Two Years Ago, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter iv.

Flotsom, Jetsom, and Lagend.

About nine o’clock the next morning, Gentleman Jan strolled into Dr. Heale’s surgery, pipe in mouth, with an attendant satellite; for every lion, poor as well as rich — in country as in town, must needs have his jackal.

Heale’s surgery — or, in plain English, shop — was a doleful hole enough; in such dirt and confusion as might be expected from a drunken occupant, with a practice which was only not decaying because there was no rival in the field. But monopoly made the old man, as it makes most men, all the more lazy and careless; and there was not a drug on his shelves which could be warranted to work the effect set forth in that sanguine and too trustful book, the Pharmacopoeia, which, like Mr. Pecksniff’s England, expects every man to do his duty, and is, accordingly (as the Lancet and Dr. Letheby know too well), grievously disappointed.

In this kennel of evil savours, Heale was slowly trying to poke things into something like order; and dragging out a few old drugs with a shaky hand, to see if any one would buy them, in a vague expectation that something must needs have happened to somebody the night before, which would require somewhat of his art.

And he was not disappointed. Gentleman Jan, without taking his pipe out of his mouth, dropped his huge elbows on the counter, and his black-fringed chin on his fists; took a look round the shop, as if to find something which would suit him; and then —

“I say, Doctor, gi’s some tackleum.”

“Some diachylum plaster, Mr. Beer?” says Heale, meekly. “What for, then?”

“To tackle my shins. I barked ’em cruel against King Arthur’s nose last night. Hard in the bone he is; — wish I was as hard.”

“How much diachylum will you want, then, Mr. Beer?”

“Well, I don’t know. Let’s see!” and Jan pulls up his blue trousers, and pulls down his grey rig and furrows, and considers his broad and shaggy shins.

“Matter of four pennies broad: two to each leg;” and then replaces his elbows, and smokes on.

“I say, Doctor, that ’ere curate come out well last night. I shall go to church next Sunday.”

“What,” asks the satellite, “after you upset he that fashion yesterday?”

“I don’t care what you thinks;” says Jan, who, of course, bullies his jackal, like most lions: “but I goes to church. He’s a good ’un, say I — little and good, like a Welshman’s cow; and clapped me on the back when we’d got the man and the maid safe, and says — ‘Well done our side, old fellow!’ and stands something hot all round, what’s more, in at the Mariner’s Rest. — I say, Doctor, where’s he as we hauled ashore? I’ll go up and see ’un.”

“Not now, then, Mr. Beer; not now, then. He’s sleeping, indeed he is, like any child.”

“So much the better. We wain’t be bothered with his hollering. But go up I will. Do ye let me now; I’ll be as still as a maid.”

And Jan kicked off his shoes, and marched on tip-toe through the shop, while Dr. Heale, moaning professional ejaculations, showed him the way.

The shipwrecked man was sleeping sweetly; and little was to be seen of his face, so covered was it with dark tangled curls and thick beard.

“Ah! a ‘Stralian digger, by the beard of him, and his red jersey,” whispered Jan, as he bent tenderly over the poor fellow, and put his head on one side to listen to his breathing. “Beautiful he sleeps, to be sure!” said Jan: “and a tidy-looking chap, too. ’Tis a pity to wake ’un, poor wratch; and he, perhaps, with a sweetheart aboard, and drownded; or else all his kit lost. — Let ’un sleep so long as he can: he’ll find all out soon enough, God help him!”

And big Jan stole down the stairs gently and reverently, like a true sailor; and took his diachylum, and went off to plaster his shins.

About ten minutes afterwards, Heale was made aware that his guest was awake, “by sundry grunts and ejaculations, which ended in a series of long and doleful whistles, and then broke out into a song. So he went up, and found the stranger sitting upright in bed, combing his curls with his fingers, and chaunting unto himself a cheerful ditty.

“Good morning, Doctor,” quoth he, as his host entered. “Very kind of you, this. Hope I haven’t turned a better man than myself out of his bed.”

“Delighted to see you so well. Very near drowned, though. We were pumping at your lungs for a full half hour.”

“Ah? nothing, though, for an experienced professional man like you!”

“Hum! speaks well for your discrimination,” says Heale, flattered. “Very well-spoken young person, though his beard is a bit wild. — How did you know, then, that I was a doctor?”

“By the reverend looks of you, sir. Besides, I smelt the rhubarb and senna all the way up-stairs, and knew that I’d fallen among professional brethren; —

“‘Oh, then this valiant mariner,

  Which sailed across the sea,

He came home to his own sweetheart,

  With his heart so full of glee;

With his heart so full of glee, sir,

  And his pockets full of gold,

And his bag of drugget, with many a nugget,

  As heavy as he could hold.’

“Don’t you wish yours was, Doctor?”

“Eh, eh, eh,” sniggered Heale.

“Mine was last night. Now, Doctor, let’s have a glass of brandy-and-water, hot with, and an hour’s more sleep; and then kick me out, and into the workhouse. Was anybody else saved from the wreck last night?”

“Nobody, sir,” said Heale; and said “sir,” because, in spite of the stranger’s rough looks, his accent — or rather, his no-accent — showed him that he had fallen in with a very different, and probably a very superior stamp of man to himself; in the light of which conviction (and being withal a good-natured old soul), he went down and mixed him a stiff glass of brandy-and water, answering his wife’s remonstrances by —

“The party up-stairs is a bit of a frantic party, certainly; but he is certainly a very superior party, and has the true gentleman about him, any one can see. Besides, he’s shipwrecked, as you and I may be any day; and what’s like brandy-and-water?”

“I should like to know when I’m like to be shipwrecked, or you either;” says Mrs. Heale, in a tone slightly savouring of indignation and contempt. “You think of nothing but brandy-and-water.” But she let the doctor take the glass upstairs, nevertheless.

A few minutes afterwards, Frank came in, and inquired for the shipwrecked man.

“Well enough in body, sir; and rather requires your skill than mine,” said the old time-server. “Won’t you walk up?”

So up Frank was shown.

