Two Years Ago, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter xvi.

Come at Last.

Now, as if in all things Tom Thurnall and John Briggs were fated to take opposite sides, Campbell lost ground with Elsley as fast as he gained it with Thurnall. Elsley had never forgiven himself for his passion that first morning. He had shown Campbell his weak side, and feared and disliked him accordingly. Beside, what might not Thurnall have told Campbell about him? And what use might not the Major make of his secret? Besides, Elsley’s dread and suspicion increased rapidly when he discovered that Campbell was one of those men who live on terms of peculiar intimacy with many women; whether for his own good or not, still for the good of the women concerned. For only by honest purity, and moral courage superior to that of the many, is that dangerous post earned; and women will listen to the man who will tell them the truth, however sternly; and will bow, as before a guardian angel, to the strong insight of him whom they have once learned to trust. But it is a dangerous office, after all, for layman as well as for priest, that of father-confessor. The experience of centuries has shown that they must needs exist, wherever fathers neglect their daughters, husbands their wives; wherever the average of the women cannot respect the average of the men. But the experience of centuries should likewise have taught men, that the said father-confessors are no objects of envy; that their temptations to become spiritual coxcombs (the worst species of all coxcombs), if not intriguers, bullies, and worse, are so extreme, that the soul which is proof against them must be either very great, or very small indeed. Whether Campbell was altogether proof, will be seen hereafter. But one day Elsley found out that such was Campbell’s influence, and did not love him the more for the discovery.

They were walking round the garden after dinner; Scoutbush was licking his foolish lips over some commonplace tale of scandal.

“I tell you, my dear fellow, she’s booked; and Mellot knows it as well as I. He saw her that night at Lady A’s.”

“We saw the third act of the comi-tragedy. The fourth is playing out now. We shall see the fifth before the winter.”

“Non sine sanguine!” said the Major.

“Serve the wretched stick right, at least,” said Scoutbush. “What right had he to marry such a pretty woman?”

“What right had they to marry her up to him?” said Claude. “I don’t blame poor January. I suppose none of us, gentlemen, would have refused such a pretty toy, if we could have afforded it as he could.”

“Whom do you blame then?” asked Elsley.

“Fathers and mothers who prate hypocritically about keeping their daughters’ minds pure; and then abuse a girl’s ignorance, in order to sell her to ruin. Let them keep her mind pure, in heaven’s name; but let them consider themselves all the more bound in honour to use on her behalf the experience in which she must not share.”

“Well,” drawled Scoutbush, “I don’t complain of her bolting; she’s a very sweet creature, and always was: but, as Longreach says — and a very witty fellow he is, though you laugh at him — ‘If she’d kept to us, I shouldn’t have minded: but as Guardsmen, we must throw her over. It’s an insult to the whole Guards, my dear fellow, after refusing two of us, to marry an attorney, and after all to bolt with a plunger.’”

What bolting with a plunger might signify, Elsley knew not: but ere he could ask, the Major rejoined, in an abstracted voice —

“God help us all! And this is the girl I recollect, two years ago, singing there in Cavendish Square, as innocent as a nestling thrush!”

“Poor child!” said Mellot, “sold at first — perhaps sold again now. The plunger has bills out, and she has ready money. I know her settlements.”

“She shan’t do it,” said the Major quietly: “I’ll write to her to-night.”

Elsley looked at him keenly. “You think, then, sir, that you can, by simply writing, stop this intrigue?”

The Major did not answer. He was deep in thought.

“I shouldn’t wonder if he did,” said Scoutbush; “two to one on his baulking the plunger!”

“She is at Lord ——‘s now, at those silly private theatricals. Is he there?”

“No,” said Mellot; “he tried hard for an invitation — stooped to work me and Sabina. I believe she told him that she would sooner see him in the Morgue than help him; and he is gone to the moors now, I believe.”

“There is time then: I will write to her to-night;” and Campbell took up his hat and went home to do it.

“Ah,” said Scoutbush, taking his cigar meditatively from his mouth, “I wonder how he does it! It’s a gift, I always say, a wonderful gift! Before he has been a week in a house, he’ll have the confidence of every woman in it — and ‘gad, he does it by saying the rudest things! — and the confidence of all the youngsters the week after.”

