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  • 1857
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He paused, and his voice softened.

“Say what the preacher may. He must be a good God who makes such creatures as you, and sends them into the world to comfort poor wretches. Follow your own sweet heart, Grace, and torment yourself no more with these dark dreams!”

“My heart?” cried she, looking down; “it is deceitful and desperately wicked.”

“I wish mine were too, then,” said Tom: “but it cannot be, as long as it is so unlike yours. Now stop, Grace, I want to speak to you.”

There was a gate in front of them, leading into the road.

As they came to it, Tom lingered with his hand upon the top bar, that Grace might stop. She did stop, half-frightened. Why did he call her Grace?

“I wish to speak to you on one matter, on which I believe I ought to have spoken long ago.”

She looked up at him, surprise in her large eyes: and turned pale as he went on.

“I ought long ago to have begged your pardon for something rude which I said to you at your own door. This day has made me quite ashamed of–“

But she interrupted him, quite wildly, gasping for breath.

“The belt? The belt? Oh, my God! my God! Have you heard anything more?–anything more?”

“Not a word; but–“

To his astonishment, she heaved a deep sigh, as if relieved from a sudden fear. His face clouded, and his eyebrows rose. Was she guilty, then, after all?

With the quick eyes of love, she saw the change; and broke out passionately,–

“Yes; suspect me! suspect me, if you will! only give me time! Send me to prison, innocent as I am–innocent as that child there above–would God I were dying like her!–Only give me time! O misery! I had hoped you had forgotten–that it was lost in the sea–that–what am I saying?–Only give me time!”–and she dropped on her knees before him, wringing her hands.

“Miss Harvey! This is not worthy of you. If you be innocent, as I don’t doubt, what more do you need–or I?”

He took her hands, and lifted her up: but she still kept looking down, round, upwards, like a hunted deer, and pleading in words which seemed sobbed out–as by some poor soul on the rack–between choking spasms of agony.

“Oh, I don’t know,–God help me! O Lord, help me! I will try and find it–I know I shall find it! only have patience; have patience with me a little, and I know I shall bring it you; and then–and then you will forgive?–forgive?”

And she laid her hands upon his arms, and looked up in his face with a piteous smile of entreaty.

She had never looked so beautiful as at that moment. The devil saw it; and entered into the heart of Thomas Thurnall. He caught her in his arms, kissed away her tears, stopped her mouth with kisses. “Yes! I’ll wait–wait for ever, if you will! I’ll lose another belt, for such another look as that!”

She was bewildered for a moment, poor fond wretch, at finding herself where she would gladly have stayed for ever: but quickly she recovered her reason.

“Let me go!” she cried, struggling. “This is not right! Let me go, sir!” and she tried to cover her burning cheeks with her hands.

“I will not, Grace! I love you! I love you, I tell you!”

“You do not, sir!” and she struggled still more fiercely. “Do not deceive yourself! Me you cannot deceive! Let me go, I say! You could not demean yourself to love a poor girl like me!”

Utterly losing his head, Tom ran on with passionate words.

“No, sir! you know that I am not fit to be your wife: and do you fancy that I–“

Maddened now, Tom went on, ere he was aware, from a foolish deed to a base speech.

“I know nothing, but that I shall keep you in pawn for my belt. Till that is at least restored, you are in my power, Grace! Remember that!”

She thrust him away with so sudden and desperate a spasm, that he was forced to let her go. She stood gazing at him, a trembling deer no longer, but rather a lioness at bay, her face flashing beautiful indignation.

“In your power! Yes, sir! My character, my life, for aught I know: but not my soul, Send me to Bodmin Gaol if you will; but offer no more insults to a modest maiden! Oh!”–and her expression changed to one of lofty sorrow and pity;–“Oh! to find all men alike at heart? After having fancied you–fancied you” (what she had fancied him her woman’s modesty dare not repeat)–“to find you even such another as Mr. Trebooze!”