The stranger was sitting up in bed. “Capital, your brandy is, Doctor — Ah, sir,” seeing Frank, “it is very kind of you, I am sure, to call on me! I presume you are the clergyman?”

But before Frank could answer, Heale had broken forth into loud praises of him, setting forth how the stranger owed his life entirely to his superhuman strength and courage.

“‘Pon my word, sir,” said the stranger — looking them both over and over, through and through, as if to settle how much of all this he was to believe — “I am deeply indebted to you for your gallantry. I only wish it had been employed on a better subject.”

“My good sir,” said Frank, blushing, “you owe your life not to me. I would have helped if I could; but was not thought worthy by our sons of Anak here. Your actual preserver was a young girl.”

And Frank told him the story.

“Whew! I hope she won’t expect me to marry her as payment. — Handsome?”

“Beautiful,” said Frank.

“Money?”

“The village schoolmistress.”

“Clever?”

“A sort of half-baked body,” said Heale.

“A very puzzling intellect,” said Frank

“Ah — well — that’s a fair excuse for declining the honour. I can’t be expected to marry a frantic party, as you called me down stairs just now, Doctor.”

“I, sir?”

“Yes, I heard; no offence, though, my good sir — but I’ve the ears of a fox. I hope really, though, that she is none the worse for her heroic flights.”

“How is she this morning, Mr. Heale?”

“Well — poor thing, a little light-headed last night: but kindly when I went in last.”

“Whew! I hope she has not fallen in love with me. She may fancy me her property — a private waif and stray. Better send for the Coast-guard officer, and let him claim me as belonging to the Admiralty, as flotsom, jetsom, and lagend; for I was all three last night.”

“You were, indeed, sir,” said Frank, who began to be a little tired of this levity; “and very thankful to Heaven you ought to be.”

Frank spake this in a somewhat professional tone of voice; at which the stranger arched his eyebrows, screwed his lips up, and laid his ears back, like a horse when he meditates a kick,

“You must be better acquainted with my affairs than I am, my dear sir, if you are able to state that fact. — Doctor! I hear a patient coming into the surgery.”

“Extraordinary power of hearing, to be sure,” said Heale, toddling down stairs, while the stranger went on, looking Frank full in the face.

“Now that old fogy’s gone down stairs, my dear sir, let us come to an understanding at the beginning of our acquaintance. Of course, you’re bound by your cloth to say that sort of thing to me, just as I am bound by it not to swear in your company: but you’ll allow me to remark, that it would be rather trying even to your faith, if you were to be thrown ashore with nothing in the world but an old jersey and a bag of tobacco, two hundred miles short of the port where you hoped to land with fifteen hundred well-earned pounds in your pocket.”

“My dear sir,” said Frank, after a pause, “whatsoever comes from our Father’s hand must be meant in love. ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.’”

A quaint wince passed over the stranger’s face.

“Father, sir? That fifteen hundred pounds was going to my father’s hand, from whosesoever hand it came, or the loss of it. And now what is to become of the poor old man, that hussy Dame Fortune only knows — if she knows her own mind an hour together, which I very much doubt. I worked early and late for that money, sir; up to my knees in mud and water. Let it be enough for your lofty demands on poor humanity, that I take my loss like a man, with a whistle and a laugh, instead of howling and cursing over it like a baboon. Let’s talk of something else; and lend me five pounds, and a suit of clothes. I shan’t run away with them, for as I’ve been thrown ashore here, here I shall stay.”

Frank almost laughed at the free and easy request, though he felt at once pained by the man’s irreligion, and abashed by his Stoicism; — would he have behaved even as well in such a case?

“I have not five pounds in the world.”

“Good! we shall understand each other better.”

“But the suit of clothes you shall have at once.”

“Good again! Let it be your oldest; for I must do a little rock-scrambling here, for purposes of my own.”

So off went Frank to fetch the clothes, puzzling over his new parishioner. The man was not altogether well bred, either in voice or manner; but there was an ease, a confidence, a sense of power, which made Frank feel that he had fallen in with a very strong nature; and one which had seen many men, and many lands, and profited by what it had seen.

When he returned, he found the stranger busy at his ablutions, and gradually appearing as a somewhat dapper, handsome fellow, with a bright grey eye, a short nose, a firm, small mouth, a broad and upright forehead, across the left side of which ran a fearful scar.

“That’s a shrewd mark,” said he, as he caught Frank’s eye fixed on it, while he sat coolly arranging himself on the bedside. “I got it in fair fight, though, by a Crow’s tomahawk in the Rocky Mountains. And here’s another token (lifting up his black curls), which a Greek robber gave me in the Morea. I’ve another under my head, for which I have to thank a Tartar, and one or two more little remembrances of flood and field up and down me. Perhaps they may explain to you why I take life and death so coolly. I’ve looked too often at the little razor-bridge which parts them, to care much for either. Now, don’t let me trouble you any longer. You have your flock to see to, I don’t doubt. You’ll find me at church on Sunday. I always do at Rome as Rome does.”

“Then you will stay away,” said Frank, with a sad smile.

“Ah? No. Church is respectable and aristocratic; and there one don’t get sent to a place unmentionable, ten times an hour, by some inspired tinker. Beside, country people like the Doctor to go to church with their betters; and the very fellows who go to the Methodist meeting themselves would think it infra dig. in me to walk in there. Now, good-bye — though I haven’t introduced myself — not knowing the name of my kind preserver.”

“My name is Frank Headley, Curate of the Parish,” said Frank, smiling: though he saw the man was rattling on for the purpose of preventing his talking on serious matters.

“And mine is Tom Thurnall, F.R.C.S., Licentiate of the Universities of Paris, Glasgow, and whilome surgeon of the good clipper Hesperus, which you saw wrecked last night. So, farewell!”

“Come over with me, and have some breakfast.”

“No, thanks; you’ll be busy. I’ll screw some out of old bottles here.”

