Two Years Ago, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter xvii.

Baalzebub’s Banquet.

The next day there were three cholera cases: the day after there were thirteen.

He had come at last, Baalzebub, God of flies, and of what flies are bred from; to visit his self-blinded worshippers, and bestow on them his own Cross of the Legion of Dishonour. He had come suddenly, capriciously, sportively, as he sometimes comes; as he had come to Newcastle the summer before, while yet the rest of England was untouched. He had wandered all but harmless about the West country that summer; as if his maw had been full glutted five years before, when he sat for many a week upon the Dartmoor hills, amid the dull brown haze, and sun-burnt bents, and dried-up watercourses of white dusty granite, looking far and wide over the plague-struck land, and listening to the dead-bell booming all day long in Tavistock churchyard. But he was come at last, with appetite more fierce than ever, and had darted aside to seize on Aberalva, and not to let it go till he had sucked his fill.

And all men moved about the streets slowly, fearfully; conscious of some awful unseen presence, which might spring on them from round every corner; some dreadful inevitable spell, which lay upon them like a nightmare weight; and walked to and fro warily, looking anxiously into each other’s faces, not to ask, “How are you?” but “How am I?” “Do I look as if —?” and glanced up ever and anon restlessly, as if they expected to see, like the Greeks, in their tainted camp, by Troy, the pitiless Sun-god shooting his keen arrows down on beast and man.

All night long the curdled cloud lay low upon the hills, wrapping in its hot blanket the sweltering breathless town; and rolled off sullenly when the sun rose high, to let him pour down his glare, and quicken into evil life all evil things. For Baalzebub is a sunny fiend; and loves not storm and tempest, thunder, and lashing rains; but the broad bright sun, and broad blue sky, under which he can take his pastime merrily, and laugh at all the shame and agony below; and, as he did at his great banquet in New Orleans once, madden all hearts the more by the contrast between the pure heaven above and the foul hell below.

And up and down the town the foul fiend sported, now here now there; snapping daintily at unexpected victims, as if to make confusion worse confounded: to belie Thurnall’s theories and prognostics, and harden the hearts of fools by fresh excuses for believing that he had nothing to do with drains and water; that he was “only”— such an only! —“the Visitation of God.”

He has taken old Beer’s second son; and now he clutches at the old man himself; then across the street to Gentleman Jan, his eldest: but he is driven out from both houses by chloride of lime and peat dust, and the colony of the Beers has peace awhile.

Alas! there are victims enough and to spare beside them, too ready for the sacrifice, and up the main street he goes unabashed, springing in at one door and at another, on either side of the street, but fondest of the western side, where the hill slopes steeply down to the house-backs.

He fleshes his teeth on every kind of prey. The drunken cobbler dies, of course: but spotless cleanliness and sobriety does not save the mother of seven children, who has been soaking her brick floor daily with water from a poisoned well, defiling where she meant to clean. Youth does not save the buxom lass, who has been filling herself, as girls will do, with unripe fruit: nor innocence the two fair children who were sailing their feather-boats yesterday in the quay-pools, as they have sailed them for three years past, and found no hurt; piety does not save the bed-ridden old dame, bed-ridden in the lean-to garret, who moans, “It is the Lord!” and dies. It is “the Lord” to her, though Baalzebub himself be the angel of release.

And yet all the while sots and fools escape where wise men fall; weakly women, living amid all wretchedness, nurse, unharmed, strong men who have breathed fresh air all day. Of one word of Scripture at least Baalzebub is mindful; for “one is taken and another left.”

Still, there is a method in his seeming madness. His eye falls on a blind alley, running back from the main street, backed at the upper end by a high wall of rock. There is a God-send for him — a devil’s-send, rather, to speak plain truth: and in he dashes; and never leaves that court, let brave Tom wrestle with him as he may, till he has taken one from every house.

