Neither looking to the right nor the left, neither knowing nor caring whither he went, Matthew Grice took the first turning he came to, which led him out of Baregrove Square. It happened to be the street communicating with the long suburban road, at the remote extremity of which Mr. Blyth lived. Mat followed this road mechanically, not casting a glance at the painter’s abode when he passed it, and taking no notice of a cab, with luggage on the roof; which drew up, as he walked by, at the garden gate. If he had only looked round at the vehicle for a moment, he must have seen Valentine sitting inside it, and counting out the money for his fare.
But he still went on — straight on, looking aside at nothing. He fronted the wind and the clearing quarter of the sky as he walked. The shower was now fast subsiding; and the first rays of returning sunlight, as they streamed through mist and cloud, fell tenderly and warmly on his face.
Though he did not show it outwardly, there was strife and trouble within him. The name of Zack was often on his lips, and he varied constantly in his rate of walking; now quickening, now slackening his pace at irregular intervals. It was evening before he turned back towards home — night, before he sat down again in the chair by young Thorpe’s bedside.
“I’m a deal better to-night, Mat,” said Zack, answering his first inquiries. “That good fellow, Blyth, has come back: he’s been sitting here with me a couple of hours or more. Where have you been to all day, you restless old Rough and Tough?” he continued, with something of his natural lighthearted manner returning already. “There’s a letter come for you, by-the-by. The landlady said she would put it on the table in the front room.”
Matthew found and opened the letter, which proved to contain two enclosures. One was addressed to Mr. Blyth; the other had no direction. The handwriting in the letter being strange to him, Mat looked first for the name at the end, and found that it was Thorpe. “Wait a bit,” he said, as Zack spoke again just then, “I want to read my letter. We’ll talk after.”
This is what he read:—
“Some hours have passed since you left my house. I have had time to collect a little strength and composure, and have received such assistance and advice as have enabled me to profit by that time. Now I know that I can write calmly, I send you this letter.
“My object is not to ask how you became possessed of the guilty secret which I had kept from every one — even from my wife — but to offer you such explanation and confession as you have a right to demand from me. I do not cavil about that right — I admit that you possess it, without desiring further proof than your actions, your merciless words, and the Bracelet in your possession, have afforded me.
“It is fit you should first be told that the assumed name by which I was known at Dibbledean, merely originated in a foolish jest — in a wager that certain companions of my own age, who were accustomed to ridicule my fondness for botanical pursuits, and often to follow and disturb me when I went in search of botanical specimens, would not be able to trace and discover me in my country retreat. I went to Dibbledean, because the neighborhood was famous for specimens of rare Ferns, which I desired to possess; and I took my assumed name before I went, to help in keeping me from being traced and disturbed by my companions. My father alone was in the secret, and came to see me once or twice in my retirement. I have no excuse to offer for continuing to preserve my false name, at a time when I was bound to be candid about myself and my station in life. My conduct was as unpardonably criminal in this, as it was in greater things.
“My stay at the cottage I had taken, lasted much longer than my father would have remitted, if I had not deceived him, and if he had not been much harassed at that time by unforeseen difficulties in his business as a foreign merchant. These difficulties arrived at last at a climax, and his health broke down under them. His presence, or the presence of a properly qualified person to represent him, was absolutely required in Germany, where one of his business houses, conducted by an agent, was established. I was his only son; he had taken me as a partner into his London house; and had allowed me, on the plea of delicate health, to absent myself from my duties for months and months together, and to follow my favorite botanical pursuits just as I pleased. When, therefore, he wrote me word that great part of his property, and great part, consequently, of my sisters’ fortunes, depended on my going to Germany (his own health not permitting him to take the journey), I had no choice but to place myself at his disposal immediately.
“I went away, being assured beforehand that my absence would not last more than three or four months at the most.
“While I was abroad, I wrote to your sister constantly. I had treated her dishonorably and wickedly, but no thought of abandoning her had ever entered my heart: my dearest hope, at that time, was the hope of seeing her again. Not one of my letters was answered. I was detained in Germany beyond the time during which I had consented to remain there; and in the excess of my anxiety, I even ventured to write twice to your father. Those letters also remained unanswered. When I at last got back to England, I immediately sent a person on whom I could rely to Dibbledean, to make the inquiries which I dreaded to make myself. My messenger was turned from your doors, with the fearful news of your sister’s flight from home and of her death.
