home and take care of the house, there were so many tramps about; if I had not had something to do with the railroad she would have called them navvies. I asked her if she minded being left alone, as I should like to go arid help; and having her full and glad permission to leave her alone, I went off, following her directions: through the farmyard, past the cattle-pond, into the ashfield, beyond into the higher field with two holly-bushes in the middle. I arrived there: there was Betty with all the farming men, and a cleared field, and a heavily laden cart; one man at the top of the great pile ready to catch the fragrant hay which the others threw up to him with their pitchforks; a little heap of cast-off clothes in a corner of the field (for the heat, even at seven o’clock, was insufferable), a few cans and baskets, and Rover lying by them panting, and keeping watch. Plenty of loud, hearty, cheerful talking; but no minister, no Phillis, no Mr Holdsworth. Betty saw me first, and understanding who it was that I was in search of, she came towards me.

‘They’re out yonder — agait wi’ them things o’ Measter Holdsworth’s.’ So ‘out yonder’ I went; out on to a broad upland common, full of red sand-banks, and sweeps and hollows; bordered by dark firs, purple in the coming shadows, but near at hand all ablaze with flowering gorse, or, as we call it in the south, furze-bushes, which, seen against the belt of distant trees, appeared brilliantly golden. On this heath, a little way from the field-gate, I saw the three. I counted their heads, joined together in an eager group over Holdsworth’s theodolite. He was teaching the minister the practical art of surveying and taking a level. I was wanted to assist, and was quickly set to work to hold the chain. Phillis was as intent as her father; she had hardly time to greet me, so desirous was she to hear some answer to her father’s question. So we went on, the dark clouds still gathering, for perhaps five minutes after my arrival. Then came the blinding lightning and the rumble and quick-following rattling peal of thunder right over our heads. It came sooner than I expected, sooner than they had looked for: the rain delayed not; it came pouring down; and what were we to do for shelter? Phillis had nothing on but her indoor things — no bonnet, no shawl. Quick as the darting lightning around us, Holdsworth took off his coat and wrapped it round her neck and shoulders, and, almost without a word, hurried us all into such poor shelter as one of the overhanging sand-banks could give. There we were, cowered down, close together, Phillis innermost, almost too tightly packed to free her arms enough to divest herself of the coat, which she, in her turn, tried to put lightly over Holdsworth’s shoulders. In doing so she touched his shirt.

‘Oh, how wet you are!’ she cried, in pitying dismay; ‘and you’ve hardly got over your fever! Oh, Mr Holdsworth, I am so sorry!’ He turned his head a little, smiling at her.

‘If I do catch cold, it is all my fault for having deluded you into staying out here!’ but she only murmured again, ‘I am so sorry.’ The minister spoke now. ‘It is a regular downpour. Please God that the hay is saved! But there is no likelihood of its ceasing, and I had better go home at once, and send you all some wraps; umbrellas will not be safe with yonder thunder and lightning.’

Both Holdsworth and I offered to go instead of him; but he was resolved, although perhaps it would have been wiser if Holdsworth, wet as he already was, had kept himself in exercise. As he moved off, Phillis crept out, and could see on to the storm-swept heath. Part of Holdsworth’s apparatus still remained exposed to all the rain. Before we could have any warning, she had rushed out of the shelter and collected the various things, and brought them back in triumph to where we crouched. Holdsworth had stood up, uncertain whether to go to her assistance or not. She came running back, her long lovely hair floating and dripping, her eyes glad and bright, and her colour freshened to a glow of health by the exercise and the rain.

‘Now, Miss Holman, that’s what I call wilful,’ said Holdsworth, as she gave them to him. ‘No, I won’t thank you’ (his looks were thanking her all the time). ‘My little bit of dampness annoyed you, because you thought I had got wet in your service; so you were determined to make me as uncomfortable as you were yourself. It was an unchristian piece of revenge!’

