Elsley Vavasour is sitting one morning in his study, every comfort of which is of Lucia’s arrangement and invention, beating the home-preserve of his brains for pretty thoughts. On he struggles through that wild, and too luxuriant cover; now brought up by a “lawyer,” now stumbling over a root, now bogged in a green spring, now flushing a stray covey of birds of Paradise, now a sphinx, chimsera, strix, lamia, fire-drake, flying-donkey, two-headed eagle (Austrian, as will appear shortly), or other portent only to be seen now-a-days in the recesses of that enchanted forest, the convolutions of a poet’s brain. Up they whir and rattle, making, like most game, more noise than they are worth. Some get back, some dodge among the trees; the fair shots are few and far between: but Elsley blazes away right and left with trusty quill; and, to do him justice, seldom misses his aim, for practice has made him a sure and quick marksman in his own line. Moreover, all is game which gets up to-day; for he is shooting for the kitchen, or rather for the London market, as many a noble sportsman does now-a-days, and thinks no shame. His new volume of poems (“The Wreck” included) is in the press: but behold, it is not as long as the publisher thinks fit, and Messrs. Brown and Younger have written down to entreat in haste for some four hundred lines more, on any subject which Mr. Vavasour may choose. And therefore is Elsley beating his home covers, heavily shot over though they have been already this season, in hopes that a few head of his own game may still be left: or in default (for human nature is the same, in poets and in sportsmen), that a few head may have strayed in out of his neighbours’ manors.
At last the sport slackens; for the sportsman is getting tired, and hungry also, to carry on the metaphor; for he has seen the postman come up the front walk a quarter of an hour since, and the letters have not been brought in yet.
At last there is a knock at the door, which he answers by a somewhat testy “come in.” But he checks the coming grumble, when not the maid, but Lucia enters.
Why not grumble at Lucia? He has done so many a time.
Because she looks this morning so charming; really quite pretty again, so radiant is her face with smiles. And because, also, she holds triumphant above her head a newspaper.
She dances up to him —
“I have something for you.”
“For me? Why, the post has been in this half-hour.”
“Yes, for you, and that’s just the reason why I kept it myself. D’ye understand my Irish reasoning?”
“No, you pretty creature,” said Elsley, who saw that whatever the news was, it was good news.
“Pretty creature, am I? I was once, I know; but I thought you had forgotten all about that. But I was not going to let you have the paper till I had devoured every word of it myself first.”
“Every word of what?”
“Of what you shan’t have unless you promise to be good for a week. Such a Review; and from America! What a dear man he must be who wrote it! I really think I should kiss him if I met him.”
“And I really think he would not say no. But as he’s not here, I shall act as his proxy.”
“Be quiet, and read that, if you can, for blushes;” and she spread out the paper before him, and then covered his eyes with her hands. “No, you shan’t see it; it will make you vain.”
Elsley had looked eagerly at the honeyed columns; (as who would not have done?) but the last word smote him. What was he thinking of? his own praise, or his wife’s love?
“Too true,” he cried, looking up at her. “You dear creature! Vain I am, God forgive me: but before I look at a word of this I must have a talk with you.”
“I can’t stop; I must run back to the children. No; now don’t look cross;” as his brow clouded, “I only said that to tease you. I’ll stop with you ten whole minutes, if you won’t look so very solemn and important. I hate tragedy faces. Now what is it?”
As all this was spoken while both her hands were clasped round Elsley’s neck, and with looks and tones of the very sweetest as well as the very sauciest, no offence was given, and none taken: but Elsley’s voice was sad as he asked —
“So you really do care for my poems?”
“You great silly creature? Why else did I marry you at all? As if I cared for anything in the world but your poems; as if I did not love everybody who praises them; and if any stupid reviewer dares to say a word against them I could kill him on the spot. I care for nothing in the world but what people say of you. — And yet I don’t care one pin; I know what your poems are, if nobody else does; and they belong to me, because you belong to me, and I must be the best judge, and care for nobody, no not I!”— And she began singing, and then hung over him, tormenting him lovingly while he read.
It was a true American review, utterly extravagant in its laudations, whether from over-kindness, or from a certain love of exaggeration and magniloquence, which makes one suspect that a large proportion of the Transatlantic gentlemen of the press must be natives of the sister isle: but it was all the more pleasant to the soul of Elsley.
“There,” said Lucia, as she clung croodling to him; “there is a pretty character of you, sir! Make the most of it, for it is all those Yankees will ever send you.”
“Yes,” said Elsley, “if they would send one a little money, instead of making endless dollars by printing one’s books, and then a few more by praising one at a penny a line.”
“That’s talking like a man of business: if instead of the review, now, a cheque for fifty pounds had come, how I would have rushed out and paid the bills!”
“And liked it a great deal better than the review?”
“You jealous creature! No. If I could always have you praised, I’d live in a cabin, and go about the world barefoot, like a wild Irish girl.”
“You would make a very charming one.”
“I used to, once, I can tell you, Valencia and I used to run about without shoes and stockings at Kilanbaggan, and you can’t think how pretty and white this little foot used to look on a nice soft carpet of green moss.”
“I shall write a sonnet to it.”
“You may if you choose, provided you don’t publish it.”
“You may trust me for that. I am not one of those who anatomise their own married happiness for the edification of the whole public, and make fame, if not money, out of their own wives’ hearts.”
“How I should hate you, if you did! Not that I believe their fine stories about themselves. At least, I am certain it’s only half the story. They have their quarrels, my dear, just as you and I have but they take care not to put them into poetry.”
“Well, but who could? Whether they have a right or not to publish the poetical side of their married life, it is too much to ask them to give you the unpoetical also.”
“Then they are all humbugs, and I believe, if they really love their wives so very much, they would not be at all that pains to persuade the world of it.”
“You are very satirical and spiteful, ma’am.”
“I always am when I am pleased. If I am particularly happy, I always long to pinch somebody. I suppose it’s Irish —
“‘Comes out, meets a friend, and for love knocks him down.’”
“But you know, you rogue, that you care to read no poetry but love poetry.”
“Of course not every woman does, but let me find you publishing any such about me, and see what I will do to you! There, now I must go to my work, and you go and write something extra superfinely grand, because I have been so good to you. No. Let me go; what a bother you are. Good-bye.”
And away she tripped, and he returned to his work, happier than he had been for a week past.
His happiness, truly, was only on the surface. The old wound had been salved — as what wound cannot be? — by woman’s love and woman’s wit but it was not healed. The cause of his wrong doing, the vain, self-indulgent spirit, was there still unchastened, and he was destined, that very day, to find that he had still to bear the punishment of it.
Now the reader must understand, that though one may laugh at Elsley Vavasour, because it is more pleasant than scolding at him, yet have Philistia and Fogeydom neither right nor reason to consider him a despicable or merely ludicrous person, or to cry, “Ah, if he had been as we are!”
Had he been merely ludicrous, Lucia would never have married him; and he could only have been spoken of with indignation, or left utterly out of the story, as a simply unpleasant figure, beyond the purposes of a novel, though admissible now and then into tragedy. One cannot heartily laugh at a man if one has not a lurking love for him, as one really ought to have for Elsley. How much value is to be attached to his mere power of imagination and fancy, and so forth, is a question; but there was in him more than mere talent: there was, in thought at least, virtue and magnanimity.
True, the best part of him, perhaps almost all the good part of him, spent itself in words, and must be looked for, not in his life, but in his books. But in those books it can be found; and if you look through them, you will see that he has not touched upon a subject without taking, on the whole, the right, and pure, and lofty view of it. Howsoever extravagant he may be in his notions of poetic licence, that licence is never with him a synonym for licentiousness. Whatever is tender and true, whatever is chivalrous and high-minded, he loves at first sight, and reproduces it lovingly. And it may be possible that his own estimate of his poems was not altogether wrong; that his words may have awakened here and there in others a love for that which is morally as well as physically beautiful, and may have kept alive in their hearts the recollection that, both for the bodies and the souls of men forms of life far nobler and fairer than those which we see now are possible; that they have appeared, in fragments at least, already on the earth; that they are destined, perhaps, to reappear and combine themselves in some ideal state, and in
“One far-off divine event,
Toward which the whole creation moves.”