“A somewhat dangerous gift,” said Elsley, drily.

“Ah, yes; he might play tricks if he chose: but there’s the wonder, that he don’t. I’d answer for him with my own sister. I do every day of my life — for I believe he knows how many pins she puts into her dress — and yet there he is. As I said once in the mess-room — there was a youngster there who took on himself to be witty, and talked about the still sow supping the milk — the snob! You recollect him, Mellot? the attorney’s son from Brompton, who sold out; — we shaved his mustachios, put a bear in his bed, and sent him home to his ma — And he said that Major Campbell might be very pious, and all that: but he’d warrant — they were the fellow’s own words — that he took his lark on the sly, like other men — the snob! so I told him, I was no better than the rest, and no more I am; but if any man dared to say that the Major was not as honest as his own sister, I was his man at fifteen paces. And so I am, Claude!”

All which did not increase Elsley’s love to the Major, conscious as he was that Lucia’s confidence was a thing which he had not wholly; and which it would be very dangerous to him for any other man to have at all.

Into the drawing-room they went. Frank Headley had been asked up to tea; and he stood at the piano, listening to Valencia’s singing.

As they came in, the maid came in also. “Mr. Thurnall wished to speak to Major Campbell.”

Campbell went out, and returned in two minutes somewhat hurriedly.

“Mr. Thurnall wishes Lord Scoutbush to be informed at once, and I think it is better that you should all know it — that — it is a painful surprise:— but there is a man ill in the street, whose symptoms he does not like, he says.”

“Cholera?” said Elsley.

“Call him in,” said Scoutbush.

“He had rather not come in, he says.”

“What! is it infectious?”

“Certainly not, if it be cholera, but —”

“He don’t wish to frighten people, quite right:” (with a half glance at Elsley;) “but is it cholera, honestly?”

“I fear so.”

“Oh, my children!” said poor Mrs. Vavasour.

“Will five pounds help the poor fellow?” said Scoutbush.

“How far off is it?” asked Elsley.

“Unpleasantly near. I was going to advise you to move at once.”

“You hear what they are saying?” asked Valencia of Frank.

“Yes, I hear it,” said Frank, in a quiet meaning tone.

Valencia thought that he was half pleased with the news. Then she thought him afraid; for he did not stir.

“You will go instantly, of course?”

“Of course I shall. Good-bye! Do not be afraid. It is not infectious.”

“Afraid? And a soldier’s sister?” said Valencia, with a toss of her beautiful head, by way of giving force to her somewhat weak logic.

Frank left the room instantly, and met Thurnall in the passage.

“Well, Headley, it’s here before we sent for it, as bad luck usually is.”

“I know. Let me go! Where is it? Whose house?” asked Frank in an excited tone.

“Humph!” said Thurnall, looking intently at him, “that is just what I shall not tell you.”

“Not tell me?”

“No, you are too pale, Headley. Go back and get two or three glasses of wine, and then we will talk of it.”

“What do you mean? I must go instantly! It is my duty — my parishioner!”

“Look here, Headley! Are you and I to work together in this business, or are we not?”

“Why not, in heaven’s name?”

“Then I want you, not for cure, but for prevention. You can do them no good when they have once got it. You may prevent dozens from having it in the next four-and-twenty hours, if you will be guided by me.”

“But my business is with their souls, Thurnall.”

“Exactly; — to give them the consolations of religion, as they call it. You will give them to the people who have not taken it. You may bring them safe through it by simply keeping up their spirits; while if you waste your time on poor dying wretches —”

“Thurnall, you must not talk so! I will do all you ask: but my place is at the death-bed, as well as elsewhere. These perishing souls are in my care.”

“And how do you know, pray, that they are perishing?” answered Tom, with something very like a sneer. “And if they were, do you honestly believe that any talk of yours can change in five minutes a character which has been forming for years, or prevent a man’s going where he ought to go — which, I suppose, is the place to which he deserves to go?”

“I do,” said Frank, firmly.

“Well. It is a charitable and hopeful creed. My great dread was, lest you should kill the poor wretches before their time, by adding to the fear of cholera the fear of hell. I caught the Methodist parson at that work an hour ago, took him by the shoulders and shot him out into the street. But, my dear Headley” (and Tom lowered his voice to a whisper), “wherever poor Tom Beer deserved to go to, he is gone to it already. He has been dead this twenty minutes.”