His tone of badinage (as the French call it) would have been palpable enough to any one accustomed to the world; but Phillis was not, and it distressed or rather bewildered her. ‘Unchristian’ had to her a very serious meaning; it was not a word to be used lightly; and though she did not exactly understand what wrong it was that she was accused of doing, she was evidently desirous to throw off the imputation. At first her earnestness to disclaim unkind motives amused Holdsworth; while his light continuance of the joke perplexed her still more; but at last he said something gravely, and in too low a tone for me to hear, which made her all at once become silent, and called out her blushes. After a while, the minister came back, a moving mass of shawls, cloaks, and umbrellas. Phillis kept very close to her father’s side on our return to the farm. She appeared to me to be shrinking away from Holdsworth, while he had not the slightest variation in his manner from what it usually was in his graver moods; kind, protecting, and thoughtful towards her. Of course, there was a great commotion about our wet clothes; but I name the little events of that evening now because I wondered at the time what he had said in that low voice to silence Phillis so effectually, and because, in thinking of their intercourse by the light of future events, that evening stands out with some prominence. I have said that after our removal to Hornby our communications with the farm became almost of daily occurrence. Cousin Holman and I were the two who had least to do with this intimacy. After Mr Holdsworth regained his health, he too often talked above her head in intellectual matters, and too often in his light bantering tone for her to feel quite at her ease with him. I really believe that he adopted this latter tone in speaking to her because he did not know what to talk about to a purely motherly woman, whose intellect had never been cultivated, and whose loving heart was entirely occupied with her husband, her child, her household affairs and, perhaps, a little with the concerns of the members of her husband’s congregation, because they, in a way, belonged to her husband. I had noticed before that she had fleeting shadows of jealousy even of Phillis, when her daughter and her husband appeared to have strong interests and sympathies in things which were quite beyond her comprehension. I had noticed it in my first acquaintance with them, I say, and had admired the delicate tact which made the minister, on such occasions, bring the conversation back to such subjects as those on which his wife, with her practical experience of every-day life, was an authority; while Phillis, devoted to her father, unconsciously followed his lead, totally unaware, in her filial reverence, of his motive for doing so.

To return to Holdsworth. The minister had at more than one time spoken of him to me with slight distrust, principally occasioned by the suspicion that his careless words were not always those of soberness and truth. But it was more as a protest against the fascination which the younger man evidently exercised over the elder one more as it were to strengthen himself against yielding to this fascination — that the minister spoke out to me about this failing of Holdsworth’s, as it appeared to him. In return Holdsworth was subdued by the minister’s uprightness and goodness, and delighted with his clear intellect — his strong healthy craving after further knowledge. I never met two men who took more thorough pleasure and relish in each other’s society. To Phillis his relation continued that of an elder brother: he directed her studies into new paths, he patiently drew out the expression of many of her thoughts, and perplexities, and unformed theories — scarcely ever now falling into the vein of banter which she was so slow to understand.

One day — harvest-time — he had been drawing on a loose piece of paper-sketching ears of corn, sketching carts drawn by bullocks and laden with grapes — all the time talking with Phillis and me, cousin Holman putting in her not pertinent remarks, when suddenly he said to Phillis —

‘Keep your head still; I see a sketch! I have often tried to draw your head from memory, and failed; but I think I can do it now. If I succeed I will give it to your mother. You would like a portrait of your daughter as Ceres, would you not, ma’am?’

‘I should like a picture of her; yes, very much, thank you, Mr Holdsworth; but if you put that straw in her hair,’ (he was holding some wheat ears above her passive head, looking at the effect with an artistic eye,) ‘you’ll ruffle her hair. Phillis, my dear, if you’re to have your picture taken, go up-stairs, and brush your hair smooth.’

‘Not on any account. I beg your pardon, but I want hair loosely flowing.’ He began to draw, looking intently at Phillis; I could see this stare of his discomposed her — her colour came and went, her breath quickened with the consciousness of his regard; at last, when he said, ‘Please look at me for a minute or two, I want to get in the eyes,’ she looked up at him, quivered, and suddenly got up and left the room. He did not say a word, but went on with some other part of the drawing; his silence was unnatural, and his dark cheek blanched a little. Cousin Holman looked up from her work, and put her spectacles down.

