This etext was prepared by Les Bowler, St. Ives, Dorset.
JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN
by Dinah Maria Mulock (Mrs. Craik)
“Get out o’ Mr. Fletcher’s road, ye idle, lounging, little–“
“Vagabond,” I think the woman (Sally Watkins, once my nurse), was going to say, but she changed her mind.
My father and I both glanced round, surprised at her unusual reticence of epithets: but when the lad addressed turned, fixed his eyes on each of us for a moment, and made way for us, we ceased to wonder. Ragged, muddy, and miserable as he was, the poor boy looked anything but a “vagabond.”
“Thee need not go into the wet, my lad. Keep close to the wall, and there will be shelter enough both for us and thee,” said my father, as he pulled my little hand-carriage into the alley, under cover, from the pelting rain. The lad, with a grateful look, put out a hand likewise, and pushed me further in. A strong hand it was–roughened and browned with labour–though he was scarcely as old as I. What would I not have given to have been so stalwart and so tall!
Sally called from her house-door, “Wouldn’t Master Phineas come in and sit by the fire a bit?”–But it was always a trouble to me to move or walk; and I liked staying at the mouth of the alley, watching the autumnal shower come sweeping down the street: besides, I wanted to look again at the stranger-lad.
He had scarcely stirred, but remained leaning against the wall– either through weariness, or in order to be out of our way. He took little or no notice of us, but kept his eyes fixed on the pavement– for we actually boasted pavement in the High Street of our town of Norton Bury–watching the eddying rain-drops, which, each as it fell, threw up a little mist of spray. It was a serious, haggard face for a boy of only fourteen or so. Let me call it up before me–I can, easily, even after more than fifty years.
Brown eyes, deep-sunken, with strongly-marked brows, a nose like most other Saxon noses, nothing particular; lips well-shaped, lying one upon the other, firm and close; a square, sharply outlined, resolute chin, of that type which gives character and determination to the whole physiognomy, and without which in the fairest features, as in the best dispositions, one is always conscious of a certain want.
As I have stated, in person the lad was tall and strongly-built; and I, poor puny wretch! so reverenced physical strength. Everything in him seemed to indicate that which I had not: his muscular limbs, his square, broad shoulders, his healthy cheek, though it was sharp and thin–even to his crisp curls of bright thick hair.
Thus he stood, principal figure in a picture which is even yet as clear to me as yesterday–the narrow, dirty alley leading out of the High Street, yet showing a glimmer of green field at the further end; the open house-doors on either side, through which came the drowsy burr of many a stocking-loom, the prattle of children paddling in the gutter, and sailing thereon a fleet of potato parings. In front the High Street, with the mayor’s house opposite, porticoed and grand: and beyond, just where the rain-clouds were breaking, rose up out of a nest of trees, the square tower of our ancient abbey–Norton Bury’s boast and pride. On it, from a break in the clouds, came a sudden stream of light. The stranger-lad lifted up his head to look at it.
“The rain will be over soon,” I said, but doubted if he heard me. What could he be thinking of so intently?–a poor working lad, whom few would have given credit for thinking at all.
I do not suppose my father cast a second glance or thought on the boy, whom, from a sense of common justice, he had made take shelter beside us. In truth, worthy man, he had no lack of matter to occupy his mind, being sole architect of a long up-hill but now thriving trade. I saw, by the hardening of his features, and the restless way in which he poked his stick into the little water-pools, that he was longing to be in his tan-yard close by.
He pulled out his great silver watch–the dread of our house, for it was a watch which seemed to imbibe something of its master’s character; remorseless as justice or fate, it never erred a moment.
“Twenty-three minutes lost by this shower. Phineas, my son, how am I to get thee safe home? unless thee wilt go with me to the tan-yard–“
I shook my head. It was very hard for Abel Fletcher to have for his only child such a sickly creature as I, now, at sixteen, as helpless and useless to him as a baby.
“Well, well, I must find some one to go home with thee.” For though my father had got me a sort of carriage in which, with a little external aid, I could propel myself, so as to be his companion occasionally in his walks between our house, the tanyard, and the Friends’ meeting-house–still he never trusted me anywhere alone. “Here, Sally–Sally Watkins! do any o’ thy lads want to earn an honest penny?”
Sally was out of earshot; but I noticed that as the lad near us heard my father’s words, the colour rushed over his face, and he started forward involuntarily. I had not before perceived how wasted and hungry-looking he was.
“Father!” I whispered. But here the boy had mustered up his courage and voice.
“Sir, I want work; may I earn a penny?”
He spoke in tolerably good English–different from our coarse, broad, G—shire drawl; and taking off his tattered old cap, looked right up into my father’s face, The old man scanned him closely.
“What is thy name, lad?”
“Where dost thee come from?”
“Hast thee any parents living?”
I wished my father would not question thus; but possibly he had his own motives, which were rarely harsh, though his actions often appeared so.
“How old might thee be, John Halifax?”
“Thee art used to work?”
“What sort of work?”
“Anything that I can get to do.”
I listened nervously to this catechism, which went on behind my back.
“Well,” said my father, after a pause, “thee shall take my son home, and I’ll give thee a groat. Let me see; art thee a lad to be trusted?” And holding him at arm’s length, regarding him meanwhile with eyes that were the terror of all the rogues in Norton Bury, Abel Fletcher jingled temptingly the silver money in the pockets of his long-flapped brown waistcoat. “I say, art thee a lad to be trusted?”
John Halifax neither answered nor declined his eyes. He seemed to feel that this was a critical moment, and to have gathered all his mental forces into a serried square, to meet the attack. He met it, and conquered in silence.
“Lad, shall I give thee the groat now?”
“Not till I’ve earned it, sir.”
So, drawing his hand back, my father slipped the money into mine, and left us.
I followed him with my eyes, as he went sturdily plashing down the street; his broad, comfortable back, which owned a coat of true Quaker cut, but spotless, warm, and fine; his ribbed hose and leathern gaiters, and the wide-brimmed hat set over a fringe of grey hairs, that crowned the whole with respectable dignity. He looked precisely what he was–an honest, honourable, prosperous tradesman. I watched him down the street–my good father, whom I respected perhaps even more than I loved him. The Cornish lad watched him likewise.
It still rained slightly, so we remained under cover. John Halifax leaned in his old place, and did not attempt to talk. Once only, when the draught through the alley made me shiver, he pulled my cloak round me carefully.
“You are not very strong, I’m afraid?”
Then he stood idly looking up at the opposite–the mayor’s–house, with its steps and portico, and its fourteen windows, one of which was open, and a cluster of little heads visible there.
The mayor’s children–I knew them all by sight, though nothing more; for their father was a lawyer, and mine a tanner; they belonged to Abbey folk and orthodoxy, I to the Society of Friends–the mayor’s rosy children seemed greatly amused by watching us shivering shelterers from the rain. Doubtless our position made their own appear all the pleasanter. For myself it mattered little; but for this poor, desolate, homeless, wayfaring lad to stand in sight of their merry nursery window, and hear the clatter of voices, and of not unwelcome dinner-sounds–I wondered how he felt it.
Just at this minute another head came to the window, a somewhat older child; I had met her with the rest; she was only a visitor. She looked at us, then disappeared. Soon after, we saw the front door half opened, and an evident struggle taking place behind it; we even heard loud words across the narrow street.
“I will–I say I will.”
“You shan’t, Miss Ursula.”
“But I will!”
And there stood the little girl, with a loaf in one hand and a carving-knife in the other. She succeeded in cutting off a large slice, and holding it out.
“Take it, poor boy!–you look so hungry. Do take it.” But the servant forced her in, and the door was shut upon a sharp cry.
It made John Halifax start, and look up at the nursery window, which was likewise closed. We heard nothing more. After a minute he crossed the street, and picked up the slice of bread. Now in those days bread was precious, exceedingly. The poor folk rarely got it; they lived on rye or meal. John Halifax had probably not tasted wheaten bread like this for months: it appeared not, he eyed it so ravenously;–then, glancing towards the shut door, his mind seemed to change. He was a long time before he ate a morsel; when he did so, it was quietly and slowly; looking very thoughtful all the while.
As soon as the rain ceased, we took our way home, down the High Street, towards the Abbey church–he guiding my carriage along in silence. I wished he would talk, and let me hear again his pleasant Cornish accent.
“How strong you are!” said I, sighing, when, with a sudden pull, he had saved me from being overturned by a horseman riding past–young Mr. Brithwood of the Mythe House, who never cared where he galloped or whom he hurt–“So tall and so strong.”
“Am I? Well, I shall want my strength.”
“To earn my living.”
He drew up his broad shoulders, and planted on the pavement a firmer foot, as if he knew he had the world before him–would meet it single-handed, and without fear.
“What have you worked at lately?”
“Anything I could get, for I have never learned a trade.”
“Would you like to learn one?”
He hesitated a minute, as if weighing his speech. “Once I thought I should like to be what my father was.”
