Now, to tell my story — if not as it ought to be told, at least as I can tell it — I must go back sixteen years — to the days when Whitbury boasted of forty coaches per diem, instead of one railway — and set forth how, in its southern suburb, there stood two pleasant houses side by side, with their gardens sloping down to the Whit, and parted from each other only by the high brick fruit-wall, through which there used to be a door of communication; for the two occupiers were fast friends. In one of these two houses, sixteen years ago, lived our friend Mark Armsworth, banker, solicitor, land-agent, churchwarden, guardian of the poor, justice of the peace — in a word, viceroy of Whitbury town, and far more potent therein than her gracious majesty Queen Victoria. In the other, lived Edward Thurnall, esquire, doctor of medicine, and consulting physician of all the country round. These two men were as brothers; and had been as brothers for now twenty years, though no two men could be more different, save in the two common virtues which bound them to each other; and that was, that they both were honest and kind-hearted men. What Mark’s character was, and is, I have already shown, and enough of it, I hope, to make my readers like the good old banker: as for Doctor Thurnall, a purer or gentler soul never entered a sick-room, with patient wisdom in his brain, and patient tenderness in his heart. Beloved and trusted by rich and poor, he had made to himself a practice large enough to enable him to settle two sons well in his own profession; the third and youngest was still in Whitbury. He was something of a geologist, too, and a botanist, and an antiquarian; and Mark Armsworth, who knew, and knows still, nothing of science, looked up to the Doctor as an inspired sage, quoted him, defended his opinion, right or wrong, and thrust him forward at public meetings, and in all places and seasons, much to the modest Doctor’s discomfiture.
The good Doctor was sitting in his study on the morning on which my tale begins; having just finished his breakfast, and settled to his microscope in the bay-window opening on the lawn.
A beautiful October morning it was; one of those in which Dame Nature, healthily tired with the revelry of summer, is composing herself, with a quiet satisfied smile, for her winter’s sleep. Sheets of dappled cloud were sliding slowly from the west; long bars of hazy blue hung over the southern chalk downs which gleamed pearly grey beneath the low south-eastern sun. In the vale below, soft white flakes of mist still hung over the water meadows, and barred the dark trunks of the huge elms and poplars, whose fast-yellowing leaves came showering down at the very rustle of the western breeze, spotting the grass below. The river swirled along, glassy no more, but dingy grey with autumn rains and rotten leaves. All beyond the garden told of autumn; bright and peaceful, even in decay: but up the sunny slope of the garden itself, and to the very window sill, summer still lingered. The beds of red verbena and geranium were still brilliant, though choked with fallen leaves of acacia and plane; the canary plant, still untouched by frost, twined its delicate green leaves, and more delicate yellow blossoms, through the crimson lacework of the Virginia-creeper; and the great yellow noisette swung its long canes across the window, filling all the air with fruity fragrance.
And the good Doctor, lifting his eyes from his microscope, looked out upon it all with a quiet satisfaction, and though his lips did not move, his eyes seemed to be thanking God for it all; and thanking Him, too, perhaps, that he was still permitted to gaze upon that fair world outside. For as he gazed, he started, as if with sudden pain, and passed his hand across his eyes, with something like a sigh, and then looked at the microscope no more, but sat, seemingly absorbed in thought, while upon his delicate toil-worn features, and high, bland, unwrinkled forehead, and the few soft grey locks which not time — for he was scarcely fifty-five — but long labour of brain, had spared to him, there lay a hopeful calm, as of a man who had nigh done his work, and felt that he had not altogether done it ill; — an autumnal calm, resigned, yet full of cheerfulness, which harmonised fitly with the quiet beauty of the decaying landscape before him.
“I say, daddy, you must drop that microscope, and put on your shade. You are ruining those dear old eyes of yours again, in spite of what Alexander told you.”
The Doctor took up the green shade which lay beside him, and replaced it with a sigh and a smile.
“I must use the old things now and then, till you can take my place at the microscope, Tom; or till we have, as we ought to have, a first-rate analytical chemist settled in every county-town, and paid, in part at least, out of the county rates.”
The “Tom” who had spoken was one of two youths of eighteen, who stood in opposite corners of the bay-window, gazing out upon the landscape, but evidently with thoughts as different as were their complexions.
Tom was of that bull-terrier type so common in England; sturdy, and yet not coarse; middle-sized, deep-chested, broad-shouldered; with small, well-knit hands and feet, large jaw, bright grey eyes, crisp brown hair, a heavy projecting brow; his face full of shrewdness and good-nature, and of humour withal, which might be at whiles a little saucy and sarcastic, to judge from the glances which he sent forth from the corners of his wicked eyes at his companion on the other side of the window. He was evidently prepared for a day’s shooting, in velveteen jacket and leather gaiters, and stood feeling about in his pockets to see whether he had forgotten any of his tackle, and muttering to himself amid his whistling — “Capital day. How the birds will lie. Where on earth is old Mark? Why must he wait to smoke his cigar after breakfast? Couldn’t he have had it in the trap, the blessed old chimney that he is?”
The other lad was somewhat taller than Tom, awkwardly and plainly dressed, but with a highly-developed Byronic turn-down collar, and long black curling locks. He was certainly handsome, as far as the form of his features and brow; and would have been very handsome, but for the bad complexion which at his age so often accompanies a sedentary life, and a melancholic temper. One glance at his face was sufficient to tell that he was moody, shy, restless, perhaps discontented, perhaps ambitious and vain. He held in his hand a volume of Percy’s Reliques, which he had just taken down from Thurnall’s shelves; yet he was looking not at it, but at the landscape. Nevertheless, as he looked, one might have seen that he was thinking not so much of it as of his own thoughts about it. His eye, which was very large, dark, and beautiful, with heavy lids and long lashes, had that dreamy look so common among men of the poetic temperament; conscious of thought, if not conscious of self; and as his face kindled, and his lips moved more and more earnestly, he began muttering to himself half-aloud, till Tom Thurnall burst into an open laugh.
