Two Years Ago, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter xxiv.

The Thirtieth of September.

We must go back a week or so, to England, and to the last day of September. The world is shooting partridges, and asking nervously, when it comes home, What news from the Crimea? The flesh who serves it is bathing at Margate. The devil is keeping up his usual correspondence with both. Eaton Square is a desolate wilderness, where dusty sparrows alone disturb the dreams of frowzy charwomen, who, like Anchorites amid the tombs of the Thebaid, fulfil the contemplative life each in her subterranean cell. Beneath St. Peter’s spire the cabman sleeps within his cab, the horse without: the waterman, seated on his empty bucket, contemplates the untrodden pavement between his feet, and is at rest. The blue butcher’s boy trots by with empty cart, five miles an hour, instead of full fifteen, and stops to chat with the red postman, who, his occupation gone, smokes with the green gatekeeper, and reviles the Czar. Along the whole north pavement of the square only one figure moves, and that is Major Campbell.

His face is haggard and anxious; he walks with a quick, excited step; earnest enough, whoever else is not. For in front of Lord Scoutbush’s house the road is laid with straw. There is sickness there, anxiety, bitter tears. Lucia has not found her husband, but she has lost her child.

Trembling, Campbell raises the muffled knocker, and Bowie appears. “What news to-day?” he whispers.

“As well as can be expected, sir, and as quiet as a lamb now, they say. But it has been a bad time, and a bad man is he that caused it.”

“A bad time, and a bad man. How is Miss St. Just?”

“Just gone to lie down, sir. Mrs. Clara is on the stairs, if you’d like to see her.”

“No; tell Miss St. Just that I have no news yet.” And the Major turns wearily away.

Clara, who has seen him from above, hurries down after him into the street, and coaxes him to come in. “I am sure you have had no breakfast, sir: and you look so ill and worn. And Miss St. Just will be so vexed not to see you. She will get up the moment she hears you are here.”

“No, my good Miss Clara,” says Campbell, looking down with a weary smile. “I should only make gloom more gloomy. Bowie, tell his lordship that I shall be at the afternoon train to-morrow, let what will happen.”

“Ay, ay, sir. We’re a’ ready to march. The Major looks very ill, Miss Clara. I wish he’d have taken your counsel. And I wish ye’d take mine, and marry me ere I march, just to try what it’s like.”

“I must mind my mistress, Mr. Bowie,” says Clara.

“And how should I interfere with that, as I’ve said twenty times, when I’m safe in the Crimea? I’ll get the licence this day, say what ye will: and then you would not have the heart to let me spend two pounds twelve and sixpence for nothing.”

Whether the last most Caledonian argument conquered or not, Mr. Bowie got the licence, was married before breakfast the next morning, and started for the Crimea at four o’clock in the afternoon; most astonished, as he confided in the train to Sergeant MacArthur, “to see a lassie that never gave him a kind word in her life, and had not been married but barely six hours, greet and greet at his going, till she vanished away into hystericals. They’re a very unfathomable species, Sergeant, are they women; and if they were taken out o’ man, they took the best part o’ Adam wi’ them, and left us to shift with the worse.”

But to return to Campbell. The last week has altered him frightfully. He is no longer the stern, self-possessed warrior which he was; he no longer even walks upright; his cheek is pale, his eye dull; his whole countenance sunken together. And now that the excitement of anxiety is past, he draws his feet along the pavement slowly, his hands clasped behind him, his eyes fixed on the ground, as if the life was gone from out of him, and existence was a heavy weight.

“She is safe, at least, then! One burden off my mind. And yet had it not been better if that pure spirit had returned to Him who gave it, instead of waking again to fresh misery? I must find that man! Why, I have been saying so to myself for seven days past, and yet no ray of light. Can the coward have given me a wrong address? Yet why give me an address at all if he meant to hide from me? Why, I have been saying that too, to myself every day for the last week? Over and over again the same dreary round of possibilities and suspicions. However, I must be quiet now, if I am a man. I can hear nothing before the detective comes at two. How to pass the weary, weary time? For I am past thinking — almost past praying — though not quite, thank God!”

He paces up still noisy Piccadilly, and then up silent Bond Street; pauses to look at some strange fish on Groves’s counter — anything to while away the time; then he plods on toward the top of the street, and turns into Mr. Pillischer’s shop, and upstairs to the microscopic club-room. There, at least, he can forget himself for an hour.

He looks round the neat pleasant little place, with its cases of curiosities, and its exquisite photographs, and bright brass instruments; its glass vases stocked with delicate water-plants and animalcules, with the sunlight gleaming through the green and purple seaweed fronds, while the air is fresh and fragrant with the seaweed scent; a quiet, cool little hermitage of science amid that great noisy, luxurious west-end world. At least, it brings back to him the thought of the summer sea, and Aberalva, and his shore-studies: but he cannot think of that any more. It is past; and may God forgive him!

At one of the microscopes on the slab opposite him stands a sturdy bearded man, his back toward the Major; while the wise little German, hopeless of customers, is leaning over him in his shirt sleeves.

