Sylvie and Bruno Concluded

by Lewis Carroll

Chapter 6: “Willie’s Wife”

Additional Information
  • Year Published: 1893
  • Language: English
  • Country of Origin: England
  • Source: Carroll, L. (1893). Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. London: Macmillan and Co.
  • Readability:
    • Flesch–Kincaid Level: 6.5
  • Word Count: 2,416
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Keywords: 19th century literature, british literature, lewis carroll
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He made for the door of the public-house, but the children intercepted him. Sylvie clung to one arm; while Bruno, on the opposite side, was pushing him with all his strength, and many inarticulate cries of “Gee-up! Gee-back! Woah then!” which he had picked up from the waggoners.

“Willie” took not the least notice of them: he was simply conscious that something had checked him: and, for want of any other way of accounting for it, he seemed to regard it as his own act.

“I wunnut coom in,” he said: “not to-day.”

“A mug o’ beer wunnut hurt ‘ee!” his friends shouted in chorus. “Two mugs wunnut hurt ‘ee! Nor a dozen mugs!”

“Nay,” said Willie. “I’m agoan whoam.”

“What, withouten thy drink, Willie man?” shouted the others. But “Willie man” would have no more discussion, and turned doggedly away, the children keeping one on each side of him, to guard him against any change in his sudden resolution.

For a while he walked on stoutly enough, keeping his hands in his pockets, and softly whistling a tune, in time to his heavy tread: his success, in appearing entirely at his ease, was almost complete; but a careful observer would have noted that he had forgotten the second part of the air, and that, when it broke down, he instantly began it again, being too nervous to think of another, and too restless to endure silence.

It was not the old fear that possessed him now—the old fear that had been his dreary companion every Saturday night he could remember as he had reeled along, steadying himself against gates and garden-palings, and when the thrill reproaches of his wife had seemed to his dazed brain only the echo of a yet more piercing voice within, the intolerable wail of a hopeless remorse: it was a wholly new fear that had come to him now: life had taken on itself a new set of colours, and was lighted up with a new and dazzling radiance, and he did not see, as yet, how his home-life, and his wife and child, would fit into the new order of things: the very novelty of it all was, to his simple mind, a perplexity and an overwhelming terror.

And now the tune died into sudden silence on the trembling lips, as he turned a sharp corner, and came in sight of his own cottage, where his wife stood, leaning with folded arms on the wicket-gate, and looking up the road with a pale face, that had in it no glimmer of the light of hope—only the heavy shadow of a deep stony despair.

“Fine an’ early, lad! Fine an’ early!” the words might have been words of welcoming, but oh, the bitterness of the tone in which she said it! “What brings thee from thy merry mates, and all the fiddling and the jigging? Pockets empty, I doubt? Or thou’st come, mebbe, for to see thy little one die? The bairnie’s clemmed, and I’ve nor bite nor sup to gie her. But what does thou care?” She flung the gate open, and met him with blazing eyes of fury.

The man said no word. Slowly, and with downcast eyes, he passed into the house, while she, half terrified at his strange silence, followed him in without another word; and it was not till he had sunk into a chair, with his arms crossed on the table and with drooping head, that she found her voice again.

It seemed entirely natural for us to go in with them: at another time one would have asked leave for this, but I felt, I knew not why, that we were in some mysterious way invisible, and as free to come and to go as disembodied spirits.

The child in the cradle woke up, and raised a piteous cry, which in a moment brought the children to its side: Bruno rocked the cradle, while Sylvie tenderly replaced the little head on the pillow from which it had slipped. But the mother took no heed of the cry, nor yet of the satisfied “coo” that it set up when Sylvie had made it happy again: she only stood gazing at her husband, and vainly trying, with white quivering lips (I believe she thought he was mad), to speak in the old tones of shrill upbraiding that he knew so well.

“And thou’st spent all thy wages—I’ll swear thou hast —on the devil’s own drink—and thou’st been and made thysen a beast again—as thou allus dost—”

“Hasna!” the man muttered, his voice hardly rising above a whisper, as he slowly emptied his pockets on the table. “There’s th’ wage, Missus, every penny on’t.”

The woman gasped and put one hand to her heart, as if under some great shock of surprise. “Then how’s thee gotten th’ drink?”

“Hasna gotten it,” he answered her, in a tone more sad than sullen. “I hanna touched a drop this blessed day. No!” he cried aloud, bringing his clenched fist heavily down upon the table, and looking up at her with gleaming eyes, “nor I’ll never touch another drop o’ the cursed drink—till I die—so help me God my Maker!” His voice, which had suddenly risen to a hoarse shout, dropped again as suddenly: and once more he bowed his head, and buried his face in his folded arms.

The woman had dropped upon her knees by the cradle, while he was speaking. She neither looked at him nor seemed to hear him. With hands clasped above her head, she rocked herself wildly to and fro. “Oh my God! Oh my God!” was all she said, over and over again.

Sylvie and Bruno gently unclasped her hands and drew them down—till she had an arm round each of them, though she took no notice of them, but knelt on with eyes gazing upwards, and lips that moved as if in silent thanksgiving. The man kept his face hidden, and uttered no sound: but one could see the sobs that shook him from head to foot.

After a while he raised his head—his face all wet with tears. “folly!” he said softly; and then, louder, “Old Poll!”

