John Halifax, Gentleman
Dinah Maria Mulock (Mrs. Craik)
Part 2 out of 12
"They never can! they'll assuredly be drowned! O John!"
But he had already slipped from my side and swung himself by
furze-bushes and grass down the steep slope to the water's edge.
It was a breathless moment. The eger travelled slowly in its
passage, changing the smooth, sparkling river to a whirl of
conflicting currents, in which no boat could live--least of all that
light pleasure-boat, with its toppling sail. In it was a youth I
knew by sight, Mr. Brithwood of the Mythe House, and another
They both pulled hard--they got out of the mid-stream, but not close
enough to land; and already there was but two oars' length between
them and the "boar."
"Swim for it!" I heard one cry to the other: but swimming would not
have saved them.
"Hold there!" shouted John at the top of his voice; "throw that rope
out and I will pull you in!"
It was a hard tug: I shuddered to see him wade knee-deep in the
stream--but he succeeded. Both gentlemen leaped safe on shore. The
younger tried desperately to save his boat, but it was too late.
Already the "water-boar" had clutched it--the rope broke like a
gossamer-thread--the trim, white sail was dragged down--rose up once,
broken and torn, like a butterfly caught in a mill-stream--then
"So it's all over with her, poor thing!"
"Who cares?--We might have lost our lives," sharply said the other,
an older and sickly-looking gentleman, dressed in mourning, to whom
life did not seem a particularly pleasant thing, though he appeared
to value it so highly.
They both scrambled up the Mythe, without noticing John Halifax:
then the elder turned.
"But who pulled us ashore? Was it you, my young friend?"
John Halifax, emptying his soaked boots, answered, "I suppose so."
"Indeed, we owe you much."
"Not more than a crown will pay," said young Brithwood, gruffly; "I
know him, Cousin March. He works in Fletcher the Quaker's tan-yard."
"Nonsense!" cried Mr. March, who had stood looking at the boy with a
kindly, even half-sad air. "Impossible! Young man, will you tell me
to whom I am so much obliged?"
"My name is John Halifax."
"Yes; but WHAT are you?"
"What he said. Mr. Brithwood knows me well enough: I work in the
"Oh!" Mr. March turned away with a resumption of dignity, though
evidently both surprised and disappointed. Young Brithwood laughed.
"I told you so, cousin. Hey, lad!" eyeing John over, "you've been
out at grass, and changed your coat for the better: but you're
certainly the same lad that my curricle nearly ran over one day; you
were driving a cart of skins--pah! I remember."
"So do I," said John, fiercely; but when the youth's insolent
laughter broke out again he controlled himself. The laughter ceased.
"Well, you've done me a good turn for an ill one, young--
what's-your-name, so here's a guinea for you." He threw it towards
him; it fell on the ground, and lay there.
"Nay, nay, Richard," expostulated the sickly gentleman, who, after
all, WAS a gentleman. He stood apparently struggling with
conflicting intentions, and not very easy in his mind. "My good
fellow," he said at last, in a constrained voice, "I won't forget
your bravery. If I could do anything for you--and meanwhile if a
trifle like this"--and he slipped something into John's hand.
John returned it with a bow, merely saying "that he would rather not
take any money."
The gentleman looked very much astonished. There was a little more
of persistence on one side and resistance on the other; and then Mr.
March put the guineas irresolutely back into his pocket, looking the
while lingeringly at the boy--at his tall figure, and flushed, proud
"How old are you?"
"Ah!" it was almost a sigh. He turned away, and turned back again.
"My name is March--Henry March; if you should ever--"
"Thank you, sir. Good-day."
"Good-day." I fancied he was half inclined to shake hands--but John
did not, or would not, see it. Mr. March walked on, following young
Brithwood; but at the stile he turned round once more and glanced at
John. Then they disappeared.
"I'm glad they're gone: now we can be comfortable." He flung
himself down, wrung out his wet stockings, laughed at me for being so
afraid he would take cold, and so angry at young Brithwood's insults.
I sat wrapped in my cloak, and watched him making idle circles in the
sandy path with the rose-switch he had cut.
A thought struck me. "John, hand me the stick and I'll give you your
first writing lesson."
So there, on the smooth gravel, and with the rose-stem for a pen, I
taught him how to form the letters of the alphabet and join them
together. He learned them very quickly--so quickly, that in a little
while the simple copy-book that Mother Earth obliged us with was
covered in all directions with "J O H N--John."
"Bravo!" he cried, as we turned homeward, he flourishing his gigantic
pen, which had done such good service; "bravo! I have gained
Crossing the bridge over the Avon, we stood once more to look at the
waters that were "out." They had risen considerably, even in that
short time, and were now pouring in several new channels, one of
which was alongside of the high road; we stopped a good while
watching it. The current was harmless enough, merely flooding a part
of the Ham; but it awed us to see the fierce power of waters let
loose. An old willow-tree, about whose roots I had often watched the
king-cups growing, was now in the centre of a stream as broad as the
Avon by our tan-yard, and thrice as rapid. The torrent rushed round
it--impatient of the divisions its great roots caused--eager to
undermine and tear it up. Inevitably, if the flood did not abate,
within a few hours more there would be nothing left of the fine old
"I don't quite like this," said John, meditatively, as his quick eye
swept down the course of the river, with the houses and wharves that
abutted on it, all along one bank. "Did you ever see the waters thus
"Yes, I believe I have; nobody minds it at Norton Bury; it is only
the sudden thaw, my father says, and he ought to know, for he has had
plenty of experience, the tan-yard being so close to the river."
"I was thinking of that; but come, it's getting cold."
He took me safe home, and we parted cordially--nay, affectionately--
at my own door.
"When will you come again, David?"
"When your father sends me."
And I felt that HE felt that our intercourse was always to be limited
to this. Nothing clandestine, nothing obtrusive, was possible, even
for friendship's sake, to John Halifax.
My father came in late that evening; he looked tired and uneasy, and
instead of going to bed, though it was after nine o'clock, sat down
to his pipe in the chimney-corner.
"Is the river rising still, father? Will it do any harm to the
"What dost thee know about the tan-yard!"
"Only John Halifax was saying--"
"John Halifax had better hold his tongue."
I held mine.
My father puffed away in silence till I came to bid him good-night.
I think the sound of my crutches on the floor stirred him out of a
long meditation, in which his ill-humour had ebbed away.
"Where didst thee go out to-day, Phineas?--thee and the lad I sent."
"To the Mythe:" and I told him the incident that had happened there.
He listened without reply.
"Wasn't it a brave thing to do, father?"
"Um!"--and a few meditative puffs. "Phineas, the lad thee hast such
a hankering after is a good lad--a very decent lad--if thee doesn't
make too much of him. Remember; he is but my servant; thee'rt my
son--my only son."
Alas! my poor father, it was hard enough for him to have such an
"only son" as I.
In the middle of the night--or else to me, lying awake, it seemed so-
-there was a knocking at our hall door. I slept on the ground flat,
in a little room opposite the parlour. Ere I could well collect my
thoughts, I saw my father pass, fully dressed, with a light in his
hand. And, man of peace though he was, I was very sure I saw in the
other--something which always lay near his strong box, at his bed's
head at night. Because ten years ago a large sum had been stolen
from him, and the burglar had gone free of punishment. The law
refused to receive Abel Fletcher's testimony--he was "only a Quaker."
The knocking grew louder, as if the person had no time to hesitate at
making a noise. "Who's there?" called out my father; and at the
answer he opened the front door, first shutting mine.
A minute afterwards I heard some one in my room. "Phineas, are you
here?--don't be frightened."
I was not--as soon as his voice reached me, John's own familiar
voice. "It's something about the tan-yard?"
"Yes; the waters are rising, and I have come to fetch your father; he
may save a good deal yet. I am ready, sir"--in answer to a loud
call. "Now, Phineas, lie you down again, the night's bitter cold.
Don't stir--you'll promise?--I'll see after your father."
They went out of the house together, and did not return the whole
That night, February 5, 1795, was one long remembered at Norton Bury.
Bridges were destroyed--boats carried away--houses inundated, or
sapped at their foundations. The loss of life was small, but that of
property was very great. Six hours did the work of ruin, and then
the flood began to turn.
It was a long waiting until they came home--my father and John. At
daybreak I saw them standing on the doorstep. A blessed sight!
"O father! my dear father!" and I drew him in, holding fast his
hands--faster and closer than I had done since I was a child. He did
not repel me.
"Thee'rt up early, and it's a cold morning for thee, my son. Go back
to the fire."
His voice was gentle; his ruddy countenance pale; two strange things
in Abel Fletcher.
"Father, tell me what has befallen thee?"
"Nothing, my son, save that the Giver of all worldly goods has seen
fit to take back a portion of mine. I, like many another in this
town, am poorer by some thousands than I went to bed last night."
He sat down. I knew he loved his money, for it had been hardly
earned. I had not thought he would have borne its loss so quietly.
"Father, never mind; it might have been worse."
"Of a surety. I should have lost everything I had in the world--save
for--Where is the lad? What art thee standing outside for? Come in,
John, and shut the door."
John obeyed, though without advancing. He was cold and wet. I
wanted him to sit down by the fireside.
"Ay! do, lad," said my father, kindly.
I stood between the two--afraid to ask what they had undergone; but
sure, from the old man's grave face, and the lad's bright one--
flushed all over with that excitement of danger so delicious to the
young--that the peril had not been small.
