Two Years Ago, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter xi.

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 bête 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 littérateur 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 début, 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 soirées 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.”

“Cure?”

“Why not? Believe me, it is in your power to become a much happier man, simply by becoming a healthier one.”

“Impertinence!”

“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.

“Very ill.”

“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?”

“No.”

“Pity; there ought to be noble cocking in these woods. However, the season’s past. You fish?”

“No.”

“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 chère, 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.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kingsley/charles/two_years_ago/chapter11.html

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:48