When I went over on Easter Day I heard the chapel-gossips complimenting cousin Holman on her daughter’s blooming looks, quite forgetful of their sinister prophecies three months before. And I looked at Phillis, and did not wonder at their words. I had not seen her since the day after Christmas Day. I had left the Hope Farm only a few hours after I had told her the news which had quickened her heart into renewed life and vigour. The remembrance of our conversation in the cow-house was vividly in my mind as I looked at her when her bright healthy appearance was remarked upon. As her eyes met mine our mutual recollections flashed intelligence from one to the other. She turned away, her colour heightening as she did so. She seemed to be shy of me for the first few hours after our meeting, and I felt rather vexed with her for her conscious avoidance of me after my long absence. I had stepped a little out of my usual line in telling her what I did; not that I had received any charge of secrecy, or given even the slightest promise to Holdsworth that I would not repeat his words. But I had an uneasy feeling sometimes when I thought of what I had done in the excitement of seeing Phillis so ill and in so much trouble. I meant to have told Holdsworth when I wrote next to him; but when I had my half-finished letter before me I sate with my pen in my hand hesitating. I had more scruple in revealing what I had found out or guessed at of Phillis’s secret than in repeating to her his spoken words. I did not think I had any right to say out to him what I believed — namely, that she loved him dearly, and had felt his absence even to the injury of her health. Yet to explain what I had done in telling her how he had spoken about her that last night, it would be necessary to give my reasons, so I had settled within myself to leave it alone. As she had told me she should like to hear all the details and fuller particulars and more explicit declarations first from him, so he should have the pleasure of extracting the delicious tender secret from her maidenly lips. I would not betray my guesses, my surmises, my all but certain knowledge of the state of her heart. I had received two letters from him after he had settled to his business; they were full of life and energy; but in each there had been a message to the family at the Hope Farm of more than common regard; and a slight but distinct mention of Phillis herself, showing that she stood single and alone in his memory. These letters I had sent on to the minister, for he was sure to care for them, even supposing he had been unacquainted with their writer, because they were so clever and so picturesquely worded that they brought, as it were, a whiff of foreign atmosphere into his circumscribed life. I used to wonder what was the trade or business in which the minister would not have thriven, mentally I mean, if it had so happened that he had been called into that state. He would have made a capital engineer, that I know; and he had a fancy for the sea, like many other land-locked men to whom the great deep is a mystery and a fascination. He read law-books with relish; and, once happening to borrow De Lolme on the British Constitution (or some such title), he talked about jurisprudence till he was far beyond my depth. But to return to Holdsworth’s letters. When the minister sent them back he also wrote out a list of questions suggested by their perusal, which I was to pass on in my answers to Holdsworth, until I thought of suggesting direct correspondence between the two. That was the state of things as regarded the absent one when I went to the farm for my Easter visit, and when I found Phillis in that state of shy reserve towards me which I have named before. I thought she was ungrateful; for I was not quite sure if I had done wisely in having told her what I did. I had committed a fault, or a folly, perhaps, and all for her sake; and here was she, less friends with me than she had even been before. This little estrangement only lasted a few hours. I think that as Soon as she felt pretty sure of there being no recurrence, either by word, look, or allusion, to the one subject that was predominant in her mind, she came back to her old sisterly ways with me. She had much to tell me of her own familiar interests; how Rover had been ill, and how anxious they had all of them been, and how, after some little discussion between her father and her, both equally grieved by the sufferings of the old dog, he had been remembered in the household prayers’, and how he had begun to get better only the very next day, and then she would have led me into a conversation on the right ends of prayer, and on special providences, and I know not what; only I ‘jibbed’ like their old cart-horse, and refused to stir a step in that direction. Then we talked about the different broods of chickens, and she showed me the hens that were good mothers, and told me the characters of all the poultry with the utmost good faith; and in all good faith I listened, for I believe there was a good deal of truth in all she said. And then we strolled on into the wood beyond the ash-meadow, and both of us sought for early primroses, and the fresh green crinkled leaves. She was not afraid of being alone with me after the first day. I never saw her so lovely, or so happy. I think she hardly knew why she was so happy all the time. I can see her now, standing under the budding branches of the grey trees, over which a tinge of green seemed to be deepening day after day, her sun-bonnet fallen back on her neck, her hands full of delicate wood-flowers, quite unconscious of my gaze, but intent on sweet mockery of some bird in neighbouring bush or tree. She had the art of warbling, and replying to the notes of different birds, and knew their song, their habits and ways, more accurately than any one else I ever knew. She had often done it at my request the spring before; but this year she really gurgled, and whistled, and warbled just as they did, out of the very fulness and joy of her heart. She was more than ever the very apple of her father’s eye; her mother gave her both her own share of love, and that of the dead child who had died in infancy. I have heard cousin Holman murmur, after a long dreamy look at Phillis, and tell herself how like she was growing to Johnnie, and soothe herself with plaintive inarticulate sounds, and many gentle shakes of the head, for the aching sense of loss she would never get over in this world. The old servants about the place had the dumb loyal attachment to the child of the land, common to most agricultural labourers; not often stirred into activity or expression. My cousin Phillis was like a rose that had come to full bloom on the sunny side of a lonely house, sheltered from storms. I have read in some book of poetry —
A maid whom there were none to praise, And very few to love.
And somehow those lines always reminded me of Phillis; yet they were not true of her either. I never heard her praised; and out of her own household there were very few to love her; but though no one spoke out their approbation, she always did right in her parents’ eyes out of her natural simple goodness and wisdom. Holdsworth’s name was never mentioned between us when we were alone; but I had sent on his letters to the minister, as I have said; and more than once he began to talk about our absent friend, when he was smoking his pipe after the day’s work was done. Then Phillis hung her head a little over her work, and listened in silence.
‘I miss him more than I thought for; no offence to you, Paul. I said once his company was like dram-drinking; that was before I knew him; and perhaps I spoke in a spirit of judgment. To some men’s minds everything presents itself strongly, and they speak accordingly; and so did he. And I thought in my vanity of censorship that his were not true and sober words; they would not have been if I had used them, but they were so to a man of his class of perceptions. I thought of the measure with which I had been meting to him when Brother Robinson was here last Thursday, and told me that a poor little quotation I was making from the Georgics savoured of vain babbling and profane heathenism. He went so far as to say that by learning other languages than our own, we were flying in the face of the Lord’s purpose when He had said, at the building of the Tower of Babel, that He would confound their languages so that they should not understand each other’s speech. As Brother Robinson was to me, so was I to the quick wits, bright senses, and ready words of Holdsworth.’