“But I never have seen its like; it had just like a painter’s easel in its stomach yesterday!”

“Why, it’s an Echinus Larva: a sucking sea-urchin! Hang it, if I had known you hadn’t seen one, I’d have brought up half-a-dozen of them!”

“May I look, sir?” asked the Major; “I, too, never have seen an Echinus Larva.”

The bearded man looks up.

“Major Campbell!”

“Mr. Thurnall! I thought I could not be mistaken in the voice.”

“This is too pleasant, sir, to renew our watery loves together here,” said Tom: but a second look at the Major’s face showed him that he was in no jesting mood. “How is the party at Beddgelert? I fancied you with them still.”

“They are all in London, at Lord Scoutbush’s house, in Eaton Square.”

“In London, at this dull time? I trust nothing unpleasant has brought them here.”

“Mrs. Vavasour is very ill. We had thoughts of sending for you, as the family physician was out of town: but she was out of danger, thank God, in a few hours. Now let me ask in turn after you. I hope no unpleasant business brings you up three hundred miles from your practice?”

“Nothing, I assure you. Only I have given up my Aberalva practice. I am going to the East.”

“Like the rest of the world.”

“Not exactly. You go as a dignified soldier of her Majesty’s; I as an undignified Abel Drugger, to dose Bashi-bazouks.”

“Impossible! and with such an opening as you had there! You must excuse me; but my opinion of your prudence must not be so rudely shaken.”

“Why do you not ask the question which Balzac’s old Tourangeois judge asks, whenever a culprit is brought before him — ‘Who is she?’”

“Taking for granted that there was a woman at the bottom of every mishap? I understand you,” said the Major, with a sad smile. “Now let you and me walk a little together, and look at the Echinoid another day — or when I return from Sevastopol —”

Tom went out with him. A new ray of hope had crossed the Major’s mind. His meeting with Thurnall might he providential; for he recollected now, for the first time, Mellot’s parting hint.

“You knew Elsley Vavasour well?”

“No man better.”

“Did you think that there was any tendency to madness in him?”

“No more than in any other selfish, vain, irritable man, with a strong imagination left to run riot.”

“Humph! you seem to have divined his character. May I ask you if you knew him before you met him at Aberalva?”

Tom looked up sharply in the Major’s face.

“You would ask, what cause I have for inquiring? I will tell you presently. Meanwhile I may say, that Mellot told me frankly that you had some power over him; and mentioned, mysteriously, a name — John Briggs, I think — which it appears that he once assumed.”

“If Mellot thought fit to tell you anything, I may frankly tell you all. John Briggs is his real name. I have known him from childhood.” And then Tom poured into the ears of the surprised and somewhat disgusted Major all he had to tell.

“You have kept your secret mercifully, and used it wisely, sir; and I and others shall be always your debtors for it. Now I dare tell you in turn, in strictest confidence of course —”

“I am far too poor to afford the luxury of babbling.”

And the Major told him what we all know.

“I expected as much,” said he drily. “Now, I suppose that you wish me to exert myself in finding the man?”

“I do.”

“Were Mrs. Vavasour only concerned, I should say — Not I! Better that she should never set eyes on him again.”

“Better, indeed!” said he bitterly: “but it is I who must see him, if but for five minutes. I must!”

“Major Campbell’s wish is a command. Where have you searched for him?”

“At his address, at his publisher’s, at the houses of various literary friends of his, and yet no trace.”

“Has he gone to the Continent?”

“Heaven knows! I have inquired at every passport office for news of any one answering his description; indeed, I have two detectives, I may tell you, at this moment, watching every possible place. There is but one hope, if he be alive. Can he have gone home to his native town?”

“Never! Anywhere but there.”

“Is there any old friend of the lower class with whom he may have taken lodgings?”

Tom pondered.

“There was a fellow, a noisy blackguard, whom Briggs was asking after this very summer — a fellow who went off from Whitbury with some players. I know Briggs used to go to the theatre with him as a boy — what was his name? He tried acting, but did not succeed; and then became a scene-shifter, or something of the kind, at the Adelphi. He has some complaint, I forget what, which made him an out-patient at St. Mumpsimus’s, some months every year. I know that he was there this summer, for I wrote to ask, at Briggs’s request, and Briggs sent him a sovereign through me.”

“But what makes you fancy that he can have taken shelter with such a man, and one who knows his secret?”

“It is but a chance: but he may have done it from the mere feeling of loneliness — just to hold by some one whom he knows in this great wilderness; especially a man in whose eyes he will be a great man, and to whom he has done a kindness; still, it is the merest chance.”

“We will take it, nevertheless, forlorn hope though it be.”

They took a cab to the hospital, and, with some trouble, got the man’s name and address, and drove in search of him. They had some difficulty in finding his abode, for it was up an alley at the back of Drury Lane, in the top of one of those foul old houses which hold a family in every room; but, by dint of knocking at one door and the other, and bearing meekly much reviling consequent thereon, they arrived, “per modum tollendi” at a door which must be the right one, as all the rest were wrong.

