of those exquisite zoophytes which stud every rock and every tuft of weed.
“This is most beautiful,” said he at length. “Humph! why should not Mr. Vavasour write a poem about it?”
“Why not indeed?” thought Elsley.
“It’s no business of mine, no man’s less: but I often wonder why you poets don’t take to the microscope, and tell us a little more about the wonderful things which are here already, and not about those which are not, and which, perhaps, never will be.”
“Well,” said Elsley, after another look: “but, after all, these things have no human interest in them.”
“I don’t know that; they have to me, for instance. These are the things which I would write about if I had any turn for verse, not about human nature, of which I know, I’m afraid, a little too much already. I always like to read old ‘Darwin’s Loves of the Plants;’ bosh as it is in a scientific point of view, it amuses one’s fancy without making one lose one’s temper, as one must when one begins to analyse the microscopic ape called self and friends.
“You would like, then, the old Cosmogonies, the Eddas and the Vedas,” said Elsley, getting interested, as most people did after five minutes’ talk with the cynical doctor. “I suppose you would not say much for their science; but, as poetry, they are just what you ask for–the expression of thoughtful spirits, who looked round upon nature with awe-struck, childlike eyes, and asked of all heaven and earth the question, ‘What are you? How came you to be?’ Yet–it may be my fault–while I admire them, I cannot sympathise with them. To me, this zoophyte is as a being of another sphere; and till I can create some link in my own mind between it and humanity it is as nothing in my eyes.”
“There is link enough, sir, don’t doubt, and chains of iron and brass too.”
“You believe then, in the development theory of the ‘Vestiges’?”
“Doctors who have their bread to earn never commit themselves to theories. No; all I meant was, that this little zoophyte lives by the same laws as you and I; and that he, and the sea-weeds, and so forth, teach us doctors certain little rules concerning life and death, which you will have a chance soon of seeing at work on the most grand and poetical, and indeed altogether tragic scale.”
“What do you mean?”
“When the cholera comes here as it will, at its present pace, before the end of the summer, then I shall have the zoophytes rising up in judgment against me, if I have not profited by a leaf out of their book.”
“The cholera?” said Elsley in a startled voice, forgetting Tom’s parables in the new thought. For Elsley had a dread more nervous than really coward of infectious diseases; and he had also (and prided himself, too, on having) all Goethe’s dislike of anything terrible or horrible, of sickness, disease, wounds, death, anything which jarred with that “beautiful” which was his idol.
“The cholera?” repeated he. “I hope not; I wish you had not mentioned it, Mr. Thurnall.”
“I am very sorry that I did so, if it offends you. I had thought that forewarned was forearmed. After all it is no business of mine; if I have extra labour, as I shall have, I shall have extra experience; and that will be a fair set-off, even if the board of guardians don’t vote me an extra remuneration, as they ought to do.”
Elsley was struck dumb; first by the certainty which Tom’s words expressed, and next by the coolness of their temper. At last he stammered out, “Good heavens, Mr. Thurnall! you do not talk of that frightful scourge–so disgusting, too, in its character–as a matter of profit and loss? It is sordid, cold-hearted!”
“My dear sir, if I let myself think, much more talk, about the matter in any other tone, I should face the thing poorly enough when it came. I shall have work enough to keep my head about the end of August or beginning of September, and I must not lose it beforehand, by indulging in any horror, disgust, or other emotion perfectly justifiable in a layman.”
“But are not doctors men?”
“That depends very much on what ‘a man’ means.”
“Men with human sympathy and compassion.”
“Oh, I mean by a man, a man with human strength. My dear sir, one may be too busy, and at doing good too (though that is not my line, save professionally, because it is my only way of earning money); but one may be too busy at doing good to have time for compassion. If while I was cutting a man’s leg off I thought of the pain which he was suffering–“
“Thank heaven!” said Elsley, “that it was not my lot to become a medical man.”
Tom looked at him with the quaintest smile: a flush of mingled anger and contempt had been rising in him as he heard the ex-bottle-boy talking sentiment: but he only went on quietly,
“No, sir; with your more delicate sensibilities, you may thank Heaven that you did not become a medical man; your life would have been one of torture, disgust, and agonising sense of responsibility. But do you not see that you must thank Heaven for the sufferer’s sake also? I will not shock you again by talking of amputation; but even in the smallest matter–even if you were merely sending medicine to an old maid–suppose that your imagination were preoccupied by the thought of her old age, her sufferings, her disappointed hopes, her regretful dream of bygone youth, and beauty, and love, and all the tender fancies which might well spring out of such a mournful spectacle, would you not be but too likely (pardon the bathos) to end by sending her an elderly gentleman’s medicine after all, and so either frightfully increasing her sufferings, or ending them once for all?”
Tom said this in the most quiet and natural tone, without even a twinkle of his wicked eye: but Elsley heard him begin with reddening face; and as he went on, the red had turned to purple, and then to deadly yellow; till making a half-step forward he cried fiercely:–
“Sir!” and then stopped suddenly; for his feet slipped upon the polished stone, and on his face he fell into the pool at Thurnall’s feet.
“Well for both of us geese!” said Tom inwardly, as he went to pick him up. “I verily believe he was going to strike me, and that would have done for neither of us. I was a fool to say it; but the temptation was so exquisite; and it must have come some day.”
But Vavasour staggered up of his own accord, and dashing away Tom’s proffered hand, was rushing off without a word.
“Not so, Mr. John Briggs!” said Tom, making up his mind in a moment that he must have it out now, or never; and that he might have everything to fear from Vavasour if he let him go home furious. We do not part thus, sir!”
“We will meet again, if you will,” foamed Vavasour, “but it shall end in the death of one of us!”
“By each other’s potions? I can doctor myself, sir, thank you. Listen to me, John Briggs! You shall listen!” and Tom sprang past him, and planted himself at the foot of the rock steps, to prevent his escaping upward.
“What, do you wish to quarrel with me, sir? It is I who ought to quarrel with you. I am the aggrieved party, and not you, sir! I have not seen the son of the man who, when I was an apothecary’s boy, petted me, lent me books, introduced me as a genius, turned my head for me, which was just what I was vain enough to enjoy–I have not seen that man’s son cast ashore penniless and friendless, and yet never held out to him a helping hand, but tried to conceal my identity from him, from a dirty shame of my honest father’s honest name.”
Vavasour dropped his eyes, for was it not true? but he raised them again more fiercely than ever.
“Curse you! I owe you nothing. It was you who made me ashamed of it. You rhymed on it, and laughed about poetry coming out of such a name.”
“And what if I did? Are poets to “be made of nothing but tinder and gall?” Why could you not take an honest joke as it was meant, and go your way like other people, till you had shown yourself worth something, and won honour even, for the name of Briggs?”
“And I have! I have my own station now, my own fame, sir, and it is nothing to you what I choose to call myself. I have won my place, I say, and your mean envy cannot rob me of it.”
“You have your station. Very good,” said Tom, not caring to notice the imputation; “you owe the greater part of it to your having made a most fortunate marriage, for which I respect you, as a practical man. Let your poetry be what it may (and people tell me that it is really very beautiful), your match shows me that you are a clever, and therefore a successful person.”
“Do you take me for a sordid schemer, like yourself? I loved what was worthy of me, and won it because I deserved it.”
“Then, having won it, treat it as it deserves,” said Tom, with a cool searching look, before which Vavasour’s eyes fell again. “Understand me, Mr. John Briggs; it is of no consequence to me what you call yourself: but it is of consequence to me that I should not have a patient in my parish whom I cannot cure; for I cannot cure broken hearts, though they will be simple enough to come to me for medicine.”
“You shall have no chance! You shall never enter my house! You shall not ruin me, sir, by your bills!”
Tom made no answer to this fresh insult. He had another game to play.
“Take care what you say, Briggs; remember that, after all, you are in my power, and I had better remind you plainly of the fact.”
“And you mean to make me your tool? I will die first?”
“I believe that,” said Tom, who was very near adding, “that he should be sorry to work with such tools.”
“My tools are my lancet and my drugs,” said he, quietly, “and all I have to say refers to them. It suits my purpose to become the principal medical man in this neighbourhood–“
“And I am to tout for introductions for you?”
“You are to be so very kind as to allow me to finish my sentence, just as you would allow any other gentleman; and because I wish for practice, and patients, and power, you will be so kind as to treat me henceforth as one high-minded man would treat another, to whom he is obliged. For you know, John Briggs, as well as I,” said Tom, drawing himself up to his full height, “look me in the face, if you can, ere you deny it, that I was, while you knew me, as honourable a man, and as kind-hearted a man, as you ever were; and that now–considering the circumstances under which we meet,–you have more reason to trust me, than I have, prima facie, to trust you.”
Vavasour answered not a word.
“Good-bye, then,” said Tom, drawing aside from the step; “Mrs. Vavasour will be anxious about you. And mind! With regard to her first of all, sir, and then with regard to other matters–as long, and only as long, as you remember that you are John Briggs of Whitbury, I shall be the first to forget it. There is my hand, for old acquaintance’ sake.”
Vavasour took the proffered hand coldly, paused a moment, and then wrung it in silence, and hurried away home.
“Have I played my ace ill after all?” said Tom, sitting down to consider. “As for whether I should have played it all, that’s no business of mine now. Madam Might-have-been may see to that. But did I play ill? for if I did, I may try a new lead yet. Ought I to have twitted him about his wife? If he’s venomous, it may only make matters worse; and still worse if he be suspicious. I don’t think he was either in old times; but vanity will make a man so, and it may have made him. Well, I must only ingratiate myself all the more with her; and find out, too, whether she has his secret as well as I. What I am most afraid of is my having told him plainly that he was in my power; it’s apt to make sprats of his size flounce desperately, in the mere hope of proving themselves whales after all, if it’s only to their miserable selves. Never mind; he can’t break my tackle; and besides, that gripe of the hand seemed to indicate that the poor wretch was beat, and thought himself let off easily–as indeed he is. We’ll hope so. Now, zoophytes, for another turn with you!”
To tell the truth, however, Tom is looking for more than zoophytes, and has been doing so at every dead low tide since he was wrecked. He has heard nothing yet of his belt. The notes have not been presented at the London bank; nobody in the village has been spending more money than usual; for cunning Tom has contrived already to know how many pints of ale every man of whom he has the least doubt has drunk. Perhaps, after all, the belt may have been torn off in the life struggle; it may have been for a moment in Grace’s hands, and then have been swept into the sea. What more likely? And what more likely, in that case, that, sinking by its weight, it is wedged away in some cranny of the rocks?