The first little cloud upon my peace came in the shape of a letter from Canada, in which there were two or three sentences that troubled me more than they ought to have done, to judge merely from the words employed. It was this:—‘I should feel dreary enough in this out-of-the-way place if it were not for a friendship I have formed with a French Canadian of the name of Ventadour. He and his family are a great resource to me in the long evenings. I never heard such delicious vocal music as the voices of these Ventadour boys and girls in their part songs; and the foreign element retained in their characters and manner of living reminds me of some of the happiest days of my life. Lucille, the second daughter, is curiously like Phillis Holman.’ In vain I said to myself that it was probably this likeness that made him take pleasure in the society of the Ventadour family. In vain I told my anxious fancy that nothing could be more natural than this intimacy, and that there was no sign of its leading to any consequence that ought to disturb me. I had a presentiment, and I was disturbed; and I could not reason it away. I dare say my presentiment was rendered more persistent and keen by the doubts which would force themselves into my mind, as to whether I had done well in repeating Holdsworth’s words to Phillis. Her state of vivid happiness this summer was markedly different to the peaceful serenity of former days. If in my thoughtfulness at noticing this I caught her eye, she blushed and sparkled all over, guessing that I was remembering our joint secret. Her eyes fell before mine, as if she could hardly bear me to see the revelation of their bright glances. And yet I considered again, and comforted myself by the reflection that, if this change had been anything more than my silly fancy, her father or her mother would have perceived it. But they went on in tranquil unconsciousness and undisturbed peace.
A change in my own life was quickly approaching. In the July of this year my occupation on the —— railway and its branches came to an end. The lines were completed, and I was to leave —— shire, to return to Birmingham, where there was a niche already provided for me in my father’s prosperous business. But before I left the north it was an understood thing amongst us all that I was to go and pay a visit of some weeks at the Hope Farm. My father was as much pleased at this plan as I was; and the dear family of cousins often spoke of things to be done, and sights to be shown me, during this visit. My want of wisdom in having told ‘that thing’ (under such ambiguous words I concealed the injudicious confidence I had made to Phillis) was the only drawback to my anticipations of pleasure.
The ways of life were too simple at the Hope Farm for my coming to them to make the slightest disturbance. I knew my room, like a son of the house. I knew the regular course of their days, and that I was expected to fall into it, like one of the family. Deep summer peace brooded over the place; the warm golden air was filled with the murmur of insects near at hand, the more distant sound of voices out in the fields, the clear faraway rumble of carts over the stone-paved lanes miles away. The heat was too great for the birds to be singing; only now and then one might hear the wood-pigeons in the trees beyond the Ashfield. The cattle stood knee-deep in the pond, flicking their tails about to keep off the flies. The minister stood in the hay-field, without hat or cravat, coat or waistcoat, panting and smiling. Phillis had been leading the row of farm-servants, turning the swathes of fragrant hay with measured movement. She went to the end — to the hedge, and then, throwing down her rake, she came to me with her free sisterly welcome. ‘Go, Paul!’ said the minister. ‘We need all hands to make use of the sunshine today. “Whatsoever thine hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.” It will be a healthy change of work for thee, lad; and I find best rest in change of work.’ So off I went, a willing labourer, following Phillis’s lead; it was the primitive distinction of rank; the boy who frightened the sparrows off the fruit was the last in our rear. We did not leave off till the red sun was gone down behind the fir-trees bordering the common. Then we went home to supper — prayers — to bed; some bird singing far into the night, as I heard it through my open window, and the poultry beginning their clatter and cackle in the earliest morning. I had carried what luggage I immediately needed with me from my lodgings and the rest was to be sent by the carrier. He brought it to the farm betimes that morning, and along with it he brought a letter or two that had arrived since I had left. I was talking to cousin Holman — about my mother’s ways of making bread, I remember; cousin Holman was questioning me, and had got me far beyond my depth — in the house-place, when the letters were brought in by one of the men, and I had to pay the carrier for his trouble before I could look at them. A bill — a Canadian letter! What instinct made me so thankful that I was alone with my dear unobservant cousin? What made me hurry them away into my coat-pocket? I do not know. I felt strange and sick, and made irrelevant answers, I am afraid. Then I went to my room, ostensibly to carry up my boxes. I sate on the side of my bed and opened my letter from Holdsworth. It seemed to me as if I had read its contents before, and knew exactly what he had got to say. I knew he was going to be married to Lucille Ventadour; nay, that he was married; for this was the 5th of July, and he wrote word that his marriage was fixed to take place on the 29th of June. I knew all the reasons he gave, all the raptures he went into. I held the letter loosely in my hands, and looked into vacancy, yet I saw the chaffinch’s nest on the lichen-covered trunk of an old apple-tree opposite my window, and saw the mother-bird come fluttering in to feed her brood — and yet I did not see it, although it seemed to me afterwards as if I could have drawn every fibre, every feather. I was stirred up to action by the merry sound of voices and the clamp of rustic feet coming home for the mid-day meal. I knew I must go down to dinner; I knew, too, I must tell Phillis; for in his happy egotism, his new-fangled foppery, Holdsworth had put in a P.S., saying that he should send wedding-cards to me and some other Hornby and Eltham acquaintances, and ‘to his kind friends at Hope Farm’. Phillis had faded away to one among several ‘kind friends’. I don’t know how I got through dinner that day. I remember forcing myself to eat, and talking hard; but I also recollect the wondering look in the minister’s eyes. He was not one to think evil without cause; but many a one would have taken me for drunk. As soon as I decently could I left the table, saying I would go out for a walk. At first I must have tried to stun reflection by rapid walking, for I had lost myself on the high moorlands far beyond the familiar gorse-covered common, before I was obliged for very weariness to slacken my pace. I kept wishing — oh! how fervently wishing I had never committed that blunder; that the one little half-hour’s indiscretion could be blotted out. Alternating with this was anger against Holdsworth; unjust enough, I dare say. I suppose I stayed in that solitary place for a good hour or more, and then I turned homewards, resolving to get over the telling Phillis at the first opportunity, but shrinking from the fulfilment of my resolution so much that when I came into the house and saw Phillis (doors and windows open wide in the sultry weather) alone in the kitchen, I became quite sick with apprehension. She was standing by the dresser, cutting up a great household loaf into hunches of bread for the hungry labourers who might come in any minute, for the heavy thunder-clouds were overspreading the sky. She looked round as she heard my step.
‘You should have been in the field, helping with the hay,’ said she, in her calm, pleasant voice. I had heard her as I came near the house softly chanting some hymn-tune, and the peacefulness of that seemed to be brooding over her now.
‘Perhaps I should. It looks as if it was going to rain.
‘Yes; there is thunder about. Mother has had to go to bed with one of her bad headaches. Now you are come in-
‘Phillis,’ said I, rushing at my subject and interrupting her, ‘I went a long walk to think over a letter I had this morning — a letter from Canada. You don’t know how it has grieved me. I held it out to her as I spoke. Her colour changed a little, but it was more the reflection of my face, I think, than because she formed any definite idea from my words. Still she did not take the letter. I had to bid her to read it, before she quite understood what I wished. She sate down rather suddenly as she received it into her hands; and, spreading it on the dresser before her, she rested her forehead on the palms of her hands, her arms supported on the table, her figure a little averted, and her countenance thus shaded. I looked out of the open window; my heart was very heavy. How peaceful it all seemed in the farmyard! Peace and plenty. How still and deep was the silence of the house! Tick-tick went the unseen clock on the wide staircase. I had heard the rustle once, when she turned over the page of thin paper. She must have read to the end. Yet she did not move, or say a word, or even sigh. I kept on looking out of the window, my hands in my pockets. I wonder how long that time really was? It seemed to me interminable — unbearable. At length I looked round at her. She must have felt my look, for she changed her attitude with a quick sharp movement, and caught my eyes.