‘What’s the matter? Where is she gone?’

Holdsworth never uttered a word, but went on drawing. I felt obliged to say something; it was stupid enough, but stupidity was better than silence just then.

‘I’ll go and call her,’ said I. So I went into the hall, and to the bottom of the stairs; but just as I was going to call Phillis, she came down swiftly with her bonnet on, and saying, ‘I’m going to father in the five-acre,’ passed out by the open ‘rector,’ right in front of the house-place windows, and out at the little white side-gate. She had been seen by her mother and Holdsworth, as she passed; so there was no need for explanation, only cousin Holman and I had a long discussion as to whether she could have found the room too hot, or what had occasioned her sudden departure. Holdsworth was very quiet during all the rest of that day; nor did he resume the portrait-taking by his own desire, only at my cousin Holman’s request the next time that he came; and then he said he should not require any more formal sittings for only such a slight sketch as he felt himself capable of making. Phillis was just the same as ever the next time I saw her after her abrupt passing me in the hall. She never gave any explanation of her rush out of the room.

So all things went on, at least as far as my observation reached at the time, or memory can recall now, till the great apple-gathering of the year. The nights were frosty, the mornings and evenings were misty, but at mid-day all was sunny and bright, and it was one mid-day that both of us being on the line near Heathbridge, and knowing that they were gathering apples at the farm, we resolved to spend the men’s dinner-hour in going over there. We found the great clothes-baskets full of apples, scenting the house, and stopping up the way; and an universal air of merry contentment with this the final produce of the year. The yellow leaves hung on the trees ready to flutter down at the slightest puff of air; the great bushes of Michaelmas daisies in the kitchen-garden were making their last show of flowers. We must needs taste the fruit off the different trees, and pass our judgment as to their flavour; and we went away with our pockets stuffed with those that we liked best. As we had passed to the orchard, Holdsworth had admired and spoken about some flower which he saw; it so happened he had never seen this old-fashioned kind since the days of his boyhood. I do not know whether he had thought anything more about this chance speech of his, but I know I had not — when Phillis, who had been missing just at the last moment of our hurried visit, re-appeared with a little nosegay of this same flower, which she was tying up with a blade of grass. She offered it to Holdsworth as he stood with her father on the point of departure. I saw their faces. I saw for the first time an unmistakable look of love in his black eyes; it was more than gratitude for the little attention; it was tender and beseeching — passionate. She shrank from it in confusion, her glance fell on me; and, partly to hide her emotion, partly out of real kindness at what might appear ungracious neglect of an older friend, she flew off to gather me a few late-blooming China roses. But it was the first time she had ever done anything of the kind for me.

We had to walk fast to be back on the line before the men’s return, so we spoke but little to each other, and of course the afternoon was too much occupied for us to have any talk. In the evening we went back to our joint lodgings in Hornby. There, on the table, lay a letter for Holdsworth, which had be en forwarded to him from Eltham. As our tea was ready, and I had had nothing to eat since morning, I fell to directly without paying much attention to my companion as he opened and read his letter. He was very silent for a few minutes; at length he said,

‘Old fellow! I’m going to leave you!’

‘Leave me!’ said I. ‘How? When?’

‘This letter ought to have come to hand Sooner. It is from Greathed the engineer’ (Greathed was well known in those days; he is dead now, and his name half-forgotten); ‘he wants to see me about Some business; in fact, I may as well tell you, Paul, this letter contains a very advantageous proposal for me to go out to Canada, and superintend the making of a line there.’ I was in utter dismay. ‘But what will Our company say to that?’ ‘Oh, Greathed has the superintendence of this line, you know; and he is going to be engineer in chief to this Canadian line; many of the Shareholders in this company are going in for the other, so I fancy they will make no difficulty in following Greathed’s lead. He says he has a young man ready to put in my place.’

‘I hate him,’ said I.

‘Thank you,’ said Holdsworth, laughing.