“There’s Jack at it again! making poetry, I’ll bet my head to a China orange.”
“And why not?” said his father, looking up quietly, but reprovingly, as Jack winced and blushed, and a dark shade of impatience passed across his face.
“Oh! it’s no concern of mine. Let everybody please themselves. The country looks very pretty, no doubt, I can tell that; only my notion is, that a wise man ought to go out and enjoy it — as I am going to do — with a gun on his shoulder, instead of poking at home like a yard-dog, and behowling oneself in po-o-oetry;” and Tom lifted up his voice into a doleful mastiff’s howl.
“Then be as good as your word, Tom, and let every one please themselves,” said the Doctor; but the dark youth broke out in sudden passion.
“Mr. Thomas Thurnall! I will not endure this! Why are you always making me your butt — insulting me, sir, even in your father’s house? You do not understand me; and I do not care to understand you. If my presence is disagreeable to you, I can easily relieve you of it!” and the dark youth turned to go away like Naaman, in a rage.
“Stop, John,” said the Doctor. “I think it would be the more courteous plan for Tom to relieve you of his presence. Go and find Mark, Tom; and please to remember that John Briggs is my guest, and that I will not allow any rudeness to him in my house.”
“I’ll go, daddy, to the world’s end, if you like, provided you won’t ask me to write poetry. But Jack takes offence so soon. Give us your hand, old tinder-box! I meant no harm, and you know it.”
John Briggs took the proffered hand sulkily enough; and Tom went out of the glass door, whistling as merry as a cricket.
“My dear boy,” said the Doctor, when they were alone, “you must try to curb this temper of yours. Don’t be angry with me, but —”
“I should be an ungrateful brute if I was, sir. I can bear anything from you. I ought to, for I owe everything to you; but —”
“But, my dear boy —‘better is he that ruleth his spirit, than he that taketh a city.’”
John Briggs tapped his foot on the ground impatiently. “I cannot help it, sir. It will drive me mad, I think at times — this contrast between what I might be, and what I am, I can bear it no longer — mixing medicines here, when I might be educating myself, distinguishing myself — for I can do it; have you not said as much yourself to me again and again?”
“I have, of course; but —”
“But, sir, only hear me. It is in vain to ask me to command my temper while I stay here. I am not fit for this work; not fit for the dull country. I am not appreciated, not understood; and I shall never be, till I can get to London — till I can find congenial spirits, and take my rightful place in the great parliament of mind. I am Pegasus in harness, here!” cried the vain, discontented youth. “Let me but once get there — amid art, civilisation, intellect, and the company of men like that old Mermaid Club, to hear and to answer —
So nimble, and so full of subtle flame,
As one had put his whole soul in a jest;’—
and then you shall see whether Pegasus has not wings, and can use them too!” And he stopped suddenly, choking with emotion, his nostril and chest dilating, his foot stamping impatiently on the ground.
The Doctor watched him with a sad smile.
“Do you remember the devil’s temptation of our Lord —‘Cast thyself down from hence; for, it is written, He shall give His angels charge over thee?”
“I do; but what has that to do with me?”
“Throw away the safe station in which God has certainly put you, to seek, by some desperate venture, a new, and, as you fancy, a grander one for yourself? Look out of that window, lad; is there not poetry enough, beauty and glory enough, in that sky, those fields — ay, in every fallen leaf — to employ all your powers, considerable as I believe them to be? Why spurn the pure, quiet, country life, in which such men as Wordsworth have been content to live and grow old?”
The boy shook his head like an impatient horse. “Too slow — too slow for me, to wait and wait, as Wordsworth did, through long years of obscurity, misconception, ridicule. No. What I have, I must have at once; and, if it must be, die like Chatterton — if only, like Chatterton, I can have my little day of success, and make the world confess that another priest of the beautiful has arisen among men.”
Now, it can scarcely be denied, that the good Doctor was guilty of a certain amount of weakness in listening patiently to all this rant. Not that the rant was very blamable in a lad of eighteen; for have we not all, while we are going through our course of Shelley, talked very much the same abominable stuff, and thought ourselves the grandest fellows upon earth on account of that very length of ear which was patent to all the world save our precious selves; blinded by our self-conceit, and wondering in wrath why everybody was laughing at us? But the truth is, the Doctor was easy and indulgent to a fault, and dreaded nothing so much, save telling a lie, as hurting people’s feelings; besides, as the acknowledged wise man of Whitbury, he was a little proud of playing the Maecenas; and he had, and not unjustly, a high, opinion of John Briggs’s powers. So he had lent him books, corrected his taste in many matters, and, by dint of petting and humouring, had kept the wayward youth half-a-dozen times from running away from his father, who was an apothecary in the town, and from the general practitioner, Mr. Bolus, under whom John Briggs fulfilled the office of co-assistant with Tom Thurnall. Plenty of trouble had both the lads given the Doctor in the last five years, but of very different kinds, Tom, though he was in everlasting hot water, as the most incorrigible scapegrace for ten miles round, contrived to confine his naughtiness strictly to play-hours, while he learnt everything which was to be learnt with marvellous quickness, and so utterly fulfilled the ideal of a bottle-boy (for of him, too, as of all things, I presume, an ideal exists eternally in the supra-sensual Platonic universe), that Bolus told his father — “In hours, sir, he takes care of my business as well as I could myself; but out of hours, sir, I believe he is possessed by seven devils.”