So spring-tide after spring-tide Tom searches, and all the more carefully because others are searching too, for waifs and strays from the wreck. Sad relics of mortality he finds at times, as others do: once, even, a dressing-case, full of rings and pins and chains, which belonged, he fancied, to a gay young bride with whom he had waltzed many a time on deck, as they slipped along before the soft trade-wind: but no belt. He sent the dressing-case to the Lloyd’s underwriters, and searched on: but in vain. Neither could he find that any one else had forestalled him; and that very afternoon, sulky and disheartened, he determined to waste no more time about the matter, and strode home, vowing signal vengeance against the thief, if he caught him.
“And I will catch him! These west-country yokels, to fancy that they can do Tom Thurnall! It’s adding insult to injury, as Sam Weller’s parrot has it.”
Now his shortest way home lay across the shore, and then along the beach, and up the steps by the little waterfall, past Mrs. Harvey’s door; and at that door sat Grace, sewing in the sun. She looked up and bowed as his passed, smiling modestly, and little dreaming of what was passing in his mind; and when a very lovely girl smiled and bowed to Tom, he must needs do the same to her: whereon she added,–
“I beg your pardon, sir: have you heard anything of the money you lost? I–we–have been so ashamed to think of such a thing happening here.”
Tom’s evil spirit was roused.
“Have _you_ heard anything of it, Miss Harvey? For you seem to me the only person in the place who knows anything about the matter.”
“I, sir?” cried Grace, fixing her great startled eyes full on him.
“Why, ma’am,” said Tom, with a courtly smile, “you may possibly recollect, if you will so far tax your memory, that you had it in your hands at least a moment, when you did me the kindness to save my life; and as you were kind enough to inform me that I should recover it when I was worthy of it, I suppose I have not yet risen in your eyes to the required state of conversion and regeneration.” And swinging impatiently away, he walked on, really afraid lest he should say something rude.
Grace half called after him, and then suddenly checking herself, rushed in to her mother with a wild and pale face.
“What is this Mr. Thurnall has been saying to me about his belt and money which he lost?”
“About what? Has he been rude to you, the bad man?” cried Mrs. Harvey, dropping the pie-dish in some confusion, and taking a long while to pick up the pieces.
“About the belt–the money which he lost? Why don’t you speak, mother?”
“Belt–money? Ah, I recollect now. He has lost some money, he says.”
“Of course he has.”
“How should you know anything? I recollect there was some talk of it, though. But what matter what he says? He was quite passed away, I’ll swear, when they carried him up.”
“But, mother! mother! he says that I know about it; that I had it in my hands!”
“You? Oh the wicked wretch, the false, ungrateful, slanderous child of wrath, with adder’s poison tinder his lips! No, my child! Though we’re poor, we’re honest! Let him slander us, rob us, of our good name, send us to prison, if he will–he cannot rob us of our souls. We’ll be silent; we’ll turn the other cheek, and commit our cause to One above who pleads for the orphan and the widow. We will not strive nor cry, my child. Oh, no!” And Mrs. Harvey began fussing over the smashed pie-dish.
“I shall not strive nor cry, mother,” said Grace, who had recovered her usual calm: “but he must have some cause for these strange words. Do you recollect seeing me with the belt?”
“Belt, what’s a belt? I know nothing about belts. I tell you he’s a villain, and a slanderer. Oh, that it should have come to this, to have my child’s fair fame blasted by a wretch that comes nobody knows where from, and has been doing nobody knows what, for aught I know!”
“Mother, mother! we know no harm of him. If he is mistaken, God forgive him!”
“If he is mistaken?” went on Mrs. Harvey, still over the pie-dish: but Grace gave her no answer.
She was deep in thought. She recollected now, that as she had gone up the path, from the cove on that eventful morning, she had seen Willis and Thurnall whispering earnestly together; and she recollected now, for the first time, that there had been, a certain sadness and perplexity, almost reserve, about Willis ever since. Good Heavens! could he suspect her too? She would find out that at least; and no sooner had her mother fussed away, talking angrily to herself, into the back kitchen, than Grace put on her bonnet and shawl, and went forth to find the Captain.
In an hour she returned. Her lips were firm set, her cheeks pale, her eyes red with weeping. She said nothing to her mother, who for her part did not seem inclined to allude again to the matter.
“Where have you been, child? You look quite poorly, and your eyes red.”
“The wind is very cold, mother,” said she, and went into her room. Her mother looked sharply after her, and muttered to herself.
Grace went in, and sat down on the bed.
“What a coldness this is at my heart!” she said aloud to herself, trying to smile; but she could not: and she sat on the bedside, without taking off her bonnet and shawl, her hands hanging listlessly by her side, her head drooping on her bosom, till her mother called her to tea: then she was forced to rouse herself, and went out, composed, but utterly wretched.
Tom walked up homeward, very ill at ease. He had played, to use his nomenclature, two trump cards running, and was by no means satisfied that he had played them well. He had no right, certainly, to be satisfied with either move; for both had been made in a somewhat evil spirit, and certainly for no very disinterested end.
That was a view of the matter, however, which never entered his mind; there was only that general dissatisfaction with himself which is, though men try hard to deny the fact, none other than the supernatural sting of conscience. He tried “to lay to his soul the flattering unction” that he might, after all, be of use to Mrs. Vavasour, by using his power over her husband: but he knew in his secret heart that any move of his in that direction was likely only to make matters worse; that to-day’s explosion might only have sent home the hapless Vavasour in a more irritable temper than ever. And thinking over many things, backward and forward, he saw his own way so little, that he actually condescended to go and “pump” Frank Headley. So he termed it: but, after all, it was only like asking advice of a good man, because he did not feel himself quite good enough to advise himself.
The curate was preparing to sally forth, after his frugal dinner. The morning he spent at the schools, or in parish secularities; the afternoon, till dusk, was devoted to visiting the poor; the night, not to sleep, but to reading and sermon writing. Thus, by sitting up till two in the morning, and rising again at six for his private devotions, before walking a mile and a half up to church for the morning service, Frank Headley burnt the candle of life at both ends very effectually, and showed that he did so by his pale cheeks and red eyes.
“Ah!” said Tom, as he entered. “As usual: poor Nature is being robbed and murdered by rich Grace.”
“What do you mean now?” asked Frank, smiling, for he had become accustomed enough to Tom’s quaint parables, though he had to scold him often enough for their irreverence.
“Nature says, ‘after dinner sit awhile;’ and even the dumb animals hear her voice, and lie by for a siesta when their stomachs are full. Grace says, ‘Jump up and rush out the moment you have swallowed your food; and if you get an indigestion, abuse poor Nature for it; and lay the blame on Adam’s fall.'”
“You are irreverent, my good sir, as usual; but you are unjust also this time.”
“Unjust to Grace, as you phrase it,” answered Frank, with a quaint sad smile. “I assure you on my honour, that Grace has nothing whatsoever to do with my ‘rushing out’ just now, but simply the desire to do my good works that they may be seen of men. I hate going out. I should like to sit and read the whole afternoon: but I am afraid lest the dissenters should say, ‘He has not been to see so-and-so for the last three days;’ so off I go, and no credit to me.”
Why had Frank dared, upon a month’s acquaintance, to lay bare his own heart thus to a man of no creed at all? Because, I suppose, amid all differences, he had found one point of likeness between himself and Thurnall; he had found that Tom at heart was a truly genuine man, sincere and faithful to his own scheme of the universe.
How that man, through all his eventful life, had been enabled to
“Bate not a jot of heart or hope,
But steer right onward,”
was a problem which Frank longed curiously, and yet fearfully withal, to solve. There were many qualities in him which Frank could not but admire, and long to imitate; and, “Whence had they come?” was another problem at which he looked, trembling as many a new thought crossed him. He longed, too, to learn from Tom somewhat at least of that savoir faire, that power of “becoming all things to all men,” which St. Paul had; and for want of which Frank had failed. He saw, too, with surprise, that Tom had gained in one month more real insight into the characters of his parishioners than he had done in twelve; and besides all, there was the craving of the lonely heart for human confidence and friendship. So it befell that Frank spoke out his inmost thought that day, and thought no shame; and it befell also, that Thurnall, when he heard it, said in his heart–
“What a noble, honest fellow you are, when you–“
But he answered enigmatically.
“Oh, I quite agree with you that Grace has nothing to do with it. I only referred it to that source because I thought you would do so.”
“You ought to be ashamed of your dishonesty, then.”
“I know it; but my view of the case is, that you rush out after dinner for the very same reason that the Yankee storekeeper does–from–You’ll forgive me if I say it?”
“Of course. You cannot speak too plainly to me.”
“Conceit; the Yankee fancies himself such an important person, that the commercial world will stand still unless he flies back to its help after ten minutes’ gobbling, with his month full of pork and pickled peaches. And you fancy yourself so important in your line, that the spiritual world will stand still unless you bolt back to help it in like wise. Substitute a half-cooked mutton chop for the pork, and the cases are exact parallels.”
“Your parallel does not hold good, Doctor. The Yankee goes back to his store to earn money for himself, and not to keep commerce alive.”
“While you go for utterly disinterested motives.–I see.”
“Do you?” said Frank. “If you think that I fancy myself a better man than the Yankee, you mistake me: but at least you will confess that I am not working for money.”
“No; you have your notions of reward, and he has his. He wants to be paid by material dollars, payable next month; you by spiritual dollars, payable when you die. I don’t see the great difference.”
“Only the slight difference between what is material and what is spiritual.”
“They seem to me, from all I can hear in pulpits, to be only two different sorts of pleasant things, and to be sought after, both alike, simply because they are pleasant. Self-interest, if you will forgive me, seems to me the spring of both: only, to do you justice, you are a farther-sighted and more prudent man than the Yankee storekeeper; and having more exquisitely developed notions of what your true self-interest is, are content to wait a little longer than he.”
“You stab with a jest, Thurnall. You little know how your words hit home.”
“Well, then, to turn from a matter of which I know nothing–I must keep you in, and give you parish business to do at home. I am come to consult you as my spiritual pastor and master.”
Frank looked a little astonished.
“Don’t be alarmed. I am not going to confess my own sins–only other people’s.”
“Pray don’t, then. I know far more of them already than I can cure. I am worn out with the daily discovery of fresh evil wherever I go.”
“Then why not comfort yourself by trying to find a little fresh good wherever you go?”
