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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSylvia's Lovers - Chapter III - BUYING A NEW CLOAK
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Sylvia's Lovers - Chapter III - BUYING A NEW CLOAK Post by :NiallR Category :Long Stories Author :Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Date :January 2011 Read :3005

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Sylvia's Lovers - Chapter III - BUYING A NEW CLOAK

Foster's shop was the shop of Monkshaven. It was kept by two Quaker
brothers, who were now old men; and their father had kept it before
them; probably his father before that. People remembered it as an
old-fashioned dwelling-house, with a sort of supplementary shop with
unglazed windows projecting from the lower story. These openings had
long been filled with panes of glass that at the present day would
be accounted very small, but which seventy years ago were much
admired for their size. I can best make you understand the
appearance of the place by bidding you think of the long openings in
a butcher's shop, and then to fill them up in your imagination with
panes about eight inches by six, in a heavy wooden frame. There was
one of these windows on each side the door-place, which was kept
partially closed through the day by a low gate about a yard high.
Half the shop was appropriated to grocery; the other half to
drapery, and a little mercery. The good old brothers gave all their
known customers a kindly welcome; shaking hands with many of them,
and asking all after their families and domestic circumstances
before proceeding to business. They would not for the world have had
any sign of festivity at Christmas, and scrupulously kept their shop
open at that holy festival, ready themselves to serve sooner than
tax the consciences of any of their assistants, only nobody ever
came. But on New Year's Day they had a great cake, and wine, ready
in the parlour behind the shop, of which all who came in to buy
anything were asked to partake. Yet, though scrupulous in most
things, it did not go against the consciences of these good brothers
to purchase smuggled articles. There was a back way from the
river-side, up a covered entry, to the yard-door of the Fosters, and
a peculiar kind of knock at this door always brought out either John
or Jeremiah, or if not them, their shopman, Philip Hepburn; and the
same cake and wine that the excise officer's wife might just have
been tasting, was brought out in the back parlour to treat the
smuggler. There was a little locking of doors, and drawing of the
green silk curtain that was supposed to shut out the shop, but
really all this was done very much for form's sake. Everybody in
Monkshaven smuggled who could, and every one wore smuggled goods who
could, and great reliance was placed on the excise officer's
neighbourly feelings.

The story went that John and Jeremiah Foster were so rich that they
could buy up all the new town across the bridge. They had certainly
begun to have a kind of primitive bank in connection with their
shop, receiving and taking care of such money as people did not wish
to retain in their houses for fear of burglars. No one asked them
for interest on the money thus deposited, nor did they give any;
but, on the other hand, if any of their customers, on whose
character they could depend, wanted a little advance, the Fosters,
after due inquiries made, and in some cases due security given, were
not unwilling to lend a moderate sum without charging a penny for
the use of their money. All the articles they sold were as good as
they knew how to choose, and for them they expected and obtained
ready money. It was said that they only kept on the shop for their
amusement. Others averred that there was some plan of a marriage
running in the brothers' heads--a marriage between William Coulson,
Mr. Jeremiah's wife's nephew (Mr. Jeremiah was a widower), and Hester
Rose, whose mother was some kind of distant relation, and who served
in the shop along with William Coulson and Philip Hepburn. Again,
this was denied by those who averred that Coulson was no blood
relation, and that if the Fosters had intended to do anything
considerable for Hester, they would never have allowed her and her
mother to live in such a sparing way, ekeing out their small income
by having Coulson and Hepburn for lodgers. No; John and Jeremiah
would leave all their money to some hospital or to some charitable
institution. But, of course, there was a reply to this; when are
there not many sides to an argument about a possibility concerning
which no facts are known? Part of the reply turned on this: the old
gentlemen had, probably, some deep plan in their heads in permitting
their cousin to take Coulson and Hepburn as lodgers, the one a kind
of nephew, the other, though so young, the head man in the shop; if
either of them took a fancy to Hester, how agreeably matters could
be arranged!

All this time Hester is patiently waiting to serve Sylvia, who is
standing before her a little shy, a little perplexed and distracted,
by the sight of so many pretty things.

