Two Years Ago, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter xxviii.

Last Christmas Eve.

And now two years and more are past and gone; and all whose lot it was have come Westward Ho once more, sadder and wiser men to their lives’ end; save one or two, that is, from whom not even Solomon’s pestle and mortar discipline would pound out the innate folly.

Frank has come home stouter and browner, as well as heartier and wiser, than he went forth. He is Valencia’s husband now, and rector, not curate, of Aberalva town; and Valencia makes him a noble rector’s wife.

She, too, has had her sad experiences; — of more than absent love; for when the news of Inkerman arrived, she was sitting by Lucia’s death-bed; and when the ghastly list came home, and with it the news of Scoutbush “severely wounded by a musket-ball,” she had just taken her last look of the fair face, and seen in fancy the fair spirit greeting in the eternal world the soul of him whom she loved unto the death. She had hurried out to Scutari, to nurse her brother; had seen there many a sight — she best knows what she saw. She sent Scoutbush back to the Crimea, to try his chance once more; and then came home to be a mother to those three orphan children, from whom she vowed never to part. So the children went with Frank and her to Aberalva, and Valencia had learnt half a mother’s duties, ere she had a baby of her own.

And thus to her, as to all hearts, has the war brought a discipline from heaven.

Frank shrank at first from returning to Aberalva, when Scoutbush offered him the living on old St. Just’s death. But Valencia all but commanded him; so he went: and, behold his return was a triumph.

All was understood now, all forgiven, all forgotten, save his conduct in the cholera, by the loving, honest, brave West-country hearts; and when the new-married pair were rung into the town, amid arches and garlands, flags and bonfires, the first man to welcome Frank into his rectory was old Tardrew.

Not a word of repentance or apology ever passed the old bulldog’s lips. He was an Englishman, and kept his opinions to himself. But he had had his lesson like the rest, two years ago, in his young daughter’s death; and Frank had thenceforth no faster friend than old Tardrew.

Frank is still as High Church as ever; and likes all pomp and circumstance of worship. Some few whims he has given up, certainly, for fear of giving offence; but he might indulge them once more, if he wished, without a quarrel. For now that the people understand him, he does just what he likes. His congregation is the best in the archdeaconry; one meeting-house is dead, and the other dying. His choir is admirable; for Valencia has had the art of drawing to her all the musical talent of the tuneful West-country folk; and all that he needs, he thinks, to make his parish perfect, is to see Grace Harvey schoolmistress once more.

What can have worked the change? It is difficult to say, unless it be that Frank has found out, from cholera and hospital experiences, that his parishioners are beings of like passions with himself; and found out, too, that his business is to leave the Gospel of damnation to those whose hapless lot it is to earn their bread by pandering to popular superstition; and to employ his independent position, as a free rector, in telling his people the Gospel of salvation — that they have a Father in heaven.

Little Scoutbush comes down often to Aberalva now, and oftener to his Irish estates. He is going to marry the Manchester lady after all, and to settle down; and try to be a good landlord; and use for the benefit of his tenants the sharp experience of human hearts, human sorrows, and human duty, which he gained in the Crimea two years ago.

And Major Campbell?

Look on Cathcart’s Hill. A stone is there, which is the only earthly token of that great experience of all experiences which Campbell gained two years ago.

A little silk bag was found, hung round his neck, and lying next his heart. He seemed to have expected his death; for he had put a label on it —

“To be sent to Viscount Scoutbush for Miss St. Just.”

Scoutbush sent it home to Valencia, who opened it, blind with tears.

It was a note, written seven years before; but not by her; by Lucia ere her marriage. A simple invitation to dinner in Eaton Square, written for Lady Knockdown, but with a postscript from Lucia, herself: “Do come, and I will promise not to tease you as I did last night.”

That was, perhaps, the only kind or familiar word which he had ever had from his idol; and he had treasured it to the last. Women can love, as this book sets forth: but now and then men can love too, if they be men, as Major Campbell was.

And Trebooze of Trebooze?