‘Don’t look so sorry, Paul,’ she said. ‘Don’t, please. I can’t bear it. There is nothing to be sorry for. I think not, at least. You have not done wrong, at any rate.’ I felt that I groaned, but I don’t think she heard me. ‘And he — there’s no wrong in his marrying, is there? I’m sure I hope he’ll be happy. Oh! how I hope it!’ These last words were like a wail; but I believe she was afraid of breaking down, for she changed the key in which she spoke, and hurried on.
‘Lucille — that’s our English Lucy, I suppose? Lucille Holdsworth! It’s a pretty name; and I hope — I forget what I was going to say. Oh! it was this. Paul, I think we need never speak about this again; only remember you are not to be sorry. You have not done wrong; you have been very, very kind; and if I see you looking grieved I don’t know what I might do; — I might breakdown, you know.’ I think she was on the point of doing so then, but the dark storm came dashing down, and the thunder-cloud broke right above the house, as it seemed. Her mother, roused from sleep, called out for Phillis; the men and women from the hay-field came running into shelter, drenched through. The minister followed, smiling, and not unpleasantly excited by the war of elements; for, by dint of hard work through the long summer’s day, the greater part of the hay was safely housed in the barn in the field. Once or twice in the succeeding bustle I came across Phillis, always busy, and, as it seemed to me, always doing the right thing. When I was alone in my own room at night I allowed myself to feel relieved; and to believe that the worst was over, and was not so very bad after all. But the succeeding days were very miserable. Sometimes I thought it must be my fancy that falsely represented Phillis to me as strangely changed, for surely, if this idea of mine was well-founded, her parents — her father and mother — her own flesh and blood — would have been the first to perceive it. Yet they went on in their household peace and content; if anything, a little more cheerfully than usual, for the ‘harvest of the first-fruits’, as the minister called it, had been more bounteous than usual, and there was plenty all around in which the humblest labourer was made to share. After the one thunderstorm, came one or two lovely serene summer days, during which the hay was all carried; and then succeeded long soft rains filling the ears of corn, and causing the mown grass to spring afresh. The minister allowed himself a few more hours of relaxation and home enjoyment than usual during this wet spell: hard earth-bound frost was his winter holiday; these wet days, after the hay harvest, his summer holiday. We sate with open windows, the fragrance and the freshness called out by the soft-falling rain filling the house-place; while the quiet ceaseless patter among the leaves outside ought to have had the same lulling effect as all other gentle perpetual sounds, such as mill-wheels and bubbling springs, have on the nerves of happy people. But two of us were not happy. I was sure enough of myself, for one. I was worse than sure — I was wretchedly anxious about Phillis. Ever since that day of the thunderstorm there had been a new, sharp, discordant sound to me in her voice, a sort of jangle in her tone; and her restless eyes had no quietness in them; and her colour came and went without a cause that I could find out. The minister, happy in ignorance of what most concerned him, brought out his books; his learned volumes and classics. Whether he read and talked to Phillis, or to me, I do not know; but feeling by instinct that she was not, could not be, attending to the peaceful details, so strange and foreign to the turmoil in her heart, I forced myself to listen, and if possible to understand.
‘Look here!’ said the minister, tapping the old vellum-bound book he held; ‘in the first Georgic he speaks of rolling and irrigation, a little further on he insists on choice of the best seed, and advises us to keep the drains clear. Again, no Scotch farmer could give shrewder advice than to cut light meadows while the dew is on, even though it involve night-work. It is all living truth in these days.’ He began beating time with a ruler upon his knee, to some Latin lines he read aloud just then. I suppose the monotonous chant irritated Phillis to some irregular energy, for I remember the quick knotting and breaking of the thread with which she was sewing. I never hear that snap repeated now, without suspecting some sting or stab troubling the heart of the worker. Cousin Holman, at her peaceful knitting, noticed the reason why Phillis had so constantly to interrupt the progress of her seam.
‘It is bad thread, I’m afraid,’ she said, in a gentle sympathetic voice. But it was too much for Phillis.
‘The thread is bad — everything is bad — I am so tired of it all!’ And she put down her work, and hastily left the room. I do not suppose that in all her life Phillis had ever shown so much temper before. In many a family the tone, the manner, would not have been noticed; but here it fell with a sharp surprise upon the sweet, calm atmosphere of home. The minister put down ruler and book, and pushed his spectacles up to his forehead. The mother looked distressed for a moment, and then smoothed her features and said in an explanatory tone — ‘It’s the weather, I think. Some people feel it different to others. It always brings on a headache with me.’ She got up to follow her daughter, but half-way to the door she thought better of it, and came back to her seat. Good mother! she hoped the better to conceal the unusual spirt of temper, by pretending not to take much notice of it. ‘Go on, minister,’ she said; ‘it is very interesting what you are reading about, and when I don’t quite understand it, I like the sound of your voice.’ So he went on, but languidly and irregularly, and beat no more time with his ruler to any Latin lines. When the dusk came on, early that July night because of the cloudy sky, Phillis came softly back, making as though nothing had happened. She took up her work, but it was too dark to do many stitches; and she dropped it soon. Then I saw how her hand stole into her mother’s, and how this latter fondled it with quiet little caresses, while the minister, as fully aware as I was of this tender pantomime, went on talking in a happier tone of voice about things as uninteresting to him, at the time, I very believe, as they were to me; and that is saying a good deal, and shows how much more real what was passing before him was, even to a farmer, than the agricultural customs of the ancients.
I remember one thing more — an attack which Betty the servant made upon me one day as I came in through the kitchen where she was churning, and stopped to ask her for a drink of buttermilk.
‘I say, cousin Paul,’ (she had adopted the family habit of addressing me generally as cousin Paul, and always speaking of me in that form,) ‘something’s amiss with our Phillis, and I reckon you’ve a good guess what it is. She’s not one to take up wi’ such as you,’ (not complimentary, but that Betty never was, even to those for whom she felt the highest respect,) ‘but I’d as lief yon Holdsworth had never come near us. So there you’ve a bit o’ my mind.’ And a very unsatisfactory bit it was. I did not know what to answer to the glimpse at the real state of the case implied in the shrewd woman’s speech; so I tried to put her off by assuming surprise at her first assertion.
‘Amiss with Phillis! I should like to know why you think anything is wrong with her. She looks as blooming as any one can do.’
