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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSylvia's Lovers - Chapter XV - A DIFFICULT QUESTION
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Sylvia's Lovers - Chapter XV - A DIFFICULT QUESTION Post by :captpaul Category :Long Stories Author :Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Date :January 2011 Read :1234

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Sylvia's Lovers - Chapter XV - A DIFFICULT QUESTION

Philip went to bed with that kind of humble penitent gratitude in
his heart, which we sometimes feel after a sudden revulsion of
feeling from despondency to hope. The night before it seemed as if
all events were so arranged as to thwart him in his dearest wishes;
he felt now as if his discontent and repining, not twenty-four hours
before, had been almost impious, so great was the change in his
circumstances for the better. Now all seemed promising for the
fulfilment of what he most desired. He was almost convinced that he
was mistaken in thinking that Kinraid had had anything more than a
sailor's admiration for a pretty girl with regard to Sylvia; at any
rate, he was going away to-morrow, in all probability not to return
for another year (for Greenland ships left for the northern seas as
soon as there was a chance of the ice being broken up), and ere then
he himself might speak out openly, laying before her parents all his
fortunate prospects, and before her all his deep passionate love.

So this night his prayers were more than the mere form that they had
been the night before; they were a vehement expression of gratitude
to God for having, as it were, interfered on his behalf, to grant
him the desire of his eyes and the lust of his heart. He was like
too many of us, he did not place his future life in the hands of
God, and only ask for grace to do His will in whatever circumstances
might arise; but he yearned in that terrible way after a blessing
which, when granted under such circumstances, too often turns out to
be equivalent to a curse. And that spirit brings with it the
material and earthly idea that all events that favour our wishes are
answers to our prayer; and so they are in one sense, but they need
prayer in a deeper and higher spirit to keep us from the temptation
to evil which such events invariably bring with them.

Philip little knew how Sylvia's time had been passed that day. If he
had, he would have laid down this night with even a heavier heart
than he had done on the last.

Charley Kinraid accompanied his cousins as far as the spot where the
path to Haytersbank Farm diverged. Then he stopped his merry talk,
and announced his intention of going to see farmer Robson. Bessy
Corney looked disappointed and a little sulky; but her sister Molly
Brunton laughed, and said,--

'Tell truth, lad! Dannel Robson 'd niver have a call fra' thee if he
hadn't a pretty daughter.'

'Indeed, but he would,' replied Charley, rather annoyed; 'when I've
said a thing, I do it. I promised last night to go see him; besides,
I like the old man.'

'Well! when shall we tell mother yo're comin' whoam?'

'Toward eight o'clock--may-be sooner.'

'Why it's bare five now! bless t' lad, does he think o' staying
theere a' neet, and they up so late last night, and Mrs. Robson
ailing beside? Mother 'll not think it kind on yo' either, will she,
Bess?'

'I dunno. Charley mun do as he likes; I daresay no one'll miss him
if he does bide away till eight.'

'Well, well! I can't tell what I shall do; but yo'd best not stop
lingering here, for it's getting on, and there'll be a keen frost by
t' look o' the stars.'

Haytersbank was closed for the night as far as it ever was closed;
there were no shutters to the windows, nor did they care to draw the
inside curtains, so few were the passers-by. The house door was
fastened; but the shippen door a little on in the same long low
block of building stood open, and a dim light made an oblong upon
the snowy ground outside. As Kinraid drew near he heard talking
there, and a woman's voice; he threw a passing glance through the
window into the fire-lit house-place, and seeing Mrs. Robson asleep
by the fireside in her easy-chair, he went on.

There was the intermittent sound of the sharp whistling of milk into
the pail, and Kester, sitting on a three-legged stool, cajoling a
capricious cow into letting her fragrant burden flow. Sylvia stood
near the farther window-ledge, on which a horn lantern was placed,
pretending to knit at a gray worsted stocking, but in reality
laughing at Kester's futile endeavours, and finding quite enough to
do with her eyes, in keeping herself untouched by the whisking tail,
or the occasional kick. The frosty air was mellowed by the warm and
odorous breath of the cattle--breath that hung about the place in
faint misty clouds. There was only a dim light; such as it was, it
was not dearly defined against the dark heavy shadow in which the
old black rafters and manger and partitions were enveloped.