Even Trebooze got his new lesson two years ago. Terrified into sobriety, he went into the militia, and soon took delight therein. He worked, for the first time in his life, early and late, at a work which was suited for him. He soon learnt not to swear and rage, for his men would not stand it; and not to get drunk, for his messmates would not stand it. He got into better society and better health than he ever had had before. With new self-discipline has come new self-respect; and he tells his wife frankly, that if he keeps straight henceforth, he has to thank for it his six months at Aldershott.

And Mary?

When you meet Mary in heaven, you can ask her there.

But Frank’s desire, that Grace should become his schoolmistress once more, is not fulfilled.

How she worked at Scutari and at Balaklava, there is no need to tell. Why mark her out from the rest, when all did more than nobly? The lesson which she needed was not that which hospitals could teach; she had learnt that already. It was a deeper and more dreadful lesson still. She had set her heart on finding Tom; on righting him, on righting herself. She had to learn to be content not to find him; not to right him, not to right herself.

And she learnt it. Tearless, uncomplaining, she “trusted in God, and made no haste.” She did her work, and read her Bible; and read too, again and again, at stolen moments of rest, a book which some one lent her, and which was to her as the finding of an unknown sister — Longfellow’s Evangeline. She was Evangeline; seeking as she sought, perhaps to find as she found — No! merciful God! Not so! yet better so than not at all. And often and often, when a new freight of agony was landed, she looked round from bed to bed, if his face too, might be there. And once, at Balaklava, she knew she saw him: but not on a sick bed.

Standing beneath the window, chatting merrily with a group of officers — It was he! Could she mistake that figure, though the face was turned away? Her head swam, her pulses beat like church bells, her eyes were ready to burst from their sockets. But — she was assisting at an operation. It was God’s will, and she must endure.

When the operation was over, she darted wildly down the stairs without a word.

He was gone.

Without a word she came back to her work, and possessed her soul in patience.

Inquiries, indeed, she made, as she had a right to do; but no one knew the name. She questioned, and caused to be questioned, men from Varna, from Sevastopol, from Kerteh, from the Circassian coast; English, French, and Sardinian, Pole and Turk. No one had ever heard the name. She even found at last, and questioned, one of the officers who had formed that group beneath the window.

“Oh! that man? He was a Pole, Michaelowyzcki, or some such name. At least, so he said; but he suspected the man to be really a Russian spy.”

Grace knew that it was Tom: but she went back to her work again, and in due time went home to England.

Home, but not to Aberalva. She presented herself one day at Mark Armsworth’s house in Whitbury, and humbly begged him to obtain her a place as servant to old Dr. Thurnall. What her purpose was therein she did not explain; perhaps she hardly knew herself.

Jane, the old servant who had clung to the doctor through his reverses, was growing old and feeble, and was all the more jealous of an intruder: but Grace disarmed her.

“I do not want to interfere; I will be under your orders. I will be kitchen-maid — maid-of-all-work. I want no wages. I have brought home a little money with me; enough to last me for the little while I shall be here.”

And, by the help of Mark and Mary, she took up her abode in the old man’s house; and ere a month was past she was to him as a daughter.

Perhaps she had told him all. At least, there was some deep and pure confidence between them; and yet one which, so perfect was Grace’s humility, did not make old Jane jealous. Grace cooked, swept, washed, went to and fro as Jane bade her; submitted to all her grumblings and tossings; and then came at the old man’s bidding to read to him every evening, her hand in his; her voice cheerful, her face full of quiet light. But her hair was becoming streaked with gray. Her face, howsoever gentle, was sharpened, as if with continual pain. No wonder; for she had worn that belt next her heart for now two years and more, till it had almost eaten into the heart above which it lay. It gave her perpetual pain: and yet that pain was a perpetual joy — a perpetual remembrance of him, and of that walk with him from Tolchard’s farm.

Mary loved her — wanted to treat her as an equal — to call her sister: but Grace drew back lovingly, but humbly, from all advances; for she had divined Mary’s secret with the quick eye of woman; she saw how Mary grew daily paler, thinner, sadder, and knew for whom she mourned. Be it so; Mary had a right to him, and she had none.

And where was Tom Thurnall all the while?

No man could tell.

Mark inquired; Lord Minchampstead inquired; great personages who had need of him at home and abroad inquired: but all in vain.