‘Poor lad! you’re but a big child after all; and you’ve likely never heared of a fever-flush. But you know better nor that, my fine fellow! so don’t think for to put me off wi’ blooms and blossoms and such-like talk. What makes her walk about for hours and hours o’ nights when she used to be abed and asleep? I sleep next room to her, and hear her plain as can be. What makes her come in panting and ready to drop into that chair,’— nodding to one close to the door — ‘and it’s “Oh! Betty, some water, please”? That’s the way she comes in now, when she used to come back as fresh and bright as she went out. If yon friend o’ yours has played her false, he’s a deal for t’ answer for; she’s a lass who’s as sweet and as sound as a nut, and the very apple of her father’s eye, and of her mother’s too’ only wi’ her she ranks second to th’ minister. You’ll have to look after yon chap, for I, for one, will stand no wrong to our Phillis.’
What was I to do, or to say? I wanted to justify Holdsworth, to keep Phillis’s secret, and to pacify the woman all in the same breath. I did not take the best course, I’m afraid.
‘I don’t believe Holdsworth ever spoke a word of — of love to her in all his life. I’m sure he didn’t.’
‘Ay. Ay! but there’s eyes, and there’s hands, as well as tongues; and a man has two o’ th’ one and but one o’ t’other.’
‘And she’s so young; do you suppose her parents would not have seen it?’
‘Well! if you axe me that, I’ll say out boldly, “No”. They’ve called her “the child” so long —“the child” is always their name for her when they talk on her between themselves, as if never anybody else had a ewe-lamb before them — that she’s grown up to be a woman under their very eyes, and they look on her still as if she were in her long clothes. And you ne’er heard on a man falling in love wi’ a babby in long clothes!’
‘No!’ said I, half laughing. But she went on as grave as a judge.
‘Ay! you see you’ll laugh at the bare thought on it — and I’ll be bound th’ minister, though he’s not a laughing man, would ha’ sniggled at th’ notion of falling in love wi’ the child. Where’s Holdsworth off to?’
‘Canada,’ said I, shortly.
‘Canada here, Canada there,’ she replied, testily. ‘Tell me how far he’s off, instead of giving me your gibberish. Is he a two days’ journey away? or a three? or a week?’
‘He’s ever so far off — three weeks at the least,’ cried I in despair. ‘And he’s either married, or just going to be. So there.’ I expected a fresh burst of anger. But no; the matter was too serious. Betty sate down, and kept silence for a minute or two. She looked so miserable and downcast, that I could not help going on, and taking her a little into my confidence.
‘It is quite true what I said. I know he never spoke a word to her. I think he liked her, but it’s all over now. The best thing we can do — the best and kindest for her — and I know you love her, Betty —’
‘I nursed her in my arms; I gave her little brother his last taste o’ earthly food,’ said Betty, putting her apron up to her eyes.
‘Well! don’t let us show her we guess that she is grieving; she’ll get over it the sooner. Her father and mother don’t even guess at it, and we must make as if we didn’t. It’s too late now to do anything else.’
‘I’ll never let on; I know nought. I’ve known true love mysel’, in my day. But I wish he’d been farred before he ever came near this house, with his “Please Betty” this, and “Please Betty” that, and drinking up our new milk as if he’d been a cat. I hate such beguiling ways.’
I thought it was as well to let her exhaust herself in abusing the absent Holdsworth; if it was shabby and treacherous in me, I came in for my punishment directly.
‘It’s a caution to a man how he goes about beguiling. Some men do it as easy and innocent as cooing doves. Don’t you be none of ’em, my lad. Not that you’ve got the gifts to do it, either; you’re no great shakes to look at, neither for figure, nor yet for face, and it would need be a deaf adder to be taken in wi’ your words, though there may be no great harm in em. A lad of nineteen or twenty is not flattered by such an out-spoken opinion even from the oldest and ugliest of her sex; and I was only too glad to change the subject by my repeated injunctions to keep Phillis’s secret. The end of our conversation was this speech of hers —
‘You great gaupus, for all you’re called cousin o’ th’ minister — many a one is cursed wi’ fools for cousins — d’ye think I can’t see sense except through your spectacles? I give you leave to cut out my tongue, and nail it up on th’ barn-door for a caution to magpies, if I let out on that poor wench, either to herself, or any one that is hers, as the Bible says. Now you’ve heard me speak Scripture language, perhaps you’ll be content, and leave me my kitchen to myself.’
During all these days, from the 5th of July to the 17th, I must have forgotten what Holdsworth had said about cards. And yet I think I could not have quite forgotten; but, once having told Phillis about his marriage, I must have looked upon the after consequence of cards as of no importance. At any rate they came upon me as a surprise at last. The penny-post reform, as people call it, had come into operation a short time before; but the never-ending stream of notes and letters which seem now to flow in upon most households had not yet begun its course; at least in those remote parts. There was a post-office at Hornby; and an old fellow, who stowed away the few letters in any or all his pockets, as it best suited him, was the letter-carrier to Heathbridge and the neighbourhood. I have often met him in the lanes thereabouts, and asked him for letters. Sometimes I have come upon him, sitting on the hedge-bank resting; and he has begged me to read him an address, too illegible for his spectacled eyes to decipher. When I used to inquire if he had anything for me, or for Holdsworth (he was not particular to whom he gave up the letters, so that he got rid of them somehow, and could set off homewards), he would say he thought that he had, for such was his invariable safe form of answer; and would fumble in breast-pockets, waistcoat-pockets, breeches-pockets, and, as a last resource, in coat-tail pockets; and at length try to comfort me, if I looked disappointed, by telling me, ‘Hoo had missed this toime, but was sure to write tomorrow;’ ‘Hoo’ representing an imaginary sweetheart.
Sometimes I had seen the minister bring home a letter which he had found lying for him at the little shop that was the post-office at Heathbridge, or from the grander establishment at Hornby. Once or twice Josiah, the carter, remembered that the old letter-carrier had trusted him with an epistle to ‘Measter’, as they had met in the lanes. I think it must have been about ten days after my arrival at the farm, and my talk to Phillis cutting bread-and-butter at the kitchen dresser, before the day on which the minister suddenly spoke at the dinner-table, and said —
‘By-the-by, I’ve got a letter in my pocket. Reach me my coat here, Phillis.’ The weather was still sultry, and for coolness and ease the minister was sitting in his shirt-sleeves. ‘I went to Heathbridge about the paper they had sent me, which spoils all the pens — and I called at the post-office, and found a letter for me, unpaid — and they did not like to trust it to old Zekiel. Ay! here it is! Now we shall hear news of Holdsworth — I thought I’d keep it till we were all together.’ My heart seemed to stop beating, and I hung my head over my plate, not daring to look up. What would come of it now? What was Phillis doing? How was she looking? A moment of suspense — and then he spoke again. ‘Why! what’s this? Here are two visiting tickets with his name on, no writing at all. No! it’s not his name on both. MRS Holdsworth! The young man has gone and got married.’ I lifted my head at these words; I could not help looking just for one instant at Phillis. It seemed to me as if she had been keeping watch over my face and ways. Her face was brilliantly flushed; her eyes were dry and glittering; but she did not speak; her lips were set together almost as if she was pinching them tight to prevent words or sounds coming out. Cousin Holman’s face expressed surprise and interest.