That court belonged to Treluddra, the old fish-jowder. He must do something. Thurnall attacks him; Major Campbell, Headley; the neighbours join in the cry; for there is no mistaking cause and effect there, and no one bears a great love to him; besides, terrified and conscience-stricken men are glad of a scapegoat; and some of those who were his stoutest backers in the vestry are now, in their terror, the loudest against him, ready to impute the whole cholera to him. Indeed, old Beer is ready to declare that it was Treluddra’s fish-heaps which poisoned him and his: so, all but mobbed, the old sinner goes up — to set the houses to rights? No; to curse the whole lot for a set of pigs, and order them to clean the place out themselves, or he will turn them into the street. He is one of those base natures, whom fact only lashes into greater fury — a Pharaoh whose heart the Lord himself can only harden; such men there are, and women, too, grown grey in lies, to reap at last the fruit of lies. But he carries back with him to his fish-heaps a little invisible somewhat which he did not bring; and ere nightfall he is dead hideously; he, his wife, his son:— and now the Beers are down again, and the whole neighbourhood of Treluddra’s house is wild with disgusting agony.

Now the fiend is hovering round the fish-curing houses: but turns back, disgusted with the pure scent of the tan-yard, where not hides, but nets are barked; skips on board of a brig in the quay-pool; and a poor collier’s ‘prentice dies, and goes to his own place. What harm has he done? Is it his sin that, ill-fed and well-beaten daily, he has been left to sleep on board, just opposite the sewer’s mouth, in a berth some four feet long by two feet high and broad?

Or is it that poor girl’s sin who was just now in Heale’s shop, talking to Miss Heale safe and sound, that she is carried back into it, in half-an-hour’s time, fainting, shrieking? One must draw a veil over the too hideous details.

No, not her fault: but there, at least, the curse has not come without a cause. For she is Tardrew’s daughter.

But whither have we got? How long has the cholera been in Aberalva? Five days, five minutes, or five years? How many suns have risen and set since Frank Headley put into his bosom Valencia’s pledge!

It would be hard for him to tell; and hard for many more: for all the days have passed as in a fever dream. To cowards the time has seemed endless; and every moment, ere their term shall come, an age of terror, of self-reproach, of superstitious prayers, and cries, which are not repentance. And to some cowards, too, the days have seemed but as a moment; for they have been drunk day and night.

Strange and hideous, yet true.

It has now become a mere commonplace, the strange power which great crises, pestilences, famines, revolutions, invasions, have to call out in their highest power, for evil and for good alike, the passions and virtues of man; how, during their stay, the most desperate recklessness, the most ferocious crime, side by side with the most heroic and unexpected virtue, are followed generally by a collapse and a moral death, alike of virtue and of vice. We should explain this now-a-days, and not ill, by saying that these crises put the human mind into a state of exaltation: but the truest explanation, after all, lies in the old Bible belief, that in these times there goes abroad the unquenchable fire of God, literally kindling up all men’s hearts to the highest activity, and showing, by the light of their own strange deeds, the inmost recesses of their spirits, till those spirits burn down again, self-consumed, while the chaff and stubble are left as ashes, not valueless after all, as manure for some future crop; and the pure gold, if gold there be, alone remains behind.

Even so it was in Aberalva during that fearful week. The drunkards drank more; the swearers swore more than ever; the unjust shopkeeper clutched more greedily than ever at the last few scraps of mean gain which remained for him this side the grave; the selfish wrapped themselves up more brutally than ever in selfishness; the shameless woman mingled desperate debauchery with fits of frantic superstition; and all base souls cried out together, “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die!”

But many a brave man and many a weary woman possessed their souls in patience, and worked on, and found that as their day their strength should be. And to them the days seemed short indeed; for there was too much to be done in them for any note of time.

Headley and Campbell, Grace and old Willis, and last, but not least, Tom Thurnall — these and three or four brave women, organised themselves into a right-gallant and well-disciplined band, and commenced at once a visitation from house to house, saving thereby, doubtless, many a life: but ere eight-and-forty hours were passed, the house visitation languished. It was as much as they could do to attend to the acute cases.

And little Scoutbush? He could not nurse, nor doctor: but what he could, he did. He bought, and fetched all that money could procure. He galloped over to the justices, and obtained such summary powers as he could; and then, like a true Irishman, exceeded them recklessly, breaking into premises right and left, in an utterly burglarious fashion; he organised his fatigue-party, as he called them, of scavengers, and paid the cowardly clods five shillings a day each to work at removing all removable nuisances; he walked up and down the streets for hours, giving the sailors cigars from his own case, just to show them that he was not afraid, and therefore they need not be: and if it was somewhat his fault that the horse was stolen, he at least did his best after the event to shut the stable-door. The five real workers toiled on, meanwhile, in perfect harmony and implicit obedience to the all-knowing Tom, but with the most different inward feelings. Four of them seemed to forget death and danger; but each remembered them in his own fashion.