“What was he?”
“A scholar and a gentleman.”
This was news, though it did not much surprise me. My father, tanner as he was, and pertinaciously jealous of the dignity of trade, yet held strongly the common-sense doctrine of the advantages of good descent; at least, in degree. For since it is a law of nature, admitting only rare exceptions, that the qualities of the ancestors should be transmitted to the race–the fact seems patent enough, that even allowing equal advantages, a gentleman’s son has more chances of growing up a gentleman than the son of a working man. And though he himself, and his father before him, had both been working men, still, I think, Abel Fletcher never forgot that we originally came of a good stock, and that it pleased him to call me, his only son, after one of our forefathers, not unknown–Phineas Fletcher, who wrote the “Purple Island.”
Thus it seemed to me, and I doubted not it would to my father, much more reasonable and natural that a boy like John Halifax–in whom from every word he said I detected a mind and breeding above his outward condition–should come of gentle than of boorish blood.
“Then, perhaps,” I said, resuming the conversation, “you would not like to follow a trade?”
“Yes, I should. What would it matter to me? My father was a gentleman.”
“And your mother?”
And he turned suddenly round; his cheeks hot, his lips quivering: “She is dead. I do not like to hear strangers speak about my mother.”
I asked his pardon. It was plain he had loved and mourned her; and that circumstances had smothered down his quick boyish feelings into a man’s tenacity of betraying where he had loved and mourned. I, only a few minutes after, said something about wishing we were not “strangers.”
“Do you?” The lad’s half amazed, half-grateful smile went right to my heart.
“Have you been up and down the country much?”
“A great deal–these last three years; doing a hand’s turn as best I could, in hop-picking, apple-gathering, harvesting; only this summer I had typhus fever, and could not work.”
“What did you do then?”
“I lay in a barn till I got well–I’m quite well now; you need not be afraid.”
“No, indeed; I had never thought of that.”
We soon became quite sociable together. He guided me carefully out of the town into the Abbey walk, flecked with sunshine through overhanging trees. Once he stopped to pick up for me the large brown fan of a horse-chestnut leaf.
“It’s pretty, isn’t it?–only it shows that autumn is come.”
“And how shall you live in the winter, when there is no out-of-door work to be had?”
“I don’t know.”
The lad’s countenance fell, and that hungry, weary look, which had vanished while we talked, returned more painfully than ever. I reproached myself for having, under the influence of his merry talk, temporarily forgotten it.
“Ah!” I cried eagerly, when we left the shade of the Abbey trees, and crossed the street; “here we are, at home!”
“Are you?” The homeless lad just glanced at it–the flight of spotless stone-steps, guarded by ponderous railings, which led to my father’s respectable and handsome door. “Good day, then–which means good-bye.”
I started. The word pained me. On my sad, lonely life–brief indeed, though ill health seemed to have doubled and trebled my sixteen years into a mournful maturity–this lad’s face had come like a flash of sunshine; a reflection of the merry boyhood, the youth and strength that never were, never could be, mine. To let it go from me was like going back into the dark.
“Not good-bye just yet!” said I, trying painfully to disengage myself from my little carriage and mount the steps. John Halifax came to my aid.
“Suppose you let me carry you. I could–and–and it would be great fun, you know.”
He tried to turn it into a jest, so as not to hurt me; but the tremble in his voice was as tender as any woman’s–tenderer than any woman’s _I_ ever was used to hear. I put my arms round his neck; he lifted me safely and carefully, and set me at my own door. Then with another good-bye he again turned to go.
My heart cried after him with an irrepressible cry. What I said I do not remember, but it caused him to return.
“Is there anything more I can do for you, sir?”
“Don’t call me ‘sir’; I am only a boy like yourself. I want you; don’t go yet. Ah! here comes my father!”
John Halifax stood aside, and touched his cap with a respectful deference, as the old man passed.
“So here thee be–hast thou taken care of my son? Did he give thee thy groat, my lad?”
We had neither of us once thought of the money.
When I acknowledged this my father laughed, called John an honest lad, and began searching in his pocket for some larger coin. I ventured to draw his ear down and whispered something–but I got no answer; meanwhile, John Halifax for the third time was going away.
“Stop, lad–I forget thy name–here is thy groat, and a shilling added, for being kind to my son.”
“Thank you, but I don’t want payment for kindness.”
He kept the groat, and put back the shilling into my father’s hand.
“Eh!” said the old man, much astonished, “thee’rt an odd lad; but I can’t stay talking with thee. Come in to dinner, Phineas. I say,” turning back to John Halifax with a sudden thought, “art thee hungry?”
“Very hungry.” Nature gave way at last, and great tears came into the poor lad’s eyes. “Nearly starving.”
“Bless me! then get in, and have thy dinner. But first–” and my inexorable father held him by the shoulder; “thee art a decent lad, come of decent parents?”
“Yes,” almost indignantly.
“Thee works for thy living?”
“I do, whenever I can get it.”
“Thee hast never been in gaol?”
“No!” thundered out the lad, with a furious look. “I don’t want your dinner, sir; I would have stayed, because your son asked me, and he was civil to me, and I liked him. Now I think I had better go. Good day, sir.”
There is a verse in a very old Book–even in its human histories the most pathetic of all books–which runs thus:
“And it came to pass when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit unto the soul of David; and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”
And this day, I, a poorer and more helpless Jonathan, had found my David.
I caught him by the hand, and would not let him go.
“There, get in, lads–make no more ado,” said Abel Fletcher, sharply, as he disappeared.
So, still holding my David fast, I brought him into my father’s house.
Dinner was over; my father and I took ours in the large parlour, where the stiff, high-backed chairs eyed one another in opposite rows across the wide oaken floor, shiny and hard as marble, and slippery as glass. Except the table, the sideboard and the cuckoo clock, there was no other furniture.
I dared not bring the poor wandering lad into this, my father’s especial domain; but as soon as he was away in the tan-yard I sent for John.
Jael brought him in; Jael, the only womankind we ever had about us, and who, save to me when I happened to be very ill, certainly gave no indication of her sex in its softness and tenderness. There had evidently been wrath in the kitchen.
“Phineas, the lad ha’ got his dinner, and you mustn’t keep ‘un long. I bean’t going to let you knock yourself up with looking after a beggar-boy.”
A beggar-boy! The idea seemed so ludicrous, that I could not help smiling at it as I regarded him. He had washed his face and combed out his fair curls; though his clothes were threadbare, all but ragged, they were not unclean; and there was a rosy, healthy freshness in his tanned skin, which showed he loved and delighted in what poor folk generally abominate–water. And now the sickness of hunger had gone from his face, the lad, if not actually what our scriptural Saxon terms “well-favoured,” was certainly “well-liking.” A beggar-boy, indeed! I hoped he had not heard Jael’s remark. But he had.
“Madam,” said he, with a bow of perfect good-humour, and even some sly drollery, “you mistake: I never begged in my life: I’m a person of independent property, which consists of my head and my two hands, out of which I hope to realise a large capital some day.”
I laughed. Jael retired, abundantly mystified, and rather cross. John Halifax came to my easy chair, and in an altered tone asked me how I felt, and if he could do anything for me before he went away.
“You’ll not go away; not till my father comes home, at least?” For I had been revolving many plans, which had one sole aim and object, to keep near me this lad, whose companionship and help seemed to me, brotherless, sisterless, and friendless as I was, the very thing that would give me an interest in life, or, at least, make it drag on less wearily. To say that what I projected was done out of charity or pity would not be true; it was simple selfishness, if that be selfishness which makes one leap towards, and cling to, a possible strength and good, which I conclude to be the secret of all those sudden likings that spring more from instinct than reason. I do not attempt to account for mine: I know not why “the soul of Jonathan clave to the soul of David.” I only know that it was so, and that the first day I beheld the lad John Halifax, I, Phineas Fletcher, “loved him as my own soul.”
Thus, my entreaty, “You’ll not go away?” was so earnest, that it apparently touched the friendless boy to the core.
“Thank you,” he said, in an unsteady voice, as leaning against the fire-place he drew his hand backwards and forwards across his face: “you are very kind; I’ll stay an hour or so, if you wish it.”
“Then come and sit down here, and let us have a talk.”
What this talk was, I cannot now recall, save that it ranged over many and wide themes, such as boys delight in–chiefly of life and adventure. He knew nothing of my only world–books.
“Can you read?” he asked me at last, suddenly.
“I should rather think so.” And I could not help smiling, being somewhat proud of my erudition.
“Oh, yes; certainly.”
He thought a minute, and then said, in a low tone, “I can’t write, and I don’t know when I shall be able to learn; I wish you would put down something in a book for me.”
“That I will.”
He took out of his pocket a little case of leather, with an under one of black silk; within this, again, was a book. He would not let it go out of his hands, but held it so that I could see the leaves. It was a Greek Testament.