A few knew, and told Lord Minchampstead, who told Mark, in confidence, that he had been heard of last in the Circassian mountains, about Christmas, 1854: but since then all was blank. He had vanished into the infinite unknown.

Mark swore that he would come home some day: but two full years were past, and Tom came not.

The old man never seemed to regret him; never mentioned his name after a while.

“Mark,” he said once, “remember David. Why weep for the child? I shall go to him, but he will not come to me.”

None knew, meanwhile, why the old man needed not to talk of Tom to his friends and neighbours; it was because he and Grace never talked of anything else.

So they had lived, and so they had waited, till that week before last Christmas-day, when Mellot and Stangrave made their appearance in Whitbury, and became Mark Armsworth’s guests.

The week slipped on. Stangrave hunted on alternate days; and on the others went with Claude, who photographed (when there was sun to do it with) Stangrave End, and Whitford Priory, interiors and exteriors; not forgetting the Stangrave monuments in Whitbury church; and sat, too, for many a pleasant hour with the good Doctor, who took to him at once, as all men did. It seemed to give fresh life to the old man to listen to Tom’s dearest friend. To him, as to Grace, he could talk openly about the lost son, and live upon the memory of his prowess and his virtues; and ere the week was out, the Doctor, and Grace too, had heard a hundred gallant feats, to tell all which would add another volume to this book.

And Grace stood silently by the old man’s chair, and drank all in without a smile, without a sigh, but not without full many a prayer.

It is the blessed Christmas Eve; the light is failing fast; when down the high street comes the mighty Roman-nosed rat-tail which carries Mark’s portly bulk, and by him Stangrave, on a right good horse.

They shog on side by side — not home, but to the Doctor’s house. For every hunting evening Mark’s groom meets him at the Doctor’s door to lead the horses home, while he, before he will take his bath and dress, brings to his blind friend the gossip of the field, and details to him every joke, fence, find, kill, hap and mishap of the last six hours.

The old man, meanwhile, is sitting quietly, with Claude by him, talking — as Claude can talk. They are not speaking of Tom just now: but the eloquent artist’s conversation suits well enough the temper of the good old man, yearning after fresh knowledge, even on the brink of the grave; but too feeble now, in body and in mind, to do more than listen. Claude is telling him about the late Photographic Exhibition; and the old man listens with a triumphant smile to wonders which he will never behold with mortal eyes. At last —

“This is very pleasant — to feel surer and surer, day by day, that one is not needed; that science moves forward swift and sure, under a higher guidance than one’s own; that the sacred torch-race never can stand still; that He has taken the lamp out of old and failing hands, only to put it into young and brave ones, who will not falter till they reach the goal.”

Then he lies back again, with closed eyes, waiting for more facts from Claude.

“How beautiful!” says Claude —“I must compliment you, sir — to see the child-like heart thus still beating fresh beneath the honours of the grey head, without envy, without vanity, without ambition, welcoming every new discovery, rejoicing to see the young outstripping them.”

“And what credit, sir, to us? Our knowledge did not belong to us, but to Him who made us, and the universe; and our sons’ belonged to Him likewise. If they be wiser than their teachers, it is only because they, like their teachers, have made His testimonies their study. When we rejoice in the progress of science, we rejoice not in ourselves, not in our children, but in God our Instructor.”

And all the while, hidden in the gloom behind, stands Grace, her arms folded over her bosom, watching every movement of the old man; and listening, too, to every word. She can understand but little of it: but she loves to hear it, for it reminds her of Tom Thurnall. Above all she loves to hear about the microscope, a mystery inseparable in her thoughts from him who first showed her its wonders.

At last the old man speaks again:—

“Ah! How delighted my boy will be when he returns, to find that so much has been done during his absence.”

Claude is silent awhile, startled.

“You are surprised to hear me speak so confidently? Well, I can only speak as I feel. I have had, for some days past, a presentiment — you will think me, doubtless, weak for yielding to it. I am not superstitious.”

“Not so,” said Claude, “but I cannot deny that such things as presentiments may be possible. However miraculous they may seem, are they so very much more so than the daily fact of memory? I can as little guess why we can remember the past as why we may not, at times, be able to foresee the future.”