Tom was checked. As for mere indignation, in such cases, he had seen enough of that to trust it no more than “ice that is one night old:” but pity for him was a weapon of defence to which he was unaccustomed. And there was no contempt in her pity; and no affectation either. Her voice was solemn, but tender, gently upbraiding, like her countenance. Never had he felt Grace’s mysterious attraction so strong upon him; and for the first and last time, perhaps, for many a year, he answered with downcast eyes of shame.

“I beg your pardon, Miss Harvey. I have been rude–mad. If you will look in your glass when you go home, and have a woman’s heart in you, you may at least see an excuse for me: but like Mr. Trebooze I am not. Forgive and forget, and let us walk home rationally.” And he offered to take her hand.

“No: not now! Not till I can trust you, sir!” said she. The words were lofty enough: but there was a profound melancholy in their tone which humbled Tom still more. Was it possible–she seemed to have hinted it–that she had thought him a very grand personage till now, and that he had disgraced himself in her eyes?

If a man had suspected Tom of such a feeling, I fear he would have cared little, save how to restore the balance by making a fool of the man who fancied him a fool: but no male self-sufficiency or pride is proof against the contempt of woman; and Tom slunk along by the schoolmistress’s side, as if he had been one of her naughtiest school-children. He tried, of course, to brazen it out to his own conscience. He had done no harm, after all; indeed, never seriously meant any. She was making a ridiculous fuss about nothing. It was all part and parcel of her methodistical cant. He dared say that she was not as prudish with the methodist parson. And at that base thought he paused; for a flush of rage, and a strong desire on such hypothesis to slay the said methodist parson, or any one else who dared even to look sweet on Grace, showed him plainly enough what he had long been afraid of, that he was really in love with her; and that, as he put it, if she did not make a fool of herself about him, he was but too likely to end in making a fool of himself about her. However, he must speak, to support his own character as a man of the world;–it would never do to knock under to a country girl in this way;–she might go and boast of it all over the town;–beside, foiled or not, he would not give in without trying her mettle somewhat further.

“Miss Harvey, will you forgive me?”

“I have forgiven you.”

“Will you forget?”

“If I can!” she said, with a marked expression, which signified (though, of course, she did not mean Tom to understand it), “some of what is past is too precious, and some too painful, to forget.”

“I do not ask you to forget all which has passed!”

“I am afraid that there is nothing which would be any credit to you, sir, to have remembered.”

“Credit or none,” said Tom, unabashed, “do not forget one word that I said.”

She looked hastily and sidelong round,–“That I am in your power?”

“No! curse it! I wish I had bitten out my tongue before I had said that. No! that I am in your power, Miss Harvey.”

“Sir! I never heard you say that; and if you had, the sooner anything so untrue is forgotten the better.”

“I said that I loved you, Grace; and if that does not mean that–“

“Sir! Mr. Thurnall! I cannot, I will not hear! You only insult me, sir, by speaking thus, when you know that–that you consider me–a thief!” and the poor girl burst into tears again.

“I do not! I do not;” cried Tom, growing really earnest at the sight of her sorrow, “Did I not begin this unhappy talk by begging your pardon for ever having let such a thought cross my mind?”

“But you do! you do! you told me as much at my own door; and I have seen it ever since, till I have almost gone mad under it!”

“I will swear to you by all that is sacred that I do not! Oh, Grace, the first moment I saw you my heart told me that it was impossible; and now, this afternoon, as I listened to you with that sick girl, I felt a wretch for ever having–Grace, I tell you, you made me feel, for the moment, a better man than I ever felt in my life before. A poor return I have made for that, truly!”

Grace looked up in his face gasping.

“Oh, say that! say that again. Oh, good Lord, merciful Lord, at last! Oh, if you knew what it was to have even one weight lifted off, among all my heavy burdens, and that weight the hardest to bear. God forgive me that it should have been so! Oh, I can breathe freely now again, that I know I am not suspected by you.”