"Jael," cried my father, rousing himself, "give us some breakfast;
the lad and me--we have had a hard night's work together."
Jael brought the mug of ale and the bread and cheese; but either did
not or could not notice that the meal had been ordered for more than
"Another plate," said my father, sharply.
"The lad can go into the kitchen, Abel Fletcher: his breakfast is
My father winced--even her master was sometimes rather afraid of
Jael. But conscience or his will conquered.
"Woman, do as I desired. Bring another plate, and another mug of
And so, to Jael's great wrath, and to my great joy, John Halifax was
bidden, and sat down to the same board as his master. The fact made
an ineffaceable impression on our household.
After breakfast, as we sat by the fire, in the pale haze of that
February morning, my father, contrary to his wont, explained to me
all his losses; and how, but for the timely warning he had received,
the flood might have nearly ruined him.
"So it was well John came," I said, half afraid to say more.
"Ay, and the lad has been useful, too: it is an old head on young
John looked very proud of this praise, though it was grimly given.
But directly after it some ill or suspicious thought seemed to come
into Abel Fletcher's mind.
"Lad," suddenly turning round on John Halifax, "thee told me thee saw
the river rising by the light of the moon. What wast THEE doing
then, out o' thy honest bed and thy quiet sleep, at eleven o'clock at
John coloured violently; the quick young blood was always ready
enough to rise in his face. It spoke ill for him with my father.
"Answer. I will not be hard upon thee--to-night, at least."
"As you like, Abel Fletcher," answered the boy, sturdily. "I was
doing no harm. I was in the tan-yard."
"Thy business there?"
"None at all. I was with the men--they were watching, and had a
candle; and I wanted to sit up, and had no light."
"What didst thee want to sit up for?" pursued my father, keen and
sharp as a ferret at a field-rat's hole, or a barrister hunting a
witness in those courts of law that were never used by, though often
used against, us Quakers.
John hesitated, and again his painful, falsely-accusing blushes tried
him sore. "Sir, I'll tell you; it's no disgrace. Though I'm such a
big fellow I can't write; and your son was good enough to try and
teach me. I was afraid of forgetting the letters; so I tried to make
them all over again, with a bit of chalk, on the bark-shed wall. It
did nobody any harm that I know of."
The boy's tone, even though it was rather quick and angry, won no
reproof. At last my father said gently enough--
"Is that all, lad?"
Again Abel Fletcher fell into a brown study. We two lads talked
softly to each other--afraid to interrupt. He smoked through a whole
pipe--his great and almost his only luxury, and then again called
"It's time thee went away to thy work."
"I'm going this minute. Good-bye, Phineas. Good day, sir. Is there
anything you want done?"
He stood before his master, cap in hand, with an honest manliness
pleasant to see. Any master might have been proud of such a servant-
-any father of such a son. My poor father--no, he did not once look
from John Halifax to me. He would not have owned for the world that
half-smothered sigh, or murmured because Heaven had kept back from
him--as, Heaven knows why, it often does from us all!--the one desire
of the heart.
"John Halifax, thee hast been of great service to me this night.
What reward shall I give thee?"
And instinctively his hand dived down into his pocket. John turned
"Thank you--I'd rather not. It is quite enough reward that I have
been useful to my master, and that he acknowledges it."
My father thought a minute, and then offered his hand. "Thee'rt in
the right, lad. I am very much obliged to thee, and I will not
And John--blushing brightly once more--went away, looking as proud as
an emperor, and as happy as a poor man with a bag of gold.
"Is there nothing thou canst think of, Phineas, that would pleasure
the lad?" said my father, after we had been talking some time--though
not about John.
I had thought of something--something I had long desired, but which
seemed then all but an impossibility. Even now it was with some
doubt and hesitation that I made the suggestion that he should spend
every Sunday at our house.
"Nonsense!--thee know'st nought of Norton Bury lads. He would not
care. He had rather lounge about all First-day at street corners
with his acquaintance."
"John has none, father. He knows nobody--cares for nobody--but me.
Do let him come."
"We'll see about it."
My father never broke or retracted his word. So after that John
Halifax came to us every Sunday; and for one day of the week, at
least, was received in his master's household as our equal and my
Summers and winters slipped by lazily enough, as the years seemed
always to crawl round at Norton Bury. How things went in the outside
world I little knew or cared. My father lived his life, mechanical
and steady as clock-work, and we two, John Halifax and Phineas
Fletcher, lived our lives--the one so active and busy, the other so
useless and dull. Neither of us counted the days, nor looked
backwards or forwards.
One June morning I woke to the consciousness that I was twenty years
old, and that John Halifax was--a man: the difference between us
being precisely as I have expressed it.
Our birthdays fell within a week of each other, and it was in
remembering his--the one which advanced him to the dignity of
eighteen--that I called to mind my own. I say, "advanced him to the
dignity"--but in truth that is an idle speech; for any dignity which
the maturity of eighteen may be supposed to confer he had already in
possession. Manhood had come to him, both in character and
demeanour, not as it comes to most young lads, an eagerly-desired and
presumptuously-asserted claim, but as a rightful inheritance, to be
received humbly, and worn simply and naturally. So naturally, that I
never seemed to think of him as anything but a boy, until this one
June Sunday, when, as before stated, I myself became twenty years
I was talking over that last fact, in a rather dreamy mood, as he and
I sat in our long-familiar summer seat, the clematis arbour by the
"It seems very strange, John, but so it is--I am actually twenty."
"Well, and what of that?"
I sat looking down into the river, which flowed on, as my years were
flowing, monotonous, dark, and slow,--as they must flow on for ever.
John asked me what I was thinking of.
"Of myself: what a fine specimen of the noble genus homo I am."
I spoke bitterly, but John knew how to meet that mood. Very patient
he was with it and with every ill mood of mine. And I was grateful,
with that deep gratitude we feel to those who bear with us, and
forgive us, and laugh at us, and correct us,--all alike for love.
"Self-investigation is good on birthdays. Phineas, here goes for a
catalogue of your qualities, internal and external."
"John, don't be foolish."
"I will, if I like; though perhaps not quite so foolish as some other
people; so listen:--'Imprimis,' as saith Shakspeare--Imprimis,
height, full five feet four; a stature historically appertaining to
great men, including Alexander of Macedon and the First Consul."
"Oh, oh!" said I, reproachfully; for this was our chief bone of
contention--I hating, he rather admiring, the great ogre of the day,
"Imprimis, of a slight, delicate person, but not lame as once was."
"No, thank God!"
"Very--a mere skeleton!"
"Face elongated and pale-"
"Sallow, John, decidedly sallow."
"Be it so, sallow. Big eyes, much given to observation, which means
hard staring. Take them off me, Phineas, or I'll not lie on the
grass a minute longer. Thank you. To return: Imprimis and finis
(I'm grand at Latin now, you see)--long hair, which, since the powder
tax, has resumed its original blackness, and is--any young damsel
would say, only we count not a single one among our acquaintance--
I smiled, feeling myself colour a little too, weak invalid as I was.
I was, nevertheless, twenty years old; and although Jael and Sally
were the only specimens of the other sex which had risen on my
horizon, yet once or twice, since I had read Shakspeare, I had had a
boy's lovely dreams of the divinity of womanhood. They began, and
ended--mere dreams. Soon dawned the bare, hard truth, that my
character was too feeble and womanish to be likely to win any woman's
reverence or love. Or, even had this been possible, one sickly as I
was, stricken with hereditary disease, ought never to seek to
perpetuate it by marriage. I therefore put from me, at once and for
ever, every feeling of that kind; and during my whole life--I thank
God!--have never faltered in my resolution. Friendship was given me
for love--duty for happiness. So best, and I was satisfied.
This conviction, and the struggle succeeding it--for, though brief,
it was but natural that it should have been a hard struggle--was the
only secret that I had kept from John. It had happened some months
now, and was quite over and gone, so that I could smile at his fun,
and shake at him my "bewitching" black locks, calling him a foolish
boy. And while I said it, the notion slowly dawning during the long
gaze he had complained of, forced itself upon me, clear as daylight,
that he was not a "boy" any longer.
"Now let me turn the tables. How old are YOU, John?"
"You know. Eighteen next week."
"And how tall?"
"Five feet eleven inches and a half." And, rising, he exhibited to
its full advantage that very creditable altitude, more tall perhaps
than graceful, at present; since, like most youths, he did not as yet
quite know what to do with his legs and arms. But he was--
I cannot describe what he was. I could not then. I only remember
that when I looked at him, and began jocularly "Imprimis," my heart
came up into my throat and choked me.
It was almost with sadness that I said, "Ah! David, you are quite a
young man now."
He smiled, of course only with pleasure, looking forward to the new
world into which he was going forth; the world into which, as I knew
well, I could never follow him.
"I am glad I look rather old for my years," said he, when, after a
pause, he had again flung himself down on the grass. "It tells well
in the tan-yard. People would be slow to trust a clerk who looked a
mere boy. Still, your father trusts me."
"He does, indeed. You need never have any doubt of that. It was
only yesterday he said to me that now he was no longer dissatisfied
with your working at all sorts of studies, in leisure hours, since it
made you none the worse man of business."
"No, I hope not, or I should be much ashamed. It would not be doing
my duty to myself any more than to my master, if I shirked his work
for my own. I am glad he does not complain now, Phineas."
