Two Years Ago, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter vi.

An Old Foe with a New Face.

“This child’s head is dreadfully hot; and how yellow he does look!” says Mrs. Vavasour, fussing about in her little nursery. “Oh, Clara, what shall I do? I really dare not give them any more medicine myself; and that horrid old Doctor Heale is worse than no one.”

“Ah, ma’am,” says Clara, who is privileged to bemoan herself, and to have sad confidences made to her, “if we were but in town now, to see Mr. Chilvers, or any one that could be trusted; but in this dreadful out-of-the-way place —”

“Don’t talk of it, Clara! Oh, what will become of the poor children?” And Mrs. Vavasour sits down and cries, as she does three times at least every week.

“But indeed, ma’am, if you thought you could trust him, there is that new assistant —”

“The man who was saved from the wreck? Why, nobody knows who he is.”

“Oh, but indeed, ma’am, he is a very nice gentleman, I can say that; and so wonderfully clever; and has cured so many people already, they say, and got down a lot of new medicines (for he has great friends among the doctors in town), and such a wonderful magnifying glass, with which he showed me himself, as I dropped into the shop promiscuous, such horrible things, ma’am, in a drop of water, that I haven’t dared hardly to wash my face since.”

“And what good will the magnifying glass do to us?” says the poor little Irish soul, laughing up through its tears. “He won’t want it to see how ill poor Frederick is, I’m sure; but you may send for him, Clara.”

“I’ll go myself, ma’am, and make sure,” says Clara; glad enough of a run, and chance of a chat with the young Doctor.

And in half an hour Mr. Thurnall is announced.

Though Mrs. Vavasour has a flannel apron on (for she will wash the children herself, in spite of Elsley’s grumblings), Tom sees that she is a lady; and puts on, accordingly, his very best manner, which, as his experience has long since taught him, is no manner at all.

He does his work quietly and kindly, and bows himself out.

“You will be sure to send the medicine immediately, Mr. Thurnall.”

“I will bring it myself, madam; and, if you like, administer it. I think the young gentleman has made friends with me sufficiently already.”

Tom keeps his word, and is back, and away again to his shop, in a marvellously short space, having “struck a fresh root,” as he calls it; for —

“What a very well-behaved sensible man that Mr. Thurnall is,” says Lucia to Elsley, an hour after, as she meets him coming in from the garden, where he has been polishing his “Wreck.” “I am sure he understands his business; he was so kind and quiet, and yet so ready, and seemed to know all the child’s symptoms beforehand, in such a strange way. I do hope he’ll stay here. I feel happier about the poor children than I have for a long time.”

“Thurnall?” asks Elsley, who is too absorbed in the “Wreck” to ask after the children; but the name catches his ear.

“Mr. Heale’s new assistant — the man who was wrecked,” answers she, too absorbed, in her turn, in the children to notice her husband’s startled face.

“Thurnall? Which Thurnall?”

“Do you know the name? It’s not a common one,” says she, moving to the door.

“No — not a common one at all! You said the children were not well?”!

“I am glad that you thought of asking after the poor things.”

“Why, really, my dear —” But before he can finish his excuse (probably not worth hearing), she has trotted up-stairs again to the nest, and is as busy as ever. Possibly Clara might do the greater part of what she does, and do it better: but still, are they not her children? Let those who will call a mother’s care mere animal instinct, and liken it to that of the sparrow or the spider: shall we not rather call it a Divine inspiration, and doubt whether the sparrow and the spider must not have souls to be saved, if they, too, show forth that faculty of maternal love which is, of all human feelings, most inexplicable and most self-sacrificing; and therefore, surely, most heavenly? If that does not come down straight from heaven, a “good and perfect gift,” then what is heaven, and what the gifts which it sends down?

But poor Elsley may have had solid reasons for thinking more of the name of Thurnall than of his children’s health: we will hope so for his sake; for, after sundry melodramatic pacings and starts (Elsley was of a melodramatic turn, and fond of a scene, even when he had no spectator, not even a looking-glass;) besides ejaculations of “It cannot be!” “If it were!” “I trust not!” “A fresh ghost to torment me!” “When will come the end of this accursed coil which I have wound round my life?” and so forth, he decided aloud that the suspense was intolerable; and enclosing himself in his poetical cloak and Mazzini wide-awake, strode down to the town, and into the shop. And as he entered it, “his heart sank to his midriff, and his knees below were loosed.” For there, making up pills, in a pair of brown holland sleeves of his own manufacture (for Tom was a good seamster, as all travellers should be), whistled Lilliburlero, as of old, the Tom of other days, which Elsley’s muse would fain have buried in a thousand Lethes.

Elsley came forward to the counter carelessly, nevertheless, after a moment. “What with my beard, and the lapse of time,” thought he, “he cannot know me.” So he spoke —

“I understand you have been visiting my children, sir. I hope you did not find them seriously indisposed?”

“Mr. Vavasour?” says Tom, with a low bow.

“I am Mr. Vavasour!” But Elsley was a bad actor, and hesitated and coloured so much as he spoke, that if Tom had known nothing, he might have guessed something.

“Nothing serious, I assure you, sir: unless you are come to announce any fresh symptom.”

“Oh, no — not at all — that is — I was passing on my way to the quay, and thought it as well to have your own assurance; Mrs. Vavasour is so over-anxious.”

“You seem to partake of her infirmity, sir,” says Tom, with a smile and a bow. “However, it is one which does you both honour.”

An awkward pause.

“I hope I am not taking a liberty, sir; but I think I am bound to —”

“What in heaven is he going to say?” thought Elsley to himself, feeling very much inclined to run away.

“Thank you for all the pleasure and instruction which your writings have given me in lonely hours, and lonely places too. Your first volume of poems has been read by one man, at least, beside wild watchfires in the Rocky Mountains.”

