Read Cousin Phillis Online

Authors: Elizabeth Gaskell

Cousin Phillis

BOOK: Cousin Phillis
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COUSIN PHILLIS
* * *
ELIZABETH GASKELL
 
*
Cousin Phillis
First published in 1864
ISBN 978-1-62012-154-2
Duke Classics
© 2012 Duke Classics and its licensors. All rights reserved.
While every effort has been used to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information contained in this edition, Duke Classics does not assume liability or responsibility for any errors or omissions in this book. Duke Classics does not accept responsibility for loss suffered as a result of reliance upon the accuracy or currency of information contained in this book.
Contents
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Part I
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It is a great thing for a lad when he is first turned into the
independence of lodgings. I do not think I ever was so satisfied and
proud in my life as when, at seventeen, I sate down in a little
three-cornered room above a pastry-cook's shop in the county town of
Eltham. My father had left me that afternoon, after delivering himself
of a few plain precepts, strongly expressed, for my guidance in the new
course of life on which I was entering. I was to be a clerk under the
engineer who had undertaken to make the little branch line from Eltham
to Hornby. My father had got me this situation, which was in a position
rather above his own in life; or perhaps I should say, above the
station in which he was born and bred; for he was raising himself every
year in men's consideration and respect. He was a mechanic by trade,
but he had some inventive genius, and a great deal of perseverance, and
had devised several valuable improvements in railway machinery. He did
not do this for profit, though, as was reasonable, what came in the
natural course of things was acceptable; he worked out his ideas,
because, as he said, 'until he could put them into shape, they plagued
him by night and by day.' But this is enough about my dear father; it
is a good thing for a country where there are many like him. He was a
sturdy Independent by descent and conviction; and this it was, I
believe, which made him place me in the lodgings at the pastry-cook's.
The shop was kept by the two sisters of our minister at home; and this
was considered as a sort of safeguard to my morals, when I was turned
loose upon the temptations of the county town, with a salary of thirty
pounds a year.

My father had given up two precious days, and put on his Sunday
clothes, in order to bring me to Eltham, and accompany me first to the
office, to introduce me to my new master (who was under some
obligations to my father for a suggestion), and next to take me to call
on the Independent minister of the little congregation at Eltham. And
then he left me; and though sorry to part with him, I now began to
taste with relish the pleasure of being my own master. I unpacked the
hamper that my mother had provided me with, and smelt the pots of
preserve with all the delight of a possessor who might break into their
contents at any time he pleased. I handled and weighed in my fancy the
home-cured ham, which seemed to promise me interminable feasts; and,
above all, there was the fine savour of knowing that I might eat of
these dainties when I liked, at my sole will, not dependent on the
pleasure of any one else, however indulgent. I stowed my eatables away
in the little corner cupboard—that room was all corners, and
everything was placed in a corner, the fire-place, the window, the
cupboard; I myself seemed to be the only thing in the middle, and there
was hardly room for me. The table was made of a folding leaf under the
window, and the window looked out upon the market-place; so the studies
for the prosecution of which my father had brought himself to pay extra
for a sitting-room for me, ran a considerable chance of being diverted
from books to men and women. I was to have my meals with the two
elderly Miss Dawsons in the little parlour behind the three-cornered
shop downstairs; my breakfasts and dinners at least, for, as my hours
in an evening were likely to be uncertain, my tea or supper was to be
an independent meal.

Then, after this pride and satisfaction, came a sense of desolation. I
had never been from home before, and I was an only child; and though my
father's spoken maxim had been, 'Spare the rod, and spoil the child',
yet, unconsciously, his heart had yearned after me, and his ways
towards me were more tender than he knew, or would have approved of in
himself could he have known. My mother, who never professed sternness,
was far more severe than my father: perhaps my boyish faults annoyed
her more; for I remember, now that I have written the above words, how
she pleaded for me once in my riper years, when I had really offended
against my father's sense of right.

But I have nothing to do with that now. It is about cousin Phillis that
I am going to write, and as yet I am far enough from even saying who
cousin Phillis was.

For some months after I was settled in Eltham, the new employment in
which I was engaged—the new independence of my life—occupied all my
thoughts. I was at my desk by eight o'clock, home to dinner at one,
back at the office by two. The afternoon work was more uncertain than
the morning's; it might be the same, or it might be that I had to
accompany Mr Holdsworth, the managing engineer, to some point on the
line between Eltham and Hornby. This I always enjoyed, because of the
variety, and because of the country we traversed (which was very wild
and pretty), and because I was thrown into companionship with Mr
Holdsworth, who held the position of hero in my boyish mind. He was a
young man of five-and-twenty or so, and was in a station above mine,
both by birth and education; and he had travelled on the Continent, and
wore mustachios and whiskers of a somewhat foreign fashion. I was proud
of being seen with him. He was really a fine fellow in a good number of
ways, and I might have fallen into much worse hands.