As Charley came to the door, Kester was saying, 'Quiet wi' thee,
wench! Theere now, she's a beauty, if she'll stand still. There's
niver sich a cow i' t' Riding; if she'll only behave hersel'. She's
a bonny lass, she is; let down her milk, theere's a pretty!'

'Why, Kester,' laughed Sylvia, 'thou'rt asking her for her milk wi'
as many pretty speeches as if thou wert wooing a wife!'

'Hey, lass!' said Kester, turning a bit towards her, and shutting
one eye to cock the other the better upon her; an operation which
puckered up his already wrinkled face into a thousand new lines and
folds. 'An' how does thee know how a man woos a wife, that thee
talks so knowin' about it? That's tellin'. Some un's been tryin' it
on thee.'

'There's niver a one been so impudent,' said Sylvia, reddening and
tossing her head a little; 'I'd like to see 'em try me!'

'Well, well!' said Kester, wilfully misunderstanding her meaning,
'thou mun be patient, wench; and if thou's a good lass, may-be thy
turn 'll come and they 'll try it.'

'I wish thou'd talk of what thou's some knowledge on, Kester,
i'stead of i' that silly way,' replied Sylvia.

'Then a mun talk no more 'bout women, for they're past knowin', an'
druv e'en King Solomon silly.'

At this moment Charley stepped in. Sylvia gave a little start and
dropped her ball of worsted. Kester made as though absorbed in his
task of cajoling Black Nell; but his eyes and ears were both
vigilant.

'I was going into the house, but I saw yo'r mother asleep, and I
didn't like to waken her, so I just came on here. Is yo'r father to
the fore?'

'No,' said Sylvia, hanging down her head a little, wondering if he
could have heard the way in which she and Kester had been talking,
and thinking over her little foolish jokes with anger against
herself. 'Father is gone to Winthrop about some pigs as he's heerd
on. He'll not be back till seven o'clock or so.'

It was but half-past five, and Sylvia in the irritation of the
moment believed that she wished Kinraid would go. But she would have
been extremely disappointed if he had. Kinraid himself seemed to
have no thought of the kind. He saw with his quick eyes, not
unaccustomed to women, that his coming so unexpectedly had fluttered
Sylvia, and anxious to make her quite at her ease with him, and not
unwilling to conciliate Kester, he addressed his next speech to him,
with the same kind of air of interest in the old man's pursuit that
a young man of a different class sometimes puts on when talking to
the chaperone of a pretty girl in a ball-room.

'That's a handsome beast yo've just been milking, master.'

'Ay; but handsome is as handsome does. It were only yesterday as she
aimed her leg right at t' pail wi' t' afterings in. She knowed it
were afterings as well as any Christian, and t' more t' mischief t'
better she likes it; an' if a hadn't been too quick for her, it
would have a' gone swash down i' t' litter. This'n 's a far better
cow i' t' long run, she's just a steady goer,' as the milky
down-pour came musical and even from the stall next to Black Nell's.

Sylvia was knitting away vigorously, thinking all the while that it
was a great pity she had not put on a better gown, or even a cap
with brighter ribbon, and quite unconscious how very pretty she
looked standing against the faint light, her head a little bent
down; her hair catching bright golden touches, as it fell from under
her little linen cap; her pink bed-gown, confined by her
apron-string, giving a sort of easy grace to her figure; her dark
full linsey petticoat short above her trim ancles, looking far more
suitable to the place where she was standing than her long gown of
the night before would have done. Kinraid was wanting to talk to
her, and to make her talk, but was uncertain how to begin. In the
meantime Kester went on with the subject last spoken about.

'Black Nell's at her fourth calf now, so she ought to ha' left off
her tricks and turned sober-like. But bless yo', there's some cows
as 'll be skittish till they're fat for t' butcher. Not but what a
like milking her better nor a steady goer; a man has allays summat
to be watchin' for; and a'm kind o' set up when a've mastered her at
last. T' young missus theere, she's mighty fond o' comin' t' see
Black Nell at her tantrums. She'd niver come near me if a' cows were
like this'n.'