“Tom Beer dead? One of the finest fellows in the town! And I never sent for?”

“Don’t speak so loud, or they will hear you. I had no time to send for you; and if I had, I should not have sent, for he was past attending to you from the first. He brought it with him, I suppose, from C——. Had had warnings for a week, and neglected them. Now listen to me: that man was but two hours ill; as sharp a case as I ever saw, even in the West Indies. You must summon up all your good sense, and play the man for a fortnight; for it’s coming on the poor souls like hell!” said Tom between his teeth, and stamped his foot upon the ground. Frank had never seen him show so much feeling; he fancied he could see tears glistening in his eyes.

“I will, so help me God!” said Frank.

Tom held out his hand, and grasped Frank’s.

“I know you will. You’re all right at heart. Only mind three things: don’t frighten them; don’t tire yourself; don’t go about on an empty stomach; and then we can face the worst like men. And now go in, and say nothing to these people. If they take a panic we shall have some of them down to-night as sure as fate. Go in, keep quiet, persuade them to bolt anywhere on earth by daylight to-morrow. Then go home, eat a good supper, and come across to me; and if I’m out, I’ll leave word where.”

Frank went back again; he found Campbell, who had had his cue from Tom, urging immediate removal as strongly as he could, without declaring the extent of the danger. Valencia was for sending instantly for a fly to the nearest town, and going to stay at a watering-place some forty miles off. Elsley was willing enough at heart, but hesitated; he knew not, at the moment, poor fellow, where to find the money. His wife knew that she could borrow of Valencia; but she, too, was against the place. The cholera would be in the air for miles round. The journey in the hot sun would make the children sick and ill; and watering-place lodgings were such horrid holes, never ventilated, and full of smells — people caught fevers at them so often. Valencia was inclined to treat this as “mother’s nonsense;” but Major Campbell said gravely, that Mrs. Vavasour was perfectly right as to fact, and her arguments full of sound reason; whereon Valencia said that “of course if Lucia thought it, Major Campbell would prove it; and there was no arguing with such Solons as he —”

Which Elsley heard, and ground his teeth. Whereon little Scoutbush cried joyfully —

“I have it; why not go by sea? Take the yacht, and go! Where? Of course I have it again. ‘Pon my word I’m growing clever, Valencia, in spite of all your prophecies. Go up the Welsh coast. Nothing so healthy and airy as a sea-voyage: sea as smooth as a mill-pond, too, and likely to be. And then land, if you like, at Port Madoc, as I meant to do; and there are my rooms at Beddgelert lying empty. Engaged them a week ago, thinking I should be there by now; so you may as well keep them aired for me. Come, Valencia, pack up your millinery! Lucia, get the cradles ready, and we’ll have them all on board by twelve. Capital plan, Vavasour, isn’t if? and, by Jove, what stunning poetry you will write there under Snowdon!”

“But will you not want your rooms yourself, Lord Scoutbush?” said Elsley.

“My dear fellow, never mind me. I shall go across the country, I think, see an old friend, and get some otter-hunting. Don’t think of me, till you’re there, and then send the yacht back for me. She must be doing something, you know; and the men are only getting drunk every day here. Come — no arguing about it, or I shall turn you all out of doors into the lane, eh?”

And the little fellow laughed so good-naturedly, that Elsley could not help liking him: and feeling that he would be both a fool, and cruel to his family, if he refused so good an offer, he gave in to the scheme, and went out to arrange matters: while Scoutbush went out into the hall with Campbell, and scrambled into his pea-jacket, to go off to the yacht that moment.

“You’ll see to them, there’s a good fellow,” as they lighted their cigars at the door. “That Vavasour is greener than grass, you know, tant pis for my poor sister.”

“I am not going.”

“Not going?”

“Certainly not; so my rooms will be at their service; and you had much better escort them yourself. It will be much less disagreeable for Vavasour, who knows nothing of commanding sailors,” or himself, thought the Major, “than finding himself master of your yacht in your absence, and you will get your fishing as you intended.”

“But why are you going to stay?”