Tom did not say that he pitched the said volume into the river in disgust; and that it was, probably, long since used up as house material by the caddis-baits of those parts — for doubtless there are caddises there as elsewhere.

Poor Elsley rose at the bait, and smiled and bowed in silence.

“I have been so long absent from England, and in utterly wild countries, too, that I need hardly be ashamed to ask if you have written anything since ‘The Soul’s Agonies’? No doubt if you have, I might have found it at Melbourne, on my way home: but my visit there was a very hurried one. However, the loss is mine, and the fault too, as I ought to call it.”

“Pray make no excuses,” says Elsley, delighted. “I have written, of course. Who can help writing, sir, while Nature is so glorious, and man so wretched? One cannot but take refuge from the pettiness of the real in the contemplation of the ideal. Yes, I have written. I will send you my last book down. I don’t know whether you will find me improved.”

“How can I doubt that I shall?”

“Saddened, perhaps; perhaps more severe in my taste; but we will not talk of that. I owe you a debt, sir, for having furnished me with one of the most striking ‘motifs’ I ever had. I mean that miraculous escape of yours. It is seldom enough, in this dull every-day world, one stumbles on such an incident ready made to one’s hands, and needing only to be described as one sees it.”

And the weak, vain man chatted on, and ended by telling Tom all about his poem of “The Wreck,” in a tone which seemed to imply that he had done Tom a serious favour, perhaps raised him to immortality, by putting him in a book.

Tom thanked him gravely for the said honour, bowed him at last out of the shop, and then vaulted back clean over the counter, as soon as Elsley was out of sight, and commenced an Indian war-dance of frantic character, accompanying himself by an extemporary chaunt, with which the name of John Briggs was frequently intermingled; —

“If I don’t know you, Johnny, my boy,

  In spite of all your beard;

Why then I am a slower fellow,

  Than ever has yet appeared,

“Oh if it was but he! what a card for me! What a world it is for poor honest rascals like me to try a fall with! —

“Why didn’t I take bad verse to make,

  And call it poetry;

And so make up to an earl’s daughter,

  Which was of high degree?

“But perhaps I am wrong after all: no — I saw he knew me, the humbug; though he never was a humbug, never rose above the rank of fool. However, I’ll make assurance doubly sure, and then — if it pays me not to tell him I know him, I won’t tell him; and if it pays me to tell him, I will tell him. Just as you choose, my good Mr. Poet.” And Tom returned to his work, singing an extempore parody of “We met, ’twas in a crowd,” ending with —

“And thou art the cause of this anguish, my pill-box,”

in a howl so doleful, that Mrs. Heale marched into the shop, evidently making up her mind for an explosion.

“I am very sorry, sir, to have to speak to you upon such a subject, but I must say, that the profane songs, sir, which our house is not at all accustomed to them; not to mention that at your time of life, and in your position, sir, as my husband’s assistant, though there’s no saying (with a meaning toss of the head) how long it may last,”— and there, her grammar having got into a hopeless knot, she stopped.

Tom looked at her cheerfully and fixedly. “I had been expecting this,” said he to himself. “Better show the old cat at once that I carry claws as well as she.”

“There is saying, madam, humbly begging your pardon, how long my present engagement will last. It will last just as long as I like.”

Mrs. Heale boiled over with rage: but ere the geyser could explode, Tom had continued in that dogged, nasal Yankee twang which he assumed when he was venomous:

“As for the songs, ma’am, there are two ways of making oneself happy in this life; you can judge for yourself which is best. One is to do one’s work like a man, and hum a tune, to keep one’s spirits up; the other is to let the work go to rack and ruin, and keep one’s spirits up, if one is a gentleman, by a little too much brandy; — if one is a lady, by a little too much laudanum.”

“Laudanum, sir?” almost screamed Mrs. Heale, turning pale as death.

“The pint bottle of best laudanum, which I had from town a fortnight ago, ma’am, is now nearly empty, ma’am. I will make affidavit that I have not used a hundred drops, or drunk one. I suppose it was the cat. Cats have queer tastes in the west, I believe. I have heard the cat coming down stairs into the surgery, once or twice after I was in bed; so I set my door ajar a little, and saw her come up again: but whether she had a vial in her paws —”

“Oh, sir!” says Mrs. Heale, bursting into tears. “And after the dreadful toothache which I have had this fortnight, which nothing but a little laudanum would ease it; and at my time of life, to mock a poor elderly lady’s infirmities, which I did not look for this cruelty and outrage!”

“Dry your tears, my dear madam,” says Tom, in his most winning tone. “You will always find me the thorough gentleman, I am sure. If I had not been one, it would have been easy enough for me, with my powerful London connections — though I won’t boast — to set up in opposition to your good husband, instead of saving him labour in his good old age. Only, my dear madam, how shall I get the laudanum-bottle refilled without the doctor’s — you understand?”

The wretched old woman hurried upstairs, and brought him down a half-sovereign out of her private hoard, trembling like an aspen leaf, and departed.

“So — scotched, but not killed. You’ll gossip and lie too. Never trust a laudanum-drinker. You’ll see me, by the eye of imagination, committing all the seven deadly sins; and by the tongue of inspiration go forth and proclaim the same at the town-head. I can’t kill you, and I can’t cure you, so I must endure you. What said old Goethe, in all the German I ever cared to recollect:—

“‘Der Wallfisch hat doch seine Laus;

Muss auch die meine haben.’

“Now, then, for Mrs. Penberthy’s draughts. I wonder how that pretty schoolmistress goes on. If she were but honest, now, and had fifty thousand pounds — why then, she wouldn’t marry me; and so why now, I wouldn’t marry she — as my native Berkshire grammar would render it.”

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