‘But you must not,’ he resumed; ‘for this is a very good thing for me, and, of course, if no one can be found to take my inferior work, I can’t be spared to take the superior. I only wish I had received this letter a day Sooner. Every hour is of consequence, for Greathed says they are threatening a rival line. Do you know, Paul, I almost fancy I must go up tonight? I can take an engine back to Eltham, and catch the night train. I should not like Greathed to think me luke-warm.’

‘But you’ll come back?’ I asked, distressed at the thought of this sudden parting.

‘Oh, yes! At least I hope so. They may want me to go out by the next steamer, that will be on Saturday.’ He began to eat and drink standing, but I think he was quite unconscious of the nature of either his food or his drink.

‘I will go to-night. Activity and readiness go a long way in our profession. Remember that, my boy! I hope I shall come back, but if I don’t, be sure and recollect all the words of wisdom that have fallen from my lips. Now where’s the portmanteau? If I can gain half an hour for a gathering up of my things in Eltham, so much the better. I’m clear of debt anyhow; and what I owe for my lodgings you can pay for me out of my quarter’s salary, due November 4th.’

‘Then you don’t think you will come back?’ I said, despondingly.

‘I will come back some time, never fear,’ said he, kindly. ‘I may be back in a couple of days, having been found incompetent for the Canadian work; or I may not be wanted to go out so soon as I now anticipate. Anyhow you don’t suppose I am going to forget you, Paul this work out there ought not to take me above two years, and, perhaps, after that, we may be employed together again.’ Perhaps! I had very little hope. The same kind of happy days never returns. However, I did all I could in helping him: clothes, papers, books, instruments; how we pushed and struggled — how I stuffed. All was done in a much shorter time than we had calculated upon, when I had run down to the sheds to order the engine. I was going to drive him to Eltham. We sate ready for a summons. Holdsworth took up the little nosegay that he had brought away from the Hope Farm, and had laid on the mantel-piece on first coming into the room. He smelt at it, and caressed it with his lips.

‘What grieves me is that I did not know — that I have not said good-bye to — to them.’

He spoke in a grave tone, the shadow of the coming separation falling upon him at last.

‘I will tell them,’ said I. ‘I am sure they will be very sorry.’ Then we were silent.

‘I never liked any family so much.’

‘I knew you would like them.’

‘How one’s thoughts change — this morning I was full of a hope, Paul.’ He paused, and then he said —

‘You put that sketch in carefully?’

‘That outline of a head?’ asked I. But I knew he meant an abortive sketch of Phillis, which had not been successful enough for him to complete it with shading or colouring.

‘Yes. What a sweet innocent face it is! and yet so — Oh, dear!’ He sighed and got up, his hands in his pockets, to walk up and down the room in evident disturbance of mind. He suddenly stopped opposite to me.

‘You’ll tell them how it all was. Be sure and tell the good minister that I was so sorry not to wish him good-bye, and to thank him and his wife for all their kindness. As for Phillis — please God in two years I’ll be back and tell her myself all in my heart.’

‘You love Phillis, then?’ said I.

‘Love her! Yes, that I do. Who could help it, seeing her as I have done? Her character as unusual and rare as her beauty! God bless her! God keep her in her high tranquillity, her pure innocence. — Two years! It is a long time. — But she lives in such seclusion, almost like the sleeping beauty, Paul,’—(he was smiling now, though a minute before I had thought him on the verge of tears,)—‘but I shall come back like a prince from Canada, and waken her to my love. I can’t help hoping that it won’t be difficult, eh, Paul?’

This touch of coxcombry displeased me a little, and I made no answer. He went on, half apologetically —

‘You see, the salary they offer me is large; and beside that, this experience will give me a name which will entitle me to expect a still larger in any future undertaking.’

‘That won’t influence Phillis.’

‘No! but it will make me more eligible in the eyes of her father and mother.’ I made no answer.

‘You give me your best wishes, Paul,’ said he, almost pleading. ‘You would like me for a cousin?’

I heard the scream and whistle of the engine ready down at the sheds.

‘Ay, that I should,’ I replied, suddenly softened towards my friend now that he was going away. ‘I wish you were to be married tomorrow, and I were to be best man.’