“It was then I first suspected that my letters had been tampered with. It was then, too, when the violence of my grief and despair had a little abated, that the news of your sister’s flight inspired me, for the first time, with a suspicion of the consequence which had followed the commission of my sin. You may think it strange that this suspicion should not have occurred to me before. It would seem so no longer, perhaps, if I detailed to you the peculiar system of home education, by which my father, strictly and conscientiously, endeavored to preserve me — as other young men are not usually preserved — from the moral contaminations of the world. But it would be useless to dwell on this now. No explanations can alter the events of the guilty and miserable past.
“Anxiously — though privately, and in fear and trembling — I caused such inquiries to be made as I hoped might decide the question whether the child existed or not. They were long persevered in, but they were useless — useless, perhaps, as I now think with bitter sorrow, because I trusted them to others, and had not the courage to make them openly myself.
“Two years after that time I married, under circumstances not of an ordinary kind — what circumstances you have no claim to know. That part of my life is my secret and my wife’s, and belongs to us alone.
“I have now dwelt long enough for your information on my own guilty share in the events of the Past. As to the Present and the Future, I have still a word or two left to say.
“You have declared that I shall expiate, by the exposure of my shameful secret before all my friends, the wrong your sister suffered at my hands. My life has been one long expiation for that wrong. My broken health, my altered character, my weary secret sorrows, unpartaken and unconsoled, have punished me for many years past more heavily than you think. Do you desire to see me visited by more poignant sufferings than these? If it be so, you may enjoy the vindictive triumph of having already inflicted them. Your threats will force me, in a few hours, from the friends I have lived with, at the very time when the affection shown to me, and the honor conferred on me by those friends, have made their society most precious to my heart. You force me from this, and from more — for you force me from my home, at the moment when my son has affectionately entreated me to take him back to my fireside.
“These trials, heavy as they are, I am ready to endure, if, by accepting them humbly, I may be deemed to have made some atonement for my sin. But more I have not the fortitude to meet. I cannot face the exposure with which you are resolved to overwhelm me. The anxiety — perhaps, I ought to say, the weakness — of my life, has been to win and keep the respect of others. You are about, by disclosing the crime which dishonored my youth, to deprive me of my good fame. I can let it go without a struggle, as part of the punishment that I have deserved; but I have not the courage to wait and see you take it from me. My own sensations tell me that I have not long to live; my own convictions assure me that I cannot fitly prepare myself for death, until I am far removed from worldly interests and worldly terrors — in a word, from the horror of an exposure, which I have deserved, but which, at the end of my weary life, is more than I can endure. We have seen the last of each other in this world. To-night I shall be beyond the reach of your retaliation; for to-night I shall be journeying to the retreat in which the short remainder of my life will be hidden from you and from all men.
“It now only remains for me to advert to the two enclosures contained in this letter.
“The first is addressed to Mr. Blyth. I leave it to reach his hands through you; because I am ashamed to communicate with him directly, as from myself. If what you said about my child be the truth — and I cannot dispute it — then, in my ignorance of her identity, in my estrangement from the house of her protector since she first entered it, I have unconsciously committed such an offense against Mr. Blyth as no contrition can ever adequately atone for. Now indeed I feel how presumptuously merciless my bitter conviction of the turpitude of my own sin, has made me towards what I deemed like sins in others. Now also I know, that, unless you have spoken falsely, I have been guilty of casting the shame of my own deserted child in the teeth of the very man who had nobly and tenderly given her an asylum in his own home. The unutterable anguish which only the bare suspicion of this has inflicted on me might well have been my death. I marvel even now at my own recovery from it.
“You are free to look at the letter to Mr. Blyth which I now entrust to you. Besides the expression of my shame, my sorrow, and my sincere repentance, it contains some questions, to which Mr. Blyth, in his Christian kindness, will, I doubt not, readily write answers. The questions only refer to the matter of the child’s identity; and the address I have written down at the end, is that of the house of business of my lawyer and agent in London. He will forward the document to me, and will then arrange with Mr. Blyth the manner in which a fit provision from my property may be best secured to his adopted child. He has deserved her love, and to him I gratefully and humbly leave her. For myself, I am not worthy even to look upon her face.
