Two Years Ago, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter xxvi.

Too Late.

And how was poor Grace Harvey prospering the while? While comfortable folks were praising her, at their leisure, as a heroine, Grace Harvey was learning, so she opined, by fearful lessons, how much of the unheroic element was still left in her. The first lesson had come just a week after the yacht sailed for Port Madoc, when the cholera had all but subsided; and it came in this wise. Before breakfast one morning she had to go up to Heale’s shop for some cordial. Her mother had passed, so she said, a sleepless night, and come downstairs nervous and without appetite, oppressed with melancholy, both in the spiritual and the physical sense of the word. It was not often so with her now. She had escaped the cholera. The remoteness of her house; her care never to enter the town; the purity of the water, which trickled always fresh from the cliff close by; and last, but not least, the scrupulous cleanliness which (to do her justice) she had always observed, and in which she had trained up Grace — all these had kept her safe.

But Grace could see that her dread of the cholera was intense. She even tried at first to prevent Grace from entering an infected house; but that proposal was answered by a look of horror which shamed her into silence, and she contented herself with all but tabooing Grace; making her change her clothes whenever she came in; refusing to sit with her, almost to eat with her. But, over and above all this, she had grown moody, peevish, subject to violent bursts of crying, fits of superstitious depression; spent, sometimes, whole days in reading experimental books, arguing with the preachers, gadding to and fro to every sermon, Arminian or Calvinist; and at last even to Church — walking in dry places, poor soul; seeking rest, and finding none.

All this betokened some malady of the mind, rather than of the body; but what that malady was, Grace dare not even try to guess. Perhaps it was one of the fits of religious melancholy so common in the West country — like her own, in fact: perhaps it was all “nerves.” Her mother was growing old, and had a great deal of business to worry her; and so Grace thrust away the horrible suspicion by little self-deceptions.

She went into the shop. Tom was busy upon his knees behind the counter. She made her request.

“Ah, Miss Harvey!” and he sprang up. “It will be a pleasure to serve you once more in one’s life. I am just going.”

“Going where?”

“To Turkey. I find this place too pleasant and too poor. Not work enough, and certainly not pay enough. So I have got an appointment as surgeon in the Turkish contingent, and shall be off in an hour.”

“To Turkey! to the war?”

“Yes. It’s a long time since I have seen any fighting. I am quite out of practice in gunshot wounds. There is the medicine. Good-bye! You will shake hands once, for the sake of our late cholera work together.”

Grace held out her hand mechanically across the counter, and he took it. But she did not look into his face. Only she said, half to herself —

“Well, better so. I have no doubt you will be very useful among them.”

“Confound the icicle!” thought Tom. “I really believe that she wants to get rid of me.” And he would have withdrawn his hand in a pet: but she held it still.

Quaint it was; those two strong natures, each loving the other better than anything else on earth, and yet parted by the thinnest pane of ice, which a single look would have melted. She longing to follow that man over the wide world, slave for him, die for him; he longing for the least excuse for making a fool of himself, and crying, “Take me, as I take you, without a penny, for better, for worse!” If their eyes had but met! But they did not meet; and the pane of ice kept them asunder as surely as a wall of iron.

Was it that Tom was piqued at her seeming coldness: or did he expect, before he made any advances, that she should show that she wished at least for his respect, by saying something to clear up the ugly question which lay between them? Or was he, as I suspect, so ready to melt, and make a fool of himself, that he must needs harden his own heart by help of the devil himself? And yet there are excuses for him. It would have been a sore trial to any man’s temper to quit Aberalva in the belief that he left fifteen hundred pounds behind him. Be that as it may, he said carelessly, after a moment’s pause —

“Well, farewell! And, by the bye, about that little money matter. The month of which you spoke once was up yesterday. I suppose I am not worthy yet; so I shall be humble, and wait patiently. Don’t hurry yourself, I beg of you, on my account.”

She snatched her hand from his without a word, and rushed out of the shop.

He returned to his packing, whistling away as shrill as any blackbird.

Little did he think that Grace’s heart was bursting, as she hurried down the street, covering her face in her veil, as if every one would espy her dark secret in her countenance.

But she did not go home to hysterics and vain tears. An awful purpose had arisen in her mind, under the pressure of that great agony. Heavens, how she loved that man! To be suspected by him was torture. But she could bear that. It was her cross; she could carry it, lie down on it, and endure: but wrong him she could not — would not! It was sinful enough while he was there; but doubly, unbearably sinful, when he was going to a foreign country, when he would need every farthing he had. So not for her own sake, but for his, she spoke to her mother when she went home, and found her sitting over her Bible in the little parlour, vainly trying to find a text which suited her distemper.