John Briggs, on the other hand, sinned in the very opposite direction. Too proud to learn his business, and too proud also to play the scapegrace as Tom did, he neglected alike work and amusement, for lazy mooning over books, and the dreams which books called up. He made perpetual mistakes in the shop; and then considered himself insulted by an “inferior spirit,” if poor Bolus called him to account for it. Indeed, had it not been for many applications of that “precious oil of unity,” with which the good Doctor daily anointed the creaking wheels of Whitbury society, John Briggs and his master would have long ago “broken out of gear,” and parted company in mutual wrath and fury. And now, indeed, the critical moment seemed come at last; for the lad began afresh to declare his deliberate intention of going to London to seek his fortune, in spite of parents and all the world.
“To live on here, and never to rise, perhaps, above the post of correspondent to a country newspaper! — To publish a volume of poems by subscription and have to go round, hat in hand, begging five shillings’ worth of patronage from every stupid country squire — intolerable! I must go! Shakespeare was never Shakespeare till he fled from miserable Stratford, to become at once the friend of Sidney and Southampton.”
“But John Briggs will be John Briggs still, if he went to the moon,” shouted Tom Thurnall, who had just come up to the window. “I advise you to change that name of yours, Jack, to Sidney, or Percy, or Walker if you like; anything but the illustrious surname of Briggs the poisoner!”
“What do you mean, sir!” thundered John, while the Doctor himself jumped up; for Tom was red with rage.
“What is this, Tom!”
“What’s that?” screamed Tom, bursting, in spite of his passion into roars of laughter. “What’s that?”— and he held out a phial “Smell it! taste it! Oh, if I had but a gallon of it to pour down your throat! That’s what you brought Mark Armsworth last night, instead of his cough mixture, while your brains were wool-gathering after poetry!”
“What is it?” gasped John Briggs.
“Miss Twiddle’s black dose; — strong enough to rive the gizard out of an old cock!”
“It is!” roared Mark Armsworth from behind as he rushed in, in shooting-jacket and gaiters, his red face redder with fury, his red whiskers standing on end with wrath like a tiger’s, his left hand upon his hapless hypogastric region, his right brandishing an empty glass, which smelt strongly of brandy and water. “It is! And you’ve given me the cholera, and spoilt my day’s shooting; and if I don’t serve you out for it there’s no law in England!”
“And spoilt my day’s shooting, too; the last I shall get before I’m off to Paris! To have a day in Lord Minchampstead’s preserves, and to be baulked of it in this way!”
John Briggs stood as one astonied.
“If I don’t serve you out for this!” shouted Mark.
“If I don’t serve you out for it! You shall never hear the last of it!” shouted Tom. “I’ll take to writing, after all I’ll put it in the papers. I’ll make the name of Briggs the poisoner an abomination in the land.”
John Briggs turned and fled.
“Well!” said Mark, “I must spend my morning at home, I suppose. So I shall just sit and chat with you, Doctor.”
“And I shall go and play with Molly,” said Tom, and walked off to Armsworth’s garden.
“I don’t care for myself so much,” said Mark; “but I’m sorry the boy’s lost his last day’s shooting.”
“Oh, you will be well enough by noon, and can go then; and as for the boy, it is just as well for him not to grow too fond of sports in which he can never indulge.”
“Never indulge? Why not? He vows he’ll go to the Rocky Mountains, and shoot a grizzly bear; and he’ll do it.”
“He has a great deal to do before that, poor fellow; and a great deal to learn.”
“And he’ll learn it. You’re always down-hearted about the boy, Doctor.”
“I can’t help feeling the parting with him: and for Paris, too:— such a seat of temptation. But it is his own choice; and, after all, he must see temptation, wherever he goes.”
“Bless the man! if a boy means to go to the bad, he’ll go just as easily in Whitbury as in Paris. Give the lad his head, and never fear; he’ll fall on his legs like a cat, I’ll warrant him, whatever happens. He’s as steady as old Time, I tell you; there’s a grey head on green shoulders there.”
“Steady?” said the Doctor, with a smile and a shrug.
“Steady, I tell you at heart; as prudent as you or I; and never lost you a farthing, that you know. Hang good boys! give me one who knows how to be naughty in the right place; I wouldn’t give sixpence for a good boy; I never was one myself, and have no faith in them. Give me the lad who has more steam up than he knows what to do with, and must needs blow off a little in larks. When once he settles down on the rail, it’ll send him along as steady as a luggage train. Did you never hear a locomotive puffing and roaring before it gets under way? well, that’s what your boy is doing. Look at him now, with my poor little Molly.”
Tom was cantering about the garden with a little weakly child of eight in his arms. The little thing was looking up in his face with delight, screaming at his jokes.
“You are right, Mark: the boy’s heart cannot be in the wrong place while he is so fond of little children.”
“Poor Molly! How she’ll miss him! Do you think she’ll ever walk, Doctor?”
“I do indeed.”
“Hum! ah! well! if she grows up, Doctor, and don’t go to join her poor dear mother up there, I don’t know that I’d wish her a better husband than your boy.”
“It would be a poor enough match for her.”
“Tut! she’ll have the money, and he the brains. Mark my words, Doctor, that boy’ll be a credit to you; he’ll make a noise in the world, or I know nothing. And if his fancy holds seven years hence, and he wants still to turn traveller, let him. If he’s minded to go round the world, I’ll back him to go, somehow or other, or I’ll eat my head, Ned Thurnall!”
The Doctor acquiesced in this hopeful theory, partly to save an argument; for Mark’s reverence for his opinion was confined to scientific matters; and he made up to his own self-respect by patronising the Doctor, and, indeed, taking him sometimes pretty sharply to task on practical matters.
“Best fellow alive is Thurnall; but not a man of business, poor fellow. None of your geniuses are. Don’t know what he’d do without me.”
