Two Years Ago, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter xxiii.

The Broad Stone of Honour.

But where has Stangrave been all this while?

Where any given bachelor has been, for any given month, is difficult to say, and no man’s business but his own. But where he happened to be on a certain afternoon in the first week of October, on which he had just heard the news of Alma, was — upon the hills between Ems and Coblentz. Walking over a high table-land of stubbles, which would be grass in England; and yet with all its tillage is perhaps not worth more than English grass would be, thanks to that small-farm system much be-praised by some who know not wheat from turnips. Then along a road, which might be a Devon one, cut in the hill-side, through authentic “Devonian” slate, where the deep chocolate soil is lodged on the top of the upright strata, and a thick coat of moss and wood sedge clusters about the oak-scrub roots, round which the delicate and rare oak-fern mingles its fronds with great blue campanulas; while the “white admirals” and silver-washed “fritillaries” flit round every bramble bed, and the great “purple emperors” come down to drink in the road puddles, and sit, fearless flashing off their velvet wings a blue as of that empyrean which is “dark by excess of light.”

Down again through cultivated lands, corn and clover, flax and beet, and all the various crops with which the industrious German yeoman ekes out his little patch of soil. Past the thrifty husbandman himself, as he guides the two milch-kine in his tiny plough, and stops at the furrow’s end, to greet you with the hearty German smile and bow; while the little fair-haired maiden, walking beneath the shade of standard cherries, walnuts, and pears, all grey with fruit, fills the cows’ mouths with chicory, and wild carnations, and pink saintfoin, and many a fragrant weed which richer England wastes.

Down once more, into a glen; but such a glen as neither England nor America has ever seen; or, please God, ever will see, glorious as it is. Stangrave, who knew all Europe well, had walked the path before; but he stopped then, as he had done the first time, in awe. On the right, slope up the bare slate downs, up to the foot of cliffs; but only half of those cliffs God has made. Above the grey slate ledges rise cliffs of man’s handiwork, pierced with a hundred square black embrasures; and above them the long barrack-ranges of a soldier’s town; which a foeman stormed once, when it was young: but what foeman will ever storm it again [Transcriber’s note: punctuation missing from the end of this sentence in original. Possibly question mark.] What conqueror’s foot will ever tread again upon the “broad stone of honour,” and call Ehrenbreitstein his? On the left the clover and the corn range on, beneath the orchard boughs, up to yon knoll of chestnut and acacia, tall poplar, feathered larch:— but what is that stonework which gleams grey beneath their stems’? A summer-house for some great duke, looking out over the glorious Rhine vale, and up the long vineyards of the bright Moselle, from whence he may bid his people eat, drink, and take their ease, for they have much goods laid up for many years? —

Bank over bank of earth and stone, cleft by deep embrasures, from which the great guns grin across the rich gardens, studded with standard fruit-trees, which close the glacis to its topmost edge. And there, below him, lie the vineyards: every rock-ledge and narrow path of soil tossing its golden tendrils to the sun, grey with ripening clusters, rich with noble wine; but what is that wall which winds among them, up and down, creeping and sneaking over every ledge and knoll of vantage ground, pierced with eyelet-holes, backed by strange stairs and galleries of stone; till it rises close before him, to meet the low round tower full in his path, from whose deep casemates, as from dark scowling eye-holes, the ugly cannon-eyes stare up the glen?

Stangrave knows them all — as far as any man can know. The wards of the key which locks apart the nations; the yet maiden Troy of Europe; the greatest fortress of the world.

He walks down, turns into the vineyards, and lies down beneath the mellow shade of vines. He has no sketch-book — articles forbidden; his passport is in his pocket; and he speaks all tongues of German men. So, fearless of gendarmes and soldiers, he lies down, in the blazing German afternoon, upon the shaly soil; and watches the bright-eyed lizards hunt flies along the roasting-walls, and the great locusts buzz and pitch and leap; green locusts with red wings, and grey locusts with blue wings; he notes the species, for he is tired and lazy, and has so many thoughts within his head, that he is glad to toss them all away, and give up his soul, if possible, to locusts and lizards, vines and shade.