“Mother, you have the Bible before you there.”

“Yes, child! Why? What?” asked she, looking up uneasily.

Grace fixed her eyes on the ground. She could not look her mother in the face.

“Do you ever read the thirty-second Psalm, mother?”

“Which? Why not, child?”

“Let us read it together then, now.”

And Grace, taking up her own Bible, sat quietly down and read, as none in that parish save she could read:

“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, and whose sin is covered.

“Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.

“When I kept silence, my bones waxed old, through my groaning all the day long.

“For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me; my moisture is turned to the drought of summer.

“I acknowledge my sin unto Thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid.

“I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.”

Grace stopped, choked with tears which the pathos of her own voice had called up. She looked at her mother. There were no tears in her eyes: only a dull thwart look of terror and suspicion. The shaft, however bravely and cunningly sped, had missed its mark.

Poor Grace! Her usual eloquence utterly failed her, as most things do in which one is wont to trust, before the pressure of a real and horrible evil. She had no heart to make fine sentences, to preach a brilliant sermon of commonplaces. What could she say that her mother had not known long before she was born? And throwing herself on her knees at her mother’s feet, she grasped both her hands and looked into her face imploringly — “Mother! mother! mother!” was all that she could say: but their tone meant more than all words. — Reproof, counsel, comfort, utter tenderness, and under-current of clear deep trust, bubbling up from beneath all passing suspicions, however dark and foul, were in it: but they were vain.

Baser terror, the parent of baser suspicion, had hardened that woman’s heart for the while; and all she answered was —

“Get up! what is this foolery?”

“I will not! I will not rise till you have told me.”

“What?”

“Whether”— and she forced the words slowly out in a low whisper, “whether you know — anything of — of — Mr. Thurnall’s money — his belt?”

“Is the girl mad! Belt! Money? Do you take me for a thief, wench!”

“No! no! no! Only say you — you know nothing of it!”

“Psha! girl! Go to your school:” and the old woman tried to rise.

“Only say that! only let me know that it is a dream — a hideous dream which the devil put into my wicked, wicked heart — and let me know that I am the basest, meanest of daughters for harbouring such a thought a moment! It will be comfort, bliss, to what I endure! Only say that, and I will crawl to your feet, and beg for your forgiveness — ask you to beat me, like a child, as I shall deserve! Drive me out, if you will, and let me die, as I shall deserve! Only say the word, and take this fire from before my eyes, which burns day and night — till my brain is dried up with misery and shame! Mother, mother, speak!”

But then burst out the horrible suspicion, which falsehood, suspecting all others of being false as itself, had engendered in that mother’s heart.

“Yes, viper! I see your plan! Do you think I do not know that you are in love with that fellow?”

Grace started as if she had been shot, and covered her face with her hands.

“Yes! and want me to betray myself — to tell a lie about myself, that you may curry favour with him — a penniless, unbelieving —”

“Mother!” almost shrieked Grace, “I can bear no more! Say that it is a lie, and then kill me if you will!”

“It is a lie, from beginning to end! What else should it be?” And the woman, in the hurry of her passion, confirmed the equivocation with an oath; and then ran on, as if to turn her own thoughts, as well as Grace’s, into commonplaces about “a poor old mother, who cares for nothing but you; who has worked her fingers to the bone for years to leave you a little money when she is gone! I wish I were gone! I wish I were out of this wretched ungrateful world, I do! To have my own child turn against me in my old age!”

Grace lifted her hands from her face, and looked steadfastly at her mother. And behold, she knew not how or why, she felt that her mother had forsworn herself. A strong shudder passed through her; she rose and was leaving the room in silence.

“Where are you going, hussy? Stop!” screamed her mother between her teeth, her rage and cruelty rising, as it will with weak natures, in the very act of triumph — “to your young man?”

“To pray,” said Grace, quietly; and locking herself into the empty schoolroom, gave vent to all her feelings, but not in tears.

How she upbraided herself! — She had not used her strength; she had not told her mother all her heart. And yet how could she tell her heart? How face her mother with such vague suspicions, hardly supported by a single fact? How argue it out against her like a lawyer, and convict her to her face? What daughter could do that, who had human love and reverence left in her? No! to touch her inward witness, as the Quakers well and truly term it, was the only method: and it had failed. “God help me!” was her only cry: but the help did not come yet; there came over her instead a feeling of utter loneliness. Willis dead; Thurnall gone; her mother estranged; and, like a child lost upon a great moor, she looked round all heaven and earth, and there was none to counsel, none to guide — perhaps not even God. For would He help her as long as she lived in sin? And was she not living in sin, deadly sin, as long as she knew what she was sure she knew, and left the wrong unrighted?