“True. You speak, if not like a physician, yet like a metaphysician; so you will not laugh at me, and compel the weak old man and his fancy to take refuge with a girl — who is not weak. — Grace, darling, you think still that he is coming?”

She came forward and leaned over him.

“Yes,” she half whispered. “He is coming soon to us: or else we are soon going to him. It may mean that, sir. Perhaps it is better that it should.”

“It matters little, child, if he be near, as near he is. I tell you, Mr. Mellot, this conviction has become so intense during the last week, that — that I believe I should not be thrown off my balance if he entered at this moment. . . . I feel him so near me, sir, that — that I could swear, did I not know how the weak brain imitates expected sounds, that I heard his footstep outside now.”

“I heard horses’ footsteps,” says Claude. —“Ah, there comes Stangrave and our host.”

“I heard them: but I heard my boy’s likewise,” said the old man quietly.

The next minute he seemed to have forgotten the fancy, as the two hunters entered, and Mark began open-mouthed as usual —

“Well, Ned! In good company, eh? That’s right. Mortal cold I am! We shall have a white Christmas, I expect. Snow’s coming.”

“What sport?” asked the doctor blandly.

“Oh! Nothing new. Bothered about Sidricstone till one. Got away at last with an old fox, and over the downs into the vale. I think Mr. Stangrave liked it?”

“Mr. Stangrave likes the vale better than the vale likes him. I have fallen into two brooks following, Claude; to the delight of all the desperate Englishmen.”

“Oh! You rode straight enough, sir! You must pay for your fun in the vale:— but then you have your fun. But there were a good many falls the last ton minutes: ground heavy, and pace awful; old rat-tail had enough to do to hold his own. Saw one fellow ride bang into a pollard-willow, when there was an open gate close to him — cut his cheek open, and lay; but some one said it was only Smith of Ewebury, so I rode on.”

“I hope you English showed more pity to your wounded friends in the Crimea,” quoth Stangrave, laughing, “I wanted to stop and pick him up: but Mr. Armsworth would not hear of it.”

“Oh, sir, if it had been a stranger like you, half the field would have been round you in a minute: but Smith don’t count — he breaks his neck on purpose three days a week:— by the by, Doctor, got a good story of him for you. Suspected his keepers last month. Slips out of bed at two in the morning; into his own covers, and blazes away for an hour. Nobody comes. Home to bed, and tries the same thing next night. Not a soul comes near him. Next morning has up keepers, watchers, beaters, the whole posse; and ‘Now, you rascals! I’ve been poaching my own covers two nights running, and you’ve been all drunk in bed. There are your wages to the last penny; and vanish! I’ll be my own keeper henceforth; and never let me see your faces again!”

The old Doctor laughed cheerily. “Well: but did you kill your fox?”

“All right: but it was a burster — just what I always tell Mr. Stangrave. Afternoon runs are good runs; pretty sure of an empty fox and a good scent after one o’clock.”

“Exactly,” answered a fresh voice from behind; “and fox-hunting is an epitome of human life. You chop or lose your first two or three: but keep up your pluck, and you’ll run into one before sun-down; and I seem to have run into a whole earthful!”

All looked round; for all knew that voice.

Yes! There he was, in bodily flesh and blood; thin, sallow, bearded to the eyes, dressed in ragged sailor’s clothes: but Tom himself.

Grace uttered a long, low, soft, half-laughing cry, full of the delicious agony of sudden relief; a cry as of a mother when her child is born; and then slipped from the room past the unheeding Tom, who had no eyes but for his father. Straight up to the old man he went, took both his hands, and spoke in the old cheerful voice —

“Well, my dear old daddy! So you seem to have expected me; and gathered, I suppose, all my friends to bid me welcome. I’m afraid I have made you very anxious: but it was not my fault; and I knew you would be certain I should come at last, eh?”

“My son! my son! Let me feel whether thou be my very son Esau or not!” murmured the old man, finding half-playful expression in the words of Scripture, for feelings beyond his failing powers.

Tom knelt down: and the old man passed his hands in silence over and over the forehead, and face, and beard; while all stood silent.

Mark Armsworth burst out blubbering like a great boy:

“I said so! I always said so! The devil could not kill him, and God wouldn’t!”