“Oh, I have not half done with the sea-beasts here. I found too new ones yesterday.”

“Quaint old beetle-hunter you are, for a man who has fought in half-a-dozen battles!” and Scoutbush walked on silently for five minutes.

Suddenly he broke out —

“I cannot! By George, I cannot; and what’s more, I won’t!”

“What?”

“Run away. It will look so — so cowardly, and there’s the truth of it, before those fine fellows down there: and just as I am come among them, too! The commander-in-chief to turn tail at the first shot! Though I can’t be of any use, I know, and I should have liked a fortnight’s fishing so,” said he in a dolorous voice, “before going to be eaten up with flies at Varna — for this Crimean expedition is all moonshine.”

“Don’t be too sure of that,” said Campbell. “We shall go; and some of us who go will never come back, Freddy. I know those Russians better than many, and I have been talking them over lately with Thurnall, who has been in their service.”

“Has he been at Sevastopol?”

“No. Almost the only place on earth where he has not been: but from all he says, and from all I know, we are undervaluing our foes, as usual, and shall smart for it!”

“We’ll lick them, never fear!”

“Yes; but not at the first round. Scoutbush, your life has been child’s play as yet. You are going now to see life in earnest — the sort of life which average people have been living, in every age and country, since Adam’s fall; a life of sorrow and danger, tears and blood, mistake, confusion, and perplexity; and you will find it a very new sensation; and, at first, a very ugly one. All the more reason for doing what good deeds you can before you go; for you may have no time left to do any on the other side of the sea.”

Scoutbush was silent awhile.

“Well; I’m afraid of nothing, I hope: only I wish one could meet this cholera face to face, as one will those Russians, with a good sword in one’s hand, and a good horse between one’s knees; and have a chance of giving him what he brings, instead of being kicked off by the cowardly Rockite, no one knows how; and not even from behind a turf dyke, but out of the very clouds.”

“So we all say, in every battle, Scoutbush. Who ever sees the man who sent the bullet through him? And yet we fight on. Do you not think the greatest terror, the only real terror, in any battle, is the chance shot? which come from no one knows where, and hit no man can guess whom? If you go to the Crimea, as you will, you will feel what I felt at the Cape, and Cabul, and the Punjab, twenty times — the fear of dying like a dog, one knew not how.”

“And yet I’ll fight, Campbell!”

“Of course you will, and take your chance. Do so now!”

“By Jove, Campbell — I always say it — you’re the most sensible man I ever met; and, by Jove, the doctor comes the next. My sister shall have the yacht, and I’ll go up to Penalva.”

“You will do two good deeds at once, then,” said the Major. “You will do what is right, and you will give heart to many a poor wretch here. Believe me, Scoutbush, you will never repent of this.”

“By Jove, it always does one good to hear you talk in that way, Campbell! One feels — I don’t know — so much of a man when one is with you; not that I shan’t take uncommonly good care of myself, old fellow; that is but fair: but as for running away, as I said, why — why — why I can’t, and so I won’t!”

“By the by,” said the Major, “there is one thing which I have forgotten, and which they will never recollect. Is the yacht victualled — with fresh meat and green stuff, I mean?”

“Whew — w —”

“I will go back, borrow a lantern, and forage in the garden, like an old campaigner. I have cut a salad with my sword before now.”

“And made it in your helmet, with macassar sauce?” And the two went their ways.

Meanwhile, before they had left the room, a notable conversation had been going on between Valencia and Headley.

Headley had re-entered the room so much paler than he went out, that everybody noticed his altered looks. Valencia chose to attribute them to fear.

“So! Are you returned from the sick man already, Mr. Headley?” asked she, in a marked tone.

“I have been forbidden by the doctor to go near him at present, Miss St. Just,” said he quietly, but in a sort of under-voice, which hinted that he wished her to ask no more questions. A shade passed over her forehead, and she began chatting rather noisily to the rest of the party, till Elsley, her brother, and Campbell went out.

