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TO PLEASE HIS WIFE




CHAPTER I



The interior of St. James's Church, in Havenpool Town, was slowly
darkening under the close clouds of a winter afternoon. It was
Sunday: service had just ended, the face of the parson in the pulpit
was buried in his hands, and the congregation, with a cheerful sigh
of release, were rising from their knees to depart.

For the moment the stillness was so complete that the surging of the
sea could be heard outside the harbour-bar. Then it was broken by
the footsteps of the clerk going towards the west door to open it in
the usual manner for the exit of the assembly. Before, however, he
had reached the doorway, the latch was lifted from without, and the
dark figure of a man in a sailor's garb appeared against the light.

The clerk stepped aside, the sailor closed the door gently behind
him, and advanced up the nave till he stood at the chancel-step. The
parson looked up from the private little prayer which, after so many
for the parish, he quite fairly took for himself; rose to his feet,
and stared at the intruder.

'I beg your pardon, sir,' said the sailor, addressing the minister in
a voice distinctly audible to all the congregation. 'I have come
here to offer thanks for my narrow escape from shipwreck. I am given
to understand that it is a proper thing to do, if you have no
objection?'

The parson, after a moment's pause, said hesitatingly, 'I have no
objection; certainly. It is usual to mention any such wish before
service, so that the proper words may be used in the General
Thanksgiving. But, if you wish, we can read from the form for use
after a storm at sea.'

'Ay, sure; I ain't particular,' said the sailor.

The clerk thereupon directed the sailor to the page in the prayer-
book where the collect of thanksgiving would be found, and the rector
began reading it, the sailor kneeling where he stood, and repeating
it after him word by word in a distinct voice. The people, who had
remained agape and motionless at the proceeding, mechanically knelt
down likewise; but they continued to regard the isolated form of the
sailor who, in the precise middle of the chancel-step, remained fixed
on his knees, facing the east, his hat beside him, his hands joined,
and he quite unconscious of his appearance in their regard.

When his thanksgiving had come to an end he rose; the people rose
also, and all went out of church together. As soon as the sailor
emerged, so that the remaining daylight fell upon his face, old
inhabitants began to recognize him as no other than Shadrach
Jolliffe, a young man who had not been seen at Havenpool for several
years. A son of the town, his parents had died when he was quite
young, on which account he had early gone to sea, in the Newfoundland
trade.

He talked with this and that townsman as he walked, informing them
that, since leaving his native place years before, he had become
captain and owner of a small coasting-ketch, which had providentially
been saved from the gale as well as himself. Presently he drew near
to two girls who were going out of the churchyard in front of him;
they had been sitting in the nave at his entry, and had watched his
doings with deep interest, afterwards discussing him as they moved
out of church together. One was a slight and gentle creature, the
other a tall, large-framed, deliberative girl. Captain Jolliffe
regarded the loose curls of their hair, their backs and shoulders,
down to their heels, for some time.

'Who may them two maids be?' he whispered to his neighbour.

'The little one is Emily Hanning; the tall one Joanna Phippard.'

'Ah! I recollect 'em now, to be sure.'

He advanced to their elbow, and genially stole a gaze at them.

'Emily, you don't know me?' said the sailor, turning his beaming
brown eyes on her.

'I think I do, Mr. Jolliffe,' said Emily shyly.

The other girl looked straight at him with her dark eyes.

'The face of Miss Joanna I don't call to mind so well,' he continued.
'But I know her beginnings and kindred.'

They walked and talked together, Jolliffe narrating particulars of
his late narrow escape, till they reached the corner of Sloop Lane,
in which Emily Hanning dwelt, when, with a nod and smile, she left
them. Soon the sailor parted also from Joanna, and, having no
especial errand or appointment, turned back towards Emily's house.
She lived with her father, who called himself an accountant, the
daughter, however, keeping a little stationery-shop as a supplemental
provision for the gaps of his somewhat uncertain business. On
entering Jolliffe found father and daughter about to begin tea.