It is sometimes true, the popular saying, that sunshine comes after storm. Sometimes true, or who could live? but not always: not even often. Equally true is the popular antithet, that misfortunes never come single; that in most human lives there are periods of trouble, blow following blow, wave following wave, from opposite and unexpected quarters, with no natural or logical sequence, till all God’s billows have gone over the soul.

How paltry and helpless, in such dark times, are all theories of mere self-education; all proud attempts, like that of Göthe’s Wilhelm Meister, to hang self-poised in the centre of the abyss, and there organise for oneself a character by means of circumstances! Easy enough, and graceful enough does that dream look, while all the circumstances themselves — all which stands around — are easy and graceful, obliging and commonplace, like the sphere of petty experiences with which Göthe surrounds his insipid hero. Easy enough it seems for a man to educate himself without God, as long as he lies comfortably on a sofa, with a cup of coffee and a review: but what if that “daemonic element of the universe,” which Göthe confessed, and yet in his luxuriousness tried to ignore, because he could not explain — what if that broke forth over the graceful and prosperous student, as it may any moment! What if some thing, or some person, or many things, or many persons, one after the other (questions which he must get answered then, or die), took him up and dashed him down, again, and again, and again, till he was ready to cry, “I reckoned till morning that like a lion he will break all my bones; from morning till evening he will make an end of me”? What if he thus found himself hurled perforce amid the real universal experiences of humanity; and made free, in spite of himself, by doubt and fear and horror of great darkness, of the brotherhood of woe, common alike to the simplest peasant-woman, and to every great soul perhaps, who has left his impress and sign manual upon the hearts of after generations? Jew, Heathen, or Christian; men of the most opposite creeds and aims; whether it be Moses or Socrates, Isaiah or Epictetus, Augustine or Mohammed, Dante or Bernard, Shakspeare or Bacon, or Göthe’s self, no doubt, though in his tremendous pride he would not confess it even to himself — each and all of them have this one fact in common — that once in their lives, at least, they have gone down into the bottomless pit, and “stato all’ inferno”— as the children used truly to say of Dante; and there, out of the utter darkness, have asked the question of all questions —“Is there a God? And if there be, what is he doing with me?”

What refuge then in self-education; when a man feels himself powerless in the gripe of some unseen and inevitable power, and knows not whether it be chance, or necessity, or a devouring fiend? To wrap himself sternly in himself, and cry, “I will endure, though all the universe be against me;"— how fine it sounds! — But who has done it? Could a man do it perfectly but for one moment — could he absolutely and utterly for one moment isolate himself, and accept his own isolation as a fact, he were then and there a madman or a suicide. As it is, his nature, happily too weak for that desperate self-assertion, falls back recklessly on some form, more or less graceful according to the temperament, of the ancient panacea, “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” Why should a man educate self, when he knows not whither he goes, what will befall him to-night? No. There is but one escape, one chink through which we may see light; one rock on which our feet may find standing-place, even in the abyss: and that is the belief, intuitive, inspired, due neither to reasoning nor to study, that the billows are God’s billows; and that though we go down to hell, He is there also; — the belief that not we, but He, is educating us; that these seemingly fantastic and incoherent miseries, storm following earthquake, and earthquake fire, as if the caprice of all the demons were let loose against us, have in His Mind a spiritual coherence, an organic unity and purpose (though we see it not); that sorrows do not come singly, only because He is making short work with our spirits; and because the more effect He sees produced by one blow, the more swiftly He follows it up by another; till, in one great and varied crisis, seemingly long to us, but short enough compared with immortality, our spirits may be —

“Heated hot with burning fears,

And bathed in baths of hissing tears,

And battered with the strokes of doom,

To shape and use.”

And thus, perhaps, it was with poor Grace Harvey. At least, happily for her, she began after a while to think that it was so. Only after a while, though. There was at first a phase of repining, of doubt, almost of indignation against high heaven. Who shall judge her? What blame if the crucified one writhe when the first nail is driven? What blame if the stoutest turn sick and giddy at the first home-thrust of that sword which pierces the joints and marrow, and lays bare to self the secrets of the heart? God gives poor souls time to recover their breaths, ere He strikes again; and if He be not angry, why should we condemn?