“And now,” said Tom Thurnall to himself, as Frank left the room, “to begin life again with an old penknife and a pound of honeydew. I wonder which of them got my girdle. I’ll stick here till I find out that one thing, and stop the notes by to-day’s post if I can but recollect them all; — if I could but stop the nugget, too!”

So saying, he walked down into the surgery, and looked round. Everything was in confusion. Cobwebs were over the bottles, and armies of mites played at bo-peep behind them. He tried a few drawers, and found that they stuck fast; and when he at last opened one, its contents were two old dried-up horse-balls, and a dirty tobacco-pipe. He took down a jar marked Epsom salts, and found it full of Welsh snuff; the next, which was labelled cinnamon, contained blue vitriol. The spatula and pill-roller were crusted with deposits of every hue. The pill-box drawer had not a dozen whole boxes in it; and the counter was a quarter of an inch deep in deposit of every vegetable and mineral matter, including ends of string, tobacco ashes, and broken glass.

Tom took up a dirty duster, and set to work coolly to clear up, whistling away so merrily that he brought in Heale.

“I’m doing a little in the way of business, you see.”

“Then you really are a professional practitioner, sir, as Mr. Headley informs me: though, of course, I don’t doubt the fact?” said Heale, summoning up all the little courage he had, to ask the question with.

“F.R.C.S. London, Paris, and Glasgow. Easy enough to write and ascertain the fact. Have been medical officer to a poor-law union, and to a Brazilian man-of-war. Have seen three choleras, two army fevers, and yellow-jack without end. Have doctored gunshot wounds in the two Texan wars, in one Paris revolution, and in the Schleswig–Holstein row; beside accident practice in every country from California to China, and round the world and back again. There’s a fine nest of Mr. Weekes’s friend (if not creation), Acarus Horridus,” and Tom went on dusting and arranging.

Heale had been fairly taken aback by the imposing list of acquirements, and looked at his guest awhile with considerable awe: suddenly a suspicion flashed across him, which caused him (not unseen by Tom) a start and a look of self-congratulatory wisdom. He next darted out of the shop, and returned as rapidly, rather redder about the eyes, and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“But, sir, though, though”— began he —“but, of course you will allow me, being a stranger — and as a man of business — all I have to say is, if — that is to say —”

“You want to know why, if I’ve had all these good businesses, why I haven’t kept them?”

“Ex — actly,” stammered Heale much relieved.

“A very sensible and business-like question: but you needn’t have been so delicate about asking it as to want a screw before beginning.”

“Ah, you’re a wag, sir,” keckled the old man,

“I’ll tell you frankly; I have an old father, sir — a gentleman, and a scholar, and a man of science; once in as good a country practice as man could have, till, God help him, he went blind, sir — and I had to keep him, and have still. I went over the world to make my fortune and never made it; and sent him home what I did make, and little enough too. At last, in my despair, I went to the diggings, and had a pretty haul — I needn’t say how much. That matters little now; for I suppose it’s at the bottom of the sea. There’s my story, sir, and a poor one enough it is — for the dear old man, at least.” And Tom’s voice trembled so as he told it, that old Heale believed every word, and, what is more, being — like most hard drinkers — not “unused to the melting mood,” wiped his eyes fervently, and went off for another drop of comfort; while Tom dusted and arranged on, till the shop began to look quite smart and business-like.

“Now, sir!”— when the old man came back —“business is business, and beggars must not be choosers. I don’t want to meddle with your practice; I know the rules of the profession: but if you’ll let me sit here and mix your medicines for you, you’ll have the more time to visit your patients, that’s clear,”— and, perhaps (thought he), to drink your brandy-and-water — “and when any of them are poisoned by me, it will be time to kick me out. All I ask is, bed and board. Don’t be frightened for your spirit-bottle, I can drink water; I’ve done it many a time, for a week together, in the prairies, and been thankful for a half-pint in the day.”

“But, sir, your dignity as a —”

“Fiddlesticks for dignity; I must live, sir. Only lend me a couple of sheets of paper and two queen’s heads, that I may tell my friends my whereabouts — and go and talk it over with Mrs. Heale. We must never act without consulting the ladies.”

That day Tom sent off the following epistle:—

To CHARLES SHUTER, Esq., M.D, St. Mumpsimus’s Hospital, London.

“DEAR CHARLEY—

“‘I do adjure thee, by old pleasant days,

    Quartier Latin, and neatly-shod grisettes

  By all our wanderings in quaint by-ways,

    By ancient frolics, and by ancient debts,’

“Go to the United Bank of Australia forthwith, and stop the notes whose numbers — all, alas! which I can recollect — are enclosed. Next, lend me five pounds. Next, send me down, as quick as possible, five pounds’ worth of decent drugs, as per list; and — if you can borrow me one — a tolerable microscope, and a few natural history books, to astound the yokels here with: for I was shipwrecked here last night, after all at a dirty little west-country port, and what’s worse, robbed of all I had made at the diggings, and start fair, once more, to run against cruel Dame Fortune, as Colston did against the Indians, without a shirt to my back. Don’t be a hospitable fellow, and ask me to come up and camp with you. Mumpsimus’s and all old faces would be a great temptation: but here I must stick till I hear of my money, and physic the natives for my daily bread.”

To his father he wrote thus, not having the heart to tell the truth:—

To EDWARD THURNALL, Esq., M.D., Whitbury.

“My Dearest Old Father — I hope to see you again in a few weeks, as soon as I have settled a little business here, where I have found a capital opening for a medical man. Meanwhile let Mark or Mary write and tell me how you are — and for sending you every penny I can spare, trust me. I have not had all the luck I expected; but am as hearty as a bull, and as merry as a cricket, and fall on my legs, as of old, like a cat. I long to come to you; but I mustn’t yet. It is near three years since I had a sight of that blessed white head, which is the only thing I care for under the sun, except Mark and little Mary — big Mary I suppose she is now, and engaged to be married to some ‘bloated aristocrat.’ Best remembrances to old Mark Armsworth.

“Your affectionate son,

“T.T.”

“Mr. Heale,” said Tom next, “are we Whigs or Tories here?”