“Perhaps, though, you don’t care for any sort of good except your own sort of good. You are fastidious. Well, you have your excuses. But you can understand a poor fellow like me, who has been dragged through the slums and sewers of this wicked world for fifteen years and more, being very well content with any sort of good which I can light on, and not particular as to either quantity or quality.”
“Perhaps yours is the healthier state of mind; if you can only find the said good. The vulturine nose, which smells nothing but corruption, is no credit to its possessor. And it would be pleasant, at least, to find good in every man.”
“One can’t do that in one’s study. Mixing with them is the only plan. No doubt they’re inconsistent enough. The more you see of them, the less you trust them; and yet the more you see of them, the more you like them. Can you solve that paradox from your books?”
“I will try,” said Frank. “I generally have more than one to think over when you go. But, surely, there are men so fallen that they are utterly insensible to good.”
“Very likely. There’s no saying in this world what may not be. Only I never saw one. I’ll tell you a story: you may apply it as you like. When I was on the Texan expedition, and raw to soldiering and camping, we had to sleep in low ground, and suffered terribly from a miasma. Deadly cold, it was, when it came; and the man who once got chilled through with it, just died. I was lying on the bare ground one night, and chilly enough I was–for I was short of clothes, and had lost my buffalo robe–but fell asleep: and on waking the next morning, I found myself covered up in my comrade’s blankets, even to his coat, while he was sitting shivering in his shirt sleeves. The cold fog had come down in the night, and the man had stripped himself, and sat all night with death staring him in the face, to save my life. And all the reason he gave was, that if one of us must die, it was better the older should go first, and not a youngster like me. And,” said Tom, lowering his voice, “that man was a murderer!”
“Yes; a drunken, gambling, cut-throat rowdy as ever grew ripe for the gallows. Now, will you tell me that there was nothing in that man but what the devil put there?”
Frank sat meditating awhile on this strange story, which is moreover a true one; and then looked up with something like tears in his eyes.
“And he did not die?”
“Not he! I saw him die afterwards–shot through the heart, without time even to cry out. But I have not forgotten what he did for me that night; and I’ll tell you what, sir! I do not believe that God has forgotten it either.”
Frank was silent for a few moments, and then Tom changed the subject.
“I want to know what you can tell me about this Mr. Vavasour.”
“Hardly anything, I am sorry to say. I was at his house at tea, two or three times, when I first came; and I had very agreeable evenings, and talks on art and poetry: but I believe I offended him by hinting that he ought to come to church, which he never does, and since then our acquaintance has all but ceased. I suppose you will say, as usual, that I played my cards badly there also.”
“Not at all,” said Tom, who was disposed to take any one’s part against Elsley. “If a clergyman has not a right to tell a man that, I don’t see what right he has of any kind. Only,” added he, with one of his quaint smiles, “the clergyman, if he compels a man to deal at his store, is bound to furnish him with the articles which he wants.”
“Which he needs, or which he likes? For ‘wanting’ has both these meanings.”
“With something that he finds by experience does him good; and so learns to like it, because he knows that he needs it, as my patients do my physic.”
“I wish my patients would do so by mine: but, unfortunately, half of them seem to me not to know what their disease is, and the other half do not think they are diseased at all.”
“Well,” said Tom drily, “perhaps some of them are more right than you fancy. Every man knows his own business best.”
“If it were so, they would go about it somewhat differently from what most of the poor creatures do.”
“Do you think so. I fancy myself that not one of them does a wrong thing, but what he knows it to be wrong just as well as you do, and is much more ashamed and frightened about it already, than you can ever make him by preaching at him.”
“I do. I judge of others by myself.”
“Then would you have a clergyman never warn his people of their sins?”
“If I were he, I’d much sooner take the sins for granted, and say to them, ‘Now, my friends, I know you are all, ninety-nine out of the hundred of you, not such bad fellows at bottom, and would all like to be good, if you only knew how; so I’ll tell you as far as I know, though I don’t know much about the matter. For the truth is, you must have a hundred troubles every day which I never felt in my life; and it must be a very hard thing to keep body and soul together, and to get a little pleasure on this side the grave without making blackguards of yourselves. Therefore I don’t pretend to set myself up as a better or a wiser man than you at all: but I do know a thing or two which I fancy may be useful to you. You can but try it. So come up, if you like, any of you, and talk matters over with me as between gentleman and gentleman. I shall keep your secret, of course; and if you find I can’t cure your complaint, why, you can but go away and try elsewhere.'”
“And so the doctor’s model sermon ends in proposing private confession!”
“Of course. The thing itself which will do them good, without the red rag of an official name, which sends them cackling off like frightened turkeys.–Such private confession as is going on between you and me now. Here am I confessing to you all my unorthodoxy.”
“And I my ignorance,” said Frank; “for I really believe you know more about the matter than I do.”
“Not at all. I may be all wrong. But the fault of your cloth seems to me to be that they apply their medicines without deigning, most of them, to take the least diagnosis of the case. How could I cure a man without first examining what was the matter with him?”
“So say the old casuists, of whom I have read enough–some would say too much; but they do not satisfy me. They deal with actions, and motives, and so forth; but they do not go down to the one root of wrong which is the same in every man.”
“You are getting beyond me: but why do you not apply a little of the worldly wisdom which these same casuists taught you?”
“To tell you the truth, I have tried in past years, and found that the medicine would not act.”
“Humph! Well, that would depend, again, on the previous diagnosis of human nature being correct; and those old monks, I should say, would know about as much of human nature as so many daws in a steeple. Still, you wouldn’t say that what was the matter with old Heale was the matter also with Vavasour?”
“I believe from my heart that it is.”
“Humph! Then you know the symptoms of his complaint?”
“I know that he never comes to church.”
“Nothing more? I am really speaking in confidence. You surely have heard of disagreements between him and Mrs. Vavasour?”
“Never, I assure you; you shock me.”
“I am exceedingly sorry, then, that I said a word about it: but the whole parish talks of it,” answered Tom, who was surprised at this fresh proof of the little confidence which Aberalva put in their parson.
“Ah!” said Frank sadly, “I am the last person in the parish to hear any news: but this is very distressing.”
“Very, to me. My honour, to tell you the truth, as a medical man, is concerned in the matter; for she is growing quite ill from unhappiness, and I cannot cure her; so I come to you, as soul-doctor, to do what I, the body-doctor, cannot.”
Frank sat pondering for a minute, and then–
“You set me on a task for which I am as little fit as any man, by your own showing. What do I know of disagreements between man and wife? And one has a delicacy about offering her comfort. She must bestow her confidence on me before I can use it: while he–“
“While he, as the cause of the disease, is what you ought to treat; and not her unhappiness, which is only a symptom of it.”
“Spoken like a wise doctor; but to tell you the truth, Thurnall, I have no influence over Mr. Vavasour, and see no means of getting any. If he recognised my authority, as his parish priest, then I should see my way. Let him be as bad as he might, I should have a fixed point from which to work; but with his free-thinking notions, I know well–one can judge it too easily from his poems–he would look on me as a pedant assuming a spiritual tyranny to which I have no claim.”
Tom sat awhile nursing his knee, and then–
“If you saw a man fallen into the water, what do you think would be the shortest way to prove to him that you had authority from heaven to pull him out? Do you give it up? Pulling him out would it not be, without more ado?”
“I should be happy enough to pull poor Vavasour out, if he would let me. But till he believes that I can do it, how can I even begin!”
“How can you expect him to believe, if he has no proof?”
“There are proofs enough in the Bible and elsewhere, if he will but accept them. If he refuses to examine into the credentials, the fault is his, not mine. I really do not wish to be hard; but would not you do the same, if any one refused to employ you, because he chose to deny that you were a legally qualified practitioner?”
“Not so badly put; but what should I do in that case? Go on quietly curing his neighbours, till he began to alter his mind as to my qualifications, and came in to be cured himself. But here’s this difference between you and me. I am not bound to attend to any one who don’t send for me; while you think that you are, and carry the notion a little too far, for I expect you to kill yourself by it some day.”
“Well?” said Frank, with something of that lazy Oxford tone, which is intended to save the speaker the trouble of giving his arguments, when he has already made up his mind, or thinks that he has so done.
“Well, if I thought myself bound to doctor the man, willy-nilly, as you do, I would certainly go to him, and show him, at least, that I understood his complaint. That would be the first step towards his letting me cure him. How else on earth do you fancy that Paul cured those Corinthians about whom I have been reading lately?”
“Are you, too, going to quote Scripture against me? I am glad to find that your studies extend to St. Paul.”
“To tell you the truth, your sermon last Sunday puzzled me. I could not comprehend (on your showing) how Paul got that wonderful influence over those pagans which he evidently had; and as how to get influence is a very favourite study of mine, I borrowed the book when I went home, and read for myself; and the matter at last seemed clear enough, on Paul’s own showing.”
“I don’t doubt that: but I suspect your interpretation of the fact and mine would not agree.”
“Mine is simple enough. He says that what proved him to be an apostle was his power. He is continually appealing to his power; and what can he mean by that, but that he could do, and had done, what he professed to do? He promised to make those poor heathen rascals of Greeks better, and wiser, and happier men; and, I suppose, he made them so; and then there was no doubt of his commission, or his authority, or anything else. He says himself he did not require any credentials, for they were his credentials, read and known of every one; he had made good men of them out of bad ones, and that was proof enough whose apostle he was.”
“Well,” said Frank half sadly, “I might say a great deal, of course, on the other side of the question, but I prefer hearing what you laymen think about it all.”
“Will you be angry if I tell you honestly?”
“Did you ever find me angry at anything you said?”
“No. I will do you the justice to say that. Well, what we laymen say is this. If the parsons have the authority of which they boast, why don’t they use it? If they have commission to make bad people good, they must have power too; for He whose commission they claim, is not likely, I should suppose, to set a man to do what he cannot do.”
“And we can do it, if people would but submit to us. It all comes round again to the same point.”
“So it does. How to get them to listen. I tried to find out how Paul achieved that first step; and when I looked he told me plainly enough. By becoming all things to all men; by showing these people that he understood them, and knew what was the matter with them. Now do you go and do likewise by Vavasour, and then exercise your authority like a practical man. If you have power to bind and loose, as you told us last Sunday, bind that fellow’s ungovernable temper, and loose him from the real slavery which he is in to his miserable conceit and self-indulgence! and then if he does not believe in your ‘sacerdotal power,’ he is even a greater fool than I take him for.”
“Honestly, I will try: God help me!” added Frank in a lower voice; “but as for quarrels between man and wife, as I told you, no one understands them less than I.”