This is the special and proper function of the poet; that he may do this, does God touch his lips with that which, however it may be misused, is still fire from off the altar beneath which the spirits of his saints cry — “Lord, how long?” If he “reproduce the beautiful” with this intent, however so little, then is he of the sacred guild. And because Vavasour had this gift, therefore he was a poet.
But in this he was weak: that he did not feel, or at least was forgetting fast, that this gift had been bestowed on him for any practical purpose. No one would demand that he should have gone forth with some grand social scheme, to reform a world which looked to him so mean and evil. He was not a man of business, and was not meant to be one. But it was ill for him that in his fastidiousness and touchiness he had shut himself out from that world, till he had quite forgotten how much good there was in it as well as evil; how many people — commonplace and unpoetical it may be — but still heroical in God’s sight, were working harder than he ever worked, at the divine drudgery of doing good, and that in dens of darkness and sloughs of filth, from which he would have turned with disgust; so that the sympathy with the sinful and fallen which marks his earlier poems, and which perhaps verges on sentimentalism, gradually gives place to a Pharisaic and contemptuous tone; a tone more lofty and manful in seeming, but far less divine in fact. Perhaps comparative success had injured him. Whilst struggling himself against circumstances, poor, untaught, unhappy, he had more fellow-feeling, with those whom circumstance oppressed. At least, the pity which he could once bestow upon the misery which he met in his daily walks, he now kept for the more picturesque woes of Italy and Greece.
In this, too, he was weak; that he had altogether forgotten that the fire from off the altar could only be kept alight by continual self-restraint and self-sacrifice, by continual gentleness and humility, shown in the petty matters of everyday home-life; and that he who cannot rule his own household can never rule the Church of God. And so it befell, that amid the little cross-blasts of home squabbles the sacred spark was fast going out. The poems written after he settled at Penalva are marked by a less definite purpose, by a lower tone of feeling: not, perhaps, by a lower moral tone; but simply by less of any moral tone at all. They are more and more full of merely sensuous beauty, mere word-painting, mere word-hunting. The desire of finding something worth saying gives place more and more to that of saying something in a new fashion. As the originality of thought (which accompanies only vigorous moral purpose) decreases, the attempt at originality of language increases. Manner, in short, has taken the place of matter. The art, it may be, of his latest poems is greatest: but it has been expended on the most unworthy themes. The later are mannered caricatures of the earlier, without their soul; and the same change seems to have passed over him which (with Mr. Ruskin’s pardon) transformed the Turner of 1820 into the Turner of 1850.
Thus had Elsley transferred what sympathy he had left from needle-women and ragged schools, dwellers in Jacob’s Island and sleepers in the dry arches of Waterloo Bridge, to sufferers of a more poetic class. Whether his sympathies showed thereby that he had risen or fallen, let my readers decide each for himself. It is a credit to any man to feel for any human being; and Italy, as she is at this moment, is certainly one of the most tragic spectacles which the world has ever seen. Elsley need not be blamed for pitying her; only for holding, with most of our poets, a vague notion that her woes were to be cured by a hair of the dog who bit her; viz., by homoeopathic doses of that same “art” which has been all along her morbid and self-deceiving substitute for virtue and industry. So, as she had sung herself down to the nether pit, Elsley would help to sing her up again; and had already been throwing off, ever since 1848, a series of sonnets which he entitled Eurydice, intimating, of course, that he acted as the Orpheus. Whether he had hopes of drawing iron tears down Pluto Radetzky’s cheek, does not appear; but certainly the longer poem which had sprung from his fancy, at the urgent call of Messrs. Brown and Younger, would have been likely to draw nothing but iron balls from Radetzky’s cannon; or failing so vast an effect, an immediate external application to the poet himself of that famous herb Pantagruelion, cure for all public ills and private woes, which men call hemp. Nevertheless, it was a noble subject; one which ought surely to have been taken up by some of our poets, for if they do not make a noble poem of it, it will be their own fault. I mean that sad and fantastic tragedy of Fra Dolcino and Margaret, which Signor Mariotti has lately given to the English public, in a book which, both for its matter and its manner, should be better known than it is. Elsley’s soul had been filled (it would have been a dull one else) with the conception of the handsome and gifted patriot-monk, his soul delirious with, the dream of realising a perfect Church on earth; battling with tongue and pen, and at last with sword, against the villanies of pope and kaiser, and all the old devourers of the earth, cheered only by the wild love of her who had given up wealth, fame, friends, all which render life worth having, to die with him a death too horrible for words. And he had conceived (and not altogether ill) a vision, in which, wandering along some bright Italian bay, he met Dolcino sitting, a spirit at rest but not yet glorified, waiting for the revival of that dead land for which he had died; and Margaret by him, dipping her scorched feet for ever in the cooling wave, and looking up to the hero for whom she had given up all, with eyes of everlasting love. There they were to prophesy to him such things as seemed fit to him, of the future of Italy and of Europe, of the doom of priests and tyrants, of the sorrows and rewards of genius unappreciated and before its age; for Elsley’s secret vanity could see in himself a far greater likeness to Dolcino, than Dolcino — the preacher, confessor, bender of all hearts, man of the world and man of action, at last crafty and all but unconquerable guerilla warrior — would ever have acknowledged in the self-indulgent dreamer. However, it was a fair conception enough; though perhaps it never would have entered Elsley’s head, had Shelley never written the opening canto of the Revolt of Islam.
So Elsley, on a burning July forenoon, strolled up the lane and over the down to King Arthur’s Nose, that he might find materials for his sea-shore scene. For he was not one of those men who live in such quiet, everyday communication with nature, that they drink in her various aspects as unconsciously as the air they breathe; and so can reproduce them, out of an inexhaustible stock of details, simply and accurately, and yet freshly too, tinged by the peculiar hue of the mind in which they have been long sleeping. He walked the world, either blind to the beauty round him, and trying to compose instead some little scrap of beauty in his own self-imprisoned thoughts; or else he was looking out consciously and spasmodically for views, effects, emotions, images; something striking and uncommon which would suggest a poetic figure, or help out a description, or in some way re-furnish his mind with thought. From which method it befell, that his lamp of truth was too often burnt out just when it was needed; and that, like the foolish virgins, he had to go and buy oil when it was too late; or failing that, to supply its place with some baser artificial material.
That day, however, he was fortunate enough; for wandering and scrambling among the rocks, at a dead low spring tide, he came upon a spot which would have made a poem of itself better than all Elsley ever wrote, had he, forgetting all about Fra Dolcino, Italy, priests, and tyrants, set down in black and white just what he saw; provided, of course, that he had patience first to see the same.
It was none other than that ghastly chasm across which Thurnall had been so miraculously swept, on the night of his shipwreck. The same ghastly chasm: but ghastly now no longer; and as Elsley looked down, the beauty below invited him, and the coolness also; for the sun beat on the flat rock above till it scorched the feet, and dazzled the eye, and crisped up the blackening sea-weeds; while every sea-snail crept to hide itself under the bladder-tangle, and nothing dared to peep or stir save certain grains of gunpowder, which seemed to have gone mad, so merrily did they hop about upon the surface of the fast evaporating salt-pools. That wonder, indeed, Elsley stooped to examine, and drew back his hands with an “ugh!” and a gesture of disgust, when he found that they were “nasty little insects.” For Elsley held fully the poet’s right to believe that all things are not very good; none, indeed, save such as suited his eclectic and fastidious taste; and to hold (on high aesthetic grounds, of course) toads and spiders in as much abhorrence as does any boarding-school girl. However, finding some rock ledges which formed a natural ladder, down he scrambled, gingerly enough, for he was neither an active nor a courageous man. But, once down, I will do him the justice to say, that for five whole minutes he forgot all about Fra Dolcino, and, what was better, about himself also.