'O, I didn't know it was tea-time,' he said. 'Ay, I'll have a cup
with much pleasure.'

He remained to tea and long afterwards, telling more tales of his
seafaring life. Several neighbours called to listen, and were asked
to come in. Somehow Emily Hanning lost her heart to the sailor that
Sunday night, and in the course of a week or two there was a tender
understanding between them.

One moonlight evening in the next month Shadrach was ascending out of
the town by the long straight road eastward, to an elevated suburb
where the more fashionable houses stood--if anything near this
ancient port could be called fashionable--when he saw a figure before
him whom, from her manner of glancing back, he took to be Emily.
But, on coming up, he found she was Joanna Phippard. He gave a
gallant greeting, and walked beside her.

'Go along,' she said, 'or Emily will be jealous!'

He seemed not to like the suggestion, and remained. What was said
and what was done on that walk never could be clearly recollected by
Shadrach; but in some way or other Joanna contrived to wean him away
from her gentler and younger rival. From that week onwards, Jolliffe
was seen more and more in the wake of Joanna Phippard and less in the
company of Emily; and it was soon rumoured about the quay that old
Jolliffe's son, who had come home from sea, was going to be married
to the former young woman, to the great disappointment of the latter.

Just after this report had gone about, Joanna dressed herself for a
walk one morning, and started for Emily's house in the little cross-
street. Intelligence of the deep sorrow of her friend on account of
the loss of Shadrach had reached her ears also, and her conscience
reproached her for winning him away.

Joanna was not altogether satisfied with the sailor. She liked his
attentions, and she coveted the dignity of matrimony; but she had
never been deeply in love with Jolliffe. For one thing, she was
ambitious, and socially his position was hardly so good as her own,
and there was always the chance of an attractive woman mating
considerably above her. It had long been in her mind that she would
not strongly object to give him back again to Emily if her friend
felt so very badly about him. To this end she had written a letter
of renunciation to Shadrach, which letter she carried in her hand,
intending to send it if personal observation of Emily convinced her
that her friend was suffering.

Joanna entered Sloop Lane and stepped down into the stationery-shop,
which was below the pavement level. Emily's father was never at home
at this hour of the day, and it seemed as though Emily were not at
home either, for the visitor could make nobody hear. Customers came
so seldom hither that a five minutes' absence of the proprietor
counted for little. Joanna waited in the little shop, where Emily
had tastefully set out--as women can--articles in themselves of
slight value, so as to obscure the meagreness of the stock-in-trade;
till she saw a figure pausing without the window apparently absorbed
in the contemplation of the sixpenny books, packets of paper, and
prints hung on a string. It was Captain Shadrach Jolliffe, peering
in to ascertain if Emily were there alone. Moved by an impulse of
reluctance to meet him in a spot which breathed of Emily, Joanna
slipped through the door that communicated with the parlour at the
back. She had frequently done so before, for in her friendship with
Emily she had the freedom of the house without ceremony.

Jolliffe entered the shop. Through the thin blind which screened the
glass partition she could see that he was disappointed at not finding
Emily there. He was about to go out again, when Emily's form
darkened the doorway, hastening home from some errand. At sight of
Jolliffe she started back as if she would have gone out again.

'Don't run away, Emily; don't!' said he. 'What can make ye afraid?'

'I'm not afraid, Captain Jolliffe. Only--only I saw you all of a
sudden, and--it made me jump!' Her voice showed that her heart had
jumped even more than the rest of her.

'I just called as I was passing,' he said.

'For some paper?' She hastened behind the counter.

'No, no, Emily; why do ye get behind there? Why not stay by me? You
seem to hate me.'

'I don't hate you. How can I?'

'Then come out, so that we can talk like Christians.'

Emily obeyed with a fitful laugh, till she stood again beside him in
the open part of the shop.

'There's a dear,' he said.