So Tom carried Mary about all the morning, and went to Minchampstead in the afternoon, and got three hours’ good shooting; but in the evening he vanished; and his father went into Armsworth’s to look for him.
“Why do you want to know where he is?” replied Mark, looking sly. “However, as you can’t stop him now, I’ll tell you. He is just about this time sewing up Briggs’s coat-sleeves, putting copperas into his water jug, and powdered galls on his towel, and making various other little returns for this morning’s favour.”
“I dislike practical jokes.”
“So do I; especially when they come in the form of a black dose. Sit down, old boy, and we’ll have a game at cribbage.”
In a few minutes Tom came in —“Here’s a good riddance. The poisoner has fabricated his pilgrim’s staff, to speak scientifically, and perambulated his calcareous strata.”
“Cut his stick, and walked his chalks; and is off to London.”
“Poor boy,” said the Doctor, much distressed.
“Don’t cry, daddy; you can’t bring him back again. He’s been gone these four hours. I went to his room, at Bolus’s, about a little business, and saw at once that he had packed up, and carried off all he could. And, looking about, I found a letter directed to his father. So to his father I took it; and really I was sorry for the poor people. I left them all crying in chorus.”
“I must go to them at once;” and up rose the Doctor.
“He’s not worth the trouble you take for him — the addle-headed, ill-tempered coxcomb,” said Mark. “But it’s just like your soft-heartedness. Tom, sit down, and finish the game with me.”
So vanished from Whitbury, with all his aspirations, poor John Briggs; and save an occasional letter to his parents, telling them that he was alive and well, no one heard anything of him for many a year. The Doctor tried to find him out in London, again and again; but without success. His letters had no address upon them, and no clue to his whereabouts could be found.
And Tom Thurnall went to Paris, and became the best pistol-shot and billiard-player in the Quartier Latin; and then went to St. Mumpsimus’s Hospital in London, and became the best boxer therein, and captain of the eight-oar, besides winning prizes and certificates without end, and becoming in due time the most popular house-surgeon in the hospital: but nothing could keep him permanently at home. Stay drudging in London he would not. Settle down in a country practice he would not. Cost his father a farthing he would not. So he started forth into the wide world with nothing but his wits and his science, as anatomical professor to a new college in some South American republic. Unfortunately, when he got there, he found that the annual revolution had just taken place, and that the party who had founded the college had been all shot the week before. Whereat he whistled, and started off again, no man knew whither.
“Having got round half the world, daddy,” he wrote home, “it’s hard if I don’t get round the other half. So don’t expect me till you see me; and take care of your dear old eyes.”
With which he vanished into infinite space, and was only heard of by occasional letters dated from the Rocky Mountains (where he did shoot a grizzly bear), the Spanish West Indies, Otahiti, Singapore, the Falkland Islands, and all manner of unexpected places; sending home valuable notes (sometimes accompanied by valuable specimens), zoological and botanical; and informing his father that he was doing very well; that work was plentiful, and that he always found two fresh jobs before he had finished one old one.
His eldest brother, John, died meanwhile. His second brother, William, was in good general practice in Manchester. His father’s connections supported him comfortably; and if the old Doctor ever longed for Tom to come home, he never hinted it to the wanderer, but bade him go on and prosper, and become (which he gave high promise of becoming) a distinguished man of science. Nevertheless the old man’s heart sank at last, when month after month, and at last two full years, had passed without any letter from Tom.
At last, when full four years were past and gone since Tom started for South America, he descended from the box of the day-mail, with a serene and healthful countenance; and with no more look of interest in his face than if he had been away on a two days’ visit, shouldered his carpet-bag, and started for his father’s house. He stopped, however; as there appeared from the inside of the mail a face which he must surely know. A second look told him that it was none other than John Briggs. But how altered! He had grown up into a very handsome man — tall and delicate-featured, with long black curls, and a black moustache. There was a slight stoop about his shoulders, as of a man accustomed to too much sitting and writing; and he carried an eye-glass, whether for fashion’s sake, or for his eyes’ sake, was uncertain. He was wrapt in a long Spanish cloak, new and good; wore well-cut trousers, and (what Tom, of course, examined carefully) French boots, very neat, and very thin. Moreover, he had lavender kid-gloves on. Tom looked and wondered, and walked half round him, sniffing like a dog when he examines into the character of a fellow dog.
“Hum! — his mark seems to be at present P.P. — prosperous party: so there can be no harm in renewing our acquaintance. What trade on earth does he live by, though? Editor of a newspaper? or keeper of a gambling-table? Begging his pardon, he looks a good deal more like the latter than the former. However —”
And he walked up and offered his hand, with “How d’e do, Briggs? Who would have thought of our falling from the skies against each other in this fashion?”
Mr. Briggs hesitated a moment, and then took coldly the offered hand.
“Excuse me; but the circumstances of my visit here are too painful to allow me to wish for society.”
And Mr. Briggs withdrew, evidently glad to escape.
“Has he vampoosed with the contents of a till, that he wishes so for solitude?” asked Tom; and, shouldering his carpet-bag a second time, with a grim inward laugh, he went to his father’s house, and hung up his hat in the hall, just as if he had come in from a walk, and walked into the study; and not finding the old man, stepped through the garden to Mark Armsworth’s, and in at the drawing-room window, frightening out of her wits a short, pale, ugly girl of seventeen, whom he discovered to be his old playfellow, Mary. However, she soon recovered her equanimity: he certainly never lost his.
“How d’e do, darling? How you are grown! and how well you look! How’s your father? I hadn’t anything particular to do, so I thought I’d come home and see you all, and get some fishing.”