"On the contrary; I think he intends to give you a rise this
Midsummer. But oh!" I cried, recurring to a thought which would
often come when I looked at the lad, though he always combated it so
strongly, that I often owned my prejudices were unjust: "how I wish
you were something better than a clerk in a tan-yard. I have a plan,
But what that plan was, was fated to remain unrevealed. Jael came to
us in the garden, looking very serious. She had been summoned, I
knew, to a long conference with her master the day before--the
subject of which she would not tell me, though she acknowledged it
concerned myself. Ever since she had followed me about, very softly,
for her, and called me more than once, as when I was a child, "my
dear." She now came with half-dolorous, half-angry looks, to summon
me to an interview with my father and Doctor Jessop.
I caught her parting mutterings, as she marched behind me: "Kill or
cure, indeed,"--"No more fit than a baby,"--"Abel Fletcher be clean
mad,"--"Hope Thomas Jessop will speak out plain, and tell him so,"
and the like. From these, and from her strange fit of tenderness, I
guessed what was looming in the distance--a future which my father
constantly held in terrorem over me, though successive illness had
kept it in abeyance. Alas! I knew that my poor father's hopes and
plans were vain! I went into his presence with a heavy heart.
There is no need to detail that interview. Enough, that after it he
set aside for ever his last lingering hope of having a son able to
assist, and finally succeed him in his business, and that I set aside
every dream of growing up to be a help and comfort to my father. It
cost something on both our parts; but after that day's discussion we
tacitly covered over the pain, and referred to it no more.
I came back into the garden, and told John Halifax all. He listened
with his hand on my shoulder, and his grave, sweet look--dearer
sympathy than any words! Though he added thereto a few, in his own
wise way; then he and I, also, drew the curtain over an inevitable
grief, and laid it in the peaceful chamber of silence.
When my father, Dr. Jessop, John Halifax, and I, met at dinner, the
subject had passed into seeming oblivion, and was never afterwards
But dinner being over, and the chatty little doctor gone, while Abel
Fletcher sat mutely smoking his pipe, and we two at the window
maintained that respectful and decorous silence which in my young
days was rigidly exacted by elders and superiors, I noticed my
father's eyes frequently resting, with keen observance, upon John
Halifax. Could it be that there had recurred to him a hint of mine,
given faintly that morning, as faintly as if it had only just entered
my mind, instead of having for months continually dwelt there, until
a fitting moment should arrive?--Could it be that this hint, which he
had indignantly scouted at the time, was germinating in his acute
brain, and might bear fruit in future days? I hoped so--I earnestly
prayed so. And to that end I took no notice, but let it silently
The June evening came and went. The service-bell rang out and
ceased. First, deep shadows, and then a bright star, appeared over
the Abbey-tower. We watched it from the garden, where, Sunday after
Sunday, in fine weather, we used to lounge, and talk over all manner
of things in heaven and in earth, chiefly ending with the former, as
on Sunday nights, with stars over our head, was natural and fit we
"Phineas," said John, sitting on the grass with his hands upon his
knees, and the one star, I think it was Jupiter, shining down into
his eyes, deepening them into that peculiar look, worth any so-called
"handsome eyes;"--"Phineas, I wonder how soon we shall have to rise
up from this quiet, easy life, and fight our battles in the world?
Also, I wonder if we are ready for it?"
"I think you are."
"I don't know. I'm not clear how far I could resist doing anything
wrong, if it were pleasant. So many wrong things are pleasant--just
now, instead of rising to-morrow, and going into the little dark
counting-house, and scratching paper from eight till six, shouldn't I
like to break away!--dash out into the world, take to all sorts of
wild freaks, do all sorts of grand things, and perhaps never come
back to the tanning any more."
"Never any more?"
"No! no! I spoke hastily. I did not mean I ever should do such a
wrong thing; but merely that I sometimes feel the wish to do it. I
can't help it; it's my Apollyon that I have to fight with--everybody
keeps a private Apollyon, I fancy. Now, Phineas, be content;
Apollyon is beaten down."
He rose up, but I thought that, in the red glow of the twilight, he
looked rather pale. He stretched his hand to help me up from the
grass. We went into the house together, silently.
After supper, when the chimes struck half-past nine, John prepared to
leave as usual. He went to bid good-night to my father, who was
sitting meditatively over the fireless hearth-place, sometimes poking
the great bow-pot of fennel and asparagus, as in winter he did the
coals: an instance of obliviousness, which, in my sensible and acute
father, argued very deep cogitation on some subject or other.
"Good-night," said John, twice over, before his master heard him.
"Eh?--Oh, good-night, good-night, lad! Stay! Halifax, what hast
thee got to do to-morrow?"
"Not much, unless the Russian hides should come in; I cleared off the
week's accounts last night, as usual."
"Ay, to-morrow I shall look over all thy books and see how thee
stand'st, and what further work thou art fit for. Therefore, take a
day's holiday, if thee likes."
We thanked him warmly. "There, John," whispered I, "you may have
your wish, and run wild to-morrow."
He said, "the wish had gone out of him." So we planned a sweet lazy
day under the Midsummer sky, in some fields about a mile off, called
The morning came, and we took our way thither, under the Abbey walls,
and along a lane, shaded on one side by the "willows in the
water-courses." We came out in those quiet hay-fields, which,
tradition says, had once grown wine for the rosy monks close by, and
history avers, were afterwards watered by a darker stream than the
blood of grapes. The Vineyards had been a battle-field; and under
the long wavy grass, and the roots of the wild apple trees, slept
many a Yorkist and Lancastrian. Sometimes an unusually deep furrow
turned out a white bone--but more often the relics were undisturbed,
and the meadows used as pastures or hay-fields.
John and I lay down on some wind-rows, and sunned ourselves in the
warm and delicious air. How beautiful everything was! so very still!
with the Abbey-tower--always the most picturesque point in our Norton
Bury views--showing so near, that it almost seemed to rise up out of
the fields and hedge-rows.
"Well, David," and I turned to the long, lazy figure beside me, which
had considerably flattened the hay, "are you satisfied?"
Thus we lounged out all the summer morning, recurring to a few of the
infinitude of subjects we used to compare notes upon; though we were
neither of us given to wordiness, and never talked but when we had
something to say. Often--as on this day--we sat for hours in a
pleasant dreaminess, scarcely exchanging a word; nevertheless, I
could generally track John's thoughts, as they went wandering on, ay,
as clearly as one might track a stream through a wood; sometimes--
like to-day--I failed.
In the afternoon, when we had finished our bread and cheese--eaten
slowly and with graceful dignity, in order to make dinner a more
important and lengthy affair--he said abruptly--
"Phineas, don't you think this field is rather dull? Shall we go
somewhere else? not if it tires you, though."
I protested the contrary, my health being much above the average this
summer. But just as we were quitting the field we met two rather
odd-looking persons entering it, young-old persons they seemed, who
might own to any age or any occupation. Their dress, especially that
of the younger, amused us by its queer mixture of fashionableness and
homeliness, such as grey ribbed stockings and shining paste shoe-
buckles, rusty velvet small-clothes and a coatee of blue cloth. But
the wearer carried off this anomalous costume with an easy,
condescending air, full of pleasantness, humour, and grace.
"Sir," said he, approaching John Halifax with a bow that I feel sure
the "first gentleman of his day," as loyal folk then entitled the
Prince Regent, could not have surpassed--"Sir, will you favour me by
informing us how far it is to Coltham?"
"Ten miles, and the stage will pass here in three hours."
"Thank you; at present I have little to do with the--at least with
THAT stage. Young gentlemen, excuse our continuing our dessert, in
fact, I may say our dinner. Are you connoisseurs in turnips?"
He offered us--with a polite gesture--one of the "swedes" he was
munching. I declined; but John, out of a deeper delicacy than I
could boast, accepted it.
"One might dine worse," he said; "I have done, sometimes."
"It was a whim of mine, sir. But I am not the first remarkable
person who has eaten turnips in your Norton Bury fields--ay, and
turned field-preacher afterwards--the celebrated John Philip--"
Here the elder and less agreeable of the two wayfarers interposed
with a nudge, indicating silence.
"My companion is right, sir," he continued. "I will not betray our
illustrious friend by mentioning his surname; he is a great man now,
and might not wish it generally known that he had dined off turnips.
May I give you instead my own humble name?"
He gave it me; but I, Phineas Fletcher, shall copy his reticence, and
not indulge the world therewith. It was a name wholly out of my
sphere, both then and now; but I know it has since risen into note
among the people of the world. I believe, too, its owner has carried
up to the topmost height of celebrity always the gay, gentlemanly
spirit and kindly heart which he showed when sitting with us and
eating swedes. Still, I will not mention his surname--I will only
call him "Mr. Charles."
"Now, having satisfactorily 'munched, and munched, and munched,' like
the sailor's wife who had chestnuts in her lap--are you acquainted
with my friend, Mr. William Shakspeare, young gentleman?--I must try
to fulfil the other duties of existence. You said the Coltham mail
passed here in three hours? Very well. I have the honour of wishing
you a very good day, Mr.--"
"Any connection with him who went partnership with the worthy
"My father has no partner, sir," said I. But John, whose reading had
lately surpassed mine, and whom nothing ever puzzled, explained that
I came from the same old stock as the brothers Phineas and Giles
Fletcher. Upon which Mr. Charles, who till now had somewhat
overlooked me, took off his hat, and congratulated me on my
"That man has evidently seen a good deal of the world," said John,
smiling; "I wonder what the world is like!"