Hester was a tall young woman, sparely yet largely formed, of a
grave aspect, which made her look older than she really was. Her
thick brown hair was smoothly taken off her broad forehead, and put
in a very orderly fashion, under her linen cap; her face was a
little square, and her complexion sallow, though the texture of her
skin was fine. Her gray eyes were very pleasant, because they looked
at you so honestly and kindly; her mouth was slightly compressed, as
most have it who are in the habit of restraining their feelings; but
when she spoke you did not perceive this, and her rare smile slowly
breaking forth showed her white even teeth, and when accompanied, as
it generally was, by a sudden uplifting of her soft eyes, it made
her countenance very winning. She was dressed in stuff of sober
colours, both in accordance with her own taste, and in unasked
compliance with the religious customs of the Fosters; but Hester
herself was not a Friend.

Sylvia, standing opposite, not looking at Hester, but gazing at the
ribbons in the shop window, as if hardly conscious that any one
awaited the expression of her wishes, was a great contrast; ready to
smile or to pout, or to show her feelings in any way, with a
character as undeveloped as a child's, affectionate, wilful,
naughty, tiresome, charming, anything, in fact, at present that the
chances of an hour called out. Hester thought her customer the
prettiest creature ever seen, in the moment she had for admiration
before Sylvia turned round and, recalled to herself, began,--

'Oh, I beg your pardon, miss; I was thinking what may the price of
yon crimson ribbon be?'

Hester said nothing, but went to examine the shop-mark.

'Oh! I did not mean that I wanted any, I only want some stuff for a
cloak. Thank you, miss, but I am very sorry--some duffle, please.'

Hester silently replaced the ribbon and went in search of the
duffle. While she was gone Sylvia was addressed by the very person
she most wished to avoid, and whose absence she had rejoiced over on
first entering the shop, her cousin Philip Hepburn.

He was a serious-looking young man, tall, but with a slight stoop in
his shoulders, brought on by his occupation. He had thick hair
standing off from his forehead in a peculiar but not unpleasing
manner; a long face, with a slightly aquiline nose, dark eyes, and a
long upper lip, which gave a disagreeable aspect to a face that
might otherwise have been good-looking.

'Good day, Sylvie,' he said; 'what are you wanting? How are all at
home? Let me help you!'

Sylvia pursed up her red lips, and did not look at him as she
replied,

'I'm very well, and so is mother; feyther's got a touch of
rheumatiz, and there's a young woman getting what I want.'

She turned a little away from him when she had ended this sentence,
as if it had comprised all she could possibly have to say to him.
But he exclaimed,

'You won't know how to choose,' and, seating himself on the counter,
he swung himself over after the fashion of shop-men.

Sylvia took no notice of him, but pretended to be counting over her
money.

'What do you want, Sylvie?' asked he, at last annoyed at her
silence.

'I don't like to be called "Sylvie;" my name is Sylvia; and I'm
wanting duffle for a cloak, if you must know.'

Hester now returned, with a shop-boy helping her to drag along the
great rolls of scarlet and gray cloth.

'Not that,' said Philip, kicking the red duffle with his foot, and
speaking to the lad. 'It's the gray you want, is it not, Sylvie?' He
used the name he had had the cousin's right to call her by since her
childhood, without remembering her words on the subject not five
minutes before; but she did, and was vexed.

'Please, miss, it is the scarlet duffle I want; don't let him take
it away.'

Hester looked up at both their countenances, a little wondering what
was their position with regard to each other; for this, then, was
the beautiful little cousin about whom Philip had talked to her
mother, as sadly spoilt, and shamefully ignorant; a lovely little
dunce, and so forth. Hester had pictured Sylvia Robson, somehow, as
very different from what she was: younger, more stupid, not half so
bright and charming (for, though she was now both pouting and cross,
it was evident that this was not her accustomed mood). Sylvia
devoted her attention to the red cloth, pushing aside the gray.

Philip Hepburn was vexed at his advice being slighted; and yet he
urged it afresh.

'This is a respectable, quiet-looking article that will go well with
any colour; you niver will be so foolish as to take what will mark
with every drop of rain.'

'I'm sorry you sell such good-for-nothing things,' replied Sylvia,
conscious of her advantage, and relaxing a little (as little as she
possibly could) of her gravity.

Hester came in now.

'He means to say that this cloth will lose its first brightness in
wet or damp; but it will always be a good article, and the colour
will stand a deal of wear. Mr. Foster would not have had it in his
shop else.'

Philip did not like that even a reasonable peace-making interpreter
should come between him and Sylvia, so he held his tongue in
indignant silence.