And Mary, who had longed to throw her arms round his neck, as of old, and was restrained by the thought that she was grown a great girl now, called in her father, and all the household; and after a while the old Doctor came home, and the fatted calf was killed, and all made merry over the return of this altogether unrepentant prodigal son, who, whether from affectation, or from that blunted sensibility which often comes by continual change and wandering, took all their affection and delight with the most provoking coolness.
Nevertheless, though his feelings were not “demonstrative,” as fine ladies say now-a-days, he evidently had some left in some corner of his heart; for after the fatted calf was eaten, and they were all settled in the Doctor’s study, it came out that his carpet-bag contained little but presents, and those valuable ones — rare minerals from the Ural for his father; a pair of Circassian pistols for Mark; and for little Mary, to her astonishment, a Russian malachite bracelet, at which Mary’s eyes opened wide, and old Mark said —
“Pretty fellow you are, to go fooling your money away like that. What did that gimcrack cost, pray, sir?”
“That is no concern of yours, sir, or mine either; for I didn’t pay for it.”
“Oh!” said Mary, doubtingly.
“No, Mary. I killed a giant, who was carrying off a beautiful princess; and this, you see, he wore as a ring on one of his fingers: so I thought it would just suit your wrist.”
“Oh, Tom — Mr. Thurnall — what nonsense!”
“Come, come,” said his father: “instead of telling us these sort of stories, you ought to give an account of yourself, as you seem quite to forget that we have not heard from you for more than two years.”
“Whew! I wrote,” said Tom, “whenever I could. However, you can have all my letters in one now.”
So they sat round the fire, and Tom gave an account of himself; while his father marked with pride that the young man had grown and strengthened in body and in mind; and that under that nonchalant, almost cynical outside, the heart still beat honest and kindly. For before Tom began, he would needs draw his chair closer to his father’s, and half-whispered to him —
“This is very jolly. I can’t be sentimental, you know. Knocking about the world has beat all that out of me: but it is very comfortable, after all, to find oneself with a dear old daddy and a good coal fire.”
“Which of the two could you best do without?”
“Well, one takes things as one finds them. It don’t do to look too deeply into one’s feelings. Like chemicals, the more you analyse them, the worse they smell.”
So Tom began his story.
“You heard from me at Bombay; after I’d been up to the Himalaya with an old Mumpsimus friend?”
“Well, I worked my way to Suez on board a ship whose doctor had fallen ill; and then I must needs see a little of Egypt; and there robbed was I, and nearly murdered, too; but I take a good deal of killing.”
“I’ll warrant you do,” said Mark, looking at him with pride.
“So I begged my way to Cairo; and there I picked up a Yankee — a New Yorker, made of money, who had a yacht at Alexandria, and travelled en prince; and nothing would serve him but I must go with him to Constantinople; but there he and I quarrelled — more fools, both of us! I wrote to you from Constantinople.”
“We never got the letter.”
“I can’t help that; I wrote. But there I was on the wide world again. So I took up with a Russian prince, whom I met at a gambling-table in Pera — a mere boy, but such a plucky one — and went with him to Circassia, and up to Astrakhan, and on to the Kirghis steppes; and there I did see snakes.”
“Snakes?” says Mary. “I should have thought you had seen plenty in India already.”
“Yes, Mary! but these were snakes spiritual and metaphorical. For, poking about where we had no business, Mary, the Tartars caught us, and tied us to their horses’ tails, after giving me this scar across the cheek, and taught us to drink mares’ milk, and to do a good deal of dirty work beside. So there we stayed with them six months, and observed their manners, which were none, and their customs, which were disgusting, as the midshipman said in his diary; and had the honour of visiting a pleasant little place in No-man’s Land, called Khiva, which you may find in your atlas, Mary; and of very nearly being sold for slaves into Persia, which would not have been pleasant; and at last, Mary, we ran away — or rather, rode away, on two razor-backed Calmuc ponies, and got back to Russia, viâ Orenberg — for which consult your atlas again; so the young prince was restored to the bosom of his afflicted family; and a good deal of trouble I had to get him safe there, for the poor boy’s health gave way. They wanted me to stay with them, and offered to make my fortune.”
“I’m so glad you didn’t,” said Mary.
“Well — I wanted to see little Mary again, and two worthy old gentlemen beside, you see. However, those Russians are generous enough. They filled my pockets, and heaped me with presents; that bracelet among them. What’s more, Mary, I’ve been introduced to old Nick himself, and can testify, from personal experience, to the correctness of Shakspeare’s opinion that the prince of darkness is a gentleman.”
“And now you are going to stay at home?” asked the Doctor.
“Well, if you’ll take me in, daddy, I’ll send for my traps from London, and stay a month or so.”
“A month!” cried the forlorn father.
“Well, daddy, you see, there is a chance of more fighting in Mexico, and I shall see such practice there; beside meeting old friends who were with me in Texas. And — and I’ve got a little commission, too, down in Georgia, that I should like to go and do.”
“What is that?”
“Well — it’s a long story and a sad one: but there was a poor Yankee surgeon with the army in Circassia — a Southerner, and a very good fellow; and he had taken a fancy to some coloured girl at home — poor fellow, he used to go half mad about her sometimes, when he was talking to me, for fear she should have been sold — sent to the New Orleans market, or some other devilry; and what could I say to comfort him? Well, he got his mittimus by one of Schamyl’s bullets; and when he was dying, he made me promise (I hadn’t the heart to refuse) to take all his savings, which he had been hoarding for years for no other purpose, and see if I couldn’t buy the girl, and get her away to Canada. I was a fool for promising. It was no concern of mine; but the poor fellow wouldn’t die in peace else. So what must be, must.”
“Oh, go! go!” said Mary. “You will let him go, Doctor Thurnall, and see the poor girl free? Think how dreadful it must be to be a slave.”
“I will, my little Miss Mary; and for more reasons than you think of. Little do you know how dreadful it is to be a slave.”