And far below him fleets the mighty Rhine, rich with the memories of two thousand stormy years; and on its further bank the grey-walled Coblentz town, and the long arches of the Moselle-bridge, and the rich flats of Kaiser Franz, and the long poplar-crested uplands, which look so gay, and are so stern; for everywhere between the poplar-stems the saw-toothed outline of the western forts cuts the blue sky.

And far beyond it all sleeps, high in air, the Eifel with its hundred crater peaks; blue mound behind blue mound, melting into white haze. — Stangrave has walked upon those hills, and stood upon the crater-lip of the great Moselkopf, and dreamed beside the Laacher See, beneath the ancient abbey walls; and his thoughts flit across the Moselle flats towards his ancient haunts, as he asks himself — How long has that old Eifel lain in such soft sleep? How long ere it awake again?

It may awake, geologists confess — why not? and blacken all the skies with smoke of Tophet, pouring its streams of boiling mud once more to dam the Rhine, whelming the works of men in flood, and ash, and fire. Why not? The old earth seems so solid at first sight: but look a little nearer, and this is the stuff of which she is made! — The wreck of past earthquakes, the leavings of old floods, the washings of cold cinder heaps — which are smouldering still below.

Stangrave knew that well enough. He had climbed Vesuvius, Etna, Popocatepetl. He had felt many an earthquake shock; and knew how far to trust the everlasting hills. And was old David right, he thought that day, when he held the earthquake and the volcano as the truest symbols of the history of human kind, and of the dealings of their Maker with them? All the magnificent Plutonic imagery of the Hebrew poets, had it no meaning for men now? Did the Lord still uncover the foundations of the world, spiritual as well as physical, with the breath of His displeasure? Was the solfa-tara of Tophet still ordained for tyrants? And did the Lord still arise out of His place to shake terribly the earth? Or, had the moral world grown as sleepy as the physical one had seemed to have done? Would anything awful, unexpected, tragical, ever burst forth again from the heart of earth, or from the heart of man?

Surprising question! What can ever happen henceforth, save infinite railroads and crystal palaces, peace and plenty, cockaigne and dilettantism, to the end of time? Is it not full sixty whole years since the first French revolution, and six whole years since the revolution of all Europe? Bah! — change is a thing of the past, and tragedy a myth of our forefathers; war a bad habit of old barbarians, eradicated by the spread of an enlightened philanthropy. Men know now how to govern the world far too well to need any divine visitations, much less divine punishments; and Stangrave was an Utopian dreamer, only to be excused by the fact that he had in his pocket the news that three great nations were gone forth to tear each other as of yore.

Nevertheless, looking round upon those grim earth-mounds and embrasures, he could not but give the men who put them there credit for supposing that they might be wanted. Ah! but that might be only one of the direful necessities of the decaying civilisation of the old world. What a contrast to the unarmed and peaceful prosperity of his own country! Thank heaven, New England needed no fortresses, military roads, or standing armies! True, but why that flush of contemptuous pity for the poor old world, which could only hold its own by such expensive and ugly methods?

He asked himself that very question, a moment after, angrily; for he was out of humour with himself, with his country, and indeed with the universe in general. And across his mind flashed a memorable conversation at Constantinople long since, during which he had made some such unwise remark to Thurnall, and received from him a sharp answer, which parted them for years.

It was natural enough that that conversation should come back to him just then; for, in his jealousy, he was thinking of Tom Thurnall often enough every day; and in spite of his enmity, he could not help suspecting more and more that Thurnall had had some right on his side of the quarrel.

He had been twitting Thurnall with the miserable condition of the labourers in the south of England, and extolling his own country at the expense of ours. Tom, unable to deny the fact, had waxed all the more wroth at having it pressed on him; and at last had burst forth —

“Well, and what right have you to crow over us on that score? I suppose, if you could hire a man in America for eighteen-pence a day instead of a dollar and a half, you would do it? You Americans are not accustomed to give more for a thing than it’s worth in the market, are you?”