Poor Grace! Her sorrows had been thickening fast during the last few months. She was schoolmistress again, true; but where were her children? Those of them whom she loved best, were swept away by the cholera; and could she face the remnant, each in mourning for a parent or a brother? That alone was grief enough for her; and yet that was the lightest of all her griefs. She loved Tom Thurnall — how much, she dared not tell herself; she longed to “save” him. She had thought, and not untruly, during the past cholera weeks, that he was softened, opened to new impressions: but he had avoided her more than ever — perhaps suspected her again more than ever — and now he was gone, gone for ever. That, too, was grief enough alone. But darkest and deepest of all, darker and deeper than the past shame of being suspected by him she loved, was the shame of suspecting her own mother — of believing herself, as she did, privy to that shameful theft, and yet unable to make restitution. There was the horror of all horrors, the close prison which seemed to stifle her whole soul. The only chink through which a breath of air seemed to come, and keep her heart alive, was the hope that somehow, somewhere, she might find that belt, and restore it without her mother’s knowledge.

But more — the first of September was come and gone; the bill for five-and-twenty pounds was due, and was not met. Grace, choking down her honest pride, went off to the grocer, and, with tears which he could not resist, persuaded him to renew the bill for one month more; and now that month was all but past, and yet there was no money. Eight or ten people who owed Mrs. Harvey money had died of the cholera. Some, of course, had left no effects; and all hope of their working out their debts was gone. Some had left money behind them: but it was still in the lawyer’s hands, some of it at sea, some on mortgage, some in houses which must be sold; till their affairs were wound up —(a sadly slow affair when a country attorney has a poor man’s unprofitable business to transact)— nothing could come in to Mrs. Harvey. To and fro she went with knitted brow and heavy heart; and brought home again only promises, as she had done a hundred times before. One day she went up to Mrs. Heale. Old Heale owed her thirteen pounds and more: but that was not the least reason for paying. His cholera patients had not paid him; and whether Heale had the money by him or not, he was not going to pay his debts till other people paid theirs. Mrs. Harvey stormed; Mrs. Heale gave her as good as she brought; and Mrs. Harvey threatened to County Court her husband; whereon Mrs. Heale, en revanche dragged out the books, and displayed to the poor widow’s horror-struck eyes an account for medicine and attendance, on her and Grace, which nearly swallowed up the debt. Poor Grace was overwhelmed when her mother came home and upbraided her, in her despair, with being a burden. Was she not a burden? Must she not be one henceforth? No, she would take in needlework, labour in the fields, heave ballast among the coarse pauper-girls on the quay-pool, anything rather: but how to meet the present difficulty?

“We must sell our furniture, mother!”

“For a quarter of what it’s worth? Never, girl! No! The Lord will provide,” said she, between her clenched teeth, with a sort of hysteric chuckle. “The Lord will provide!”

“I believe it; I believe it,” said poor Grace; “but faith is weak, and the day is very dark, mother.”

“Dark, ay? And may be darker, yet; but the Lord will provide. He prepares a table in the wilderness for his saints that the world don’t think of.”

“Oh, mother! and do you think there is any door of hope?”

“Go to bed, girl; go to bed, and leave me to see to that. Find my spectacles. Wherever have you laid them to, now? I’ll look over the books awhile.”

“Do let me go over them for you.”

“No, you sha’n’t! I suppose you’ll be wanting to make out your poor old mother’s been cheating somebody. Why not, if I’m a thief, Miss, eh?”

“Oh, mother! mother! don’t say that again.”

And Grace glided out meekly to her own chamber, which was on the ground-floor adjoining the parlour, and there spent more than one hour in prayer, from which no present comfort seemed to come; yet who shall say that it was all unanswered?

At last her mother came upstairs, and put her head in angrily:—“Why ben’t you in bed, girl? sitting up this way?”

“I was praying, mother,” says Grace, looking up as she knelt.

“Praying! What’s the use of praying? and who’ll hear you if you pray? What you want’s a husband, to keep you out of the workhouse; and you won’t get that by kneeling here. Get to bed, I say, or I’ll pull you up?”

Grace obeyed uncomplaining, but utterly shocked; though she was not unacquainted with those frightful fits of morose unbelief, even of fierce blasphemy, to which the excitable West-country mind is liable, after having been over-strained by superstitious self-inspection, and by the desperate attempt to prove itself right and safe from frames and feelings, while fact and conscience proclaim it wrong.

The West-country people are apt to attribute these paroxysms to the possession of a devil; and so did Grace that night.

Trembling with terror and loving pity, she lay down, and began to pray afresh for that poor wild mother.

At last the fear crossed her that her mother might make away with herself. But a few years before, another class-leader in Aberalva had attempted to do so, and had all but succeeded. The thought was intolerable. She must go to her; face reproaches, blows, anything. She rose from her bed, and went to the door. It was fastened on the outside.

A cold perspiration stood on her forehead. She opened her lips to shriek to her mother: but checked herself when she heard her stirring gently in the outer room. Her pulses throbbed too loudly at first for her to hear distinctly: but she felt that it was no moment for giving way to emotion; by a strong effort of will, she conquered herself; and then, with that preternatural acuteness of sense which some women possess, she could hear everything her mother was doing. She heard her put on her shawl, her bonnet; she heard her open the front door gently. It was now long past midnight. Whither could she be going at that hour?