“Hum!” said Mark Armsworth. “That’s a queer story. Tom, have you got the poor fellow’s money? Didn’t lose it when you were taken by those Tartars?”
“Not I. I wasn’t so green as to carry it with me. It ought to have been in England six months ago. My only fear is, it’s not enough.”
“Hum!” said Mark. “How much more do you think you’ll want?”
“Heaven knows. There is a thousand dollars; but if she be half as beautiful as poor Wyse used to swear she was, I may want more than double that.”
“If you do, pay it, and I’ll pay you again. No, by George!” said Mark, “no one shall say that while Mark Armsworth had a balance at his bankers’ he let a poor girl —” and, recollecting Mary’s presence, he finished his sentence by sundry stamps and thumps on the table.
“You would soon exhaust your balance, if you set to work to free all poor girls who are in the same case in Georgia,” said the Doctor.
“Well, what of that? Them I don’t know of, and so I ain’t responsible for them; but this one I do know of, and so — there, I can’t argue; but, Tom, if you want the money, you know where to find it.”
“Very good. By the by — I forgot it till this moment — who should come down in the coach with me but the lost John Briggs.”
“He is come too late, then,” said the Doctor. “His poor father died this morning.”
“Ah! then Briggs knew that he was ill? That explains the Manfredic mystery and gloom with which he greeted me.”
“I cannot tell. He has written from time to time, but he has never given any address; so that no one could write in return.”
“He may have known. He looked very downcast. Perhaps that explains his cutting me dead.”
“Cut you?” cried Mark. “I dare say he’s been doing something he’s ashamed of, and don’t want to be recognised. That fellow has been after no good all this while, I’ll warrant. I always say he’s connected with the swell mob, or croupier at a gambling-table, or something of that kind. Don’t you think it’s likely, now?”
Mark was in the habit of so saying for the purpose of tormenting the Doctor, who held stoutly to his old belief, that John Briggs was a very clever man, and would turn up some day as a distinguished literary character.
“Well,” said Tom, “honest or not, he’s thriving; came down inside the coach, dressed in the distinguished foreigner style, with lavender kid gloves, and French boots.”
“Just like a swell pickpocket,” said Mark. “I always told you so, Thurnall.”
“He had the old Byron collar, and Raphael hair, though.”
“Nasty, effeminate, un-English foppery,” grumbled Mark; “so he may be in the scribbling line after all.”
“I’ll go and see if I can find him,” quoth the Doctor.
“Bother you,” said Mark, “always running out o’ nights after somebody else’s business, instead of having a jolly evening. You stay, Tom, like a sensible fellow, and tell me and Mary some more travellers’ lies. Had much sporting, boy?”
“Hum! I’ve shot and hunted every beast, I think, shootable and huntable, from a humming-bird to an elephant; and I had some splendid fishing in Canada; but, after all, give me a Whitbury trout, on a single-handed Chevalier. We’ll at them to-morrow, Mr. Armsworth.”
“We will, my boy! never so many fish in the river as this year, or in season so early.”
The good Doctor returned; but with no news which could throw light on the history of the now mysterious Mr. John Briggs. He had locked himself into the room with his father’s corpse, evidently in great excitement and grief; spent several hours in walking up and down there alone; and had then gone to an attorney in the town, and settled everything about the funeral “in the handsomest way,” said the man of law; “and was quite the gentleman in his manner, but not much of a man of business; never had even thought of looking for his father’s will; and was quite surprised when I told him that there ought to be a fair sum — eight hundred or a thousand, perhaps, to come in to him, if the stock and business were properly disposed of. So he went off to London by the evening mail, and told me to address him to the post-office in some street off the Strand. Queer business, sir, isn’t it?”
John Briggs did not reappear till a few minutes before his father’s funeral, witnessed the ceremony evidently with great sorrow, bowed off silently all who attempted to speak to him, and returned to London by the next coach — leaving matter for much babble among all Whitbury gossips. One thing at least was plain, that he wished to be forgotten in his native town; and forgotten he was, in due course of time.
Tom Thurnall stayed his month at home, and then went to America; whence he wrote home, in about six months, a letter, of which only one paragraph need interest us,
“Tell Mark I have no need for his dollars. I have done the deed; and, thanks to the underground railway, done it nearly gratis; which was both cheaper than buying her, and infinitely better for me; so that she has all poor Wyse’s dollars to start with afresh in Canada. I write this from New York. I could accompany her no farther; for I must get back to the South in time for the Mexican expedition.”
Then came a long and anxious silence; and then a letter, not from Mexico but from California — one out of several which had been posted; and then letters, more regularly from Australia. Sickened with Californian life, he had crossed the Pacific once more, and was hard at work in the diggings, doctoring and gold-finding by turns.
“A rolling stone gathers no moss,” said his father.
“He has the pluck of a hound, and the cunning of a fox,” said Mark; “and he’ll be a credit to you yet.”
And Mary prayed every morning and night for her old playfellow; and so the years slipped on till the autumn of 1853.
As no one has heard of Tom now for eight months and more (the pulse of Australian postage being of a somewhat intermittent type), we may as well go and look for him.
A sheet of dark rolling ground, quarried into a gigantic rabbit burrow, with hundreds of tents and huts dotted about among the heaps of rubbish; dark evergreen forests in the distance, and, above all, the great volcanic mountain of Buninyong towering far aloft — these are the “Black Hills of Ballarat;” and that windlass at that shaft’s mouth belongs in part to Thomas Thurnall.
