Did you ever, in a feverish dream, climb a mountain which grew higher and higher as you climbed; and scramble through passages which changed perpetually before you, and up and down break-neck stairs which broke off perpetually behind you? Did you ever spend the whole night, foot in stirrup, mounting that phantom hunter which never gets mounted, or, if he does, turns into a pen between your knees; or in going to fish that phantom stream which never gets fished? Did you ever, late for that mysterious dinner-party in some enchanted castle, wander disconsolately, in unaccountable rags and dirt, in search of that phantom carpet-bag which never gets found? Did you ever “realise” to yourself the sieve of the Danaides, the stone of Sisyphus, the wheel of Ixion; the pleasure of shearing that domestic animal who (according to the experience of a very ancient observer of nature) produces more cry than wool; the perambulation of that Irishman’s model bog, where you slip two steps backward for one forward, and must, therefore, in order to progress at all, turn your face homeward, and progress as a pig does into a steamer, by going the opposite way? Were you ever condemned to spin ropes of sand to all eternity, like Tregeagle the wrecker; or to extract the cube roots of a million or two of hopeless surds, like the mad mathematician; or last, and worst of all, to work the Nuisances Removal Act? Then you can enter, as a man and a brother, into the sorrows of Tom Thurnall, in the months of June and July, 1854.
He had made up his mind, for certain good reasons of his own, that the cholera ought to visit Aberalva in the course of the summer; and, of course, tried his best to persuade people to get ready for their ugly visitor: but in vain. The cholera come there? Why, it never had come yet, which signified, when he inquired a little more closely, that there had been only one or two doubtful cases in 1837, and five or six in 1849. In vain he answered, “Very well; and is not that a proof that the causes of cholera are increasing here? If you had one case the first time, and five times as many the next, by the same rule you will have five times as many more if it comes this summer.”
“Nonsense! Aberalva was the healthiest town on the coast.”
“Well but,” would Tom say, “in the census before last, you had a population of 1300 in 112 houses, and that was close packing enough, in all conscience: and in the last census I find you had a population of over 1400, which must have increased since; and there are eight or nine old houses in the town pulled down, or turned into stores; so you are more closely packed than ever. And mind, it may seem no very great difference; but it is the last drop that fills the cup.”
What had that to do with cholera? And more than one gave him to understand that he must be either a very silly or a very impertinent person, to go poking into how many houses there were in the town, and how many people lived in each. Tardrew, the steward, indeed, said openly, that Mr. Thurnall was making disturbance enough in people’s property up at Pentremochyn, without bothering himself with Aberalva too. He had no opinion of people who had a finger in everybody’s pie. Whom Tom tried to soothe with honeyed words, knowing him to be of the original British bulldog breed, which, once stroked against the hair, shows his teeth at you for ever afterwards.
But staunch was Tardrew, unfortunately on the wrong side; and backed by the collective ignorance, pride, laziness, and superstition of Aberalva, showed to his new assailant that terrible front of stupidity, against which, says Schiller, “the gods themselves fight in vain.”
“Does he think we was all fools afore he came here?”
That was the rallying cry of the Conservative party, worshippers of Baalzebub, god of flies, and of that (so say Syrian scholars) from which flies are bred. And, indeed, there were excuses for them, on the Yankee ground, that “there’s a deal of human natur’ in man.” It is hard to human nature to make all the humiliating confessions which must precede sanitary repentance; to say, “I have been a very nasty, dirty fellow. I have lived contented in evil smells, till I care for them no more than my pig does. I have refused to understand Nature’s broadest hints, that anything which is so disagreeable is not meant to be left about. I have probably been more or less the cause of half my own illnesses, and of three-fourths of the illness of my children; for aught I know, it is very much my fault that my own baby has died of scarlatina, and two or three of my tenants of typhus. No, hang it! that’s too much to make any man confess to! I’ll prove my innocence by not reforming!” So sanitary reform is thrust out of sight, simply because its necessity is too humiliating to the pride of all, too frightful to the consciences of many.
Tom went to Trebooze.
“Mr. Trebooze, you are a man of position in the county, and own some houses in Aberalva. Don’t you think you could use your influence in this matter?”
“Own some houses? Yes,”— and Mr. Trebooze consigned the said cottages to a variety of unmentionable places; “cost me more in rates than they bring in in rent, even if I get the rent paid. I should like to get a six-pounder, and blow the whole lot into the sea. Cholera coming, eh? D’ye think it will he there before Michaelmas?”
“Pity I can’t clear ’em out before Michaelmas. Else I’d have ejected the lot, and pulled the houses down.”
“I think something should be done meanwhile, though, towards cleansing them.”