‘Well!’ said she, ‘who’d ha’ thought it! He’s made quick work of his wooing and wedding. I’m sure I wish him happy. Let me see’— counting on her fingers — ‘October, November, December, January, February, March, April, May, June, July — at least we’re at the 28th — it is nearly ten months after all, and reckon a month each way off —’
‘Did you know of this news before?’ said the minister, turning sharp round on me, surprised, I suppose, at my silence — hardly suspicious, as yet.
‘I knew — I had heard — something. It is to a French Canadian young lady,’ I went on, forcing myself to talk. ‘Her name is Ventadour.’
‘Lucille Ventadour!’ said Phillis, in a sharp voice, out of tune.
‘Then you knew too!’ exclaimed the minister. We both spoke at once. I said, ‘I heard of the probability of — and told Phillis.’ She said, ‘He is married to Lucille Ventadour, of French descent; one of a large family near St. Meurice; am not I right?’ I nodded ‘Paul told me — that is all we know, is not it? Did you see the Howsons, father, in Heathbridge?’ and she forced herself to talk more than she had done for several days, asking many questions, trying, as I could see, to keep the conversation off the one raw surface, on which to touch was agony. I had less self-command; but I followed her lead. I was not so much absorbed in the conversation but what I could see that the minister was puzzled and uneasy; though he seconded Phillis’s efforts to prevent her mother from recurring to the great piece of news, and uttering continual exclamations of wonder and surprise. But with that one exception we were all disturbed out of our natural equanimity, more or less. Every day, every hour, I was reproaching myself more and more for my blundering officiousness. If only I had held my foolish tongue for that one half-hour; if only I had not been in such impatient haste to do something to relieve pain! I could have knocked my stupid head against the wall in my remorse. Yet all I could do now was to second the brave girl in her efforts to conceal her disappointment and keep her maidenly secret. But I thought that dinner would never, never come to an end. I suffered for her, even more than for myself. Until now everything which I had heard spoken in that happy household were simple words of true meaning. If we bad aught to say, we said it; and if any one preferred silence, nay if all did so, there would have been no spasmodic, forced efforts to talk for the sake of talking, or to keep off intrusive thoughts or suspicions.
At length we got up from our places, and prepared to disperse; but two or three of us had lost our zest and interest in the daily labour. The minister stood looking out of the window in silence, and when he roused himself to go out to the fields where his labourers were working, it was with a sigh; and he tried to avert his troubled face as he passed us on his way to the door. When he had left us, I caught sight of Phillis’s face, as, thinking herself unobserved, her countenance relaxed for a moment or two into sad, woeful weariness. She started into briskness again when her mother spoke, and hurried away to do some little errand at her bidding. When we two were alone, cousin Holman recurred to Holdsworth’s marriage. She was one of those people who like to view an event from every side of probability, or even possibility; and she had been cut short from indulging herself in this way during dinner.
‘To think of Mr Holdsworth’s being married! I can’t get over it, Paul. Not but what he was a very nice young man! I don’t like her name, though; it sounds foreign. Say it again, my dear. I hope she’ll know how to take care of him, English fashion. He is not strong, and if she does not see that his things are well aired, I should be afraid of the old cough.’
‘He always said he was stronger than he had ever been before, after that fever.’ ‘He might think so, but I have my doubts. He was a very pleasant young man, but he did not stand nursing very well. He got tired of being coddled, as he called it. J hope they’ll soon come back to England, and then he’ll have a chance for his health. I wonder now, if she speaks English; but, to be sure, he can speak foreign tongues like anything, as I’ve heard the minister say.’ And so we went on for some time, till she became drowsy over her knitting, on the sultry summer afternoon; and I stole away for a walk, for I wanted some solitude in which to think over things, and, alas! to blame myself with poignant stabs of remorse.
I lounged lazily as soon as I got to the wood. Here and there the bubbling, brawling brook circled round a great stone, or a root of an old tree, and made a pool; otherwise it coursed brightly over the gravel and stones. I stood by one of these for more than half an hour, or, indeed, longer, throwing bits of wood or pebbles into the water, and wondering what I could do to remedy the present state of things. Of course all my meditation was of no use; and at length the distant sound of the horn employed to tell the men far afield to leave off work, warned me that it was six o’clock, and time for me to go home. Then I caught wafts of the loud-voiced singing of the evening psalm. As I was crossing the Ashfield, I saw the minister at some distance talking to a man. I could not hear what they were saying, but I saw an impatient or dissentient (I could not tell which) gesture on the part of the former, who walked quickly away, and was apparently absorbed in his thoughts, for though he passed within twenty yards of me, as both our paths converged towards home, he took no notice of me. We passed the evening in a way which was even worse than dinner-time. The minister was silent, depressed, even irritable. Poor cousin Holman was utterly perplexed by this unusual frame of mind and temper in her husband; she was not well herself, and was suffering from the extreme and sultry heat, which made her less talkative than usual. Phillis, usually so reverently tender to her parents, so soft, so gentle, seemed now to take no notice of the unusual state of things, but talked to me — to any one, on indifferent subjects, regardless of her father’s gravity, of her mother’s piteous looks of bewilderment. But once my eyes fell upon her hands, concealed under the table, and I could see the passionate, convulsive manner in which she laced and interlaced her fingers perpetually, wringing them together from time to time, wringing till the compressed flesh became perfectly white. What could I do? I talked with her, as I saw she wished; her grey eyes had dark circles round them and a strange kind of dark light in them; her cheeks were flushed, but her lips were white and wan. I wondered that others did not read these signs as clearly as I did. But perhaps they did; I think, from what came afterwards, the minister did. Poor cousin Holman! she worshipped her husband; and the outward signs of his uneasiness were more patent to her simple heart than were her daughter’s. After a while she could bear it no longer. She got up, and, softly laying her hand on his broad stooping shoulder, she said —
‘What is the matter, minister? Has anything gone wrong?’
He started as if from a dream. Phillis hung her head, and caught her breath in terror at the answer she feared. But he, looking round with a sweeping glance, turned his broad, wise face up to his anxious wife, and forced a smile, and took her hand in a reassuring manner.
‘I am blaming myself, dear. I have been overcome with anger this afternoon. I scarcely knew what I was doing, but I turned away Timothy Cooper. He has killed the Ribstone pippin at the corner of the orchard; gone and piled the quicklime for the mortar for the new stable wall against the trunk of the tree — stupid fellow! killed the tree outright — and it loaded with apples!’
‘And Ribstone pippins are so scarce,’ said sympathetic cousin Holman.
‘Ay! But Timothy is but a half-wit; and he has a wife and children. He had often put me to it sore, with his slothful ways, but I had laid it before the Lord, and striven to bear with him. But I will not stand it any longer, it’s past my patience. And he has notice to find another place. Wife, we won’t talk more about it.’ He took her hand gently off his shoulder, touched it with his lips; but relapsed into a silence as profound, if not quite so morose in appearance, as before. I could not tell why, but this bit of talk between her father and mother seemed to take all the factitious spirits out of Phillis. She did not speak now, but looked out of the open casement at the calm large moon, slowly moving through the twilight sky. Once I thought her eyes were filling with tears; but, if so, she shook them off, and arose with alacrity when her mother, tired and dispirited, proposed to go to bed immediately after prayers. We all said good-night in our separate ways to the minister, who still sate at the table with the great Bible open before him, not much looking up at any of our salutations, but returning them kindly. But when I, last of all, was on the point of leaving the room, he said, still scarcely looking up —
‘Paul, you will oblige me by staying here a few minutes. I would fain have some talk with you.’
