Part 4 out of 12
"Oh, no matter; the mare will be safer under me than a stranger. And
though I have taken good care that the three horses in the tan-yard
shall have the journey, turn and turn about; still it's a good pull
from here to Norton Bury, and the mare's my favourite. I would
rather take her myself."
I smiled at his numerous good reasons for doing such a very simple
thing; and agreed that it was right and best he should do it.
"Then shall I call Mrs. Tod and inquire? Or perhaps it might make
less fuss just to go and speak to her in the kitchen. Will you,
Phineas, or shall I?"
Scarcely waiting my answer, we walked from our parlour into what I
called the Debateable Land.
No one was there. We remained several minutes all alone, listening
to the groaning overhead.
"That must be Mr. March, John."
"I hear. Good heavens! how hard for her. And she such a young
thing, and alone," muttered he, as he stood gazing into the dull wood
embers of the kitchen fire. I saw he was moved; but the expression
on his face was one of pure and holy compassion. That at this moment
no less unselfish feeling mingled with it I am sure.
Mrs. Tod appeared at the door leading to the other half of the
cottage; she was apparently speaking to Miss March on the staircase.
We heard again those clear, quick, decided tones, but subdued to a
"No, Mrs. Tod, I am not sorry you did it--on my father's account,
'tis best. Tell Mr.--the young gentleman--I forget his name--that I
am very much obliged to him."
"I will, Miss March--stay, he is just here.--Bless us! she has shut
the door already.--Won't you take a seat, Mr. Halifax? I'll stir up
the fire in a minute, Mr. Fletcher. You are always welcome in my
kitchen, young gentlemen." And Mrs. Tod bustled about, well aware
what a cosy and cheerful old-fashioned kitchen it was, especially of
But when John explained the reason of our intrusion there was no end
to her pleasure and gratitude. He was the kindest young gentleman
that ever lived.--She would tell Miss March so; as, indeed, she had
done many a time.
"'Miss,' said I to her the very first day I set eyes on you, when I
had told her how you came hunting for lodgings--(she often has a chat
with me quite freely, being so lonesome-like, and knowing I to be too
proud to forget that she's a born lady)--'Miss,' said I, 'who Mr.
Halifax may be I don't know, but depend upon it he's a real
I was the sole amused auditor of this speech, for John had vanished.
In a few minutes more he had brought the mare round, and after a word
or two with me was clattering down the road.
I wondered whether this time any white-furred wrist stirred the blind
to watch him.
John was away a wonderfully short time, and the doctor rode back with
him. They parted at the gate, and he came into our parlour, his
cheeks all glowing with the ride. He only remarked, "that the autumn
nights were getting chill," and sat down. The kitchen clock struck
"You ought to have been in bed hours ago, Phineas. Will you not go?
I shall sit up just a little while, to hear how Mr. March is."
"I should like to hear, too. It is curious the interest that one
learns to take in people that are absolute strangers, when shut up
together in a lonely place like this, especially when they are in
"Ay, that's it," said he, quickly. "It's the solitude, and their
being in trouble. Did you hear anything more while I was away?"
"Only that Mr. March was rather better, and everybody had gone to bed
except his daughter and Mrs. Tod."
"Hark! I think that's the doctor going away. I wonder if one might
ask--No! they would think it intrusive. He must be better. But Dr.
Brown told me that in one of these paroxysms he might--Oh, that poor
"Has she no relatives, no brothers or sisters? Doctor Brown surely
"I did not like to ask, but I fancy not. However, that's not my
business: my business is to get you off to bed, Phineas Fletcher, as
quickly as possible."
"Wait one minute, John. Let us go and see if we can do anything
"Ay--if we can do anything more," repeated he, as we again recrossed
the boundary-line, and entered the Tod country.
All was quiet there. The kitchen fire burnt brightly, and a cricket
sang in merry solitude on the hearth; the groans overhead were
stilled, but we heard low talking, and presently stealthy footsteps
crept down-stairs. It was Mrs. Tod and Miss March.
We ought to have left the kitchen: I think John muttered something
to that effect, and even made a slight movement towards the door;
but--I don't know how it was--we stayed.
She came and stood by the fire, scarcely noticing us. Her fresh
cheeks were faded, and she had the weary look of one who has watched
for many hours. Some sort of white dimity gown that she wore added
to this paleness.
"I think he is better, Mrs. Tod--decidedly better," said she,
speaking quickly. "You ought to go to bed now. Let all the house be
quiet. I hope you told Mr.--Oh--"
She saw us, stopped, and for the moment the faintest tinge of her
roses returned. Presently she acknowledged us, with a slight bend.
John came forward. I had expected some awkwardness on his part; but
no--he was thinking too little of himself for that. His demeanour--
earnest, gentle, kind--was the sublimation of all manly courtesy.
"I hope, madam"--young men used the deferential word in those days
always--"I do hope that Mr. March is better. We were unwilling to
retire until we had heard."
"Thank you! My father is much better. You are very kind," said Miss
March, with a maidenly dropping of the eyes.
"Indeed he is kind," broke in the warm-hearted Mrs. Tod. "He rode
all the way to S----, his own self, to fetch the doctor."
"Did you, sir? I thought you only lent your horse."
"Oh! I like a night-ride. And you are sure, madam, that your father
is better? Is there nothing else I can do for you?"
His sweet, grave manner, so much graver and older than his years,
softened too with that quiet deference which marked at once the man
who reverenced all women, simply for their womanhood--seemed entirely
to reassure the young lady. This, and her own frankness of
character, made her forget, as she apparently did, the fact that she
was a young lady and he a young gentleman, meeting on unacknowledged
neutral ground, perfect strangers, or knowing no more of one another
than the mere surname.
Nature, sincerity, and simplicity conquered all trammels of formal
custom. She held out her hand to him.
"I thank you very much, Mr. Halifax. If I wanted help I would ask
you; indeed I would."
"Thank YOU. Good-night."
He pressed the hand with reverence--and was gone. I saw Miss March
look after him: then she turned to speak and smiled with me. A
light word, an easy smile, as to a poor invalid whom she had often
pitied out of the fulness of her womanly heart.
Soon I followed John into the parlour. He asked me no questions,
made no remarks, only took his candle and went up-stairs.
But, years afterwards, he confessed to me that the touch of that
hand--it was a rather peculiar hand in the "feel" of it, as the
children say, with a very soft palm, and fingers that had a habit of
perpetually fluttering, like a little bird's wing--the touch of that
hand was to the young man like the revelation of a new world.
The next day John rode away earlier even than was his wont, I
thought. He stayed but a little while talking with me. While Mrs.
Tod was bustling over our breakfast he asked her, in a grave and
unconcerned manner, "How Mr. March was this morning?" which was the
only allusion he made to the previous night's occurrences.
I had a long, quiet day alone in the beech-wood, close below our
cottage, sitting by the little runnel, now worn to a thread with the
summer weather, but singing still. It talked to me like a living
When I came home in the evening Miss March stood in front of the
cottage, with--strange to say--her father. But I had heard that his
paroxysms were often of brief continuance, and that, like most
confirmed valetudinarians, when real danger stared him in the face he
put it from him, and was glad to be well.
Seeing me coming, Miss March whispered to him; he turned upon me a
listless gaze from over his fur collar, and bowed languidly, without
rising from his easy chair. Yes, it was Mr. March--the very Mr.
March we had met! I knew him, changed though he was; but he did not
know me in the least, as, indeed, was not likely.
His daughter came a step or two to meet me. "You are better, I see,
Mr. Fletcher. Enderley is a most healthy place, as I try to persuade
my father. This is Mr. Fletcher, sir, the gentleman who--"
"Was so obliging as to ride to S----, last night, for me? Allow me
to thank him myself."
I began to disclaim, and Miss March to explain; but we must both have
been slightly incoherent, for I think the poor gentleman was never
quite clear as to who it was that went for Dr. Brown. However, that
mattered little, as his acknowledgments were evidently dictated more
by a natural habit of courtesy than by any strong sense of service
"I am a very great invalid, sir; my dear, will you explain to the
gentleman?" And he leaned his head back wearily.
"My father has never recovered his ten years' residence in the West
"'Residence?' Pardon me, my dear, you forget I was governor of--"
"Oh, yes!--The climate is very trying there, Mr. Fletcher. But since
he has been in England--five years only--he has been very much
better. I hope he will be quite well in time."
Mr. March shook his head drearily. Poor man! the world of existence
to him seemed to have melted lazily down into a mere nebula, of which
the forlorn nucleus was--himself. What a life for any young
creature--even his own daughter, to be bound to continually!
I could not help remarking the strong contrast between them. He,
with his sallow, delicately-shaped features--the thin mouth and long
straight nose, of that form I have heard called the "melancholy
nose," which usually indicates a feeble, pensive, and hypochondriac
temperament; while his daughter--But I have described her already.