“—— Let ’em cleanse them themselves! Soap’s cheap enough with your —— free trade, ain’t it! No, sir! That sort of talk will do well enough for my Lord Minchampstead, sir, the old money-lending Jew! —— but gentlemen, sir, gentlemen, that are half-ruined with free trade, and your Whig policy, sir, you must give ’em back their rights before they can afford to throw away their money on cottages. Cottages, indeed! —— upstart of a cotton-spinner, coming down here, buying the lands over our heads, and pretends to show us how to manage our estates; old families that have been in the county this four hundred years, with the finest peasantry in the world ready to die for them, sir, till these new revolutionary doctrines came in — Pride and purse-proud conceit, just to show off his money! What do they want with better cottages than their fathers had? Only put notions into their heads, raise ’em above their station; more they have, more they’ll want. —— sir, make chartists of ’em all before he’s done! I’ll tell you what, sir,”— and Mr. Trebooze attempted a dignified and dogmatic tone —“I never told it you before, because you were my very good friend, sir: but my opinion is, sir, that by what you’re doing up at Pentremochyn, you’re just spreading chartism — chartism, sir! Of course I know nothing. Of course I’m nobody, in these days: but that’s my opinion, sir, and you’ve got it!”
By which motion Tom took little. Mighty is envy always, and mighty ignorance: but you become aware of their truly Titanic grandeur only when you attempt to touch their owner’s pocket.
Tom tried old Heale: but took as little in that quarter. Heale had heard of sanitary reform, of course; but he knew nothing about it, and gave a general assent to Tom’s doctrines, for fear of exposing his own ignorance: acting on them was a very different matter. It is always hard for an old medical man to confess that anything has been discovered since the days of his youth; and beside, there were other reasons behind, which Heale tried to avoid giving; and therefore fenced off, and fenced off, till, pressed hard by Tom, wrath came forth, and truth with it.
“And what be you thinking of, sir, to expect me to offend all my best patients? and not one of ’em but rents some two cottages, some a dozen. And what’ll they say to me if I go a routing and rookling in their drains, like an old sow by the wayside, beside putting ’em to all manner of expense? And all on the chance of this cholera coming, which I have no faith in, nor in this new-fangled sanitary reform neither, which is all a dodge for a lot of young Government puppies to fill their pockets, and rule and ride over us: and my opinion always was with the Bible, that ’tis jidgment, sir, a jidgment of God, and we can’t escape His holy will, and that’s the plain truth of it.”
Tom made no answer to that latter argument. He had heard that “’tis jidgment” from every mouth during the last few days; and had mortally offended the Brianite preacher that very morning, by answering his “’tis jidgment” with —
“But, my good sir! the Bible, I thought, says that Aaron stayed the plague among the Israelites, and David the one at Jerusalem.”
“Sir, those was miracles, sir! and they was under the Law, sir, and we’m under the Gospel, you’ll be pleased to remember.”
“Humph!” said Tom, “then, by your showing, they were better off under the Law than we are now, if they could have their plagues stopped by miracles; and we cannot have ours stopped at all.”
“Sir, be you an infidel?”
To which there was no answer to be made.
In this case, Tom answered Heale with —
“But, my dear sir, if you don’t like (as is reasonable enough) to take the responsibility on yourself, why not go to the Board of Guardians, and get them to put the Act in force?”
“Boord, sir? and do you know so little of Boords as that? Why, there ain’t one of them but owns cottages themselves, and it’s as much as my place is worth —”
“Your place as medical officer is just worth nothing, as you know; you’ll have been out of pocket by it seven or eight pounds this year, even if no cholera comes.”
Tom knew the whole state of the case; but he liked tormenting Heale now and then.
“Well, sir! but if I get turned out next year, in steps that Drew over at Carcarrow Churchtown into my district, and into the best of my practice, too. I wonder what sort of a Poor Law district you were medical officer of, if you don’t know yet that that’s why we take to the poor.”
“My dear sir, I know it, and a good deal more beside.”
“Then why go bothering me this way?”
“Why,” said Tom, “it’s pleasant to have old notions confirmed as often as possible —
“‘Life is a jest, and all things show it;
I thought so once, but now I know it.’
What an ass the fellow must have been who had that put on his tombstone, not to have found it out many a year before he died!”
He went next to Headley the curate, and took little by that move; though more than by any other.
For Frank already believed his doctrines, as an educated London parson of course would; was shocked to hear that they were likely to become fact so soon and so fearfully; offered to do all he could: but confessed that he could do nothing.
“I have been hinting to them, ever since I came, improvements in cleanliness, in ventilation, and so forth: but I have been utterly unheeded: and bully me as you will, Doctor, about my cramming doctrines down their throats, and roaring like a Pope’s bull, I assure you that, on sanitary reform, my roaring was as of a sucking dove, and ought to have prevailed, if soft persuasion can.”
“You were a dove where you ought to have been a bull, and a bull where you ought to have been a dove. But roar now, if ever you roared, in the pulpit and out. Why not preach to them on it next Sunday?”
“Well, I’d give a lecture gladly, if I could get any one to come and hear it; but that you could do better than me.”
“I’ll lecture them myself, and show them bogies, if my quarter-inch will do its work. If they want seeing to believe, see they shall; I have half-a-dozen specimens of water already which will astonish them. Let me lecture, you must preach.”
“You must know, that there is a feeling — you would call it a prejudice — against introducing such purely secular subjects into the pulpit.”
Tom gave a long whistle.
“Pardon me, Mr. Headley; you are a man of sense; and I can speak to you as one human being to another, which I have seldom been able to do with your respected cloth.”
“Say on; I shall not be frightened.”