“You won’t go away again, dear boy? I’m getting old — and — and forgetful; and I don’t think I could bear it again, you see.”

Tom saw that the old man’s powers were failing. “Never again, as long as I live, daddy!” said he, and then, looking round — “I think that we are too many for my father. I will come and shake hands with you all presently.”

“No, no,” said the Doctor. “You forget that I cannot see you, and so must only listen to you. It will be a delight to hear your voice and theirs; — they all love you.”

A few moments of breathless congratulation followed, during which Mark had seized Tom by both his shoulders, and held him admiringly at arm’s length.

“Look at him, Mr. Mellot! Mr. Stangrave! Look at him! As they said of Liberty Wilkes, you might rob him, strip him, and hit him over London Bridge: and you find him the next day in the same place, with a laced coat, a sword by his side, and money in his pocket! But how did you come in without our knowing?”

“I waited outside, afraid of what I might hear — for how could I tell!” said he, lowering his voice; “but when I saw you go in, I knew all was right, and followed you; and when I heard my father laugh, I knew that he could bear a little surprise. But, Stangrave, did you say? Ah! this is too delightful, old fellow! How’s Marie and the children?”

Stangrave, who was very uncertain as to how Tom would receive him, had been about to make his amende honorable in a fashion graceful, magnificent, and, as he expressed it afterwards laughingly to Thurnall himself, “altogether highfalutin:” but what chivalrous and courtly words had arranged themselves upon the tip of his tongue, were so utterly upset by Tom’s matter-of-fact bonhomie, and by the cool way in which he took for granted the fact of his marriage, that he burst out laughing, and caught both Tom’s hands in his.

“It is delightful; and all it needs to make it perfect is to have Marie and the children here.”

“How many?” asked Tom.

“Two.”

“Is she as beautiful as ever!”

“More so, I think.”

“I dare say you’re right; you ought to know best, certainly.”

“You shall judge for yourself. She is in London at this moment.”

“Tom!” says his father, who has been sitting quietly, his face covered in his handkerchief, listening to all, while holy tears of gratitude steal down his face.

“Sir!”

“You have not spoken to Grace yet!”

“Grace?” cries Tom, in a very different tone from that in which he had yet spoken.

“Grace Harvey, my boy. She was in the room when you came in.”

“Grace? Grace? What is she doing here?”

“Nursing him, like an angel as she is!” said Mark.

“She is my daughter now, Tom; and has been these twelve months past.”

Tom was silent, as one astonished.

“If she is not, she will be soon,” said he quietly, between his clenched teeth. “Gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me for five minutes, and see to my father:"— and he walked straight out of the room, closing the door behind him — to find Grace waiting in the passage.

She was trembling from head to foot, stepping to and fro, her hands and face all but convulsed; her left hand over her bosom, clutching at her dress, which seemed to have been just disarranged; her right drawn back, holding something; her lips parted, struggling to speak; her great eyes opened to preternatural wideness, fixed on him with an intensity of eagerness; — was she mad?

At last words bubbled forth: “There! there! There it is! — the belt! — your belt! Take it! take it, I say!”

He stood silent and wondering; she thrust it into his hand.

“Take it! I have carried it for you — worn it next my heart, till it has all but eaten into my heart. To Varna, and you were not there! — Scutari, Balaklava, and you were not there! — I found it, only a week after! — I told you I should! and you were gone! — Cruel, not to wait! And Mr. Armsworth has the money — every farthing — and the gold:— he has had it these two years! — I would give you the belt myself; and now I have done it, and the snake is unclasped from my heart at last, at last, at last!”

Her arms dropped by her side, and she burst into an agony of tears.

Tom caught her in his arms: but she put him back, and looked up in his face again.

“Promise me!” she said, in a low clear voice; “promise me this one thing only, as you are a gentleman; as you have a man’s pity, a man’s gratitude in you”

“Anything!”

“Promise me that you will never ask, or seek to know, who had that belt.”

“I promise: but, Grace! —”

“Then my work is over,” said she in a calm collected voice. “Amen. So lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace. Good-bye, Mr. Thurnall. I must go and pack up my few things now. You will forgive and forget?”

“Grace!” cried Tom; “stay!” and he girdled her in a grasp of iron. “You and I never part more in this life, perhaps not in all lives to come!”