Valencia looked up at him, expecting him to go too. Mrs. Vavasour began bustling about the room, collecting little valuables, and looking over her shoulders at the now unwelcome guest. But Frank leaned back in a cosy arm-chair, and did not stir. His hands were clasped on his knees; he seemed lost in thought; very pale: but there was a firm set look about his lips which attracted Valencia’s attention. Once he looked up in Valencia’s face, and saw that she was looking at him. A flush came over his cheeks for a moment, and then he seemed as impassive as ever. What could he want there! How very gauche and rude of him; so unlike him, too! And she said, civilly enough, to him, “I fear, Mr. Headley, we must begin packing up now.”

“I fear you must, indeed,” answered he, as if starting from a dream. He spoke in a tone, and with a look, which made both the women start; for what they meant it was impossible to doubt.

“I fear you must. I have foreseen it a long time; and so, I fear (and he rose from his seat), must I, unless I mean to be very rude. You will at least take away with you the knowledge, that you have given to one person’s existence, at least for a few weeks, pleasure more intense than he thought earth could hold.”

“I trust that pretty compliment was meant for me,” said Lucia, half playful, half reproving.

“I am sure that it ought not to have been meant for me,” said Valencia, more downright than her sister. Both could see for whom it was meant, by the look of passionate worship which Frank fixed on a face which, after all, seemed made to be worshipped.

“I trust that neither of you,” answered he, quietly, “think me impertinent enough to pretend to make love, as it is called, to Miss St. Just. I know who she is, and who I am. Gentleman as I am, and the descendant of gentlemen” (and Frank looked a little proud, as he spoke, and very handsome), “I see clearly enough the great gulf fixed between us; and I like it; for it enables me to say truth which I otherwise dare not have spoken; as a brother might say to a sister, or a subject to a queen. Either analogy will do equally well and equally ill.”

Frank, without the least intending it, had taken up the very strongest military position. Let a man once make a woman understand, or fancy, that he knows that he is nothing to her; and confess boldly that there is a great gulf fixed between them, which he has no mind to bridge over: and then there is little that he may not see or do, for good or for evil.

And therefore it was that Lucia answered gently, “I am sure you are not well, Mr. Headley. The excitement of the night has been too much for you.”

“Do I look excited, my dear madam?” he answered quietly. “I assure you that I am as calm as a man must be who believes that he has but a few days to live, and trusts, too, that when he dies, he will be infinitely happier than he ever has been on earth, and lay down an office which he has never discharged otherwise than ill; which has been to him a constant source of shame and sorrow.”

“Do not speak so!” said Valencia, with her Irish impetuous generosity; “you are unjust to yourself. We have watched you, felt for you, honoured you, even when we differed from you”— What more she would have said, I know not, but at that moment Elsley’s peevish voice was heard calling over the stairs, “Lucia! Lucia?”

“Oh dear! He will wake the children!” cried Lucia, looking at her sister, as much as to say, “How can I leave you!”

“Run, run, my dear creature!” said Valencia, with a self-confident smile: and the two were left alone.

The moment that Mrs. Vavasour left the room, there vanished from Frank’s face that intense look of admiration which had made even Valencia uneasy. He dropped his eyes, and his voice faltered as he spoke again. He acknowledged the change in their position, and Valencia saw that he did so, and liked him the better for it.

“I shall not repeat, Miss St. Just, now that we are alone, what I said just now of the pleasure which I have had during the last month. I am not poetical, or given to string metaphors together; and I could only go over the same dull words once more. But I could ask, if I were not asking too much, leave to prolong at least a shadow of that pleasure to the last moment. That I shall die shortly, and of this cholera, is with me a fixed idea, which nothing can remove. No, madam — it is useless to combat it! But had I anything, by which to the last moment I could bring back to my fancy what has been its sunlight for so long; even if it were a scrap of the hem of your garment, aye, a grain of dust off your feet — God forgive me! He and His mercy ought to be enough to keep me up: but one’s weakness may be excused for clinging to such slight floating straws of comfort.”

Valencia paused, startled, and yet affected. How she had played with this deep pure heart! And yet, was it pure? Did he wish, by exciting her pity, to trick her into giving him what he might choose to consider a token of affection?

And she answered coldly enough —

“I should be sorry, after what you have just said, to chance hurting you by refusing. I put it to your own good feeling — have you not asked somewhat too much?”