He pointed to the fly-leaf, and I read:
“Guy Halifax, his Book.
“Guy Halifax, gentleman, married Muriel Joyce, spinster, May 17, in the year of our Lord 1779.
“John Halifax, their son, born June 18, 1780.”
There was one more entry, in a feeble, illiterate female hand: “Guy Halifax, died Jannary 4, 1781.”
“What shall I write, John?” said I, after a minute or so of silence.
“I’ll tell you presently. Can I get you a pen?”
He leaned on my shoulder with his left hand, but his right never once let go of the precious book.
“Write–‘Muriel Halifax, died January 1, 1791.'”
He looked at the writing for a minute or two, dried it carefully by the fire, replaced the book in its two cases, and put it into his pocket. He said no other word but “Thank you,” and I asked him no questions.
This was all I ever heard of the boy’s parentage: nor do I believe he knew more himself. He was indebted to no forefathers for a family history: the chronicle commenced with himself, and was altogether his own making. No romantic antecedents ever turned up: his lineage remained uninvestigated, and his pedigree began and ended with his own honest name–John Halifax.
Jael kept coming in and out of the parlour on divers excuses, eyeing very suspiciously John Halifax and me; especially when she heard me laughing–a rare and notable fact–for mirth was not the fashion in our house, nor the tendency of my own nature. Now this young lad, hardly as the world had knocked him about even already, had an overflowing spirit of quiet drollery and healthy humour, which was to me an inexpressible relief. It gave me something I did not possess– something entirely new. I could not look at the dancing brown eyes, at the quaint dimples of lurking fun that played hide-and-seek under the firm-set mouth, without feeling my heart cheered and delighted, like one brought out of a murky chamber into the open day.
But all this was highly objectionable to Jael.
“Phineas!”–and she planted herself before me at the end of the table–“it’s a fine, sunshiny day: thee ought to be out.”
“I have been out, thank you, Jael.” And John and I went on talking.
“Phineas!”–a second and more determined attack–“too much laughing bean’t good for thee; and it’s time this lad were going about his own business.”
“No–she’s right,” said John Halifax, rising, while that look of premature gravity, learned doubtless out of hard experience, chased all the boyish fun from his face. “I’ve had a merry day–thank you kindly for it! and now I’ll be gone.”
Gone! It was not to be thought of–at least, not till my father came home. For now, more determinedly than ever, the plan which I had just ventured to hint at to my father fixed itself on my mind. Surely he would not refuse me–me, his sickly boy, whose life had in it so little pleasure.
“Why do you want to go? You have no work?”
“No; I wish I had. But I’ll get some.”
“Just by trying everything that comes to hand. That’s the only way. I never wanted bread, nor begged it, yet–though I’ve often been rather hungry. And as for clothes”–he looked down on his own, light and threadbare, here and there almost burst into holes by the stout muscles of the big growing boy–looked rather disconsolately. “I’m afraid SHE would be sorry–that’s all! She always kept me so tidy.”
By the way he spoke, “SHE” must have meant his mother. There the orphan lad had an advantage over me; alas! I did not remember mine.
“Come,” I said, for now I had quite made up my mind to take no denial, and fear no rebuff from my father; “cheer up. Who knows what may turn up?”
“Oh yes, something always does; I’m not afraid!” He tossed back his curls, and looked smiling out through the window at the blue sky; that steady, brave, honest smile, which will meet Fate in every turn, and fairly coax the jade into good humour.
“John, do you know you’re uncommonly like a childish hero of mine– Dick Whittington? Did you ever hear of him?”
“Come into the garden then”–for I caught another ominous vision of Jael in the doorway, and I did not want to vex my good old nurse; besides, unlike John, I was anything but brave. “You’ll hear the Abbey bells chime presently–not unlike Bow bells, I used to fancy sometimes; and we’ll lie on the grass, and I’ll tell you the whole true and particular story of Sir Richard Whittington.”
I lifted myself, and began looking for my crutches. John found and put them into my hand, with a grave, pitiful look.
“You don’t need those sort of things,” I said, making pretence to laugh, for I had not grown used to them, and felt often ashamed.
“I hope you will not need them always.”
“Perhaps not–Dr. Jessop isn’t sure. But it doesn’t matter much; most likely I shan’t live long.” For this was, God forgive me, always the last and greatest comfort I had.
John looked at me–surprised, troubled, compassionate–but he did not say a word. I hobbled past him; he following through the long passage to the garden door. There I paused–tired out. John Halifax took gentle hold of my shoulder.
“I think, if you did not mind, I’m sure I could carry you. I carried a meal-sack once, weighing eight stone.”
I burst out laughing, which maybe was what he wanted, and forthwith consented to assume the place of the meal-sack. He took me on his back—what a strong fellow he was!–and fairly trotted with me down the garden walk. We were both very merry; and though I was his senior I seemed with him, out of my great weakness and infirmity, to feel almost like a child.
“Please to take me to that clematis arbour; it looks over the Avon. Now, how do you like our garden?”
“It’s a nice place.”
He did not go into ecstasies, as I had half expected; but gazed about him observantly, while a quiet, intense satisfaction grew and diffused itself over his whole countenance.
“It’s a VERY nice place.”
Certainly it was. A large square, chiefly grass, level as a bowling-green, with borders round. Beyond, divided by a low hedge, was the kitchen and fruit garden–my father’s pride, as this old-fashioned pleasaunce was mine. When, years ago, I was too weak to walk, I knew, by crawling, every inch of the soft, green, mossy, daisy-patterned carpet, bounded by its broad gravel walk; and above that, apparently shut in as with an impassable barrier from the outer world, by a three-sided fence, the high wall, the yew-hedge, and the river.
John Halifax’s comprehensive gaze seemed to take in all.
“Have you lived here long?” he asked me.
“Ever since I was born.”
“Ah!–well, it’s a nice place,” he repeated, somewhat sadly. “This grass plot is very even–thirty yards square, I should guess. I’d get up and pace it; only I’m rather tired.”
“Are you? Yet you would carry–“
“Oh–that’s nothing. I’ve often walked farther than to-day. But still it’s a good step across the country since morning.”
“How far have you come?”
“From the foot of those hills–I forget what they call them–over there. I have seen bigger ones–but they’re steep enough–bleak and cold, too, especially when one is lying out among the sheep. At a distance they look pleasant. This is a very pretty view.”
Ay, so I had always thought it; more so than ever now, when I had some one to say to how “very pretty” it was. Let me describe it– this first landscape, the sole picture of my boyish days, and vivid as all such pictures are.
At the end of the arbour the wall which enclosed us on the riverward side was cut down–my father had done it at my asking–so as to make a seat, something after the fashion of Queen Mary’s seat at Stirling, of which I had read. Thence, one could see a goodly sweep of country. First, close below, flowed the Avon–Shakspeare’s Avon– here a narrow, sluggish stream, but capable, as we at Norton Bury sometimes knew to our cost, of being roused into fierceness and foam. Now it slipped on quietly enough, contenting itself with turning a flour-mill hard by, the lazy whirr of which made a sleepy, incessant monotone which I was fond of hearing.
From the opposite bank stretched a wide green level, called the Ham– dotted with pasturing cattle of all sorts. Beyond it was a second river, forming an arch of a circle round the verdant flat. But the stream itself lay so low as to be invisible from where we sat; you could only trace the line of its course by the small white sails that glided in and out, oddly enough, from behind clumps of trees, and across meadow lands.
They attracted John’s attention. “Those can’t be boats, surely. Is there water there?”
“To be sure, or you would not see the sails. It is the Severn; though at this distance you can’t perceive it; yet it is deep enough too, as you may see by the boats it carries. You would hardly believe so, to look at it here–but I believe it gets broader and broader, and turns out a noble river by the time it reaches the King’s Roads, and forms the Bristol Channel.”
“I’ve seen that!” cried John, with a bright look. “Ah, I like the Severn.”
He stood gazing at it a good while, a new expression dawning in his eyes. Eyes in which then, for the first time, I watched a thought grow, and grow, till out of them was shining a beauty absolutely divine.
All of a sudden the Abbey chimes burst out, and made the lad start.
“Turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London,” I sang to the bells; and then it seemed such a commonplace history, and such a very low degree of honour to arrive at, that I was really glad I had forgotten to tell John the story. I merely showed him where, beyond our garden wall, and in the invisible high road that interposed, rose up the grim old Abbey tower.
“Probably this garden belonged to the Abbey in ancient time–our orchard is so fine. The monks may have planted it; they liked fruit, those old fellows.”
“Oh! did they!” He evidently did not quite comprehend, but was trying, without asking, to find out what I referred to. I was almost ashamed, lest he might think I wanted to show off my superior knowledge.
“The monks were parsons, John, you know. Very good men, I dare say, but rather idle.”
“Oh, indeed. Do you think they planted that yew hedge?” And he went to examine it.