Then she rose from her knees and came to him, with a dazed look, as if she were walking in her sleep. “Who was it called me old Poll?” she asked: her voice took on it a tender playfulness: her eyes sparkled; and the rosy light of Youth flushed her pale cheeks, till she looked more like a happy girl of seventeen than a worn woman of forty. “Was that my own lad, my Willie, a-waiting for me at the stile?”

His face too was transformed, in the same magic light, to the likeness of a bashful boy: and boy and girl they seemed, as he wound an arm about her, and drew her to his side, while with the other hand he thrust from him the heap of money, as though it were something hateful to the touch. “Tak it, lass,” he said, “tak it all! An’ fetch us summat to eat: but get a sup o’ milk, first, for t’bairn.

“My little bairn!” she murmured as she gathered up the coins. “My own little lassie!” Then she moved to the door, and was passing out, but a sudden thought seemed to arrest her: she hastily returned—first to kneel down and kiss the sleeping child, and then to throw herself into her husband’s arms and be strained to his heart. The next moment she was on her way, taking with her a jug that hung on a peg near the door: we followed close behind.

We had not gone far before we came in sight of a swinging sign-board bearing the word “DAIRY” on it, and here she went in, welcomed by a little curly white dog, who, not being under the “eerie” influence, saw the children, and received them with the most effusive affection. When I got inside, the dairyman was in the act of taking the money. “Is’s for thysen, Missus, or for t’ bairn?” he asked, when he had filled the jug, pausing with it in his hand.

“For t’ bairn!” she said, almost reproachfully. “Think’st tha I’d touch a drop mysen, while as she hadna got her fill?”

“All right, Missus,” the man replied, turning away with the jug in his hand. “Let’s just mak sure it’s good measure.” He went back among his shelves of milk-bowls, carefully keeping his back towards her while he emptied a little measure of cream into the jug, muttering to himself “mebbe it’ll hearten her up a bit, the little lassie!”

The woman never noticed the kind deed, but took back the jug with a simple “Good evening, Master,” and went her way: but the children had been more observant, and, as we followed her out, Bruno remarked “That were welly kind: and I loves that man: and if I was welly rich I’d give him a hundred pounds—and a bun. That little grummeling dog doosn’t know its business!” He referred to the dairyman’s little dog, who had apparently quite forgotten the affectionate welcome he had given us on our arrival, and was now following at a respectful distance, doing his best to “speed the parting guest” with a shower of little shrill barks, that seemed to tread on one another’s heels.

“What is a dog’s business?” laughed Sylvie. “Dogs ca’n’t keep shops and give change!”

“Sisters’ businesses isn’t to laugh at their brothers,” Bruno replied with perfect gravity. “And dogs’ businesses is to bark—not like that: it should finish one bark before it begins another: and it should—Oh Sylvie, there’s some dindledums!”

And in another moment the happy children were flying across the common, racing for the patch of dandelions.

While I stood watching them, a strange dreamy feeling came upon me: a railway-platform seemed to take the place of the green sward, and, instead of the light figure of Sylvie bounding along, I seemed to see the flying form of Lady Muriel; but whether Bruno had also undergone a transformation, and had become the old man whom she was running to overtake, I was unable to judge, so instantaneously did the feeling come and go.

When I re-entered the little sitting-room which I shared with Arthur, he was standing with his back to me, looking out of the open window, and evidently had not heard me enter. A cup of tea, apparently just tasted and pushed aside, stood on the table, on the opposite side of which was a letter, just begun, with the pen lying across it: an open book lay on the sofa: the London paper occupied the easy chair; and on the little table which stood by it, I noticed an unlighted cigar and an open box of cigar-lights: all things betokened that the Doctor, usually so methodical and so self-contained, had been trying every form of occupation, and could settle to none!

“This is very unlike you, Doctor!” I was beginning, but checked myself, as he turned at the sound of my voice, in sheer amazement at the wonderful change that had taken place in his appearance. Never had I seen a face so radiant with happiness, or eyes that sparkled with such unearthly light! “Even thus”, I thought, “must the herald-angel have looked, who brought to the shepherds, watching over their flocks by night, that sweet message of ‘peace on earth, good-will to men’!”

“Yes, dear friend!” he said, as if in answer to the question that I suppose he read in my face. “It is true! It is true!”

No need to ask what was true. “God bless you both!” I said, as I felt the happy tears brimming to my eyes. “You were made for each other!”

“Yes,” he said, simply, “I believe we were. And what a change it makes in one’s Life! This isn’t the same world! That isn’t the sky I saw yesterday! Those clouds— I never saw such clouds in all my life before! They look like troops of hovering angels!”

To me they looked very ordinary clouds indeed: but then I had not fed “on honeydew, And drunk the milk of Paradise”!

“She wants to see you—at once,” he continued, descending suddenly to the things of earth. “She says that is the one drop yet wanting in her cup of happiness!”

“I’ll go at once,” I said, as I turned to leave the room. “Wo’n’t you come with me?”

“No, Sir!” said the Doctor, with a sudden effort— which proved an utter failure—to resume his professional manner. “Do I look like coming with you? Have you never heard that two is company, and—”

“Yes,” I said, “I have heard it: and I’m painfully aware that I am Number Three! But, when shall we three meet again?”

“When the hurly-burly’s done!” he answered with a happy laugh, such as I had not heard from him for many a year.