“But,” Stangrave had answered, “the glory of America is, that you cannot get the man for less than the dollar and a half; that he is too well fed, too prosperous, too well educated, to be made a slave of.”

“And therefore makes slaves of the niggers instead? I’ll tell you what, I’m sick of that shallow fallacy — the glory of America! Do you mean by America, the country, or the people? You boast, all of you, of your country, as if you had made it yourselves; and quite forget that God made America, and America has made you.”

“Made us, sir?” quoth Stangrave fiercely enough.

“Made you!” replied Thurnall, exaggerating his half truth from anger. “To what is your comfort, your high feeding, your very education, owing, but to your having a thin population, a virgin soil, and unlimited means of emigration? What credit to you if you need no poor laws, when you pack off your children, as fast as they grow up, to clear more ground westward? What credit to your yeomen that they have read more books than our clods have, while they can earn more in four hours than our poor fellows in twelve? It all depends on the mere physical fact of your being in a new country, and we in an old one: and as for moral superiority, I shan’t believe in that while I see the whole of the northern states so utterly given up to the ‘almighty dollar,’ that they leave the honour of their country to be made ducks and drakes of by a few southern slaveholders. Moral superiority? We hold in England that an honest man is a match for three rogues. If the same law holds good in the United States, I leave you to settle whether Northerners or Southerners are the honester men.”

Whereupon (and no shame to Stangrave) there was a heavy quarrel, and the two men had not met since.

But now, those words of Thurnall’s, backed by far bitterer ones of Marie’s, were fretting Stangrave’s heart. — What if they were true? They were not the whole truth. There was beside, and above them all, a nobleness in the American heart, which could, if it chose, and when it chose, give the lie to that bitter taunt: but had it done so already?

At least he himself had not. . . . If Thurnall and Marie were unjust to his nation, they had not been unjust to him. He, at least, had been making, all his life, mere outward blessings causes of self-congratulation, and not of humility. He had been priding himself on wealth, ease, luxury, cultivation, without a thought that these were God’s gifts, and that God would require an account of them. If Thurnall were right, was he himself too truly the typical American? And bitterly enough he accused at once himself and his people.

“Noble? Marie is right! We boast of our nobleness: better to take the only opportunity of showing it which we have had since we have become a nation! Heaped with every blessing which God could give; beyond the reach of sorrow, a check, even an interference; shut out from all the world in God’s new Eden, that we might freely eat of all the trees of the garden, and grow and spread, and enjoy ourselves like the birds of heaven — God only laid on us one duty, one command, to right one simple, confessed, conscious wrong. . . .

“And what have we done? — what have even I done? We have steadily, deliberately cringed at the feet of the wrong-doer, even while we boasted our superiority to him at every point, and at last, for the sake of our own selfish ease, helped him to forge new chains for his victims, and received as our only reward fresh insults. White slaves! We, perhaps, and not the English peasant, are the white slaves! At least, if the Irishman emigrates to England, or the Englishman to Canada, he is not hunted out with blood-hounds, and delivered back to his landlord to be scourged and chained. He is not practically out of the pale of law, unrepresented, forbidden even the use of books; and even if he were, there is an excuse for the old country; for she was founded on no political principles, but discovered what she knows step by step, a sort of political Topsy, as Claude Mellot calls her, who has ‘kinder growed,’ doing from hand to mouth what seemed best. But that we, who profess to start as an ideal nation, on fixed ideas of justice, freedom, and equality — that we should have been stultifying ever since every great principle of which we so loudly boast! —”

“The old Jew used to say of his nation, ‘It is God that hath made us, and not we ourselves.’ We say, ‘It is we that have made ourselves, while God —?’— Ah, yes; I recollect. God’s work is to save a soul here and a soul there, and to leave America to be saved by the Americans who made it. We must have a broader and deeper creed than that if we are to work out our destiny. The battle against Middle Age slavery was fought by the old Catholic Church, which held the Jewish notion, and looked on the Deity as the actual King of Christendom, and every man in it as God’s own child. I see now! — No wonder that the battle in America has as yet been fought by the Quakers, who believe that there is a divine light and voice in every man; while the Calvinist preachers, with their isolating and individualising creed, have looked on with folded hands, content to save a negro’s soul here and there, whatsoever might become of the bodies and the national future of the whole negro race. No wonder, while such men have the teaching of the people, that it is necessary still in the nineteenth century, in a Protestant country, amid sane human beings, for such a man as Mr. Sumner to rebut, in sober earnest, the argument that the negro was the descendant of Canaan, doomed to eternal slavery by Noah’s curse!”