“Does John Barker live here?” asks Thurnall, putting his head in cautiously for fear of drunken Irishmen, who might be seized with the national impulse to “slate” him.

“What’s that to you?” answers a shrill voice from among soapsuds and steaming rags.

“Here is a gentleman wants to speak to him.”

“So do a many as won’t have that pleasure, and would be little the better for it if they had. Get along with you, I knows your lay.”

“We really want to speak to him, and to pay him, if he will —”

“Go along! I’m up to the something to your advantage dodge, and to the mustachio dodge too. Do you fancy I don’t know a bailiff, because he’s dressed like a swell?”

“But, my good woman!” said Tom, laughing.

“You put your crocodile foot in here, and I’ll hit the hot water over the both of you!” and she caught up the pan of soapsuds.

“My dear soul! I am a doctor belonging to the hospital which your husband goes to; and have known him since he was a boy, down in Berkshire.”

“You?” and she looked keenly at him.

“My name is Thurnall. I was a medical man once in Whitbury, where your husband was born.”

“You?” said she again, in a softened tone, “I knows that name well enough.”

“You do? What was your name, then?” said Tom, who recognised the woman’s Berkshire accent beneath its coat of cockneyism.

“Never you mind: I’m no credit to it, so I’ll let it be. But come in, for the old county’s sake. Can’t offer you a chair, he’s pawned ’em all. Pleasant old place it was down there, when I was a young girl; they say it’s grow’d a grand place now, wi’ a railroad. I think many times I’d like to go down and die there.” She spoke in a rough, sullen, careless tone, as if life-weary.

“My good woman,” said Major Campbell, a little impatiently, “can you find your husband for us?”

“Why then?” asked she sharply, her suspicion seeming to return.

“If he will answer a few questions, I will give him five shillings. If he can find out for me what I want, I will give him five pounds.”

“Shouldn’t I do as well? If you gi’ it he, it’s little out of it I shall see, but he coming home tipsy when it’s spent. Ah, dear! it was a sad day for me when I first fell in with they play-goers!”

“Why should she not do it as well?” said Thurnall. “Mrs. Barker, do you know anything of a person named Briggs — John Briggs, the apothecary’s son, at Whitbury?”

She laughed a harsh bitter laugh.

“Know he? yes, and too much reason. That was where it all begun, along of that play-going of he’s and my master’s.”

“Have you seen him lately?” asked Campbell, eagerly.

“I seen ’un? I’d hit this water over the fellow, and all his play-acting merryandrews, if ever he sot a foot here!”

“But have you heard of him?”

“Ees —” said she carelessly; “he’s round here now, I heard my master say, about the ‘Delphy, with my master: a drinking, I suppose. No good, I’ll warrant.”

“My good woman,” said Campbell, panting for breath, “bring me face to face with that man, and I’ll put a five-pound note in your hand there and then.”

“Five pounds is a sight to me: but it’s a sight more than the sight of he’s worth,” said she suspiciously again.

“That’s the gentleman’s concern,” said Tom. “The money’s yours. I suppose you know the worth of it by now?”

“Ees, none better. But I don’t want he to get hold of it; he’s made away with enough already;” and she began to think.

“Curiously impassive people, we Wessex worthies, when we are a little ground down with trouble. You must give her time, and she will do our work. She wants the money, but she is long past being excited at the prospect of it.”

“What’s that you’re whispering?” asked she sharply.

Campbell stamped with impatience.

“You don’t trust us yet, eh? — then, there!” and he took five sovereigns from his pocket, and tossed them on the table. “There’s your money! I trust you to do the work, as you’ve been paid beforehand.”

She caught up the gold, rang every piece on the table to see if it was sound; and then —

“Sally, you go down with these gentlemen to the Jonson’s Head, and if he ben’t there, go to the Fighting Cocks; and if he ben’t there, go to the Duke of Wellington; and tell he there’s two gentlemen has heard of his poetry, and wants to hear ’un excite. And then you give he a glass of liquor, and praise up his nonsense, and he’ll tell you all he knows, and a sight more. Gi’ un plenty to drink. It’ll be a saving and a charity, for if he don’t get it out of you, he will out of me.”

And she returned doggedly to her washing.

“Can’t I do anything for you?” asked Tom, whose heart always yearned over a Berkshire soul. “I have plenty of friends down at Whitbury still.”

“More than I have. No, sir,” said she sadly, and with the first touch of sweetness they had yet heard in her voice. “I’ve cured my own bacon, and I must eat it. There’s none down there minds me, but them that would be ashamed of me. And I couldn’t go without he, and they wouldn’t take he in; so I must just bide.” And she went on washing.

“God help her!” said Campbell, as he went downstairs.

“Misery breeds that temper, and only misery, in our people. I can show you as thorough gentlemen and ladies, people round Whitbury, living on ten shillings a week, as you will show me in Belgravia living on five thousand a year.”

“I don’t doubt it,” said Campbell. . . . “So ‘she couldn’t go without he,’ drunken dog as he is! Thus it is with them all the world over.”