Now, far and near, our yew-hedge was noted. There was not its like in the whole country. It was about fifteen feet high, and as many thick. Century after century of growth, with careful clipping and training, had compacted it into a massive green barrier, as close and impervious as a wall.
John poked in and about it–peering through every interstice–leaning his breast against the solid depth of branches; but their close shield resisted all his strength.
At last he came back to me, his face glowing with the vain efforts he had made.
“What were you about? Did you want to get through?”
“I wanted just to see if it were possible.”
I shook my head. “What would you do, John, if you were shut up here, and had to get over the yew-hedge? You could not climb it?”
“I know that, and, therefore, should not waste time in trying.”
“Would you give up, then?”
He smiled–there was no “giving up” in that smile of his. “I’ll tell you what I’d do–I’d begin and break it, twig by twig, till I forced my way through, and got out safe at the other side.”
“Well done, lad!–but if it’s all the same to thee, I would rather thee did not try that experiment upon MY hedge at present.”
My father had come behind, and overheard us, unobserved. We were both somewhat confounded, though a grim kindliness of aspect showed that he was not displeased–nay, even amused.
“Is that thy usual fashion of getting over a difficulty, friend– what’s thy name?”
I supplied the answer. The minute Abel Fletcher appeared, John seemed to lose all his boyish fun, and go back to that premature gravity and hardness of demeanour which I supposed his harsh experience of the world and of men had necessarily taught him; but which was very sad to see in a lad so young.
My father sat down beside me on the bench–pushed aside an intrusive branch of clematis–finally, because it would come back and tickle his bald pate, broke it off, and threw it into the river: then, leaning on his stick with both hands, eyed John Halifax sharply, all over, from top to toe.
“Didn’t thee say thee wanted work? It looks rather like it.”
His glance upon the shabby clothes made the boy colour violently.
“Oh, thee need’st not be ashamed; better men than thee have been in rags. Hast thee any money?”
“The groat you gave, that is, paid me; I never take what I don’t earn,” said the lad, sticking a hand in either poor empty pocket.
“Don’t be afraid–I was not going to give thee anything–except, maybe–Would thee like some work?”
I hardly know which was the most grateful cry.
Abel Fletcher looked surprised, but on the whole not ill-pleased. Putting on and pulling down his broad-brimmed hat, he sat meditatively for a minute or so; making circles in the gravel walk with the end of his stick. People said–nay, Jael herself, once, in a passion, had thrown the fact at me–that the wealthy Friend himself had come to Norton Bury without a shilling in his pocket.
“Well, what work canst thee do, lad?”
“Anything,” was the eager answer.
“Anything generally means nothing,” sharply said my father; “what hast thee been at all this year?–The truth, mind!”
John’s eyes flashed, but a look from mine seemed to set him right again. He said quietly and respectfully, “Let me think a minute, and I’ll tell you. All spring I was at a farmer’s, riding the plough-horses, hoeing turnips; then I went up the hills with some sheep: in June I tried hay-making, and caught a fever–you needn’t start, sir, I’ve been well these six weeks, or I wouldn’t have come near your son–then–“
“That will do, lad–I’m satisfied.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Thee need not say ‘sir’–it is folly. I am Abel Fletcher.” For my father retained scrupulously the Friend’s mode of speech, though he was practically but a lax member of the Society, and had married out of its pale. In this announcement of his plain name appeared, I fancy, more pride than humility.
“Very well, I will remember,” answered the boy fearlessly, though with an amused twist of his mouth, speedily restrained. “And now, Abel Fletcher, I shall be willing and thankful for any work you can give me.”
“We’ll see about it.”
I looked gratefully and hopefully at my father–but his next words rather modified my pleasure.
“Phineas, one of my men at the tan-yard has gone and ‘listed this day–left an honest livelihood to be a paid cut-throat. Now, if I could get a lad–one too young to be caught hold of at every pot-house by that man of blood, the recruiting sergeant–Dost thee think this lad is fit to take the place?”
“Whose place, father?”
I was dumb-foundered! I had occasionally seen the said Bill Watkins, whose business it was to collect the skins which my father had bought from the farmers round about. A distinct vision presented itself to me of Bill and his cart, from which dangled the sanguinary exuviae of defunct animals, while in front the said Bill sat enthroned, dirty-clad, and dirty-handed, with his pipe in his mouth. The idea of John Halifax in such a position was not agreeable.
He read deprecation in my looks–alas! he knew too well how I disliked the tan-yard and all belonging to it. “Thee’rt a fool, and the lad’s another. He may go about his business for me.”
“But, father, isn’t there anything else?”
“I have nothing else, or if I had I wouldn’t give it. He that will not work neither shall he eat.”
“I will work,” said John, sturdily–he had listened, scarcely comprehending, to my father and me. “I don’t care what it is, if only it’s honest work.”
Abel Fletcher was mollified. He turned his back on me–but that I little minded–and addressed himself solely to John Halifax.
“Canst thee drive?”
“That I can!” and his eyes brightened with boyish delight.
“Tut! it’s only a cart–the cart with the skins. Dost thee know anything of tanning?”
“No, but I can learn.”
“Hey, not so fast! still, better be fast than slow. In the meantime, thee can drive the cart.”
“Thank you, sir–Abel Fletcher, I mean–I’ll do it well. That is, as well as I can.”
“And mind! no stopping on the road. No drinking, to find the king’s cursed shilling at the bottom of the glass, like poor Bill, for thy mother to come crying and pestering. Thee hasn’t got one, eh? So much the better, all women are born fools, especially mothers.”
“Sir!” The lad’s face was all crimson and quivering; his voice choked; it was with difficulty he smothered down a burst of tears. Perhaps this self-control was more moving than if he had wept–at least, it answered better with my father.
After a few minutes more, during which his stick had made a little grave in the middle of the walk, and buried something there–I think something besides the pebble–Abel Fletcher said, not unkindly:
“Well, I’ll take thee; though it isn’t often I take a lad without a character of some sort–I suppose thee hast none.”
“None,” was the answer, while the straightforward, steady gaze which accompanied it unconsciously contradicted the statement; his own honest face was the lad’s best witness–at all events I thought so.
“‘Tis done then,” said my father, concluding the business more quickly than I had ever before known his cautious temper settle even such a seemingly trifling matter. I say SEEMINGLY. How blindly we talk when we talk of “trifles.”
Carelessly rising, he, from some kindly impulse, or else to mark the closing of the bargain, shook the boy’s hand, and left in it a shilling.
“What is this for?”
“To show I have hired thee as my servant.”
“Servant!” John repeated hastily, and rather proudly. “Oh yes, I understand–well, I will try and serve you well.”
My father did not notice that manly, self-dependent smile. He was too busy calculating how many more of those said shillings would be a fair equivalent for such labour as a lad, ever so much the junior of Bill Watkins, could supply. After some cogitation he hit upon the right sum. I forget how much–be sure it was not over much; for money was scarce enough in this war-time; and besides, there was a belief afloat, so widely that it tainted even my worthy father, that plenty was not good for the working-classes; they required to be kept low.
Having settled the question of wages, which John Halifax did not debate at all, my father left us, but turned back when half-way across the green-turfed square.
“Thee said thee had no money; there’s a week in advance, my son being witness I pay it thee; and I can pay thee a shilling less every Saturday till we get straight.”
“Very well, sir; good afternoon, and thank you.”
John took off his cap as he spoke–Abel Fletcher, involuntarily almost, touched his hat in return of the salutation. Then he walked away, and we had the garden all to ourselves–we, Jonathan and his new-found David.
I did not “fall upon his neck,” like the princely Hebrew, to whom I have likened myself, but whom, alas! I resembled in nothing save my loving. But I grasped his hand, for the first time, and looking up at him, as he stood thoughtfully by me, whispered, “that I was very glad.”
“Thank you–so am I,” said he, in a low tone. Then all his old manner returned; he threw his battered cap high up in the air, and shouted out, “Hurrah!”–a thorough boy.
And I, in my poor, quavering voice, shouted too.
When I was young, and long after then, at intervals, I had the very useless, sometimes harmful, and invariably foolish habit of keeping a diary. To me, at least, it has been less foolish and harmful than to most; and out of it, together with much drawn out of the stores of a memory, made preternaturally vivid by a long introverted life, which, colourless itself, had nothing to do but to reflect and retain clear images of the lives around it–out of these two sources I have compiled the present history.
Therein, necessarily, many blank epochs occur. These I shall not try to fill up, but merely resume the thread of narration as recollection serves.
Thus, after this first day, many days came and went before I again saw John Halifax–almost before I again thought of him. For it was one of my seasons of excessive pain; when I found it difficult to think of anything beyond those four grey-painted walls; where morning, noon, and night slipped wearily away, marked by no changes, save from daylight to candle-light, from candle-light to dawn.