At the windlass are standing two men, whom we may have seen in past years, self-satisfied in countenance, and spotless in array, sauntering down Piccadilly any July afternoon, or lounging in Haggis’s stable-yard at Cambridge any autumn morning. Alas! how changed from the fast young undergraduates, with powers of enjoyment only equalled by their powers of running into debt, are those two black-bearded and mud-bespattered ruffians, who once were Smith and Brown of Trinity. Yet who need pity them, as long as they have stouter limbs, healthier stomachs, and clearer consciences, than they have had since they left Eton at seventeen? Would Smith have been a happier man as a briefless barrister in a dingy Inn of Law, peeping now and then into third-rate London society, and scribbling for the daily press! Would Brown have been a happier man had he been forced into those holy orders for which he never felt the least vocation, to pay off his college debts out of his curate’s income, and settle down on his lees, at last, in the family living of Nomansland-cum-Clayhole, and support a wife and five children on five hundred a-year, exclusive of rates and taxes? Let them dig, and be men.
The windlass rattles and the rope goes down. A shout from the bottom of the shaft proclaims all right; and in due time, sitting in the noose of the rope, up comes Thomas Thurnall, bare-footed and bare-headed, in flannel trousers and red jersey, begrimed with slush and mud; with a mahogany face, a brick-red neck, and a huge brown beard, looking, to use his own expression, “as jolly as a sandboy.”
“A letter for you, Doctor, from Europe.”
Tom takes it, and his countenance falls; for it is black-edged and black-sealed. The handwriting is Mary Armsworth’s.
“I suppose the old lady who is going to leave me a fortune is dead,” says he drily, and turns away to read.
“Bad luck, I suppose,” he says to himself, “I have not had any for full six months, so I suppose it is time for Dame Fortune to give me a sly stab again. I only hope it is not my father; for, begging the Dame’s pardon, I can bear any trick of hers but that.” And he sets his teeth doggedly, and reads.
“My dear Mr. Thurnall — My father would have written himself, but he thought, I don’t know why, that I could tell you better than he. Your father is quite well in health,”— Thurnall breathes freely again —“but he has had heavy trials since your poor brother William’s death.”
Tom opens his eyes and sets his teeth more firmly. “Willy dead? I suppose there is a letter lost: better so; better to have the whole list of troubles together, and so get them sooner over. Poor Will!”
“Your father caught the scarlet fever from him, while he was attending him, and was very ill after he came back. He is quite well again now; but if I must tell you the truth, the disease has affected his eyes. You know how weak they always were, and how much worse they have grown of late years; and the doctors are afraid that he has little chance of recovering the sight, at least of the left eye.”
“Recovering? He’s blind, then.” And Tom set his teeth more tightly than ever. He felt a sob rise in his throat, but choked it down, shaking his head like an impatient bull.
“Wait a bit, Tom,” said he to himself, “before you have it out with Dame Fortune. There’s more behind, I’ll warrant. News like this lies in pockets, and not in single nuggets.” And he read on —
“And — for it is better you should know all — something has happened to the railroad in which he had invested so much. My father has lost money in it also; but not much: but I fear that your poor dear father is very much straitened. My father is dreadfully vexed about it, and thinks it all his fault in not having watched the matter more closely, and made your father sell out in time: and he wants your father to come and live with us: but he will not hear of it. So he has given up the old house, and taken one in Water Street, and, oh! I need not tell you that we are there every day, and that I am trying to make him as happy as I can — but what can I do? And then followed kind womanly commonplaces, which Tom hurried over with fierce impatience.
“He wants you to come home; but my father has entreated him to let you stay. You know, while we are here, he is safe; and my father begs you not to come home, if you are succeeding as well as you have been doing.”
There was much more in the letter, which I need not repeat; and, after all, a short postscript, by Mark himself, followed:—
“Stay where you are, boy, and keep up heart; while I have a pound, your father shall have half of it; and you know Mark Armsworth.”
He walked away slowly into the forest. He felt that the crisis of his life was come; that he must turn his hand henceforth to quite new work; and as he went he “took stock,” as it were, of his own soul, to see what point he had attained — what he could do.
Fifteen years of adventure had hardened into wrought metal a character never very ductile. Tom was now, in his own way, an altogether accomplished man of the world, who knew (at least in all companies and places where he was likely to find himself) exactly what to say, to do, to make, to seek, and to avoid. Shifty and thrifty as old Greek, or modern Scot, there were few things he could not invent, and perhaps nothing he could not endure. He had watched human nature under every disguise, from the pomp of the ambassador to the war-paint of the savage, and formed his own clear, hard, shallow, practical estimate thereof. He looked on it as his raw material, which he had to work up into subsistence and comfort for himself. He did not wish to live on men, but live by them he must; and for that purpose he must study them, and especially their weaknesses. He would not cheat them; for there was in him an innate vein of honesty, so surly and explosive, at times, as to give him much trouble. The severest part of his self-education had been the repression of his dangerous inclination to call a sham a sham on the spot, and to answer fools according to their folly. That youthful rashness, however, was now well-nigh subdued, and Tom could flatter and bully also, when it served his turn — as who cannot? Let him that is without sin among my readers, cast the first stone. Self-conscious he was, therefore, in every word and action; not from morbid vanity, but a necessary consequence of his mode of life. He had to use men, and therefore to watch how he used them; to watch every word, gesture, tone of voice, and, in all times and places, do the fitting thing. It was hard work: but necessary for a man who stood alone and self-poised in the midst of the universe; fashioning for himself everywhere, just as far as his arm could reach, some not intolerable condition; depending on nothing but himself, and caring for little but himself and the father whom, to do him justice, he never forgot. If I wished to define Tom Thurnall by one epithet, I should call him specially an ungodly man — were it not that scriptural epithets have, now-a-days, such altogether conventional and official meanings, that one fears to convey, in using them, some notion quite foreign to the truth. Tom was certainly not one of those ungodly whom David had to deal with of old, who robbed the widow, and put the fatherless to death. His morality was as high as that of the average; his sense of honour far higher. He was generous and kind-hearted. No one ever heard him tell a lie; and he had a blunt honesty about him, half real, because he liked to be honest, and yet half affected too, because he found it pay in the long run, and because it threw off their guard the people whom he intended to make his tools. But of godliness in its true sense — of belief that any Being above cared for him, and was helping him in the daily business of life — that it was worth while asking that Being’s advice, or that any advice would be given if asked for; of any practical notion of a Heavenly Father, or a Divine education — Tom was as ignorant as thousands of respectable people who go to church every Sunday, and read good books, and believe firmly that the Pope is Antichrist. He ought to have learnt it, no doubt; for his father was a religious man: but he had not learnt it — any more than thousands learn it, who have likewise religious parents. He had been taught, of course, the common doctrines and duties of religion; but early remembrances had been rubbed out, as off a schoolboy’s slate, by the mere current of new thoughts and objects, in his continual wanderings. Disappointments he had had, and dangers in plenty; but only such as rouse a brave and cheerful spirit to bolder self-reliance and invention; not those deep sorrows of the heart which leave a man helpless in the lowest pit, crying for help from without, for there is none within. He had seen men of all creeds, and had found in all alike (so he held) the many rogues, and the few honest men. All religions were, in his eyes, equally true and equally false. Superior morality was owing principally to the influences of race and climate; and devotional experiences (to judge, at least, from American camp-meetings and popish-cities) the results of a diseased nervous system.