She heard her go gently to the left, past the window; and yet her footfall was all but inaudible. No rain had fallen, and her shoes ought to have sounded on the hard earth. She must have taken them off. There, she was stopping, just by the school-door. Now she moved again. She must have stopped to put on her shoes; for now Grace could hear her steps distinctly, down the earth bank, and over the rattling shingle of the beach. Where was she going? Grace must follow!

The door was fast: but in a moment she had removed the table, opened the shutter and the window.

“Thank God that I stayed here on the ground floor, instead of going back to my own room when Major Campbell left. It is a providence! The Lord has not forsaken me yet!” said the sweet saint, as, catching up her shawl, she wrapped it round her, and slipping through the window, crouched under the shadow of the house, and looked for her mother.

She was hurrying over the rocks, a hundred yards off. Whither? To drown herself in the sea? No; she held on along the mid-beach, right across the cove, toward Arthur’s Nose. But why? Grace must know.

She felt, she knew not why, that this strange journey, that wild “The Lord will provide,” had to do with the subject of her suspicion. Perhaps this was the crisis; perhaps all will he cleared up to-night, for joy or for utter shame.

The tide was low; the beach was bright in the western moonlight: only along the cliff foot lay a strip of shadow a quarter of a mile long, till the Nose, like a great black wall, buried the corner of the cove in darkness.

Along that strip of shadow she ran, crouching; now stumbling over a boulder, now crushing her bare feet between the sharp pebbles, as, heedless where she stepped, she kept her eye fixed on her mother. As if fascinated, she could see nothing else in heaven or earth but that dark figure, hurrying along with a dogged determination, and then stopping a moment to look round, as if in fear of a pursuer. And then Grace lay down on the cold stones, and pressed herself into the very earth; and the moment her mother turned to go forward, sprang up and followed.

And then a true woman’s thought flashed across her, and shaped itself into a prayer. For herself she never thought: but if the Coast Guardsman above should see her mother, stop her, question her? God grant that he might be on the other side of the point! And she hurried on again.

Near the Nose the rocks ran high and jagged; her mother held on to them, passed through a narrow chasm, and disappeared.

Grace now, not fifty yards from her, darted out of the shadow into the moonlight, and ran breathlessly toward the spot where she had seen her mother last. Like Anderssen’s little sea-maiden she went, every step on sharp knives, across the rough beds of barnacles; but she felt no pain, in the greatness of her terror and her love.

She crouched between the rocks a moment; heard her mother slipping and splashing among the pools; and glided after her like a ghost — a guardian angel rather — till she saw her emerge again for a moment into the moonlight, upon a strip of beach beneath the Nose.

It was a weird and lonely spot; and a dangerous spot withal. For only at low spring-tide could it be reached from the land, and then the flood rose far up the cliff, covering all the shingle, and filling the mouth of a dark cavern. Had her mother gone to that cavern? It was impossible to see, so utterly was the cliff shrouded in shadow.

Shivering with cold and excitement, Grace crouched down, and gazed into the gloom, till her eyes swam, and a hundred fantastic figures, and sparks of fire, seemed to dance between her and the rock. Sparks of fire! — yes; but that last one was no fancy. An actual flash; the crackle and sputter of a match! What could it mean? Another match was lighted; and a moment after, the glare of a lanthorn showed her mother entering beneath the polished arch of rock which glared lurid overhead, like the gateway of the pit of fire.

The light vanished into the windings of the cave. And then Grace, hardly knowing what she did, rushed up the beach, and crouched down once more at the cave’s mouth. There she sat, she knew not how long, listening, listening, like a hunted hare; her whole faculties concentrated in the one sense of hearing; her eyes wandering vacantly over the black saws of rock, and glistening oar-weed beds, and bright phosphoric sea. Thank Heaven, there was not a ripple to break the silence. Ah, what was that sound within? She pressed her ear against the rock, to hear more surely. A rumbling as of stones rolled down. And then — was it a fancy, or were her powers of hearing, intensified by excitement, actually equal to discern the chink of coin? Who knows? but in another moment she had glided in, silently, swiftly, holding her very breath; and saw her mother kneeling on the ground, the lanthorn by her side, and in her hand the long-lost belt.