The chasm may have been fifteen feet deep, and above, about half that breadth; but below, the waves had hollowed it into dark overhanging caverns. Just in front of him a huge boulder spanned the crack; and formed a natural doorway, through which he saw, like a picture set in a frame, the far-off blue sea softening into the blue sky among brown Eastern haze. Amid the haze a single ship hung motionless, like a white cloud. Nearer, a black cormorant floated sleepily along, and dived, and rose again. Nearer again, long lines of flat tide-rock, glittering and quivering in the heat, sloped gradually under the waves, till they ended in half-sunken beds of olive oar-weed, which bent their tangled stems into a hundred graceful curves, and swayed to and fro slowly and sleepily. The low swell slid whispering among their floating palms, and slipped on toward the cavern’s mouth, as if asking wistfully (so Elsley fancied) when it would be time for it to return to that cool shade, and hide from all the blinding blaze outside. But when his eye was enough accustomed to the shade within, it withdrew gladly from the glaring sea and glaring tide-rocks to the walls of the chasm itself; to curved and polished sheets of stone, rich brown, with snow-white veins, on which danced for ever a dappled network of pale yellow light; to crusted beds of pink coralline; to caverns, in the dark crannies of which hung branching sponges and tufts of purple sea-moss; to strips of clear white sand, bestrewn with shells; to pools, each a gay flower-garden of all hues, where branching sea-weeds reflected blue light from every point, like a thousand damasked sword-blades; while among them, dahlias and chrysanthemums, and many another mimic of our earth-born flowers, spread blooms of crimson, and purple, and lilac, and creamy grey, half-buried among feathered weeds as brightly coloured as they; and strange and gaudy fishes shot across from side to side, and chased each other in and out of hidden cells.
Within and without all was at rest; the silence was broken only by the timid whisper of the swell, and by the chime of dropping water within some unseen cave: but what a different rest! Without, all lying breathless, stupefied, sun-stricken, in blinding glare; within, all coolness, and refreshing sleep. Without, all simple, broad, and vast; within, all various, with infinite richness of form and colour. — An Hairoun Alraschid’s bower, looking out upon the —
Bother the fellow! Why will he go on analysing and figuring in this way? Why not let the blessed place tell him what it means, instead of telling it what he thinks? And — why, he is actually writing verses, though not about Fra Dolcino!
“How rests yon rock, whoso half-day’s bath is done,
With broad bright sight, beneath the broad bright sun,
Like sea-nymph tired, on cushioned mosses sleeping.
Yet, nearer drawn, beneath her purple tresses,
From down-bent brows we find her slowly weeping,
So many a heart for cruel man’s caresses
Must only pine and pine, and yet must bear
A gallant front beneath life’s gaudy glare.”
Silly fellow! Do you think that Nature had time to think of such a far-fetched conceit as that while it was making that rock and peopling it with a million tiny living things, of which not one falleth to the ground without your Father’s knowledge, and each more beautiful than any sea-nymph whom you ever fancied? For, after all, you cannot fancy a whole sea nymph (perhaps in that case you could make one), but only a very little scrap of her outside. Or if, as you boast, you are inspired by the Creative Spirit, tell us what the Creative Spirit says about that rock, and not such verse as that, the lesson of which you don’t yourself really feel. Pretty enough it is, perhaps: but in your haste to say a pretty thing, just because it was pretty, you have not cared to condemn yourself out of your own mouth. Why were you sulky, sir, with Mrs. Vavasour this very morning, after all that passed, because she would look over the washing-books, while you wanted her to hear about Fra Dolcino? And why, though she was up to her knees among your dirty shirts when you went out, did you not give her one parting kiss, which would have transfigured her virtuous drudgery for her into a sacred pleasure? One is heartily glad to see you disturbed, cross though you may look at it, by that sturdy step and jolly whistle which burst in on you from the other end of the chasm, as Tom Thurnall, with an old smock frock over his coat and a large basket on his arm, comes stumbling and hopping towards you, dropping every now and then on hands and knees, and turning over on his back, to squeeze his head into some muddy crack, and then withdraw it with the salt water dripping down his nose.
Elsley closed his eyes, and rested his head on his hand in a somewhat studied “pose.” But as he wished not to be interrupted, it may not have been altogether unpardonable to pretend sleep. However, the sleeping posture had exactly the opposite effect to that which he designed.
“Ah, Mr. Vavasour!”
“Humph!” quoth he slowly, if not sulkily.
“I admire your taste, sir; a charming summerhouse old Triton has vacated for your use; but let me advise you not to go to sleep in it.”
“Why then, sir?”
“Because — It’s no business of mine, of course: but the tide has turned already; and if a breeze springs up old Triton will be back again in a hurry, and in a rage also; and — I may possibly lose a good patient.”
Elsley, who knew nothing about the tides, save that “the moon wooed the ocean,” or some such important fact, thanked him coolly enough, and returned to a meditative attitude. Tom saw that he was in the seventh heaven, and went on: but he had not gone three steps before he pulled up short, slapping his hands together once, as a man does who has found what he wants; and then plunged up to his knees in a rock pool, and then began working very gently at something under water.
Elsley watched him for full five minutes with so much curiosity, that, despite of himself, he asked him what he was doing.
Tom had his whole face under water, and did not hear, till Elsley had repeated the question.
“Only a rare zoophyte,” said he at last, lifting his dripping visage, and gasping for breath; and then he dived again.
“Inexplicable pedantry of science!” thought Elsley to himself, while Tom worked on steadfastly, and at last rose, and, taking out a phial from his basket, was about to deposit in it something invisible.
“Stay a moment; you really have roused my curiosity by your earnestness. May I see what it is for which you have taken so much trouble?”
Tom held out on his finger a piece of slimy crust the size of a halfpenny. Elsley could only shrug his shoulders.
“Nothing to you, sir, I doubt not; but worth a guinea to me, even if it be only to mount bits of it as microscopic objects.”
“So you mingle business with science?” said Elsley, rather in a contemptuous tone.
“Why not? I must live, and my father too; and it is as honest a way of making money as any other: I poach in no man’s manor for my game.”
“But what is your game! What possible attraction in that bit of dirt can make men spend their money on it?”
“You shall see,” said Tom, dropping it into the phial of salt water, and offering it to Elsley, with his pocket magnifier.
“Judge for yourself.”
Elsley did so, and beheld a new wonder — a living plant of crystal, studded with crystal bells, from each of which waved a crown of delicate arms. It was the first time that Elsley had ever seen one of those exquisite zoophytes which stud every rock and every tuft of weed.
“This is most beautiful,” said he at length. “Humph! why should not Mr. Vavasour write a poem about it?”
“Why not indeed?” thought Elsley.
“It’s no business of mine, no man’s less: but I often wonder why you poets don’t take to the microscope, and tell us a little more about the wonderful things which are here already, and not about those which are not, and which, perhaps, never will be.”
“Well,” said Elsley, after another look: “but, after all, these things have no human interest in them.”
“I don’t know that; they have to me, for instance. These are the things which I would write about if I had any turn for verse, not about human nature, of which I know, I’m afraid, a little too much already. I always like to read old ‘Darwin’s Loves of the Plants;’ bosh as it is in a scientific point of view, it amuses one’s fancy without making one lose one’s temper, as one must when one begins to analyse the microscopic ape called self and friends.
“You would like, then, the old Cosmogonies, the Eddas and the Vedas,” said Elsley, getting interested, as most people did after five minutes’ talk with the cynical doctor. “I suppose you would not say much for their science; but, as poetry, they are just what you ask for — the expression of thoughtful spirits, who looked round upon nature with awe-struck, childlike eyes, and asked of all heaven and earth the question, ‘What are you? How came you to be?’ Yet — it may be my fault — while I admire them, I cannot sympathise with them. To me, this zoophyte is as a being of another sphere; and till I can create some link in my own mind between it and humanity it is as nothing in my eyes.”
“There is link enough, sir, don’t doubt, and chains of iron and brass too.”
“You believe then, in the development theory of the ‘Vestiges’?”
“Doctors who have their bread to earn never commit themselves to theories. No; all I meant was, that this little zoophyte lives by the same laws as you and I; and that he, and the sea-weeds, and so forth, teach us doctors certain little rules concerning life and death, which you will have a chance soon of seeing at work on the most grand and poetical, and indeed altogether tragic scale.”
“What do you mean?”
“When the cholera comes here as it will, at its present pace, before the end of the summer, then I shall have the zoophytes rising up in judgment against me, if I have not profited by a leaf out of their book.”
“The cholera?” said Elsley in a startled voice, forgetting Tom’s parables in the new thought. For Elsley had a dread more nervous than really coward of infectious diseases; and he had also (and prided himself, too, on having) all Goethe’s dislike of anything terrible or horrible, of sickness, disease, wounds, death, anything which jarred with that “beautiful” which was his idol.
“The cholera?” repeated he. “I hope not; I wish you had not mentioned it, Mr. Thurnall.”