Major Campbell longed to die, and courted death. Frank believed that he should die, and was ready for death. Grace longed to die, but knew that she should not die till she had found Tom’s belt, and was content to wait. Willis was of opinion that an “old man must die some day, and somehow — as good one way as another;” and all his concern was to run about after his maid, seeing that she did not tire herself, and obeying all her orders with sailor-like precision and cleverness.

And Tom? He just thought nothing about death and danger at-all. Always smiling, always cheerful, always busy, yet never in a hurry, he went up and down, seemingly ubiquitous. Sleep he got when he could, and food as often as he could; into the sea he leapt, morning and night, and came out fresher every time; the only person in the town who seemed to grow healthier, and actually happier, as the work went on.

“You really must be careful of yourself,” said Campbell, at last. “You carry no charmed life.”

“My dear sir, I am the most cautious and selfish man in the town. I am living by rule; I have got — and what greater pleasure? — a good stand-up fight with an old enemy; and be sure I shall keep myself in condition for it. I have written off for help to the Board of Health, and I shall not be shoved against the ropes till the Government man comes down.”

“And then?”

“I shall go to bed and sleep for a month. Never mind me; but mind yourself: and mind that curate; he’s a noble brick; — if all parsons in England were like him, I’d — What’s here now?”

Miss Heale came shrieking down the street.

“Oh, Mr. Thurnall! Miss Tardrew! Miss Tardrew!”

“Screaming will only make you ill, too, Miss. Where is Miss Tardrew?”

“In the surgery — and my mother!”

“I expected this,” said Tom. “The old man will go next.”

He went into the surgery. The poor girl was in collapse already. Mrs. Heale was lying on the sofa, stricken. The old man hanging over her, brandy bottle in hand.

“Put away that trash!” cried Tom; “you’ve had too much already.”

“Oh, Mr. Thurnall, she’s dying, and I shall die too!”

“You! you were all right this morning.”

“But I shall die; I know I shall, and go to hell!”

“You’ll go where you ought; and if you give way to this miserable cowardice, you’ll go soon enough. Walk out, sir! Make yourself of some use, and forget your fear! Leave Mrs. Heale to me.”

The wretched old man obeyed him, utterly cowed, and went out: but not to be of use: he had been hopelessly boozy from the first — half to fortify his body against infection, half to fortify his heart against conscience. Tom had never reproached him for his share in the public folly. Indeed, Tom had never reproached a single soul. Poor wretches who had insulted him had sent for him, with abject shrieks. “Oh, doctor, doctor, save me! Oh, forgive me! oh, if I’d minded what you said! Oh, don’t think of what I said!” And Tom had answered cheerfully, “Tut-tut; never mind what might have been; let’s feel your pulse.”

But though Tom did not reproach Heale, Heale reproached himself. He had just conscience enough left to feel the whole weight of his abused responsibility, exaggerated and defiled by superstitious horror; and maudlin tipsy, he wandered about the street, moaning that he had murdered his wife, and all the town, and asking pardon of every one he met; till seeing one of the meeting-houses open, he staggered in, in the vain hope of comfort which he knew he did not deserve.

In half-an-hour Tom was down the street again to Headley’s. “Where is Miss Harvey?”

“At the Beers’.”

“She must go up to Heale’s instantly. The mother will die. Those cases of panic seldom recover. And Miss Heale may very likely follow her. She has shrieked and sobbed herself into it, poor fool! and Grace must go to her at once; she may bring her to common sense and courage, and that is the only chance.”

Grace went, and literally talked and prayed Miss Heale into life again.

“You are an angel,” said Tom to her that very evening, when he found the girl past danger.

“Mr. Thurnall!” said Grace, in a tone of sad and most meaning reproof.

“But you are! And these owls are not worthy of you.”

“This is no time for such language, sir! After all, what am I doing more than you?” And Grace went upstairs again, with a cold hard countenance which belied utterly the heart within.

That was the critical night of all. The disease seemed to have done its worst in the likeliest spots: but cases of panic increased all the afternoon; and the gross number was greater than ever.

Tom did not delay inquiring into the cause: and he discovered it. Headley, coming out the next morning, after two hours’ fitful sleep, met him at the gate: his usual business-like trot was exchanged for a fierce and hurried stamp. When he saw Frank, he stopped short, and burst out into a story which was hardly intelligible, so interlarded was it with oaths.