She did not speak, she did not move. She always knew, in her heart of hearts, that so it was: but when the sin took bodily shape, and was there before her very eyes, it was too dreadful to speak of, to act upon yet. And amid the most torturing horror and disgust of that great sin, rose up in her the divinest love for the sinner; she felt — strange paradox — that she had never loved her mother as she did at that moment. “Oh, that it had been I who had done it, and not she!” And her mother’s sin was to her her own sin, her mother’s shame her shame, till all sense of her mother’s guilt vanished in the light of her divine love. “Oh, that I could take her up tenderly, tell her that all is forgiven and forgotten by man and God! — serve her as I have never served her yet! — nurse her to sleep on my bosom, and then go forth and bear her punishment, even if need be on the gallows-tree!” And there she stood, in a silent agony of tender pity, drinking her portion of the cup of Him who bore the sins of all the world.

Silently she stood; and silently she turned to go, to go home and pray for guidance in that dark labyrinth of confused duties. Her mother heard the rustle; looked up; and sprang to her feet with a scream, dropping gold pieces on the ground.

Her first impulse was wild terror. She was discovered; by whom, she knew not. She clasped her evil treasure to her bosom, and thrusting Grace against the rock, fled wildly out.

“Mother! Mother!” shrieked Grace, rushing after her. The shawl fell from her shoulders. Her mother looked back, and saw the white figure.

“God’s angel! God’s angel, come to destroy me! as he came to Balaam!” and in the madness of her guilty fancy she saw in Grace’s hand the fiery sword which was to smite her.

Another step, looking backward still, and she had tripped over a stone. She fell, and striking the back of her head against the rock, lay senseless.

Tenderly Grace lifted her up: went for water to a pool near by; bathed her face, calling on her by every term of endearment. Slowly the old woman recovered her consciousness, but showed it only in moans. Her head was cut and bleeding. Grace bound it up, and then taking that fatal belt, bound it next to her own heart, never to be moved from thence till she should put it into the hands of him to whom it belonged.

And then she lifted up her mother.

“Come home, darling mother;” and she tried to make her stand and walk.

The old woman only moaned, and waved her away impatiently. Grace put her on her feet; but she fell again. The lower limbs seemed all but paralysed.

Slowly that sweet saint lifted her, and laid her on her own back; and slowly she bore her homeward, with aching knees and bleeding feet; while before her eyes hung the picture of Him who bore his cross up Calvary, till a solemn joy and pride in that sacred burden seemed to intertwine itself with her deep misery. And fainting every moment with pain and weakness, she still went on, as if by supernatural strength: and murmured —

“Thou didst bear more for me, and shall not I bear even this for Thee?”

Surely, if blest spirits can weep and smile over the woes and heroisms of us mortal men, faces brighter than the stars looked down on that fair girl that night, and in loving sympathy called her, too, blest.

At last it was over. Undiscovered she reached home, laid her mother on the bed, and tended her till morning; but long ere morning dawned stupor had changed into delirium, and Grace’s ears were all on fire with words — which those who have ever heard will have no heart to write.

And now, by one of those strange vagaries, in which epidemics so often indulge, appeared other symptoms; and by day-dawn cholera itself.

Heale, though recovering, was still too weak to be of use: but, happily, the medical man sent down by the Board of Health was still in the town.

Grace sent for him; but he shook his head after the first look. The wretched woman’s ravings at once explained the case, and made it, in his eyes, all but hopeless.

The sudden shock to body and mind, the sudden prostration of strength, had brought out the disease which she had dreaded so intensely, and against which she had taken so many precautions, and which yet lay, all the while, lurking unfelt in her system.

A hideous eight-and-forty hours followed. The preachers and class-leaders came to pray over the dying woman: but she screamed to Grace to send them away. She had just sense enough left to dread that she might betray her own shame. Would she have the new clergyman then? No; she would have no one; — no one could help her! Let her only die in peace!

And Grace closed the door upon all but the doctor, who treated the wild sufferer’s wild words as the mere fancies of delirium; and then Grace watched and prayed, till she found herself alone with the dead.

She wrote a letter to Thurnall —

“Sir — I have found your belt, and all the money, I believe and trust, which it contained. If you will be so kind as to tell me where and how I shall send it to you, you will take a heavy burden off the mind of

“Your obedient humble Servant, who trusts that you will forgive her having been unable to fulfil her promise.”

She addressed the letter to Whitbury; for thither Tom had ordered his letters to be sent; but she received no answer.

The day after Mrs. Harvey was buried, the sale of all her effects was announced in Aberalva.

Grace received the proceeds, went round to all the creditors, and paid them all which was due. She had a few pounds left. What to do with that she knew full well.

She showed no sign of sorrow: but she spoke rarely to any one. A dead dull weight seemed to hang over her. To preachers, class-leaders, gossips, who upbraided her for not letting them see her mother, she replied by silence. People thought her becoming idiotic.