'Do you often come and see the cows milked?' asked Kinraid,

'Many a time,' said Sylvia, smiling a little. 'Why, when we're
throng, I help Kester; but now we've only Black Nell and Daisy
giving milk. Kester knows as I can milk Black Nell quite easy,' she
continued, half vexed that Kester had not named this accomplishment.

'Ay! when she's in a good frame o' mind, as she is sometimes. But t'
difficulty is to milk her at all times.'

'I wish I'd come a bit sooner. I should like t' have seen you milk
Black Nell,' addressing Sylvia.

'Yo'd better come to-morrow e'en, and see what a hand she'll mak' on
her,' said Kester.

'To-morrow night I shall be far on my road back to Shields.'

'To-morrow!' said Sylvia, suddenly looking up at him, and then
dropping her eyes, as she found he had been watching for the effect
of his intelligence on her.

'I mun be back at t' whaler, where I'm engaged,' continued he.
'She's fitting up after a fresh fashion, and as I've been one as
wanted new ways, I mun be on the spot for t' look after her. Maybe I
shall take a run down here afore sailing in March. I'm sure I shall
try.'

There was a good deal meant and understood by these last few words.
The tone in which they were spoken gave them a tender intensity not
lost upon either of the hearers. Kester cocked his eye once more,
but with as little obtrusiveness as he could, and pondered the
sailor's looks and ways. He remembered his coming about the place
the winter before, and how the old master had then appeared to have
taken to him; but at that time Sylvia had seemed to Kester too
little removed from a child to have either art or part in Kinraid's
visits; now, however, the case was different. Kester in his
sphere--among his circle of acquaintance, narrow though it was--had
heard with much pride of Sylvia's bearing away the bell at church
and at market, wherever girls of her age were congregated. He was a
north countryman, so he gave out no further sign of his feelings
than his mistress and Sylvia's mother had done on a like occasion.

'T' lass is weel enough,' said he; but he grinned to himself, and
looked about, and listened to the hearsay of every lad, wondering
who was handsome, and brave, and good enough to be Sylvia's mate.
Now, of late, it had seemed to the canny farm-servant pretty clear
that Philip Hepburn was 'after her'; and to Philip, Kester had an
instinctive objection, a kind of natural antipathy such as has
existed in all ages between the dwellers in a town and those in the
country, between agriculture and trade. So, while Kinraid and Sylvia
kept up their half-tender, half-jesting conversation, Kester was
making up his slow persistent mind as to the desirability of the
young man then present as a husband for his darling, as much from
his being other than Philip in every respect, as from the individual
good qualities he possessed. Kester's first opportunity of favouring
Kinraid's suit consisted in being as long as possible over his
milking; so never were cows that required such 'stripping,' or were
expected to yield such 'afterings', as Black Nell and Daisy that
night. But all things must come to an end; and at length Kester got
up from his three-legged stool, on seeing what the others did
not--that the dip-candle in the lantern was coming to an end--and
that in two or three minutes more the shippen would be in darkness,
and so his pails of milk be endangered. In an instant Sylvia had
started out of her delicious dreamland, her drooping eyes were
raised, and recovered their power of observation; her ruddy arms
were freed from the apron in which she had enfolded them, as a
protection from the gathering cold, and she had seized and adjusted
the wooden yoke across her shoulders, ready to bear the brimming
milk-pails to the dairy.

'Look yo' at her!' exclaimed Kester to Charley, as he adjusted the
fragrant pails on the yoke. 'She thinks she's missus a ready, and
she's allays for carrying in t' milk since t' rhumatiz cotched my
shouther i' t' back end; and when she says "Yea," it's as much as my
heed's worth to say "Nay."'

And along the wall, round the corner, down the round slippery stones
of the rambling farmyard, behind the buildings, did Sylvia trip,
safe and well-poised, though the ground wore all one coating of
white snow, and in many places was so slippery as to oblige Kinraid
to linger near Kester, the lantern-bearer. Kester did not lose his
opportunity, though the cold misty night air provoked his asthmatic
cough when-ever he breathed, and often interrupted his words.