"Mr. Fletcher is an invalid too, father," she said; so gently, that I
could feel no pain in her noticing my infirmity; and took gratefully
a seat she gave me, beside that of Mr. March. She seemed inclined to
talk to me; and her manner was perfectly easy, friendly, and kind.
We spoke of commonplace subjects, near at hand, and of the West
Indian island, which its late "governor" was apparently by no means
inclined to forget. I asked Miss March whether she had liked it?
"I was never there. Papa was obliged to leave me behind, in Wales--
poor mamma's country. Were you ever in Wales? I like it so!
Indeed, I feel as if I belonged altogether to the mountains."
And saying this, she looked the very incarnation of the free mountain
spirit--a little rugged, perhaps, and sharply outlined; but that
would soften with time, and was better and wholesomer than any tame
green level of soft perfection. At least, one inclined to think so,
looking at her.
I liked Miss March very much, and was glad of it.
In retiring, with her father leaning on her arm, to which he hung
trustingly and feebly as a child, she turned abruptly, and asked if
she could lend me any books to read? I must find the days long and
dull without my friend.
I assented with thanks; and shortly afterwards she brought me an
armful of literature--enough to have caused any young damsel to have
been dubbed a "blue," in those matter-of-fact days.
"I have no time to study much myself," said she, in answer to my
questions; "but I like those who do. Now, good evening, for I must
run. You and your friend can have any books of ours. You must not
think"--and she turned back to tell me this--"that because my father
said little he and I are not deeply grateful for the kindness Mr.
Halifax showed us last night."
"It was a pleasure to John--it always is--to do a kind office for any
"I well believe that, Mr. Fletcher." And she left me.
When John came home I informed him of what had passed. He listened,
though he made no comment whatever. But all the evening he sat
turning over Miss March's books, and reading either aloud or to
himself fragments out of one--which I had expected he would have
scouted, inasmuch as it was modern not classical poetry: in fact, a
collection of Lyrical Ballads, brought out that year by a young man
named Mr. William Wordsworth, and some anonymous friend, conjointly.
I had opened it, and found therein great nonsense; but John had
better luck--he hit upon a short poem called "Love," by the Anonymous
Friend, which he read, and I listened to, almost as if it had been
Shakspeare. It was about a girl named Genevieve--a little simple
story--everybody knows it now; but it was like a strange, low, mystic
music, luring the very heart out of one's bosom, to us young
I wonder if Miss March knew the harm she did, and the mischief that
has been done among young people in all ages (since Caxton's days),
by the lending books, especially books of poetry.
The next day John was in a curious mood. Dreamy, lazy, mild; he sat
poring in-doors, instead of roaming abroad--in truth, was a changed
lad. I told him so, and laid it all to the blame of the Anonymous
Friend: who held him in such fascinated thrall that he only looked
up once all the morning,--which was when Mr. and Miss March went by.
In the afternoon he submitted, lamb-like, to be led down to the
beech-wood--that the wonderful talking stream might hold forth to him
as it did to me. But it could not--ah, no! it could not. Our lives,
though so close, were yet as distinct as the musical living water and
the motionless grey rock beside which it ran. The one swept joyfully
on to its appointed course: the other--was what Heaven made it,
abode where Heaven placed it, and likewise fulfilled its end.
Coming back out of the little wood, I took John a new way I had
discovered, through the prettiest undulating meadow, half-field,
half-orchard, where trees loaded with ripening cider apples and green
crabs made a variety among the natural foresters. Under one of
these, as we climbed the slope--for field, beech-wood, and common
formed a gradual ascent--we saw a vacant table laid.
"A pretty piece of rusticity--domestic Arcadia on a small scale,"
said John; "I should like to invite myself to tea with them. Who can
"Probably visitors. Resident country-folks like their meals best
under a decent roof-tree. I should not wonder if this were not one
of Mr. March's vagaries."
"Don't say vagaries--he is an old man."
"Don't be reproachful--I shall say nought against him. Indeed, I
have no opportunity, for there they both are coming hither from the
Sure enough they were--Miss March helping her father across the
uneven bit of common to the gate which led to the field. Precisely
at that gate we all four met.
"'Tis useless to escape them," whispered I to John.
"I do not wish--why should I?" he answered, and held the gate open
for the father and daughter to go through. She looked up and
acknowledged him, smiling. I thought that smile and his courteous,
but far less frank, response to it, would have been all the greeting;
but no! Mr. March's dull perceptions had somehow been brightened up.
"Mr. Halifax, I believe?"
They stood a moment looking at one another; the tall, stalwart young
man, so graceful and free in bearing, and the old man, languid,
sickly, prematurely broken down.
"Sir," said the elder, and in his fixed gaze I fancied I detected
something more than curiosity--something of the lingering pensiveness
with which, years ago, he had turned back to look at John--as if the
lad reminded him of some one he knew. "Sir, I have to thank you--"
"Indeed, no thanks are needed. I sincerely hope you are better
Mr. March assented: but John's countenance apparently interested him
so much that he forgot his usual complainings. "My daughter tells me
you are our neighbours--I am happy to have such friendly ones. My
dear," in a half audible, pensive whisper to her, "I think your poor
brother Walter would have grown up extremely like Mr.--Mr.--"
"Mr. Halifax, papa."
"Mr. Halifax, we are going to take tea under the trees there--my
daughter's suggestion--she is so fond of rurality. Will you give us
the pleasure of your company? You and"--here, I must confess, the
second invitation came in reply to a glance of Miss March's--"your
Of course we assented: I considerably amused, and not ill-pleased,
to see how naturally it fell out that when John appeared in the
scene, I, Phineas, subsided into the secondary character of John's
Very soon--so soon that our novel position seemed like an adventure
out of the Arabian Nights--we found ourselves established under the
apple-tree, between whose branches the low sun stole in, kissing into
red chestnut colour the hair of the "nut-browne mayde," as she sat,
bareheaded, pouring into small white china cups that dainty luxury,
tea. She had on--not the grey gown, but a white one, worked in
delicate muslin. A bunch of those small pinky-white roses that grew
in such clusters about our parlour window nestled, almost as if they
were still growing, in her fair maiden bosom.
She apologized for little Jack's having "stolen" them from our
domains for her--lucky Jack! and received some brief and rather
incoherent answer from John about being "quite welcome."
He sat opposite her--I by her side--she had placed me there. It
struck me as strange, that though her manner to us both was
thoroughly frank and kind, it was a shade more frank, more kind, to
me than to him. Also, I noted, that while she chatted gaily with me,
John almost entirely confined his talk to her father.
But the young lady listened--ay, undoubtedly she listened--to every
word that was said. I did not wonder at it: when his tongue was
once unloosed few people could talk better than John Halifax. Not
that he was one of your showy conversationalists; language was with
him neither a science, an art, nor an accomplishment, but a mere
vehicle for thought; the garb, always chosen as simplest and fittest,
in which his ideas were clothed. His conversation was never
wearisome, since he only spoke when he had something to say; and
having said it, in the most concise and appropriate manner that
suggested itself at the time, he was silent; and silence is a great
and rare virtue at twenty years of age.
We talked a good deal about Wales; John had been there more than once
in his journeyings; and this fact seemed to warm Miss March's manner,
rather shy and reserved though it was, at least to him. She told us
many an innocent tale of her life there--of her childish days, and of
her dear old governess, whose name, I remember, was Cardigan. She
seemed to have grown up solely under that lady's charge. It was not
difficult to guess--though I forget whether she distinctly told us
so--that "poor mamma" had died so early as to become a mere name to
her orphan daughter. She evidently owed everything she was to this
"My dear," at last said Mr. March, rather testily, "you make rather
too much of our excellent Jane Cardigan. She is going to be married,
and she will not care for you now."
"Hush! papa, that is a secret at present. Pray, Mr. Halifax, do you
know Norton Bury?"
The abruptness of the question startled John, so that he only
answered in a hurried affirmative. Indeed, Mr. March left him no
time for further explanation.
"I hate the place. My late wife's cousins, the Brithwoods of the
Mythe, with whom I have had--ahem!--strong political differences--
live there. And I was once nearly drowned in the Severn, close by."
"Papa, don't speak of that, please," said Miss March, hurriedly; so
hurriedly that I am sure she did not notice what would otherwise have
been plain enough--John's sudden and violent colour. But the flush
died down again--he never spoke a word. And, of course, acting on
his evident desire, neither did I.
"For my part," continued the young lady, "I have no dislike to Norton
Bury. Indeed, I rather admired the place, if I remember right."
"You have been there?" Though it was the simplest question, John's
sudden look at her, and the soft inflection of his voice, struck me
"Once, when I was about twelve years old. But we will talk of
something papa likes better. I am sure papa enjoys this lovely
evening. Hark! how the doves are cooing in the beech-wood."
I asked her if she had ever been in the beech-wood.