“Then marry a wife yourself and quarrel a little with her for experiment, and then you’ll know all about it.”
Frank laughed in spite of himself.
“Thank you. No man is less likely to try that experiment than I.”
“I have quite enough as a bachelor to distract me from my work, without adding to them those of a wife and family, and those little home lessons in the frailty of human nature, in which you advise me to copy Mr. Vavasour.”
“And so,” said Tom, “having to doctor human beings, nineteen-twentieths of whom are married; and being aware that three parts of the miseries of human life come either from wanting to be married, or from married cares and troubles–you think that you will improve your chance of doctoring your flock rightly by avoiding carefully the least practical acquaintance with the chief cause of their disease. Philosophical and logical, truly!”
“You seem to have acquired a little knowledge of men and women, my good friend, without encumbering yourself with a wife and children.”
“Would you like to go to the same school to which I went?” asked Thurnall, with a look of such grave meaning that Frank’s pure spirit shuddered within him. “And I’ll tell you this; whenever I see a woman nursing her baby, or a father with his child upon his knees, I say to myself–they know more, at this minute, of human nature, as of the great law of ‘C’est l’amour, l’amour, l’amour, which makes the world go round,’ than I am likely to do for many a day. I’ll tell you what, sir! These simple natural ties, which are common to us and the dumb animals,–as I live, sir, they are the divinest things I see in the world! I have but one, and that is love to my poor old father; that’s all the religion I have as yet: but I tell you, it alone has kept me from being a ruffian and a blackguard. And I’ll tell you more,” said Tom, warming, “of all diabolical dodges for preventing the parsons from seeing who they are, or what human beings are, or what their work in the world is, or anything else, the neatest is that celibacy of the clergy. I should like to have you with me in Spanish America, or in France either, and see what you thought of it then. How it ever came into mortal brains is to me the puzzle. I’ve often fancied, when I’ve watched those priests–and very good fellows, too, some of them are–that there must be a devil after all abroad in the world, as you say; for no human insanity could ever have hit upon so complete and ‘cute a device for making parsons do the more harm, the more good they try to do. There, I’ve preached you a sermon, and made you angry.”
“Not in the least: but I must go now and see some sick.”
“Well, go, and prosper; only recollect that the said sick are men and women.”
And away Tom went, thinking to himself: “Well, that is a noble, straightforward, honest fellow, and will do yet, if he’ll only get a wife. He’s not one of those asses who have made up their minds by book that the world is square, and won’t believe it to be round for any ocular demonstration. He’ll find out what shape the world is before long, and behave as such, and act accordingly.”
Little did Tom think, as he went home that day in full-blown satisfaction with his sermon to Frank, of the misery he had caused, and was going to cause for many a day, to poor Grace Harvey. It was a rude shock to her to find herself thus suspected; though perhaps it was one which she needed. She had never, since one first trouble ten years ago, known any real grief; and had therefore had all the more time to make a luxury of unreal ones. She was treated by the simple folk around her as all but inspired; and being possessed of real powers as miraculous in her own eyes as those which were imputed to her were in theirs (for what are real spiritual experiences but daily miracles?) she was just in that temper of mind in which she required, as ballast, all her real goodness, lest the moral balance should topple headlong after the intellectual, and the downward course of vanity, excitement, deception, blasphemous assumptions be entered on. Happy for her that she was in Protestant and common-sense England, and in a country parish, where mesmerism and spirit-rapping were unknown. Had she been an American, she might have become one of the most lucrative “mediums;” had she been born in a Romish country, she would have probably become an even more famous personage. There is no reason why she should not have equalled or surpassed, the ecstasies of St. Theresa, or of St. Hildegardis, or any other sweet dreamer of sweet dreams; have founded a new order of charity, have enriched the clergy of a whole province, and have died in seven years, maddened by alternate paroxysms of self-conceit and revulsions of self-abasement. Her own preachers and class-leaders, indeed (so do extremes meet), would not have been sorry to make use of her in somewhat the same manner, however feebly and coarsely: but her innate self-respect and modesty had preserved her from the snares of such clumsy poachers; and more than one good-looking young preacher had fled desperately from a station where, instead of making a tool of Grace Harvey, he could only madden his own foolish heart with love for her.
So Grace had reigned upon her pretty little throne of not unbearable sorrows, till a real and bitter woe came; one which could not be hugged and cherished, like the rest; one which she tried to fling from her, angrily, scornfully, and found to her horror, that, instead of her possessing it, it possessed her, and coiled itself round her heart, and would not be flung away. She–she, of all beings, to be suspected as a thief, and by the very man whose life she had saved! She was willing enough to confess herself–and confessed herself night and morning–a miserable sinner, and her heart a cage of unclean birds, deceitful, and desperately wicked–except in that. The conscious innocence flashed up in pride and scorn, in thoughts, even when she was alone, in words, of which she would not have believed herself capable. With hot brow and dry eyes she paced her little chamber, sat down on the bed, staring into vacancy, sprang up and paced again: but she went into no trance–she dare not. The grief was too great; she felt that, if she once gave way enough to lose her self-possession, she should go mad. And the first, and perhaps not the least good effect of that fiery trial was, that it compelled her to a stern self-restraint, to which her will, weakened by mental luxuriousness, had been long a stranger.
But a fiery trial it was. The first wild (and yet not unnatural) fancy, that heaven had given Thurnall to her, had deepened day by day, by the mere indulgence of it. But she never dreamt of him as her husband: only as a friendless stranger to be helped and comforted. And that he was worthy of help; that some great future was in store for him; that he was a chosen vessel marked out for glory, she had persuaded herself utterly; and the persuasion grew in her day by day, as she heard more and more of his cleverness, honesty, and kindliness, mysterious and, to her, miraculous learning. Therefore she did not make haste; she did not even try to see him, or to speak to him; a civil bow in passing was all that she took or gave; and she was content with that, and waited till the time came, when she was destined to do for him–what she knew not; but it would be done if she were strong enough. So she set herself to learn, and read, and trained her mind and temper more earnestly than ever, and waited in patience for God’s good time. And now, behold, a black, unfathomable gulf of doubt and shame had opened between them, perhaps for ever. And a tumult arose in her soul, which cannot be, perhaps ought not to be, analysed in words; but which made her know too well, by her own crimson cheeks, that it was none other than human love strong as death, and jealousy cruel as the grave.
At last long and agonising prayer brought gentler thoughts, and mere physical exhaustion a calmer mood. How wicked she had been; how rebellious! Why not forgive him, as One greater than she had forgiven? It was ungrateful of him; but was he not human? Why should she expect his heart to be better than hers? Besides, he might have excuses for his suspicion. He might be the best judge, being a man, and such a clever one too. Yes; it was God’s cross, and she would bear it; she would try and forget him. No; that was impossible; she must hear of him, if not see him, day by day: besides, was not her fate linked up with his? And yet shut out from him by that dark wall of suspicion! It was very bitter. But she could pray for him; she would pray for him now. Yes; it was God’s cross, and she would bear it. He would right her if He thought fit; and if not, what matter? Was she not born to sorrow? Should she complain if another drop, and that the bitterest of all, was added to the cup?
And bear her cross she did, about with her, coming in, and going out, for many a weary day. There was no change in her habits or demeanour; she was never listless for a moment in her school; she was more gay and amusing than ever, when she gathered her little ones around her for a story: but still there was the unseen burden, grinding her heart slowly, till she felt as if every footstep was stained with a drop of her heart’s blood…. Why not? It would be the sooner over.
Then, at times came that strange woman’s pleasure in martyrdom, the secret pride of suffering unjustly: but even that, after a while, she cast away from her, as a snare, and tried to believe that she deserved all her sorrow–deserved it, that is, in the real honest sense of the word; that she had worked it out, and earned it, and brought it on herself–how, she knew not, but longed and strove to know. No; it was no martyrdom. She would not allow herself so silly a cloak of pride; and she went daily to her favourite “Book of Martyrs,” to contemplate there the stories of those who really innocent, really suffered for welldoing. And out of that book she began to draw a new and a strange enjoyment, for she soon found that her intense imagination enabled her to re-enact those sad and glorious stories in her own person; to tremble, agonise, and conquer with those heroines who had been for years her highest ideals–and what higher ones could she have? And many a night, after extinguishing the light, and closing her eyes, she would lie motionless for hours on her little bed, not to sleep, but to feel with Perpetua the wild bull’s horns, to hang with St. Maura on the cross, or lie with Julitta on the rack, or see with triumphant smile, by Anne Askew’s side, the fire flare up around her at the Smithfield stake, or to promise, with dying Dorothea, celestial roses to the mocking youth, whose face too often took the form of Thurnall’s; till every nerve quivered responsive to her fancy in agonies of actual pain, which died away at last into heavy slumber, as body and mind alike gave way before the strain. Sweet fool! she knew not–how could she know?–that she might be rearing in herself the seeds of idiotcy and death: but who that applauds a Rachel or a Ristori, for being able to make awhile their souls and their countenances the homes of the darkest passions, can blame her for enacting in herself, and for herself alone, incidents in which the highest and holiest virtue takes shape in perfect tragedy?
But soon another, and a yet darker cause of sorrow arose in her. It was clear, from what Willis had told her, that she had held the lost belt in her hand. The question was, how had she lost it?
Did her mother know anything about it? That question could not but arise in her mind, though, for very reverence she dared not put it to her mother; and with it arose the recollection of her mother’s strange silence about the matter. Why had she put away the subject, carelessly, and yet peevishly, when it was mentioned? Yes. Why? Did her mother know anything? Was she–? Grace dared not pronounce the adjective, even in thought; dashed it away as a temptation of the devil; dashed away, too, the thought which had forced itself on her too often already, that her mother was not altogether one who possessed the single eye; that in spite of her deep religious feeling, her assurance of salvation, her fits of bitter self-humiliation and despondency, there was an inclination to scheming and intrigue, ambition, covetousness; that the secrets which she gained as class-leader too, were too often (Grace could but fear) used to her own advantage; that in her dealings her morality was not above the average of little country shopkeepers; that she was apt to have two prices; to keep her books with unnecessary carelessness when the person against whom the account stood was no scholar. Grace had more than once remonstrated in her gentle way; and had been silenced, rather than satisfied, by her mother’s commonplaces as to the right of “making those who could pay, pay for those who could not;” that “it was very hard to get a living, and the Lord knew her temptations,” and “that God saw no sin in His elect,” and “Christ’s merits were infinite,” and “Christians always had been a backsliding generation;” and all the other commonplaces by which such people drug their consciences to a degree which is utterly incredible, except to those who have seen it with their own eyes, and heard it with their own ears, from childhood.