Every Saturday I wrote home, telling of my weekly doings—my father had
insisted upon this; but there was so little variety in my life that I
often found it hard work to fill a letter. On Sundays I went twice to
chapel, up a dark narrow entry, to hear droning hymns, and long
prayers, and a still longer sermon, preached to a small congregation,
of which I was, by nearly a score of years, the youngest member.
Occasionally, Mr Peters, the minister, would ask me home to tea after
the second service. I dreaded the honour, for I usually sate on the
edge of my chair all the evening, and answered solemn questions, put in
a deep bass voice, until household prayer-time came, at eight o'clock,
when Mrs Peters came in, smoothing down her apron, and the
maid-of-all-work followed, and first a sermon, and then a chapter was
read, and a long impromptu prayer followed, till some instinct told Mr
Peters that supper-time had come, and we rose from our knees with
hunger for our predominant feeling. Over supper the minister did unbend
a little into one or two ponderous jokes, as if to show me that
ministers were men, after all. And then at ten o'clock I went home, and
enjoyed my long-repressed yawns in the three-cornered room before going
to bed. Dinah and Hannah Dawson, so their names were put on the board
above the shop-door—I always called them Miss Dawson and Miss
Hannah—considered these visits of mine to Mr Peters as the greatest
honour a young man could have; and evidently thought that if after such
privileges, I did not work out my salvation, I was a sort of modern
Judas Iscariot. On the contrary, they shook their heads over my
intercourse with Mr Holdsworth. He had been so kind to me in many ways,
that when I cut into my ham, I hovered over the thought of asking him
to tea in my room, more especially as the annual fair was being held in
Eltham market-place, and the sight of the booths, the merry-go-rounds,
the wild-beast shows, and such country pomps, was (as I thought at
seventeen) very attractive. But when I ventured to allude to my wish in
even distant terms, Miss Hannah caught me up, and spoke of the
sinfulness of such sights, and something about wallowing in the mire,
and then vaulted into France, and spoke evil of the nation, and all who
had ever set foot therein, till, seeing that her anger was
concentrating itself into a point, and that that point was Mr
Holdsworth, I thought it would be better to finish my breakfast, and
make what haste I could out of the sound of her voice. I rather
wondered afterwards to hear her and Miss Dawson counting up their
weekly profits with glee, and saying that a pastry-cook's shop in the
corner of the market-place, in Eltham fair week, was no such bad thing.
However, I never ventured to ask Mr Holdsworth to my lodgings.

There is not much to tell about this first year of mine at Eltham. But
when I was nearly nineteen, and beginning to think of whiskers on my
own account, I came to know cousin Phillis, whose very existence had
been unknown to me till then. Mr Holdsworth and I had been out to
Heathbridge for a day, working hard. Heathbridge was near Hornby, for
our line of railway was above half finished. Of course, a day's outing
was a great thing to tell about in my weekly letters; and I fell to
describing the country—a fault I was not often guilty of. I told my
father of the bogs, all over wild myrtle and soft moss, and shaking
ground over which we had to carry our line; and how Mr Holdsworth and I
had gone for our mid-day meals—for we had to stay here for two days
and a night—to a pretty village hard by, Heathbridge proper; and how I
hoped we should often have to go there, for the shaking, uncertain
ground was puzzling our engineers—one end of the line going up as soon
as the other was weighted down. (I had no thought for the shareholders'
interests, as may be seen; we had to make a new line on firmer ground
before the junction railway was completed.) I told all this at great
length, thankful to fill up my paper. By return letter, I heard that a
second-cousin of my mother's was married to the Independent minister of
Hornby, Ebenezer Holman by name, and lived at Heathbridge proper; the
very Heathbridge I had described, or so my mother believed, for she had
never seen her cousin Phillis Green, who was something of an heiress
(my father believed), being her father's only child, and old Thomas
Green had owned an estate of near upon fifty acres, which must have
come to his daughter. My mother's feeling of kinship seemed to have
been strongly stirred by the mention of Heathbridge; for my father said
she desired me, if ever I went thither again, to make inquiry for the
Reverend Ebenezer Holman; and if indeed he lived there, I was further
to ask if he had not married one Phillis Green; and if both these
questions were answered in the affirmative, I was to go and introduce
myself as the only child of Margaret Manning, born Moneypenny. I was
enraged at myself for having named Heathbridge at all, when I found
what it was drawing down upon me. One Independent minister, as I said
to myself, was enough for any man; and here I knew (that is to say, I
had been catechized on Sabbath mornings by) Mr Dawson, our minister at
home; and I had had to be civil to old Peters at Eltham, and behave
myself for five hours running whenever he asked me to tea at his house;
and now, just as I felt the free air blowing about me up at
Heathbridge, I was to ferret out another minister, and I should perhaps
have to be catechized by him, or else asked to tea at his house.
Besides, I did not like pushing myself upon strangers, who perhaps had
never heard of my mother's name, and such an odd name as it
was—Moneypenny; and if they had, had never cared more for her than she
had for them, apparently, until this unlucky mention of Heathbridge.
Still, I would not disobey my parents in such a trifle, however irksome
it might be. So the next time our business took me to Heathbridge, and
we were dining in the little sanded inn-parlour, I took the opportunity
of Mr Holdsworth's being out of the room, and asked the questions which
I was bidden to ask of the rosy-cheeked maid. I was either
unintelligible or she was stupid; for she said she did not know, but
would ask master; and of course the landlord came in to understand what
it was I wanted to know; and I had to bring out all my stammering
inquiries before Mr Holdsworth, who would never have attended to them,
I dare say, if I had not blushed, and blundered, and made such a fool
of myself.

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