Afterwards, as my pain abated, I began to be haunted by occasional memories of something pleasant that had crossed my dreary life; visions of a brave, bright young face, ready alike to battle with and enjoy the world. I could hear the voice that, speaking to me, was always tender with pity–yet not pity enough to wound: I could see the peculiar smile just creeping round his grave mouth–that irrepressible smile, indicating the atmosphere of thorough heart-cheerfulness, which ripens all the fruits of a noble nature, and without which the very noblest has about it something unwholesome, blank, and cold.
I wondered if John had ever asked for me. At length I put the question.
Jael “thought he had–but wasn’t sure. Didn’t bother her head about such folk.”
“If he asked again, might he come up-stairs?”
I was too weak to combat, and Jael was too strong an adversary; so I lay for days and days in my sick room, often thinking, but never speaking, about the lad. Never once asking for him to come to me; not though it would have been life to me to see his merry face–I longed after him so.
At last I broke the bonds of sickness–which Jael always riveted as long and as tightly as she could–and plunged into the outer world again.
It was one market-day–Jael being absent–that I came down-stairs. A soft, bright, autumn morning, mild as spring, coaxing a wandering robin to come and sing to me, loud as a quire of birds, out of the thinned trees of the Abbey yard. I opened the window to hear him, though all the while in mortal fear of Jael. I listened, but caught no tone of her sharp voice, which usually came painfully from the back regions of the house; it would ill have harmonised with the sweet autumn day and the robin’s song. I sat, idly thinking so, and wondering whether it were a necessary and universal fact that human beings, unlike the year, should become harsh and unlovely as they grow old.
My robin had done singing, and I amused myself with watching a spot of scarlet winding down the rural road, our house being on the verge where Norton Bury melted into “the country.” It turned out to be the cloak of a well-to-do young farmer’s wife riding to market in her cart beside her jolly-looking spouse. Very spruce and self-satisfied she appeared, and the market-people turned to stare after her, for her costume was a novelty then. Doubtless, many thought as I did, how much prettier was scarlet than duffle grey.
Behind the farmer’s cart came another, which at first I scarcely noticed, being engrossed by the ruddy face under the red cloak. The farmer himself nodded good-humouredly, but Mrs. Scarlet-cloak turned up her nose. “Oh, pride, pride!” I thought, amused, and watched the two carts, the second of which was with difficulty passing the farmer’s, on the opposite side of the narrow road. At last it succeeded in getting in advance, to the young woman’s evident annoyance, until the driver, turning, lifted his hat to her with such a merry, frank, pleasant smile.
Surely, I knew that smile, and the well-set head with its light curly hair. Also, alas! I knew the cart with relics of departed sheep dangling out behind. It was our cart of skins, and John Halifax was driving it.
“John! John!” I called out, but he did not hear, for his horse had taken fright at the red cloak, and required a steady hand. Very steady the boy’s hand was, so that the farmer clapped his two great fists, and shouted “Bray-vo!”
But John–my John Halifax–he sat in his cart, and drove. His appearance was much as when I first saw him–shabbier, perhaps, as if through repeated drenchings; this had been a wet autumn, Jael had told me. Poor John!–well might he look gratefully up at the clear blue sky to-day; ay, and the sky never looked down on a brighter, cheerier face, the same face which, whatever rags it surmounted, would, I believe, have ennobled them all.
I leaned out, watching him approach our house; watching him with so great pleasure that I forgot to wonder whether or no he would notice me. He did not at first, being busy over his horse; until, just as the notion flashed across my mind that he was passing by our house– also, how keenly his doing so would pain me–the lad looked up.
A beaming smile of surprise and pleasure, a friendly nod, then all at once his manner changed; he took off his cap, and bowed ceremoniously to his master’s son.
For the moment I was hurt; then I could not but respect the honest pride which thus intimated that he knew his own position, and wished neither to ignore nor to alter it; all advances between us must evidently come from my side. So, having made his salutation, he was driving on, when I called after him,
“Yes, sir. I am so glad you’re better again.”
“Stop one minute till I come out to you.” And I crawled on my crutches to the front door, forgetting everything but the pleasure of meeting him–forgetting even my terror of Jael. What could she say? even though she held nominally the Friends’ doctrine–obeyed in the letter at least, ‘Call no man your master’–what would Jael say if she found me, Phineas Fletcher, talking in front of my father’s respectable mansion with the vagabond lad who drove my father’s cart of skins?
But I braved her, and opened the door. “John, where are you?”
“Here” (he stood at the foot of the steps, with the reins on his arm); “did you want me?”
“Yes. Come up here; never mind the cart.”
But that was not John’s way. He led the refractory horse, settled him comfortably under a tree, and gave him in charge to a small boy. Then he bounded back across the road, and was up the steps to my side in a single leap.
“I had no notion of seeing you. They said you were in bed yesterday.” (Then he HAD been inquiring for me!) “Ought you to be standing at the door this cold day?”
“It’s quite warm,” I said, looking up at the sunshine, and shivering.
“Please go in.”
“If you’ll come too.”
He nodded, then put his arm round mine, and helped me in, as if he had been a big elder brother, and I a little ailing child. Well nursed and carefully guarded as I had always been, it was the first time in my life I ever knew the meaning of that rare thing, tenderness. A quality different from kindliness, affectionateness, or benevolence; a quality which can exist only in strong, deep, and undemonstrative natures, and therefore in its perfection is oftenest found in men. John Halifax had it more than any one, woman or man, that I ever knew.
“I’m glad you’re better,” he said, and said no more. But one look of his expressed as much as half-a-dozen sympathetic sentences of other people.
“And how have you been, John? How do you like the tan-yard? Tell me frankly.”
He pulled a wry face, though comical withal, and said, cheerily, “Everybody must like what brings them their daily bread. It’s a grand thing for me not to have been hungry for nearly thirty days.”
“Poor John!” I put my hand on his wrist–his strong, brawny wrist. Perhaps the contrast involuntarily struck us both with the truth– good for both to learn–that Heaven’s ways are not so unequal as we sometimes fancy they seem.
“I have so often wanted to see you, John. Couldn’t you come in now?”
He shook his head, and pointed to the cart. That minute, through the open hall-door, I perceived Jael sauntering leisurely home from market.
Now, if I was a coward, it was not for myself this time. The avalanche of ill-words I knew must fall–but it should not fall on him, if I could help it.
“Jump up on your cart, John. Let me see how well you can drive. There–good-bye, for the present. Are you going to the tan-yard?”
“Yes–for the rest of the day.” And he made a face as if he did not quite revel in that delightful prospect. No wonder!
“I’ll come and see you there this afternoon.”
“No?”–with a look of delighted surprise. “But you must not–you ought not.”
“But I WILL!” And I laughed to hear myself actually using that phrase. What would Jael have said?
What–as she arrived just in time to receive a half-malicious, half-ceremonious bow from John, as he drove off–what that excellent woman did say I have not the slightest recollection. I only remember that it did not frighten and grieve me as such attacks used to do; that, in her own vernacular, it all “went in at one ear, and out at t’other;” that I persisted in looking out until the last glimmer of the bright curls had disappeared down the sunshiny road–then shut the front door, and crept in, content.
Between that time and dinner I sat quiet enough even to please Jael. I was thinking over the beautiful old Bible story, which latterly had so vividly impressed itself on my mind; thinking of Jonathan, as he walked “by the stone Ezel,” with the shepherd-lad, who was to be king of Israel. I wondered whether he would have loved him, and seen the same future perfection in him, had Jonathan, the king’s son, met the poor David keeping his sheep among the folds of Bethlehem.
When my father came home he found me waiting in my place at table. He only said, “Thee art better then, my son?” But I knew how glad he was to see me. He gave token of this by being remarkably conversible over our meal–though, as usual, his conversation had a sternly moral tone, adapted to the improvement of what he persisted in considering my “infant” mind. It had reference to an anecdote Dr. Jessop had just been telling him–about a little girl, one of our doctor’s patients, who in some passionate struggle had hurt herself very much with a knife.
“Let this be a warning to thee, my son, not to give way to violent passions.” (My good father, thought I, there is little fear.) “For, this child–I remember her father well, for he lived at Kingswell here; he was violent too, and much given to evil ways before he went abroad–Phineas, this child, this miserable child, will bear the mark of the wound all her life.”
“Poor thing!” said I, absently.
“No need to pity her; her spirit is not half broken yet. Thomas Jessop said to me, ‘That little Ursula–‘”
“Is her name Ursula?” And I called to mind the little girl who had tried to give some bread to the hungry John Halifax, and whose cry of pain we heard as the door shut upon her. Poor little lady! how sorry I was. I knew John would be so infinitely sorry too–and all to no purpose–that I determined not to tell him anything about it. The next time I saw Dr. Jessop I asked him after the child, and learned she had been taken away somewhere, I forgot where; and then the whole affair slipped from my memory.
“Father,” said I, when he ceased talking–and Jael, who always ate her dinner at the same time and table as ourselves, but “below the salt,” had ceased nodding a respectful running comment on all he said–“Father?”