Once, too, in those very days, some little meanness on her mother’s part brought the tears into Grace’s eyes, and a gentle rebuke to her lips: but her mother bore the interference less patiently than usual; and answered, not by cant, but by counter-reproach. “Was she the person to accuse a poor widowed mother, struggling to leave her child something to keep her out of the workhouse? A mother that lived for her, would die for her, sell her soul for her, perhaps–“
And there Mrs. Harvey stopped short, turned pale, and burst into such an agony of tears, that Grace, terrified, threw her arms round her neck, and entreated forgiveness, all the more intensely on account of those thoughts within which she dared not reveal. So the storm passed over. But not Grace’s sadness. For she could not but see, with her clear pure spiritual eye, that her mother was just in that state in which some fearful and shameful fall is possible, perhaps wholesome. “She would sell her soul for me? What if she have sold it, and stopped short just now, because she had not the heart to tell me that love for me had been the cause? Oh! if she have sinned for my sake! Wretch that I am! Miserable myself, and bringing misery with me! Why was I ever born? Why cannot I die–and the world be rid of me?”
No, she would not believe it. It was a wicked, horrible, temptation of the devil. She would rather believe that she herself had been the thief, tempted during her unconsciousness; that she had hidden it somewhere; that she should recollect, confess, restore all some day. She would carry it to him herself, grovel at his feet, and entreat forgiveness. “He will surely forgive, when he finds that I was not myself when–that it was not altogether my fault–not as if I had been waking–yes, he will forgive!” And then on that thought followed a dream of what might follow, so wild that a moment after she had hid her blushes in her hands, and fled to books to escape from thoughts.
THE FIRST INSTALMENT OF AN OLD DEBT.
We must now return to Elsley, who had walked home in a state of mind truly pitiable. He had been flattering his soul with the hope that Thurnall did not know him; that his beard, and the change which years had made, formed a sufficient disguise: but he could not conceal from himself that the very same alterations had not prevented his recognising Thurnall; and he had been living for two months past in continual fear that that would come which now had come.
His rage and terror knew no bounds. Fancying Thurnall a merely mean and self-interested worldling, untouched by those higher aspirations which stood to him in place of a religion, he imagined him making every possible use of his power; and longed to escape to the uttermost ends of the earth from his old tormentor, whom the very sea would not put out of the way, but must needs cast ashore at his very feet, to plague him afresh.
What a net he had spread around his own feet, by one act of foolish vanity! He had taken his present name, merely as a _nom de guerre_, when first he came to London as a penniless and friendless scribbler. It would hide him from the ridicule (and, as he fancied, spite) of Thurnall, whom he dreaded meeting every time he walked London streets, and who was for years, to his melancholic and too intense fancy, his _bete noir_, his Frankenstein’s familiar. Beside, he was ashamed of the name of Briggs. It certainly is not an euphonious or aristocratic name; and “The Soul’s Agonies, by John Briggs,” would not have sounded as well as “The Soul’s Agonies, by Elsley Vavasour.” Vavasour was a very pretty name, and one of those which is supposed by novelists and young ladies to be aristocratic;–why so is a puzzle; as its plain meaning is a tenant-farmer, and nothing more nor less. So he had played with the name till he became fond of it, and considered that he had a right to it, through seven long years of weary struggles, penury, disappointment, as he climbed the Parnassian Mount, writing for magazines and newspapers, subediting this periodical and that; till he began to be known as a ready, graceful, and trustworthy workman, and was befriended by one kind-hearted _litterateur_ after another. For in London, at this moment, any young man of real power will find friends enough, and too many, among his fellow book-wrights, and is more likely to have his head turned by flattery, than his heart crushed by envy. Of course, whatsoever flattery he may receive, he is expected to return; and whatsoever clique he may be tossed into on his _debut_, he is expected to stand by, and fight for, against the universe; but that is but fair. If a young gentleman, invited to enrol himself in the Mutual-puffery Society which meets every Monday and Friday in Hatchgoose the publisher’s drawing-room, is willing to pledge himself thereto in the mystic cup of tea, is he not as solemnly bound thenceforth to support those literary Catilines in their efforts for the subversion of common sense, good taste, and established things in general, as if he had pledged them, as he would have done in Rome of old, in his own life-blood? Bound he is, alike by honour and by green tea; and it will be better for him to fulfil his bond. For if association is the cardinal principle of the age, will it not work as well in book-making as in clothes-making? And shall not the motto of the poet (who will also do a little reviewing on the sly) be henceforth that which shines triumphant over all the world, on many a valiant Scotchman’s shield–
“Caw me, and I’ll caw thee”?
But to do John Briggs justice, he kept his hands, and his heart also, cleaner than most men do, during this stage of his career. After the first excitement of novelty, and of mixing with people who could really talk and think, and who freely spoke out whatever was in them, right or wrong, in language which at least sounded grand and deep, he began to find in the literary world about the same satisfaction for his inner life which he would have found in the sporting world, or the commercial world, or the religious world, or the fashionable world, or any other world and to suspect strongly that wheresoever a world is, the flesh and the devil are not very far off. Tired of talking when he wanted to think, of asserting when he wanted to discover, and of hearing his neighbours do the same; tired of little meannesses, envyings, intrigues, jobberies (for the literary world, too, has its jobs), he had been for some time withdrawing himself from the Hatchgoose soirees into his own thoughts, when his “Soul’s Agonies” appeared, and he found himself, if not a lion, at least a lion’s cub.
There is a house or two in Town where you may meet on certain evenings, everybody; where duchesses and unfledged poets, bishops and red republican refugees, fox-hunting noblemen and briefless barristers who have taken to politics, are jumbled together for a couple of hours, to make what they can out of each other, to the exceeding benefit of them all. For each and every one of them finds his neighbour a pleasanter person than he expected; and none need leave those rooms without knowing something more than he did when he came in, and taking an interest in some human being who may need that interest. To one of these houses, no matter which, Elsley was invited on the strength of the “Soul’s Agonies;” found himself, for the first time, face to face with high-bred Englishwomen; and fancied–small blame to him–that he was come to the mountains of the Peris, and to Fairy Land itself. He had been flattered already: but never with such grace, such sympathy, or such seeming understanding; for there are few high-bred women who cannot seem to understand, and delude a hapless genius into a belief in their own surpassing brilliance and penetration, while they are cunningly retailing again to him the thoughts which they have caught up from the man to whom they spoke last; perhaps–for this is the very triumph of their art–from the very man to whom they are speaking. Small blame to bashful, clumsy John Briggs, if he did not know his own children; and could not recognise his own stammered and fragmentary fancies, when they were re-echoed to him the next minute, in the prettiest shape, and with the most delicate articulation, from lips which (like those in the fairy tale) never opened without dropping pearls and diamonds.
Oh, what a contrast, in the eyes of a man whose sense of beauty and grace, whether physical or intellectual, was true and deep, to that ghastly ring of prophetesses in the Hatchgoose drawing-room; strong-minded and emancipated women, who prided themselves on having cast off conventionalities, and on being rude, and awkward, and dogmatic, and irreverent, and sometimes slightly improper; women who had missions to mend everything in heaven and earth, except themselves; who had quarrelled with their husbands, and had therefore felt a mission to assert women’s rights, and reform marriage in general; or who had never been able to get married at all, and therefore were especially competent to promulgate a model method of educating the children whom they never had had; women who wrote poetry about Lady Blanches whom they never had met, and novels about male and female blackguards whom (one hopes) they never had met, or about whom (if they had) decent women would have held their peace; and every one of whom had in obedience to Emerson, “followed her impulses,” and despised fashion, and was accordingly clothed and bedizened as was right in the sight of her own eyes, and probably in those of no one else.
No wonder that Elsley, ere long, began drawing comparisons, and using his wit upon ancient patronesses, of course behind their backs, likening them to idols fresh from the car of Juggernaut, or from the stern of a South Sea canoe; or, most of all, to that famous wooden image of Freya, which once leapt lumbering forth from her bullock-cart, creaking and rattling in every oaken joint, to belabour the too daring Viking who was flirting with her priestess. Even so, whispered Elsley, did those brains and tongues creak and rattle, lumbering before the blasts of Pythonic inspiration; and so, he verily believed, would the awkward arms and legs have done likewise, if one of the Pythonesses had ever so far degraded herself as to dance.
No wonder, then, that those gifted dames had soon to complain of Elsley Vavasour as a traitor to the cause of progress and civilisation; a renegade who had fled to the camp of aristocracy, flunkeydom, obscurantism, frivolity, and dissipation; though there was not one of them but would have given an eye–perhaps no great loss to the aggregate loveliness of the universe–for one of his invitations to 999 Cavendish Street south-east, with the chance of being presented to the Duchess of Lyonesse.
To do Elsley justice, one reason why he liked his new acquaintances so well was, that they liked him. He behaved well himself, and therefore people behaved well to him. He was, as I have said, a very handsome fellow in his way; therefore it was easy to him, as it is to all physically beautiful persons, to acquire a graceful manner. Moreover, he had steeped his whole soul in old poetry, and especially in Spenser’s Faery Queen. Good for him, had he followed every lesson which he might have learnt out of that most noble of English books: but one lesson at least he learnt from it; and that was, to be chivalrous, tender, and courteous to all women, however old or ugly, simply because they were women. The Hatchgoose Pythonesses did not wish to be women, but very bad imitations of men; and therefore he considered himself absolved from all knightly duties toward them: but toward these Peris of the west, and to the dowagers who had been Peris in their time, what adoration could be too great? So he bowed down and worshipped; and, on the whole, he was quite right in so doing. Moreover, he had the good sense to discover, that though the young Peris were the prettiest to look at, the elder Peris were the better company; and that it is, in general, from married women that a poet or any one else will ever learn what woman’s heart is like. And so well did he carry out his creed, that before his first summer was over he had quite captivated the heart of old Lady Knockdown, aunt to Lucia St. Just, and wife to Lucia’s guardian; a charming old Irishwoman, who affected a pretty brogue, perhaps for the same reason that she wore a wig, and who had been, in her day, a beauty and a blue, a friend of the Miss Berrys, and Tommy Moore, and Grattan, and Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and Dan O’Connell, and all other lions and lionesses which had roared for the last sixty years about the Emerald Isle. There was no one whom she did not know, and nothing she could not talk about. Married up, when a girl, to a man for whom she did not care, and having no children, she had indemnified herself by many flirtations, and the writing of two or three novels, in which she penned on paper the superfluous feeling which had no vent in real life. She had deserted, as she grew old, the novel for unfulfilled prophecy; and was a distinguished leader in a distinguished religious coterie: but she still prided herself upon having a green head upon grey shoulders; and not without reason; for underneath all the worldliness and intrigue, and petty affectation of girlishness, which she contrived to jumble in with her religiosity, beat a young and kindly heart. So she was charmed with Mr. Vavasour’s manners, and commended them much to Lucia, who, a shrinking girl of seventeen, was peeping at her first season from under Lady Knockdown’s sheltering wing.