“Why — ahem, sir, my Lord Scoutbush, who owns most hereabouts, and my Lord Minchampstead, who has bought Carcarrow moors above — very old Whig connections, both of them; but Mr. Trebooze, of Trebooze, he, again, thorough-going Tory — very good patient he was once, and may be again — ha! ha! Gay young man, sir — careless of his health; so you see as a medical man, sir —”

“Which is the liberal paper? This one? Very good.” And Tom wrote off to the liberal paper that evening a letter, which bore fruit ere the week’s end, in the shape of five columns, headed thus:—

WRECK OF THE “HESPERUS.”

“The following detailed account of this lamentable catastrophe has been kindly contributed by the graphic pen of the only survivor, Thomas Thurnall, Esquire, F.R.C.S., &c. &c. &c., late surgeon on board the ill-fated vessel.” Which five columns not only put a couple of guineas into Tom’s pocket, but, as he intended they should, brought him before the public as an interesting personage, and served as a very good advertisement to the practice which Tom had already established in fancy.

Tom had not worked long, however, before the Coast-guard Lieutenant bustled in. He had trotted home to shave and get his breakfast, and was trotting back again to the shore.

“Hillo, Heale! can I see the fellow who was saved last night?”

“I am that fellow,” says Tom.

“The dickens you are! you seem to have fallen on your legs quickly enough.”

“It’s a trick I’ve had occasion to learn, sir,” says Tom. “Can I prescribe for you this morning?”

“Medicine?” roars the Lieutenant, laughing. “Catch me at it! No; I want you to come down to the shore, and help to identify goods and things. The wind has chopped up north, and is blowing dead on; and, with this tide, we shall have a good deal on shore. So, if you’re strong enough —”

“I’m always strong enough to do my duty,” said Tom.

“Hum! Very good sentiment, young man. Always strong enough for duty. — Hum! worthy of Nelson; said pretty much the same, didn’t he? something about duty I know it was, and always thought it uncommon fine. — Now, then, what can you tell me about this business?”

It was a sad story; but no sadder than hundreds beside. They had been struck by the gale to the westward two days before, with the wind south; had lost their foretopmast and boltsprit, and become all but unmanageable; had tried during a lull to rig a jury-mast, but were prevented by the gale, which burst on them with fresh fury from the south-west, with very heavy rain and fog; had passed a light in the night, which they took for Scilly, but which must have been the Longships; had still fancied that they were safe, running up Channel with a wide berth, when, about sunset, the gale had chopped again to north-west; — and Tom knew no more. “I was standing on the poop with the captain about ten o’clock. The last words he said to me were — ‘If this lasts, we shall see Brest harbour to-morrow,’ when she struck, and stopped dead. I was chucked clean off the poop, and nearly overboard; but brought up in the mizen rigging. Where the captain went, poor fellow, Heaven alone knows; for I never saw him after. The mainmast went like a carrot. The mizen stood. I ran round to the cabin-doors. There were four men steering; the wheel had broke out of the poor fellows’ hands, and knocked them over — broken their limbs, I believe. I was stooping to pick them up, when a sea came into the waist, and then aft, washing me in through the saloon-doors, among the poor half-dressed women and children. Queer sight, Lieutenant! I’ve seen a good many, but never worse than that. I bolted to my cabin, tied my notes and gold round me, and out again.”

“Didn’t desert the poor things?”

“Couldn’t if I’d tried; they clung to me like a swarm of bees. ‘Gad, sir, that was hard lines! to have all the pretty women one had waltzed with every evening through the Trades, and the little children one had been making playthings for, holding round one’s knees, and screaming to the doctor to save them. And how the —— was I to save them, sir?” cried Tom, with a sudden burst of feeling, which, as in so many Englishmen, exploded in anger to avoid melting in tears.

“Ought to be a law against it, sir,” growled the Lieutenant; “against women-folk and children going to sea. It’s murder and cruelty. I’ve been wrecked, scores of times; but it was with honest men, who could shift for themselves, and if they were drowned, drowned; but didn’t screech and catch hold — I couldn’t stand that! Well?”

“Well, there was a pretty little creature, an officer’s widow, and two children. I caught her under one arm, and one of the children under the other; — said ‘I can’t take you all at once; I’ll come back for the rest, one by one.’— Not that I believed it; but anything to stop the screaming; and I did hope to put some of them out of the reach of the sea, if I could get them forward. I knew the forecastle was dry, for the chief officer was firing there. You heard him?”

“Yes, five or six times; and then he stopped suddenly.”

“He had reason. — We got out. I could see her nose up in the air forty feet above us, covered with fore-cabin passengers. I warped the lady and the children upward — Heaven knows how; for the sea was breaking over us very sharp — till we were at the mainmast stump, and holding on by the wreck of it. I felt the ship stagger as if a whale had struck her, and heard a roar and a swish behind me, and looked back — just in time to see mizen, and poop, and all the poor women and children in it, go bodily, as if they had been shaved off with a knife. I suppose that altered her balance; for before I could turn again she dived forward, and then rolled over upon her beam ends to leeward, and I saw the sea walk in over her from stem to stern like one white wall, and I was washed from my hold, and it was all over.”

“What became of the lady?”

“I saw a white thing flash by to leeward — what’s the use of asking?”

“But the child you held?”

“I didn’t let it go till there was good reason.”

“Eh?”

Tom tapped the points of his fingers smartly against the side of his head, and then went on, in the same cynical drawl, which he had affected throughout —

“I heard that — against a piece of timber as we went overboard And, as a medical man, I considered after that, that I had done my duty. Pretty little boy it was, just six years old: and such a fancy for drawing.”

The Lieutenant was quite puzzled by Tom’s seeming nonchalance.

“What do you mean, sir? Did you leave the child to perish?”

“Confound you, sir! If you will have plain English, here it is. I tell you I heard the child’s skull crack like an egg-shell! There, let’s talk no more about it, or the whole matter. It’s a bad business, and I’m not answerable for it, or you either; so let’s go and do what we are answerable for, and identify —”

“Sir! you will be so good as to recollect,” said the Lieutenant, with ruffled plumes.