“I am very sorry that I did so, if it offends you. I had thought that forewarned was forearmed. After all it is no business of mine; if I have extra labour, as I shall have, I shall have extra experience; and that will be a fair set-off, even if the board of guardians don’t vote me an extra remuneration, as they ought to do.”
Elsley was struck dumb; first by the certainty which Tom’s words expressed, and next by the coolness of their temper. At last he stammered out, “Good heavens, Mr. Thurnall! you do not talk of that frightful scourge — so disgusting, too, in its character — as a matter of profit and loss? It is sordid, cold-hearted!”
“My dear sir, if I let myself think, much more talk, about the matter in any other tone, I should face the thing poorly enough when it came. I shall have work enough to keep my head about the end of August or beginning of September, and I must not lose it beforehand, by indulging in any horror, disgust, or other emotion perfectly justifiable in a layman.”
“But are not doctors men?”
“That depends very much on what ‘a man’ means.”
“Men with human sympathy and compassion.”
“Oh, I mean by a man, a man with human strength. My dear sir, one may be too busy, and at doing good too (though that is not my line, save professionally, because it is my only way of earning money); but one may be too busy at doing good to have time for compassion. If while I was cutting a man’s leg off I thought of the pain which he was suffering —”
“Thank heaven!” said Elsley, “that it was not my lot to become a medical man.”
Tom looked at him with the quaintest smile: a flush of mingled anger and contempt had been rising in him as he heard the ex-bottle-boy talking sentiment: but he only went on quietly,
“No, sir; with your more delicate sensibilities, you may thank Heaven that you did not become a medical man; your life would have been one of torture, disgust, and agonising sense of responsibility. But do you not see that you must thank Heaven for the sufferer’s sake also? I will not shock you again by talking of amputation; but even in the smallest matter — even if you were merely sending medicine to an old maid — suppose that your imagination were preoccupied by the thought of her old age, her sufferings, her disappointed hopes, her regretful dream of bygone youth, and beauty, and love, and all the tender fancies which might well spring out of such a mournful spectacle, would you not be but too likely (pardon the bathos) to end by sending her an elderly gentleman’s medicine after all, and so either frightfully increasing her sufferings, or ending them once for all?”
Tom said this in the most quiet and natural tone, without even a twinkle of his wicked eye: but Elsley heard him begin with reddening face; and as he went on, the red had turned to purple, and then to deadly yellow; till making a half-step forward he cried fiercely:—
“Sir!” and then stopped suddenly; for his feet slipped upon the polished stone, and on his face he fell into the pool at Thurnall’s feet.
“Well for both of us geese!” said Tom inwardly, as he went to pick him up. “I verily believe he was going to strike me, and that would have done for neither of us. I was a fool to say it; but the temptation was so exquisite; and it must have come some day.”
But Vavasour staggered up of his own accord, and dashing away Tom’s proffered hand, was rushing off without a word.
“Not so, Mr. John Briggs!” said Tom, making up his mind in a moment that he must have it out now, or never; and that he might have everything to fear from Vavasour if he let him go home furious. We do not part thus, sir!”
“We will meet again, if you will,” foamed Vavasour, “but it shall end in the death of one of us!”
“By each other’s potions? I can doctor myself, sir, thank you. Listen to me, John Briggs! You shall listen!” and Tom sprang past him, and planted himself at the foot of the rock steps, to prevent his escaping upward.
“What, do you wish to quarrel with me, sir? It is I who ought to quarrel with you. I am the aggrieved party, and not you, sir! I have not seen the son of the man who, when I was an apothecary’s boy, petted me, lent me books, introduced me as a genius, turned my head for me, which was just what I was vain enough to enjoy — I have not seen that man’s son cast ashore penniless and friendless, and yet never held out to him a helping hand, but tried to conceal my identity from him, from a dirty shame of my honest father’s honest name.”
Vavasour dropped his eyes, for was it not true? but he raised them again more fiercely than ever.
“Curse you! I owe you nothing. It was you who made me ashamed of it. You rhymed on it, and laughed about poetry coming out of such a name.”
“And what if I did? Are poets to “be made of nothing but tinder and gall?” Why could you not take an honest joke as it was meant, and go your way like other people, till you had shown yourself worth something, and won honour even, for the name of Briggs?”
“And I have! I have my own station now, my own fame, sir, and it is nothing to you what I choose to call myself. I have won my place, I say, and your mean envy cannot rob me of it.”
“You have your station. Very good,” said Tom, not caring to notice the imputation; “you owe the greater part of it to your having made a most fortunate marriage, for which I respect you, as a practical man. Let your poetry be what it may (and people tell me that it is really very beautiful), your match shows me that you are a clever, and therefore a successful person.”
“Do you take me for a sordid schemer, like yourself? I loved what was worthy of me, and won it because I deserved it.”
“Then, having won it, treat it as it deserves,” said Tom, with a cool searching look, before which Vavasour’s eyes fell again. “Understand me, Mr. John Briggs; it is of no consequence to me what you call yourself: but it is of consequence to me that I should not have a patient in my parish whom I cannot cure; for I cannot cure broken hearts, though they will be simple enough to come to me for medicine.”
“You shall have no chance! You shall never enter my house! You shall not ruin me, sir, by your bills!”
Tom made no answer to this fresh insult. He had another game to play.
“Take care what you say, Briggs; remember that, after all, you are in my power, and I had better remind you plainly of the fact.”
“And you mean to make me your tool? I will die first?”
“I believe that,” said Tom, who was very near adding, “that he should be sorry to work with such tools.”
“My tools are my lancet and my drugs,” said he, quietly, “and all I have to say refers to them. It suits my purpose to become the principal medical man in this neighbourhood —”
“And I am to tout for introductions for you?”
“You are to be so very kind as to allow me to finish my sentence, just as you would allow any other gentleman; and because I wish for practice, and patients, and power, you will be so kind as to treat me henceforth as one high-minded man would treat another, to whom he is obliged. For you know, John Briggs, as well as I,” said Tom, drawing himself up to his full height, “look me in the face, if you can, ere you deny it, that I was, while you knew me, as honourable a man, and as kind-hearted a man, as you ever were; and that now — considering the circumstances under which we meet — you have more reason to trust me, than I have, prima facie, to trust you.”
Vavasour answered not a word.
“Good-bye, then,” said Tom, drawing aside from the step; “Mrs. Vavasour will be anxious about you. And mind! With regard to her first of all, sir, and then with regard to other matters — as long, and only as long, as you remember that you are John Briggs of Whitbury, I shall be the first to forget it. There is my hand, for old acquaintance’ sake.”
Vavasour took the proffered hand coldly, paused a moment, and then wrung it in silence, and hurried away home.
“Have I played my ace ill after all?” said Tom, sitting down to consider. “As for whether I should have played it all, that’s no business of mine now. Madam Might-have-been may see to that. But did I play ill? for if I did, I may try a new lead yet. Ought I to have twitted him about his wife? If he’s venomous, it may only make matters worse; and still worse if he be suspicious. I don’t think he was either in old times; but vanity will make a man so, and it may have made him. Well, I must only ingratiate myself all the more with her; and find out, too, whether she has his secret as well as I. What I am most afraid of is my having told him plainly that he was in my power; it’s apt to make sprats of his size flounce desperately, in the mere hope of proving themselves whales after all, if it’s only to their miserable selves. Never mind; he can’t break my tackle; and besides, that gripe of the hand seemed to indicate that the poor wretch was beat, and thought himself let off easily — as indeed he is. We’ll hope so. Now, zoophytes, for another turn with you!”
To tell the truth, however, Tom is looking for more than zoophytes, and has been doing so at every dead low tide since he was wrecked. He has heard nothing yet of his belt. The notes have not been presented at the London bank; nobody in the village has been spending more money than usual; for cunning Tom has contrived already to know how many pints of ale every man of whom he has the least doubt has drunk. Perhaps, after all, the belt may have been torn off in the life struggle; it may have been for a moment in Grace’s hands, and then have been swept into the sea. What more likely? And what more likely, in that case, that, sinking by its weight, it is wedged away in some cranny of the rocks?