“Me dear, let Mr. Vavasour be who he will, he has not only the intellect of a true genius, but what is a great deal better for practical purposes; that is, the manners of one. Give me the man who will let a woman of our rank say what we like to him, without supposing that he may say what he likes in return; and considers one’s familiarity as an honour, and not as an excuse for taking liberties. A most agreeable contrast, indeed, to the young men of the present day; who come in their shooting jackets, and talk slang to their partners,–though really the girls are just as bad,–and stand with their backs to the fire, and smell of smoke, and go to sleep after dinner, and pay no respect to old age, nor to youth either, I think. ‘Pon me word, Lucia, the answers I’ve heard young gentlemen make to young ladies, this very season,–they’d have been called out the next morning in my time, me dear. As for the age of chivalry, nobody expects that to be restored: but really one might have been spared the substitute for it which, we had when I was young, in the grand air of the old school. It was a ‘sham,’ I daresay, as they call everything now-a-days: but really, me dear, a pleasant sham is better to live with than an unpleasant reality, especially when it smells of cigars.”
So it befell that Elsley Vavasour was asked to Lady Knockdown’s, and that there he fell in love with Lucia, and Lucia fell in love with him.
The next winter, old Lord Knockdown, who had been decrepit for some years past, died; and his widow, whose income was under five hundred a year,–for the estates were entailed, and mortgaged, and everything else which can happen to an Irish property,–came to live with her nephew, Lord Scoutbush, in Eaton Square, and take such care as she could of Lucia and Valencia.
So, after a dreary autumn and winter of parting and silence, Elsley found himself the next season invited to Eaton Square; there the mischief, if mischief it was, was done; and Elsley and Lucia started in life upon two hundred a year. He had inherited some fifty of his own; she had about a hundred and fifty, which, indeed, was not yet her own by right; but little Scoutbush (who was her sole surviving guardian) behaved on the whole very well for a young gentleman of twenty-two, in a state of fury and astonishment. The old Lord had, wisely enough, settled in his will that Lucia was to enjoy the interest of her fortune from the time that she came out, provided she did not marry without her guardian’s leave; and Scoutbush, to avoid esclandre and misery, thought it as well to waive the proviso, and paid her her dividends as usual.
But how had she contrived to marry at all without his leave? That is an ugly question. I will not say that she had told a falsehood, or that Elsley had forsworn himself when he got the licence: but certainly both of them were guilty of something very like a white lie, when they declared that Lucia had the consent of her sole surviving guardian, on the strength of an half-angry, half-jesting expression of Scoutbush’s that she might marry whom she chose, provided she did not plague him. In the first triumph of success and intoxication of wedded bliss, Lucia had written him a saucy letter, reminding him of his permission, and saying that she had taken him at his word: but her conscience smote her; and Elsley’s smote him likewise; and smote him all the more, because he had been married under a false name, a fact which might have ugly consequences in law which he did not like to contemplate. To do him justice, he had been half-a-dozen times during his courtship on the point of telling Lucia his real name and history. Happy for him had he done so, whatever might have been the consequences: but he wanted moral courage; the hideous sound of Briggs had become horrible to him; and once his foolish heart was frightened away from honesty, just as honesty was on the point of conquering, by old Lady Knockdown’s saying that she could never have married a man with an ugly name, or let Lucia marry one.
“Conceive becoming Mrs. Natty Bumppo, me dear, even for twenty thousand a year. If you could summon up courage to do the deed, I couldn’t summon up courage to continue my correspondence with ye.”
Elsley knew that that was a lie; that the old lady would have let her marry the most triumphant snob in England, if he had half that income: but unfortunately Lucia capped her aunt’s nonsense with “There is no fear of my ever marrying any one who has not a graceful name,” and a look at Vavasour, which said–“And you have one, and therefore I–” For the matter had then been settled between them. This was too much for his vanity, and too much, also, for his fears of losing Lucia by confessing the truth. So Elsley went on, ashamed of his real name, ashamed of having concealed it, ashamed of being afraid that it would be discovered,–in a triple complication of shame, which made him gradually, as it makes every man, moody, suspicious, apt to take offence where none is meant. Besides they were very poor. He, though neither extravagant nor profligate, was, like most literary men who are accustomed to live from hand to mouth, careless, self-indulgent, unmethodical. She knew as much of housekeeping as the Queen of Oude does; and her charming little dreams of shopping for herself were rudely enough broken, ere the first week was out, by the horrified looks of Clara, when she returned from her first morning’s marketing for the weekly consumption, with nothing but a woodcock, some truffles, and a bunch of celery. Then the landlady of the lodgings robbed her, even under the nose of the faithful Clara, who knew as little about housekeeping as her mistress; and Clara, faithful as she was, repaid herself by grumbling and taking liberties for being degraded from the luxurious post of lady’s maid to that of servant of all work, with a landlady, and “marchioness” to wrestle with all day long. Then, what with imprudence and anxiety, Lucia of course lost her first child: and after that came months of illness, during which Elsley tended her, it must be said for him, as lovingly as a mother; and perhaps they were both really happier during that time of sorrow than they had been in all the delirious bliss of the honeymoon.
Valencia meanwhile defied old Lady Knockdown (whose horror and wrath knew no bounds), and walked off one morning with her maid to see her prodigal sister; a visit which not only brought comfort to the weary heart, but important practical benefits. For going home, she seized upon Scoutbush, and so moved his heart with pathetic pictures of Lucia’s unheard-of penury and misery, that his heart was softened; and though he absolutely refused to call on Vavasour, he made him an offer, through Lucia, of Penalva Court for the time being; and thither they went–perhaps the best thing they could have done.
There, of course, they were somewhat more comfortable. A very cheap country, a comfortable house rent free, and a lovely neighbourhood, were a pleasant change after dear London lodgings: but it is a question whether the change made Elsley a better man.
In the first place, he became a more idle man. The rich enervating climate began to tell upon his mind, as it did upon Lucia’s health. He missed that perpetual spur of nervous excitement, change of society, influx of ever-fresh objects, which makes London, after all, the best place in the world for hard working; and which makes even a walk along the streets an intellectual tonic. In the soft and luxurious West Country Nature invited him to look at her, and dream; and dream he did, more and more, day by day. He was tired, too–as who would not be?–of the drudgery of writing for his daily bread; and relieved from the importunities of publishers and printers’-devils, he sent up fewer and fewer contributions to the magazines. He would keep his energies for a great work; poetry was, after all, his forte: he would not fritter himself away on prose and periodicals, but would win for himself, etc. etc. If he made a mistake, it was at least a pardonable one.
But Elsley became not only a more idle, but a more morose man. He began to feel the evils of solitude. There was no one near with whom he could hold rational converse, save an antiquarian parson or two; and parsons were not to his taste. So, never measuring his wits against those of his peers, and despising the few men whom he met as inferior to himself, he grew more and more wrapt up in his own thoughts and his own tastes. His own poems, even to the slightest turn of expression, became more and more important to him. He grew more jealous of criticism, more confident in his own little theories, about this and that, more careless of the opinion of his fellowmen, and, as a certain consequence, more unable to bear the little crosses and contradictions of daily life; and as Lucia, having brought one and another child safely into the world, settled down into motherhood, he became less and less attentive to her, and more and more attentive to that self which was fast becoming the centre of his universe.
True, there were excuses for him; for whom are there none? He was poor and struggling; and it is much more difficult (as Becky Sharp, I think, pathetically observes) to be good when one is poor than when one is rich. It is (and all rich people should consider the fact) much more easy, if not to go to heaven, at least to think one is going thither, on three thousand a year, than on three hundred. Not only is respectability more easy, as is proved by the broad fact that it is the poor people who fill the gaols, and not the rich ones: but virtue, and religion–of the popular sort. It is undeniably more easy to be resigned to the will of Heaven, when that will seems tending just as we would have it; much more easy to have faith in the goodness of Providence, when that goodness seems safe in one’s pocket in the form of bank-notes; and to believe that one’s children are under the protection of Omnipotence, when one can hire for them in half an hour the best medical advice in London. One need only look into one’s own heart to understand the disciples’ astonishment at the news, that “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
“Who then can be saved?” asked they, being poor men, accustomed to see the wealthy Pharisees in possession of “the highest religious privileges, and means of grace.” Who, indeed, if not the rich? If the noblemen, and the bankers, and the dowagers, and the young ladies who go to church, and read good books, and have been supplied from youth with the very best religious articles which money can procure, and have time for all manner of good works, and give their hundreds to charities, and head reformatory movements, and build churches, and work altar-cloths, and can taste all the preachers and father-confessors round London, one after another, as you would taste wines, till they find the spiritual panacea which exactly suits their complaint–if they are not sure of salvation, who can be saved?
Without further comment, the fact is left for the consideration of all readers; only let them not be too hard upon Elsley and Lucia, if, finding themselves sometimes literally at their wits’ end, they went beyond their poor wits into the region where foolish things are said and done.
Moreover, Elsley’s ill-temper (as well as Lucia’s) had its excuses in physical ill-health. Poor fellow! Long years of sedentary work had begun to tell upon him; and while Tom Thurnall’s chest, under the influence of hard work and oxygen, measured round perhaps six inches more than it had done sixteen years ago, Elsley’s, thanks to stooping and carbonic acid, measured six inches less. Short breath, lassitude, loss of appetite, heartburn, and all that fair company of miseries which Mr. Cockle and his Antibilious Pills profess to cure, are no cheering bosom friends; but when a man’s breast-bone is gradually growing into his stomach, they will make their appearance; and small blame to him whose temper suffers from their gentle hints that he has a mortal body as well as an immortal soul.
But most fretting of all was the discovery that Lucia knew–if not all about his original name–still enough to keep him in dread lest she should learn more.