“I do; I do! I beg your pardon a thousand times, I’m sure, for being so rude: but you know as well as I, sir, there are a good many things in the world which won’t stand too much thinking over; and last night was one.”

“Very true, very true; but how did you get ashore?”

“I get ashore? Oh, well enough! Why not?”

“‘Gad, sir, you were near enough being drowned at last; only that girl’s pluck saved you.”

“Well; but it did save me: and here I am, as I knew I should be when I first struck out from the ship.”

“Knew! — that is a bold word for mortal man at sea.”

“I suppose it is: but we doctors, you see, get into the way of looking at things as men of science; and the ground of science is experience; and, to judge from experience, it takes more to kill me than I have yet met with. If I had been going to be snuffed out, it would have happened long ago.”

“Hum! It’s well to carry a cheerful heart; but the pitcher goes often to the well, and comes home broken at last.”

“I must be a gutta-percha pitcher, I think, then, or else —

“‘There’s a sweet little cherub who sits up aloft,’ etc.

as Dibdin has it. Now, look at the facts yourself, sir,” continued the stranger, with a recklessness half true, half assumed to escape from the malady of thought. “I don’t want to boast, sir; I only want to show you that I have some practical reason for wearing as my motto —‘Never say die.’ I have had the cholera twice, and yellow-jack beside: five several times I have had bullets through me; I have been bayoneted and left for dead; I have been shipwrecked three times — and once, as now, I was the only man who escaped; I have been fatted by savages for baking and eating, and got away with a couple of friends only a day or two before the feast. One really narrow chance I had, which I never expected to squeeze through: but, on the whole, I have taken full precautions to prevent its recurrence.”

“What was that, then?”

“I have been hanged, sir,” said the doctor quietly.

“Hanged?” cried the Lieutenant, facing round upon his strange companion with a visage which asked plainly enough —“You hanged? I don’t believe you; and if you have been hanged, what have you been doing to get hanged?”

“You need not take care of your pockets, sir — neither robbery nor murder was it which brought me to the gallows; but innocent bug-hunting. The fact is, I was caught by a party of Mexicans, during the last war, straggling after plants and insects, and hanged as a spy. I don’t blame the fellows: I had no business where I was; and they could not conceive that a man would risk his life for a few butterflies.”

“But if you were hanged, sir —”

“Why did I not die? — By my usual luck. The fellows were clumsy, and the noose would not work; so that the Mexican doctor, who meant to dissect me, brought me round again; and being a freemason, as I am, stood by me — got me safe off, and cheated the devil.”

The worthy Lieutenant walked on in silence, stealing furtive glances at Tom, as if he had been a guest from the other world, but not disbelieving his story in the least. He had seen, as most old navy men, so many strange things happen, that he was prepared to give credit to any tale when told, as Tom’s was, with a straightforward and unboastful simplicity.

“There lives the girl who saved you,” said he, as they passed Grace Harvey’s door.

“Ah? I ought to call and pay my respects.”

But Grace was not at home. The wreck had emptied the school; and Grace had gone after her scholars to the beach.

“We couldn’t keep her away, weak as she was,” said a neighbour, “as soon as she heard the poor corpses were coming ashore.”

“Hum?” said Tom. “True woman. Quaint — that appetite for horrors the sweet creatures have. Did you ever see a man hanged, Lieutenant? — No? If you had, you would have seen two women in the crowd to one man. Can you make out the philosophy of that?”

“I suppose they like it, as some people do hot peppers.”

“Or donkeys thistles; — find a little pain pleasant! I had a patient once in France, who read Dumas’ ‘Crimes Célèbres’ all the week, and the ‘Vies des Saints’ on Sundays, and both, as far as I could see, for just the same purpose — to see how miserable people could be, and how much pinching and pulling they could bear.”

So they walked on, along a sheep-path, and over the Spur, and down to the Cove.

It was such a morning as often follows a gale, when the great firmament stares down upon the ruin which it has made, bright and clear, and bold; and seems to say, with shameless smile — “There, I have done it; and am as merry as ever after it all!” Beneath a cloudless sky, the breakers, still grey and foul from the tempest, were tumbling in before a cold northern breeze. Half a mile out at sea, the rough backs of the Chough and Crow loomed black and sulky in the foam. At their feet, the rocks and shingle of the Cove were alive with human beings — groups of women and children clustering round a corpse or a chest; sailors, knee-deep in the surf hauling at floating spars and ropes; oil-skinned coast-guardsmen pacing up and down in charge of goods, while groups of farmers’ men, who had hurried down from the villages inland, lounged about on the top of the cliff, looking sulkily on, hoping for plunder: and yet half afraid to mingle with the sailors below, who looked on them as an inferior race, and refused, in general, to intermarry with them.

The Lieutenant plainly held much the same opinion; for as a party of them tried to descend the narrow path to the beach, he shouted after them to come back.

“Eh! you won’t?” and out rattled from its scabbard the old worthy’s sword. “Come back, I say, you loafing, miching, wrecking crow-keepers; there are no pickings for you here. Brown, send those fellows back with the bayonet. None but blue-jackets allowed on the beach!” And the labourers go up again, grumbling.

“Can’t trust those landsharks. They’ll plunder even the rings off a corpse’s fingers. They think every wreck a godsend. I’ve known them, after they’ve been driven off, roll great stones over the cliff at night on the coast-guard, just out of spite; while these blue-jackets here — I can depend on them. Can you tell me the reason of that, as you seem a bit of a philosopher?”

“It is easy enough; the sailors have a fellow-feeling with sailors, and the landsmen have none. Besides, the sailors are finer fellows, body and soul; and the reason is that they have been brought up to face danger, and the landsmen haven’t.”

“Well,” said the Lieutenant, “unless a man has been taught to look death in the face, he never will grow up, I believe, to be much of a man at all.”

“Danger, my good sir, is a better schoolmaster than all your new model schools, diagrams, and scientific apparatus. It made our forefathers the masters of the sea, though they never heard of popular science; and I dare say couldn’t, one out of ten of them, spell their own names.”