“For Heaven’s sake! Thurnall, calm yourself, and do not swear so frightfully; it is so unlike you! What can have upset you thus?”

“Why should I not curse and swear in the street,” gasped he, “while every fellow who calls himself a preacher is allowed to do it in the pulpit with impunity! Fine him five shillings for every curse, as you might if people had courage and common sense, and then complain of me! I am a fool, I know, though. But I cannot stand it! To have all my work undone by a brutal ignorant fanatic! — It is too much! Here, if you will believe it, are those preaching fellows getting up a revival, or some such invention, just to make money out of the cholera! They have got down a great gun from the county town. Twice a-day they are preaching at them, telling them that it is all God’s wrath against their sins; that it is impious to interfere, and that I am fighting against God, and the end of the world is coming, and they and the devil only know what. If I meet one of them, I’ll wring his neck, and be hanged for it! Oh, you parsons! you parsons!” and Tom ground his teeth with rage.

“Is it possible? How did you find this out?”

“Mrs. Heale had been in, listening to their howling, just before she was taken. Heale went in when I turned him out of doors; came home raving mad, and is all but blue now. Three cases of women have I had this morning, all frightened into cholera, by their own confession, by last night’s tomfoolery. — Came home howling, fainted, and were taken before morning. One is dead, the other two will die. You must stop it, or I shall have half-a-dozen more to-night. Go into the meeting, and curse the cur to his face!”

“I cannot,” cried Frank, with a gesture of despair, “I cannot!”

“Ah, your cloth forbids you, I suppose, to enter the non-conformist opposition shop.”

“You are unjust, Thurnall! What are such rules at a moment like this? I’d break them, and the bishop would hold me guiltless. But I cannot speak to these people. I have no eloquence — no readiness — they do not trust me — would not believe me — God help me!” and Frank covered his face with his hands, and burst into tears.

“Not that, for Heaven’s sake!” said Tom, “or we shall have you blue next, my good fellow. I’d go myself, but they’d not hear me, for certain; I am no Christian, I suppose: at least, I can’t talk their slang:— but I know who can! We’ll send Campbell!”

Frank hailed the suggestion with rapture, and away they went: but they had an hour’s good search from sufferer to sufferer before they found the Major.

He heard them quietly. A severe gloom settled over his face. “I will go,” said he.

At six o’clock that evening, the meeting-house was filling with terrified women, and half-curious, half-sneering, men; and among them the tall figure of Major Campbell, in his undress uniform (which he had put on, wisely, to give a certain dignity to his mission), stalked in, and took his seat in the back benches.

The sermon was what he expected. There is no need to transcribe it. Such discourses may be heard often enough in churches as well as chapels. The preacher’s object seemed to be — for some purpose or other which we have no right to judge — to excite in his hearers the utmost intensity of selfish fear, by language which certainly, as Tom had said, came under the law against profane cursing and swearing. He described the next world in language which seemed a strange jumble of Virgil’s Aeneid, the Koran, the dreams of those rabbis who crucified our Lord, and of those mediaeval inquisitors who tried to convert sinners (and on their own ground, neither illogically nor over-harshly) by making this world for a few hours as like as possible to what, so they held, God was going to make the world to come for ever.

At last he stopped suddenly, when he saw that the animal excitement was at the very highest; and called on all who felt “convinced” to come forward and confess their sins.

In another minute there would have been (as there have been ere now) four or five young girls raving and tossing upon the floor, in mad terror and excitement; or, possibly, half the congregation might have rushed out (as a congregation has rushed out ere now) headed by the preacher himself, and ran headlong down to the quay-pool, with shrieks and shouts, declaring that they had cast the devil out of Betsey Pennington, and were hunting him into the sea: but Campbell saw that the madness must be stopped at once; and rising, he thundered, in a voice which brought all to their senses in a moment —

“Stop! I, too, have a sermon to preach to you; I trust I am a Christian man, and that not of last year’s making, or the year before. Follow me outside, if you be rational beings, and let me tell you the truth — God’s truth! Men!” he said, with an emphasis on the word, “you at least, will give me a fair hearing, and you too, modest married women! Leave that fellow with the shameless hussies who like to go into fits at his feet.”

The appeal was not in vain. The soberer majority followed him out; the insane minority soon followed, in the mere hope of fresh excitement; while the preacher was fain to come also, to guard his flock from the wolf. Campbell sprang upon a large block of stone, and taking off his cap, opened his mouth, and spake unto them.