I knew what was coming, all in a moment. I carefully shut — to the door, put out my candle, and sate down to my fate. He seemed to find some difficulty in beginning, for, if I had not heard that he wanted to speak to me, I should never have guessed it, he seemed so much absorbed in reading a chapter to the end. Suddenly he lifted his head up and said —
‘It is about that friend of yours, Holdsworth! Paul, have you any reason for thinking he has played tricks upon Phillis?’ I saw that his eyes were blazing with such a fire of anger at the bare idea, that I lost all my presence of mind, and only repeated —
‘Played tricks on Phillis!’
‘Ay! you know what I mean: made love to her, courted her, made her think that he loved her, and then gone away and left her. Put it as you will, only give me an answer of some kind or another — a true answer, I mean — and don’t repeat my words, Paul.’
He was shaking all over as he said this. I did not delay a moment in answering him —
‘I do not believe that Edward Holdsworth ever played tricks on Phillis, ever made love to her; he never, to my knowledge, made her believe that he loved her.’
I stopped; I wanted to nerve up my courage for a confession, yet I wished to save the secret of Phillis’s love for Holdsworth as much as I could; that secret which she had so striven to keep sacred and safe; and I had need of some reflection before I went on with what I had to say.
He began again before I had quite arranged my manner of speech. It was almost as if to himself — ‘She is my only child; my little daughter! She is hardly out of childhood; I have thought to gather her under my wings for years to come her mother and I would lay down our lives to keep her from harm and grief.’ Then, raising his voice, and looking at me, he said, ‘Something has gone wrong with the child; and it seemed to me to date from the time she heard of that marriage. It is hard to think that you may know more of her secret cares and sorrows than I do — but perhaps you do, Paul, perhaps you do — only, if it be not a sin, tell me what I can do to make her happy again; tell me.’
‘It will not do much good, I am afraid,’ said I, ‘but I will own how wrong I did; I don’t mean wrong in the way of sin, but in the way of judgment. Holdsworth told me just before he went that he loved Phillis, and hoped to make her his wife, and I told her.’
There! it was out; all my part in it, at least; and I set my lips tight together, and waited for the words to come. I did not see his face; I looked straight at the wall Opposite; but I heard him once begin to speak, and then turn over the leaves in the book before him. How awfully still that room was I The air outside, how still it was! The open windows let in no rustle of leaves, no twitter or movement of birds — no sound whatever. The clock on the stairs — the minister’s hard breathing — was it to go on for ever? Impatient beyond bearing at the deep quiet, I spoke again —
‘I did it for the best, as I thought.’
The minister shut the book to hastily, and stood up. Then I saw how angry he was.
‘For the best, do you say? It was best, was it, to go and tell a young girl what you never told a word of to her parents, who trusted you like a son of their own?’
He began walking about, up and down the room close under the open windows, churning up his bitter thoughts of me.
‘To put such thoughts into the child’s head,’ continued he; ‘to spoil her peaceful maidenhood with talk about another man’s love; and such love, too,’ he spoke scornfully now — a love that is ready for any young woman. Oh, the misery in my poor little daughter’s face today at dinner — the misery, Paul! I thought you were one to be trusted — your father’s son too, to go and put such thoughts into the child’s mind; you two talking together about that man wishing to marry her.’
I could not help remembering the pinafore, the childish garment which Phillis wore so long, as if her parents were unaware of her progress towards womanhood. Just in the same way the minister spoke and thought of her now, as a child, whose innocent peace I had spoiled by vain and foolish talk. I knew that the truth was different, though I could hardly have told it now; but, indeed, I never thought of trying to tell; it was far from my mind to add one iota to the sorrow which I had caused. The minister went on walking, occasionally stopping to move things on the table, or articles of furniture, in a sharp, impatient, meaningless way, then he began again —
‘So young, so pure from the world! how could you go and talk to such a child, raising hopes, exciting feelings — all to end thus; and best so, even though I saw her poor piteous face look as it did. I can’t forgive you, Paul; it was more than wrong — it was wicked — to go and repeat that man’s words.’
His back was now to the door, and, in listening to his low angry tones, he did not hear it slowly open, nor did he see Phillis, standing just within the room, until he turned round; then he stood still. She must have been half undressed; but she had covered herself with a dark winter cloak, which fell in long folds to her white, naked, noiseless feet. Her face was strangely pale: her eyes heavy in the black circles round them. She came up to the table very slowly, and leant her hand upon it, saying mournfully —
‘Father, you must not blame Paul. I could not help hearing a great deal of what you were saying. He did tell me, and perhaps it would have been wiser not, dear Paul! But — oh, dear! oh, dear! I am so sick with shame! He told me out of his kind heart, because he saw — that I was so very unhappy at his going away. She hung her head, and leant more heavily than before on her supporting hand.
‘I don’t understand,’ said her father; but he was beginning to understand. Phillis did not answer till he asked her again. I could have struck him now for his cruelty; but then I knew all.
‘I loved him, father!’ she said at length, raising her eyes to the minister’s face. ‘Had he ever spoken of love to you? Paul says not!’
‘Never.’ She let fall her eyes, and drooped more than ever. I almost thought she would fall.
‘I could not have believed it,’ said he, in a hard voice, yet sighing the moment he had spoken. A dead silence for a moment. ‘Paul! I was unjust to you. You deserved blame, but not all that I said.’ Then again a silence. I thought I saw Phillis’s white lips moving, but it might have been the flickering of the candlelight — a moth had flown in through the open casement, and was fluttering round the flame; I might have saved it, but I did not care to do so, my heart was too full of other things. At any rate, no sound was heard for long endless minutes. Then he said — ‘Phillis! did we not make you happy here? Have we not loved you enough?’
She did not seem to understand the drift of this question; she looked up as if bewildered, and her beautiful eyes dilated with a painful, tortured expression. He went on, without noticing the look on her face; he did not see it, I am sure.
‘And yet you would have left us, left your home, left your father and your mother, and gone away with this stranger, wandering over the world.’ He suffered, too; there were tones of pain in the voice in which he uttered this reproach. Probably the father and daughter were never so far apart in their lives, so unsympathetic. Yet some new terror came over her, and it was to him she turned for help. A shadow came over her face, and she tottered towards her father; falling down, her arms across his knees, and moaning out —
‘Father, my head! my head!’ and then slipped through his quick-enfolding arms, and lay on the ground at his feet.
I shall never forget his sudden look of agony while I live; never! We raised her up; her colour had strangely darkened; she was insensible. I ran through the back-kitchen to the yard pump, and brought back water. The minister had her on his knees, her head against his breast, almost as though she were a sleeping child. He was trying to rise up with his poor precious burden, but the momentary terror had robbed the strong man of his strength, and he sank back in his chair with sobbing breath.