He would rouse himself. He would act, speak, write, as many a noble fellow-countryman was doing. He had avoided them of old as bores and fanatics who would needs wake him from his luxurious dreams. He had even hated them, simply because they were more righteous than he. He would be a new man henceforth.

He strode down the hill through the cannon-guarded vineyards, among the busy groups of peasants.

“Yes, Marie was right. Life is meant for work, and not for ease; to labour in danger and in dread; to do a little good ere the night comes, when no man can work: instead of trying to realise for oneself a Paradise; not even Bunyan’s shepherd-paradise, much less Fourier’s Casino-paradise; and perhaps least of all, because most selfish and isolated of all, my own heart-paradise — the apotheosis of loafing, as Claude calls it. Ah, Tennyson’s Palace of Art is a true word — too true, too true!

“Art? What if the most necessary human art, next to the art of agriculture, be, after all, the art of war? It has been so in all ages. What if I have been befooled — what if all the Anglo–Saxon world has been befooled by forty years of peace? We have forgotten that the history of the world has been as yet written in blood; that the story of the human race is the story of its heroes and its martyrs — the slayers and the slain. Is it not becoming such once more in Europe now? And what divine exemption can we claim from the law? What right have we to suppose that it will be aught else, as long as there are wrongs unredressed on earth; as long as anger and ambition, cupidity and wounded pride, canker the hearts of men? What if the wise man’s attitude, and the wise nation’s attitude, is that of the Jews rebuilding their ruined walls — the tool in one hand, and the sword in the other; for the wild Arabs are close outside, and the time is short, and the storm has only lulled awhile in mercy, that wise men may prepare for the next thunder-burst? It is an ugly fact: but I have thrust it away too long, and I must accept it now and henceforth. This, and not luxurious Broadway; this, and not the comfortable New England village, is the normal type of human life; and this is the model city! — Armed industry, which tills the corn and vine among the cannons’ mouths; which never forgets their need, though it may mask and beautify their terror: but knows that as long as cruelty and wrong exist on earth, man’s destiny is to dare and suffer, and, if it must be so, to die. . . .

“Yes, I will face my work; my danger, if need be. I will find Marie. I will tell her that I accept her quest; not for her sake, but for its own. Only I will demand the right to work at it as I think best, patiently, moderately, wisely if I can; for a fanatic I cannot be, even for her sake. She may hate these slaveholders — she may have her reasons — but I cannot. I cannot deal with them as feras naturae. I cannot deny that they are no worse men than I; that I should have done what they are doing, have said what they are saying, had I been bred up, as they have been, with irresponsible power over the souls and bodies of human beings. God! I shudder at the fancy! The brute that I might have been — that I should have been!

“Yes; one thing at least I have learnt, in all my experiments on poor humanity; — never to see a man do a wrong thing, without feeling that I could do the same in his place. I used to pride myself on that once, fool that I was, and call it comprehensiveness. I used to make it an excuse for sitting by, and seeing the devil have it all his own way, and call that toleration. I will see now whether I cannot turn the said knowledge to a better account, as common sense, patience, and charity; and yet do work of which neither I nor my country need be ashamed.”

He walked down, and on to the bridge of boats. They opened in the centre; as he reached it a steamer was passing. He lounged on the rail as the boat passed through, looking carelessly at the groups of tourists.

Two ladies were standing on the steamer; close to him; looking up at Ehrenbreitstein. Was it? — yes, it was Sabina, and Marie by her!