Readers will doubtless desire to hear what Major Campbell said: but they will be disappointed; and perhaps it is better for them that they should be. Let each of them, if they think it worth while, write for themselves a discourse fitting for a Christian man, who loved and honoured his Bible too much to find in a few scattered texts, all misinterpreted, and some mistranslated, excuses for denying fact, reason, common justice, the voice of God in his own moral sense, and the whole remainder of the Bible from beginning to end.

Whatsoever words he spoke they came home to those wild hearts with power. And when he paused, and looked intently into the faces of his auditory, to see what effect he was producing, a murmur of assent and admiration rose from the crowd, which had now swelled to half the population of the town. And no wonder; no wonder that, as the men were enchained by the matter, so were the women by the manner. The grand head, like a grey granite peak against the clear blue sky; the tall figure, with all its martial stateliness and ease; the gesture of his long arm, so graceful, and yet so self-restrained; the tones of his voice which poured from beneath that proud moustache, now tender as a girl’s, now ringing like a trumpet over roof and sea. There were old men there, old beyond the years of man, who said they had never seen nor heard the like: but it must be like what their fathers had told them of, when John Wesley, on the cliffs of St. Ives, out-thundered the thunder of the gale. To Grace he seemed one of the old Scotch Covenanters of whom she had read, risen from the dead to preach there from his rock beneath the great temple of God’s air, a wider and a juster creed than theirs. Frank drew Thurnall’s arm through his, and whispered, “I shall thank you for this to my dying day:” but Thurnall held down his head. He seemed deeply moved. At last, half to himself —

“Humph! I believe that between this man and that girl, you will make a Christian even of me some day!”

But the lull was only for a moment. For Major Campbell, looking round, discerned among the crowd the preacher, whispering and scowling amid a knot of women; and a sudden fit of righteous wrath came over him.

“Stand out there, sir, you preacher, and look me in the face, if you can!” thundered he. “We are here on common ground as free men, beneath God’s heaven and God’s eye. Stand out, sir! and answer me if you can; or be for ever silent!”

Half in unconscious obedience to the soldier-like word of command, half in jealous rage, the preacher stepped forward, gasping for breath — “Don’t listen to him! He is a messenger of Satan, sent to damn you — a lying prophet! Let the Lord judge between me and him! Stop your ears — a messenger of Satan — a Jesuit in disguise!”

“You lie, and you know that you lie!” answered Campbell, twirling slowly his long moustache, as he always did when choking down indignation. “But you have called on the Lord to judge; so do I. Listen to me, sir! Dare you, in the presence of God, answer for the words which you have spoken this day?”

A strange smile came over the preacher’s face.

“I read my title clear, sir, to mansions in the skies. Well for you if you could do the same.”

Was it only the setting sun, or was it some inner light from the depths of that great spirit, which shone out in all his countenance, and filled his eyes with awful inspiration, as he spoke, in a voice calm and sweet, sad and regretful, and yet terrible from the slow distinctness of every vowel and consonant?

“Mansions in the skies? You need not wait till then, sir, for the presence of God. Now, here, you and I are before God’s judgment-seat. Now, here, I call on you to answer to Him for the innocent lives which you have endangered and destroyed, for the innocent souls to whom you have slandered their heavenly Father by your devil’s doctrines this day! You have said it. Let the Lord judge between you and me. He knows best how to make His judgment manifest.”

He bowed his head awhile, as if overcome by the awful words which he had uttered, almost in spite of himself, and then stepped slowly down from the stone, and passed through the crowd, which reverently made way for him; while many voices cried, “Thank you, sir! Thank you!” and old Captain Willis, stepping forward, held out his hand to him, a quiet pride in his grey eye.

“You will not refuse an old fighting man’s thanks, sir? This has been like Elijah’s day with Baal’s priests on Carmel.”

Campbell shook his hand in silence: but turned suddenly, for another and a coarser voice caught his ear. It was Jones, the Lieutenant’s.

“And now, my lads, take the Methodist Parson, neck and heels, and heave him into the quay pool, to think over his summons!”

Campbell went back instantly. “No, my dear sir, let me entreat you for my sake. What has passed has been too terrible to me already; if it has done any good, do not let us break it by spoiling the law.”