“The second enclosure is meant for my son; and is to be delivered in the event of your having already disclosed to him the secret of his father’s guilt. But, if you have not done this — if any mercy towards me has entered into your heart, and pleads with it for pardon and for silence — then destroy the letter, and tell him that he will find a communication waiting for him at the house of my agent. He wrote to ask my pardon — he has it freely. Freely, in my turn, I hope to have his forgiveness for severities exercised towards him, which were honestly meant to preserve him betimes from ever falling as his father fell, but which I now fear were persevered in too hardly and too long. I have suffered for this error, as for others, heavily — more heavily, when he abandoned his home, than I should ever wish him to know. You said he lived with you and that you were fond of him. Be gentle with him, now that he is ill, for his mother’s sake.
“My hand grows weaker and weaker: I can write no more. Let me close this letter by entreating your pardon. If you ever grant it me, then I also ask your prayers.”
With this the letter ended.
Matthew sat holding it open in his hand for a little while. He looked round once or twice at the enclosed letter from Mr. Thorpe to his son, which lay close by on the table — but did not destroy it; did not so much as touch it even.
Zack spoke to him before long from the inner room.
“I’m sure you must have done reading your letter by this time, Mat. I’ve been thinking, old fellow, of the talk we used to have, about going back to America together, and trying a little buffalo hunting and roaming about in the wilds. If my father takes me into favor again, and can be got to say Yes, I should so like to go with you, Mat. Not for too long, you know, because of my mother, and my friends over here. But a sea voyage, and a little scouring about in what you call the lonesome places, would do me such good! I don’t feel as if I should ever settle properly to anything, till I’ve had my fling. I wonder whether my father would let me go?”
“I know he would, Zack.”
“I’ll tell you how another time. You shall have your run, Zack, — you shall have your heart’s content along with me.” As he said this, he looked again at Mr. Thorpe’s letter to his son, and took it up in his hand this time.
“Oh! how I wish I was strong enough to start! Come in here, Mat, and let’s talk about it.”
“Wait a bit, and I will.” Pronouncing those words, he rose from his chair. “For your sake, Zack,” he said, and dropped the letter into the fire.
“What can you be about all this time?” asked young Thorpe.
“Do you call to mind,” said Mat, going into the bedroom, and sitting down by the lad’s pillow — “Do you call to mind me saying, that I’d be brothers with you, when first us two come together? Well, Zack, I’ve only been trying to be as good as my word.”
“Trying? What do you mean? I don’t understand, old fellow.”
“Never mind: you’ll make it out better some day. Let’s talk about getting aboard ship, and going a buffalo-hunting now.”
They discussed the projected expedition, until Zack grew sleepy. As he fell off into a pleasant doze, Mat went back into the front-room; and, taking from the table Mr. Thorpe’s letter to Mr. Blyth, left Kirk Street immediately for the painter’s house.
It had occurred to Valentine to unlock his bureau twice since his return from the country, but on neither occasion had he found it necessary to open that long narrow drawer at the back, in which he had secreted the Hair Bracelet years ago. He was consequently still totally ignorant that it had been taken away from him, when Matthew Grice entered the painting-room, and quietly put it into his hand.
Consternation and amazement so thoroughly overpowered him, that he suffered his visitor to lock the door against all intruders, and then to lead him peremptorily to a chair, without uttering a single word of inquiry or expostulation. All though the narrative, on which Mat now entered, he sat totally speechless, until Mr. Thorpe’s letter was placed in his hands, and he was informed that Madonna was still to be left entirely under his own care. Then, for the first time, his cheeks showed symptoms of returning to their natural color, and he exclaimed fervently, “Thank God! I shan’t lose her after all! I only wish you had begun by telling me of that, the moment you came into the room!”
Saying this, he began to read Mr. Thorpe’s letter. When he had finished it, and looked up at Mat, the tears were in his eyes.
“I can’t help it,” said the simple-hearted painter. “It would even affect you, Mr. Grice, to be addressed in such terms of humiliation as these. How can he doubt my forgiving him, when he has a right to my everlasting gratitude for not asking me to part with our darling child? They never met — he has never, never, seen her face,” continued Valentine, in lower and fainter tones. “She always wore her veil down, by my wish, when we went out; and our walks were generally into the country, instead of town way. I only once remember seeing him coming towards us; and then I crossed the road with her, knowing we were not on terms. There’s something shocking in father and daughter living so near each other, yet being — if one may say so — so far, so very far apart. It is dreadful to think of that. It is far more dreadful to think of its having been her hand which held up the hair for you to look at, and her little innocent action which led to the discovery of who her father really was!”