The day after the last creditor was paid she packed up her little box: hired a cart to take her to the nearest coach; and vanished from Aberalva, without bidding farewell to a human being, even to her School-children.

Vavasour had been buried more than a week. Mark and Mary were sitting in the dining-room, Mark at his port and Mary at her work, when the footboy entered.

“Sir, there’s a young woman wants to speak with you.”

“Show her in, if she looks respectable,” said Mark, who had slippers on, and his feet on the fender, and was, therefore, loth to move.

“Oh, quite respectable, sir, as ever I see;” and the lad ushered in a figure, dressed and veiled in deep black.

“Well, ma’am, sit down, pray; and what can I do for you!”

“Can you tell me, sir,” answered a voice of extraordinary sweetness and gentleness, very firm, and composed withal, “if Mr. Thomas Thurnall is in Whitbury?”

“Thurnall? He has sailed for the East a week ago. May I ask your business with him? Can I help you in it?”

The black damsel paused so long, that both Mary and her father felt uneasy, and a cloud passed over Mark’s brow.

“Can the boy have been playing tricks?” said he to himself.

“Then, sir, as I hear that you have influence, can you get me a situation as one of the nurses who are going out thither, so I hear?”

“Get you a situation? Yes, of course, if you are competent.”

“Thank you, sir. Perhaps, if you could be so very kind as to tell me to whom I am to apply in town; for I shall go thither to-night.”

“My goodness!” cried Mark. “Old Mark don’t do things in this off-hand, cold-blooded way. Let us know who you are, my dear, and about Mr. Thurnall. Have you anything against him?”

She was silent.

“Mary, just step into the next room.”

“If you please, sir,” said the same gentle voice, “I had sooner that the lady should stay. I have nothing against Mr. Thurnall, God knows. He has rather something against me.”

Another pause.

Mary rose, and went up to her and took her hand.

“Do tell us who you are, and if we can do anything for you.”

And she looked winningly up into her face.

The stranger drew a long breath and lifted her veil. Mary and Mark both started at the beauty of the countenance which she revealed — but in a different way. Mark gave a grunt of approbation: Mary turned pale as death.

“I suppose that it is but right and reasonable that I should tell you, at least give proof of my being an honest person. For my capabilities as a nurse — I believe you know Mrs. Vavasour? I heard that she has been staying here”

“Of course. Do you know her?”

A sad smile passed over her face.

“Yes, well enough, at least for her to speak for me. I should have asked her or Miss St. Just to help me to a nurse’s place: but I did not like to trouble them in their distress. How is the poor lady now, sir?”

“I know who she is!” cried Mary by a sudden inspiration. “Is not your name Harvey! Are you not the schoolmistress who saved Mr. Thurnall’s life? who behaved so nobly in the cholera? Yes! I knew you were! Come and sit down, and tell me all! I have so longed to know you! Dear creature, I have felt as if you were my own sister. He — Mr. Thurnall — wrote often about all your heroism.”

Grace seemed to choke down somewhat: and then answered steadfastly —

“I did not come here, my dear lady, to hear such kind words, but to do an errand to Mr. Thurnall. You have heard, perhaps, that when he was wrecked last spring he lost some money. Yes! Then it was stolen. Stolen!” she repeated with a great gasp: “never mind by whom. Not by me.”

“You need not tell us that, my dear,” interrupted Mark.

“God kept it. And I have it; here!” and she pressed her hands tight over her bosom. “And here I must keep it till I give it into his hands, if I follow him round the world!” And as she spoke her eyes shone in the lamplight, with an unearthly brilliance which made Mary shudder.

Mark Armsworth poured a libation to the goddess of Puzzledom, in the shape of a glass of port, which first choked him, and then descended over his clean shirt front. But after he had coughed himself black in the face, he began:—

“My good girl, if you are Grace Harvey, you’re welcome to my roof and an honour to it, say I: but as for taking all that money with you across the seas, and such a pretty helpless young thing as you are, God help you, it mustn’t be, and shan’t be, and that’s flat.”

“But I must go to him!” said she in so naïve half-wild a fashion, that Mary, comprehending all, looked imploringly at her father, and putting her arm round Grace, forced her into a seat.

“I must go, sir, and tell him — tell him myself. No one knows what I know about it.”

Mark shook his head.

“Could I not write to him? He knows me as well as he knows his own father.”

Grace shook her head, and pressed her hand upon her heart, where Tom’s belt lay.

“Do you think, madam, that after having had the dream of this belt, the shape of this belt, and of the money which is in it, branded into my brain for months — years it seems like — by God’s fire of shame and suspicion; — and seen him poor, miserable, fretful, unbelieving, for the want of it — O God! I can’t tell even your sweet face all. — Do you think that now I have it in my hands, I can part with it, or rest, till it is in his? No, not though I walk barefoot after him to the ends of the earth.”