“Well, my son.”
“I should like to go with thee to the tan-yard this afternoon.”
Here Jael, who had been busy pulling back the table, replacing the long row of chairs, and re-sanding the broad centre Sahara of the room to its dreary, pristine aridness, stopped, fairly aghast with amazement.
“Abel–Abel Fletcher! the lad’s just out of his bed; he is no more fit to–“
“Pshaw, woman!” was the sharp answer. “So, Phineas, thee art really strong enough to go out?”
“If thou wilt take me, father.”
He looked pleased, as he always did when I used the Friends’ mode of phraseology–for I had not been brought up in the Society; this having been the last request of my mother, rigidly observed by her husband. The more so, people said, as while she lived they had not been quite happy together. But whatever he was to her, in their brief union, he was a good father to me, and for his sake I have always loved and honoured the Society of Friends.
“Phineas,” said he (after having stopped a volley of poor Jael’s indignations, beseechings, threats, and prognostications, by a resolute “Get the lad ready to go”)–“Phineas, my son, I rejoice to see thy mind turning towards business. I trust, should better health be vouchsafed thee, that some day soon–“
“Not just yet, father,” said I, sadly–for I knew what he referred to, and that it would never be. Mentally and physically I alike revolted from my father’s trade. I held the tan-yard in abhorrence– to enter it made me ill for days; sometimes for months and months I never went near it. That I should ever be what was my poor father’s one desire, his assistant and successor in his business, was, I knew, a thing totally impossible.
It hurt me a little that my project of going with him to-day should in any way have deceived him; and rather silently and drearily we set out together; progressing through Norton Bury streets in our old way, my father marching along in his grave fashion, I steering my little carriage, and keeping as close as I could beside him. Many a person looked at us as we passed; almost everybody knew us, but few, even of our own neighbours, saluted us; we were Nonconformists and Quakers.
I had never been in the town since the day I came through it with John Halifax. The season was much later now, but it was quite warm still in the sunshine, and very pleasant looked the streets, even the close, narrow streets of Norton Bury. I beg its pardon; antiquaries hold it a most “interesting and remarkable” place: and I myself have sometimes admired its quaint, overhanging, ornamented house-fronts– blackened, and wonderfully old. But one rarely notices what has been familiar throughout life; and now I was less struck by the beauty of the picturesque old town than by the muddiness of its pathways, and the mingled noises of murmuring looms, scolding women, and squabbling children, that came up from the alleys which lay between the High Street and the Avon. In those alleys were hundreds of our poor folk living, huddled together in misery, rags, and dirt. Was John Halifax living there too?
My father’s tan-yard was in an alley a little further on. Already I perceived the familiar odour; sometimes a not unpleasant barky smell; at other times borne in horrible wafts, as if from a lately forsaken battle-field. I wondered how anybody could endure it–yet some did; and among the workmen, as we entered, I looked round for the lad I knew.
He was sitting in a corner in one of the sheds, helping two or three women to split bark, very busy at work; yet he found time to stop now and then, and administered a wisp of sweet hay to the old blind mare, as she went slowly round and round, turning the bark mill. Nobody seemed to notice him, and he did not speak to anybody.
As we passed John did not even see us. I asked my father, in a whisper, how he liked the boy.
“What boy?–eh, him?–Oh, well enough–there’s no harm in him that I know of. Dost thee want him to wheel thee about the yard? Here, I say, lad–bless me! I’ve forgot thy name.”
John Halifax started up at the sharp tone of command; but when he saw me he smiled. My father walked on to some pits where he told me he was trying an important experiment, how a hide might be tanned completely in five months instead of eight. I stayed behind.
“John, I want you.”
John shook himself free of the bark-heap, and came rather hesitatingly at first.
“Anything I can do for you, sir?”
“Don’t call me ‘sir’; if I say ‘John,’ why don’t you say ‘Phineas’?”
And I held out my hand–his was all grimed with bark-dust.
“Are you not ashamed to shake hands with me?”
So we settled that point entirely. And though he never failed to maintain externally a certain gentle respectfulness of demeanour towards me, yet it was more the natural deference of the younger to the elder, of the strong to the weak, than the duty paid by a serving-lad to his master’s son. And this was how I best liked it to be.
He guided me carefully among the tan-pits–those deep fosses of abomination, with a slender network of pathways thrown between–until we reached the lower end of the yard. It was bounded by the Avon only, and by a great heap of refuse bark.
“This is not a bad place to rest in; if you liked to get out of the carriage I’d make you comfortable here in no time.”
I was quite willing; so he ran off and fetched an old horserug, which he laid upon the soft, dry mass. Then he helped me thither, and covered me with my cloak. Lying thus, with my hat over my eyes, just distinguishing the shiny glimmer of the Avon running below, and beyond that the green, level Ham, dotted with cows, my position was anything but unpleasant. In fact, positively agreeable–ay, even though the tan-yard was close behind; but here it would offend none of my senses.
“Are you comfortable, Phineas?”
“Very, if you would come and sit down too.”
“That I will.”
And we then began to talk. I asked him if he often patronised the bark-heap, he seemed so very much at home there.
“So I am,” he answered, smiling; “it is my castle–my house.”
“And not unpleasant to live at, either.”
“Except when it rains. Does it always rain at Norton Bury?”
“For shame, John!” and I pointed to the bluest of autumn skies, though in the distance an afternoon mist was slowly creeping on.
“All very fine now, but there’s a fog coming over Severn; and it is sure to rain at nightfall. I shall not get my nice little bit of October evening.”
“You must spend it within doors then.” John shook his head. “You ought; it must be dreadfully cold on this bark-heap after sunset.”
“Rather, sometimes. Are you cold now? Shall I fetch–but I haven’t anything fit to wrap you in, except this rug.”
He muffled it closer round me; infinitely light and tender was his rough-looking boy’s hand.
“I never saw anybody so thin as you; thinner much since I saw you. Have you been very, very ill, Phineas? What ailed you?”
His anxiety was so earnest, that I explained to him what I may as well explain here, and dismiss, once for all; the useless topic, that from my birth I had been puny and diseased; that my life had been a succession of sicknesses, and that I could hope for little else until the end.
“But don’t think I mind it; John;” for I was grieved to see his shocked and troubled look. “I am very content; I have a quiet home, a good father, and now I think and believe I have found the one thing I wanted–a good friend.”
He smiled, but only because I did. I saw he did not understand me. In him, as in most strong and self-contained temperaments, was a certain slowness to receive impressions, which, however, being once received, are indelible. Though I, being in so many things his opposite, had none of this peculiarity, but felt at once quickly and keenly, yet I rather liked the contrary in him, as I think we almost always do like in another those peculiarities which are most different from our own. Therefore I was neither vexed nor hurt because the lad was slow to perceive all that he had so soon become, and all that I meant him to become, to me. I knew from every tone of his voice, every chance expression of his honest eyes, that he was one of those characters in which we may be sure that for each feeling they express lies a countless wealth of the same, unexpressed, below; a character the keystone of which was that whereon is built all liking and all love–DEPENDABLENESS. He was one whom you may be long in knowing, but whom the more you know the more you trust; and once trusting, you trust for ever.
Perhaps I may be supposed imaginative, or, at least, premature in discovering all these characteristics in a boy of fourteen; and possibly in thus writing of him I may unwittingly be drawing a little from after-experience; however, being the truth, let it stand.
“Come,” said I, changing the conversation, “we have had enough of me; how goes the world with you? Have you taken kindly to the tan-yard? Answer frankly.”
He looked at me hard, put both his hands in his pockets, and began to whistle a tune.
“Don’t shirk the question, please, John. I want to know the real truth.”
“Well, then, I hate the tan-yard.”
Having relieved his mind by this ebullition, and by kicking a small heap of tan right down into the river, he became composed.
“But, Phineas, don’t imagine I intend to hate it always; I intend to get used to it, as many a better fellow than I has got used to many a worse thing. It’s wicked to hate what wins one’s bread, and is the only thing one is likely to get on in the world with, merely because it’s disagreeable.”
“You are a wise lad of your age, John.”
“Now don’t you be laughing at me.” (But I was not, I was in solemn earnest). “And don’t think I’m worse than I am; and especially that I’m not thankful to your good father for giving me a lift in the world–the first I ever really had. If I get one foot on the ladder, perhaps I may climb.”
“I should rather believe so,” answered I, very confidently. “But you seem to have thought a good deal about these sort of things.”
“Oh, yes! I have plenty of time for thinking, and one’s thoughts travel fast enough lying on this bark-heap–faster than indoors. I often wish I could read–that is, read easily. As it is, I have nothing to do but to think, and nothing to think of but myself, and what I should like to be.”
“Suppose, after Dick Whittington’s fashion, you succeeded to your master’s business, should you like to be a tanner?”