“Do you ever mean to let her know as much about it as we do?” asked Matthew.
The look of dismay began to appear again in Valentine’s face. “Have you told Zack, yet?” he inquired, nervously and eagerly.
“No,” said Mat; “and don’t you! When Zack’s on his legs again, he’s going to take a voyage, and get a season’s hunting along with me in the wild country over the water. I’m as fond of the lad as if he was a bit of my own flesh and blood. I cottoned to him when he hit out so hearty for me at the singing-shop — and we’ve been brothers together ever since. You mightn’t think it, to look at me; but I’ve spared Zack’s father for Zack’s sake; and I don’t ask no more reward for it than to take the lad a hunting for a season or two along with me. When he comes back home again, and we say Good-bye, I’ll tell him all what’s happened; but I won’t risk bringing so much as a cross look into his eyes now, by dropping a word to him of what’s passed betwixt his father and me.”
Although this speech excited no little surprise and interest in Valentine’s mind, it did not succeed in suspending the anxieties which had been awakened in him by Matthew’s preceding question, and which he now began to feel the necessity of confiding to Mrs. Blyth — his grand counselor in all difficulties, and unfailing comforter in all troubles.
“Do you mind waiting here,” he said, “while I go upstairs, and break the news to my wife? Without her advice I don’t know what to do about communicating our discovery to the poor dear child. Do you mind waiting?”
No: Matthew would willingly wait. Hearing this, Mr. Blyth left the room directly.
He remained away a long time. When he came back, his face did not seem to have gained in composure during his absence.
“My wife has told me of another discovery,” he said, “which her motherly love for our adopted daughter enabled her to make some time since. I have been sadly surprised and distressed at hearing of it. But I need say no more on the subject to you, than that Mrs. Blyth has at once decided me to confide nothing to Madonna — to Mary, I ought to say — until Zack has got well again and has left England. When I heard just now, from you, of his projected voyage, I must confess I saw many objections to it. They have all been removed by what my wife has told me. I heartily agree with her that the best thing Zack can do is to make the trip he proposes. You are willing to take care of him; and I honestly believe that we may safely trust him with you.”
A serious difficulty being thus disposed of, Valentine found leisure to pay some attention to minor things. Among other questions which he now asked, was one relating to the Hair Bracelet, and to the manner in which Matthew had become possessed of it. He was answered by the frankest confession, a confession which tried even his kindly and forbearing disposition to the utmost, as he listened to it; and which drew from him, when it was ended, some of the strongest terms of reproach that had ever passed his lips.
Mat listened till he had done; then, taking his hat to go, muttered a few words of rough apology, which Valentine’s good-nature induced him to accept, almost as soon as they were spoken. “We must let bygones be bygones,” said the painter. “You have been candid with me, at last, at any-rate; and, in recognition of that candor, I say ‘Good-night, Mr. Grice,’ as a friend of yours still.”
When Mat returned to Kirk Street, the landlady came out of her little parlor to tell him of a visitor who had been to the lodgings in his absence. An elderly lady, looking very pale and ill, had asked to see young Mr. Thorpe, and had prefaced the request by saying that she was his mother. Zack was then asleep, but the lady had been taken up stairs to see him in bed — had stooped over him, and kissed him — and had then gone away again, hastily, and in tears. Matthew’s face grew grave as he listened, but he said nothing when the landlady had done, except a word or two charging her not to mention to Zack what had happened when he woke. It was plain that Mrs. Thorpe had been told her husband’s secret, and that she had lovingly devoted herself to him, as comforter and companion to the last.
When the doctor paid his regular visit to the invalid, the next morning, he was called on immediately for an answer to the important question of when Zack would be fit to travel. After due consideration and careful inspection of the injured side of the patient’s head, he replied that in a month’s time the lad might safely go on board ship; and that the sea-voyage proposed would do more towards restoring him to perfect health and strength, than all the tonic medicines that all the doctors in England could prescribe.
Matthew might have found the month’s inaction to which he was now obliged to submit for Zack’s sake, rather tedious, but for the opportune arrival in Kirk Street of a professional visitor from Dibbledean.