“Let his father have the money, then, and do you take him the belt as a token, if you must —”

“That’s it, Mary!” shouted Mark Armsworth, “you always come in with the right hint, girl!” and the two, combining their forces, at last talked poor Grace over. But upon going out herself she was bent. To ask his forgiveness in her mother’s name, was her one fixed idea. He might die, and not know all, not have forgiven all, and go she must.

“But it is a thousand to one against your seeing him. We, even, don’t know exactly where he is gone.”

Grace shuddered a moment; and then recovered her calmness.

“I did not expect this: but be it so. I shall meet him if God wills; and if not, I can still work — work.”

“I think, Mary, you’d better take the young woman upstairs, and make her sleep here to-night,” said Mark, glad of an excuse to get rid of them; which, when he had done, he pulled his chair round in front of the fire, put a foot on each hob, and began rubbing his eyes vigorously.

“Dear me! Dear me! What a lot of good people there are in this old world, to be sure! Ten times better than me, at least — make one ashamed of oneself:— and if one isn’t even good enough for this world, how’s one to be good enough for heaven?”

And Mary carried Grace upstairs, and into her own bed-room. A bed should be made up there for her. It would do her good just to have anything so pretty sleeping in the same room. And then she got Grace supper, and tried to make her talk: but she was distrait, reserved; for a new and sudden dread had seized her, at the sight of that fine house, fine plate, fine friends. These were his acquaintances, then: no wonder that he would not look on such as her. And as she cast her eye round the really luxurious chamber, and (after falteringly asking Mary whether she had any brothers and sisters) guessed that she must be the heiress of all that wealth, she settled in her heart that Tom was to marry Mary; and the intimate tone in which Mary spoke of him to her, and her innumerable inquiries about him, made her more certain that it was a settled thing. Handsome she was not, certainly; but so sweet and good; and that her own beauty (if she was aware that she possessed any) could have any weight with Tom, she would have considered as an insult to his sense; so she made up her mind slowly, but steadily, that thus it was to be; and every fresh proof of Mary’s sweetness and goodness was a fresh pang to her, for it showed the more how probable it was that Tom loved her.

Therefore she answered all Mary’s questions carefully and honestly, as to a person who had a right to ask; and at last went to her bed, and, worn out in body and mind, was asleep in a moment. She had not remarked the sigh which escaped Mary, as she glanced at that beautiful head, and the long black tresses which streamed down for a moment over the white shoulders ere they were knotted back for the night, and then at her own poor countenance in the glass opposite.

It was long past midnight when Grace woke, she knew not how, and looking up, saw a light in the room, and Mary sitting still over a book, her head resting on her hands. She lay quiet and thought she heard a sob. She was sure she heard tears drop on the paper. She stirred, and Mary was at her side in a moment.

“Did you want anything?”

“Only to — to remind you, ma’am, it is not wise to sit up so late.”

“Only that?” said Mary, laughing. “I do that every night, alone with God; and I do not think He will be the farther off for your being here!”

“One thing I had to ask,” said Grace. “It would lesson my labour so, if you could give me any hint of where he might be.”

“We know, as we told you, as little as you. His letters are to be sent to Constantinople. Some from Aberalva are gone thither already.”

“And mine among them!” thought Grace. “It is God’s will! . . . Madam, if it would not seem forward on my part — if you could tell him the truth, and what I have for him, and where I am, in case he might wish — wish to see me — when you were writing.”

“Of course I will, or my father will,” said Mary, who did not like to confess either to herself or to Grace, that it was very improbable that she would ever write again to Tom Thurnall.

And so the two sweet maidens, so near that moment to an explanation, which might have cleared up all, went on each in her ignorance; for so it was to be.

The next morning Grace came down to breakfast, modest, cheerful, charming. Mark made her breakfast with them; gave her endless letters of recommendation; wanted to take her to see old Doctor Thurnall, which she declined, and then sent her to the station in his own carriage, paid her fare first-class to town, and somehow or other contrived, with Mary’s help, that she should find in her bag two ten-pound notes, which she had never seen before. After which he went out to his counting-house, only remarking to Mary —

“Very extraordinary young woman, and very handsome, too. Will make some man a jewel of a wife, if she don’t go mad, or die of the hospital fever.”

To which Mary fully assented. Little she guessed, and little did her father, that it was for Grace’s sake that Tom had refused her hand.

A few days more, and Grace Harvey also had gone Eastward Ho.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kingsley/charles/two_years_ago/chapter26.html

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