It was now twelve months and more that this new terror had leapt up and stared in his face. He had left a letter about–a thing which he was apt to do–in which the Whitbury lawyer made some allusions to his little property; and he was sure that Lucia had seen it; the hated name of Briggs certainly she had not seen; for Elsley had torn it out the moment he opened the letter: but she had seen enough, as he soon found, to be certain that he had, at some time or other, passed under a different name.
If Lucia had been a more thoughtful or high-minded woman, she would have gone straight to her husband, and quietly and lovingly asked him to tell her all: but, in her left-handed Irish fashion, she kept the secret to herself, and thought it a very good joke to have him in her power, and to be able to torment him about that letter when he got out of temper. It never occurred, however, to her that his present name was the feigned one. She fancied that he had, in some youthful escapade, assumed the name to which the lawyer alluded. So the next time he was cross, she tried laughingly the effect of her newly-discovered spell; and was horror-struck at the storm which she evoked. In a voice of thunder, Elsley commanded her never to mention the subject again; and showed such signs of terror and remorse, that she obeyed him from that day forth, except when now and then she lost her temper as completely, too, as he. Little she thought, in her heedlessness, what a dark cloud of fear and suspicion, ever deepening and spreading, she had put between his heart and hers.
But if Elsley had dreaded her knowledge of his story, he dreaded ten times more Tom’s knowledge of it. What if Thurnall should tell Lucia? What if Lucia should make a confidant of Thurnall? Women told their doctors everything; and Lucia, he knew too well, had cause to complain of him. Perhaps, thought he, maddened into wild suspicion by the sense of his own wrong-doing, she might complain of him; she might combine with Thurnall against him–for what purpose he knew not: but the wildest imaginations flashed across him, as he hurried desperately home, intending as soon as he got there to forbid Lucia’s ever calling in his dreaded enemy. No, Thurnall should never cross his door again! On that one point he was determined, but on nothing else.
However, his intention was never fulfilled. For long before he reached home he began to feel himself thoroughly ill. His was a temperament upon which mental anxiety acts rapidly and severely; and the burning sun, and his rapid walk, combined with rage and terror to give him such a “turn” that, as he hurried down the lane, he found himself reeling like a drunken man. He had just time to hurry through the garden, and into his study, when pulse and sense failed him, and he rolled over on the sofa in a dead faint.
Lucia had seen him come in, and heard him fall, and rushed in. The poor little thing was at her wits’ end, and thought that he had had nothing less than a _coup-de-soleil._ And when he recovered from his faintness, he began to be so horribly ill, that Clara, who had been called in to help, had some grounds for the degrading hypothesis (for which Lucia all but boxed her ears) that “Master had got away into the woods, and gone eating toadstools, or some such poisonous stuff;” for he lay a full half-hour on the sofa, death-cold, and almost pulseless; moaning, shuddering, hiding his face in his hands, and refusing cordials, medicines, and, above all, a doctor’s visit.
However, this could not be allowed to last. Without Elsley’s knowledge, a messenger was despatched for Thurnall, and luckily met him in the lane; for he was returning to the town in the footsteps of his victim.
Elsley’s horror was complete, when the door opened, and Lucia brought in none other than his tormentor.
“My dearest Elsley, I have sent for Mr. Thurnall. I knew you would not let me, if I told you; but you see I have done it, and now you must really speak to him.”
Elsley’s first impulse was to motion them both away angrily; but the thought that he was in Thurnall’s power stopped him. He must not show his disgust. What if Lucia were to ask its cause, even to guess it? for to his fears even that seemed possible. A fresh misery! Just because he shrank so intensely from the man, he must endure him!
“There is nothing the matter with me,” said he languidly.
“I should be the best judge of that, after what Mrs. Vavasour has just told me,” said Tom, in his most professional and civil voice; and slipped, catlike, into a seat beside the unresisting poet.
He asked question on question: but Elsley gave such unsatisfactory answers, that Lucia had to detail everything afresh for him, with–“You know, Mr. Thurnall, he is always overtasking his brain, and will never confess himself ill,”–and all a woman’s anxious comments.
Rogue Tom knew all the while well enough what was the cause: but he saw, too, that Elsley was very ill. He felt that he must have the matter out at once; and, by a side glance, sent the obedient Lucia out of the room to get a table-spoonful of brandy.
“Now, my dear sir, that we are alone,” began he blandly.
“Now, sir!” answered Vavasour, springing off the sofa, his whole pent-up wrath exploding in hissing steam, the moment the safety-valve was lifted. “Now, sir! What–what is the meaning of this insolence, this intrusion?”
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Vavasour,” answered Tom, rising, in a tone of bland and stolid surprise.
“What do you want here, with your mummery and medicine, when you know the cause of my malady well enough already? Go, sir! and leave me to myself.”
“My dear sir,” said Tom firmly, “you seem to have forgotten what passed between us this morning.”
“Will you insult me beyond endurance?” cried Elsley.
“I told you that, as long as you chose, you were Elsley Vavasour, and I the country doctor. We have met in that character. Why not sustain it? You are really ill; and if I know the cause, I am all the more likely to know the cure.”
“Why not? Believe me, it is in your power to become a much happier man, simply by becoming a healthier one.”
“Pish! What can I gain by being impertinent, sir? I know very well that you have received a severe shock; but I know equally well, that if you were as you ought to be, you would not feel it in this way. When one sees a man in the state of prostration in which, you are, common sense tells one that the body must have been neglected, for the mind to gain such power over it.”
Elsley replied with a grunt; but Tom went on, bland and imperturbable.
“Believe me, it may be a very materialist view of things: but fact is fact–the _corpus sanum_ is father to the _mens sana_–tonics and exercise make the ills of life look marvellously smaller. You have the frame of a strong and active man; and all you want to make you light-hearted and cheerful, is to develop what nature has given you.”
“It is too late,” said Elsley, pleased, as most men are, by being told that they might be strong and active.
“Not in the least. Three months would strengthen your muscles, open your chest again, settle your digestion, and make you as fresh as a lark, and able to sing like one. Believe me, the poetry would be the better for it, as well as the stomach. Now, positively, I shall begin questioning you.”
So Elsley was won to detail the symptoms of internal _malaise_, which he was only too much in the habit of watching himself; but there were some among them which Tom could not quite account for on the ground of mere effeminate habits. A thought struck him.
“You sleep ill, I suppose?” said he carelessly.
“Did you ever try opiates?”
“No–yes–that is, sometimes.”
“Ah!” said Tom, more carelessly still, for he wished to hide, by all means, the importance of the confession. “Well, they give relief for a time: but they are dangerous things–disorder the digestion, and have their revenge on the nerves next morning, as spitefully as brandy itself. Much better try a glass of strong ale or porter just before going to bed. I’ve known it give sleep, even in consumption–try it, and exercise. You shoot?”
“Pity; there ought to be noble cocking in these woods. However, the season’s past. You fish?”
“Pity again. I hear Alva is full of trout. Why not try sailing? Nothing oxygenates the lungs like a sail, and your friends the fishermen would be delighted to have you as super-cargo. They are always full of your stories to them, and your picking their brains for old legends and adventures.”
“They are noble fellows, and I want no better company; but, unfortunately, I am always sea-sick.”
“Ah! wholesome, but unpleasant: you are fond of gardening?”
“Very; but stooping makes my head swim.”
“True, and I don’t want you to stoop. I hope to see you soon as erect as a Guardsman. Why not try walks?”
“Abominable bores–lonely, aimless–“
“Well, perhaps you’re right. I never knew but three men who took long constitutionals on principle, and two of them were cracked. But why not try a companion; and persuade that curate, who needs just the same medicine as you, to accompany you? I don’t know a more gentleman-like, agreeable, well-informed man than he is.”
“Thank you. I can choose my acquaintances for myself.”
“You touchy ass!” said Thurnall to himself. “If we were in the blessed state of nature now, wouldn’t I give you ten minutes’ double thonging, and then set you to work, as the runaway nigger did his master, Bird o’ freedom Sawin, till you’d learnt a thing or two.” But blandly still he went on.
“Try the dumb-bells then. Nothing like them for opening your chest. And do get a high desk made, and stand to your writing instead of sitting.” And Tom actually made Vavasour promise to do both, and bade him farewell with–
“Now, I’ll send you up a little tonic; and trouble you with no more visits till you send for me. I shall see by one glance at your face whether you are following my prescriptions. And, I say, I wouldn’t meddle with those opiates any more; try good malt and hops instead.”
“Those who drink beer, think beer,” said Elsley, smiling; for he was getting more hopeful of himself, and his terrors were vanishing beneath Tom’s skilful management.
“And those who drink water, think water. The Elizabethans–Sidney and Shakspeare, Burleigh and Queen Bess, worked on beef and ale,–and you would not class them among the muddle-headed of the earth: Believe me, to write well, you must live well. If you take it out of your brain, you must put it in again. It’s a question of fact. Try it for yourself.” And off Tom went; while Lucia rushed back to her husband, covered him with caresses, assured him that he was seven times as ill as he really was, and so nursed and petted him, that he felt himself, for that time at least, a beast and a fool for having suspected her for a moment. Ah, woman, if you only knew how you carry our hearts in your hands, and would but use your power for our benefit, what angels you might make us all!
“So,” said Tom, as he went home, “he has found his way to the elevation-bottle, has he, as well as Mrs. Heale? It’s no concern of mine: but as a professional man, I must stop that. You will certainly be no credit to me if you kill yourself under my hands.”
Tom went straight home, showed the blacksmith how to make a pair of dumb-bells, covered them himself with leather, and sent them up the next morning with directions to be used for half an hour morning and evening.
And something–whether it was the dumb-bells, or the tonic, or wholesome fear of the terrible doctor–kept Elsley for the next month in better spirits and temper than he had been in for a long while.
Moreover, Tom set Lucia to coax him into walking with Headley. She succeeded at last; and, on the whole, each of them soon found that he had something to learn from the other. Elsley improved daily in health, and Lucia wrote to Valencia flaming accounts of the wonderful doctor who had been cast on shore in their world’s end; and received from her after a while this, amid much more–for fancy is not exuberant enough to reproduce the whole of a young lady’s letter.