He paused–his truthful face betraying him. Then he said, resolutely, “I would like to be anything that was honest and honourable. It’s a notion of mine, that whatever a man may be, his trade does not make him–he makes his trade. That is–but I know I can’t put the subject clear, for I have not got it clear in my own head yet–I’m only a lad. However, it all comes to this–that whether I like it or not, I’ll stick to the tanning as long as I can.”
“That’s right; I’m so glad. Nevertheless”–and I watched him as he stood, his foot planted firmly, no easy feat on the shifting bark-heap, his head erect, and his mouth close, but smiling– “Nevertheless, John, it’s my opinion that you might be anything you liked.”
He laughed. “Questionable that–at least at present. Whatever I may be, I am just now the lad that drives your father’s cart, and works in your father’s tan-yard–John Halifax, and very much at your service, Mr. Phineas Fletcher.”
Half in fun, half in earnest, he uncovered his fair locks, with a bow so contradictory to the rest of his appearance, that I involuntarily recalled the Greek Testament and “Guy Halifax, Gentleman.” However, that could be no matter to me, or to him either, now. The lad, like many another, owed nothing to his father but his mere existence– Heaven knows whether that gift is oftenest a curse or a boon.
The afternoon had waned during our talk; but I was very loth to part with my friend. Suddenly, I thought of asking where his home was.
“How do you mean?”
“Where do you live? where do you take your meals and sleep?”
“Why, as to that, I have not much time for eating and drinking. Generally I eat my dinner as I go along the road, where there’s lots of blackberries by way of pudding–which is grand! Supper, when I do get it, I like best on this bark-heap, after the men are away, and the tan-yard’s clear. Your father lets me stay.”
“And where is your lodging, then? Where do you sleep?”
He hesitated–coloured a little. “To tell the truth–anywhere I can. Generally, here.”
I was much shocked. To sleep out-of-doors seemed to me the very lowest ebb of human misery: so degrading, too–like a common tramp or vagabond, instead of a decent lad.
“John, how can you–why do you–do such a thing?”
“I’ll tell you,” said he, sitting down beside me in a dogged way, as if he had read my thoughts, guessed at my suspicions, and was determined to show that he feared neither–that he would use his own judgment, and follow his own will, in spite of anybody. “Look here. I get three shillings a week, which is about fivepence a day; out of that I eat threepence–I’m a big, growing lad, and it’s hard to be hungry. There’s twopence left to pay for lodging. I tried it once– twice–at the decentest place I could find, but–” here an expression of intolerable disgust came over the boy’s face–“I don’t intend to try that again. I was never used to it. Better keep my own company and the open air. Now you see.”
“Nay–there’s no need to be sorry. You don’t know how comfortable it is to sleep out of doors; and so nice to wake in the middle of the night and see the stars shining over your head.”
“But isn’t it very cold?”
“No–not often. I scoop out a snug little nest in the bark and curl up in it like a dormouse, wrapped in this rug, which one of the men gave me. Besides, every morning early I take a plunge and a swim in the stream, and that makes me warm all day.”
I shivered–I who feared the touch of cold water. Yet there with all his hardships, he stood before me, the model of healthy boyhood. Alas! I envied him.
But this trying life, which he made so light of, could not go on. “What shall you do when winter comes?”
John looked grave. “I don’t know: I suppose I shall manage somehow- -like the sparrows,” he answered, perceiving not how apposite his illustration was. For truly he seemed as destitute as the birds of the air, whom ONE feedeth, when they cry to Him.
My question had evidently made him thoughtful; he remained silent a good while.
At last I said: “John, do you remember the woman who spoke so sharply to you in the alley that day?”
“Yes. I shall never forget anything which happened that day,” he answered, softly.
“She was my nurse once. She is not such a bad woman, though trouble has sharpened her temper. Her biggest boy Bill, who is gone off for a soldier, used to drive your cart, you know.”
“Yes?” said John, interrogatively; for I was slow in putting forth my plans–that is, as much of them as it was needful he should know.
“Sally is poor–not so very poor, though. Your twopence a night would help her; and I dare say, if you’ll let me speak to her, you might have Bill’s attic all to yourself. She has but one other lad at home: it’s worth trying for.”
“It is indeed. You are very kind, Phineas.” He said no more words than these–but their tone spoke volumes.
I got into my little carriage again, for I was most anxious not to lose a day in this matter. I persuaded John to go at once with me to Sally Watkins. My father was not to be seen; but I ventured to leave word for him that I was gone home, and had taken John Halifax with me: it was astonishing how bold I felt myself growing, now that there was another beside myself to think and act for.
We reached Widow Watkins’ door. It was a poor place–poorer than I had imagined; but I remembered what agonies of cleanliness had been inflicted on me in nursery days; and took hope for John.
Sally sat in her kitchen, tidy and subdued, mending an old jacket that had once been Bill’s, until, being supplanted by the grand red coat, it descended upon Jem, the second lad. But Bill still engrossed the poor mother’s heart–she could do nothing but weep over him, and curse “Bonyparty.” Her mind was so full of this that she apparently failed to recognise in the decent young workman, John Halifax, the half-starved lad she had belaboured with her tongue in the alley. She consented at once to his lodging with her–though she looked up with an odd stare when I said he was “a friend” of mine.
So we settled our business, first all together, then Sally and I alone, while John went up to look at his room. I knew I could trust Sally, whom I was glad enough to help, poor woman! She promised to make him extra-comfortable, and keep my secret too. When John came down she was quite civil to him–even friendly.
She said it would really be a comfort to her, that another fine, strapping lad should sleep in Bill’s bed, and be coming in and out of her house just like her poor dear boy.
I felt rather doubtful of the resemblance, and indeed half-angry, but John only smiled.
“And if, maybe, he’d do a hand’s turn now and then about the kitchen- -I s’pose he bean’t above it?”
“Not a bit!” said John Halifax, pleasantly.
Before we left I wanted to see his room; he carried me up, and we both sat down on the bed that had been poor Bill’s. It was nothing to boast of, being a mere sacking stuffed with hay–a blanket below, and another at top; I had to beg from Jael the only pair of sheets John owned for a long time. The attic was very low and small, hardly big enough “to whip a cat round,” or even a kitten–yet John gazed about it with an air of proud possession.
“I declare I shall be as happy as a king. Only look out of the window!”
Ay, the window was the grand advantage; out of it one could crawl on to the roof, and from the roof was the finest view in all Norton Bury. On one side, the town, the Abbey, and beyond it a wide stretch of meadow and woodland as far as you could see; on the other, the broad Ham, the glittering curve of Severn, and the distant country, sloping up into “the blue bills far away.” A picture, which in its incessant variety, its quiet beauty, and its inexpressibly soothing charm, was likely to make the simple, everyday act of “looking out o’ window,” unconsciously influence the mind as much as a world of books.
“Do you like your ‘castle,’ John?” said I, when I had silently watched his beaming face; “will it suit you?”
“I rather think it will!” be cried in hearty delight. And my heart likewise was very glad.
Dear little attic room! close against the sky–so close, that many a time the rain came pattering in, or the sun beating down upon the roof made it like a furnace, or the snow on the leads drifted so high as to obscure the window–yet how merry, how happy, we have been there! How often have we both looked back upon it in after days!
Winter came early and sudden that year.
It was to me a long, dreary season, worse even than my winters inevitably were. I never stirred from my room, and never saw anybody but my father, Dr. Jessop, and Jael. At last I took courage to say to the former that I wished he would send John Halifax up some day.
“What does thee want the lad for?”
“Only to see him.”
“Pshaw! a lad out o’ the tan-yard is not fit company for thee. Let him alone; he’ll do well enough if thee doesn’t try to lift him out of his place.”
Lift John Halifax out of his “place”! I agreed with my father that that was impossible; but then we evidently differed widely in our definition of what the “place” might be. So, afraid of doing him harm, and feeling how much his future depended on his favour with his master, I did not discuss the matter. Only at every possible opportunity–and they were rare–I managed to send John a little note, written carefully in printed letters, for I knew he could read that; also a book or two, out of which he might teach himself a little more.
Then I waited, eagerly but patiently, until spring came, when, without making any more fruitless efforts, I should be sure to see him. I knew enough of himself, and was too jealous over his dignity, to wish either to force him by entreaties, or bring him by stratagem, into a house where he was not welcome, even though it were the house of my own father.
One February day, when the frost had at last broken up, and soft, plentiful rain had half melted the great snow-drifts, which, Jael told me, lay about the country everywhere, I thought I would just put my head out of doors, to see how long the blessed spring would be in coming. So I crawled down into the parlour, and out of the parlour into the garden; Jael scolding, my father roughly encouraging. My poor father! he always had the belief that people need not be ill unless they chose, and that I could do a great deal if I would.
I felt very strong to-day. It was delicious to see again the green grass, which had been hidden for weeks; delicious to walk up and down in the sunshine, under the shelter of the yew hedge. I amused myself by watching a pale line of snowdrops which had come up one by one, like prisoners of war to their execution.