‘Thank you, lad. Now for this cursed portmanteau (how the minister would be shocked); but it is heavy!’ and off we sped into the darkness. He only just caught the night train at Eltham, and I slept, desolately enough, at my old lodgings at Miss Dawsons’, for that night. Of course the next few days I was busier than ever, doing both his work and my own. Then came a letter from him, very short and affectionate. He was going out in the Saturday steamer, as he had more than half expected; and by the following Monday the man who was to succeed him would be down at Eltham. There was a P.S., with only these words:—‘My nosegay goes with me to Canada, but I do not need it to remind me of Hope Farm.’

Saturday came; but it was very late before I could go out to the farm. It was a frosty night, the stars shone clear above me, and the road was crisping beneath my feet. They must have heard my footsteps before I got up to the house. They were sitting at their usual employments in the house-place when I went in. Phillis’s eyes went beyond me in their look of welcome, and then fell in quiet disappointment on her work.

‘And where’s Mr Holdsworth?’ asked cousin Holman, in a minute or two. ‘I hope his cold is not worse — I did not like his short cough.’

I laughed awkwardly; for I felt that I was the bearer of unpleasant news.

‘His cold had need be better — for he’s gone — gone away to Canada!’

I purposely looked away from Phillis, as I thus abruptly told my news.

‘To Canada!’ said the minister.

‘Gone away!’ said his wife. But no word from Phillis.

‘Yes!’ said I. ‘He found a letter at Hornby when we got home the other night — when we got home from here; he ought to have got it sooner; he was ordered to go up to London directly, and to see some people about a new line in Canada, and he’s gone to lay it down; he has sailed today. He was sadly grieved not to have time to come out and wish you all good-by; but he started for London within two hours after he got that letter. He bade me thank you most gratefully for all your kindnesses; he was very sorry not to come here once again.’ Phillis got up and left the room with noiseless steps.

‘I am very sorry,’ said the minister.

‘I am sure so am I!’ said cousin Holman. ‘I was real fond of that lad ever since I nursed him last June after that bad fever.’

The minister went on asking me questions respecting Holdsworth’s future plans; and brought out a large old-fashioned atlas, that he might find out the exact places between which the new railroad was to run. Then supper was ready; it was always on the table as soon as the clock on the stairs struck eight, and down came Phillis — her face white and set, her dry eyes looking defiance to me, for I am afraid I hurt her maidenly pride by my glance of sympathetic interest as she entered the room. Never a word did she say — never a question did she ask about the absent friend, yet she forced herself to talk.

And so it was all the next day. She was as pale as could be, like one who has received some shock; but she would not let me talk to her, and she tried hard to behave as usual. Two or three times I repeated, in public, the various affectionate messages to the family with which I was charged by Holdsworth; but she took no more notice of them than if my words had been empty air. And in this mood I left her on the Sabbath evening.

My new master was not half so indulgent as my old one. He kept up strict discipline as to hours, so that it was some time before I could again go out, even to pay a call at the Hope Farm.

It was a cold misty evening in November. The air, even indoors, seemed full of haze; yet there was a great log burning on the hearth, which ought to have made the room cheerful. Cousin Holman and Phillis were sitting at the little round table before the fire, working away in silence. The minister had his books out on the dresser, seemingly deep in study, by the light of his solitary candle; perhaps the fear of disturbing him made the unusual stillness of the room. But a welcome was ready for me from all; not noisy, not demonstrative — that it never was; my damp wrappers were taken off; the next meal was hastened, and a chair placed for me on one side of the fire, so that I pretty much commanded a view of the room. My eye caught on Phillis, looking so pale and weary, and with a sort of aching tone (if I may call it so) in her voice. She was doing all the accustomed things — fulfilling small household duties, but somehow differently — I can’t tell you how, for she was just as deft and quick in her movements, only the light spring was gone out of them. Cousin Holman began to question me; even the minister put aside his books, and came and stood on the opposite side of the fire-place, to hear what waft of intelligence I brought. I had first to tell them why I had not been to see them for so long — more than five weeks. The answer was simple enough; business and the necessity of attending strictly to the orders of a new superintendent, who had not yet learned trust, much less indulgence. The minister nodded his approval of my conduct, and said — ‘Right, Paul! “Servants, obey in all things your master according to the flesh.” I have had my fears lest you had too much licence under Edward Holdsworth.’