No; she was quite unacquainted with its mysteries--the fern-glades,
the woodbine tangles, and the stream, that, if you listened
attentively, you could hear faintly gurgling even where we sat.
"I did not know there was a stream so near. I have generally taken
my walks across the Flat," said Miss March, smiling, and then
blushing at having done so, though it was the faintest blush
Neither of us made any reply.
Mr. March settled himself to laziness and his arm-chair; the
conversation fell to the three younger persons--I may say the two--
for I also seceded, and left John master of the field. It was enough
for me to sit listening to him and Miss March, as they gradually
became more friendly; a circumstance natural enough, under the
influence of that simple, solitary place, where all the pretences of
etiquette seemed naturally to drop away, leaving nothing but the
forms dictated and preserved by true manliness and true womanliness.
How young both looked, how happy in their frank, free youth, with the
sun-rays slanting down upon them, making a glory round either head,
and--as glory often does--dazzling painfully.
"Will you change seats with me, Miss March?--The sun will not reach
your eyes here."
She declined, refusing to punish any one for her convenience.
"It would not be punishment," said John, so gravely that one did not
recognize it for a "pretty speech" till it had passed--and went on
with their conversation. In the course of it he managed so
carefully, and at the same time so carelessly, to interpose his broad
hat between the sun and her, that the fiery old king went down in
splendour before she noticed that she had been thus guarded and
sheltered. Though she did not speak--why should she? of such a
little thing,--yet it was one of those "little things" which often
touch a woman more than any words.
Miss March rose. "I should greatly like to hear your stream and its
wonderful singing." (John Halifax had been telling how it held forth
to me during my long, lonely days)--"I wonder what it would say to
me? Can we hear it from the bottom of this field?"
"Not clearly; we had better go into the wood." For I knew John would
like that, though he was too great a hypocrite to second my proposal
by a single word.
Miss March was more single-minded, or else had no reason for being
the contrary. She agreed to my plan with childish eagerness. "Papa,
you wouldn't miss me--I shall not be away five minutes. Then, Mr.
Fletcher, will you go with me?"
"And I will stay beside Mr. March, so that he will not be left
alone," said John, reseating himself.
What did the lad do that for?--why did he sit watching us so
intently, as I led Miss March down the meadow, and into the wood? It
passed my comprehension.
The young girl walked with me, as she talked with me, in perfect
simplicity and frankness, free from the smallest hesitation. Even as
the women I have known have treated me all my life--showing me that
sisterly trust and sisterly kindness which have compensated in a
measure for the solitary fate which it pleased Heaven to lay upon me;
which, in any case, conscience would have forced me to lay upon
myself--that no woman should ever be more to me than a sister.
Yet I watched her with pleasure--this young girl, as she tripped on
before me, noticing everything, enjoying everything. She talked to
me a good deal too about myself, in her kindly way, asking what I did
all day?--and if I were not rather dull sometimes, in this solitary
"I am dull occasionally myself, or should be, if I had time to think
about it. It is hard to be an only child."
I told her I had never found it so.
"But then you have your friend. Has Mr. Halifax any brothers or
"None. No relatives living."
"Ah!" a compassionate ejaculation, as she pulled a woodbine spray,
and began twisting it with those never-quiet fingers of hers. "You
and he seem to be great friends."
"John is a brother, friend, everything in the world to me."
"Is he? He must be very good. Indeed, he looks so," observed Miss
March, thoughtfully. "And I believe--at least I have often heard--
that good men are rare."
I had no time to enter into that momentous question, when the origin
of it himself appeared, breaking through the bushes to join us.
He apologized for so doing, saying Mr. March had sent him.
"You surely do not mean that you come upon compulsion? What an ill
compliment to this lovely wood."
And the eyes of the "nut-browne mayde" were a little mischievous.
John looked preternaturally grave, as he said, "I trust you do not
object to my coming?"
She smiled--so merrily, that his slight haughtiness evaporated like
mist before the sunbeams.
"I was obliged to startle you by jumping through the bushes; for I
heard my own name. What terrible revelations has this friend of mine
been making to you, Miss March?"
He spoke gaily; but I fancied he looked uneasy. The young lady only
"I have a great mind not to tell you, Mr. Halifax."
"Not when I ask you?"
He spoke so seriously that she could choose but reply.
"Mr. Fletcher was telling me three simple facts:--First, that you
were an orphan, without relatives. Secondly, that you were his
dearest friend. Thirdly--well, I never compromise truth--that you
"The first I was ignorant of; the second I had already guessed; the
He gazed at her intently.
"The third I had likewise--not doubted."
John made some hurried acknowledgment. He looked greatly pleased--
nay, more than pleased--happy. He walked forward by Miss March's
side, taking his natural place in the conversation, while I as
naturally as willingly fell behind. But I heard all they said, and
joined in it now and then.
Thus, sometimes spoken to, and sometimes left silent, watching their
two figures, and idly noting their comparative heights--her head came
just above John's shoulder--I followed these young people through the
Let me say a word about that wood---dear and familiar as it was. Its
like I have never since seen. It was small--so small that in its
darkest depths you might catch the sunshine lighting up the branches
of its outside trees. A young wood, too--composed wholly of smooth-
barked beeches and sturdy Scotch firs, growing up side by side--the
Adam and Eve in this forest Eden. No old folk were there--no gnarled
and withered foresters--every tree rose up, upright in its youth, and
perfect after its kind. There was as yet no choking under-growth of
vegetation; nothing but mosses, woodbine, and ferns; and between the
boles of the trees you could trace vista after vista, as between the
slender pillars of a cathedral aisle.
John pointed out all this to Miss March, especially noticing the
peculiar character of the two species of trees--the masculine and
feminine--fir and beech. She smiled at the fancy; and much graceful
badinage went on between them. I had never before seen John in the
company of women, and I marvelled to perceive the refinement of his
language, and the poetic ideas it clothed. I forgot the truth--of
whose saying was it?--"that once in his life every man becomes a
They stood by the little rivulet, and he showed her how the water
came from the spring above; the old well-head where the cattle drank;
how it took its course merrily through the woods, till at the bottom
of the valley below it grew into a wide stream.
"Small beginnings make great endings," observed Miss March,
John answered her with the happiest smile! He dipped his hollowed
palm into the water and drank: she did the same. Then, in her
free-hearted girlish fun, she formed a cup out of a broad leaf,
which, by the greatest ingenuity, she managed to make contain about
two teaspoonfuls of water for the space of half a minute, and held it
to my mouth.
"I am like Rebecca at the well. Drink, Eleazer," she cried, gaily.
John looked on. "I am very thirsty, too," said he, in a low voice.
The young girl hesitated a moment; then filled and offered to him the
Arcadian cup. I fear he drank out of it a deeper and more subtle
draught than that innocent water.
Both became somewhat grave, and stood, one on either side the stream,
looking down upon it, letting its bubbling murmur have all the talk.
What it said I know not: I only know that it did not, could not, say
to those two what it said to me.
When we took leave of our acquaintances Mr. March was extremely
courteous, and declared our society would always be a pleasure to
himself and his daughter.
"He always says so formally, 'my daughter,'" I observed, breaking the
silence in which they had left us. "I wonder what her Christian name
"I believe it is Ursula."
"How did you find that out?"
"It is written in one of her books."
"Ursula!" I repeated, wondering where I had heard it before. "A
"A very pretty name."
When John fell into this echo mood I always found it best to fall
Next day, the rain poured down incessantly, sweeping blindingly
across the hills as I have rarely seen it sweep except at Enderley.
The weather had apparently broken up, even thus early in the autumn;
and for that day, and several days following, we had nothing but
wind, rain, and storm. The sky was as dusky as Miss March's grey
gown; broken sometimes in the evening by a rift of misty gold,
gleaming over Nunnely Hill, as if to show us what September sunsets
might have been.
John went every day to Norton Bury that week. His mind seemed
restless--he was doubly kind and attentive to me; but every night I
heard him go out in all the storm to walk upon the common. I longed
to follow him, but it was best not.
On the Saturday morning, coming to breakfast, I heard him ask Mrs.
Tod how Mr. March was? We knew the invalid had been ailing all the
week, nor had we seen him or his daughter once.
Mrs. Tod shook her head ominously. "He is very bad, sir; badder than
ever, I do think. She sits up wi' him best part of every night."
"I imagined so. I have seen her light burning."
"Law, Mr. Halifax! you don't be walking abroad of nights on the Flat?
It's terrible bad for your health," cried the honest soul, who never
disguised the fact that Mr. Halifax was her favourite of all her
lodgers, save and except Miss March.
"Thank you for considering my health," he replied, smiling. "Only
tell me, Mrs. Tod, can anything be done--can we do anything for that
"Nothing, sir--thank'ee all the same."
"If he should grow worse let me go for Doctor Brown. I shall be at
home all day."
"I'll tell Miss March of your kindness, sir," said Mrs. Tod, as with
a troubled countenance she disappeared.