“So much the worse for them,” said Tom cynically, “and for the men too. They make fools of us first with our over-fondness of them; and then they let us make fools of ourselves with their over-fondness of us.”

“I fancy sometimes that they were all meant to be the mates of angels, and stooped to men as a pis aller; reversing the old story of the sons of heaven and the daughters of men.”

“And accounting for the present degeneracy. When the sons of heaven married the daughters of men, their offspring were giants and men of renown. Now the sons of men marry the daughters of heaven, and the offspring is Wiggle, Waggle, Windbag, and Redtape.”

They visited one public-house after another, till the girl found for them the man they wanted, a shabby, sodden-visaged fellow, with a would-be jaunty air of conscious shrewdness and vanity, who stood before the bar, his thumbs in his armholes, and laying down the law to a group of coster-boys, for want of a better audience.

The girl, after sundry plucks at his coat-tail, stopped him in the midst of his oration, and explained her errand somewhat fearfully.

Mr. Barker bent down his head on one side, to signify that he was absorbed in attention to her news; and then drawing himself up once more, lifted his greasy hat high in air, bowed to the very floor, and broke forth:—

“Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors:

A man of war, and eke a man of peace —

That is, if you come peaceful; and if not,

Have we not Hiren here?”

And the fellow put himself into a fresh attitude.

“We come in peace, my good sir,” said Tom; “first to listen to your talented effusions, and next for a little private conversation on a subject on which —” but Mr. Barker interrupted —

“To listen, and to drink? The muse is dry,

And Pegasus doth thirst for Hippocrene,

And fain would paint — imbibe the vulgar call —

Or hot or cold, or long or short — Attendant!”

The bar girl, who knew his humour, came forward.

“Glasses all round — these noble knights will pay —

Of hottest hot, and stiffest stiff. Thou mark’st me?

Now to your quest!”

And he faced round with a third attitude.

“Do you know Mr. Briggs?” asked the straightforward Major. He rolled his eyes to every quarter of the seventh sphere, clapped his hand upon his heart, and assumed an expression of angelic gratitude:—

“My benefactor! Were the world a waste,

A thistle-waste, ass-nibbled, goldfinch-pecked,

And all the men and women merely asses,

I still could lay this hand upon this heart,

And cry, ‘Not yet alone! I know a man —

A man Jove-fronted, and Hyperion-curled —

A gushing, flushing, blushing human heart!’”

“As sure as you live, sir,” said Tom, “if you won’t talk honest prose, I won’t pay for the brandy and water.”

“Base is the slave who pays, and baser prose —

Hang uninspired patter! ’Tis in verse

That angels praise, and fiends in Limbo curse.”

“And asses bray, I think,” said Tom, in despair. “Do you know where Mr. Briggs is now?”

“And why the devil do you want to know?

For that’s a verse, sir, although somewhat slow.”

The two men laughed in spite of themselves.

“Better tell the fellow the plain truth,” said Campbell to Thurnall.

“Come out with us, and I will tell you.” And Campbell threw down the money, and led him off, after he had gulped down his own brandy, and half Tom’s beside.

“What? leave the nepenthe untasted?”

They took him out, and he tucked his arms through theirs, and strutted down Drury Lane.

“The fact is, sir — I speak to you, of course, in confidence, as one gentleman to another —”

Mr. Barker replied by a lofty and gracious bow.

“That his family are exceedingly distressed at his absence, and his wife, who, as you may know, is a lady of high family, dangerously ill; and he cannot be aware of the fact. This gentleman is the medical man of her family, and I— I am an intimate friend. We should esteem it therefore the very greatest service if you would give us any information which —”

“Weep no more, gentle shepherds, weep no more;

For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,

Sunk though he be upon a garret floor,

With fumes of Morpheus’ crown about his head.”

“Fumes of Morpheus’ crown?” asked Thurnall.

“That crimson flower which crowns the sleepy god,

And sweeps the soul aloft, though flesh may nod.”

“He has taken to opium!” said Thurnall to the bewildered Major. “What I should have expected.”

“God help him! we must save him out of that last lowest deep!” cried Campbell. “Where is he, sir?”

“A vow! a vow! I have a vow in heaven!

Why guide the hounds toward the trembling hare?

Our Adonais hath drunk poison; Oh!

What deaf and viperous murderer could crown

Life’s early cup with such a draught of woe?”

“As I live, sir,” cried Campbell, losing his self-possession in disgust at the fool; “you may rhyme your own nonsense as long as you will, but you shan’t quote the Adonais about that fellow in my presence.”

Mr. Barker shook himself fiercely free of Campbell’s arm, and faced round at him in a fighting attitude. Campbell stood eyeing him sternly, but at his wit’s end.

“Mr. Barker,” said Tom blandly, “will you have another glass of brandy and water, or shall I call a policeman?”

“Sir,” sputtered he, speaking prose at last, “this gentleman has insulted me! He has called my poetry nonsense, and my friend a fellow. And blood shall not wipe out — what liquor may?”