So spring-tide after spring-tide Tom searches, and all the more carefully because others are searching too, for waifs and strays from the wreck. Sad relics of mortality he finds at times, as others do: once, even, a dressing-case, full of rings and pins and chains, which belonged, he fancied, to a gay young bride with whom he had waltzed many a time on deck, as they slipped along before the soft trade-wind: but no belt. He sent the dressing-case to the Lloyd’s underwriters, and searched on: but in vain. Neither could he find that any one else had forestalled him; and that very afternoon, sulky and disheartened, he determined to waste no more time about the matter, and strode home, vowing signal vengeance against the thief, if he caught him.
“And I will catch him! These west-country yokels, to fancy that they can do Tom Thurnall! It’s adding insult to injury, as Sam Weller’s parrot has it.”
Now his shortest way home lay across the shore, and then along the beach, and up the steps by the little waterfall, past Mrs. Harvey’s door; and at that door sat Grace, sewing in the sun. She looked up and bowed as his passed, smiling modestly, and little dreaming of what was passing in his mind; and when a very lovely girl smiled and bowed to Tom, he must needs do the same to her: whereon she added —
“I beg your pardon, sir: have you heard anything of the money you lost? I— we — have been so ashamed to think of such a thing happening here.”
Tom’s evil spirit was roused.
“Have you heard anything of it, Miss Harvey? For you seem to me the only person in the place who knows anything about the matter.”
“I, sir?” cried Grace, fixing her great startled eyes full on him.
“Why, ma’am,” said Tom, with a courtly smile, “you may possibly recollect, if you will so far tax your memory, that you had it in your hands at least a moment, when you did me the kindness to save my life; and as you were kind enough to inform me that I should recover it when I was worthy of it, I suppose I have not yet risen in your eyes to the required state of conversion and regeneration.” And swinging impatiently away, he walked on, really afraid lest he should say something rude.
Grace half called after him, and then suddenly checking herself, rushed in to her mother with a wild and pale face.
“What is this Mr. Thurnall has been saying to me about his belt and money which he lost?”
“About what? Has he been rude to you, the bad man?” cried Mrs. Harvey, dropping the pie-dish in some confusion, and taking a long while to pick up the pieces.
“About the belt — the money which he lost? Why don’t you speak, mother?”
“Belt — money? Ah, I recollect now. He has lost some money, he says.”
“Of course he has.”
“How should you know anything? I recollect there was some talk of it, though. But what matter what he says? He was quite passed away, I’ll swear, when they carried him up.”
“But, mother! mother! he says that I know about it; that I had it in my hands!”
“You? Oh the wicked wretch, the false, ungrateful, slanderous child of wrath, with adder’s poison tinder his lips! No, my child! Though we’re poor, we’re honest! Let him slander us, rob us, of our good name, send us to prison, if he will — he cannot rob us of our souls. We’ll be silent; we’ll turn the other cheek, and commit our cause to One above who pleads for the orphan and the widow. We will not strive nor cry, my child. Oh, no!” And Mrs. Harvey began fussing over the smashed pie-dish.
“I shall not strive nor cry, mother,” said Grace, who had recovered her usual calm: “but he must have some cause for these strange words. Do you recollect seeing me with the belt?”
“Belt, what’s a belt? I know nothing about belts. I tell you he’s a villain, and a slanderer. Oh, that it should have come to this, to have my child’s fair fame blasted by a wretch that comes nobody knows where from, and has been doing nobody knows what, for aught I know!”
“Mother, mother! we know no harm of him. If he is mistaken, God forgive him!”
“If he is mistaken?” went on Mrs. Harvey, still over the pie-dish: but Grace gave her no answer.
She was deep in thought. She recollected now, that as she had gone up the path, from the cove on that eventful morning, she had seen Willis and Thurnall whispering earnestly together; and she recollected now, for the first time, that there had been, a certain sadness and perplexity, almost reserve, about Willis ever since. Good Heavens! could he suspect her too? She would find out that at least; and no sooner had her mother fussed away, talking angrily to herself, into the back kitchen, than Grace put on her bonnet and shawl, and went forth to find the Captain.
In an hour she returned. Her lips were firm set, her cheeks pale, her eyes red with weeping. She said nothing to her mother, who for her part did not seem inclined to allude again to the matter.
“Where have you been, child? You look quite poorly, and your eyes red.”
“The wind is very cold, mother,” said she, and went into her room. Her mother looked sharply after her, and muttered to herself.
Grace went in, and sat down on the bed.
“What a coldness this is at my heart!” she said aloud to herself, trying to smile; but she could not: and she sat on the bedside, without taking off her bonnet and shawl, her hands hanging listlessly by her side, her head drooping on her bosom, till her mother called her to tea: then she was forced to rouse herself, and went out, composed, but utterly wretched.
Tom walked up homeward, very ill at ease. He had played, to use his nomenclature, two trump cards running, and was by no means satisfied that he had played them well. He had no right, certainly, to be satisfied with either move; for both had been made in a somewhat evil spirit, and certainly for no very disinterested end.
That was a view of the matter, however, which never entered his mind; there was only that general dissatisfaction with himself which is, though men try hard to deny the fact, none other than the supernatural sting of conscience. He tried “to lay to his soul the flattering unction” that he might, after all, be of use to Mrs. Vavasour, by using his power over her husband: but he knew in his secret heart that any move of his in that direction was likely only to make matters worse; that to-day’s explosion might only have sent home the hapless Vavasour in a more irritable temper than ever. And thinking over many things, backward and forward, he saw his own way so little, that he actually condescended to go and “pump” Frank Headley. So he termed it: but, after all, it was only like asking advice of a good man, because he did not feel himself quite good enough to advise himself.
The curate was preparing to sally forth, after his frugal dinner. The morning he spent at the schools, or in parish secularities; the afternoon, till dusk, was devoted to visiting the poor; the night, not to sleep, but to reading and sermon writing. Thus, by sitting up till two in the morning, and rising again at six for his private devotions, before walking a mile and a half up to church for the morning service, Frank Headley burnt the candle of life at both ends very effectually, and showed that he did so by his pale cheeks and red eyes.
“Ah!” said Tom, as he entered. “As usual: poor Nature is being robbed and murdered by rich Grace.”
“What do you mean now?” asked Frank, smiling, for he had become accustomed enough to Tom’s quaint parables, though he had to scold him often enough for their irreverence.
“Nature says, ‘after dinner sit awhile;’ and even the dumb animals hear her voice, and lie by for a siesta when their stomachs are full. Grace says, ‘Jump up and rush out the moment you have swallowed your food; and if you get an indigestion, abuse poor Nature for it; and lay the blame on Adam’s fall.’”
“You are irreverent, my good sir, as usual; but you are unjust also this time.”
“Unjust to Grace, as you phrase it,” answered Frank, with a quaint sad smile. “I assure you on my honour, that Grace has nothing whatsoever to do with my ‘rushing out’ just now, but simply the desire to do my good works that they may be seen of men. I hate going out. I should like to sit and read the whole afternoon: but I am afraid lest the dissenters should say, ‘He has not been to see so-and-so for the last three days;’ so off I go, and no credit to me.”
Why had Frank dared, upon a month’s acquaintance, to lay bare his own heart thus to a man of no creed at all? Because, I suppose, amid all differences, he had found one point of likeness between himself and Thurnall; he had found that Tom at heart was a truly genuine man, sincere and faithful to his own scheme of the universe.
How that man, through all his eventful life, had been enabled to
“Bate not a jot of heart or hope,
But steer right onward,”
was a problem which Frank longed curiously, and yet fearfully withal, to solve. There were many qualities in him which Frank could not but admire, and long to imitate; and, “Whence had they come?” was another problem at which he looked, trembling as many a new thought crossed him. He longed, too, to learn from Tom somewhat at least of that savoir faire, that power of “becoming all things to all men,” which St. Paul had; and for want of which Frank had failed. He saw, too, with surprise, that Tom had gained in one month more real insight into the characters of his parishioners than he had done in twelve; and besides all, there was the craving of the lonely heart for human confidence and friendship. So it befell that Frank spoke out his inmost thought that day, and thought no shame; and it befell also, that Thurnall, when he heard it, said in his heart —
“What a noble, honest fellow you are, when you —”
But he answered enigmatically.
“Oh, I quite agree with you that Grace has nothing to do with it. I only referred it to that source because I thought you would do so.”
“You ought to be ashamed of your dishonesty, then.”