'She's a good wench--a good wench as iver was--an come on a good
stock, an' that's summat, whether in a cow or a woman. A've known
her from a baby; she's a reet down good un.'

By this time they had reached the back-kitchen door, just as Sylvia
had unladen herself, and was striking a light with flint and tinder.
The house seemed warm and inviting after the piercing outer air,
although the kitchen into which they entered contained only a raked
and slumbering fire at one end, over which, on a crook, hung the
immense pan of potatoes cooking for the evening meal of the pigs. To
this pan Kester immediately addressed himself, swinging it round
with ease, owing to the admirable simplicity of the old-fashioned
machinery. Kinraid stood between Kester and the door into the dairy,
through which Sylvia had vanished with the milk. He half wished to
conciliate Kester by helping him, but he seemed also attracted, by a
force which annihilated his will, to follow her wherever she went.
Kester read his mind.

'Let alone, let alone,' said he; 'pigs' vittle takes noan such
dainty carryin' as milk. A may set it down an' niver spill a drop;
she's noan fit for t' serve swine, nor yo' other, mester; better
help her t' teem t' milk.'

So Kinraid followed the light--his light--into the icy chill of the
dairy, where the bright polished tin cans were quickly dimmed with
the warm, sweet-smelling milk, that Sylvia was emptying out into the
brown pans. In his haste to help her, Charley took up one of the
pails.

'Eh? that'n 's to be strained. Yo' have a' the cow's hair in.
Mother's very particular, and cannot abide a hair.'

So she went over to her awkward dairymaid, and before she--but not
before he--was aware of the sweet proximity, she was adjusting his
happy awkward arms to the new office of holding a milk-strainer over
the bowl, and pouring the white liquid through it.

'There!' said she, looking up for a moment, and half blushing; 'now
yo'll know how to do it next time.'

'I wish next time was to come now,' said Kinraid; but she had
returned to her own pail, and seemed not to hear him. He followed
her to her side of the dairy. 'I've but a short memory, can yo' not
show me again how t' hold t' strainer?'

'No,' said she, half laughing, but holding her strainer fast in
spite of his insinuating efforts to unlock her fingers. 'But there's
no need to tell me yo've getten a short memory.'

'Why? what have I done? how dun you know it?'

'Last night,' she began, and then she stopped, and turned away her
head, pretending to be busy in her dairy duties of rinsing and such
like.

'Well!' said he, half conjecturing her meaning, and flattered by it,
if his conjecture were right. 'Last night--what?'

'Oh, yo' know!' said she, as if impatient at being both literally
and metaphorically followed about, and driven into a corner.

'No; tell me,' persisted he.

'Well,' said she, 'if yo' will have it, I think yo' showed yo'd but
a short memory when yo' didn't know me again, and yo' were five
times at this house last winter, and that's not so long sin'. But I
suppose yo' see a vast o' things on yo'r voyages by land or by sea,
and then it's but natural yo' should forget.' She wished she could
go on talking, but could not think of anything more to say just
then; for, in the middle of her sentence, the flattering
interpretation he might put upon her words, on her knowing so
exactly the number of times he had been to Haytersbank, flashed upon
her, and she wanted to lead the conversation a little farther
afield--to make it a little less personal. This was not his wish,
however. In a tone which thrilled through her, even in her own
despite, he said,--

'Do yo' think that can ever happen again, Sylvia?'

She was quite silent; almost trembling. He repeated the question as
if to force her to answer. Driven to bay, she equivocated.

'What happen again? Let me go, I dunno what yo're talking about, and
I'm a'most numbed wi' cold.'

For the frosty air came sharp in through the open lattice window,
and the ice was already forming on the milk. Kinraid would have
found a ready way of keeping his cousins, or indeed most young
women, warm; but he paused before he dared put his arm round Sylvia;
she had something so shy and wild in her look and manner; and her
very innocence of what her words, spoken by another girl, might lead
to, inspired him with respect, and kept him in check. So he
contented himself with saying,--

'I'll let yo' go into t' warm kitchen if yo'll tell me if yo' think
I can ever forget yo' again.'