“–I am so ashamed. I ought to have told you of that doctor a fortnight ago; but, rattle-pate as I am, I forgot all about it. Do you know, he is Sabina Mellot’s dearest friend; and she begged me to recommend him to you; but I put it off, and then it slipped my memory, like everything else good. She has told me the most wonderful stories of his courage and goodness; and conceive–she and her husband were taken prisoners with him by the savages in the South Seas, and going to be eaten, she says: but he helped them to escape in a canoe–such a story–and lived with them for three months on the most beautiful desert island–it is all like a fairy tale. I’ll tell it you when I come, darling–which I shall do in a fortnight, and we shall be all so happy. I have such a box ready for you and the chicks, which I shall bring with me; and some pretty things from Scoutbush beside, who is very low, poor fellow, I cannot conceive what about: but wonderfully tender about you. I fancy he must be in love; for he stood up the other day about you to my aunt, quite solemnly, with, ‘Let her alone, my lady. She’s not the first whom love has made a fool of, and she won’t be the last: and I believe that some of the moves which look most foolish, turn out best after all. Live and let live; everybody knows his own business best; anything is better than marriage without real affection.’ Conceive my astonishment at hearing the dear little fellow turn sage in that way!
“By the way, I have had to quote his own advice against him; for I have refused Lord Chalkclere after all. I told him (C. not S.) that he was much too good for me: far too perfect and complete a person; that I preferred a husband whom I could break in for myself, even though he gave me a little trouble. Scoutbush was cross at first; but he said afterwards that it was just like Baby Blake (the wretch always calls me Baby Blake now, after that dreadful girl in Lever’s Novel); and I told him frankly that it was, if he meant that I had sooner break in a thorough-bred for myself, even though I had a fall or two in the process, than jog along on the most finished little pony on earth, who would never go out of an amble. Lord Chalk may be very finished, and learned, and excellent, and so forth: but, _ma chere_, I want, not a white rabbit (of which he always reminds me), but a hero, even though he be a naughty one. I always fancy people must be very little if they can be finished off so rapidly; if there was any real verve in them, they would take somewhat longer to grow. Lord Chalk would do very well to bind in Russian leather, and put on one’s library shelves, to be consulted when one forgot a date; but really even your Ulysses of a doctor–provided, of course, he turned out a prince in disguise, and don’t leave out his h’s–would be more to the taste of your naughtiest of sisters.”
A PEER IN TROUBLE.
Somewhere in those days, so it seems, did Mr. Bowie call unto himself a cab at the barrack-gate, and, dressed in his best array, repair to the wilds of Brompton, and request to see either Claude or Mrs. Mellot.
Bowie is an ex-Scots-Fusilier, who, damaged by the kick of a horse, has acted as valet, first to Scoutbush’s father, and next to Scoutbush himself. He is of a patronising habit of mind, as befits a tolerably “leeterary” Scotsman of forty-five years of age and six-feet three in height, who has full confidence in the integrity of his own virtue, the infallibility of his own opinion, and the strength of his own right arm; for Bowie, though he has a rib or two “dinged in,” is mighty still as Theseus’ self; and both astonished his red-bearded compatriots, and won money for his master, by his prowess in the late feat of arms at Holland House.
Mr. Bowie is asked to walk into Sabina’s boudoir (for Claude is out in the garden), to sit down, and deliver his message: which he does after a due military salute, sitting bolt upright in his chair, and in a solemn and sonorous voice.
“Well, madam, it’s just this, that his lordship would be very glad to see ye and Mr. Mellot, for he’s vary ill indeed, and that’s truth; and if he winna tell ye the cause, then I will–and it’s just a’ for love of this play-acting body here, and more’s the pity.”
“More’s the pity, indeed!”
“And it’s my opeenion the puir laddie will just die, if nobody sees to him; and I’ve taken the liberty of writing to Major Cawmill mysel’, to beg him to come up and see to him, for it’s a pity to see his lordship cast away, for want of an understanding body to advise him.”
“So I am not an understanding body, Bowie?”
“Oh, madam, ye’re young and bonny,” says Bowie, in a tone in which admiration is not unmingled with pity.
“Young indeed! Mr. Bowie, do you know that I am almost as old as you?”
“Hoot, hut, hut–” says Bowie, looking at the wax-like complexion and bright hawk-eyes.
“Really I am. I’m past five-and-thirty this many a day.”
“Weel, then, madam, if you’ll excuse me, ye’re old enough to be wiser than to let his lordship be inveigled with any such play-acting.”
“Really he’s not inveigled,” says Sabina, laughing. “It is all his own fault, and I have warned him how absurd and impossible it is. She has refused even to see him; and you know yourself he has not been near our house for these three weeks.”
“Ah, madam, you’ll excuse me: but that’s the way with that sort of people, just to draw back and draw back, to make a poor young gentleman follow them all the keener, as a trout does a minnow, the faster you spin it.”
“I assure you no. I can’t let you into ladies’ secrets; but there is no more chance of her listening to him than of me. And as for me, I have been trying all the spring to marry him to a young lady with eighty thousand pounds; so you can’t complain of me.”
“Eh? No. That’s more like and fitting.”
“Well, now. Tell his lordship that we are coming; and trust us, Mr. Bowie: we do not look very villainous, do we?”
“Faith, ‘deed then, and I suppose not,” said Bowie, using the verb which, in his cautious, Scottish tongue, expresses complete certainty. The truth is, that Bowie adores both Sabina and her husband, who are, he says, “just fit to be put under a glass case on the sideboard, like twa wee china angels.”
In half an hour they were in Scoutbush’s rooms. They found the little man lying on his sofa, in his dressing-gown, looking pale and pitiable enough. He had been trying to read; for the table by him was covered with books; but either gunnery and mathematics had injured his eyes, or he had been crying; Sabina inclined to the latter opinion.
“This is very kind of you both; but I don’t want you, Claude. I want Mrs. Mellot. You go to the window with Bowie.”
Bowie and Claude shrugged their shoulders at each other, and departed.
“Now, Mrs. Mellot, I can’t help looking up to you as a mother.”
“Complimentary to my youth,” says Sabina, who always calls herself young when she is called old, and old when she is called young.
“I didn’t mean to be rude. But one does long to open one’s heart. I never had any mother to talk to, you know; and I can’t tell my aunt; and Valencia is so flighty; and I thought you would give me one chance more. Don’t laugh at me, I say. I am really past laughing at.”
“I see you are, you poor creature,” says Sabina, melting; and a long conversation follows, while Claude and Bowie exchange confidences, and arrive at no result beyond the undeniable assertion; “it is a very bad job.”
Presently Sabina comes out, and Scoutbush calls cheerfully from the sofa:–
“Bowie, get my bath and things to dress; and order me the cab in half an hour. Good-bye, you dear people, I shall never thank you enough.”
Away go Claude and Sabina in a hack-cab.
“What have you done?”
“Given him what he entreated for–another chance with Marie.”
“It will only madden him all the more. Why let him try, when you know it is hopeless.”
“Why, I had not the heart to refuse, that’s the truth; and besides, I don’t know that it is hopeless.”
“All the naughtier of you, to let him run the chance of making a fool of himself.”
“I don’t know that he will make such a great fool of himself. As he says, his grandfather married an actress, and why should not he?”
“Simply because she won’t marry him.”
“And how do you know that, sir? You fancy that you understand all the women’s hearts in England, just because you have found out the secret of managing one little fool.”
“Managing her, quotha! Being managed by her, till my quiet house is turned into a perfect volcano of match-making. Why, I thought he was to marry Manchestrina.”
“He shall marry who he likes; and if Marie changes her mind, and revenges herself on this American by taking Lord Scoutbush, all I can say is, it will be a just judgment on him. I have no patience with the heartless fellow, going off thus, and never even leaving his address.”
“And because you have no patience, you think Marie will have none?”
“What do you know about women’s hearts? Leave us to mind our own matters.”
“Mr. Bowie will kill you outright, if your plot succeeds.”
“No, he won’t. I know who Bowie wants to marry; and if he is not good, he shan’t have her. Besides, it will be such fun to spite old Lady Knockdown, who always turns up her nose at me. How mad she will be! Here we are at home. Now, I shall go and prepare Marie.”
An hour after, Scoutbush was pleading his cause with Marie; and had been met, of course, at starting, with the simple rejoinder,–
“But, my lord, you would not surely have me marry where I do not love?”
“Oh, of course not; but, you see, people very often get love after they are married:–and I am sure I would do all to make you love me. I know I can’t bribe you by promising you carriages and jewels, and all that:–but you should have what you would like–pictures and statues, and books–and all that I can buy–Oh, madam, I know I am not worthy of you–I never have had any education as you have!”–
Marie smiled a sad smile.
“But I would learn–I know I could–for I am no fool, though I say it: I like all that sort of thing, and–and if I had you to teach me, I should care about nothing else. I have given up all my nonsense since I knew you; indeed I have–I am trying all day long to read–ever since you said something about being useful, and noble, and doing one’s work:–I have never forgotten that, madam, and never shall; and you would find me a pleasant person to live with, I do believe. At all events, I would–oh, madam–I would be your servant, your dog–I would fetch and carry for you like a negro slave!”
Marie turned pale, and rose.
“Listen to me, my lord; this must end. You do not know to whom you are speaking. You talk of negro slaves. Know that you are talking to one!”
Scoutbush looked at her in blank astonishment.
“Madam? Excuse me: but my own eyes–“
“You are not to trust them; I tell you fact.”
Scoutbush was silent. She misunderstood his silence: but went on steadily.
“I tell you, my lord, what I expect you to keep secret: and I know that I can trust your honour.”
“And what I should never have told you, were it not my only chance of curing you of this foolish passion. I am an American slave!”
“Curse them! Who dared make you a slave?” cried Scoutbush, turning as red as a game-cock.
“I was born a slave. My father was a white gentleman of good family: my mother was a quadroon; and therefore I am a slave;–a negress, a runaway slave, my lord, who, if I returned to America, should be seized, and chained, and scourged, and sold.–Do you understand me?”
“What an infernal shame!” cried Scoutbush, to whom the whole thing appeared simply as a wrong done to Marie.
“Well, my lord?”
“Does not this fact put the question at rest for ever?”
“No, madam! What do I know about slaves? No one is a slave in England. No madam; all that it does is to make me long to cut half-a-dozen fellows’ throats–” and Scoutbush stamped with rage. “No, madam, you are you: and if you become my viscountess, you take my rank, I trust, and my name is yours, and my family yours; and let me see who dare interfere!”
“But public opinion, my lord?” said Marie, half-pleased, half-terrified to find the shaft which she had fancied fatal fall harmless at her feet.
“Public opinion? You don’t know England, madam! What’s the use of my being a peer, if I can’t do what I like, and make public opinion go my way, and not I its? Though I am no great prince, madam, but only a poor Irish viscount, it’s hard if I can’t marry whom I like–in