‘Ah,’ said cousin Holman, ‘poor Mr Holdsworth, he’ll be on the salt seas by this time!’

‘No, indeed,’ said I, ‘he’s landed. I have had a letter from him from Halifax.’ Immediately a shower of questions fell thick upon me. When? How? What was he doing? How did he like it? What sort of a voyage? &c.

‘Many is the time we have thought of him when the wind was blowing so hard; the old quince-tree is blown down, Paul, that on the right-hand of the great pear-tree; it was blown down last Monday week, and it was that night that I asked the minister to pray in an especial manner for all them that went down in ships upon the great deep, and he said then, that Mr Holdsworth might be already landed; but I said, even if the prayer did not fit him, it was sure to be fitting somebody out at sea, who would need the Lord’s care. Both Phillis and I thought he would be a month on the seas.’ Phillis began to speak, but her voice did not come rightly at first. It was a little higher pitched than usual, when she said —

‘We thought he would be a month if he went in a sailing-vessel, or perhaps longer. I suppose he went in a steamer?’

‘Old Obadiah Grimshaw was more than six weeks in getting to America,’ observed cousin Holman.

‘I presume he cannot as yet tell how he likes his new work?’ asked the minister.

‘No! he is but just landed; it is but one page long. I’ll read it to you, shall I? —

‘“Dear Paul — We are safe on shore, after a rough passage. Thought you would like to hear this, but homeward-bound steamer is making signals for letters. Will write again soon. It seems a year since I left Hornby. Longer since I was at the farm. I have got my nosegay safe. Remember me to the Holmans. — Yours, E. H.”’

‘That’s not much, certainly,’ said the minister. ‘But it’s a comfort to know he’s on land these blowy nights.’

Phillis said nothing. She kept her head bent down over her work; but I don’t think she put a stitch in, while I was reading the letter. I wondered if she understood what nosegay was meant; but I could not tell. When next she lifted up her face, there were two spots of brilliant colour on the cheeks that had been so pale before. After I had spent an hour or two there, I was bound to return back to Hornby. I told them I did not know when I could come again, as we — by which I mean the company — had undertaken the Hensleydale line; that branch for which poor Holdsworth was surveying when he caught his fever.

‘But you’ll have a holiday at Christmas,’ said my cousin. ‘Surely they’ll not be such heathens as to work you then?’

‘Perhaps the lad will be going home,’ said the minister, as if to mitigate his wife’s urgency; but for all that, I believe he wanted me to come. Phillis fixed her eyes on me with a wistful expression, hard to resist. But, indeed, I had no thought of resisting. Under my new master I had no hope of a holiday long enough to enable me to go to Birmingham and see my parents with any comfort; and nothing could be pleasanter to me than to find myself at home at my cousins’ for a day or two, then. So it was fixed that we were to meet in Hornby Chapel on Christmas Day, and that I was to accompany them home after service, and if possible to stay over the next day.

I was not able to get to chapel till late on the appointed day, and so I took a seat near the door in considerable shame, although it really was not my fault. When the service was ended, I went and stood in the porch to await the coming out of my cousins. Some worthy people belonging to the congregation clustered into a group just where I stood, and exchanged the good wishes of the season. It had just begun to snow, and this occasioned a little delay, and they fell into further conversation. I was not attending to what was not meant for me to hear, till I caught the name of Phillis Holman. And then I listened; where was the harm?

‘I never saw any one so changed!’

‘I asked Mrs Holman,’ quoth another, ‘“Is Phillis well?” and she just said she had been having a cold which had pulled her down; she did not seem to think anything of it.’

‘They had best take care of her,’ said one of the oldest of the good ladies; ‘Phillis comes of a family as is not long-lived. Her mother’s sister, Lydia Green, her own aunt as was, died of a decline just when she was about this lass’s age.’