Hester went on:

'To be sure, this gray is the closer make, and would wear the
longest.'

'I don't care,' said Sylvia, still rejecting the dull gray. 'I like
this best. Eight yards, if you please, miss.'

'A cloak takes nine yards, at least,' said Philip, decisively.

'Mother told me eight,' said Sylvia, secretly conscious that her
mother would have preferred the more sober colour; and feeling that
as she had had her own way in that respect, she was bound to keep to
the directions she had received as to the quantity. But, indeed, she
would not have yielded to Philip in anything that she could help.

There was a sound of children's feet running up the street from the
river-side, shouting with excitement. At the noise, Sylvia forgot
her cloak and her little spirit of vexation, and ran to the
half-door of the shop. Philip followed because she went. Hester
looked on with passive, kindly interest, as soon as she had
completed her duty of measuring. One of those girls whom Sylvia had
seen as she and Molly left the crowd on the quay, came quickly up
the street. Her face, which was handsome enough as to feature, was
whitened with excess of passionate emotion, her dress untidy and
flying, her movements heavy and free. She belonged to the lowest
class of seaport inhabitants. As she came near, Sylvia saw that the
tears were streaming down her cheeks, quite unconsciously to
herself. She recognized Sylvia's face, full of interest as it was,
and stopped her clumsy run to speak to the pretty, sympathetic
creature.

'She's o'er t' bar! She's o'er t' bar! I'm boun' to tell mother!'

She caught at Sylvia's hand, and shook it, and went on breathless
and gasping.

'Sylvia, how came you to know that girl?' asked Philip, sternly.
'She's not one for you to be shaking hands with. She's known all
down t' quay-side as "Newcastle Bess."'

'I can't help it,' said Sylvia, half inclined to cry at his manner
even more than his words. 'When folk are glad I can't help being
glad too, and I just put out my hand, and she put out hers. To think
o' yon ship come in at last! And if yo'd been down seeing all t'
folk looking and looking their eyes out, as if they feared they
should die afore she came in and brought home the lads they loved,
yo'd ha' shaken hands wi' that lass too, and no great harm done. I
never set eyne upon her till half an hour ago on th' staithes, and
maybe I'll niver see her again.'

Hester was still behind the counter, but had moved so as to be near
the window; so she heard what they were saying, and now put in her
word:

'She can't be altogether bad, for she thought o' telling her mother
first thing, according to what she said.'

Sylvia gave Hester a quick, grateful look. But Hester had resumed
her gaze out of the window, and did not see the glance.

And now Molly Corney joined them, hastily bursting into the shop.

'Hech!' said she. 'Hearken! how they're crying and shouting down on
t' quay. T' gang's among 'em like t' day of judgment. Hark!'

No one spoke, no one breathed, I had almost said no heart beat for
listening. Not long; in an instant there rose the sharp simultaneous
cry of many people in rage and despair. Inarticulate at that
distance, it was yet an intelligible curse, and the roll, and the
roar, and the irregular tramp came nearer and nearer.

'They're taking 'em to t' Randyvowse,' said Molly. 'Eh! I wish I'd
King George here just to tell him my mind.'

The girl clenched her hands, and set her teeth.

'It's terrible hard!' said Hester; 'there's mothers, and wives,
looking out for 'em, as if they were stars dropt out o' t' lift.'

'But can we do nothing for 'em?' cried Sylvia. 'Let us go into t'
thick of it and do a bit of help; I can't stand quiet and see 't!'
Half crying, she pushed forwards to the door; but Philip held her
back.

'Sylvie! you must not. Don't be silly; it's the law, and no one can
do aught against it, least of all women and lasses.