"Were you not going to Norton Bury to-day, John?"
"I was--but--as it is a matter of no moment, I have changed my mind.
You have been left so much alone lately. Nay--I'll not disguise the
truth; I had another reason."
"May I know it?"
"Of course you may. It is about our fellow-lodgers. Doctor Brown--I
met him on the road this morning--told me that her father cannot live
more than a few days--perhaps a few hours. And she does not know
He leaned on the mantelpiece. I could see he was very much affected.
So was I.
"Her relatives--surely they ought to be sent for?"
"She has none. Doctor Brown said she once told him so: none nearer
than the Brithwoods of the Mythe--and we know what the Brithwoods
A young gentleman and his young wife--proverbially the gayest,
proudest, most light-hearted of all our country families.
"Nay, Phineas, I will not have you trouble yourself. And after all,
they are mere strangers--mere strangers. Come, sit down to
But he could not eat. He could not talk of ordinary things. Every
minute he fell into abstractions. At length he said, suddenly:
"Phineas, I do think it is wicked, downright wicked, for a doctor to
be afraid of telling a patient he is going to die--more wicked,
perhaps, to keep the friends in ignorance until the last stunning
blow falls. She ought to be told: she must be told: she may have
many things to say to her poor father. And God help her! for such a
stroke she ought to be a little prepared. It might kill her else!"
He rose up and walked about the room. The seal once taken from his
reserve, he expressed himself to me freely, as he had used to do--
perhaps because at this time his feelings required no disguise. The
dreams which might have peopled that beautiful sunset wood
necessarily faded in an atmosphere like this--filled with the solemn
gloom of impending death.
At last he paused in his hurried walk, quieted, perhaps, by what he
might have read in my ever-following eyes.
"I know you are as grieved as I am, Phineas. What can we do? Let us
forget that they are strangers, and act as one Christian ought to
another. Do YOU not think she ought to be told?"
"Most decidedly. They might get further advice."
"That would be vain. Dr. Brown says it is a hopeless case, has been
so for long; but he would not believe it, nor have his daughter told.
He clings to life desperately. How horrible for her!"
"You think most of her."
"I do," said he, firmly. "He is reaping what he sowed, poor man!
God knows I pity him. But she is as good as an angel of heaven."
It was evident that, somehow or other, John had learnt a great deal
about the father and daughter. However, now was not the time to
question him. For at this moment, through the opened doors, we heard
faint moans that pierced the whole house, and too surely came from
the sick--possibly, the dying--man. Mrs. Tod, who had been seeing
Dr. Brown to his horse, now entered our parlour--pale, with swollen
"Oh, Mr. Halifax!" and the kind soul burst out into crying afresh.
John made her sit down, and gave her a glass of wine.
"I've been with them since four this morning, and it makes me weakly
like," said she. "That poor Mr. March!--I didn't like him very much
alive, but I do feel so sorry now he's a-dying."
Then he WAS dying.
"Does his daughter know?" I asked.
"No--no--I dare not tell her. Nobody dare."
"Does she not guess it?"
"Not a bit. Poor young body! she's never seen anybody so. She
fancies him no worse than he has been, and has got over it. She
WOULDN'T think else. She be a good daughter to him--that she be!"
We all sat silent; and then John said, in a low voice--"Mrs. Tod, she
ought to be told--and you would be the best person to tell her."
But the soft-hearted landlady recoiled from the task. "If Tod were
at home now--he that is so full o' wisdom learnt in 'the kirk'--"
"I think," said John, hastily interrupting, "that a woman would be
the best. But if you object, and as Doctor Brown will not be here
till to-morrow--and as there is no one else to perform such a trying
duty--it seems--that is, I believe"--here his rather formal speech
failed. He ended it abruptly--"If you like I will tell her myself."
Mrs. Tod overwhelmed him with thankfulness.
"How shall I meet her, then? If it were done by chance it would be
"I'll manage it somehow. The house is very quiet: I've sent all the
children away, except the baby. The baby'll comfort her, poor dear!
afterwards." And, again drying her honest eyes, Mrs. Tod ran out of
We could do nothing at all that morning. The impending sorrow might
have been our own, instead of that of people who three weeks ago were
perfect strangers. We sat and talked--less, perhaps, of them
individually, than of the dark Angel, whom face to face I at least
had never yet known--who even now stood at the door of our little
habitation, making its various inmates feel as one family, in the
presence of the great leveller of all things--Death.
Hour by hour of that long day the rain fell down--pouring, pouring--
shutting us up, as it were, from the world without, and obliterating
every thought, save of what was happening under our one roof--that
awful change which was taking place in the upper room, in the other
half of the house, whence the moans descended, and whence Mrs. Tod
came out from time to time, hurrying mournfully to inform "Mr.
Halifax" how things went on.
It was nearly dusk before she told us Mr. March was asleep, that his
daughter had at last been persuaded to come down-stairs, and was
standing drinking "a cup o' tea" by the kitchen fire.
"You must go now, sir; she'll not stop five minutes. Please go."
"I will," he answered; but he turned frightfully pale. "Phineas--
don't let her see us both. Stay without the door. If there were
anybody to tell her this but me!"
"Do you hesitate?"
And he went out. I did not follow him; but I heard afterwards, both
from himself and Mrs. Tod, what transpired.
She was standing so absorbed that she did not notice his entrance.
She looked years older and sadder than the young girl who had stood
by the stream-side less than a week ago. When she turned and spoke
to John it was with a manner also changed. No hesitation, no
shyness; trouble had put aside both.
"Thank you, my father is indeed seriously ill. I am in great
trouble, you see, though Mrs. Tod is very, very kind. Don't cry so,
good Mrs. Tod; I can't cry, I dare not. If I once began I should
never stop, and then how could I help my poor father? There now,
She laid her hand, with its soft, fluttering motions, on the good
woman's shoulder, and looked up at John. He said afterwards that
those dry, tearless eyes smote him to the heart.
"Why does she sob so, Mr Halifax? Papa will be better tomorrow, I am
"I HOPE so," he answered, dwelling on the word; "we should always
hope to the very last."
"The last?" with a quick, startled glance.
"And then we can only trust."
Something more than the MERE words struck her. She examined him
closely for a minute.
"You mean--yes--I understand what you mean. But you are mistaken.
The doctor would have told me--if--if--" she shivered, and left the
"Dr. Brown was afraid--we were all afraid," broke in Mrs. Tod,
sobbing. "Only Mr. Halifax, he said--"
Miss March turned abruptly to John. That woeful gaze of hers could
be answered by no words. I believe he took her hand, but I cannot
tell. One thing I can tell, for she said it to me herself
afterwards, that he seemed to look down upon her like a strong,
pitiful, comforting angel; a messenger sent by God.
Then she broke away, and flew up-stairs. John came in again to me,
and sat down. He did not speak for many minutes.
After an interval--I know not how long--we heard Mrs. Tod calling
loudly for "Mr. Halifax." We both ran through the empty kitchen to
the foot of the stairs that led to Mr. March's room.
Mr. March's room! Alas, he owned nothing now on this fleeting,
perishable earth of ours. He had gone from it: the spirit stealing
quietly away in sleep. He belonged now to the world everlasting.
Peace be to him! whatever his life had been, he was HER father.
Mrs. Tod sat half-way down the stair-case, holding Ursula March
across her knees. The poor creature was insensible, or nearly so.
She--we learnt--had been composed under the terrible discovery made
when she returned to his room; and when all restorative means failed,
the fact of death became certain, she had herself closed her father's
eyes, and kissed him, then tried to walk from the room--but at the
third step she dropped quietly down.
There she lay; physical weakness conquering the strong heart: she
lay, overcome at last. There was no more to bear. Had there been, I
think she would have been able to have borne it still.
John took her in his arms; I know not if he took her, or Mrs. Tod
gave her to him--but there she was. He carried her across the
kitchen into our own little parlour, and laid her down on my sofa.
"Shut the door, Phineas. Mrs. Tod, keep everybody out. She is
She did, indeed, open her eyes, with a long sigh, but closed them
again. Then with an effort she sat upright, and looked at us all
"Oh, my dear! my dear!" moaned Mrs. Tod, clasping her, and sobbing
over her like a child. "Cry, do cry!"
"I CAN'T," she said, and lay down again.
We stood awed, watching that poor, pale face, on every line of which
was written stunned, motionless, impassive grief. For John--two
minutes of such a gaze as his might in a man's heart do the work of
"She must be roused," he said at last. "She MUST cry. Mrs. Tod,
take her up-stairs. Let her look at her father."
The word effected what he desired; what almost her life demanded.
She clung round Mrs. Tod's neck in torrents of weeping.
"Now, Phineas, let us go away."
And he went, walking almost like one blindfold, straight out of the
house, I following him.
"I am quite certain, Mrs. Tod, that it would be much better for her;
and, if she consents, it shall be so," said John, decisively.