“I believe you’re right, sir: but my blood is up, and no wonder. Why, where is the preacher?”

He had stood quite still for several minutes after Campbell’s adjuration. He had, often perhaps, himself hurled forth such words in the excitement of preaching; but never before had he heard them pronounced in spirit and in truth. And as he stood, Thurnall, who had his doctor’s eye on him, saw him turn paler and more pale. Suddenly he clenched his teeth, and stooped slightly forwards for a moment, drawing his breath. Thurnall walked quickly and steadily up to him.

Gentleman Jan and two other riotous fellows had already laid hold of him, more with the intention of frightening, than of really ducking him.

“Don’t! don’t!” cried he, looking round with eyes wild — but not with terror.

“Hands off, my good lads,” said Tom quietly. “This is my business now, not yours, I can tell you.”

And passing the preacher’s arm through his own, with a serious face, Tom led him off into the house at the back of the chapel.

In two hours more he was blue; in four he was a corpse. The judgment, as usual, had needed no miracle to enforce it.

Tom went to Campbell that night, and apprised him of the fact. “Those words of yours went through him, sir, like a Minié bullet. I was afraid of what would happen when I heard them.”

“So was I, the moment after they were spoken. But, sir, I felt a power upon me — you may think it a fancy — that there was no resisting.”

“I dare impute no fancies, when I hear such truth and reason as you spoke upon that stone, sir.”

“Then you do not blame me?” asked Campbell, with a subdued, almost deprecatory voice, such as Thurnall had never heard in him before.

“The man deserved to die, and he died, sir. It is well that there are some means left on earth of punishing offenders whom the law cannot touch.”

“It is an awful responsibility.”

“Not more awful than killing a man in battle, which we both have done, sir, and yet have felt no sting of conscience.”

“An awful responsibility still. Yet what else is life made up of, from morn to night, but of deeds which may earn heaven or hell? . . . Well, as he did to others, so was it done to him. God forgive him! At least, our cause will be soon tried and judged: there is little fear of my not meeting him again — soon enough.” And Campbell, with a sad smile, lay back in his chair and was silent.

“My dear sir,” said Tom, “allow me to remind you, after this excitement comes a collapse; and that is not to be trifled with just now. Medicine I dare not give you. Food I must.”

Campbell shook his head.

“You must go now, my dear fellow. It is now half-past ten, and I will be at Pennington’s at one o’clock, to see how he goes on; so you need not go there. And, meanwhile, I must take a little medicine.”

“Major, you are not going to doctor yourself?” cried Tom.

“There is a certain medicine called prayer, Mr. Thurnall — an old specific for the heart-ache, as you will find one day — which I have been neglecting much of late, and which I must return to in earnest before midnight. Good-bye, God bless and keep you!” And the Major retired to his bed-room, and did not stir off his knees for two full hours. After which he went to Pennington’s, and thence somewhere else; and Tom met him at four o’clock that morning musing amid unspeakable horrors, quiet, genial, almost cheerful.

“You are a man,” said Tom to himself; “and I fancy at times something more than a man; more than me at least.”

Tom was right in his fear that after excitement would come collapse; but wrong as to the person to whom it would come. When he arrived at the surgery door, Headley stood waiting for him.

“Anything fresh? Have you seen the Heales?”

“I have been praying with them. Don’t be frightened. I am not likely to forget the lesson of this afternoon.”

“Then go to bed. It is full twelve o’clock.”

“Not yet, I fear. I want you to see old Willis. All is not right.”

“Ah! I thought the poor dear old man would kill himself. He has been working too hard, and presuming on his sailor’s power of tumbling in and taking a dog’s nap whenever he chose.”

“I have warned him again and again: but he was working so magnificently, that one had hardly heart to stop him. And beside, nothing would part him from his maid.”

“I don’t wonder at that:” quoth Tom to himself. “Is she with him?”

“No: he found himself ill; slipped home on some pretence; and will not hear of our telling her.”

“Noble old fellow! Caring for every one but himself to the last.” And they went in.

It was one of those rare cases, fatal, yet merciful withal, in which the poison seems to seize the very centre of the life, and to preclude the chance of lingering torture, by one deadening blow.

The old man lay paralysed, cold, pulseless, but quite collected and cheerful. Tom looked, inquired, shook his head, and called for a hot bath of salt and water.

“Warmth we must have, somehow. Anything to keep the fire alight.”