By this time the vanguard of the crowd came pressing up Bridge
Street, past the windows of Foster's shop. It consisted of wild,
half-amphibious boys, slowly moving backwards, as they were
compelled by the pressure of the coming multitude to go on, and yet
anxious to defy and annoy the gang by insults, and curses half
choked with their indignant passion, doubling their fists in the
very faces of the gang who came on with measured movement, armed to
the teeth, their faces showing white with repressed and determined
energy against the bronzed countenances of the half-dozen sailors,
who were all they had thought it wise to pick out of the whaler's
crew, this being the first time an Admiralty warrant had been used
in Monkshaven for many years; not since the close of the American
war, in fact. One of the men was addressing to his townspeople, in a
high pitched voice, an exhortation which few could hear, for,
pressing around this nucleus of cruel wrong, were women crying
aloud, throwing up their arms in imprecation, showering down abuse
as hearty and rapid as if they had been a Greek chorus. Their wild,
famished eyes were strained on faces they might not kiss, their
cheeks were flushed to purple with anger or else livid with impotent
craving for revenge. Some of them looked scarce human; and yet an
hour ago these lips, now tightly drawn back so as to show the teeth
with the unconscious action of an enraged wild animal, had been soft
and gracious with the smile of hope; eyes, that were fiery and
bloodshot now, had been loving and bright; hearts, never to recover
from the sense of injustice and cruelty, had been trustful and glad
only one short hour ago.

There were men there, too, sullen and silent, brooding on remedial
revenge; but not many, the greater proportion of this class being
away in the absent whalers.

The stormy multitude swelled into the market-place and formed a
solid crowd there, while the press-gang steadily forced their way on
into High Street, and on to the rendezvous. A low, deep growl went
up from the dense mass, as some had to wait for space to follow the
others--now and then going up, as a lion's growl goes up, into a
shriek of rage.

A woman forced her way up from the bridge. She lived some little way
in the country, and had been late in hearing of the return of the
whaler after her six months' absence; and on rushing down to the
quay-side, she had been told by a score of busy, sympathizing
voices, that her husband was kidnapped for the service of the
Government.

She had need pause in the market-place, the outlet of which was
crammed up. Then she gave tongue for the first time in such a
fearful shriek, you could hardly catch the words she said.

'Jamie! Jamie! will they not let you to me?'

Those were the last words Sylvia heard before her own hysterical
burst of tears called every one's attention to her.

She had been very busy about household work in the morning, and much
agitated by all she had seen and heard since coming into Monkshaven;
and so it ended in this.

Molly and Hester took her through the shop into the parlour
beyond--John Foster's parlour, for Jeremiah, the elder brother,
lived in a house of his own on the other side of the water. It was a
low, comfortable room, with great beams running across the ceiling,
and papered with the same paper as the walls--a piece of elegant
luxury which took Molly's fancy mightily! This parlour looked out on
the dark courtyard in which there grew two or three poplars,
straining upwards to the light; and through an open door between the
backs of two houses could be seen a glimpse of the dancing, heaving
river, with such ships or fishing cobles as happened to be moored in
the waters above the bridge.

They placed Sylvia on the broad, old-fashioned sofa, and gave her
water to drink, and tried to still her sobbing and choking. They
loosed her hat, and copiously splashed her face and clustering
chestnut hair, till at length she came to herself; restored, but
dripping wet. She sate up and looked at them, smoothing back her
tangled curls off her brow, as if to clear both her eyes and her
intellect.

'Where am I?--oh, I know! Thank you. It was very silly, but somehow
it seemed so sad!'

And here she was nearly going off again, but Hester said--

'Ay, it were sad, my poor lass--if I may call you so, for I don't
rightly know your name--but it's best not think on it for we can do
no mak' o' good, and it'll mebbe set you off again. Yo're Philip
Hepburn's cousin, I reckon, and yo' bide at Haytersbank Farm?'

'Yes; she's Sylvia Robson,' put in Molly, not seeing that Hester's
purpose was to make Sylvia speak, and so to divert her attention
from the subject which had set her off into hysterics. 'And we came
in for market,' continued Molly, 'and for t' buy t' new cloak as her
feyther's going to give her; and, for sure, I thought we was i'
luck's way when we saw t' first whaler, and niver dreaming as t'
press-gang 'ud be so marred.'

She, too, began to cry, but her little whimper was stopped by the
sound of the opening door behind her. It was Philip, asking Hester
by a silent gesture if he might come in.

Sylvia turned her face round from the light, and shut her eyes. Her
cousin came close up to her on tip-toe, and looked anxiously at what
he could see of her averted face; then he passed his hand so
slightly over her hair that he could scarcely be said to touch it,
and murmured--

'Poor lassie! it's a pity she came to-day, for it's a long walk in
this heat!'