Though his client had ungratefully and entirely forgotten him, Mr. Tatt had not by any means forgotten his client, but had, on the contrary, attended to his interests with unremitting resolution and assiduity. He had discovered that Mat was entitled, under his father’s will, to no less a sum than two thousand pounds, if his identity could be properly established. To effect this result was now, therefore, the grand object of Mr. Tatt’s ambition. He had the prospect, not only of making a little money, but of establishing a reputation in Dibbledean, if he succeeded — and, by dint of perseverance, he ultimately did succeed. He carried Mat about to all sorts of places, insisted on his signing all sorts of papers and making all sorts of declarations, and ended by accumulating such a mass of evidence before the month was out, that Mr. Nawby, as executor to “the late Joshua Grice,” declared himself convinced of the claimant’s identity.
On being informed of this result, Mat ordered the lawyer, after first deducting the amount of his bill from the forthcoming legacy, to draw him out such a legal form as might enable him to settle his property forthwith on another person. When Mr. Tatt asked to be furnished with the name of this person, he was told to write “Martha Peckover.”
“Mary’s child has got you to look after her, and money enough from her father to keep her,” said Mat, as he put the signed instrument into Valentine’s hands. “When Martha Peckover’s old and past her work, she may want a bank-note or two to fall back on. Give her this, when I’m gone — and say she earned it from Mary’s brother, the day she stopped and suckled Mary’s child by the road-side.”
The day of departure drew near. Zack rallied so rapidly, that he was able, a week before it arrived, to go himself and fetch the letter from his father which was waiting for him at the Agent’s office. It assured him, briefly, but very kindly, of the forgiveness which he had written to ask — referred him to the man of business for particulars of the allowance granted to him, while he pursued his studies in the Art, or otherwise occupied himself — urged him always to look on Mr. Blyth as the best friend and counselor that he could ever have — and ended by engaging him to write often about himself and his employments, to his mother; sending his letters to be forwarded through the Agent. When Zack, hearing from this gentleman that his father had left the house in Baregrove Square, desired to know what had occasioned the change of residence, he was only informed that the state of Mr. Thorpe’s health had obliged him to seek perfect retirement and repose: and that there were reasons at present for not mentioning the place of his retreat to any one, which it was not deemed expedient for his son to become acquainted with.
The day of departure arrived.
In the morning, by Valentine’s advice, Zack wrote to his mother; only telling her, in reference to his proposed trip, that he was about to travel to improve and amuse himself, in the company of a friend, of whom Mr. Blyth approved. While he was thus engaged, the painter had a private interview with Matthew Grice, and very earnestly charged him to remember his responsibilities towards his young companion. Mat answered briefly and characteristically: “I told you I was as fond of him as if he was a bit of my own flesh and blood. If you don’t believe I shall take care of him, after that — I can’t say nothing to make you.”
Both the travelers were taken up into Mrs. Blyth’s room to say Farewell. It was a sad parting. Zack’s spirits had not been so good as usual, since the day of his visit to the Agent’s — and the other persons assembled were all more or less affected in an unusual degree by the approaching separation. Madonna had looked ill and anxious — though she would not own to having anything the matter with her — for some days past. But now, when she saw the parting looks exchanged around her, the poor girl’s agitation got beyond her control, and became so painfully evident, that Zack wisely and considerately hurried over the farewell scene. He went out first. Matthew followed him to the landing — then stopped — and suddenly retraced his steps.
He entered the room again, and took his sister’s child by the hand once more; bent over her as she stood pale and in tears before him, and kissed her on the cheek. “Tell her some day that me and her mother was playmates together,” he said to Mrs. Blyth, as he turned away to join Zack on the stairs.
Valentine accompanied them to the ship. When they shook hands together, he said to Matthew; “Zack has engaged to come back in a year’s time. Shall we see you again with him?”
Mat took the painter aside, without directly answering him.
“If ever you go to Bangbury,” he whispered, “look into the churchyard, in the dark corner amongst the trees. There’s a bit of walnut-wood planking put up now at the place where she’s buried; and it would be a comfort to me to know that it was kep’ clean and neat. I should take it kind of you if you’d give it a brush or two with your hand when you’re near it — for I never hope to see the place myself; no more.”