But ah, how changed! The cheeks were pale and hollow; dark rings — he could see them but too plainly as the face was lifted up toward the light — were round those great eyes, bright no longer. Her face was listless, careworn; looking all the more sad and impassive by the side of Sabina’s, as she pointed smiling and sparkling, up to the fortress; and seemed trying to interest Marie in it, but in vain.

He called out. He waved his hand wildly, to the amusement of the officers and peasants who waited by his side; and who, looking first at his excited face, and then at the two beautiful women, were not long in making up their minds about him; and had their private jests accordingly.

They did not see him, but turned away to look at Coblentz; and the steamer swept by.

Stangrave stamped with rage — upon a Prussian officer’s thin boot.

“Ten thousand pardons!”

“You are excused, dear sir, you are excused,” says the good-natured German, with a wicked smile, which raises a blush on Stangrave’s cheek. “Your eyes were dazzled; why not? it is not often that one sees two such suns together in the same sky. But calm yourself; the boat stops at Coblentz.”

Stangrave could not well call the man of war to account for his impertinence; he had had his toes half crushed, and had a right to indemnify himself as he thought fit. And with a hundred more apologies, Stangrave prepared to dart across the bridge as soon as it was closed.

Alas! after the steamer, as the fates would have it, came lumbering down one of those monster timber rafts; and it was a full half hour before Stangrave could get across, having suffered all the while the torments of Tantalus, as he watched the boat sweep round to the pier, and discharge its freight, to be scattered whither he knew not. At last he got across, and went in chase to the nearest hotel: but they were not there; thence to the next, and the next, till he had hunted half the hotels in the town; but hunted all in vain.

He is rushing wildly back again, to try if he can obtain any clue at the steam-boat pier, through the narrow, dirty street at the back of the Rhine Cavalier, when he is stopped short by a mighty German embrace, and a German kiss on either cheek, as the kiss of a housemaid’s broom; while a jolly voice shouts in English:—

“Ah, my dear, dear friend! and you would pass me! Whither the hangman so fast are you running in the mud!”

“My dear Salomon! But let me go, I beseech you; I am in search —”

“In search?” cries the jolly Jew banker — “for the philosopher’s stone? You had all that man could want a week since, except that. Search no more, but come home with me; and we will have a night as of the gods on Olympus!”

“My dearest fellow, I am looking for two ladies!”

“Two? ah, rogue! shall not one suffice?”

“Don’t, my dearest fellow! I am looking for two English ladies.”

“Potz! You shall find two hundred in the hotels, ugly and fair; but the two fairest are gone this two hours.”

“When? — which?” cries Stangrave, suspecting at once.

“Sabina Mellot, and a Sultana — I thought her of The Nation, and would have offered my hand on the spot: but Madame Mellot says she is a Gentile.”

“Gone? And you have seen them! Where?”

“To Bertrich. They had luncheon with my mother, and then started by private post.”

“I must follow.”

Ach lieber? But it will be dark in an hour.”

“What matter?”

“But you shall find them to-morrow, just as well as to-day. They stay at Bertrich for a fortnight more. They have been there now a month, and only left it last week for a pleasure tour, across to the Ahrthal, and so back by Andernach.”

“Why did they leave Coblentz, then, in such hot haste?”

“Ah, the ladies never give reasons. There were letters waiting for them at our house; and no sooner read, but they leaped up, and would forth. Come home now, and go by the steamer to-morrow morning.”

“Impossible! most hospitable of Israelites.”

“To go to-night — for see the clouds! — Not a postilion will dare to leave Coblentz, under that quick-coming allgemein und ungeheuer henker-hund-und-teufel’s-gewitter.”

Stangrave looked up, growling; and gave in. A Rhine-storm was rolling up rapidly.

“They will be caught in it.”

“No. They are far beyond its path by now; while you shall endure the whole visitation; and if you try to proceed, pass the night in a flea-pestered post-house, or in a ditch of water.”

So Stangrave went home with Herr Salomon, and heard from him, amid clouds of Latakia, of wars and rumours of wars, distress of nations, and perplexity, seen by the light, not of the Gospel, but of the stock-exchange; while the storm fell without in lightning, hail, rain, of right Rhenish potency.

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