“I know it; but my view of the case is, that you rush out after dinner for the very same reason that the Yankee storekeeper does — from — You’ll forgive me if I say it?”
“Of course. You cannot speak too plainly to me.”
“Conceit; the Yankee fancies himself such an important person, that the commercial world will stand still unless he flies back to its help after ten minutes’ gobbling, with his month full of pork and pickled peaches. And you fancy yourself so important in your line, that the spiritual world will stand still unless you bolt back to help it in like wise. Substitute a half-cooked mutton chop for the pork, and the cases are exact parallels.”
“Your parallel does not hold good, Doctor. The Yankee goes back to his store to earn money for himself, and not to keep commerce alive.”
“While you go for utterly disinterested motives. — I see.”
“Do you?” said Frank. “If you think that I fancy myself a better man than the Yankee, you mistake me: but at least you will confess that I am not working for money.”
“No; you have your notions of reward, and he has his. He wants to be paid by material dollars, payable next month; you by spiritual dollars, payable when you die. I don’t see the great difference.”
“Only the slight difference between what is material and what is spiritual.”
“They seem to me, from all I can hear in pulpits, to be only two different sorts of pleasant things, and to be sought after, both alike, simply because they are pleasant. Self-interest, if you will forgive me, seems to me the spring of both: only, to do you justice, you are a farther-sighted and more prudent man than the Yankee storekeeper; and having more exquisitely developed notions of what your true self-interest is, are content to wait a little longer than he.”
“You stab with a jest, Thurnall. You little know how your words hit home.”
“Well, then, to turn from a matter of which I know nothing — I must keep you in, and give you parish business to do at home. I am come to consult you as my spiritual pastor and master.”
Frank looked a little astonished.
“Don’t be alarmed. I am not going to confess my own sins — only other people’s.”
“Pray don’t, then. I know far more of them already than I can cure. I am worn out with the daily discovery of fresh evil wherever I go.”
“Then why not comfort yourself by trying to find a little fresh good wherever you go?”
“Perhaps, though, you don’t care for any sort of good except your own sort of good. You are fastidious. Well, you have your excuses. But you can understand a poor fellow like me, who has been dragged through the slums and sewers of this wicked world for fifteen years and more, being very well content with any sort of good which I can light on, and not particular as to either quantity or quality.”
“Perhaps yours is the healthier state of mind; if you can only find the said good. The vulturine nose, which smells nothing but corruption, is no credit to its possessor. And it would be pleasant, at least, to find good in every man.”
“One can’t do that in one’s study. Mixing with them is the only plan. No doubt they’re inconsistent enough. The more you see of them, the less you trust them; and yet the more you see of them, the more you like them. Can you solve that paradox from your books?”
“I will try,” said Frank. “I generally have more than one to think over when you go. But, surely, there are men so fallen that they are utterly insensible to good.”
“Very likely. There’s no saying in this world what may not be. Only I never saw one. I’ll tell you a story: you may apply it as you like. When I was on the Texan expedition, and raw to soldiering and camping, we had to sleep in low ground, and suffered terribly from a miasma. Deadly cold, it was, when it came; and the man who once got chilled through with it, just died. I was lying on the bare ground one night, and chilly enough I was — for I was short of clothes, and had lost my buffalo robe — but fell asleep: and on waking the next morning, I found myself covered up in my comrade’s blankets, even to his coat, while he was sitting shivering in his shirt sleeves. The cold fog had come down in the night, and the man had stripped himself, and sat all night with death staring him in the face, to save my life. And all the reason he gave was, that if one of us must die, it was better the older should go first, and not a youngster like me. And,” said Tom, lowering his voice, “that man was a murderer!”
“Yes; a drunken, gambling, cut-throat rowdy as ever grew ripe for the gallows. Now, will you tell me that there was nothing in that man but what the devil put there?”
Frank sat meditating awhile on this strange story, which is moreover a true one; and then looked up with something like tears in his eyes.
“And he did not die?”
“Not he! I saw him die afterwards — shot through the heart, without time even to cry out. But I have not forgotten what he did for me that night; and I’ll tell you what, sir! I do not believe that God has forgotten it either.”
Frank was silent for a few moments, and then Tom changed the subject.
“I want to know what you can tell me about this Mr. Vavasour.”
“Hardly anything, I am sorry to say. I was at his house at tea, two or three times, when I first came; and I had very agreeable evenings, and talks on art and poetry: but I believe I offended him by hinting that he ought to come to church, which he never does, and since then our acquaintance has all but ceased. I suppose you will say, as usual, that I played my cards badly there also.”
“Not at all,” said Tom, who was disposed to take any one’s part against Elsley. “If a clergyman has not a right to tell a man that, I don’t see what right he has of any kind. Only,” added he, with one of his quaint smiles, “the clergyman, if he compels a man to deal at his store, is bound to furnish him with the articles which he wants.”
“Which he needs, or which he likes? For ‘wanting’ has both these meanings.”
“With something that he finds by experience does him good; and so learns to like it, because he knows that he needs it, as my patients do my physic.”
“I wish my patients would do so by mine: but, unfortunately, half of them seem to me not to know what their disease is, and the other half do not think they are diseased at all.”
“Well,” said Tom drily, “perhaps some of them are more right than you fancy. Every man knows his own business best.”
“If it were so, they would go about it somewhat differently from what most of the poor creatures do.”
“Do you think so. I fancy myself that not one of them does a wrong thing, but what he knows it to be wrong just as well as you do, and is much more ashamed and frightened about it already, than you can ever make him by preaching at him.”
“I do. I judge of others by myself.”
“Then would you have a clergyman never warn his people of their sins?”
“If I were he, I’d much sooner take the sins for granted, and say to them, ‘Now, my friends, I know you are all, ninety-nine out of the hundred of you, not such bad fellows at bottom, and would all like to be good, if you only knew how; so I’ll tell you as far as I know, though I don’t know much about the matter. For the truth is, you must have a hundred troubles every day which I never felt in my life; and it must be a very hard thing to keep body and soul together, and to get a little pleasure on this side the grave without making blackguards of yourselves. Therefore I don’t pretend to set myself up as a better or a wiser man than you at all: but I do know a thing or two which I fancy may be useful to you. You can but try it. So come up, if you like, any of you, and talk matters over with me as between gentleman and gentleman. I shall keep your secret, of course; and if you find I can’t cure your complaint, why, you can but go away and try elsewhere.’”
“And so the doctor’s model sermon ends in proposing private confession!”
“Of course. The thing itself which will do them good, without the red rag of an official name, which sends them cackling off like frightened turkeys. — Such private confession as is going on between you and me now. Here am I confessing to you all my unorthodoxy.”
“And I my ignorance,” said Frank; “for I really believe you know more about the matter than I do.”
“Not at all. I may be all wrong. But the fault of your cloth seems to me to be that they apply their medicines without deigning, most of them, to take the least diagnosis of the case. How could I cure a man without first examining what was the matter with him?”
“So say the old casuists, of whom I have read enough — some would say too much; but they do not satisfy me. They deal with actions, and motives, and so forth; but they do not go down to the one root of wrong which is the same in every man.”
“You are getting beyond me: but why do you not apply a little of the worldly wisdom which these same casuists taught you?”
“To tell you the truth, I have tried in past years, and found that the medicine would not act.”
“Humph! Well, that would depend, again, on the previous diagnosis of human nature being correct; and those old monks, I should say, would know about as much of human nature as so many daws in a steeple. Still, you wouldn’t say that what was the matter with old Heale was the matter also with Vavasour?”
“I believe from my heart that it is.”
“Humph! Then you know the symptoms of his complaint?”
“I know that he never comes to church.”
“Nothing more? I am really speaking in confidence. You surely have heard of disagreements between him and Mrs. Vavasour?”
“Never, I assure you; you shock me.”
“I am exceedingly sorry, then, that I said a word about it: but the whole parish talks of it,” answered Tom, who was surprised at this fresh proof of the little confidence which Aberalva put in their parson.
“Ah!” said Frank sadly, “I am the last person in the parish to hear any news: but this is very distressing.”
“Very, to me. My honour, to tell you the truth, as a medical man, is concerned in the matter; for she is growing quite ill from unhappiness, and I cannot cure her; so I come to you, as soul-doctor, to do what I, the body-doctor, cannot.”