"Did you not see something of it as a child?"
"Only the worst and lowest side; not the one I want to see now. What
business do you think that Mr. Charles is? A clever man, anyhow; I
should like to see him again."
"So should I."
Thus talking at intervals and speculating upon our new acquaintance,
we strolled along till we came to a spot called by the country
people, "The Bloody Meadow," from being, like several other places in
the neighbourhood, the scene of one of those terrible slaughters
chronicled in the wars of the Roses. It was a sloping field, through
the middle of which ran a little stream down to the meadow's end,
where, fringed and hidden by a plantation of trees, the Avon flowed.
Here, too, in all directions, the hay-fields lay, either in green
swathes, or tedded, or in the luxuriously-scented quiles. The lane
was quite populous with waggons and hay-makers--the men in their
corduroys and blue hose--the women in their trim jackets and bright
calamanco petticoats. There were more women than men, by far, for
the flower of the peasant youth of England had been drafted off to
fight against "Bonyparty." Still hay-time was a glorious season,
when half our little town turned out and made holiday in the
"I think we will go to a quieter place, John. There seems a crowd
down in the meadow; and who is that man standing on the hay-cart, on
the other side the stream?"
"Don't you remember the bright blue coat? 'Tis Mr. Charles. How
he's talking and gesticulating! What can he be at?"
Without more ado John leaped the low hedge, and ran down the slope of
the Bloody Meadow. I followed less quickly.
There, of a surety, stood our new friend, on one of the simple-
fashioned hay-carts that we used about Norton Bury, a low framework
on wheels, with a pole stuck at either of the four corners. He was
bare-headed, and his hair hung in graceful curls, well powdered. I
only hope he had honestly paid the tax, which we were all then
exclaiming against--so fondly does custom cling to deformity.
Despite the powder, the blue coat, and the shabby velvet breeches,
Mr. Charles was a very handsome and striking-looking man. No wonder
the poor hay-makers had collected from all parts to hear him
What was he haranguing upon? Could it be, that like his friend,
"John Philip," whoever that personage might be, his vocation was that
of a field preacher? It seemed like it, especially judging from the
sanctified demeanour of the elder and inferior person who accompanied
him; and who sat in the front of the cart, and folded his hands and
groaned, after the most approved fashion of a methodistical
We listened, expecting every minute to be disgusted and shocked: but
no! I must say this for Mr. Charles, that in no way did he trespass
the bounds of reverence and decorum. His harangue, though given as a
sermon, was strictly and simply a moral essay, such as might have
emanated from any professor's chair. In fact, as I afterwards
learnt, he had given for his text one which the simple rustics
received in all respect, as coming from a higher and holier volume
"Mercy is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest."
And on that text did he dilate; gradually warming with his subject,
till his gestures--which at first had seemed burthened with a queer
constraint, that now and then resulted in an irrepressible twitch of
the corners of his flexible mouth--became those of a man beguiled
into real earnestness. We of Norton Bury had never heard such
"Who CAN he be, John? Isn't it wonderful?"
But John never heard me. His whole attention was riveted on the
speaker. Such oratory--a compound of graceful action, polished
language, and brilliant imagination, came to him as a positive
revelation, a revelation from the world of intellect, the world which
he longed after with all the ardour of youth.
What that harangue would have seemed like, could we have heard it
with maturer ears, I know not; but at eighteen and twenty it
literally dazzled us. No wonder it affected the rest of the
audience. Feeble men, leaning on forks and rakes, shook their old
heads sagely, as if they understood it all. And when the speaker
alluded to the horrors of war--a subject which then came so bitterly
home to every heart in Britain--many women melted into sobs and
tears. At last, when the orator himself, moved by the pictures he
had conjured up, paused suddenly, quite exhausted, and asked for a
slight contribution "to help a deed of charity," there was a general
rush towards him.
"No--no, my good people," said Mr. Charles, recovering his natural
manner, though a little clouded, I thought, by a faint shade of
remorse; "no, I will not take from any one more than a penny; and
then only if they are quite sure they can spare it. Thank you, my
worthy man. Thanks, my bonny young lass--I hope your sweetheart will
soon be back from the wars. Thank you all, my 'very worthy and
approved good masters,' and a fair harvest to you!"
He bowed them away, in a dignified and graceful manner, still
standing on the hay-cart. The honest folk trooped off, having no
more time to waste, and left the field in possession of Mr. Charles,
his co-mate, and ourselves; whom I do not think he had as yet
He descended from the cart. His companion burst into roars of
laughter; but Charles looked grave.
"Poor, honest souls!" said he, wiping his brows--I am not sure that
it was only his brows--"Hang me if I'll be at this trick again,
"It was a trick then, sir," said John, advancing. "I am sorry for
"So am I, young man," returned the other, no way disconcerted;
indeed, he seemed a person whose frank temper nothing could
disconcert. "But starvation is--excuse me,--unpleasant; and
necessity has no law. It is of vital consequence that I should reach
Coltham to-night; and after walking twenty miles one cannot easily
walk ten more, and afterwards appear as Macbeth to an admiring
"You are an actor?"
"I am, please your worship--
'A poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is seen no more.'"
There was inexpressible pathos in his tone, and his fine face looked
thin and worn--it did not take much to soften both John's feelings
and mine towards the "poor player." Besides, we had lately been
studying Shakspeare, who for the first time of reading generally
sends all young people tragedy-mad.
"You acted well to-day," said John; "all the folk here took you for a
"Yet I never meddled with theology--only common morality. You cannot
say I did."
John thought a moment, and then answered--
"No. But what put the scheme into your head?"
"The fact that, under a like necessity, the same amusing play was
played out here years ago, as I told you, by John Philip--no, I will
not conceal his name, the greatest actor and the truest gentleman our
English stage has ever seen--John Philip Kemble."
And he raised his hat with sincere reverence. We too had heard--at
least John had--of this wonderful man.
I saw the fascination of Mr. Charles's society was strongly upon him.
It was no wonder. More brilliant, more versatile talent I never saw.
He turned "from grave to gay, from lively to severe"--appearing in
all phases like the gentleman, the scholar, and the man of the world.
And neither John nor I had ever met any one of these characters, all
so irresistibly alluring at our age.
I say OUR, because though I followed where he led, I always did it of
my own will likewise.
The afternoon began to wane, while we, with our two companions, yet
sat talking by the brook-side. Mr. Charles had washed his face, and
his travel-sore, blistered feet, and we had induced him, and the man
he called Yates, to share our remnants of bread and cheese.
"Now," he said, starting up, "I am ready to do battle again, even
with the Thane of Fife--who, to-night, is one Johnson, a fellow of
six feet and twelve stone. What is the hour, Mr. Halifax?"
"Mr. Halifax"--(I felt pleased to hear him for the first time so
entitled)--had, unfortunately, no watch among his worldly
possessions, and candidly owned the fact. But he made a near guess
by calculating the position of his unfailing time-piece, the sun.--It
was four o'clock.
"Then I must go. Will you not retract, young gentlemen? Surely you
would not lose such a rare treat as 'Macbeth,' with--I will not say
my humble self--but with that divine Siddons. Such a woman!
Shakspeare himself might lean out of Elysium to watch her. You will
John made a silent, dolorous negative; as he had done once or twice
before, when the actor urged us to accompany him to Coltham for a few
hours only--we might be back by midnight, easily.
"What do you think, Phineas?" said John, when we stood in the
high-road, waiting for the coach; "I have money--and--we have so
little pleasure--we would send word to your father. Do you think it
would be wrong?"
I could not say; and to this minute, viewing the question nakedly in
a strict and moral sense, I cannot say either whether or no it was an
absolute crime; therefore, being accustomed to read my wrong or right
in "David's" eyes, I remained perfectly passive.
We waited by the hedge-side for several minutes--Mr. Charles ceased
his urging, half in dudgeon, save that he was too pleasant a man
really to take offence at anything. His conversation was chiefly
directed to me. John took no part therein, but strolled about
plucking at the hedge.
When the stage appeared down the winding of the road I was utterly
ignorant of what he meant us to do, or if he had any definite purpose
It came--the coachman was hailed. Mr. Charles shook hands with us
and mounted--paying his own fare and that of Yates with their handful
of charity-pennies, which caused a few minutes' delay in counting,
and a great deal of good-humoured joking, as good-humouredly borne.
Meanwhile, John put his two hands on my shoulders, and looked hard
into my face--his was slightly flushed and excited, I thought.
"Phineas, are you tired?"
"Not at all."
"Do you feel strong enough to go to Coltham? Would it do you no
harm? Would you LIKE to go?"
To all these hurried questions I answered with as hurried an
affirmative. It was sufficient to me that he evidently liked to go.
"It is only for once--your father would not grudge us the pleasure,
and he is too busy to be out of the tan-yard before midnight. We
will be home soon after then, if I carry you on my back all the ten
miles. Come, mount, we'll go."
"Bravo!" cried Mr. Charles, and leaned over to help me up the coach's
side. John followed, and the crisis was past.
But I noticed that for several miles he hardly spoke one word.