'You mustn't say that, Captain Jolliffe; because the words belong to
somebody else.'

'Ah! I know what you mean. But, Emily, upon my life I didn't know
till this morning that you cared one bit about me, or I should not
have done as I have done. I have the best of feelings for Joanna,
but I know that from the beginning she hasn't cared for me more than
in a friendly way; and I see now the one I ought to have asked to be
my wife. You know, Emily, when a man comes home from sea after a
long voyage he's as blind as a bat--he can't see who's who in women.
They are all alike to him, beautiful creatures, and he takes the
first that comes easy, without thinking if she loves him, or if he
might not soon love another better than her. From the first I
inclined to you most, but you were so backward and shy that I thought
you didn't want me to bother 'ee, and so I went to Joanna.'

'Don't say any more, Mr. Jolliffe, don't!' said she, choking. 'You
are going to marry Joanna next month, and it is wrong to--to--'

'O, Emily, my darling!' he cried, and clasped her little figure in
his arms before she was aware.

Joanna, behind the curtain, turned pale, tried to withdraw her eyes,
but could not.

'It is only you I love as a man ought to love the woman he is going
to marry; and I know this from what Joanna has said, that she will
willingly let me off! She wants to marry higher I know, and only
said "Yes" to me out of kindness. A fine, tall girl like her isn't
the sort for a plain sailor's wife: you be the best suited for
that.'

He kissed her and kissed her again, her flexible form quivering in
the agitation of his embrace.

'I wonder--are you sure--Joanna is going to break off with you? O,
are you sure? Because--'

'I know she would not wish to make us miserable. She will release
me.'

'O, I hope--I hope she will! Don't stay any longer, Captain
Jolliffe!'

He lingered, however, till a customer came for a penny stick of
sealing-wax, and then he withdrew.

Green envy had overspread Joanna at the scene. She looked about for
a way of escape. To get out without Emily's knowledge of her visit
was indispensable. She crept from the parlour into the passage, and
thence to the front door of the house, where she let herself
noiselessly into the street.

The sight of that caress had reversed all her resolutions. She could
not let Shadrach go. Reaching home she burnt the letter, and told
her mother that if Captain Jolliffe called she was too unwell to see
him.

Shadrach, however, did not call. He sent her a note expressing in
simple language the state of his feelings; and asked to be allowed to
take advantage of the hints she had given him that her affection,
too, was little more than friendly, by cancelling the engagement.

Looking out upon the harbour and the island beyond he waited and
waited in his lodgings for an answer that did not come. The suspense
grew to be so intolerable that after dark he went up the High Street.
He could not resist calling at Joanna's to learn his fate.

Her mother said her daughter was too unwell to see him, and to his
questioning admitted that it was in consequence of a letter received
from himself; which had distressed her deeply.

'You know what it was about, perhaps, Mrs. Phippard?' he said.

Mrs. Phippard owned that she did, adding that it put them in a very
painful position. Thereupon Shadrach, fearing that he had been
guilty of an enormity, explained that if his letter had pained Joanna
it must be owing to a misunderstanding, since he had thought it would
be a relief to her. If otherwise, he would hold himself bound by his
word, and she was to think of the letter as never having been
written.

Next morning he received an oral message from the young woman, asking
him to fetch her home from a meeting that evening. This he did, and
while walking from the Town Hall to her door, with her hand in his
arm, she said:

'It is all the same as before between us, isn't it, Shadrach? Your
letter was sent in mistake?'

'It is all the same as before,' he answered, 'if you say it must be.'

'I wish it to be,' she murmured, with hard lineaments, as she thought
of Emily.

Shadrach was a religious and scrupulous man, who respected his word
as his life. Shortly afterwards the wedding took place, Jolliffe
having conveyed to Emily as gently as possible the error he had
fallen into when estimating Joanna's mood as one of indifference.





Life's Little Ironies by Thomas Hardy
Category:
19th century fiction

Short stories
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