The hint was sufficient; but ere he had drained another glass, Mr. Barker was decidedly incapable of managing his affairs, much less theirs; and became withal exceedingly quarrelsome, returning angrily to the grievance of Briggs having been called a fellow; in spite of all their entreaties, he talked himself into a passion, and at last, to Campbell’s extreme disgust, rushed out of the bar into the street.

“This is too vexations! To have kept half-an-hour’s company with such an animal, and then to have him escape me after all! A just punishment on me for pandering to his drunkenness.”

Tom made no answer, but went quietly to the door, and peeped out.

“Pay for his liquor, Major, and follow. Keep a few yards behind me; there will be less chance of his recognising us than if he saw us both together.”

“Why, where do you think he’s going?”

“Not home, I can see. Ten to one that he will go raging off straight to Briggs, to put him on his guard against us. Just like a drunkard’s cunning it would be. There, he has turned up that side street. Now follow me quick. Oh that he may only keep his legs!”

They gained the bottom of that street before he had turned out of it; and so through another, and another, till they ran him to earth in one of the courts out of St. Martin’s Lane.

Into a doorway he went, and up a stair. Tom stood listening at the bottom, till he heard the fellow knock at a door far above, and call out in a drunken tone. Then he beckoned to Campbell, and both, careless of what might follow, ran upstairs, and pushing him aside, entered the room without ceremony.

Their chances of being on the right scent were small enough, considering that, though every one was out of town, there were a million and a half of people in London at that moment; and, unfortunately, at least fifty thousand who would have considered Mr. John Barker a desirable visitor; but somehow, in the excitement of the chase, both had forgotten the chances against them, and the probability that they would have to retire downstairs again, apologising humbly to some wrathful Joseph Buggins, whose convivialities they might have interrupted. But no; Tom’s cunning had, as usual, played him true; and as they entered the door, they beheld none other than the lost Elsley Vavasour, alias John Briggs.

Major Campbell advanced bowing, hat in hand, with a courteous apology on his lips.

It was a low lean-to garret; there was a deal table and an old chair in it, but no bed. The windows were broken; the paper hanging down in strips. Elsley was standing before the empty fireplace, his hand in his bosom, as if he had been startled by the scuffle outside. He had not shaved for some days.

So much Tom could note; but no more. He saw the glance of recognition pass over Elsley’s face, and that an ugly one. He saw him draw something from his bosom, and spring like a cat almost upon the table. A flash — a crack. He had fired a pistol full in Campbell’s face.

Tom was startled, not at the thing, but that such a man should have done it. He had seen souls, and too many, flit out of the world by that same tiny crack, in Californian taverns, Arabian deserts, Australian gullies. He knew all about that: but he liked Campbell; and he breathed more freely the next moment, when he saw him standing still erect, a quiet smile on his face, and felt the plaster dropping from the wall upon his own head. The bullet had gone over the Major. All was right.

“He is not man enough for a second shot,” thought Tom quietly, “while the Major’s eye is on him.”

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Vavasour,” he heard the Major say, in a gentle unmoved voice, “for this intrusion. I assure you that there is no cause for any anger on your part; and I am come to entreat you to forget and forgive any conduct of mine which may have caused you to mistake either me or the lady whom I am unworthy to mention.”

“I am glad the beggar fired at him,” thought Tom. “One spice of danger, and he’s himself again, and will overawe the poor cur by mere civility. I was afraid of some abject methodist parson humility, which would give the other party a handle.”

Elsley heard him with a stupefied look, like that of a trapped wild beast, in which rage, shame, suspicion, and fear, were mingled with the vacant glare of the opium-eater’s eye. Then his eye drooped beneath Campbell’s steady gentle gaze, and he looked uneasily round the room, still like a trapped wild beast, as if for a hole to escape by; then up again, but sidelong, at Major Campbell.

“I assure you, sir, on the word of a Christian and a soldier, that you are labouring under an entire misapprehension. For God’s sake and Mrs. Vavasour’s sake, come back, sir, to those who will receive you with nothing but affection! Your wife has been all but dead; she thinks of no one but you, asks for no one but you. In God’s name, sir, what are you doing here, while a wife who adores you is dying from your — I do not wish to be rude, sir, but let me say at least — neglect?”

Elsley looked at him still askance, puzzled, inquiring. Suddenly his great beautiful eyes opened to preternatural wideness, as if trying to grasp a new thought. He started, shifted his feet to and fro, his arms straight down by his sides, his fingers clutching after something. Then he looked up hurriedly again at Campbell; and Thurnall looked at him also; and his face was as the face of an angel.

“Miserable ass!” thought Tom, “if he don’t see innocence in that man’s countenance, he wouldn’t see it in his own child’s.”

Elsley suddenly turned his back to them, and thrust his hand into his bosom. Now was Tom’s turn.

In a moment he had vaulted over the table, and seized Elsley’s wrist, ere he could draw the second pistol.

“No, my dear Jack,” whispered he quietly, “once is enough in a day!”

“Not for him, Tom, for myself!” moaned Elsley.

“For neither, dear lad! Let bygones be bygones, and do you be a new man, and go home to Mrs. Vavasour.”