Near as we lived to Coltham, I had only been there once in my life;
but John Halifax knew the town pretty well, having latterly in
addition to his clerkship been employed by my father in going about
the neighbourhood buying bark. I was amused when the coach stopped
at an inn, which bore the ominous sign of the "Fleece," to see how
well accustomed he seemed to be to the ways of the place. He
deported himself with perfect self-possession; the waiter served him
respectfully. He had evidently taken his position in the world--at
least, our little world--he was no longer a boy, but a man. I was
glad to see it; leaving everything in his hands, I lay down where he
placed me in the inn parlour, and watched him giving his orders and
walking about. Sometimes I thought his eyes were restless and
unquiet, but his manner was as composed as usual.
Mr. Charles had left us, appointing a meeting at Coffee-house Yard,
where the theatre then was.
"A poor barn-like place, I believe," said John, stopping in his walk
up and down the room to place my cushions more easy; "they should
build a new one, now Coltham is growing up into such a fashionable
town. I wish I could take you to see the "Well-walk," with all the
fine people promenading. But you must rest, Phineas."
I consented, being indeed rather weary.
"You will like to see Mrs. Siddons, whom we have so often talked
about? She is not young now, Mr. Charles says, but magnificent
still. She first came out in this same theatre more than twenty
years ago. Yates saw her. I wonder, Phineas, if your father ever
"Oh, no my father would not enter a play-house for the world."
"Nay, John, you need not look so troubled. You know he did not bring
me up in the Society, and its restrictions are not binding upon me."
"True, true." And he resumed his walk, but not his cheerfulness.
"If it were myself alone, now, of course what I myself hold to be a
lawful pleasure I have a right to enjoy; or, if not, being yet a lad
and under a master--well, I will bear the consequences," added he,
rather proudly; "but to share them--Phineas," turning suddenly to me,
"would you like to go home?--I'll take you."
I protested earnestly against any such thing; told him I was sure we
were doing nothing wrong--which was, indeed, my belief; entreated him
to be merry and enjoy himself, and succeeded so well, that in a few
minutes we had started in a flutter of gaiety and excitement for
It was a poor place--little better than a barn, as Mr. Charles had
said--built in a lane leading out of the principal street. This lane
was almost blocked up with play-goers of all ranks and in all sorts
of equipages, from the coach-and-six to the sedan-chair, mingled with
a motley crowd on foot, all jostling, fighting, and screaming, till
the place became a complete bear-garden.
"Oh, John! take care!" and I clung to his arm.
"Never mind! I'm big enough and strong enough for any crowd. Hold
on, Phineas." If I had been a woman, and the woman that he loved, he
could not have been more tender over my weakness. The physical
weakness--which, however humiliating to myself, and doubtless
contemptible in most men's eyes--was yet dealt by the hand of Heaven,
and, as such, regarded by John only with compassion.
The crowd grew denser and more formidable. I looked beyond it, up
towards the low hills that rose in various directions round the town;
how green and quiet they were, in the still June evening! I only
wished we were safe back again at Norton Bury.
But now there came a slight swaying in the crowd, as a sedan-chair
was borne through--or attempted to be--for the effort failed. There
was a scuffle, one of the bearers was knocked down and hurt. Some
cried "shame!" others seemed to think this incident only added to the
frolic. At last, in the midst of the confusion, a lady put her head
out of the sedan and gazed around her.
It was a remarkable countenance; once seen, you could never forget
it. Pale, rather large and hard in outline, an aquiline nose--full,
passionate, yet sensitive lips--and very dark eyes. She spoke, and
the voice belonged naturally to such a face. "Good people, let me
pass--I am Sarah Siddons."
The crowd divided instantaneously, and in moving set up a cheer that
must have rang through all the town. There was a minute's pause,
while she bowed and smiled--such a smile!--and then the sedan curtain
"Now's the time--only hold fast to me!" whispered John, as he sprang
forward, dragging me after him. In another second he had caught up
the pole dropped by the man who was hurt; and before I well knew what
we were about we both stood safe inside the entrance of the theatre.
Mrs. Siddons stepped out, and turned to pay her bearers--a most
simple action--but so elevated in the doing that even it, I thought,
could not bring her to the level of common humanity. The tall,
cloaked, and hooded figure, and the tones that issued thence, made
her, even in that narrow passage, under the one flaring
tallow-candle, a veritable Queen of tragedy--at least so she seemed
to us two.
The one man was paid--over-paid, apparently, from his thankfulness--
and she turned to John Halifax.
"I regret, young man, that you should have had so much trouble. Here
is some requital."
He took the money, selected from it one silver coin, and returned the
"I will keep this, madam, if you please, as a memento that I once had
the honour of being useful to Mrs. Siddons."
She looked at him keenly, out of her wonderful dark eyes, then
curtsied with grave dignity--"I thank you, sir," she said, and passed
A few minutes after some underling of the theatre found us out and
brought us, "by Mrs. Siddons' desire," to the best places the house
It was a glorious night. At this distance of time, when I look back
upon it my old blood leaps and burns. I repeat, it was a glorious
Before the curtain rose we had time to glance about us on that scene,
to both entirely new--the inside of a theatre. Shabby and small as
the place was, it was filled with all the beau monde of Coltham,
which then, patronized by royalty, rivalled even Bath in its fashion
and folly. Such a dazzle of diamonds and spangled turbans and
Prince-of-Wales' plumes. Such an odd mingling of costume, which was
then in a transition state, the old ladies clinging tenaciously to
the stately silken petticoats and long bodices, surmounted by the
prim and decent bouffantes, while the younger belles had begun to
flaunt in the French fashions of flimsy muslins, shortwaisted--
narrow-skirted. These we had already heard Jael furiously inveighing
against: for Jael, Quakeress as she was, could not quite smother her
original propensity towards the decoration of "the flesh," and
betrayed a suppressed but profound interest in the same.
John and I quite agreed with her, that it was painful to see gentle
English girls clad, or rather un-clad, after the fashion of our
enemies across the Channel; now, unhappy nation! sunk to zero in
politics, religion, and morals--where high-bred ladies went about
dressed as heathen goddesses, with bare arms and bare sandalled feet,
gaining none of the pure simplicity of the ancient world, and losing
all the decorous dignity of our modern times.
We two--who had all a boy's mysterious reverence for womanhood in its
most ideal, most beautiful form, and who, I believe, were, in our
ignorance, expecting to behold in every woman an Imogen, a Juliet, or
a Desdemona--felt no particular attraction towards the ungracefully
attired, flaunting, simpering belles of Coltham.
But--the play began.
I am not going to follow it: all the world has heard of the Lady
Macbeth of Mrs. Siddons. This, the first and last play I ever
witnessed, stands out to my memory, after more than half a century,
as clear as on that night. Still I can see her in her first scene,
"reading a letter"--that wondrous woman, who, in spite of her modern
black velvet and point lace, did not act, but WAS, Lady Macbeth:
still I hear the awe-struck, questioning, weird-like tone, that sent
an involuntary shudder through the house, as if supernatural things
were abroad--"THEY MADE THEMSELVES--AIR!" And still there quivers
through the silence that piteous cry of a strong heart broken--"ALL
THE PERFUMES OF ARABIA WILL NEVER SWEETEN THIS LITTLE HAND!"
Well, she is gone, like the brief three hours when we hung on her
every breath, as if it could stay even the wheels of time. But they
have whirled on--whirled her away with them into the infinite, and
into earthly oblivion! People tell me that a new generation only
smiles at the traditional glory of Sarah Siddons. They never saw
her. For me, I shall go down to the grave worshipping her still.
Of him whom I call Mr. Charles I have little to say. John and I both
smiled when we saw his fine, frank face and manly bearing subdued
into that poor, whining, sentimental craven, the stage Macbeth. Yet
I believe he acted it well. But we irresistibly associated his idea
with that of turnip munching and hay-cart oratory. And when, during
the first colloquy of Banquo with the witches, Macbeth took the
opportunity of winking privately at us over the foot-lights, all the
paraphernalia of the stage failed to make the murderous Thane of
Cawdor aught else than our humorous and good-natured Mr. Charles. I
never saw him after that night. He is still living--may his old age
have been as peaceful as his youth was kind and gay!
The play ended. There was some buffoonery still to come, but we
would not stay for that. We staggered, half-blind and dazzled, both
in eyes and brain, out into the dark streets, John almost carrying
me. Then we paused, and leaning against a post which was surmounted
by one of the half-dozen oil lamps which illumined the town, tried to
regain our mental equilibrium.
John was the first to do it. Passing his hand over his brow he bared
it to the fresh night-air, and drew a deep, hard breath. He was very
pale, I saw.
He turned, and laid a hand on my shoulder. "What did you say? Are
"No." He put his arm so as to shield the wind from me, nevertheless.
"Well," said he, after a pause, "we have had our pleasure, and it is
over. Now we must go back to the old ways again. I wonder what
o'clock it is?"
He was answered by a church clock striking, heard clearly over the
silent town. I counted the strokes--ELEVEN!
Horrified, we looked at one another by the light of the lamp. Until
this minute we had taken no note of time. Eleven o'clock! How
should we get home to Norton Bury that night?
For, now the excitement was over, I turned sick and faint; my limbs
almost sank under me.
"What must we do, John?"
"Do! oh! 'tis quite easy. You cannot walk--you shall not walk--we
must hire a gig and drive home. I have enough money--all my month's
wages--see!" He felt in his pockets one after the other; his
countenance grew blank. "Why! where is my money gone to?"