This sentiment elicited from the Lieutenant a grunt of approbation, as Tom intended that it should do; shrewdly arguing that the old martinet was no friend to the modern superstition, that all which is required to cast out the devil is a smattering of the ‘ologies.

“Will the gentleman see the corpses?” asked Brown; “we have fourteen already;"— and he led the way to where, along the shingle at high-water mark, lay a ghastly row, some fearfully bruised and mutilated, cramped together by the death-agony; others with the peaceful smile which showed that they had sunk to sleep in that strange water-death, amid a wilderness of pleasant dreams. Strong men lay there, little children, women, whom the sailors’ wives had covered decently with cloaks and shawls; and at their heads stood Grace Harvey, motionless, with folded hands, gazing into the dead faces with her great solemn eyes. Her mother and Captain Willis stood by, watching her with a sort of superstitions awe. She took no notice either of Thurnall or of the Lieutenant, as the doctor identified the bodies one by one, without a remark which indicated any human emotion.

“A very sensible man, Willis,” said the Lieutenant apart, as Tom knelt awhile to examine the crushed features of a sailor; and then looking up said simply —

“James Macgillivray, second mate. Cause of death, contusions; probably by the fall of the main-mast.”

“A very sensible man, and has seen a deal of life, and kept his eyes open; but a terrible hard-plucked one. Talked like a book to me all the way; but, be hanged if I don’t think he has a thirty-two pound shot under his ribs instead of a heart. — Doctor Thurnall, that is Miss Harvey — the young person who saved your life last night.”

Tom rose, took off his hat (Frank Headley’s), and made her a bow, of which an ambassador need not have been ashamed.

“I am exceedingly shocked that Miss Harvey should have run so much danger for anything so worthless as my life.”

She looked up at him, and answered, not him, but her own thoughts.

“Strange, is it not, that it was a duty to pray for all these poor things last night, and a sin to pray for them this morning?”

“Grace, dear!” interposed her mother, “don’t you hear the gentleman thanking you?”

She started, as one awaking out of a dream, and looked into his face, blushing scarlet.

“Good heavens, what a beautiful creature!” said Tom to himself, as quite a new emotion passed through him. Quite new it was, whatsoever it was; and he was aware of it. He had had his passions, his intrigues, in past years, and prided himself — few men more — on understanding women; but the expression of the face, and the strange words with which she had greeted him, added to the broad fact of her having offered her own life for his, raised in him a feeling of chivalrous awe and admiration, which no other woman had ever called up.

“Madam,” he said again; “I can repay you with nothing but thanks: but, to judge from your conduct last night, you are one of those people who will find reward enough in knowing that you have done a noble and heroic action.”

She looked at him very steadfastly, blushing still. Thurnall, be it understood, was (at least, while his face was in the state in which Heaven intended it to be, half hidden in a silky-brown beard) a very good-looking fellow; and (to use Mark Armsworth’s description) “as hard as a nail; as fresh as a rose; and stood on his legs like a game-cock.” Moreover, as Willis said approvingly, he had spoken to her “as if he was a duke, and she was a duchess.” Besides, by some blessed moral law, the surest way to make oneself love any human being is to go and do him a kindness; and therefore Grace had already a tender interest in Tom, not because he had saved her, but she him. And so it was, that a strange new emotion passed through her heart also, though so little understood by her, that she put it forthwith into words.

“You might repay me,” she said in a sad and tender tone.

“You have only to command me,” said Tom, wincing a little as the words passed his lips.

“Then turn to God, now in the day of His mercies. Unless you have turned to Him already.”

One glance at Tom’s rising eyebrows told her what he thought upon those matters.

She looked at him sadly, lingeringly, as if conscious that she ought not to look too long, and yet unable to withdraw her eyes. —“Ah! and such a precious soul as yours must be; a precious soul — all taken, and you alone left! God must have high things in store for you. He must have a great work for you to do. Else, why are you not as one of these! Oh, think! where would you have been at this moment if God had dealt with you as with them?”

“Where I am now, I suppose,” said Tom quietly.

“Where you are now?”

“Yes: where I ought to be. I am where I ought to be now. I suppose if I had found myself anywhere else this morning, I should have taken it as a sign that I was wanted there, and not here.”

Grace heaved a sigh at words which were certainly startling. The Stoic optimism of the world-hardened doctor was new and frightful to her.

“My good madam,” said he, “the part of Scripture which I appreciate best, just now, is the case of poor Job, where Satan has leave to rob and torment him to the utmost of his wicked will, provided only he does not touch his life, I wish,” he went on, lowering his voice, “to tell you something which I do not wish publicly talked of; but in which you may help me. I had nearly fifteen hundred pounds about me when I came ashore last night, sewed in a belt round my waist. It is gone. That is all.”

Tom looked steadily at her as he spoke. She turned pale, red, pale again, her lips quivered: but she spoke no word.

“She has it, as I live!” thought Tom to himself. “‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’ The canting, little, methodistical humbug! She must have slipped it off my waist as I lay senseless. I suppose she means to keep it in pawn, till I redeem it by marrying her. Well I might take an uglier mate certainly; but when I do enter into the bitter bonds of matrimony, I should like to be sure, beforehand, that my wife was not a thief!”

Why, then, did not Tom, if he were so very sure of Grace’s having the belt, charge her with the theft? because he had found out already how popular she was, and was afraid of merely making himself unpopular; because, too, he took for granted that whosoever had his belt, had hidden it already beyond the reach of a search warrant; and, because, after all, an honourable shame restrained him. It would be a poor return to the woman who had saved his life to charge her with theft the next morning; and more, there was something about that girl’s face which had made him feel that, if he had seen her put the belt into her pocket before his eyes, he could not have found the heart to have sent her to gaol. “No!” thought he; “I’ll get it out of her, or whoever has it, and stay here till I do get it. One place is as good as another to me.”

But what was Grace saying?