This ill-omened talk was broken in upon by the coming out of the minister, his wife and daughter, and the consequent interchange of Christmas compliments. I had had a shock, and felt heavy-hearted and anxious, and hardly up to making the appropriate replies to the kind greetings of my relations. I looked askance at Phillis. She had certainly grown taller and slighter, and was thinner; but there was a flush of colour on her face which deceived me for a time, and made me think she was looking as well as ever. I only saw her paleness after we had returned to the farm, and she had subsided into silence and quiet. Her grey eyes looked hollow and sad; her complexion was of a dead white. But she went about just as usual; at least, just as she had done the last time I was there, and seemed to have no ailment; and I was inclined to think that my cousin was right when she had answered the inquiries of the good-natured gossips, and told them that Phillis was suffering from the consequences of a bad cold, nothing more. I have said that I was to stay over the next day; a great deal of snow had come down, but not all, they said, though the ground was covered deep with the white fall. The minister was anxiously housing his cattle, and preparing all things for a long continuance of the same kind of weather. The men were chopping wood, sending wheat to the mill to be ground before the road should become impassable for a cart and horse. My cousin and Phillis had gone up-stairs to the apple-room to cover up the fruit from the frost. I had been out the greater part of the morning, and came in about an hour before dinner. To my surprise, knowing how she had planned to be engaged, I found Phillis sitting at the dresser, resting her head on her two hands and reading, or seeming to read. She did not look up when I came in, but murmured something about her mother having sent her down out of the cold. It flashed across me that she was crying, but I put it down to some little spirt of temper; I might have known better than to suspect the gentle, serene Phillis of crossness, poor girl; I stooped down, and began to stir and build up the fire, which appeared to have been neglected. While my head was down I heard a noise which made me pause and listen — a sob, an unmistakable, irrepressible sob. I started up.

‘Phillis!’ I cried, going towards her, with my hand out, to take hers for sympathy with her sorrow, whatever it was. But she was too quick for me, she held her hand out of my grasp, for fear of my detaining her; as she quickly passed out of the house, she said —

‘Don’t, Paul! I cannot bear it!’ and passed me, still sobbing, and went out into the keen, open air.

I stood still and wondered. What could have come to Phillis? The most perfect harmony prevailed in the family, and Phillis especially, good and gentle as she was, was so beloved that if they had found out that her finger ached, it would have cast a shadow over their hearts. Had I done anything to vex her? No: she was crying before I came in. I went to look at her book — one of those unintelligible Italian books. I could make neither head nor tail of it. I saw some pencil-notes on the margin, in Holdsworth’s handwriting.

Could that be it? Could that be the cause of her white looks, her weary eyes, her wasted figure, her struggling sobs? This idea came upon me like a flash of lightning on a dark night, making all things so clear we cannot forget them afterwards when the gloomy obscurity returns. I was still standing with the book in my hand when I heard cousin Holman’s footsteps on the stairs, and as I did not wish to speak to her just then, I followed Phillis’s example, and rushed out of the house. The snow was lying on the ground; I could track her feet by the marks they had made; I could see where Rover had joined her. I followed on till I came to a great stack of wood in the orchard — it was built up against the back wall of the outbuildings — and I recollected then how Phillis had told me, that first day when we strolled about together, that underneath this stack had been her hermitage, her sanctuary, when she was a child; how she used to bring her book to study there, or her work, when she was not wanted in the house; and she had now evidently gone back to this quiet retreat of her childhood, forgetful of the clue given me by her footmarks on the new-fallen snow. The stack was built up very high; but through the interstices of the sticks I could see her figure, although I did not all at once perceive how I could get to her. She was sitting on a log of wood, Rover by her. She had laid her cheek on Rover’s head, and had her arm round his neck, partly for a pillow, partly from an instinctive craving for warmth on that bitter cold day. She was making a low moan, like an animal in pain, or perhaps more like the sobbing of the wind. Rover, highly flattered by her caress, and also, perhaps, touched by sympathy, was flapping his heavy tail against the ground, but not otherwise moving a hair, until he heard my approach with his quick erected ears. Then, with a short, abrupt bark of distrust, he sprang up as if to leave his mistress. Both he and I were immovably still for a moment. I was not sure if what I longed to do was wise: and yet I could not bear to see the sweet serenity of my dear cousin’s life so disturbed by a suffering which I thought I could assuage. But Rover’s ears were sharper than my breathing was noiseless: he heard me, and sprang out from under Phillis’s restraining hand.