Frank sat pondering for a minute, and then —
“You set me on a task for which I am as little fit as any man, by your own showing. What do I know of disagreements between man and wife? And one has a delicacy about offering her comfort. She must bestow her confidence on me before I can use it: while he —”
“While he, as the cause of the disease, is what you ought to treat; and not her unhappiness, which is only a symptom of it.”
“Spoken like a wise doctor; but to tell you the truth, Thurnall, I have no influence over Mr. Vavasour, and see no means of getting any. If he recognised my authority, as his parish priest, then I should see my way. Let him be as bad as he might, I should have a fixed point from which to work; but with his free-thinking notions, I know well — one can judge it too easily from his poems — he would look on me as a pedant assuming a spiritual tyranny to which I have no claim.”
Tom sat awhile nursing his knee, and then —
“If you saw a man fallen into the water, what do you think would be the shortest way to prove to him that you had authority from heaven to pull him out? Do you give it up? Pulling him out would it not be, without more ado?”
“I should be happy enough to pull poor Vavasour out, if he would let me. But till he believes that I can do it, how can I even begin!”
“How can you expect him to believe, if he has no proof?”
“There are proofs enough in the Bible and elsewhere, if he will but accept them. If he refuses to examine into the credentials, the fault is his, not mine. I really do not wish to be hard; but would not you do the same, if any one refused to employ you, because he chose to deny that you were a legally qualified practitioner?”
“Not so badly put; but what should I do in that case? Go on quietly curing his neighbours, till he began to alter his mind as to my qualifications, and came in to be cured himself. But here’s this difference between you and me. I am not bound to attend to any one who don’t send for me; while you think that you are, and carry the notion a little too far, for I expect you to kill yourself by it some day.”
“Well?” said Frank, with something of that lazy Oxford tone, which is intended to save the speaker the trouble of giving his arguments, when he has already made up his mind, or thinks that he has so done.
“Well, if I thought myself bound to doctor the man, willy-nilly, as you do, I would certainly go to him, and show him, at least, that I understood his complaint. That would be the first step towards his letting me cure him. How else on earth do you fancy that Paul cured those Corinthians about whom I have been reading lately?”
“Are you, too, going to quote Scripture against me? I am glad to find that your studies extend to St. Paul.”
“To tell you the truth, your sermon last Sunday puzzled me. I could not comprehend (on your showing) how Paul got that wonderful influence over those pagans which he evidently had; and as how to get influence is a very favourite study of mine, I borrowed the book when I went home, and read for myself; and the matter at last seemed clear enough, on Paul’s own showing.”
“I don’t doubt that: but I suspect your interpretation of the fact and mine would not agree.”
“Mine is simple enough. He says that what proved him to be an apostle was his power. He is continually appealing to his power; and what can he mean by that, but that he could do, and had done, what he professed to do? He promised to make those poor heathen rascals of Greeks better, and wiser, and happier men; and, I suppose, he made them so; and then there was no doubt of his commission, or his authority, or anything else. He says himself he did not require any credentials, for they were his credentials, read and known of every one; he had made good men of them out of bad ones, and that was proof enough whose apostle he was.”
“Well,” said Frank half sadly, “I might say a great deal, of course, on the other side of the question, but I prefer hearing what you laymen think about it all.”
“Will you be angry if I tell you honestly?”
“Did you ever find me angry at anything you said?”
“No. I will do you the justice to say that. Well, what we laymen say is this. If the parsons have the authority of which they boast, why don’t they use it? If they have commission to make bad people good, they must have power too; for He whose commission they claim, is not likely, I should suppose, to set a man to do what he cannot do.”
“And we can do it, if people would but submit to us. It all comes round again to the same point.”
“So it does. How to get them to listen. I tried to find out how Paul achieved that first step; and when I looked he told me plainly enough. By becoming all things to all men; by showing these people that he understood them, and knew what was the matter with them. Now do you go and do likewise by Vavasour, and then exercise your authority like a practical man. If you have power to bind and loose, as you told us last Sunday, bind that fellow’s ungovernable temper, and loose him from the real slavery which he is in to his miserable conceit and self-indulgence! and then if he does not believe in your ‘sacerdotal power,’ he is even a greater fool than I take him for.”
“Honestly, I will try: God help me!” added Frank in a lower voice; “but as for quarrels between man and wife, as I told you, no one understands them less than I.”
“Then marry a wife yourself and quarrel a little with her for experiment, and then you’ll know all about it.”
Frank laughed in spite of himself.
“Thank you. No man is less likely to try that experiment than I.”
“I have quite enough as a bachelor to distract me from my work, without adding to them those of a wife and family, and those little home lessons in the frailty of human nature, in which you advise me to copy Mr. Vavasour.”
“And so,” said Tom, “having to doctor human beings, nineteen-twentieths of whom are married; and being aware that three parts of the miseries of human life come either from wanting to be married, or from married cares and troubles — you think that you will improve your chance of doctoring your flock rightly by avoiding carefully the least practical acquaintance with the chief cause of their disease. Philosophical and logical, truly!”
“You seem to have acquired a little knowledge of men and women, my good friend, without encumbering yourself with a wife and children.”
“Would you like to go to the same school to which I went?” asked Thurnall, with a look of such grave meaning that Frank’s pure spirit shuddered within him. “And I’ll tell you this; whenever I see a woman nursing her baby, or a father with his child upon his knees, I say to myself — they know more, at this minute, of human nature, as of the great law of ‘C’est l’amour, l’amour, l’amour, which makes the world go round,’ than I am likely to do for many a day. I’ll tell you what, sir! These simple natural ties, which are common to us and the dumb animals — as I live, sir, they are the divinest things I see in the world! I have but one, and that is love to my poor old father; that’s all the religion I have as yet: but I tell you, it alone has kept me from being a ruffian and a blackguard. And I’ll tell you more,” said Tom, warming, “of all diabolical dodges for preventing the parsons from seeing who they are, or what human beings are, or what their work in the world is, or anything else, the neatest is that celibacy of the clergy. I should like to have you with me in Spanish America, or in France either, and see what you thought of it then. How it ever came into mortal brains is to me the puzzle. I’ve often fancied, when I’ve watched those priests — and very good fellows, too, some of them are — that there must be a devil after all abroad in the world, as you say; for no human insanity could ever have hit upon so complete and ‘cute a device for making parsons do the more harm, the more good they try to do. There, I’ve preached you a sermon, and made you angry.”
“Not in the least: but I must go now and see some sick.”
“Well, go, and prosper; only recollect that the said sick are men and women.”
And away Tom went, thinking to himself: “Well, that is a noble, straightforward, honest fellow, and will do yet, if he’ll only get a wife. He’s not one of those asses who have made up their minds by book that the world is square, and won’t believe it to be round for any ocular demonstration. He’ll find out what shape the world is before long, and behave as such, and act accordingly.”
Little did Tom think, as he went home that day in full-blown satisfaction with his sermon to Frank, of the misery he had caused, and was going to cause for many a day, to poor Grace Harvey. It was a rude shock to her to find herself thus suspected; though perhaps it was one which she needed. She had never, since one first trouble ten years ago, known any real grief; and had therefore had all the more time to make a luxury of unreal ones. She was treated by the simple folk around her as all but inspired; and being possessed of real powers as miraculous in her own eyes as those which were imputed to her were in theirs (for what are real spiritual experiences but daily miracles?) she was just in that temper of mind in which she required, as ballast, all her real goodness, lest the moral balance should topple headlong after the intellectual, and the downward course of vanity, excitement, deception, blasphemous assumptions be entered on. Happy for her that she was in Protestant and common-sense England, and in a country parish, where mesmerism and spirit-rapping were unknown. Had she been an American, she might have become one of the most lucrative “mediums;” had she been born in a Romish country, she would have probably become an even more famous personage. There is no reason why she should not have equalled or surpassed, the ecstasies of St. Theresa, or of St. Hildegardis, or any other sweet dreamer of sweet dreams; have founded a new order of charity, have enriched the clergy of a whole province, and have died in seven years, maddened by alternate paroxysms of self-conceit and revulsions of self-abasement. Her own preachers and class-leaders, indeed (so do extremes meet), would not have been sorry to make use of her in somewhat the same manner, however feebly and coarsely: but her innate self-respect and modesty had preserved her from the snares of such clumsy poachers; and more than one good-looking young preacher had fled desperately from a station where, instead of making a tool of Grace Harvey, he could only madden his own foolish heart with love for her.