She had turned, after two or three minutes’ astonished silence, to her mother and Captain Willis —

“Belt! Mother! Uncle! What is this? The gentleman has lost a belt?”

“Dear me! — a belt! Well, child, that’s not much to grieve over, when the Lord has spared his life and soul from the pit!” said her mother, somewhat testily.

“You don’t understand. A belt, I say, full of money — fifteen hundred pounds; he lost it last night. Uncle! Speak, quick! Did you see a belt?”

Willis shook his head meditatively. “I don’t, and yet I do, and yet I don’t again. My brains were, well-nigh washed out of me, I know. However, sir, I’ll think, and talk it over with you too; for if it be in the village, found it ought to be, and will be, with God’s help.”

“Found?” cried Grace, in so high a key, that Tom entreated her to calm herself, and not make the matter public. —“Found? yes; and shall be found, if there be justice in heaven. Shame that west-country folk should turn robbers and wreckers! Mariners, too, and manners’ wives, who should be praying for those who are wandering far away, each man with his life in his hand! Ah, what a world! When will it end? soon, too soon, when west-country folk rob shipwrecked men! But you will find your belt; yes, sir, you will find it. Wait till you have learnt to do without it. Man does not live by bread alone. Do you think he lives by gold? Only be patient; and when you are worthy of it, you shall find it again, in the Lord’s good time.”

To the doctor this seemed a mere burst of jargon, invented for the purpose of hiding guilt; and his faith in womankind was not heightened when he heard Grace’s mother say, sotto voce to Willis, that —“In wrecks, and fires, and such like, a many people complained of having lost more than ever they had.”

“Oh ho! my old lady, is that the way the fox is gone?” quoth Tom to that trusty counsellor, himself; and began carefully scrutinising Mrs. Harvey’s face. It had been very handsome: it was still very clever: but the eyebrows, crushed together downwards above her nose, and rising high at the outer corners, indicated, as surely as the restless down-dropt eye, a character self-conscious, furtive, capable of great inconsistencies, possibly of great deceits.

“You don’t look me in the face, old lady!” quoth Tom to himself. “Very well! between you two it lies; unless that old gentleman implicates himself also, in his approaching confession.”

He took his part at once. “Well, well, you will oblige me by saying nothing more about it. After all, as this good lady says, the loss of a little money is not worth complaining over, when one has escaped with life. Good morning; and many thanks for all your kindness!”

And Tom made another grand bow, and went off to the Lieutenant.

Grace looked after him awhile, as one stunned; and then turned to her mother.

“Let us go home.”

“Go home? Why there, dear?”

“Let me go home; you need not come. I am sick of this world. Is it not enough to have misery and death (and she pointed to the row of corpses), but we must have sin, too, wherever we turn! Meanness and theft:— and ingratitude too!” she added, in a lower tone.

She went homeward; her mother, in spite of her entreaties, accompanied her; and, for some reason or other, did not lose sight of her all that day, or for several days after.

Meanwhile, Willis had beckoned the Doctor aside. His face was serious and sad, and his lips were trembling.

“This is a very shocking business, sir. Of course, you’ve told the Lieutenant.”

“Not yet, my good sir.”

“But — excuse my boldness; what plainer way of getting it back from the rascal, whoever he is?”

“Wait awhile,” said Tom; “I have my reasons.”

“But, sir — for the honour of the place, the matter should be cleared up; and till the thief’s found, suspicion will lie on a dozen innocent men; myself among the rest, for that matter.”

“You?” said Tom, smiling. “I don’t know who I have the honour to speak to; but you don’t look much like a gentleman who wishes for a trip to Botany Bay.”

The old man chuckled, and then his face dropped again.

“I’m glad you take the thing so like a man, sir; but it is really no laughing matter. It’s a scoundrelly job, only fit for a Maltee off the Nix Mangeery. If it had been a lot of those carter fellows that had carried you up, I could have understood it; wrecking’s born in the bone of them: but for those four sailors that carried you up, ‘gad sir! they’d have been shot sooner. I’ve known ’em from boys!” and the old man spoke quite fiercely, and looked up; his lip trembling, and his eye moist.

“There’s no doubt that you are honest — whoever is not,” thought Tom; so he ventured a further question.

“Then you were by all the while?”

“All the while? Who more? And that’s just what puzzles me.”

“Pray don’t speak loud,” said Tom. “I have my reasons for keeping things quiet.”

“I tell you, sir. I held the maid, and big John Beer (Gentleman Jan they call him) held me; and the maid had both her hands tight in your belt. I saw it as plain as I see you, just before the wave covered us, though little I thought what was in it; and should never have remembered you had a belt at all, if I hadn’t thought over things in the last five minutes.”

“Well, sir, I am lucky in having come straight to the fountain head; and must thank you for telling me so frankly what you know.”

“Tell you, sir? What else should one do but tell you? I only wish I knew more; and more I’ll know, please the Lord. And you’ll excuse an old sailor (though not of your rank, sir) saying that he wonders a little that you don’t take the plain means of knowing more yourself.”

“May I take the liberty of asking your name?” said Tom; who saw by this time that the old man was worthy of his confidence.

“Willis, at your service, sir. Captain they call me, though I’m none. Sailing-master I was, on board of His Majesty’s ship Niobe, 84;” and Willis raised his hat with such an air, that Tom raised his in return.

“Then, Captain Willis, let me have five words with you apart; first thanking you for having helped to save my life.”

“I’m very glad I did, sir; and thanked God for it on my knees this morning: but you’ll excuse me, sir, I was thinking — and no blame to me — more of saving my poor maid’s life than yours, and no offence to you, for I hadn’t the honour of knowing you; but for her, I’d have been drowned a dozen times over.”

“No offence, indeed,” said Tom; and hardly knew what to say next. “May I ask, is she your niece? I heard her call you uncle.”

“Oh, no — no relation; only I look on her as my own, poor thing, having no father; and she always calls me uncle, as most do us old men in the West.”

“Well, then, sir,” said Tom, “you will answer for none of the four sailors having robbed me?”