She looked up at him defiantly, and set her red lips firm. He
enjoyed her determination not to reply to this question; it showed
she felt its significance. Her pure eyes looked steadily into his;
nor was the expression in his such as to daunt her or make her
afraid. They were like two children defying each other; each
determined to conquer. At last she unclosed her lips, and nodding
her head as if in triumph, said, as she folded her arms once more in
her check apron,--

'Yo'll have to go home sometime.'

'Not for a couple of hours yet,' said he; 'and yo'll be frozen
first; so yo'd better say if I can ever forget yo' again, without
more ado.'

Perhaps the fresh voices breaking on the silence,--perhaps the tones
were less modulated than they had been before, but anyhow Bell
Robson's voice was heard calling Sylvia through the second door,
which opened from the dairy to the house-place, in which her mother
had been till this moment asleep. Sylvia darted off in obedience to
the call; glad to leave him, as at the moment Kinraid resentfully
imagined. Through the open door he heard the conversation between
mother and daughter, almost unconscious of its meaning, so difficult
did he find it to wrench his thoughts from the ideas he had just
been forming with Sylvia's bright lovely face right under his eyes.

'Sylvia!' said her mother, 'who's yonder?' Bell was sitting up in
the attitude of one startled out of slumber into intensity of
listening; her hands on each of the chair-arms, as if just going to
rise. 'There's a fremd man i' t' house. I heerd his voice!'

'It's only--it's just Charley Kinraid; he was a-talking to me i' t'
dairy.'

'I' t' dairy, lass! and how com'd he i' t' dairy?'

'He com'd to see feyther. Feyther asked him last night,' said
Sylvia, conscious that he could overhear every word that was said,
and a little suspecting that he was no great favourite with her
mother.

'Thy feyther's out; how com'd he i' t' dairy?' persevered Bell.

'He com'd past this window, and saw yo' asleep, and didn't like for
t' waken yo'; so he com'd on to t' shippen, and when I carried t'
milk in---'

But now Kinraid came in, feeling the awkwardness of his situation a
little, yet with an expression so pleasant and manly in his open
face, and in his exculpatory manner, that Sylvia lost his first
words in a strange kind of pride of possession in him, about which
she did not reason nor care to define the grounds. But her mother
rose from her chair somewhat formally, as if she did not intend to
sit down again while he stayed, yet was too weak to be kept in that
standing attitude long.

'I'm afeared, sir, Sylvie hasn't told yo' that my master's out, and
not like to be in till late. He'll be main and sorry to have missed
yo'.'

There was nothing for it after this but to go. His only comfort was
that on Sylvia's rosy face he could read unmistakable signs of
regret and dismay. His sailor's life, in bringing him suddenly face
to face with unexpected events, had given him something of that
self-possession which we consider the attribute of a gentleman; and
with an apparent calmness which almost disappointed Sylvia, who
construed it into a symptom of indifference as to whether he went or
stayed, he bade her mother good-night, and only said, in holding her
hand a minute longer than was absolutely necessary,--

'I'm coming back ere I sail; and then, may-be, you'll answer yon
question.'

He spoke low, and her mother was rearranging herself in her chair,
else Sylvia would have had to repeat the previous words. As it was,
with soft thrilling ideas ringing through her, she could get her
wheel, and sit down to her spinning by the fire; waiting for her
mother to speak first, Sylvia dreamt her dreams.

Bell Robson was partly aware of the state of things, as far as it
lay on the surface. She was not aware how deep down certain feelings
had penetrated into the girl's heart who sat on the other side of
the fire, with a little sad air diffused over her face and figure.
Bell looked upon Sylvia as still a child, to be warned off forbidden
things by threats of danger. But the forbidden thing was already
tasted, and possible danger in its full acquisition only served to
make it more precious-sweet.