‘She is not dead, Paul! is she?’ he whispered, hoarse, as I came near him. I, too, could not speak, but I pointed to the quivering of the muscles round her mouth. Just then cousin Holman, attracted by some unwonted sound, came down. I remember I was surprised at the time at her presence of mind, she seemed to know so much better what to do than the minister, in the midst of the sick affright which blanched her countenance, and made her tremble all over. I think now that it was the recollection of what had gone before; the miserable thought that possibly his words had brought on this attack, whatever it might be, that so unmanned the minister. We carried her upstairs, and while the women were putting her to bed, still unconscious, still slightly convulsed, I slipped out, and saddled one of the horses, and rode as fast as the heavy-trotting beast could go, to Hornby, to find the doctor there, and bring him back. He was out, might be detained the whole night. I remember saying, ‘God help us all!’ as I sate on my horse, under the window, through which the apprentice’s head had appeared to answer my furious tugs at the night-bell. He was a good-natured fellow. He said —
‘He may be home in half an hour, there’s no knowing; but I daresay he will. I’ll send him out to the Hope Farm directly he comes in. It’s that good-looking young woman, Holman’s daughter, that’s ill, isn’t it?’
‘It would be a pity if she was to go. She’s an only child, isn’t she? I’ll get up, and smoke a pipe in the surgery, ready for the governor’s coming home. I might go to sleep if I went to bed again.’
‘Thank you, you’re a good fellow!’ and I rode back almost as quickly as I came. It was a brain fever. The doctor said so, when he came in the early summer morning. I believe we had come to know the nature of the illness in the night-watches that had gone before. As to hope of ultimate recovery, or even evil prophecy of the probable end, the cautious doctor would be entrapped into neither. He gave his directions, and promised to come again; so soon, that this one thing showed his opinion of the gravity of the case.
By God’s mercy she recovered, but it was a long, weary time first. According to previously made plans, I was to have gone home at the beginning of August. But all such ideas were put aside now, without a word being spoken. I really think that I was necessary in the house, and especially necessary to the minister at this time; my father was the last man in the world, under such circumstances, to expect me home.
I say, I think I was necessary in the house. Every person (1 had almost said every creature, for all the dumb beasts seemed to know and love Phillis) about the place went grieving and sad, as though a cloud was over the sun. They did their work, each striving to steer clear of the temptation to eye-service, in fulfilment of the trust reposed in them by the minister. For the day after Phillis had been taken ill, he had called all the men employed on the farm into the empty barn; and there he had entreated their prayers for his only child; and then and there he had told them of his present incapacity for thought about any other thing in this world but his little daughter, lying nigh unto death, and he had asked them to go on with their daily labours as best they could, without his direction. So, as I say, these honest men did their work to the best of their ability, but they slouched along with sad and careful faces, coming one by one in the dim mornings to ask news of the sorrow that overshadowed the house; and receiving Betty’s intelligence, always rather darkened by passing through her mind, with slow shakes of the head, and a dull wistfulness of sympathy. But, poor fellows, they were hardly fit to be trusted with hasty messages, and here my poor services came in. One time I was to ride hard to Sir William Bentinck’s, and petition for ice out of his ice-house, to put on Phillis’s head. Another it was to Eltham I must go, by train, horse, anyhow, and bid the doctor there come for a consultation, for fresh symptoms had appeared, which Mr Brown, of Hornby, considered unfavour able. Many an hour have I sate on the window-seat, half-way up the stairs, close by the old clock, listening in the hot stillness of the house for the sounds in the sick-room. The minister and I met often, but spoke together seldom. He looked so old — so old! He shared the nursing with his wife; the strength that was needed seemed to be given to them both in that day. They required no one else about their child. Every office about her was sacred to them; even Betty only went into the room for the most necessary purposes. Once I saw Phillis through the open door; her pretty golden hair had been cut off long before; her head was covered with wet cloths, and she was moving it backwards and forwards on the pillow, with weary, never-ending motion, her poor eyes shut, trying in the old accustomed way to croon out a hymn tune, but perpetually breaking it up into moans of pain. Her mother sate by her, tearless, changing the cloths upon her head with patient solicitude. I did not see the minister at first, but there he was in a dark corner, down upon his knees, his hands clasped together in passionate prayer. Then the door shut, and I saw no more. One day he was wanted; and I had to summon him. Brother Robinson and another minister, hearing of his ‘trial’, had come to see him. I told him this upon the stair-landing in a whisper. He was strangely troubled.
‘They will want me to lay bare my heart. I cannot do it. Paul, stay with me. They mean well; but as for spiritual help at such a time — it is God only, God only, who can give it.
So I went in with him. They were two ministers from the neighbourhood; both older than Ebenezer Holman; but evidently inferior to him in education and worldly position. I thought they looked at me as if I were an intruder, but remembering the minister’s words I held my ground, and took up one of poor Phillis’s books (of which I could not read a word) to have an ostensible occupation. Presently I was asked to ‘engage in prayer’, and we all knelt down; Brother Robinson ‘leading’, and quoting largely as I remember from the Book of Job. He seemed to take for his text, if texts are ever taken for prayers,
‘Behold thou hast instructed many; but now it is come upon thee, and thou faintest, it toucheth thee and thou art troubled.’ When we others rose up, the minister continued for some minutes on his knees. Then he too got up, and stood facing us, for a moment, before we all sate down in conclave. After a pause Robinson began —
‘We grieve for you, Brother Holman, for your trouble is great. But we would fain have you remember you are as a light set on a hill; and the congregations are looking at you with watchful eyes. We have been talking as we came along on the two duties required of you in this strait; Brother Hodgson and me. And we have resolved to exhort you on these two points. First, God has given you the opportunity of showing forth an example of resignation.’ Poor Mr Holman visibly winced at this word. I could fancy how he had tossed aside such brotherly preachings in his happier moments; but now his whole system was unstrung, and ‘resignation’ seemed a term which presupposed that the dreaded misery of losing Phillis was inevitable. But good stupid Mr Robinson went on. ‘We hear on all sides that there are scarce any hopes of your child’s recovery; and it may be well to bring you to mind of Abraham; and how he was willing to kill his only child when the Lord commanded. Take example by him, Brother Holman. Let us hear you say, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”’
There was a pause of expectancy. I verily believe the minister tried to feel it; but he could not. Heart of flesh was too strong. Heart of stone he had not.
‘I will say it to my God, when He gives me strength — when the day comes,’ he spoke at last.
The other two looked at each other, and shook their heads. I think the reluctance to answer as they wished was not quite unexpected. The minister went on ‘There are vet’ he said, as if to himself. ‘God has given me a great heart for hoping, and I will not look forward beyond the hour.’ Then turning more to them — and speaking louder, he added: ‘Brethren, God will strengthen me when the time comes, when such resignation as you speak of is needed. Till then I cannot feel it; and what I do not feel I will not express; using words as if they were a charm.’ He was getting chafed, I could see. He had rather put them out by these speeches of his; but after a short time and some more shakes of the head, Robinson began again —
‘Secondly, we would have you listen to the voice of the rod, and ask yourself for what sins this trial has been laid upon you; whether you may not have been too much given up to your farm and your cattle; whether this world’s learning has not puffed you up to vain conceit and neglect of the things of God; whether you have not made an idol of your daughter?’