We three were consulting, the morning after the death, on a plan
which he and I had already settled between ourselves, namely, that we
should leave our portion of the cottage entirely at Miss March's
disposal, while we inhabited hers--save that locked and silent
chamber wherein there was no complaining, no suffering now.
Either John's decision, or Mrs. Tod's reasoning, was successful; we
received a message to the effect that Miss March would not refuse our
"kindness." So we vacated; and all that long Sunday we sat in the
parlour lately our neighbour's, heard the rain come down, and the
church bells ring; the wind blowing autumn gales, and shaking all the
windows, even that of the room overhead. It sounded awful THERE. We
were very glad the poor young orphan was away.
On the Monday morning we heard going up-stairs the heavy footsteps
that every one at some time or other has shuddered at; then the
hammering. Mrs. Tod came in, and told us that no one--not even his
daughter--could be allowed to look at what had been "poor Mr. March,"
any more. All with him was ended.
"The funeral is to be soon. I wonder what she will do then, poor
John made me no answer.
"Is she left well provided for, do you think?"
"It is impossible to say."
His answers were terse and brief enough, but I could not help talking
about the poor young creature, and wondering if she had any relative
or friend to come to her in this sad time.
"She said--do you remember, when she was crying--that she had not a
friend in the wide world?"
And this fact, which he expressed with a sort of triumph, seemed to
afford the greatest possible comfort to John.
But all our speculations were set at rest by a request brought this
moment by Mrs. Tod--that Mr. Halifax would go with her to speak to
"I! only I?" said John, starting.
"Only you, sir. She wants somebody to speak to about the funeral--
and I said, 'There be Mr. Halifax, Miss March, the kindest
gentleman'; and she said, 'if it wouldn't trouble him to come--'"
"Tell her I am coming."
When, after some time, he returned, he was very serious.
"Wait a minute, Phineas, and you shall hear; I feel confused, rather.
It is so strange, her trusting me thus. I wish I could help her
Then he told me all that had passed--how he and Mrs. Tod had
conjointly arranged the hasty funeral--how brave and composed she had
been--that poor child, all alone!
"Has she indeed no one to help her?"
"No one. She might send for Mr. Brithwood, but he was not friendly
with her father; she said she had rather ask this 'kindness' of me,
because her father had liked me, and thought I resembled their
Walter, who died."
"Poor Mr. March!--perhaps he is with Walter, now. But, John, can you
do all that is necessary for her? You are very young."
"She does not seem to feel that. She treats me as if I were a man of
forty. Do I look so old and grave, Phineas?"
"Sometimes. And about the funeral?"
"It will be very simple. She is determined to go herself. She
wishes to have no one besides Mrs. Tod, you, and me."
"Where is he to be buried?"
"In the little churchyard close by, which you and I have looked at
many a time. Ah, Phineas, we did not think how soon we should be
laying our dead there."
"Not OUR dead, thank God!"
But the next minute I understood. "OUR dead"--the involuntary
admission of that sole feeling, which makes one, erewhile a stranger,
say to, or think of another--"All thine are mine, and mine are thine,
henceforward and for ever."
I watched John as he stood by the fire; his thoughtful brow and
firm-set lips contradicting the youthfulness of his looks. Few as
were his years, he had learnt much in them. He was at heart a man,
ready and able to design and carry out a man's work in the world.
And in his whole aspect was such grave purity, such honest truth,
that no wonder, young as they both were, and little as she knew of
him, this poor orphan should not have feared to trust him entirely.
And there is nothing that binds heart to heart, of lovers or friends,
so quickly and so safely, as to trust and be trusted in time of
"Did she tell you any more, John? Anything of her circumstances?"
"No. But from something Mrs. Tod let fall, I fear"--and he vainly
tried to disguise his extreme satisfaction--"that she will be left
with little or nothing."
"Poor Miss March!"
"Why call her poor? She is not a woman to be pitied, but to be
honoured. You would have thought so, had you seen her this morning.
So gentle--so wise--so brave. Phineas,"--and I could see his lips
tremble--"that was the kind of woman Solomon meant, when he said,
'Her price was above rubies.'"
"I think so too. I doubt not that when she marries Ursula March will
be 'a crown to her husband.'"
My words, or the half sigh that accompanied them--I could not help
it--seemed to startle John, but he made no remark. Nor did we recur
to the subject again that day.
Two days after, our little company followed the coffin out of the
woodbine porch--where we had last said good-bye to poor Mr. March--
across the few yards of common, to the churchyard, scarcely larger
than a cottage garden, where, at long intervals, the few Enderley
dead were laid.
A small procession--the daughter first, supported by good Mrs. Tod,
then John Halifax and I. So we buried him--the stranger who, at this
time, and henceforth, seemed even, as John had expressed it, "our
dead," our own.
We followed the orphan home. She had walked firmly, and stood by the
grave-side motionless, her hood drawn over her face. But when we
came back to Rose Cottage door, and she gave a quick, startled
glance up at the familiar window, we saw Mrs. Tod take her,
unresisting, into her motherly arms--then we knew how it would be.
"Come away," said John, in a smothered voice--and we came away.
All that day we sat in our parlour--Mr. March's parlour that had
been--where, through the no longer darkened casement, the unwonted
sun poured in. We tried to settle to our ordinary ways, and feel as
if this were like all other days--our old sunshiny days at Enderley.
But it would not do. Some imperceptible but great change had taken
place. It seemed a year since that Saturday afternoon, when we were
drinking tea so merrily under the apple-tree in the field.
We heard no more from Miss March that day. The next, we received a
message of thanks for our "kindness." She had given way at last,
Mrs. Tod said, and kept her chamber, not seriously ill, but in spirit
thoroughly broken down. For three days more, when I went to meet
John returning from Norton Bury, I could see that his first glance,
as he rode up between the chestnut trees, was to the window of the
room that had been mine. I always told him, without his asking,
whatever Mrs. Tod had told me about her state; he used to listen,
generally in silence, and then speak of something else. He hardly
ever mentioned Miss March's name.
On the fourth morning, I happened to ask him if he had told my father
what had occurred here?
I looked surprised.
"Did you wish me to tell him? I will, if you like, Phineas."
"Oh, no. He takes little interest in strangers."
Soon after, as he lingered about the parlour, John said:
"Probably I may be late to-night. After business hours I want to
have a little talk with your father."
He stood irresolutely by the fire. I knew by his countenance that
there was something on his mind.
"Will you not tell me first what you want to say to my father?"
"I can't stay now. To-night, perhaps. But, pshaw! what is there to
be told? 'Nothing.'"
"Anything that concerns you can never be to me quite 'nothing.'"
"I know that," he said, affectionately, and went out of the room.
When he came in he looked much more cheerful--stood switching his
riding-whip after the old habit, and called upon me to admire his
favourite brown mare.
"I do; and her master likewise. John, when you're on horseback you
look like a young knight of the Middle Ages. Maybe, some of the old
Norman blood was in 'Guy Halifax, gentleman.'"
It was a dangerous allusion. He changed colour so rapidly and
violently that I thought I had angered him.
"No--that would not matter--cannot--cannot--never shall. I am what
God made me, and what, with His blessing, I will make myself."
He said no more, and very soon afterwards he rode away. But not
before, as every day, I had noticed that wistful wandering glance up
at the darkened window of the room, where sad and alone, save for
kindly Mrs. Tod, the young orphan lay.
In the evening, just before bed-time, he said to me with a rather sad
smile, "Phineas, you wanted to know what it was that I wished to
speak about to your father?"
"Ay, do tell me."
"It is hardly worth telling. Only to ask him how he set up in
business for himself. He was, I believe, little older than I am
"And I shall be twenty-one next June."
"Are you thinking of setting up for yourself?"
"A likely matter!" and he laughed, rather bitterly, I thought--"when
every trade requires capital, and the only trade I thoroughly
understand, a very large one. No, no, Phineas; you'll not see me
setting up a rival tan-yard next year. My capital is NIL."
"Except youth, health, courage, honour, honesty, and a few other such
"None of which I can coin into money, however. And your father has
expressly told me that without money a tanner can do nothing."
"Unless, as was his own case, he was taken into some partnership
where his services were so valuable as to be received instead of
capital. True, my father earned little at first, scarcely more than
you earn now; but he managed to live respectably, and, in course of
time, to marry."
I avoided looking at John as I said the last word. He made no
answer, but in a little time he came and leaned over my chair.
"Phineas, you are a wise counsellor--'a brother born for adversity.'
I have been vexing myself a good deal about my future, but now I will
take heart. Perhaps, some day, neither you nor any one else will be
ashamed of me."
"No one could, even now, seeing you as you really are."
"As John Halifax, not as the tanner's 'prentice boy? Oh! lad--there
the goad sticks. Here I forget everything unpleasant; I am my own
free natural self; but the minute I get back to Norton Bury--however,
it is a wrong, a wicked feeling, and must be kept down. Let us talk
of something else."