Sadly and thoughtfully, Valentine returned alone to his own house. He went up at once to his wife’s room.
As he opened the door, he started, and stopped on the threshold. Madonna was sitting on the couch by her adopted mother, with her face hidden on Mrs. Blyth’s bosom, and her arms clasped tight round Mrs. Blyth’s neck.
“Have you ventured to tell her all, Lavvie?” he asked.
Mrs. Blyth was not able to speak in answer — she looked at him with tearful eyes, and bowed her head.
Valentine lingered at the door for a moment-then softly closed it, and left them together.
CLOSING CHAPTER. A YEAR AND A HALF AFTERWARDS.
It is sunset after a fine day in August, and Mr. Blyth is enjoying the evening breeze in the invalid room.
Besides the painter and his wife, and Madonna, two visitors are present, who occupy both the spare beds in the house. One is Mrs. Thorpe, the other Mrs. Peckover; and they have been asked to become Valentine’s guests, to assist at the joyful ceremony of welcoming Zack to England on his return from the wilds of America. He has outstayed his year’s leave of absence by nearly six months; and his appearance at Mr. Blyth’s has become an event of daily, or more properly, of hourly expectation.
There is a sad and significant change in Mrs. Thorpe’s dress. She wears the widow’s cap and weeds. It is nearly seven months since her husband died, in the remote Welsh village to which he retired on leaving London. With him, as with many other confirmed invalids, Nature drooped to her final decay gradually and wearily; but his death was painless, and his mental powers remained unimpaired to the end. One of the last names that lingered lovingly on his lips — after he had bade his wife farewell — was the name of his absent son.
Mrs. Thorpe sits close to Mrs. Blyth, and talks to her in low, gentle tones. The kind black eyes of the painter’s wife are brighter than they have been for many a long year past, and the clear tones of her voice — cheerful always — have a joyous sound in them now. Ever since the first days of the Spring season, she has been gaining so greatly in health and strength, that the “favorable turn” has taken place in her malady, which was spoken of as “possible” by the doctors long ago, at the time of her first sufferings. She has several times, for the last fortnight, been moved from her couch for a few hours to a comfortable seat near the window; and if the fine weather still continues, she is to be taken out, in a day or two, for an airing in an invalid chair.
The prospect of this happy event, and the pleasant expectation of Zack’s return, have made Valentine more gaily talkative and more nimbly restless than ever. As he skips discursively about the room at this moment, talking of all sorts of subjects, and managing to mix Art up with every one of them; dressed in the old jaunty frock-coat with the short tails, he looks, if possible, younger, plumper, rosier, and brisker than when he was first introduced to the reader. It is wonderful when people are really youthful at heart, to see how easily the Girdle of Venus fits them, and how long they contrive to keep it on, without ever wearing it out.
Mrs. Peckover, arrived in festively-flaring cap-ribbons, sits close to the window to get all the air she can, and tries to make more of it by fanning herself with the invariable red cotton pocket-handkerchief to which she has been all her life attached. In bodily circumference she has not lost an inch of rotundity; suffers, in consequence, considerably, from the heat; and talks to Mr. Blyth with parenthetical pantings, which reflect little credit on the cooling influence of the breeze, or the ventilating properties of the pocket-handkerchief fan.
Madonna sits opposite to her at the window — as cool and pretty a contrast as can be imagined, in her white muslin dress, and light rose-coloured ribbons. She is looking at Mrs. Peckover, and smiling every now and then at the comically languishing faces made by that excellent woman, to express to “little Mary” the extremity of her sufferings from the heat. The whole length of the window-sill is occupied by an AEolian harp — one of the many presents which Valentine’s portrait painting expeditions have enabled him to offer to his wife. Madonna’s hand is resting lightly on the box of the harp; for by touching it in this way, she becomes sensible to the influence of its louder and higher notes when the rising breeze draws them out. This is the only pleasure she can derive from music; and it is always, during the summer and autumn evenings, one of the amusements that she enjoys in Mrs. Blyth’s room.
Mrs. Thorpe, in the course of her conversation with Mrs. Blyth, has been reminded of a letter to one of her sisters, which she has not yet completed, and goes to her own room to finish it — Valentine running to open the door for her, with the nimblest juvenile gallantry, then returning to the window and addressing Mrs. Peckover.