‘I cannot answer — I will not answer’.’ exclaimed the minister. ‘My sins I confess to God. But if they were scarlet (and they are so in His sight),’ he added, humbly, ‘I hold with Christ that afflictions are not sent by God in wrath as penalties for sin.’
‘Is that orthodox, Brother Robinson?’ asked the third minister, in a deferential tone of inquiry.
Despite the minister’s injunction not to leave him, I thought matters were getting so serious that a little homely interruption would be more to the purpose than my continued presence, and I went round to the kitchen to ask for Betty’s help.
‘‘Od rot ’em!’ said she; ‘they’re always a-coming at ill-convenient times; and they have such hearty appetites, they’ll make nothing of what would have served master and you since our poor lass has been ill. I’ve but a bit of cold beef in th’ house; but I’ll do some ham and eggs, and that ‘ll rout ’em from worrying the minister. They’re a deal quieter after they’ve had their victual. Last time as old Robinson came, he was very reprehensible upon master’s learning, which he couldn’t compass to save his life, so he needn’t have been afeard of that temptation, and used words long enough to have knocked a body down; but after me and missus had given him his fill of victual, and he’d had some good ale and a pipe, he spoke just like any other man, and could crack a joke with me.’
Their visit was the only break in the long weary days and nights. I do not mean that no other inquiries were made. I believe that all the neighbours hung about the place daily till they could learn from some out-comer how Phillis Holman was. But they knew better than to come up to the house, for the August weather was so hot that every door and window was kept constantly open, and the least sound outside penetrated all through. I am sure the cocks and hens had a sad time of it; for Betty drove them all into an empty barn, and kept them fastened up in the dark for several days, with very little effect as regarded their crowing and clacking. At length came a sleep which was the crisis, and from which she wakened up with a new faint life. Her slumber had lasted many, many hours. We scarcely dared to breathe or move during the time; we had striven to hope so long, that we were sick at heart, and durst not trust in the favourable signs: the even breathing, the moistened skin, the slight return of delicate colour into the pale, wan lips. I recollect stealing out that evening in the dusk, and wandering down the grassy lane, under the shadow of the over-arching elms to the little bridge at the foot of the hill, where the lane to the Hope Farm joined another road to Hornby. On the low parapet of that bridge I found Timothy Cooper, the stupid, half-witted labourer, sitting, idly throwing bits of mortar into the brook below. He just looked up at me as I came near, but gave me no greeting either by word or gesture. He had generally made some sign’ of recognition to me, but this time I thought he was sullen at being dismissed. Nevertheless I felt as if it would be a relief to talk a little to some one, and I sate down by him. While I was thinking how to begin, he yawned weariedly.
‘You are tired, Tim?’ said I.
‘Ay,’ said he. ‘But I reckon I may go home now.’ ‘Have you been sitting here long?’
‘Welly all day long. Leastways sin’ seven i’ th’ morning.’ ‘Why, what in the world have you been doing?’ ‘Nought.’
‘Why have you been sitting here, then?’
‘T’ keep carts off.’ He was up now, stretching himself, and shaking his lubberly limbs.
‘Carts! what carts?’
‘Carts as might ha’ wakened yon wench! It’s Hornby market day. I reckon yo’re no better nor a half-wit yoursel’.’ He cocked his eye at me as if he were gauging my intellect.
‘And have you been sitting here all day to keep the lane quiet?’
‘Ay. I’ve nought else to do. Th’ minister has turned me adrift. Have yo’ heard how th’ lass is faring to-night?’
‘They hope she’ll waken better for this long sleep. Good night to you, and God bless you, Timothy,’ said I.
He scarcely took any notice of my words, as he lumbered across a Stile that led to his cottage. Presently I went home to the farm. Phillis had Stirred, had Spoken two or three faint words. Her mother was with her, dropping nourishment into her scarce conscious mouth. The rest of the household were summoned to evening prayer for the first time for many days. It was a return to the daily habits of happiness and health. But in these Silent days our very lives had been an unspoken prayer. Now we met In the house-place, and looked at each other with strange recognition of the thankfulness on all Our faces. We knelt down; we waited for the minister’s voice. He did not begin as usual. He could not; he was choking. Presently we heard the strong man’s sob. Then old John turned round on his knees, and said —
‘Minister, I reckon we have blessed the Lord wi’ all our souls, though we’ve ne’er talked about it; and maybe He’ll not need spoken words this night. God bless us all, and keep our Phillis safe from harm! Amen.’ Old John’s impromptu prayer was all we had that night.
‘Our Phillis,’ as he called her, grew better day by day from that time. Not quickly; I sometimes grew desponding, and feared that she would never be what she had been before; no more she has, in some ways.
I seized an early opportunity to tell the minister about Timothy Cooper’s unsolicited watch on the bridge during the long Summer’s day.
‘God forgive me!’ said the minister. ‘I have been too proud in my own conceit. The first steps I take out of this house shall be to Cooper’s cottage.’
I need hardly say Timothy was reinstated in his place on the farm; and I have often since admired the patience with which his master tried to teach him how to do the easy work which was henceforward carefully adjusted to his capacity. Phillis was carried down-stairs, and lay for hour after hour quite silent on the great sofa, drawn up under the windows of the house-place. She seemed always the same, gentle, quiet, and sad. Her energy did not return with her bodily strength. It was sometimes pitiful to see her parents’ vain endeavours to rouse her to interest. One day the minister brought her a set of blue ribbons, reminding her with a tender smile of a former conversation in which she had owned to a love of such feminine vanities. She spoke gratefully to him, but when he was gone she laid them on one side, and languidly shut her eyes. Another time I saw her mother bring her the Latin and Italian books that she had been so fond of before her illness — or, rather, before Holdsworth had gone away. That was worst of all. She turned her face to the wall, and cried as soon as her mother’s back was turned. Betty was laying the cloth for the early dinner. Her sharp eyes saw the state of the case.
‘Now, Phillis!’ said she, coming up to the sofa; ‘we ha’ done a’ we can for you, and th’ doctors has done a’ they can for you, and I think the Lord has done a’ He can for you, and more than you deserve, too, if you don’t do something for yourself. If I were you, I’d rise up and snuff the moon, sooner than break your father’s and your mother’s hearts wi’ watching and waiting till it pleases you to fight your Own way back to cheerfulness. There, I never favoured long preachings, and I’ve said my say.’
A day or two after Phillis asked me, when we were alone, if I thought my father and mother would allow her to go and stay with them for a couple of months. She blushed a little as she faltered out her wish for change of thought and scene.
‘Only for a short time, Paul. Then — we will go back to the peace of the old days. I know we shall; I can, and I will!’
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Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09