"Of Miss March? She has been greatly better all day."
"She? No, not her to-night!" he said, hurriedly. "Pah! I could
almost fancy the odour of these hides on my hands still. Give me a
He went up-stairs, and only came down a few minutes before bed-time.
Next morning was Sunday. After the bells had done ringing we saw a
black-veiled figure pass our window. Poor girl!--going to church
alone. We followed--taking care that she should not see us, either
during service or afterwards. We did not see anything more of her
On Monday a message came, saying that Miss March would be glad to
speak with us both. Of course we went.
She was sitting quite alone, in our old parlour, very grave and pale,
but perfectly composed. A little more womanly-looking in the dignity
of her great grief, which, girl as she was, and young men as we were,
seemed to be to her a shield transcending all worldly "proprieties."
As she rose, and we shook hands, in a silence only broken by the
rustle of her black dress, not one of us thought--surely the most
evil-minded gossip could not have dared to think--that there was
anything strange in her receiving us here. We began to talk of
common things--not THE thing. She seemed to have fought through the
worst of her trouble, and to have put it back into those deep quiet
chambers where all griefs go; never forgotten, never removed, but
sealed up in silence, as it should be. Perhaps, too--for let us not
exact more from Nature than Nature grants--the wide, wide difference
in character, temperament, and sympathies between Miss March and her
father unconsciously made his loss less a heart-loss, total and
irremediable, than one of mere habit and instinctive feeling, which,
the first shock over, would insensibly heal. Besides, she was young-
-young in life, in hope, in body, and soul; and youth, though it
grieves passionately, cannot for ever grieve.
I saw, and rejoiced to see, that Miss March was in some degree
herself again; at least, so much of her old self as was right,
natural, and good for her to be.
She and John conversed a good deal. Her manner to him was easy and
natural, as to a friend who deserved and possessed her warm
gratitude: his was more constrained. Gradually, however, this wore
away; there was something in her which, piercing all disguises, went
at once to the heart of things. She seemed to hold in her hand the
touchstone of truth.
He asked--no, I believe _I_ asked her, how long she intended staying
"I can hardly tell. Once I understood that my cousin Richard
Brithwood was left my guardian. This my fa--this was to have been
altered, I believe. I wish it had been. You know Norton Bury, Mr.
"I live there."
"Indeed!"--with some surprise. "Then you are probably acquainted
with my cousin and his wife?"
"No; but I have seen them."
John gave these answers without lifting his eyes.
"Will you tell me candidly--for I know nothing of her, and it is
rather important that I should learn--what sort of person is Lady
This frank question, put directly, and guarded by the battery of
those innocent, girlish eyes, was a very hard question to be
answered; for Norton Bury had said many ill-natured things of our
young 'squire's wife, whom he married at Naples, from the house of
the well-known Lady Hamilton.
"She was, you are aware, Lady Caroline Ravenel, the Earl of Luxmore's
"Yes, yes; but that does not signify. I know nothing of Lord
Luxmore--I want to know what she is herself."
John hesitated, then answered, as he could with truth, "She is said
to be very charitable to the poor, pleasant and kind-hearted. But,
if I may venture to hint as much, not exactly the friend whom I think
Miss March would choose, or to whom she would like to be indebted for
anything but courtesy."
"That was not my meaning. I need not be indebted to any one. Only,
if she were a good woman, Lady Caroline would have been a great
comfort and a useful adviser to one who is scarcely eighteen, and, I
believe, an heiress."
"An heiress!" The colour flashed in a torrent over John's whole
face, then left him pale. "I--pardon me--I thought it was otherwise.
Allow me to--to express my pleasure--"
"It does not add to mine," said she, half-sighing. "Jane Cardigan
always told me riches brought many cares. Poor Jane! I wish I could
go back to her--but that is impossible!"
A silence here intervened, which it was necessary some one should
"So much good can be done with a large fortune," I said.
"Yes. I know not if mine is very large; indeed, I never understood
money matters, but have merely believed what--what I was told.
However, be my fortune much or little, I will try to use it well."
"I am sure you will."
John said nothing; but his eyes, sad indeed, yet lit with a proud
tenderness, rested upon her as she spoke. Soon after, he rose up to
"Do not go yet; I want to ask about Norton Bury. I had no idea you
lived there. And Mr. Fletcher too?"
I replied in the affirmative.
"In what part of the town?"
"On the Coltham Road, near the Abbey."
"Ah, those Abbey chimes!--how I used to listen to them, night after
night, when the pain kept me awake!"
"What pain?" asked John, suddenly, alive to any suffering of hers.
Miss March smiled almost like her old smile. "Oh! I had nearly
forgotten it, though it was very bad at the time; only that I cut my
wrist rather dangerously with a bread knife, in a struggle with my
"When was that?" eagerly inquired John.
For me, I said nothing. Already I guessed all. Alas! the tide of
fate was running strong against my poor David. What could I do but
stand aside and watch?
"When was it? Let me see--five, six years ago. But, indeed, 'tis
"Not exactly 'nothing.' Do tell me!"
And John stood, listening for her words, counting them even, as one
would count, drop by drop, a vial of joy which is nearly empty, yet
Time's remorseless hand still keeps on, pouring, pouring.
"Well, if you must know it, it was one of my naughtinesses--I was
very naughty as a child. They would not let me have a piece of bread
that I wanted to give away to a poor lad."
"Who stood opposite--under an alley--in the rain?--was it not so?"
"How could you know? But he looked so hungry; I was so sorry for
"Were you?"--in a tone almost inaudible.
"I have often thought of him since, when I chanced to look at this
"Let me look at it--may I?"
Taking her hand, he softly put back the sleeve, discovering, just
above the wrist, a deep, discoloured seam. He gazed at it, his
features all quivering, then, without a word either of adieu or
apology, he quitted the room.
I was left with Miss March alone. She sat looking at the door where
John had disappeared, in extreme surprise, not unmingled with a
"What does he mean, Mr. Fletcher? Can I have offended him in any
"Why did he go away?"
But that question, simple as it was in itself, and most simply put,
involved so much, that I felt I had no right to answer it; while, at
the same time, I had no possible right to use any of those disguises
or prevarications which are always foolish and perilous, and very
frequently wrong. Nor, even had I desired, was Miss March the woman
to whom one dared offer the like; therefore I said to her plainly:
"I know the reason. I would tell you, but I think John would prefer
telling you himself."
"As he pleases," returned Miss March, a slight reserve tempering her
frank manner; but it soon vanished, and she began talking to me in
her usual friendly way, asking me many questions about the Brithwoods
and about Norton Bury. I answered them freely--my only reservation
being, that I took care not to give any information concerning
Soon afterwards, as John did not return, I took leave of her, and
went to our own parlour.
He was not there. He had left word with little Jack, who met him on
the common, that he was gone a long walk, and should not return till
dinner-time. Dinner-time came, but I had to dine alone. It was the
first time I ever knew him break even such a trivial promise. My
heart misgave me--I spent a miserable day. I was afraid to go in
search of him, lest he should return to a dreary, empty parlour.
Better, when he did come in, that he should find a cheerful hearth
Me, his friend and brother, who had loved him these six years better
than anything else in the whole world. Yet what could I do now?
Fate had taken the sceptre out of my hands--I was utterly powerless;
I could neither give him comfort nor save him pain any more.
What I felt then, in those long, still hours, many a one has felt
likewise; many a parent over a child, many a sister over a brother,
many a friend over a friend. A feeling natural and universal. Let
those who suffer take it patiently, as the common lot; let those who
win hold the former ties in tenderest reverence, nor dare to flaunt
the new bond cruelly in the face of the old.
Having said this, which, being the truth, it struck me as right to
say, I will no more allude to the subject.
In the afternoon there occurred an incident. A coach-and-four,
resplendent in liveries, stopped at the door; I knew it well, and so
did all Norton Bury. It was empty; but Lady Caroline's own maid--so
I heard afterwards--sat in the rumble, and Lady Caroline's own black-
eyed Neapolitan page leaped down, bearing a large letter, which I
concluded was for Miss March.
I was glad that John was not at home; glad that the coach, with all
its fine paraphernalia, was away, empty as it had arrived, before
John came in.
He did not come till it was nearly dusk. I was at the window,
looking at my four poplar-trees, as they pointed skywards like long
fingers stretching up out of the gloom, when I saw him crossing the
common. At first I was going to meet him at the gate, but on second
thoughts I remained within, and only stirred up the fire, which could
be seen shining ever so far.
"What a bright blaze!--Nay, you have not waited dinner, I hope?--Tea-
-yes, that's far better; I have had such a long walk, and am so tired
The words were cheerful, so was the tone. TOO cheerful--oh, by far!
The sort of cheerfulness that strikes to a friend's heart, like the
piping of soldiers as they go away back from a newly-filled grave.
"Where have you been, John?"