But the next minute I felt ashamed of the heartless simile, for it reminded me of poor Bill Watkins, who, taken after the battle of Mentz, last December, had been shot by the French as a spy. Poor, rosy, burly Bill! better had he still been ingloriously driving our cart of skins.
“Have you been to see Sally lately?” said I, to Jael, who was cutting winter cabbages hard by; “is she getting over her trouble?”
“She bean’t rich, to afford fretting. There’s Jem and three little ‘uns yet to feed, to say nought of another big lad as lives there, and eats a deal more than he pays, I’m sure.”
I took the insinuation quietly, for I knew that my father had lately raised John’s wages, and he his rent to Sally. This, together with a few other facts which lay between Sally and me, made me quite easy in the mind as to his being no burthen, but rather a help to the widow– so I let Jael have her say; it did no harm to me nor anybody.
“What bold little things snowdrops are–stop, Jael, you are setting your foot on them.”
But I was too late; she had crushed them under the high-heeled shoe. She was even near pulling me down, as she stepped back in great hurry and consternation.
“Look at that young gentleman coming down the garden; and here I be in my dirty gown, and my apron full o’ cabbages.”
And she dropped the vegetables all over the path as the “gentleman” came towards us.
I smiled–for, in spite of his transformation, I, at least, had no difficulty in recognising John Halifax.
He had on new clothes–let me give the credit due to that wonderful civiliser, the tailor–clothes neat, decent, and plain, such as any ‘prentice lad might wear. They fitted well his figure, which had increased both in height, compactness, and grace. Round his neck was a coarse but white shirt frill; and over it fell, carefully arranged, the bright curls of his bonny hair. Easily might Jael or any one else have “mistaken” him, as she cuttingly said, for a young gentleman.
She looked very indignant, though, when she found out the aforesaid “mistake.”
“What may be thy business here?” she said, roughly.
“Abel Fletcher sent me on a message.”
“Out with it then–don’t be stopping with Phineas here. Thee bean’t company for him, and his father don’t choose it.”
“Jael!” I cried, indignantly. John never spoke, but his cheek burnt furiously.
I took his hand, and told him how glad I was to see him–but, for a minute, I doubt if he heard me.
“Abel Fletcher sent me here,” he repeated, in a well-controlled voice, “that I might go out with Phineas; if HE objects to my company, it’s easy to say so.”
And he turned to me. I think he must have been satisfied then.
Jael retired discomfited, and in her wrath again dropped half of her cabbages. John picked them up and restored them; but got for thanks only a parting thrust.
“Thee art mighty civil in thy new clothes. Be off, and be back again sharp; and, I say, don’t thee be leaving the cart o’ skins again under the parlour windows.”
“I don’t drive the cart now,” was all he replied.
“Not drive the cart?” I asked, eagerly, when Jael had disappeared, for I was afraid some ill chance had happened.
“Only, that this winter I’ve managed to teach myself to read and add up, out of your books, you know; and your father found it out, and he says I shall go round collecting money instead of skins, and it’s much better wages, and–I like it better–that’s all.”
But, little as he said, his whole face beamed with pride and pleasure. It was, in truth, a great step forward.
“He must trust you very much, John,” said I, at last, knowing how exceedingly particular my father was in his collectors.
“That’s it–that’s what pleases me so. He is very good to me, Phineas, and he gave me a special holiday, that I might go out with you. Isn’t that grand?”
“Grand, indeed. What fun we’ll have! I almost think I could take a walk myself.”
For the lad’s company invariably gave me new life, and strength, and hope. The very sight of him was as good as the coming of spring.
“Where shall we go?” said he, when we were fairly off, and he was guiding my carriage down Norton Bury streets.
“I think to the Mythe.” The Mythe was a little hill on the outskirts of the town, breezy and fresh, where Squire Brithwood had built himself a fine house ten years ago.
“Ay, that will do; and as we go, you will see the floods out–a wonderful sight, isn’t it? The river is rising still, I hear; at the tan-yard they are busy making a dam against it. How high are the floods here, generally, Phineas?”
“I’m sure I can’t remember. But don’t look so serious. Let us enjoy ourselves.”
And I did enjoy, intensely, that pleasant stroll. The mere sunshine was delicious; delicious, too, to pause on the bridge at the other end of the town, and feel the breeze brought in by the rising waters, and hear the loud sound of them, as they poured in a cataract over the flood-gates hard by.
“Your lazy, muddy Avon looks splendid now. What masses of white foam it makes, and what wreaths of spray; and see! ever so much of the Ham is under water. How it sparkles in the sun.”
“John, you like looking at anything pretty.”
“Ah! don’t I!” cried he, with his whole heart. My heart leaped too, to see him so happy.
“You can’t think how fine this is from my window; I have watched it for a week. Every morning the water seems to have made itself a fresh channel. Look at that one, by the willow-tree–how savagely it pours!”
“Oh, we at Norton Bury are used to floods.”
“Are they ever very serious?”
“Have been–but not in my time. Now, John, tell me what you have been doing all winter.”
It was a brief and simple chronicle–of hard work, all day over, and from the Monday to the Saturday–too hard work to do anything of nights, save to drop into the sound, dreamless sleep of youth and labour.
“But how did you teach yourself to read and add up, then?”
“Generally at odd minutes going along the road. It’s astonishing what a lot of odd minutes one can catch during the day, if one really sets about it. And then I had Sunday afternoons besides. I did not think it wrong–“
“No,” said I; decisively. “What books have you got through?”
“All you sent–Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and the Arabian Nights. That’s fine, isn’t it?” and his eyes sparkled.
“Also the one you gave me at Christmas. I have read it a good deal.”
I liked the tone of quiet reverence in which he spoke. I liked to hear him own, nor be ashamed to own–that he read “a good deal” in that rare book for a boy to read–the Bible.
But on this subject I did not ask him any more questions; indeed, it seemed to me, and seems still, that no more were needed.
“And you can read quite easily now, John?”
“Pretty well, considering.” Then, turning suddenly to me: “You read a great deal, don’t you? I overheard your father say you were very clever. How much do you know?”
“Oh–nonsense!” But he pressed me, and I told him. The list was short enough; I almost wished it were shorter when I saw John’s face.
“For me–I can only just read, and I shall be fifteen directly!”
The accent of shame, despondency, even despair, went to my very heart.
“Don’t mind,” I said, laying my feeble, useless hand upon that which guided me on so steady and so strong; “how could you have had time, working as hard as you do?”
“But I ought to learn; I must learn.”
“You shall. It’s little I can teach; but, if you like, I’ll teach you all I know.”
“O Phineas!” One flash of those bright, moist eyes, and he walked hastily across the road. Thence he came back, in a minute or two, armed with the tallest, straightest of briar-rose shoots.
“You like a rose-switch, don’t you? I do. Nay, stop till I’ve cut off the thorns.” And he walked on beside me, working at it with his knife, in silence.
I was silent, too, but I stole a glance at his mouth, as seen in profile. I could almost always guess at his thoughts by that mouth, so flexible, sensitive, and, at times, so infinitely sweet. It wore that expression now. I was satisfied, for I knew the lad was happy.
We reached the Mythe. “David,” I said (I had got into a habit of calling him “David;” and now he had read a certain history in that Book I supposed he had guessed why, for he liked the name), “I don’t think I can go any further up the hill.”
“Oh! but you shall! I’ll push behind; and when we come to the stile I’ll carry you. It’s lovely on the top of the Mythe–look at the sunset. You cannot have seen a sunset for ever so long.”
No–that was true. I let John do as he would with me–he who brought into my pale life the only brightness it had ever known.
Ere long we stood on the top of the steep mound. I know not if it be a natural hill, or one of those old Roman or British remains, plentiful enough hereabouts, but it was always called the Mythe. Close below it, at the foot of a precipitous slope, ran the Severn, there broad and deep enough, gradually growing broader and deeper as it flowed on, through a wide plain of level country, towards the line of hills that bounded the horizon. Severn looked beautiful here; neither grand nor striking, but certainly beautiful; a calm, gracious, generous river, bearing strength in its tide and plenty in its bosom, rolling on through the land slowly and surely, like a good man’s life, and fertilising wherever it flows.
“Do you like Severn still, John?”
“I love it.”
I wondered if his thoughts had been anything like mine.
“What is that?” he cried, suddenly, pointing to a new sight, which even I had not often seen on our river. It was a mass of water, three or four feet high, which came surging along the midstream, upright as a wall.
“It is the eger; I’ve often seen it on Severn, where the swift seaward current meets the spring-tide. Look what a crest of foam it has, like a wild boar’s mane. We often call it the river-boar.”
“But it is only a big wave.”
“Big enough to swamp a boat, though.”
And while I spoke I saw, to my horror, that there actually was a boat, with two men in it, trying to get out of the way of the eger.