“Never, never, never, never, never, never!” shrieked Elsley like a baby, every word increasing in intensity, till the whole house rang; and then threw himself into the crazy chair, and dashed his head between his hands upon the table.

“This is a case for me, Major Campbell. I think you had better go now.”

“You will not leave him?”

“No, sir. It is a very curious psychological study, and he is a Whitbury man.”

Campbell knew quite enough of the would-be cynical doctor, to understand what all that meant. He came up to Elsley.

“Mr. Vavasour, I am going to the war, from which I expect never to return. If you believe me, give me your hand before I go.”

Elsley, without lifting his head, beat on the table with his hand.

“I wish to die at peace with you and all the world. I am innocent in word, in thought. I shall not insult another person by saying that she is so. If you believe me, give me your hand.”

Elsley stretched his hand, his head still buried. Campbell took it, and went silently downstairs.

“Is he gone?” moaned he, after a while.

“Yes.”

“Does she — does she care for him?”

“Good heavens! How did you ever dream such an absurdity?”

Elsley only beat upon the table.

“She has been ill?”

“Is ill. She has lost her child.”

“Which?” shrieked Elsley.

“A boy whom she should have had.”

Elsley only beat on the table; then —

“Give me the bottle, Tom!”

“What bottle?”

“The laudanum; — there in the cupboard.”

“I shall do no such thing. You are poisoning yourself.”

“Let me then! I must, I tell you! I can live on nothing else. I shall go mad if I do not have it. I should have been mad by now. Nothing else keeps off these fits; — I feel one coming now. Curse you! give me the bottle!”

“What fits?”

“How do I know? Agony and torture — ever since I got wet on that mountain.”

Tom knew enough to guess his meaning, and felt Elsley’s pulse and forehead.

“I tell you it turns every bone to red-hot iron!” almost screamed he.

“Neuralgia; rheumatic, I suppose,” said Tom to himself. “Well, this is not the thing to cure you: but you shall have it to keep you quiet.” And he measured him out a small dose.

“More, I tell you, more!” said Elsley, lifting up his head, and looking at it.

“Not more while you are with me.”

“With you! Who the devil sent you here?”

“John Briggs, John Briggs, if I did not mean you good, should I be here now? Now do, like a reasonable man, tell me what you intend to do.”

“What is that to you, or any man?” said Elsley, writhing with neuralgia.

“No concern of mine, of course: but your poor wife — you must see her.”

“I can’t, I won’t! — that is, not yet! I tell you I cannot face the thought of her, much less the sight of her, and her family — that Valencia! I’d rather the earth should open and swallow me! Don’t talk to me, I say!”

And hiding his face in his hands, he writhed with pain, while Thurnall stood still patiently watching him, as a pointer dog does a partridge. He had found his game, and did not intend to lose it.

“I am better now; quite well!” said he, as the laudanum began to work. “Yes! I’ll go — that will be it — go to —— at once. He’ll give me an order for a magazine article; I’ll earn ten pounds, and then off to Italy.”

“If you want ten pounds, my good fellow, you can have them without racking your brains over an article.” Elsley looked up proudly.

“I do not borrow, sir!”

“Well — I’ll give you five for those pistols. They are of no use to you, and I shall want a spare brace for the East.”

“Ah! I forgot them. I spent my last money on them,” said he with a shudder; “but I won’t sell them to you at a fancy price — no dealings between gentleman and gentleman. I’ll go to a shop, and get for them what they are worth.”

“Very good. I’ll go with you, if you like. I fancy I may get you a better price for them than you would yourself: being rather a knowing one about the pretty little barkers.” And Tom took his arm, and walked him quietly down into the street.

“If you ever go up those kennel-stairs again, friend,” said he to himself, “my name’s not Tom Thurnall.”

They walked to a gunsmith’s shop in the Strand, where Tom had often dealt, and sold the pistols for some three pounds.

“Now then let’s go into 333, and get a mutton chop.”

“No.”

Elsley was too shy; he was “not fit to be seen.”

“Come to my rooms, then, in the Adelphi, and have a wash and a shave. It will make you as fresh as a lark again, and then we’ll send out for the eatables, and have a quiet chat.”

Elsley did not say no. Thurnall took the thing as a matter of course, and he was too weak and tired to argue with him. Beside, there was a sort of relief in the company of a man who, though he knew all, chatted on to him cheerily and quietly, as if nothing had happened; who at least treated him as a sane man. From any one else he would have shrunk, lest they should find him out: but a companion, who knew the worst, at least saved him suspicion and dread.

His weakness, now that the collapse after passion had come on, clung to any human friend. The very sound of Tom’s clear sturdy voice seemed pleasant to him, after long solitude and silence. At least it kept off the fiends of memory.

Tom, anxious to keep Elsley’s mind employed on some subject which should not be painful, began chatting about the war and its prospects. Elsley soon caught the cue, and talked with wild energy and pathos, opium-fed, of the coming struggle between despotism and liberty, the arising of Poland and Hungary, and all the grand dreams which then haunted minds like his.