"All over Nunnely Hill. I must take you there--such expansive views.
As Mrs. Tod informed me, quoting some local ballad, which she said
was written by an uncle of hers:
"'There you may spy
Twenty-three churches with the glass and the eye.'
Remarkable fact, isn't it?"
Thus he kept on talking all tea-time, incessantly, rapidly talking.
It was enough to make one weep.
After tea I insisted on his taking my arm-chair; saying, that after
such a walk, in that raw day, he must be very cold.
"Not the least--quite the contrary--feel my hand." It was burning.
"But I am tired--thoroughly tired."
He leaned back and shut his eyes. Oh, the utter weariness of body
and soul that was written on his face!
"Why did you go out alone? John, you know that you have always me."
He looked up, smiling. But the momentary brightness passed. Alas! I
was not enough to make him happy now.
We sat silent. I knew he would speak to me in time; but the gates of
his heart were close locked. It seemed as if he dared not open them,
lest the flood should burst forth and overwhelm us.
At nine o'clock Mrs. Tod came in with supper. She had always
something or other to say, especially since the late events had drawn
the whole household of Rose Cottage so closely together; now, she was
brim-full of news.
She had been all that evening packing up for poor dear Miss March;
though why she should call her "poor," truly, she didn't know. Who
would have thought Mr. March had such grand relations? Had we seen
Lady Caroline Brithwood's coach that came that day? Such a beautiful
coach it was!--sent on purpose for Miss March--only she wouldn't go.
"But now she has made up her mind, poor dear. She is leaving
When John heard this he was helping Mrs. Tod, as usual, to fasten the
heavy shutters. He stood, with his hand on the bolt, motionless,
till the good woman was gone. Then he staggered to the mantelpiece,
and leaned on it with both his elbows, his hands covering his face.
But there was no disguise now--no attempt to make it. A young man's
first love--not first fancy, but first love--in all its passion,
desperation, and pain--had come to him, as it comes to all. I saw
him writhing under it--saw, and could not help him. The next few
silent minutes were very bitter to us both.
Then I said gently, "David!"
"I thought things were so."
"Suppose you were to talk to me a little--it might do you good."
"Another time. Let me go out--out into the air; I'm choking."
Snatching up his hat, he rushed from me. I did not dare to follow.
After waiting some time, and listening till all was quiet in the
house, I could bear the suspense no longer and went out.
I thought I should find him on the Flat--probably in his favourite
walk, his "terrace," as he called it, where he had first seen, and
must have seen many a day after, that girlish figure tripping lightly
along through the morning sunshine and morning dew. I had a sort of
instinct that he would be there now; so I climbed up the shortest
way, often losing my footing; for it was a pitch-dark night, and the
common looked as wide, and black, and still, as a midnight sea.
John was not there; indeed, if he had been I could scarcely have seen
him; I could see nothing but the void expanse of the Flat, or,
looking down, the broad river of mist that rolled through the valley,
on the other side of which twinkled a few cottage lights, like
unearthly beacons from the farthest shore of an impassable flood.
Suddenly I remembered hearing Mrs. Tod say that, on account of its
pits and quarries, the common was extremely dangerous after dark,
except to those who knew it well. In a horrible dread I called out
John's name--but nothing answered. I went on blindly, desperately
shouting as I went. At length, in one of the Roman fosses, I
stumbled and fell. Some one came, darting with great leaps through
the mist, and lifted me up.
"Phineas--is that you? You have come out this bitter night--why did
His tenderness over me, even then, made me break down. I forgot my
manhood, or else it slipped from me unawares. In the old Bible
language, "I fell on his neck and wept."
Afterwards I was not sorry for this, because I think my weakness gave
him strength. I think, amidst the whirl of passion that racked him
it was good for him to feel that the one crowning cup of life is not
inevitably life's sole sustenance; that it was something to have a
friend and brother who loved him with a love--like Jonathan's--
"passing the love of women."
"I have been very wrong," he kept repeating, in a broken voice; "but
I was not myself. I am better now. Come--let us go home."
He put his arm round me to keep me warm, and brought me safely into
the house. He even sat down by the fire to talk with me. Whatever
struggle there had been, I saw it was over, he looked his own self--
only so very, very pale--and spoke in his natural voice; ay, even
when mentioning HER, which he was the first to do.
"She goes to-morrow, you are sure, Phineas?"
"I believe so. Shall you see her again?"
"If she desires it."
"Shall you say anything to her?"
"Nothing. If for a little while--not knowing or not thinking of all
the truth--I felt I had strength to remove all impediments, I now see
that even to dream of such things makes me a fool, or possibly worse-
-a knave. I will be neither--I will be a man."
I replied not: how could one answer such words?--calmly uttered,
though each syllable must have been torn out like a piece of his
"Did she say anything to you? Did she ask why I left her so abruptly
"She did; I said you would probably tell her the reason yourself."
"I will. She must no longer be kept in ignorance about me or my
position. I shall tell her the whole truth--save one thing. She
need never know that."
I guessed by his broken voice what the "one thing" was;--which he
counted as nothing; but which, I think, any true woman would have
counted worth everything--the priceless gift of a good man's love.
Love, that in such a nature as his, if once conceived, would last a
lifetime. And she was not to know it! I felt sorry--ay, even sorry
for Ursula March.
"Do you not think I am right, Phineas?"
"Perhaps. I cannot say. You are the best judge."
"It is right," said he, firmly. "There can be no possible hope for
me; nothing remains but silence."
I did not quite agree with him. I could not see that to any young
man, only twenty years old, with the world all before him, any love
could be absolutely hopeless; especially to a young man like John
Halifax. But as things now stood I deemed it best to leave him
altogether to himself, offering neither advice nor opinion. What
Providence willed, through HIS will, would happen: for me to
interfere either way would be at once idle and perilous; nay, in some
sense, exceedingly wrong.
So I kept my thoughts to myself, and preserved a total silence.
John broke it--talking to himself as if he had forgotten I was by.
"To think it was she who did it--that first kindness to a poor
friendless boy. I never forgot it--never. It did me more good than
I can tell. And that scar on her poor arm--her dear little tender
arm;--how this morning I would have given all the world to--"
He broke off--instinctively, as it were--with the sort of feeling
every good man has, that the sacred passion, the inmost tenderness of
his love, should be kept wholly between himself and the woman he has
I knew that too; knew that in his heart had grown up a secret, a
necessity, a desire, stronger than any friendship--closer than the
closest bond of brotherly love. Perhaps--I hardly know why--I
John turned round--"Phineas, you must not think--because of this--
which you will understand for yourself, I hope, one day; you must not
think I could ever think less, or feel less, about my brother."
He spoke earnestly, with a full heart. We clasped hands warmly and
silently. Thus was healed my last lingering pain--I was
thenceforward entirely satisfied.
I think we parted that night as we had never parted before; feeling
that the trial of our friendship--the great trial, perhaps, of any
friendship--had come and passed, safely: that whatever new ties
might gather round each, our two hearts would cleave together until
The next morning rose, as I have seen many a morning rise at
Enderley--misty and grey; but oh, so heavenly fair! with a pearly
network of dewy gossamer under foot, and overhead countless thistle
downs flying about, like fairy chariots hurrying out of sight of the
sun, which had only mounted high enough above the Flat to touch the
horizon of hills opposite, and the tops of my four poplars, leaving
Rose Cottage and the valley below it all in morning shadow. John
called me to go with him on the common; his voice sounded so cheerful
outside my door that it was with a glad heart I rose and went.
He chose his old walk--his "terrace." No chance now of meeting the
light figure coming tripping along the level hill. All that dream
was now over. He did not speak of it--nor I. He seemed contented--
or, at least, thoroughly calmed down; except that the sweet composure
of his mien had settled into the harder gravity of manhood. The
crisis and climax of youth had been gone through--he never could be a
We came to that part of John's terrace which overhung the churchyard.
Both of us glanced instinctively down to the heap of loose red earth-
-the as yet nameless grave. Some one stood beside it--the only one
who was likely to be there.
Even had I not recognized her, John's manner would have told me who
it was. A deadly paleness overspread his face--its quietness was
gone--every feature trembled. It almost broke my heart to see how
deeply this love had struck its roots down to the very core of his;
twisting them with every fibre of his being. A love which, though it
had sprung up so early, and come to maturity so fast, might yet be
the curse of his whole existence. Save that no love conceived
virtuously, for a good woman, be it ever so hopeless, can be rightly
considered as a curse.
"Shall we go away?" I whispered--"a long walk--to the other side of
the Flat? She will have left Rose Cottage soon."
"Before noon, I heard. Come, David."
He suffered me to put my arm in his, and draw him away for a step or
two, then turned.
"I can't, Phineas, I can't! I MUST look at her again--only for one
minute--one little minute."
But he stayed--we were standing where she could not see us--till she
had slowly left the grave. We heard the click of the churchyard
gate: where she went afterward we could not discern.