“Hot as ever, eh? Shall I get you one of Lavvie’s fans?” says Mr. Blyth.
“No, thank’ee, sir; I ain’t quite melted yet,” answers Mrs. Peckover. “But I’ll tell you what I wish you would do for me. I wish you would read me Master Zack’s last letter. You promised, you know, sir.”
“And I would have performed my promise before, Mrs. Peckover, if Mrs. Thorpe had not been in the room. There are passages in the letter, which it might revive very painful remembrances in her to hear. Now she has left us, I have not the least objection to read, if you are ready to listen.”
Saying this, Valentine takes a letter from his pocket. Madonna recognizing it, asks by a sign if she may look over his shoulder and read it for the second time. The request is granted immediately. Mr. Blyth makes her sit on his knee, puts his arm round her waist, and begins to read aloud as follows:
“MY DEAR VALENTINE, — Although I am writing to you to announce my return, I cannot say that I take up my pen in good spirits. It is not so long since I picked up my last letters from England that told me of my father’s death. But besides that, I have had a heavy trial to bear, in hearing the dreadful secret, which you all kept from me when it was discovered; and afterwards in parting from Matthew Grice.
“What I felt when I knew the secret, and heard why Mat and all of you had kept it from me, I may be able to tell you — but I cannot and dare not write about it. You may be interested to hear how my parting with Matthew happened; and I will relate it to you, as well as I can.
“You know, from my other letters, all the glorious hunting and riding we have had, and the thousands of miles of country we have been over, and the wonderful places we have seen. Well, Bahia (the place I now write from) has been the end of our travels. It was here I told Mat of my father’s death; and he directly agreed with me that it was my duty to go home, and comfort my poor dear mother, by the first ship that sailed for England. After we had settled that, he said he had something serious to tell me, and asked me to go with him, northward, half a day’s march along the seacoast; saying we could talk together quietly as we went along. I saw that he had got his rifle over his shoulder, and his baggage at his back; and thought it odd — but he stopped me from asking any questions, by telling me from beginning to end, all that you and he knew about my father, before we left England. I was at first so shocked and amazed by what I heard, and then had so much to say to him about it, that our half day’s march, by the time we had got to the end of it, seemed to me to have hardly lasted as long as an hour.
“He stopped, though, at the place he had fixed on; and held out his hand to me, and said these words: ‘I’ve done my duty by you, Zack, as brother should by brother. The time’s come at last for us two to say Good-bye. You’re going back over the sea to your friends, and I’m going inland by myself on the tramp.’ I had heard him talk of our parting in this way before, but had never thought it would really take place; and I tried hard, as you may imagine, to make him change his mind, and sail for England with me. But it was useless.
“‘No, Zack,’ he said, ‘I doubt if I’m fit for the life you’re going back to lead. I’ve given it a trial, and a hard and bitter one it’s been to me. I began life on the tramp; and on the tramp I shall end it. Good-bye, Zack. I shall think of you, when I light my fire and cook my bit of victuals without you, in the lonesome places to-night.’
“I tried to control myself, Valentine; but my eyes got dim, and I caught fast hold of him by the arm. ‘Mat,’ I said, ‘I can’t part with you in this dreary, hopeless way. Don’t shut the future up from both of us for ever. We have been eighteen months together, let another year and-a-half pass if you like; and then give yourself; and give me, another chance. Say you’ll meet me, when that time is past, in New York; or say at least, you’ll let me hear where you are?’ His face worked and quivered, and he only shook his head. ‘Come, Mat,’ I said, as cheerfully as I could, ‘if I am ready to cross the sea again, for your sake, you can’t refuse to do what I ask you, for mine?’ ‘Will it make the parting easier to you, my lad?’ he asked kindly. ‘Yes, indeed it will,’ I answered. ‘Well, then, Zack,’ he said, ‘you shall have your way. Don’t let’s say no more, now. Come, let’s cut it as short as we can, or we shan’t part as men should. God bless you, lad, and all of them you’re going back to see.’ Those were his last words.
“After he had walked a few yards inland, he turned round and waved his hand — then went on, and never turned again. I sat down on the sand-hillock where we had said Good-bye, and burst out crying. What with the dreadful secret he had been telling me as we came along, and then the parting when I didn’t expect it, all I had of the man about me gave way somehow in a moment. And I sat alone, crying and sobbing on the sand-hillock, with the surf roaring miles out at sea behind me, and the great plain before, with Matthew walking over it alone on his way to the mountains beyond.