“By Jove!” said Tom, “you are yourself again now. Why don’t you put all that into a book!”

“I may perhaps,” said Elsley proudly.

“And if it comes to that, why not come to the war, and see it for yourself? A new country — one of the finest in the world. New scenery, new actors — Why, Constantinople itself is a poem! Yes, there is another ‘Revolt of Islam’ to be written yet. Why don’t you become our war poet? Come and see the fighting; for there’ll be plenty of it, let them say what they will. The old bear is not going to drop his dead donkey without a snap and a hug. Come along, and tell people what it’s all really like. There will be a dozen Cockneys writing battle songs, I’ll warrant, who never saw a man shot in their lives, not even a hare. Come and give us the real genuine grit of it — for if you can’t, who can?”

“It is a grand thought! The true war poets, after all, have been warriors themselves. Körner and Alcaeus fought as well as sang, and sang because they fought. Old Homer, too — who can believe that he had not hewn his way through the very battles which he describes, and seen every wound, every shape of agony? A noble thought, to go out with that army against the northern Anarch, singing in the van of battle, as Taillefer sang the song of Roland before William’s knights, and to die like him, the proto-martyr of the Crusade, with the melody yet upon one’s lips!”

And his face blazed up with excitement.

“What a handsome fellow he is, after all, if there were but more of him?” said Tom to himself. “I wonder if he’d fight, though, when the singing-fever was off him.”

He took Elsley upstairs into his bed-room, got him washed and shaved: and sent out the woman of the house for mutton chops and stout, and began himself setting out the luncheon table, while Elsley in the room within chanted to himself snatches of poetry.

“The notion has taken: he’s composing a war song already, I believe.” It actually was so: but Elsley’s brain was weak and wandering; and he was soon silent; and motionless so long, that Tom opened the door and looked in anxiously.

He was sitting on a chair, his hands fallen on his lap, the tears running down his face.

“Well?” asked Tom smilingly, not noticing the tears; “how goes on the opera? I heard through the door the orchestra tuning for the prelude.”

Elsley looked up in his face with a puzzled piteous expression.

“Do you know, Thurnall, I fancy at moments that my mind is not what it was. Fancies flit from me as quickly as they come. I had twenty verses five minutes ago, and now I cannot recollect one.”

“No wonder,” thought Tom to himself. “My clear fellow, recollect all that you have suffered with this neuralgia. Believe me all you want is animal strength. Chops and porter will bring all the verses back, or better ones instead of them.”

He tried to make Elsley eat; and Elsley tried himself: but failed. The moment the meat touched his lips he loathed it, and only courtesy prevented his leaving the room to escape the smell. The laudanum had done its work upon his digestion. He tried the porter, and drank a little: then, suddenly stopping, he pulled out a phial, dropped a heavy dose of his poison into the porter, and tossed it off.

“Sold am I?” said Tom to himself. “He must have hidden the bottle as he came out of the room with me. Oh, the cunning of those opium-eaters? However, it will keep him quiet just now, and to Eaton Square I must go.”

“You had better be quiet now, my dear fellow, after your dose; talking will only excite you. Settle yourself on my bed, and I’ll be back in an hour.”

So he put Elsley on his bed, carefully removing razors and pistols (for he had still his fears of an outburst of passion), then locked him in, ran down into the Strand, threw himself into a cab for Eaton Square, and asked for Valencia.

Campbell had been there already; so Tom took care to tell nothing which he had not told, expecting, and rightly, that he would not mention Elsley’s having fired at him. Lucia was still all but senseless, too weak even to ask for Elsley; to attempt any meeting between her and her husband would be madness.

“What will you do with the unhappy man, Mr. Thurnall?”

“Keep him under my eye, day and night, till he is either rational again, or —”

“Do you think that he may? — Oh my poor sister!”

“I think that he may yet end very sadly, madam. There is no use concealing the truth from you. All I can promise is, that I will treat him as my own brother.”

Valencia held out her fair hand to the young doctor. He stooped, and lifted the tips of her fingers to his lips.

“I am not worthy of such an honour, madam. I shall study to deserve it.” And he bowed himself out, the same sturdy, self-confident Tom, doing right, he hardly knew why, save that it was all in the way of business.

And now arose the puzzle, what to do with Elsley? He had set his heart on going down to Whitbury the next day. He had been in England nearly six months, and had not yet seen his father; his heart yearned, too, after the old place, and Mark Armsworth, and many an old friend, whom he might never see again. “However, that fellow I must see to, come what will: business first and pleasure afterwards. If I make him all right — if I even get him out of the world decently, I get the Scoutbush interest on my side — though I believe I have it already. Still, it’s as well to lay people under as heavy an obligation as possible. I wish Miss Valencia had asked me whether Elsley wanted any money: it’s expensive keeping him myself. However, poor thing, she has other matters to think of: and I dare say, never knew the pleasures of an empty purse. Here we are! Three-and-sixpence — eh, cabman? I suppose you think I was born Saturday night? There’s three shillings. Now, don’t chaff me, my excellent friend, or you will find you have met your match, and a leetle more!”