“Why so, sir?” asked the old man “The fire’s been flickering down this many a year. Why not let it go out quietly, at three-score years and ten? You’re sure my maid don’t know?”

They put him into his bath, and he revived a little.

“No; I am not going to get well; so don’t you waste your time on me, sirs! I’m taken while doing my duty, as I hoped to be. And I’ve lived to see my maid do hers, as I knew she would, when the Lord called on her. I have — but don’t tell her, she’s well employed, and has sorrows enough already, some that you’ll know of some day —”

“You must not talk,” quoth Tom, who guessed his meaning, and wished to avoid the subject.

“Yes, but I must, sir. I’ve no time to lose. If you’d but go and see after those poor Heales, and come again. I’d like to have one word with Mr. Headley; and my time runs short.”

“A hundred, if you will,” said Frank.

“And now, sir,” when they were alone, “only one thing, if you’ll excuse an old sailor,” and Willis tried vainly to make his usual salutation; but the cramped hand refused to obey — “and a dying one too.”

“What is it?”

“Only don’t be hard on the people, sir; the people here. They’re good-hearted souls, with all their sins, if you’ll only take them as you find them, and consider that they’ve had no chance.”

“Willis, Willis, don’t talk of that! I shall be a wiser man henceforth, I trust. At least I shall not trouble Aberalva long.”

“Oh, sir, don’t talk so; and you just getting a hold of them!”

“I?”

“Yes, you, sir. They’ve found you out at last, thank God. I always knew what you were and said it. They’ve found you out in the last week; and there’s not a man in the town but what would die for you, I believe.”

This announcement staggered Frank. Some men it would have only hardened in their pedantry, and have emboldened them to say: “Ah! then these men see that a High Churchman can work like any one else, when there is a practical sacrifice to be made. Now I have a standing ground which no one can dispute from which to go on, and enforce my idea of what he ought to be.”

But, rightly or wrongly, no such thought crossed Frank’s mind. He was just as good a Churchman as ever — why not? Just as fond of his own ideal of what a parish and a Church Service ought to be — why not? But the only thought which did rise in his mind was one of utter self-abasement.

“Oh, how blind I have been! How I have wasted my time in laying down the law to these people: fancying myself infallible, as if God were not as near to them as He is to me — certainly nearer than to any book on my shelves — offending their little prejudices, little superstitions, in my own cruel self-conceit and self-will! And now, the first time that I forget my own rules; the first time that I forget almost that I am a priest, even a Christian at all! that moment they acknowledge me as a priest, as a Christian. The moment I meet them upon the commonest human ground, helping them as one heathen would help another, simply because he was his own flesh and blood, that moment they soften to me and show me how much I might have done with them twelve months ago, had I had but common sense!”

He knelt down and prayed by the old man, for him and for himself.

“Would it be troubling you, sir?” said the old man at last. “But I’d like to take the Sacrament before I go.”

“Of course. Whom shall I ask in?”

The old man paused awhile. “I fear it’s selfish: but it seems to me I would not ask it, but that I know I’m going. I should like to take it with my maid, once more before I die.”

“I’ll go for her,” said Frank, “the moment Thurnall comes back to watch you.”

“What need to go yourself, sir? Old Sarah will go, and willing.”

Thurnall came in at that moment.

“I am going to fetch Miss Harvey. Where is she, Captain?”

“At Janey Headon’s, along with her two poor children.”

“Stay,” said Tom, “that’s a bad quarter, just at the fish-house back. Have some brandy before you start?”

“No! no Dutch courage!” and Frank was gone. He had a word to say to Grace Harvey, and it must be said at once.

He turned down the silent street, and turned up over stone stairs, through quaint stone galleries and balconies such as are often huddled together on the cliff sides in fishing towns; into a stifling cottage, the door of which had been set wide open in the vain hope of fresh air. A woman met him, and clasped both his hands, with tears of joy.

“They’re mending, sir! They’re mending, else I’d have sent to tell you. I never looked for you so late.”

There was a gentle voice in the next room. It was Grace’s.

“Ah, she’s praying by them now. She’m giving them all their medicines all along! Whatever I should have done without her? — and in and out all day long, too; till one fancies at whiles the Lord must have changed her into five or six at once, to be everywhere to the same minute.”

Frank went in, and listened to her prayer. Her face was as pale and calm as the pale, calm faces of the two worn-out babes, whose heads lay on the pillow close to hers: but her eyes were lit up with an intense glory, which seemed to fill the room with love and light.