“When I had had time to get ashamed of myself for crying, and had got my eyesight clear again, he was already far away from me. I ran to the top of the highest hillock, and watched him over the plain — a desert, without a shrub to break the miles and miles of flat ground spreading away to the mountains. I watched him, as he got smaller and smaller — I watched till he got a mere black speck — till I was doubtful whether I still saw him or not — till I was certain at last, that the great vacancy of the plain had swallowed him up from sight.
“My heart was very heavy, Valentine, as I went back to the town by myself. It is sometimes heavy still; for though I think much of my mother, and of my sister — whom you have been so kind a father to, and whose affection it is such a new happiness to me to have the prospect of soon returning — I think occasionally of dear old Mat, too, and have my melancholy moments when I remember that he and I are not going back together.
“I hope you will think me improved by my long trip — I mean in behavior, as well as health. I have seen much, and learnt much, and thought much — and I hope I have really profited and altered for the better during my absence. It is such a pleasure to think I am really going home — ”
Here Mr. Blyth stops abruptly and closes the letter, for Mrs. Thorpe re-enters the room. “The rest is only about when he expects to be back,” whispers Valentine to Mrs. Peckover. “By my calculations,” he continues, raising his voice and turning towards Mrs. Thorpe; “by my calculations (which, not having a mathematical head, I don’t boast of, mind, as being infallibly correct), Zack is likely, I should say, to be here in about — ”
“Hush! hush! hush!” cries Mrs. Peckover, jumping up with incredible agility at the window, and clapping her hands in a violent state of excitement. “Don’t talk about when he will be here — here he is! He’s come in a cab — he’s got out into the garden — he sees me. Welcome back, Master Zack, welcome back! Hooray! hooray!” Here Mrs. Peckover forgets her company-manners, and waves the red cotton handkerchief out of the window in an irrepressible burst of triumph.
Zack’s hearty laugh is heard outside — then his quick step on the stairs — then the door opens, and he comes in with his beaming sunburnt face healthier and heartier than ever. His first embrace is for his mother, his second for Madonna; and, after he has greeted every one else cordially, he goes back to those two, and Mr. Blyth is glad to see that he sits down between them and takes their hands gently and affectionately in his.
Matthew Grice is in all their memories, when the first greetings are over. Valentine and Madonna look at each other — and the girl’s fingers sign hesitatingly the letters of Matthew’s name.
“She is thinking of the comrade you have lost,” says the painter, addressing himself, a little sadly, to Zack.
“The only living soul that’s kin to her now by her mother’s side,” adds Mrs. Peckover. “It’s like her pretty ways to be thinking of him kindly, for her mother’s sake.”
“Are you really determined, Zack, to take that second voyage?” asks Valentine. “Are you determined to go back to America, on the one faint chance of seeing Mat once more?”
“If I am a living man, eighteen months hence,” Zack answers resolutely, “nothing shall prevent my taking the voyage. Matthew Grice loved me like a brother. And, like a brother, I will yet bring him back — if he lives to keep his promise and meet me, when the time comes.”
The time came; and on either side, the two comrades of former days — in years so far apart, in sympathies so close together — lived to look each other in the face again. The solitude which had once hardened Matthew Grice, had wrought on him, in his riper age, to better and higher ends. In all his later roamings, the tie which had bound him to those sacred human interests in which we live and move and have our being — the tie which he himself believed that he had broken — held fast to him still. His grim, scarred face softened, his heavy hand trembled in the friendly grasp that held it, as Zack pleaded with him once more; and, this time, pleaded not in vain.
“I’ve never been my own man again” said Mat, “since you and me wished each other good-bye on the sandhills. The lonesome places have got strange to me — and my rifle’s heavier in hand than ever I knew it before. There’s some part of myself that seems left behind like, between Mary’s grave and Mary’s child. Must I cross the seas again to find it? Give us hold of your hand, Zack — and take the leavings of me back, along with you.”
So the noble nature of the man unconsciously asserted itself in his simple words. So the two returned to the old land together. The first kiss with which his dead sister’s child welcomed him back, cooled the Tramp’s Fever for ever; and the Man of many Wanderings rested at last among the friends who loved him, to wander no more.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52