“I’ve said it, sir.”

“Was any one else close to her when we were brought ashore?”

“No one but I. I brought her round myself.”

“And who took her home?”

“Her mother and I.”

“Very good. And you never saw the belt after she had her hands in it?”

“No; I’m sure not.”

“Was her mother by her when she was lying on the rock?”

“No; came up afterwards, just as I got her on her feet.”

“Humph! What sort of a character is her mother?”

“Oh, a tidy, God-fearing person, enough. One of these Methodist class-leaders, Brianites they call themselves. I don’t hold with them, though I do go to chapel at whiles: but there are good ones among them; and I do believe she’s one, though she’s a little fretful at times. Keeps a little shop that don’t pay over well; and those preachers live on her a good deal, I think. Creeping into widows’ houses, and making long prayers — you know the text.”

“Well, now, Captain Willis, I don’t want to hurt your feelings; but do you not see that one of two things I must believe — either that the belt was torn off my waist, and washed back into the sea, as it may have been after all; or else, that —”

“Do you mean that she took it?” asked Willis, in voice of such indignant astonishment that Tom could only answer by a shrug of the shoulders.

“Who else could have done so, on your own showing?”

“Sir!” said Willis, slowly. “I thought I had to do with a gentleman: but I have my doubts of it now. A poor girl risks her life to drag you out of that sea, which but for her would have hove your body up to lie along with that line there,”— and Willis pointed to the ghastly row —” and your soul gone to give in its last account — You only know what that would have been like — And the first thing you do in payment is to accuse her of robbing you — her, that the very angels in heaven, I believe, are glad to keep company with;” and the old man turned and paced the beach in fierce excitement.

“Captain Willis,” said Tom, “I’ll trouble you to listen patiently and civilly to me a minute.”

Willis stopped, drew himself up, and touched his hat mechanically.

“Just because I am a gentleman, I have not accused her; but held my tongue, and spoken to you in confidence. Now, perhaps, you will understand why I have said nothing to the Lieutenant.”

Willis looked up at him.

“I beg your pardon, sir. I see now, and I’m sorry if I was rude; but it took me aback, and does still. I tell you, sir,” quoth he, warming again, “whatever’s true — that’s false. You’re wrong there, if you never are wrong again; and you’ll say so yourself, before you’ve known her a week. No, sir! If you could make me believe that, I should never believe in goodness again on earth; but hold all men, and women too, and those above, for aught I know, that are greater than men and women, for liars together.”

What was to be answered? Perhaps only what Tom did answer.

“My good sir, I will say no more. I would not have said that much if I had thought I should have pained you so. I suppose that the belt was washed into the sea. Why not?”

“Why not, indeed, sir? That’s a much more Christian-like way of looking at it, than to blacken your own soul before God by suspecting that sweet innocent creature.”

“Be it so, then. Only say nothing about the matter; and beg them to say nothing. If it be jammed among the rocks (as it might be, heavy as it is), talking about it will only set people looking for it; and I suppose there is a man or two, even in Aberalva, who would find fifteen hundred pounds a tempting bait. If, again, some one finds it, and makes away with it, he will only be the more careful to hide it if he knows that I am on the look-out. So just tell Miss Harvey and her mother that I think it must have been lost, and beg them to keep my secret And now shake hands with me.”

“The best plan, I believe, though bad, is the best,” said Willis, holding out his hand; and he walked away sadly. His spirit had been altogether ruffled by the imputation on Grace’s character: and, besides, the chances of Thurnall’s recovering his money seemed to him very small.

In five minutes he returned.

“If you would allow me, sir, there’s a man there of whom I should like to ask one question. He who held me, and, after that, helped to carry you up;” and he pointed to Gentleman Jan, who stood, dripping from the waist downward, over a chest which he had just secured. “Just let us ask him, off-hand like, whether you had a belt on when he carried you up. You may trust him, sir. He’d knock you down as soon as look at you; but tell a lie, never.”

They went to the giant; and, after cordial salutations, Tom propounded his question carelessly, with something like a white lie.

“It’s no great matter; but it was an old friend, you see, with fittings for my knife and pistols, and I should be glad to find it again.”

Jan thrust his red hand through his black curls, and meditated while the water surged round his ankles.

“Never a belt seed I, sir; leastwise while you were in my hands. I had you round the waist all the way up, so no one could have took it off. Why should they? And I undressed you myself; and nothing, save your presence, was there to get off, but jersey and trousers, and a lump of backy against your skin that looked the right sort.”

“Have some, then,” said Tom, pulling out the honey-dew. “As for the belt, I suppose it’s gone to choke the dog-fish.”

And there the matter ended, outwardly at least; but only outwardly. Tom had his own opinion, gathered from Grace’s seemingly guilty face, and to it he held, and called old Willis, in his heart, a simple-minded old dotard, who had been taken in by her hypocrisy.

And Tom accompanied the Lieutenant on his dreary errand that day, and several days after, through depositions before a justice, interviews with Lloyd’s underwriters, and all the sad details which follow a wreck. Ere the week’s end, forty bodies and more had been recovered, and brought up, ten or twelve at a time, to the churchyard, and upon the down, and laid side by side in one long shallow pit, where Frank Headley read over them the blessed words of hope, amid the sobs of women, and the grand silence of stalwart men, who knew not how soon their turn might come; and after each procession came Grace Harvey, with all her little scholars two and two, to listen to the funeral service; and when the last corpse was buried, they planted flowers upon the mound, and went their way again to learn hymns and read their Bible — little ministering angels to whom, as to most sailors’ children, death was too common a sight to have in it aught of hideous or strange.

And this was the end of the good ship Hesperus, and all her gallant crew.

Verily, however important the mere animal lives of men may be, and ought to be, at times, in our eyes, they never have been so, to judge from floods and earthquakes, pestilence and storm, in the eyes of Him who made and loves us all. It is a strange fact, better for us, instead of shutting our eyes to it because it interferes with our modern tenderness of pain, to ask honestly what it means.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kingsley/charles/two_years_ago/chapter4.html

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