Frank listened: but would not break the spell.

At last she rose, looked round and blushed.

“I beg your pardon, sir, for taking the liberty. If I had known that you were about, I would have sent: but hearing that you were gone home, I thought you would not be offended, if I gave thanks for them myself. They are my own, sir, as it were —”

“Oh, Miss Harvey, do not talk so! While you can pray as you were praying then, he who would silence you might be silencing unawares the Lord himself!”

She made no answer, though the change in Frank’s tone moved her; and when he told her his errand, that thought also passed from her mind.

At last, “Happy, happy man!” she said calmly; and putting on her bonnet, followed Frank out of the house.

“Miss Harvey,” said Frank, as they hurried up the street, “I must say one word to you, before we take that Sacrament together.”

“Sir?”

“It is well to confess all sins before the Eucharist, and I will confess mine. I have been unjust to you. I know that you hate to be praised; so I will not tell you what has altered my opinion. But Heaven forbid that I should ever do so base a thing, as to take the school away from one who is far more fit to rule in it than ever I shall be!”

Grace burst into tears.

“Thank God! And I thank you, sir! Oh, there’s never a storm but what some gleam breaks through it! And now, sir, I would not have told you it before, lest you should fancy that I changed for the sake of gain — though, perhaps, that is pride, as too much else has been. But you will never hear of me inside either of those chapels again.”

“What has altered your opinion of them, then?”

“It would take long to tell, sir: but what happened this morning filled the cup. I begin to think, sir, that their God and mine are not the same. Though why should I judge them, who worshipped that other God myself till no such long time since; and never knew, poor fool, that the Lord’s name was Love?”

“I have found out that, too, in these last days. More shame to me than to you that I did not know it before.”

“Well for us both that we do know it now, sir. For if we believed Him now, sir, to be aught but perfect Love, how could we look round here to-night, and not go mad?”

“Amen!” said Frank.

And how had the pestilence, of all things on earth, revealed to those two noble souls that God is Love?

Let the reader, if he have supplied Campbell’s sermon, answer the question for himself.

They went in, and upstairs to Willis.

Grace bent over the old man, tenderly, but with no sign of sorrow. Dry-eyed, she kissed the old man’s forehead; arranged his bed-clothes, woman-like, before she knelt down; and then the three received the Sacrament together.

“Don’t turn me out,” whispered Tom. “It’s no concern of mine, of course; but you are all good creatures, and, somehow, I should like to be with you.”

So Tom stayed; and what thoughts passed through his heart are no concern of ours.

Frank put the cup to the old man’s lips; the lips closed, sipped — then opened . . . the jaw had fallen.

“Gone,” said Grace quietly.

Frank paused, awe-struck.

“Go on, sir,” said she, in a low voice. “He hears it all more clearly than he ever did before.” And by the dead man’s side Frank finished the Communion Service.

Grace rose when it was over, kissed the calm forehead, and went out without a word.

“Tom,” said Frank, in a whisper, “come into the next room with me.”

Tom hardly heard the tone in which the words were spoken, or he would perhaps have answered otherwise than he did.

“My father takes the Communion,” said he, half to himself. “At least, it is a beautiful old —”

Howsoever the sentence would have been finished, Tom stopped short —

“Hey? — What does that mean?”

“At last?” gasped Frank, gently enough. “Excuse me!” He was bowed almost double, crushing Thurnall’s arm in the fierce gripe of pain. “Pish! — Hang it! — Impossible! — There, you are all right now!”

“For the time. I can understand many things now. Curious sensation it is, though. Can you conceive a sword put in on one side of the waist, just above the hip-bone, and drawn through, handle and all, till it passes out at the opposite point?”

“I have felt it twice; and therefore you will be pleased to hold your tongue and go to bed. Have you had any warnings?”

“Yes — no — that is — this morning: but I forgot. Never mind! — What matter a hundred years hence I There it is again! — God help me!”

“Humph!” growled Thurnall to himself. “I’d sooner have lost a dozen of these herring-hogs, whom nobody misses, and who are well out of their life-scrape: but the parson, just as he was making a man!”

There is no use in complaints. In half an hour Frank is screaming like a woman, though he has bitten his tongue half through to stop his screams.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kingsley/charles/two_years_ago/chapter17.html

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