And Tom hurried into his rooms, and found Elsley still sleeping.

He set to work, packing and arranging, for with him every moment found its business: and presently heard his patient call faintly from the next room.

“Thurnall!” said he; “I have been a long journey. I have been to Whitbury once more, and followed my father about his garden, and sat upon my mother’s knee. And she taught me one text, and no more. Over and over again she said it, as she looked down at me with still sad eyes, the same text which she spoke the day I left her for London. I never saw her again. ‘By this, my son, be admonished; of making of books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter. Fear God and keep His commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.’. . . . Yes, I will go down to Whitbury, and he a little child once more. I will take poor lodgings, and crawl out day by day, down the old lanes, along the old river-banks, where I fed my soul with fair and mad dreams, and reconsider it all from the beginning; — and then die. No one need know me; and if they do, they need not be ashamed of me, I trust — ashamed that a poet has risen up among them, to speak words which have been heard across the globe. At least, they need never know my shame — never know that I have broken the heart of an angel, who gave herself to me, body and soul — attempted the life of a man whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose — never know that I have killed my own child! — that a blacker brand than Cain’s is on my brow! — Never know — Oh, my God, what care I? Let them know all, as long as I can have done with shams and affectations, dreams, and vain ambitions, and he just my own self once more, for one day, and then die!”

And he burst into convulsive weeping.

“No, Tom, do not comfort me! I ought to die, and I shall die. I cannot face her again; let her forget me, and find a husband who will — and be a father to the children whom I neglected! Oh, my darlings, my darlings! If I could but see you once again: but no! you too would ask me where I had been so long. You too would ask me — your innocent faces at least would — why I had killed your little brother! — Let me weep it out, Thurnall; let me face it all! This very misery is a comfort, for it will kill me all the sooner.”

“If you really mean to go to Whitbury, my poor dear fellow,” said Tom at last, “I will start with you to-morrow morning. For I too must go; I must see my father.”

“You will really?” asked Elsley, who began to cling to him like a child.

“I will indeed. Believe me, you are right; you will find friends there, and admirers too. I know one.”

“You do?” asked he, looking up.

“Mary Armsworth, the banker’s daughter.”

“What! That purse-proud, vulgar man?”

“Don’t be afraid of him. A truer and more delicate heart don’t beat. No one has more cause to say so than I. He will receive you with open arms, and need be told no more than is necessary; while, as his friend, you may defy gossip, and do just what you like.”

Tom slipped out that afternoon, paid Elsley’s pittance of rent at his old lodgings; bought him a few necessary articles, and lent him, without saying anything, a few more. Elsley sat all day as one in a dream, moaning to himself at intervals, and following Tom vacantly with his eyes, as he moved about the room. Excitement, misery, and opium were fast wearing out body and mind, and Tom put him to bed that evening, as he would have put a child.

Tom walked out into the Strand to smoke in the fresh air, and think, in spite of himself, of that fair saint from whom he was so perversely flying. Gay girls slithered past him, looked round at him, but in vain; those two great sad eyes hung in his fancy, and he could see nothing else. Ah — if she had but given him back his money — why, what a fool he would have made of himself! Better as it was. He was meant to be a vagabond and an adventurer to the last; and perhaps to find at last the luck which had flitted away before him.

He passed one of the theatre doors; there was a group outside, more noisy and more earnest than such groups are wont to be; and ere he could pass through them, a shout from within rattled the doors with its mighty pulse, and seemed to shake the very walls. Another; and another! — What was it? Fire?

No. It was the news of Alma.

And the group surged to and fro outside, and talked, and questioned, and rejoiced; and smart gents forgot their vulgar pleasures, and looked for a moment as if they too could have fought — had fought — at Alma; and sinful girls forgot their shame, and looked more beautiful than they had done for many a day, as, beneath the flaring gas-light, their faces glowed for a while with noble enthusiasm, and woman’s sacred pity, while they questioned Tom, taking him for an officer, as to whether he thought there were many killed.

“I am no officer: but I have been in many a battle, and I know the Russians well, and have seen how they fight; and there is many a brave man killed, and many a one more will be.”

“Oh, does it hurt them much?” asked one poor thing.

“Not often,” quoth Tom.

“Thank God, thank God!” and she turned suddenly away, and with the impulsive nature of her class, burst into violent sobbing and weeping.

Poor thing! perhaps among the men who fought and fell that day was he to whom she owed the curse of her young life; and after him her lonely heart went forth once more, faithful even in the lowest pit.

“You are strange creatures, women, women!” thought Tom: “but I knew that many a year ago. Now then — the game is growing fast and furious, it seems. Oh, that I may find myself soon in the thickest of it!”

So said Tom Thurnall; and so said Major Campbell, too, that night, as he prepared everything to start next morning to Southampton. “The better the day, the better the deed,” quoth he. “When a man is travelling to a better world, he need not be afraid of starting on a Sunday.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kingsley/charles/two_years_ago/chapter24.html

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