“Certainly too much, madam, in any common case,” said he, quite unmoved. “Certainly too much, if I asked you for it, as I do not, as the token of an affection which I know well you do not, cannot feel. But — take my words as they stand — were you to — It would be returned if I die, in a few weeks; and returned still sooner if I live. And, madam,” said he lowering his voice, “I vow to you, before Him who sees us both, that, as far as I am concerned, no human being shall ever know of the fact.”

Frank had at last touched the wrong chord.

“What, Mr. Headley? Can you think that I am to have secrets in common with you, or with any other man? No, sir! If I granted your request, I should avow it as openly as I shall refuse it.”

And she turned sharply toward the door.

Frank Headley was naturally a shy man: but extreme need sometimes bestows on shyness a miraculous readiness —(else why, in the long run, do the shy men win the best wives? which is a fact, and may be proved by statistics, at least as well as anything else can) so he quietly stepped to Valencia’s side, and said in a low voice —

“You cannot avow the refusal half as proudly as I shall avow the request, if you will but wait till your sister’s return. Both are unnecessary, I think: but it will only be an honour to me to confess, that, poor curate as I am —”

“Hush!” and Valencia walked quietly up to the table, and began turning over the leaves of a book, to gain time for her softened heart and puzzled brain.

In five minutes Frank was beside her again. The book was Tennyson’s “Princess.” She had wandered — who can tell why? — to that last exquisite scene, which all know; and as Valencia read, Frank quietly laid a finger on the book, and arrested her eyes at last —

“If you be, what I think you, some sweet dream.

Stoop down, and seem to kiss me ere I die!”

Valencia shut the book up hurriedly and angrily. A moment after she had made up her mind what to do, and with the slightest gesture in the world, motioned Frank proudly and coldly to follow her back into the window. Had she been a country girl, she would have avoided the ugly matter; but she was a woman of the world enough to see that she must, for her own sake and his, talk it out reasonably.

“What do you mean, Mr. Headley? I must ask! You told me just now that you had no intention of making love to me.”

“I told you the truth,” said he, in his quiet impassive voice. “I fixed on these lines as a pis aller; and they have done all and more than I wished, by bringing you back here for at least a moment.”

“And do you suppose — you speak like a rational man, therefore, I must treat you as one — that I can grant your request?”

“Why not? It is an uncommon one. If I have guessed your character aright, you are able to do uncommon things. Had I thought you enslaved by etiquette, and by the fear of a world which you can make bow at your feet if you will, I should not have asked you. But,”— and here his voice took a tone of deepest earnestness —“grant it — only grant it, and you shall never repent it. Never, never, never will I cast one shadow over a light which has been so glorious, so life-giving; which I watched with delight, and yet lose without regret. Go your way, and God be with you! I go mine; grant me but a fortnight’s happiness, and then, let what will come!”

He had conquered. The quiet earnestness of the voice, the child-like simplicity of the manner, of which every word conveyed the most delicate flattery — yet, she could see, without intending to flatter, without an after-thought — all these had won the impulsive Irish nature. For all the dukes and marquises in Belgravia she would not have done it; for they would have meant more than they said, even when they spoke more clumsily: but for the plain country curate she hesitated, and asked herself, “What shall I give him?”

The rose from her bosom? No. That was too significant at once, and too commonplace; besides, it might wither, and he find an excuse for not restoring it. It must be something valuable, stately, formal, which he must needs return. And she drew off a diamond hoop, and put it quietly into his hand.

“You promise to return if?”

“I promised long ago.”

He took it, and lifted it — she thought that he was going to press it to his lips. Instead, he put it to his forehead, bowing forward and moved it slightly. She saw that he made with it the sign of the Cross.

“I thank you,” he said, with a look of quiet gratitude. “I expected as much, when you came to understand my request. Again, thank you!” and he drew back humbly, and left her there alone; while her heart smote her bitterly for all the foolish encouragement which she had given to one so tender and humble, and delicate and true.

And so did Frank Headley get what he wanted; by that plain earnest simplicity, which has more power (let worldlings pride themselves as they will on their knowledge of women) than all the cunning wiles of the most experienced rake; and only by aping which, after all, can the rake conquer. It was a strange thing for Valencia to do, no doubt: but the strange things which are done in the world (which are some millions daily) are just what keep the world alive.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kingsley/charles/two_years_ago/chapter16.html

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