Bell sat upright in her chair, gazing into the fire. Her milk-white
linen mob-cap fringed round and softened her face, from which the
usual apple-red was banished by illness, and the features, from the
same cause, rendered more prominent and stern. She had a clean buff
kerchief round her neck, and stuffed into the bosom of her Sunday
woollen gown of dark blue,--if she had been in working-trim she
would have worn a bedgown like Sylvia's. Her sleeves were pinned
back at the elbows, and her brown arms and hard-working hands lay
crossed in unwonted idleness on her check apron. Her knitting was by
her side; and if she had been going through any accustomed
calculation or consideration she would have had it busily clinking
in her fingers. But she had something quite beyond common to think
about, and, perhaps, to speak about; and for the minute she was not
equal to knitting.

'Sylvie,' she began at length, 'did I e'er tell thee on Nancy
Hartley as I knew when I were a child? I'm thinking a deal on her
to-night; may-be it's because I've been dreaming on yon old times.
She was a bonny lass as ever were seen, I've heerd folk say; but
that were afore I knew her. When I knew her she were crazy, poor
wench; wi' her black hair a-streaming down her back, and her eyes,
as were a'most as black, allays crying out for pity, though never a
word she spoke but "He once was here." Just that o'er and o'er
again, whether she were cold or hot, full or hungry, "He once was
here," were all her speech. She had been farm-servant to my mother's
brother--James Hepburn, thy great-uncle as was; she were a poor,
friendless wench, a parish 'prentice, but honest and gaum-like, till
a lad, as nobody knowed, come o'er the hills one sheep-shearing fra'
Whitehaven; he had summat to do wi' th' sea, though not rightly to
be called a sailor: and he made a deal on Nancy Hartley, just to
beguile the time like; and he went away and ne'er sent a thought
after her more. It's the way as lads have; and there's no holding
'em when they're fellows as nobody knows--neither where they come
fro', nor what they've been doing a' their lives, till they come
athwart some poor wench like Nancy Hartley. She were but a softy
after all: for she left off doing her work in a proper manner. I've
heerd my aunt say as she found out as summat was wrong wi' Nancy as
soon as th' milk turned bingy, for there ne'er had been such a clean
lass about her milk-cans afore that; and from bad it grew to worse,
and she would sit and do nothing but play wi' her fingers fro' morn
till night, and if they asked her what ailed her, she just said, "He
once was here;" and if they bid her go about her work, it were a'
the same. And when they scolded her, and pretty sharp too, she would
stand up and put her hair from her eyes, and look about her like a
crazy thing searching for her wits, and ne'er finding them, for all
she could think on was just, "He once was here." It were a caution
to me again thinking a man t' mean what he says when he's a-talking
to a young woman.'

'But what became on poor Nancy?' asked Sylvia.

'What should become on her or on any lass as gives hersel' up to
thinking on a man who cares nought for her?' replied her mother, a
little severely. 'She were crazed, and my aunt couldn't keep her
on, could she? She did keep her a long weary time, thinking as she
would, may-be, come to hersel', and, anyhow, she were a motherless
wench. But at length she had for t' go where she came fro'--back to
Keswick workhouse: and when last I heerd on her she were chained to
th' great kitchen dresser i' t' workhouse; they'd beaten her till
she were taught to be silent and quiet i' th' daytime, but at night,
when she were left alone, she would take up th' oud cry, till it
wrung their heart, so they'd many a time to come down and beat her
again to get any peace. It were a caution to me, as I said afore, to
keep fro' thinking on men as thought nought on me.'

'Poor crazy Nancy!' sighed Sylvia. The mother wondered if she had
taken the 'caution' to herself, or was only full of pity for the mad
girl, dead long before.

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As darkness closed in, and the New Year's throng became scarce,Philip's hesitation about accompanying Coulson faded away. He wasmore comfortable respecting Sylvia, and his going to see her mightbe deferred; and, after all, he felt that the wishes of his mastersought to be attended to, and the honour of an invitation to theprivate house of Jeremiah not to be slighted for anything short of apositive engagement. Besides, the ambitious man of business existedstrongly in Philip. It would never do to slight advances towards thesecond great earthly object in his life; one also on which the firstdepended.So when the shop was closed,
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