Where, indeed! But that it was gone, and irretrievably--most likely
stolen when we were so wedged in the crowd--there could be no manner
of doubt. And I had not a groat. I had little use for money, and
rarely carried any.
"Would not somebody trust us?" suggested I.
"I never asked anybody for credit in my life--and for a horse and
gig--they'd laugh at me. Still--yes--stay here a minute, and I'll
He came back, though not immediately, and took my arm with a reckless
"It's of no use, Phineas--I'm not so respectable as I thought.
What's to be done?"
Ay! what indeed! Here we were, two friendless youths, with not a
penny in our pockets, and ten miles away from home. How to get
there, and at midnight too, was a very serious question. We
consulted a minute, and then John said firmly:
"We must make the best of it and start. Every instant is precious.
Your father will think we have fallen into some harm. Come, Phineas,
I'll help you on."
His strong, cheery voice, added to the necessity of the
circumstances, braced up my nerves. I took hold of his arm, and we
marched on bravely through the shut-up town, and for a mile or two
along the high-road leading to Norton Bury. There was a cool fresh
breeze: and I often think one can walk so much further by night than
by day. For some time, listening to John's talk about the stars--he
had lately added astronomy to the many things he tried to learn--and
recalling with him all that we had heard and seen this day, I hardly
felt my weariness.
But gradually it grew upon me; my pace lagged slower and slower--even
the scented air of the midsummer-night imparted no freshness. John
wound his young arm, strong and firm as iron, round my waist, and we
got on awhile in that way.
"Keep up, Phineas. There's a hayrick near. I'll wrap you in my
coat, and you shall rest there: an hour or two will not matter now--
we shall get home by daybreak."
I feebly assented; but it seemed to me that we never should get home-
-at least I never should. For a short way more, I dragged myself--or
rather, was dragged--along; then the stars, the shadowy fields, and
the winding, white high-road mingled and faded from me. I lost all
When I came to myself I was lying by a tiny brook at the roadside, my
head resting on John's knees. He was bathing my forehead: I could
not see him, but I heard his smothered moan.
"David, don't mind. I shall be well directly."
"Oh! Phineas--Phineas; I thought I had killed you."
He said no more; but I fancied that under cover of the night he
yielded to what his manhood might have been ashamed of--yet need not-
-a few tears.
I tried to rise. There was a faint streak in the east. "Why, it is
daybreak! How far are we from Norton Bury?"
"Not very far. Don't stir a step. I shall carry you."
"Nonsense; I have done it for half-a-mile already. Come, mount! I
am not going to have Jonathan's death laid at David's door."
And so, masking command with a jest, he had his way. What strength
supported him I cannot tell, but he certainly carried me--with many
rests between, and pauses, during which I walked a quarter of a mile
or so--the whole way to Norton Bury.
The light broadened and broadened. When we reached my father's door,
haggard and miserable, it was in the pale sunshine of a summer
"Thank God!" murmured John, as he set me down at the foot of the
steps. "You are safe at home."
"And you. You will come in--you would not leave me now?"
He thought a moment--then said, "No!"
We looked up doubtfully at the house; there were no watchers there.
All the windows were closed, as if the whole peaceful establishment
were taking its sleep, prior to the early stirring of Norton Bury
households. Even John's loud knocking was some time before it was
I was too exhausted to feel much; but I know those five awful minutes
seemed interminable. I could not have borne them, save for John's
voice in my ear.
"Courage! I'll bear all the blame. We have committed no absolute
sin, and have paid dearly for any folly. Courage!"
At the five minutes' end my father opened the door. He was dressed
as usual, looked as usual. Whether he had sat up watching, or had
suffered any anxiety, I never found out.
He said nothing; merely opened the door, admitted us, and closed it
behind us. But we were certain, from his face, that he knew all. It
was so; some neighbour driving home from Coltham had taken pains to
tell Abel Fletcher where he had seen his son--at the very last place
a Friend's son ought to be seen--the play-house. We knew that it was
by no means to learn the truth, but to confront us with it, that my
father--reaching the parlour, and opening the shutters that the hard
daylight should shame us more and more--asked the stern question--
"Phineas, where hast thee been?"
John answered for me. "At the theatre at Coltham. It was my fault.
He went because I wished to go."
"And wherefore didst thee wish to go?"
"Wherefore?" the answer seemed hard to find. "Oh! Mr Fletcher, were
you never young like me?"
My father made no reply; John gathered courage.
"It was, as I say, all my fault. It might have been wrong--I think
now that it was--but the temptation was hard. My life here is dull;
I long sometimes for a little amusement--a little change."
"Thee shall have it."
That voice, slow and quiet as it was, struck us both dumb.
"And how long hast thee planned this, John Halifax?"
"Not a day--not an hour! it was a sudden freak of mine." (My father
shook his head with contemptuous incredulity.) "Sir!--Abel Fletcher-
-did I ever tell you a lie? If you will not believe me, believe your
own son. Ask Phineas--No, no, ask him nothing!" And he came in
great distress to the sofa where I had fallen. "Oh, Phineas! how
cruel I have been to you!"
I tried to smile at him, being past speaking--but my father put John
"Young man, _I_ can take care of my son. Thee shalt not lead him
into harm's way any more. Go--I have been mistaken in thee!"
If my father had gone into a passion, had accused us, reproached us,
and stormed at us with all the ill-language that men of the world
use! but that quiet, cold, irrevocable, "I have been mistaken in
thee!" was ten times worse.
John lifted to him a mute look, from which all pride had ebbed away.
"I repeat, I have been mistaken in thee! Thee seemed a lad to my
mind; I trusted thee. This day, by my son's wish, I meant to have
bound thee 'prentice to me, and in good time to have taken thee into
the business. Now--"
There was silence. At last John muttered, in a low broken-hearted
voice, "I deserve it all. I can go away. I might perhaps earn my
living elsewhere; shall I?"
Abel Fletcher hesitated, looked at the poor lad before him (oh,
David! how unlike to thee), then said, "No--I do not wish that. At
least, not at present."
I cried out in the joy and relief of my heart. John came over to me,
and we clasped hands.
"John, you will not go?"
"No, I will stay to redeem my character with your father. Be
content, Phineas--I won't part with you."
"Young man, thou must," said my father, turning round.
"I have said it, Phineas. I accuse him of no dishonesty, no crime,
but of weakly yielding, and selfishly causing another to yield, to
the temptation of the world. Therefore, as my clerk I retain him; as
my son's companion--never!"
We felt that "never" was irrevocable.
Yet I tried, blindly and despairingly, to wrestle with it; I might as
well have flung myself against a stone wall.
John stood perfectly silent.
"Don't, Phineas," he whispered at last; "never mind me. Your father
is right--at least so far as he sees. Let me go--perhaps I may come
back to you some time. If not--"
I moaned out bitter words--I hardly knew what I was saying. My
father took no notice of them, only went to the door and called Jael.
Then, before the woman came, I had strength enough to bid John go.
"Good-bye--don't forget me, don't!"
"I will not," he said; "and if I live we shall be friends again.
Good-bye, Phineas." He was gone.
After that day, though he kept his word, and remained in the
tan-yard, and though from time to time I heard of him--always
accidentally,--after that day for two long years I never once saw the
face of John Halifax.
It was the year 1800, long known in English households as "the dear
year." The present generation can have no conception of what a
terrible time that was--War, Famine, and Tumult stalking
hand-in-hand, and no one to stay them. For between the upper and
lower classes there was a great gulf fixed; the rich ground the faces
of the poor, the poor hated, yet meanly succumbed to, the rich.
Neither had Christianity enough boldly to cross the line of
demarcation, and prove, the humbler, that they were men,--the higher
and wiser, that they were gentlemen.
These troubles, which were everywhere abroad, reached us even in our
quiet town of Norton Bury. For myself, personally, they touched me
not, or, at least, only kept fluttering like evil birds outside the
dear home-tabernacle, where I and Patience sat, keeping our solemn
counsel together--for these two years had with me been very hard.
Though I had to bear so much bodily suffering that I was seldom told
of any worldly cares, still I often fancied things were going ill
both within and without our doors. Jael complained in an under-key
of stinted housekeeping, or boasted aloud of her own ingenuity in
making ends meet: and my father's brow grew continually heavier,
graver, sterner; sometimes so stern that I dared not wage, what was,
openly or secretly, the quiet but incessant crusade of my existence--
the bringing back of John Halifax.
He still remained my father's clerk--nay, I sometimes thought he was
even advancing in duties and trusts, for I heard of his being sent
long journeys up and down England to buy grain--Abel Fletcher having
added to his tanning business the flour-mill hard by, whose lazy
whirr was so familiar to John and me in our boyhood. But of these
journeys my father never spoke; indeed, he rarely mentioned John at
all. However he might employ and even trust him in business
relations, I knew that in every other way he was inexorable.
And John Halifax was as inexorable as he. No under-hand or
clandestine friendship would he admit--no, not even for my sake. I
knew quite well, that until he could walk in openly, honourably,
proudly, he never would re-enter my father's doors. Twice only he
had written to me--on my two birthdays--my father himself giving me
in silence the unsealed letters. They told me what I already was
sure of--that I held, and always should hold, my steadfast place in
his friendship. Nothing more.