“By you?” Tom could not but see what, after all, no human being can conceal, that Grace cared for him. And the devil came and tempted him once more: but this time it was in vain. Tom’s better angel had returned; Grace’s tender guilelessness, which would with too many men only have marked her out as the easier prey, was to him as a sacred shield before her innocence. So noble, so enthusiastic, so pure! He could not play the villain with that woman.

But there was plainly a mystery. What were the burdens, heavier even than unjust suspicion, of which she had spoken? There was no harm in asking.

“But, Grace–Miss Harvey–You will not be angry with me if I ask?–Why speak so often, as if finding this money depended on you alone? You wish me to recover it, I know; and if you can counsel me, why not do so? Why not tell me whom you suspect?”

Her old wild terror returned in an instant. She stopped short–

“Suspect? I suspect? Oh, I have suspected too many already! Suspected till I began to hate my fellow-creatures–hate life itself, when I fancied that I saw ‘thief’ written on every forehead. Oh, do not ask me to suspect any more!”

Tom was silent.

“Oh,” she cried, after a moment’s pause. “Oh, that we were back in those old times I have read of, when they used to put people to the torture to make them confess!”

“Why, in Heaven’s name?”

“Because then I should have been tortured, and have confessed it, true or false, in the agony, and have been hanged. They used to hang them then, and put them out of their misery; and I should have been put out of mine, and no one have been blamed but me for ever more.”

“You forget,” said Tom, lost in wonder, “that then I should have blamed you, as well as every one else.”

“True; yes, it was a foolish faithless word. I did not take it, and it would have been no good to my soul to say I did. Lies cannot prosper, cannot prosper, Mr. Thurnall!” and she stopped short again.

“What, my dear Grace?” said he, kindly enough; for he began to fear that she was losing her wits.

“I saved your life!”

“You did, Grace.”

“Then, I never thought to ask for payment; but, oh, I must now. Will you promise me one thing in return?”

“What you will, as I am a man and a gentleman; I can trust you to ask nothing which is not worthy of you.”

Tom spoke truth. He felt,–perhaps love made him feel it all the more easily,–that whatever was behind, he was safe in that woman’s hands.

“Then promise me that you will wait one month, only one month: ask no questions; mention nothing to any living soul. And if, before that time, I do not bring you that belt back, send me to Bodmin Gaol, and let me bear my punishment.”

“I promise,” said Tom. And the two walked on again in silence, till they neared the head of the village.

Then Grace went forward, like Nausicaa when she left Ulysses, lest the townsfolk should talk; and Tom sat down upon a bank and watched her figure vanishing in the dusk.

Much he puzzled, hunting up and down in his cunning head for an explanation of the mystery. At last he found one which seemed to fit the facts so well, that he rose with a whistle of satisfaction, and walked homewards.

Evidently, her mother had stolen the belt; and Grace was, if not a repentant accomplice–for that he could not believe,–at least aware of the fact.

“Well, it is a hard knot for her to untie, poor child; and on the strength of having saved my life, she shall untie it her own way. I can wait. I hope the money won’t be spent meanwhile, though, and the empty leather returned to me when wanted no longer. However, that’s done already, if done at all. I was a fool for not acting at once;–a double fool for suspecting her! Ass that I was, to take up with a false scent, and throw myself off the true one! My everlasting unbelief in people has punished itself this time. I might have got a search-warrant three months ago, and had that old witch safe in the bilboes. But no–I might not have found it, after all, and there would have been only an esclandre; and if I know that girl’s heart, she would have been ten times more miserable for her mother than for herself, so it’s as well as it is. Besides, it’s really good fun to watch how such a pretty plot will work itself out;–as good as a pack of harriers with a cold scent and a squatted hare. So, live and let live. Only, Thomas Thurnall, if you go for to come for to go for to make such an abominable ass of yourself with that young lady any more, like a miserable school-boy, you will be pleased to make tracks, and vanish out of these parts for ever. For my purse can’t afford to have you marrying a schoolmistress in your impoverished old age; and my character, which also is my purse, can’t afford worse.”