John moved away. I asked him if we should take our walk now? But he
did not seem to hear me; so I let him follow his own way--perhaps it
might be for good--who could tell?
He descended from the Flat, and came quickly round the corner of the
cottage. Miss March stood there, trying to find one fresh rose among
the fast-withering clusters about what had been our parlour window
and now was hers.
She saw us, acknowledged us, but hurriedly, and not without some
momentary signs of agitation.
"The roses are all gone," she said rather sadly.
"Perhaps, higher up, I can reach one--shall I try?"
I marvelled to see that John's manner as he addressed her was just
like his manner always with her.
"Thank you--that will do. I wanted to take some away with me--I am
leaving Rose Cottage to-day, Mr. Halifax."
"So I have heard."
He did not say "sorry to hear." I wondered did the omission strike
her? But no--she evidently regarded us both as mere acquaintances,
inevitably, perhaps even tenderly, bound up with this time; and as
such, claiming a more than ordinary place in her regard and
remembrance. No man with common sense or common feeling could for a
moment dare to misinterpret the emotion she showed.
Re-entering the house, she asked us if we would come in with her; she
had a few things to say to us. And then she again referred
gratefully to our "kindness."
We all went once more--for the last time--into the little parlour.
"Yes--I am going away," said she, mournfully.
"We hope all good will go with you--always and everywhere."
"Thank you, Mr. Fletcher."
It was strange, the grave tone our intercourse now invariably
assumed. We might have been three old people, who had long fought
with and endured the crosses of the world, instead of two young men
and a young woman, in the very dawn of life.
"Circumstances have fixed my plans since I saw you yesterday. I am
going to reside for a time with my cousins, the Brithwoods. It seems
best for me. Lady Caroline is very kind, and I am so lonely."
She said this not in any complaint, but as if accepting the fact, and
making up her mind to endure it. A little more fragmentary
conversation passed, chiefly between herself and me--John uttered
scarcely a word. He sat by the window, half shading his face with
his hand. Under that covert, the gaze which incessantly followed and
dwelt on her face--oh, had she seen it!
The moments narrowed. Would he say what he had intended, concerning
his position in the world? Had she guessed or learned anything, or
were we to her simply Mr. Halifax and Mr. Fletcher--two "gentlemen"
of Norton Bury? It appeared so.
"This is not a very long good-bye, I trust?" said she to me, with
something more than courtesy. "I shall remain at the Mythe House
some weeks, I believe. How long do you purpose staying at Enderley?"
I was uncertain.
"But your home is in Norton Bury? I hope--I trust, you will allow my
cousin to express in his own house his thanks and mine for your great
kindness during my trouble?"
Neither of us answered. Miss March looked surprised--hurt--nay,
displeased; then her eye, resting on John, lost its haughtiness, and
became humble and sweet.
"Mr. Halifax, I know nothing of my cousin, and I do know you. Will
you tell me--candidly, as I know you will--whether there is anything
in Mr. Brithwood which you think unworthy of your acquaintance?"
"He would think me unworthy of his," was the low, firm answer.
Miss March smiled incredulously. "Because you are not very rich?
What can that signify? It is enough for me that my friends are
"Mr. Brithwood, and many others, would not allow my claim to that
Astonished--nay, somewhat more than astonished--the young gentlewoman
drew back a little. "I do not quite understand you."
"Let me explain, then;" and her involuntary gesture seeming to have
brought back all honest dignity and manly pride, he faced her, once
more himself. "It is right, Miss March, that you should know who and
what I am, to whom you are giving the honour of your kindness.
Perhaps you ought to have known before; but here at Enderley we
seemed to be equals--friends."
"I have indeed felt it so."
"Then you will the sooner pardon my not telling you--what you never
asked, and I was only too ready to forget--that we are not equals--
that is, society would not regard us as such--and I doubt if even you
yourself would wish us to be friends."
"Because you are a gentlewoman and I am a tradesman."
The news was evidently a shock to her--it could not but be, reared as
she had been. She sat--the eye-lashes dropping over her flushed
John's voice grew firmer--prouder--no hesitation now.
"My calling is, as you will soon hear at Norton Bury, that of a
tanner. I am apprentice to Abel Fletcher--Phineas's father."
"Mr. Fletcher!" She looked up at me--a mingled look of kindliness
"Ay, Phineas is a little less beneath your notice than I am. He is
rich--he has been well educated; I have had to educate myself. I
came to Norton Bury six years ago--a beggar-boy. No, not quite that-
-for I never begged! I either worked or starved."
The earnestness, the passion of his tone, made Miss March lift her
eyes, but they fell again.
"Yes, Phineas found me in an alley--starving. We stood in the rain,
opposite the mayor's house. A little girl--you know her, Miss March-
-came to the door, and threw out to me a bit of bread."
Now indeed she started. "You--was that you?"
"It was I."
John paused, and his whole manner changed into softness, as he
resumed. "I never forgot that little girl. Many a time, when I was
inclined to do wrong, she kept me right--the remembrance of her sweet
face and her kindness."
That face was pressed down against the sofa where she sat. I think
Miss March was all but weeping.
"I am glad to have met her again--glad to have been able to do her
some small good in return for the infinite good she once did me. I
shall bid her farewell now--at once and altogether."
A quick, involuntary turn of the hidden face asked him "Why?"
"Because," John answered, "the world says we are not equals, and it
would neither be for Miss March's honour nor mine did I try to force
upon it the truth--which I may prove openly one day--that we ARE
Miss March looked up at him--it were hard to say with what
expression, of pleasure, or pride, or simple astonishment; perhaps a
mingling of all--then her eyelids fell. She silently offered her
hand, first to me and then to John. Whether she meant it as
friendliness, or as a mere ceremony of adieu, I cannot tell. John
took it as the latter, and rose.
His hand was on the door--but he could not go.
"Miss March," he said, "perhaps I may never see you again--at least,
never as now. Let me look once more at that wrist which was hurt."
Her left arm was hanging over the sofa--the scar being visible
enough. John took the hand, and held it firmly.
"Poor little hand--blessed little hand! May God bless it evermore."
Suddenly he pressed his lips to the place where the wound had been--a
kiss long and close, such as only a lover's kiss could be. Surely
she must have felt it--known it.
A moment afterward, he was gone.
That day Miss March departed, and we remained at Enderley alone.
It was winter-time. All the summer-days at Enderley were gone, "like
a dream when one awaketh." Of her who had been the beautiful centre
of the dream we had never heard nor spoken since.
John and I were walking together along the road towards the Mythe; we
could just see the frosty sunset reflected on the windows of the
Mythe House, now closed for months, the family being away. The
meadows alongside, where the Avon had overflowed and frozen, were a
popular skating-ground: and the road was alive with lookers-on of
every class. All Norton Bury seemed abroad; and half Norton Bury
exchanged salutations with my companion, till I was amused to notice
how large John's acquaintance had grown.
Among the rest there overtook us a little elderly lady, as prim and
neat as an old maid, and as bright-looking as a happy matron. I saw
at once who it was--Mrs. Jessop, our good doctor's new wife, and old
love: whom he had lately brought home, to the great amazement and
curiosity of Norton Bury.
"She seems to like you very much," I said; as, after a cordial
greeting, which John returned rather formally, she trotted on.
"They were both very kind to me in London, last month, as I think I
"Ay!" It was one of the few things he had mentioned about that same
London journey, for he had grown into a painful habit of silence now.
Yet I dreaded to break it, lest any wounds rankling beneath might
thereby be caused to smart once more. And our love to one another
was too faithful for a little reserve to have power to influence it
in any way.
We came once more upon the old lady, watching the skaters. She again
spoke to John, and looked at me with her keen, kind, blue eyes.
"I think I know who your friend is, though you do not introduce him."
(John hastily performed that ceremony.) "Tom, and I" (how funny to
hear her call our old bachelor doctor, "Tom!") "were wondering what
had become of you, Mr. Halifax. Are you stronger than you were in
"Was he ill in London, madam?"
"No, indeed, Phineas! Or only enough to win for me Dr. and Mrs.
Jessop's great kindness."
"Which you have never come to thank us for. Never crossed our
door-sill since we returned home! Does not your conscience sting you
for your ingratitude?"
He coloured deeply.
"Indeed, Mrs. Jessop, it was not ingratitude."
"I know it; I believe it," she answered, with much kindness. "Tell
me what it was?"
"You ought to believe the warm interest we both take in you. Tell me
the plain truth."
"I will. It is that your kindness to me in London was no reason for
my intruding on you at Norton Bury. It might not be agreeable for
you and Dr. Jessop to have my acquaintance here. I am a tradesman."
The little old lady's eyes brightened into something beyond mere
kindness as she looked at him.
"Mr. Halifax, I thank you for that 'plain truth.' Truth is always
best. Now for mine. I had heard you were a tradesman; I found out