‘Oh, Rover, don’t you leave me, too,’ she plained out.

‘Phillis!’ said I, seeing by Rover’s exit that the entrance to where she sate was to be found on the other side of the stack. ‘Phillis, come out! You have got a cold already; and it is not fit for you to sit there on such a day as this. You know how displeased and anxious it would make them all.’

She sighed, but obeyed; stooping a little, she came out, and stood upright, opposite to me in the lonely, leafless orchard. Her face looked so meek and so sad that I felt as if I ought to beg her pardon for my necessarily authoritative words.

‘Sometimes I feel the house so close,’ she said; ‘and I used to sit under the wood-stack when I was a child. It was very kind of you, but there was no need to come after me. I don’t catch cold easily.’

‘Come with me into this cow-house, Phillis. I have got something to say to you; and I can’t stand this cold, if you can.

I think she would have fain run away again; but her fit of energy was all spent. She followed me unwillingly enough that I could see. The place to which I took her was full of the fragrant breath of the cows, and was a little warmer than the outer air. I put her inside, and stood myself in the doorway, thinking how I could best begin. At last I plunged into it.

‘I must see that you don’t get cold for more reasons than one; if you are ill, Holdsworth will be so anxious and miserable out there’ (by which I meant Canada)—

She shot one penetrating look at me, and then turned her face away with a slightly impatient movement. If she could have run away then she would, but I held the means of exit in my own power. ‘In for a penny, in for a pound,’ thought I, and I went on rapidly, anyhow.

‘He talked so much about you, just before he left — that night after he had been here, you know — and you had given him those flowers.’ She put her hands up to hide her face, but she was listening now — listening with all her ears. ‘He had never spoken much about you before, but the sudden going away unlocked his heart, and he told me how he loved you, and how he hoped on his return that you might be his wife.’

‘Don’t,’ said she, almost gasping out the word, which she had tried once or twice before to speak; but her voice had been choked. Now she put her hand backwards; she had quite turned away from me, and felt for mine. She gave it a soft lingering pressure; and then she put her arms down on the wooden division, and laid her head on it, and cried quiet tears. I did not understand her at once, and feared lest I had mistaken the whole case, and only annoyed her. I went up to her. ‘Oh, Phillis! I am so sorry — I thought you would, perhaps, have cared to hear it; he did talk so feelingly, as if he did love you so much, and somehow I thought it would give you pleasure.’

She lifted up her head and looked at me. Such a look! Her eyes, glittering with tears as they were, expressed an almost heavenly happiness; her tender mouth was curved with rapture — her colour vivid and blushing; but as if she was afraid her face expressed too much, more than the thankfulness to me she was essaying to speak, she hid it again almost immediately. So it was all right then, and my conjecture was well-founded! I tried to remember something more to tell her of what he had said, but again she stopped me.

‘Don’t,’ she said. She still kept her face covered and hidden. In half a minute she added, in a very low voice, ‘Please, Paul, I think I would rather not hear any more I don’t mean but what I have — but what I am very much obliged — Only — only, I think I would rather hear the rest from himself when he comes back.’

And then she cried a little more, in quite a different way. I did not say any more, I waited for her. By-and-by she turned towards me — not meeting my eyes, however; and putting her hand in mine just as if we were two children, she said —

‘We had best go back now — I don’t look as if I had been crying, do I?’

‘You look as if you had a bad cold,’ was all the answer I made.

‘Oh! but I am quite well, only cold; and a good run will warm me. Come along, Paul.’

So we ran, hand in hand, till, just as we were on the threshold of the house, she stopped —

‘Paul, please, we won’t speak about that again.’

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