“Me? I? — let me go! I am not worthy of you!”

“I have heard that once already; — the only folly which ever came out of those sweet lips. No! Grace, I love you, as man can love but once; and you shall not refuse me! You will not have the heart, Grace! You will not dare, Grace! For you have begun the work; and you must finish it.”

“Work? What work?”

“I don’t know,” said Tom. “How should I? I want you to tell me that.”

She looked up in his face, puzzled. His old self-confident look seemed strangely past away.

“I will tell you” he said, “because I love you. I don’t like to show it to them; but I’ve been frightened, Grace, for the first time in my life.”

She paused for an explanation; but she did not straggle to escape from him.

“Frightened; beat; run to earth myself, though I talked so bravely of running others to earth just now. Grace, I’ve been in prison!”

“In prison? In a Russian prison? Oh, Mr. Thurnall!”

“Ay, Grace, I’d tried everything but that; and I could not stand it. Death was a joke to that. Not to be able to get out! — To rage up and down for hours like a wild beast; long to fly at one’s gaoler and tear his heart out; — beat one’s head against the wall in the hope of knocking one’s brains out; — anything to get rid of that horrid notion, night and day over one — I can’t get out!”

Grace had never seen him so excited.

“But you are safe now,” said she soothingly. “Oh, those horrid Russians!”

“But it was not Russians! — If it had been, I could have borne it. — That was all in my bargain — the fair chance of war: but to be shut up by a mistake! — at the very outset, too — by a boorish villain of a khan, on a drunken suspicion; — a fellow whom I was trying to serve, and who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or daren’t understand me — Oh, Grace, I was caught in my own trap! I went out full blown with self-conceit. Never was any one so cunning as I was to be! — Such a game as I was going to play, and make my fortune by it! — And this brute to stop me short — to make a fool of me — to keep me there eighteen months threatening to cut my head off once a quarter, and wouldn’t understand me, let me talk with the tongue of the old serpent!”

“He didn’t stop you: God stopped you!”

“You’re right, Grace; I saw that at last! I found out that I had been trying for years which was the stronger, God or I; I found out I had been trying whether I could not do well enough without Him: and there I found that I could not, Grace; — could not! I felt like a child who had marched off from home, fancying it can find its way, and is lost at once. I felt like a lost child in Australia once, for one moment: but not as I felt in that prison; for I had not heard you, Grace, then. I did not know that I had a Father in heaven, who had been looking after me, when I fancied that I was looking after myself; — I don’t half believe it now — If I did, I should not have lost my nerve as I have done! — Grace, I dare hardly stir about now, lest some harm should come to me. I fancy at every turn, what if that chimney fell? what if that horse kicked out? — and, Grace, you, and you only, can cure me of my new cowardice. I said in that prison, and all the way home — if I can but find her! — let me but see her — ask her — let her teach me; and I shall be sure! Let her teach me, and I shall be brave again! Teach me, Grace! and forgive me!”

Grace was looking at him with her great soft eyes opening slowly, like a startled hind’s, as if the wonder and delight were too great to be taken in at once. The last words unlocked her lips.

“Forgive you? What! Do you forgive me?”

“You? It is I am the brute; ever to have suspected you. My conscience told me all along I was a brute! And you — have you not proved it to me in this last minute, Grace? — proved to me that I am not worthy to kiss the dust from off your feet?”

Grace lay silent in his arms: but her eyes were fixed upon him; her hands were folded on her bosom; her lips moved as if in prayer.

He put back her long tresses tenderly, and looked into her deep glorious eyes.

“There! I have told you all. Will you forgive my baseness; and take me, and teach me, about this Father in heaven, through poverty and wealth, for better, for worse, as my wife — my wife?”

She leapt up at him suddenly, as if waking from a dream, and wreathed her arms about his neck.

“Oh, Mr. Thurnall! my dear, brave, wise, wonderful Mr. Thurnall! come home again! — home to God! — and home to me! I am not worthy! Too much happiness, too much, too much:— but you will forgive, will you not — and forget — forget?”

And so the old heart passed away from Thomas Thurnall: and instead of it grew up a heart like his father’s; even the heart of a little child.

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