Upon a man so hard and strong this fearful blow had fallen, and, to do him justice, he took it like a man. He wandered on and on for an hour or more, up the hills, and into the forest, talking to himself.
“Poor old Willy! I should have liked to have looked into his honest face before he went, if only to make sure that we were good friends. I used to plague him sadly with my tricks. But what is the use of wishing for what cannot be? I recollect I had just the same feeling when John died; and yet I got over it after a time, and was as cheerful as if he were alive again, or had never lived at all. And so I shall get over this. Why should I give way to what I know will pass, and is meant to pass? It is my father I feel for. But I couldn’t be there; and it is no fault of mine that I was not there. No one told me what was going to happen; and no one could know: so again — why grieve over what can’t be helped?”
And then, to give the lie to all his cool arguments, he sat down among the fern, and burst into a violent fit of crying. “Oh, my poor dear old daddy!”
Yes; beneath all the hard crust of years, that fountain of life still lay pure as when it came down from heaven — love for his father.
“Come, come, this won’t do; this is not the way to take stock of my goods, either mental or worldly. I can’t cry the dear old man out of this scrape.”
He looked up. The sun was setting. Beneath the dark roof of evergreens the eucalyptus boles stood out, like basalt pillars, black against a background of burning flame. The flying foxes shot from tree to tree, and moths as big as sparrows whirred about the trunks, one moment black against the glare beyond, and vanishing the next, like imps of darkness, into their native gloom. There was no sound of living thing around, save the ghastly rattle of the dead bark-tassels which swung from every tree, and far away, the faint clicking of the diggers at their work, like the rustle of a gigantic ant-hill. Was there one among them all who cared for him? who would not forget him in a week with —“Well, he was pleasant company, poor fellow,” and go on digging without a sigh? What, if it were his fate to die, as he had seen many a stronger man, there in that lonely wilderness, and sleep for ever, unhonoured and unknown, beneath that awful forest roof, while his father looked for bread to others’ hands?
No man was less sentimental, no man less superstitious than Thomas Thurnall; but crushed and softened — all but terrified (as who would not have been?)— by that day’s news, he could not struggle against the weight of loneliness which fell upon him. For the first and last time, perhaps, in his life, he felt fear; a vague, awful dread of unseen and inevitable possibilities. Why should not calamity fall on him, wave after wave? Was it not falling on him already? Why should he not grow sick to-morrow, break his leg, his neck — why not? What guarantee had he in earth or heaven that he might not be “snuffed out silently,” as he had seen hundreds already, and die and leave no sign? And there sprang up in him at once the intensest yearning after his father and the haunts of his boyhood, and the wildest dread that he should never see them. Might not his father be dead ere he could return? — if ever he did return. That twelve thousand miles of sea looked to him a gulf impassable. Oh, that he were safe at home! that he could start that moment! And for one minute a helplessness, as of a lost child, came over him.
Perhaps it had been well for him had he given that feeling vent, and, confessing himself a lost child, cried out of the darkness to a Father; but the next minute he had dashed it proudly away.
“Pretty baby I am, to get frightened, at my time of life, because I find myself in a dark wood — and the sun shining all the while as jollily as ever away there in the west! It is morning somewhere or other now, and it will be morning here again to-morrow. ‘Good times and bad times, and all times pass over;’— I learnt that lesson out of old Bewick’s vignettes, and it has stood me in good stead this many a year, and shall now. Die? Nonsense. I take more killing than that comes to. So for one more bout with old Dame Fortune. If she throws me again, why, I’ll get up again, as I have any time these fifteen years. Mark’s right. I’ll stay here and work till I make a hit, or luck runs dry, and then home and settle; and, meanwhile, I’ll go down to Melbourne to-morrow, and send the dear old man two hundred pounds; and then back again here, and to it again.”
And with a fate-defiant smile, half bitter and half cheerful, Tom rose and went down again to his mates, and stopped their inquiries by —“What’s done can’t be mended, and needn’t be mentioned; whining won’t make me work the harder, and harder than ever I must work.”
Strange it is, how mortal man, “who cometh up and is cut down like the flower,” can thus harden himself into stoical security, and count on the morrow, which may never come. Yet so it is; and, perhaps, if it were not so, no work would get done on earth — at least by the many who know not that God is guiding them, while they fancy that they are guiding themselves.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52