One word of Grace’s had fixed itself in Tom’s memory. What did she mean by “her two?”

He contrived to ask Willis that very evening.

“Oh, don’t you know, sir? She had a young brother drowned, a long while ago, when she was sixteen or so. He went out fishing on the Sabbath, with another like him, and both were swamped. Wild young lads, both, as lads will be. But she, sweet maid, took it so to heart, that she never held up her head since; nor will, I think, at times, to her dying day.”

“Humph! Was she fond of the other lad, then?”

“Sir,” said Willis, “I don’t think it’s fair like,–not decent, if you’ll excuse an old sailor,–to talk about young maids’ affairs, that they wouldn’t talk of themselves, perhaps not even to themselves. So I never asked any questions myself.”

“And think it rude in me to ask any. Well, I believe you’re right, good old gentleman that you are. What a nobleman you’d have made, if you had had the luck to have been born in that station of life!”

“I have found too much trouble, in doing my duty in my humble place, to wish to be in any higher one.”

“So!” thought Tom to himself, “a girl’s fancy: but it explains so much in the character, especially when the temperament is melancholic. However, to quote Solomon once more, ‘A live dog is better than a dead lion;’ and I have not much to fear from a rival who has been washed out of this world ten years since. Heyday! Rival! quotha? Tom Thurnall, you are going to make a fool of yourself. You must go, sir! I warn you; you must flee, till you have recovered your senses.”

There appeared next morning in Tom’s shop a new phenomenon. A smart youth, dressed in what he considered to be the newest London fashion; but which was really that translation of last year’s fashion which happened to be current in the windows of the Bodmin tailors. Tom knew him by sight and name,–one Mr. Creed, a squireen like Trebooze, and an especial friend of Trebooze’s, under whose tutelage he had learned to smoke cavendish assiduously from the age of fifteen, thereby improving neither his stature, nor his digestion, his nerves, nor the intelligence of his countenance.

He entered with a lofty air, and paused awhile as he spoke.

“Is it possible,” said Tom to himself, “that Trebooze has sent me a challenge? It would be too good fun. I’ll wait and see.” So he went on rolling pills.

“I say, sir,” quoth the youth, who had determined, as an owner of land, to treat the doctor duly _de haut en bas_, and had a vague notion that a liberal use of the word “sir” would both help thereto, and be consonant with professional style of duel diplomacy, whereof he had read in novels.

Tom turned slowly, and then took a long look at him over the counter through halfshut eye-lids, with chin upraised, as if he had been suddenly afflicted with short sight; and worked on meanwhile steadily at his pills.

“That is, I wish–to speak to you, sir–ahem–!” went on Mr. Creed; being gradually but surely discomfited by Tom’s steady gaze.

“Don’t trouble yourself, sir: I see your case in your face. A slight nervous affection–will pass as the digestion improves. I will make you up a set of pills for the night; but I should advise a little ammonia and valerian at once. May I mix it?”

“Sir! you mistake me, sir!”

“Not in the least; you have brought me a challenge from Mr. Trebooze.”

“I have, sir!” said the youth with a grand air, at once relieved by having the awful words said for him, and exalted by the dignity of his first, and perhaps last, employment in that line.

“Well, sir,” said Tom deliberately, “Mr. Trebooze does me a kindness for which I cannot sufficiently thank him, and you also, as his second. It is full six months since I fought, and I was getting hardly to know myself again.”

“You will have to fight now, sir!” said the youth, trying to brazen off by his discourtesy increasing suspicion that he had “caught a Tartar.”

“Of course, of course. And of course, too, I fight you afterwards.”

“I–I, sir? I am Mr. Trebooze’s friend, his second, sir. You do not seem to understand, sir!”

“Pardon me, young gentleman,” said Tom, in a very quiet, determined voice; “it is I who have a right to tell you that you do not understand in such matters as these. I had fought my man, and more than one of them, while you were eating blackberries in a short jacket.”