One other fact I noticed: that a little lad, afterward discovered to
be Jem Watkins, to whom had fallen the hard-working lot of the lost
Bill, had somehow crept into our household as errand-boy, or
gardener's boy; and being "cute," and a "scholard," was greatly
patronized by Jael. I noticed, too, that the said Jem, whenever he
came in my way, in house or garden, was the most capital "little
foot-page" that ever invalid had; knowing intuitively all my needs,
and serving me with an unfailing devotion, which quite surprised and
puzzled me at the time. It did not afterwards.
Summer was passing. People began to watch with anxious looks the
thin harvest-fields--as Jael often told me, when she came home from
her afternoon walks. "It was piteous to see them," she said; "only
July, and the quartern loaf nearly three shillings, and meal four
shillings a peck."
And then she would glance at our flour-mill, where for several days a
week the water-wheel was as quiet as on Sundays; for my father kept
his grain locked up, waiting for what, he wisely judged, might be a
worse harvest than the last. But Jael, though she said nothing,
often looked at the flour-mill and shook her head. And after one
market-day--when she came in rather "flustered," saying there had
been a mob outside the mill, until "that young man Halifax" had gone
out and spoken to them--she never once allowed me to take my rare
walk under the trees in the Abbey-yard; nor, if she could help it,
would she even let me sit watching the lazy Avon from the
One Sunday--it was the 1st of August, for my father had just come
back from meeting, very much later than usual, and Jael said he had
gone, as was his annual custom on that his wedding-day, to the
Friends' burial ground in St. Mary's Lane, where, far away from her
own kindred and people, my poor young mother had been laid,--on this
one Sunday I began to see that things were going wrong. Abel
Fletcher sat at dinner wearing the heavy, hard look which had grown
upon his face not unmingled with the wrinkles planted by physical
pain. For, with all his temperance, he could not quite keep down his
hereditary enemy, gout; and this week it had clutched him pretty
Dr. Jessop came in, and I stole away gladly enough, and sat for an
hour in my old place in the garden, idly watching the stretch of
meadow, pasture, and harvest land. Noticing, too, more as a pretty
bit in the landscape than as a fact of vital importance, in how many
places the half-ripe corn was already cut, and piled in
thinly-scattered sheaves over the fields.
After the doctor left, my father sent for me and all his household:
in the which, creeping humbly after the woman-kind, was now numbered
the lad Jem. That Abel Fletcher was not quite himself was proved by
the fact that his unlighted pipe lay on the table, and his afternoon
tankard of ale sank from foam to flatness untouched.
He first addressed Jael. "Woman, was it thee who cooked the dinner
She gave a dignified affirmative.
"Thee must give us no more such dinners. No cakes, no pastry
kickshaws, and only wheaten bread enough for absolute necessity. Our
neighbours shall not say that Abel Fletcher has flour in his mill,
and plenty in his house, while there is famine abroad in the land.
So take heed."
"I do take heed," answered Jael, staunchly. "Thee canst not say I
waste a penny of thine. And for myself, do I not pity the poor? On
First-day a woman cried after me about wasting good flour in starch--
And with a spasmodic bridling-up, she pointed to the bouffante which
used to stand up stiffly round her withered old throat, and stick out
in front like a pouter pigeon. Alas! its glory and starch were alike
departed; it now appeared nothing but a heap of crumpled and
yellowish muslin. Poor Jael! I knew this was the most heroic
personal sacrifice she could have made, yet I could not help smiling;
even my father did the same.
"Dost thee mock me, Abel Fletcher?" cried she angrily. "Preach not
to others while the sin lies on thy own head."
And I am sure poor Jael was innocent of any jocular intention, as
advancing sternly she pointed to her master's pate, where his
long-worn powder was scarcely distinguishable from the snows of age.
He bore the assault gravely and unshrinkingly, merely saying, "Woman,
"Nor while"--pursued Jael, driven apparently to the last and most
poisoned arrow in her quiver of wrath--"while the poor folk be
starving in scores about Norton Bury, and the rich folk there will
not sell their wheat under famine price. Take heed to thyself, Abel
My father winced, either from a twinge of gout or conscience; and
then Jael suddenly ceased the attack, sent the other servants out of
the room, and tended her master as carefully as if she had not
insulted him. In his fits of gout my father, unlike most men, became
the quieter and easier to manage the more he suffered. He had a long
fit of pain which left him considerably exhausted. When, being at
last relieved, he and I were sitting in the room alone, he said to
"Phineas, the tan-yard has thriven ill of late, and I thought the
mill would make up for it. But if it will not it will not. Wouldst
thee mind, my son, being left a little poor when I am gone?"
"Well, then, in a few days I will begin selling my wheat, as that lad
has advised and begged me to do these weeks past. He is a sharp lad,
and I am getting old. Perhaps he is right."
"Who, father?" I asked, rather hypocritically.
"Thee knowest well enough--John Halifax."
I thought it best to say no more; but I never let go one thread of
hope which could draw me nearer to my heart's desire.
On the Monday morning my father went to the tan-yard as usual. I
spent the day in my bed-room, which looked over the garden, where I
saw nothing but the waving of the trees and the birds hopping over
the smooth grass; heard nothing but the soft chime, hour after hour,
of the Abbey bells. What was passing in the world, in the town, or
even in the next street, was to me faint as dreams.
At dinner-time I rose, went down-stairs, and waited for my father;
waited one, two, three hours. It was very strange. He never by any
chance overstayed his time, without sending a message home. So after
some consideration as to whether I dared encroach upon his formal
habits so much, and after much advice from Jael, who betrayed more
anxiety than was at all warranted by the cause she assigned, viz. the
spoiled dinner, I despatched Jem Watkins to the tan-yard to see after
He came back with ill news. The lane leading to the tan-yard was
blocked up with a wild mob. Even the stolid, starved patience of our
Norton Bury poor had come to an end at last--they had followed the
example of many others. There was a bread-riot in the town.
God only knows how terrible those "riots" were; when the people rose
in desperation, not from some delusion of crazy, blood-thirsty
"patriotism," but to get food for themselves, their wives, and
children. God only knows what madness was in each individual heart
of that concourse of poor wretches, styled "the mob," when every man
took up arms, certain that there were before him but two
alternatives, starving or--hanging.
The riot here was scarcely universal. Norton Bury was not a large
place, and had always abundance of small-pox and fevers to keep the
poor down numerically. Jem said it was chiefly about our mill and
our tan-yard that the disturbance lay.
"And where is my father?"
Jem "didn't know," and looked very much as if he didn't care.
"Jael, somebody must go at once, and find my father."
"I am going," said Jael, who had already put on her cloak and hood.
Of course, despite all her opposition, I went too.
The tan-yard was deserted; the mob had divided, and gone, one half to
our mill, the rest to another that was lower down the river. I asked
of a poor frightened bark-cutter if she knew where my father was?
She thought he was gone for the "millingtary;" but Mr. Halifax was at
the mill now--she hoped no harm would come to Mr. Halifax.
Even in that moment of alarm I felt a sense of pleasure. I had not
been in the tan-yard for nearly three years. I did not know John had
come already to be called "Mr. Halifax."
There was nothing for me but to wait here till my father returned.
He could not surely be so insane as to go to the mill--and John was
there. Terribly was my heart divided, but my duty lay with my
Jael sat down in the shed, or marched restlessly between the
tan-pits. I went to the end of the yard, and looked down towards the
mill. What a half-hour it was!
At last, exhausted, I sat down on the bark heap where John and I had
once sat as lads. He must now be more than twenty; I wondered if he
"Oh, David! David!" I thought, as I listened eagerly for any sounds
abroad in the town; "what should I do if any harm came to thee?"
This minute I heard a footstep crossing the yard. No, it was not my
father's--it was firmer, quicker, younger. I sprang from the
What a grasp that was--both hands! and how fondly and proudly I
looked up in his face--the still boyish face. But the figure was
quite that of a man now.
For a minute we forgot ourselves in our joy, and then he let go my
hands, saying hurriedly--
"Where is your father?"
"I wish I knew!--Gone for the soldiers, they say."
"No, not that--he would never do that. I must go and look for him.
"Nay, dear John!"
"Can't--can't," said he, firmly, "not while your father forbids. I
must go." And he was gone.
Though my heart rebelled, my conscience defended him; marvelling how
it was that he who had never known his father should uphold so
sternly the duty of filial obedience. I think it ought to act as a
solemn warning to those who exact so much from the mere fact and name
of parenthood, without having in any way fulfilled its duties, that
orphans from birth often revere the ideal of that bond far more than
those who have known it in reality. Always excepting those children
to whose blessed lot it has fallen to have the ideal realized.
In a few minutes I saw him and my father enter the tan-yard together.
He was talking earnestly, and my father was listening--ay, listening-
-and to John Halifax! But whatever the argument was, it failed to
move him. Greatly troubled, but staunch as a rock, my old father
stood, resting his lame foot on a heap of hides. I went to meet him.
"Phineas," said John, anxiously, "come and help me. No, Abel
Fletcher," he added, rather proudly, in reply to a sharp, suspicious
glance at us both; "your son and I only met ten minutes ago, and have
scarcely exchanged a word. But we cannot waste time over that matter
now. Phineas, help me to persuade your father to save his property.
He will not call for the aid of the law, because he is a Friend.
Besides, for the same reason, it might be useless asking."
"Verily!" said my father, with a bitter and meaning smile.