So Grace had reigned upon her pretty little throne of not unbearable sorrows, till a real and bitter woe came; one which could not be hugged and cherished, like the rest; one which she tried to fling from her, angrily, scornfully, and found to her horror, that, instead of her possessing it, it possessed her, and coiled itself round her heart, and would not be flung away. She — she, of all beings, to be suspected as a thief, and by the very man whose life she had saved! She was willing enough to confess herself — and confessed herself night and morning — a miserable sinner, and her heart a cage of unclean birds, deceitful, and desperately wicked — except in that. The conscious innocence flashed up in pride and scorn, in thoughts, even when she was alone, in words, of which she would not have believed herself capable. With hot brow and dry eyes she paced her little chamber, sat down on the bed, staring into vacancy, sprang up and paced again: but she went into no trance — she dare not. The grief was too great; she felt that, if she once gave way enough to lose her self-possession, she should go mad. And the first, and perhaps not the least good effect of that fiery trial was, that it compelled her to a stern self-restraint, to which her will, weakened by mental luxuriousness, had been long a stranger.
But a fiery trial it was. The first wild (and yet not unnatural) fancy, that heaven had given Thurnall to her, had deepened day by day, by the mere indulgence of it. But she never dreamt of him as her husband: only as a friendless stranger to be helped and comforted. And that he was worthy of help; that some great future was in store for him; that he was a chosen vessel marked out for glory, she had persuaded herself utterly; and the persuasion grew in her day by day, as she heard more and more of his cleverness, honesty, and kindliness, mysterious and, to her, miraculous learning. Therefore she did not make haste; she did not even try to see him, or to speak to him; a civil bow in passing was all that she took or gave; and she was content with that, and waited till the time came, when she was destined to do for him — what she knew not; but it would be done if she were strong enough. So she set herself to learn, and read, and trained her mind and temper more earnestly than ever, and waited in patience for God’s good time. And now, behold, a black, unfathomable gulf of doubt and shame had opened between them, perhaps for ever. And a tumult arose in her soul, which cannot be, perhaps ought not to be, analysed in words; but which made her know too well, by her own crimson cheeks, that it was none other than human love strong as death, and jealousy cruel as the grave.
At last long and agonising prayer brought gentler thoughts, and mere physical exhaustion a calmer mood. How wicked she had been; how rebellious! Why not forgive him, as One greater than she had forgiven? It was ungrateful of him; but was he not human? Why should she expect his heart to be better than hers? Besides, he might have excuses for his suspicion. He might be the best judge, being a man, and such a clever one too. Yes; it was God’s cross, and she would bear it; she would try and forget him. No; that was impossible; she must hear of him, if not see him, day by day: besides, was not her fate linked up with his? And yet shut out from him by that dark wall of suspicion! It was very bitter. But she could pray for him; she would pray for him now. Yes; it was God’s cross, and she would bear it. He would right her if He thought fit; and if not, what matter? Was she not born to sorrow? Should she complain if another drop, and that the bitterest of all, was added to the cup?
And bear her cross she did, about with her, coming in, and going out, for many a weary day. There was no change in her habits or demeanour; she was never listless for a moment in her school; she was more gay and amusing than ever, when she gathered her little ones around her for a story: but still there was the unseen burden, grinding her heart slowly, till she felt as if every footstep was stained with a drop of her heart’s blood. . . . Why not? It would be the sooner over.
Then, at times came that strange woman’s pleasure in martyrdom, the secret pride of suffering unjustly: but even that, after a while, she cast away from her, as a snare, and tried to believe that she deserved all her sorrow — deserved it, that is, in the real honest sense of the word; that she had worked it out, and earned it, and brought it on herself — how, she knew not, but longed and strove to know. No; it was no martyrdom. She would not allow herself so silly a cloak of pride; and she went daily to her favourite “Book of Martyrs,” to contemplate there the stories of those who really innocent, really suffered for welldoing. And out of that book she began to draw a new and a strange enjoyment, for she soon found that her intense imagination enabled her to re-enact those sad and glorious stories in her own person; to tremble, agonise, and conquer with those heroines who had been for years her highest ideals — and what higher ones could she have? And many a night, after extinguishing the light, and closing her eyes, she would lie motionless for hours on her little bed, not to sleep, but to feel with Perpetua the wild bull’s horns, to hang with St. Maura on the cross, or lie with Julitta on the rack, or see with triumphant smile, by Anne Askew’s side, the fire flare up around her at the Smithfield stake, or to promise, with dying Dorothea, celestial roses to the mocking youth, whose face too often took the form of Thurnall’s; till every nerve quivered responsive to her fancy in agonies of actual pain, which died away at last into heavy slumber, as body and mind alike gave way before the strain. Sweet fool! she knew not — how could she know? — that she might be rearing in herself the seeds of idiotcy and death: but who that applauds a Rachel or a Ristori, for being able to make awhile their souls and their countenances the homes of the darkest passions, can blame her for enacting in herself, and for herself alone, incidents in which the highest and holiest virtue takes shape in perfect tragedy?
But soon another, and a yet darker cause of sorrow arose in her. It was clear, from what Willis had told her, that she had held the lost belt in her hand. The question was, how had she lost it?
Did her mother know anything about it? That question could not but arise in her mind, though, for very reverence she dared not put it to her mother; and with it arose the recollection of her mother’s strange silence about the matter. Why had she put away the subject, carelessly, and yet peevishly, when it was mentioned? Yes. Why? Did her mother know anything? Was she —? Grace dared not pronounce the adjective, even in thought; dashed it away as a temptation of the devil; dashed away, too, the thought which had forced itself on her too often already, that her mother was not altogether one who possessed the single eye; that in spite of her deep religious feeling, her assurance of salvation, her fits of bitter self-humiliation and despondency, there was an inclination to scheming and intrigue, ambition, covetousness; that the secrets which she gained as class-leader too, were too often (Grace could but fear) used to her own advantage; that in her dealings her morality was not above the average of little country shopkeepers; that she was apt to have two prices; to keep her books with unnecessary carelessness when the person against whom the account stood was no scholar. Grace had more than once remonstrated in her gentle way; and had been silenced, rather than satisfied, by her mother’s commonplaces as to the right of “making those who could pay, pay for those who could not;” that “it was very hard to get a living, and the Lord knew her temptations,” and “that God saw no sin in His elect,” and “Christ’s merits were infinite,” and “Christians always had been a backsliding generation;” and all the other commonplaces by which such people drug their consciences to a degree which is utterly incredible, except to those who have seen it with their own eyes, and heard it with their own ears, from childhood.
Once, too, in those very days, some little meanness on her mother’s part brought the tears into Grace’s eyes, and a gentle rebuke to her lips: but her mother bore the interference less patiently than usual; and answered, not by cant, but by counter-reproach. “Was she the person to accuse a poor widowed mother, struggling to leave her child something to keep her out of the workhouse? A mother that lived for her, would die for her, sell her soul for her, perhaps —”
And there Mrs. Harvey stopped short, turned pale, and burst into such an agony of tears, that Grace, terrified, threw her arms round her neck, and entreated forgiveness, all the more intensely on account of those thoughts within which she dared not reveal. So the storm passed over. But not Grace’s sadness. For she could not but see, with her clear pure spiritual eye, that her mother was just in that state in which some fearful and shameful fall is possible, perhaps wholesome. “She would sell her soul for me? What if she have sold it, and stopped short just now, because she had not the heart to tell me that love for me had been the cause? Oh! if she have sinned for my sake! Wretch that I am! Miserable myself, and bringing misery with me! Why was I ever born? Why cannot I die — and the world be rid of me?”
No, she would not believe it. It was a wicked, horrible, temptation of the devil. She would rather believe that she herself had been the thief, tempted during her unconsciousness; that she had hidden it somewhere; that she should recollect, confess, restore all some day. She would carry it to him herself, grovel at his feet, and entreat forgiveness. “He will surely forgive, when he finds that I was not myself when — that it was not altogether my fault — not as if I had been waking — yes, he will forgive!” And then on that thought followed a dream of what might follow, so wild that a moment after she had hid her blushes in her hands, and fled to books to escape from thoughts.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56