“What do you mean, sir?” quoth the youth in fury; and began swearing a little.

“Simple fact. Are you not about twenty-three years old?”

“What is that to you, sir?”

“No business of mine, of course. You may be growing into your second childhood for aught I care: but if, as I guess, you are about twenty-three, I, as I know, am thirty-six: then I fought my first duel when you were five years old, and my tenth, I should say, when you were fifteen; at which time, I suppose, you were not ashamed either of the jacket or the blackberries.”

“You will find me a man now, sir, at all events,” said Creed, justly wroth at what was, after all, a sophism; for if a man is not a man at twenty, he never will be one.

“_Tant mieux_. You know, I suppose, that as the challenged, I have the choice of weapons?”

“Of course, sir,” said Creed, in an off-hand generous tone, because he did not very clearly know.

“Then, sir, I always fight across a handkerchief. You will tell Mr. Trebooze so; he is, I really believe, a brave man, and will accept the terms. You will tell yourself the same, whether you be a brave man or not.”

The youth lost the last words in those which went before them. He was no coward: would have stood up to be shot at, at fifteen paces, like any one else; but the deliberate butchery of fighting across a handkerchief–

“Do I understand you, sir?”

“That depends on whether you are clever enough, or not, to comprehend your native tongue. Across a handkerchief, I say, do you hear that?” And Tom rolled on at his pills.

“I do.”

“And when I have fought him, I fight you!” And the pills rolled steadily at the same pace.

“But–sir?–Why–sir?”

“Because,” said Tom, looking him full in the face, “because you, calling yourself a gentleman, and being, more shame for you, one by birth, dare to come here, for a foolish vulgar superstition called honour, to ask me, a quiet medical man, to go and be shot at by a man whom you know to be a drunken, profligate, blackguard: simply because, as you know as well as I, I interfered to prevent his insulting a poor helpless girl: and in so doing, was forced to give him what you, if you are (as I believe) a gentleman, would have given him also, in my place.”

“I don’t understand you, sir!” said the lad, blushing all the while, as one honestly conscience-stricken; for Tom had spoken the exact truth, and he knew it.

“Don’t lie, sir, and tell me that you don’t understand; you understand every word which I have spoken, and you know that it is true.”

“Lie?”

“Yes, lie. Look you, sir; I have no wish to fight–“

“You will fight, though, whether you wish it or not,” said the youth with a hysterical laugh, meant to be defiant.

“But–I can snuff a candle; I can split a bullet on a penknife at fifteen paces.”

“Do you mean to frighten us by boasting? We shall see what you can do when you come on the ground.”

“Across a handkerchief: but on no other condition; and, unless you will accept that condition, I will assuredly, the next time I see you, be we where we may, treat you as I treated your friend Mr. Trebooze. I’ll do it now! Get out of my shop, sir! What do you want here, interfering with my honest business?”

And, to the astonishment of Mr. Trebooze’s second, Tom vaulted clean over the counter, and rushed at him open-mouthed.

Sacred be the honour of the gallant West country: but, “both being friends,” as Aristotle has it, “it is a sacred duty to speak the truth.” Mr. Creed vanished through the open door.

“I rid myself of the fellow jollily,” said Tom to Frank that day, after telling him the whole story.

“And no credit to me. I saw from the minute he came in there was no fight in him.”

“But suppose he had accepted–or suppose Trebooze accepts still?”

“There was my game–to frighten him. He’ll take care Trebooze shan’t fight, for he knows that he must fight next. He’ll go home and patch the matter up, trust him. Meanwhile, the oaf had not even _savoir faire_ enough to ask for my second. Lucky for me; for I don’t know where to have found one, save the lieutenant; and though he would have gone out safe enough, it would have been a bore for the good old fellow.”

“And,” said Prank, utterly taken aback by Tom’s business-like levity, “you would actually have stood to shoot, and be shot at, across a handkerchief?”