"But he might get his own men to defend his property, and need not do
what he is bent on doing--go to the mill himself."
"Surely," was all Abel Fletcher said, planting his oaken stick
firmly, as firmly as his will, and taking his way to the river-side,
in the direction of the mill.
I caught his arm--"Father, don't go."
"My son," said he, turning on me one of his "iron looks," as I used
to call them--tokens of a nature that might have ran molten once, and
had settled into a hard, moulded mass, of which nothing could
afterwards alter one form, or erase one line--"My son, no opposition.
Any who try that with me fail. If those fellows had waited two days
more I would have sold all my wheat at a hundred shillings the
quarter; now they shall have nothing. It will teach them wisdom
another time. Get thee safe home, Phineas, my son; Jael, go thou
But neither went. John held me back as I was following my father.
"He will do it, Phineas, and I suppose he must. Please God, I'll
take care no harm touches him--but you go home."
That was not to be thought of. Fortunately, the time was too brief
for argument, so the discussion soon ended. He followed my father
and I followed him. For Jael, she disappeared.
There was a private path from the tan-yard to the mill, along the
river-side; by this we went, in silence. When we reached the spot it
was deserted; but further down the river we heard a scuffling, and
saw a number of men breaking down our garden wall.
"They think he is gone home," whispered John; "we'll get in here the
safer. Quick, Phineas."
We crossed the little bridge; John took a key out of his pocket, and
let us into the mill by a small door--the only entrance, and that was
barred and trebly barred within. It had good need to be in such
The mill was a queer, musty, silent place, especially the machinery
room, the sole flooring of which was the dark, dangerous stream. We
stood there a good while--it was the safest place, having no windows.
Then we followed my father to the top story, where he kept his bags
of grain. There were very many; enough, in these times, to make a
large fortune by--a cursed fortune wrung out of human lives.
"Oh! how could my father--"
"Hush!" whispered John, "it was for his son's sake, you know."
But while we stood, and with a meaning but rather grim smile Abel
Fletcher counted his bags, worth almost as much as bags of gold--we
heard a hammering at the door below. The rioters were come.
Miserable "rioters!"--A handful of weak, starved men--pelting us with
stones and words. One pistol-shot might have routed them all--but my
father's doctrine of non-resistance forbade. Small as their force
seemed, there was something at once formidable and pitiful in the low
howl that reached us at times.
"Bring out the bags!--Us mun have bread!"
"Throw down thy corn, Abel Fletcher!"
"Abel Fletcher WILL throw it down to ye, ye knaves," said my father,
leaning out of the upper window; while a sound, half curses, half
cheers of triumph, answered him from below.
"That is well," exclaimed John, eagerly. "Thank you--thank you, Mr.
Fletcher--I knew you would yield at last."
"Didst thee, lad?" said my father, stopping short.
"Not because they forced you--not to save your life--but because it
"Help me with this bag," was all the reply.
It was a great weight, but not too great for John's young arm,
nervous and strong. He hauled it up.
"Now, open the window--dash the panes through--it matters not. On to
the window, I tell thee."
"But if I do, the bag will fall into the river. You cannot--oh, no!-
-you cannot mean that!"
"Haul it up to the window, John Halifax."
But John remained immovable.
"I must do it myself, then;" and, in the desperate effort he made,
somehow the bag of grain fell, and fell on his lame foot. Tortured
into frenzy with the pain--or else, I will still believe, my old
father would not have done such a deed--his failing strength seemed
doubled and trebled. In an instant more he had got the bag half
through the window, and the next sound we heard was its heavy splash
in the river below.
Flung into the river, the precious wheat, and in the very sight of
the famished rioters! A howl of fury and despair arose. Some
plunged into the water, ere the eddies left by the falling mass had
ceased--but it was too late. A sharp substance in the river's bed
had cut the bag, and we saw thrown up to the surface, and whirled
down the Avon, thousands of dancing grains. A few of the men swam,
or waded after them, clutching a handful here or there--but by the
mill-pool the river ran swift, and the wheat had all soon
disappeared, except what remained in the bag when it was drawn on
shore. Over even that they fought like demons.
We could not look at them--John and I. He put his hand over his
eyes, muttering the Name that, young man as he was, I had never yet
heard irreverently and thoughtlessly on his lips. It was a sight
that would move any one to cry for pity unto the Great Father of the
Abel Fletcher sat on his remaining bags, in an exhaustion that I
think was not all physical pain. The paroxysm of anger past, he,
ever a just man, could not fail to be struck with what he had done.
He seemed subdued, even to something like remorse.
John looked at him, and looked away. For a minute he listened in
silence to the shouting outside, and then turned to my father.
"Sir, you must come now. Not a second to lose--they will fire the
"Let them?--and Phineas is here!"
My poor father! He rose at once.
We got him down-stairs--he was very lame--his ruddy face all drawn
and white with pain; but he did not speak one word of opposition, or
utter a groan of complaint.
The flour-mill was built on piles, in the centre of the narrow river.
It was only a few steps of bridge-work to either bank. The little
door was on the Norton Bury side, and was hid from the opposite
shore, where the rioters had now collected. In a minute we had crept
forth, and dashed out of sight, in the narrow path which had been
made from the mill to the tan-yard.
"Will you take my arm? we must get on fast."
"Home?" said my father, as John led him passively along.
"No, sir, not home: they are there before you. Your life's not safe
an hour--unless, indeed, you get soldiers to guard it."
Abel Fletcher gave a decided negative. The stern old Quaker held to
his principles still.
"Then you must hide for a time--both of you. Come to my room. You
will be secure there. Urge him, Phineas--for your sake and his own."
But my poor broken-down father needed no urging. Grasping more
tightly both John's arm and mine, which, for the first time in his
life, he leaned upon, he submitted to be led whither we chose. So,
after this long interval of time, I once more stood in Sally Watkins'
small attic; where, ever since I first brought him there, John
Halifax had lived.
Sally knew not of our entrance; she was out, watching the rioters.
No one saw us but Jem, and Jem's honour was safe as a rock. I knew
that in the smile with which he pulled off his cap to "Mr. Halifax."
"Now," said John, hastily smoothing his bed, so that my father might
lie down, and wrapping his cloak round me--"you must both be very
still. You will likely have to spend the night here. Jem shall
bring you a light and supper. You will make yourself easy, Abel
"Ay." It was strange to see how decidedly, yet respectfully, John
spoke, and how quietly my father answered.
"And, Phineas"--he put his arm round my shoulder in his old way--"you
will take care of yourself. Are you any stronger than you used to
I clasped his hand without reply. My heart melted to hear that
tender accent, so familiar once. All was happening for the best, if
it only gave me back David.
"Now good-bye--I must be off."
"Whither?" said my father, rousing himself.
"To try and save the house and the tan-yard--I fear we must give up
the mill. No, don't hold me, Phineas. I run no risk: everybody
knows me. Besides, I am young. There! see after your father. I
shall come back in good time."
He grasped my hands warmly--then unloosed them; and I heard his step
descending the staircase. The room seemed to darken when he went
The evening passed very slowly. My father, exhausted with pain, lay
on the bed and dozed. I sat watching the sky over the housetops,
which met in the old angles, with the same blue peeps between. I
half forgot all the day's events--it seemed but two weeks, instead of
two years ago, that John and I had sat in this attic-window, conning
our Shakspeare for the first time.
Ere twilight I examined John's room. It was a good deal changed; the
furniture was improved; a score of ingenious little contrivances made
the tiny attic into a cosy bed-chamber. One corner was full of
shelves, laden with books, chiefly of a scientific and practical
nature. John's taste did not lead him into the current literature of
the day: Cowper, Akenside, and Peter Pindar were alike indifferent
to him. I found among his books no poet but Shakspeare.
He evidently still practised his old mechanical arts. There was
lying in the window a telescope--the cylinder made of pasteboard--
into which the lenses were ingeniously fitted. A rough
telescope-stand, of common deal, stood on the ledge of the roof, from
which the field of view must have been satisfactory enough to the
young astronomer. Other fragments of skilful handiwork, chiefly
meant for machinery on a Lilliputian scale, were strewn about the
floor; and on a chair, just as he had left it that morning, stood a
loom, very small in size, but perfect in its neat workmanship, with a
few threads already woven, making some fabric not so very unlike
I had gone over all these things without noticing that my father was
awake, and that his sharp eye had observed them likewise.
"The lad works hard," said he, half to himself. "He has useful hands
and a clear head." I smiled, but took no notice whatever.
Evening began to close in--less peacefully than usual--over Norton
Bury; for, whenever I ventured to open the window, we heard unusual
and ominous sounds abroad in the town. I trembled inwardly. But
John was prudent, as well as brave: besides, "everybody knew him."
Surely he was safe.
Faithfully, at supper-time, Jem entered. But he could tell us no
news; he had kept watch all the time on the staircase by desire of
"Mr. Halifax"--so he informed me. My father asked no questions--not
even about his mill. From his look, sometimes, I fancied he yet
beheld in fancy these starving men fighting over the precious food,
destroyed so wilfully--nay, wickedly. Heaven forgive me, his son, if
I too harshly use the word; for I think, till the day of his death,
that cruel sight never wholly vanished from the eyes of my poor
Jem seemed talkatively inclined. He observed that "master was
looking sprack agin; and warn't this a tidy room, like?"
I praised it; and supposed his mother was better off now?
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