But Sylvia started to her feet, almost pushing him along. Her
quickened senses heard an approaching step through the courtyard
before any of the others were aware of the sound. In a minute
afterwards, the glass-door at one corner of the parlour was opened
from the outside, and Mr. John stood looking in with some surprise at
the group collected in his usually empty parlour.

'It's my cousin,' said Philip, reddening a little; 'she came wi' her
friend in to market, and to make purchases; and she's got a turn wi'
seeing the press-gang go past carrying some of the crew of the
whaler to the Randyvowse.

'Ay, ay,' said Mr. John, quickly passing on into the shop on tip-toe,
as if he were afraid he were intruding in his own premises, and
beckoning Philip to follow him there. 'Out of strife cometh strife.
I guessed something of the sort was up from what I heard on t'
bridge as I came across fra' brother Jeremiah's.' Here he softly
shut the door between the parlour and the shop. 'It beareth hard on
th' expectant women and childer; nor is it to be wondered at that
they, being unconverted, rage together (poor creatures!) like the
very heathen. Philip,' he said, coming nearer to his 'head young
man,' 'keep Nicholas and Henry at work in the ware-room upstairs
until this riot be over, for it would grieve me if they were misled
into violence.'

Philip hesitated.

'Speak out, man! Always ease an uneasy heart, and never let it get
hidebound.'

'I had thought to convoy my cousin and the other young woman home,
for the town is like to be rough, and it's getting dark.'

'And thou shalt, my lad,' said the good old man; 'and I myself will
try and restrain the natural inclinations of Nicholas and Henry.'

But when he went to find the shop-boys with a gentle homily on his
lips, those to whom it should have been addressed were absent. In
consequence of the riotous state of things, all the other shops in
the market-place had put their shutters up; and Nicholas and Henry,
in the absence of their superiors, had followed the example of their
neighbours, and, as business was over, they had hardly waited to put
the goods away, but had hurried off to help their townsmen in any
struggle that might ensue.

There was no remedy for it, but Mr. John looked rather discomfited.
The state of the counters, and of the disarranged goods, was such
also as would have irritated any man as orderly but less
sweet-tempered. All he said on the subject was: 'The old Adam! the
old Adam!' but he shook his head long after he had finished
speaking.

'Where is William Coulson?' he next asked. 'Oh! I remember. He was
not to come back from York till the night closed in.'

Philip and his master arranged the shop in the exact order the old
man loved. Then he recollected the wish of his subordinate, and
turned round and said--

'Now go with thy cousin and her friend. Hester is here, and old
Hannah. I myself will take Hester home, if need be. But for the
present I think she had best tarry here, as it isn't many steps to
her mother's house, and we may need her help if any of those poor
creatures fall into suffering wi' their violence.'

With this, Mr. John knocked at the door of the parlour, and waited
for permission to enter. With old-fashioned courtesy he told the two
strangers how glad he was that his room had been of service to them;
that he would never have made so bold as to pass through it, if he
had been aware how it was occupied. And then going to a corner
cupboard, high up in the wall, he pulled a key out of his pocket and
unlocked his little store of wine, and cake, and spirits; and
insisted that they should eat and drink while waiting for Philip,
who was taking some last measures for the security of the shop
during the night.

Sylvia declined everything, with less courtesy than she ought to
have shown to the offers of the hospitable old man. Molly took wine
and cake, leaving a good half of both, according to the code of
manners in that part of the country; and also because Sylvia was
continually urging her to make haste. For the latter disliked the
idea of her cousin's esteeming it necessary to accompany them home,
and wanted to escape from him by setting off before he returned. But
any such plans were frustrated by Philip's coming back into the
parlour, full of grave content, which brimmed over from his eyes,
with the parcel of Sylvia's obnoxious red duffle under his arm;
anticipating so keenly the pleasure awaiting him in the walk, that
he was almost surprised by the gravity of his companions as they
prepared for it. Sylvia was a little penitent for her rejection of
Mr. John's hospitality, now she found out how unavailing for its
purpose such rejection had been, and tried to make up by a modest
sweetness of farewell, which quite won his heart, and made him
praise her up to Hester in a way to which she, observant of all,
could not bring herself fully to respond. What business had the
pretty little creature to reject kindly-meant hospitality in the
pettish way she did, thought Hester. And, oh! what business had she
to be so ungrateful and to try and thwart Philip in his thoughtful
wish of escorting them through the streets of the rough, riotous
town? What did it all mean?

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