Tom stuck out his great chin, and looked at him with one of his quaint sidelong moues.

“You are my very good friend, sir: but not my father-confessor.”

“I know that: but really–as a mere question of human curiosity–“

“Oh, if you ask me on the human ground, and not on the sacerdotal, I’ll tell you. I’ve tried it twice, and I should be sorry to try it again; though it’s a very easy dodge. Keep your right elbow up–up to your ear–and the moment you hear the word, fire. A high elbow and a cool heart–that’s all; and that wins.”

“Wins? Good heavens? As you are here alive you must have killed your man?”

“No. I only shot my men each through the body; and each of them deserved it: but it is an ugly chance; I should have been sorry to try it on that yokel. The boy may make a man yet. And what’s more,” said Tom, bursting into a great laugh, “he will make a man, and go down to his fathers in peace, _quant a moi_; and so will that wretched Trebooze. For I’ll bet you my head to a China orange, I hear no more of this matter; and don’t even lose Trebooze’s custom.”

“Upon my word, I envy your sanguine temperament!”

“Mr. Headley, I shall quietly make my call at Trebooze to-morrow, as if nothing had happened. What will you bet me that I am not received as usual?”

“I never bet,” said Frank.

“Then you do well. It is a foolish and a dirty trick; playing with edge tools, and cutting one’s own fingers. Nevertheless, I speak truth, as you will see.”

“You are a most extraordinary man. All this is so contrary to your usual caution.”

“When you are driven against the ropes, ‘hit out’ is the old rule of Fistiana and common sense. It is an extreme bore: all the more reason for showing such an ugly front, as to give people no chance of its happening again. Nothing so dangerous as half-measures, Headley. ‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you,’ your creed says. Mine only translates it into practice.”

“I have no liking for half-measures myself.”

“Did you ever,” said Tom, “hear the story of the two Sandhurst broom-squires?”

“Broomsquires?”

“So we call, in Berkshire, squatters on the moor who live by tying heath into brooms. Two of them met in Reading market once, and fell out:–

“‘How ever do you manage to sell your brooms for three halfpence? I steals the heth, and I steals the binds, and I steals the handles: and yet I can’t afoord to sell ’em under twopence.’

“Ah, but you see,’ says the other, ‘I steals mine ready made.’

“Moral–If you’re going to do a thing, do it outright.”

That very evening, Tom came in again.

“Well; I’ve been to Trebooze.”

“And fared, how?”

“Just as I warned you. Inquired into his symptoms; prescribed for his digestion–if he goes on as he is doing, he will soon have none left to prescribe for; and, finally, plastered, with a sublime generosity, the nose which my own knuckles had contused.”

“Impossible! you are the most miraculously impudent of men!”

“Pish! simple common sense. I knew that Mrs. Trebooze would suspect that the world had heard of his mishap, and took care to let her know that I knew, by coming up to inquire for him.”

“_Cui bono?_”

“Power. To have them, or any one, a little more in my power. Next, I knew that he dared not fly out at me, for fear I should tell Mrs. Trebooze what he had been after–you see? Ah, it was delicious to have the great oaf sitting sulking under my fingers, longing to knock my head off, and I plastering away, with words of deepest astonishment and condolence. I verily believe that, before we parted, I had persuaded him that his black eye proceeded entirely from his having run up against a tree in the dark.”

“Well,” said Frank, half sadly, though enjoying the joke in spite of himself, “I cannot help thinking it would have been a fit moment for giving the poor wretch a more solemn lesson.”

“My dear sir,–a good licking–and he had one, and something over–is the best lesson for that manner of biped. That’s the way to school him: but as we are on lessons, I’ll give you a hint.”

“Go on, model of self-sufficiency!” said Frank.

“Scoff at me if you will, I am proof. But hearken–you mustn’t turn out that schoolmistress. She’s an angel, and I know it; and if I say so of any human being, you may be sure I have pretty good reasons.”

“I am beginning to be of your mind myself,” said Frank.

END OF VOL. 1.