“Well, don’t you put up the Ten Commandments in your Church?”
“And don’t one of them run: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”
“And is not murder a moral offence — what you call a sin?”
“If you saw your parishioners in the habit of cutting each other’s throats, or their own, shouldn’t you think that a matter spiritual enough to be a fit subject for a little of the drum ecclesiastic?”
“Well? Ill! There are your parishioners about to commit wholesale murder and suicide, and is that a secular question? If they don’t know the fact, is not that all the more reason for your telling them of it? You pound away, as I warned you once, at the sins of which they are just as well aware as you; why on earth do you hold your tongue about the sins of which they are not aware? You tell us every Sunday that we do Heaven only knows how many more wrong things than we dream of. Tell it us again now. Don’t strain at gnats like want of faith and resignation, and swallow such a camel as twenty or thirty deaths. It’s no concern of mine; I’ve seen plenty of people murdered, and may again: I am accustomed to it; but if it’s not your concern, what on earth you are here for is more than I can tell.”
“You are right — you are right; but how to put it on religious grounds —”
Tom whistled again.
“If your doctrines cannot be made to fit such plain matters as twenty deaths, tant pis pour eux. If they have nothing to say on such scientific facts, why the facts must take care of themselves, and the doctrines may, for aught I care, go and —. But I won’t be really rude. Only think over the matter. If you are God’s minister, you ought to have something to say about God’s view of a fact which certainly involves the lives of his creatures, not by twos and threes, but by tens of thousands.”
So Frank went home, and thought it through; and went once and again to Thurnall, and condescended to ask his opinion of what he had said, and whether he said ill or well. What Thurnall answered was —“Whether that’s sound Church doctrine is your business; but if it be, I’ll say with the man there in the Acts — what was his name? —‘Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.’”
“Would God that you were one! for you would make a right good one.”
“Humph! at least you see what you can do, if you’ll only face fact as it stands, and talk about the realities of life. I’ll puff your sermon beforehand, I assure you, and bring all I can to hear it.”
So Frank preached a noble sermon, most rational, and most spiritual withal; but he, too, like his tutor, took little by his motion.
All the present fruit upon which he had to congratulate himself was, that the Brianite preacher denounced him in chapel next Sunday as a German Rationalist, who impiously pretended to explain away the Lord’s visitation into a carnal matter of drains, and pipes, and gases, and such like; and that his rival of another denomination, who was a fanatic on the teetotal question, denounced him as bitterly for supporting the cause of drunkenness, by attributing cholera to want of cleanliness, while all rational people knew that its true source was intemperance. Poor Frank! he had preached against drunkenness many a time and oft: but because he would not add a Mohammedan eleventh commandment to those ten which men already find difficulty enough in keeping, he was set upon at once by a fanatic whose game it was — as it is that of too many — to snub sanitary reform, and hinder the spread of plain scientific truth, for the sake of pushing their own nostrum for all human ills.
In despair, Tom went off to Elsley Vavasour. Would he help? Would he join, as one of two householders, in making a representation to the proper authorities?
Elsley had never mixed in local matters: and if he had, he knew nothing of how to manage men, or to read an Act of Parliament; so, angry as Tom was inclined to be with him, he found it useless to quarrel with a man so utterly unpractical, who would, probably, had he been stirred into exertion, have done more harm than good.
“Only come with me, and satisfy yourself as to the existence of one of these nuisances, and then you will have grounds on which to go,” said Tom, who had still hopes of making a cat’s-paw of Elsley, and by his power over him, pulling the strings from behind.
Sorely against his will, Elsley went, saw, and smelt; came home again; was very unwell; and was visited nightly for a week after that by that most disgusting of all phantoms, sanitary nightmare; which some who have worked in the foul places of the earth know but too well. Evidently his health could not stand it. There was no work to be got out of him in that direction.
“Would he write, then, and represent matters to Lord Scoutbush?”
How could he? He did not know the man; not a line had ever been exchanged between them. Their relations were so very peculiar. It would seem sheer impertinence on his part to interfere with the management of Lord Scoutbush’s property. Really there was a great deal to be said, Tom felt, for poor Elsley’s dislike of meddling in that quarter.
“Would Mrs. Vavasour write, then?”
“For Heaven’s sake do not mention it to her. She would be so terrified about the children; she is worn out with anxiety already,”— and so forth.
Tom went back to Frank Headley.
“You see a good deal of Miss St. Just.”
“I? — No — why? — what?” said poor Frank, blushing.
“Only that you must make her write to her brother about this cholera.”
“My dear fellow, it is such a subject for a lady to meddle with.”
“It has no scruple in meddling with ladies; so ladies ought to have none in meddling with it. You must do it as delicately as you will: but done it must be: it is our only chance. Tell her of Tardrew’s obstinacy, or Scoutbush will go by his opinion; and tell her to keep the secret from her sister.”
Frank did it, and well. Valencia was horror-struck, and wrote.
Scoutbush was away at sea, nobody knew where; and a full fortnight elapsed before an answer came.
“My dear, you are quite mistaken if you think I can do anything. Nine-tenths of the houses in Aberalva are not in my hands; but copyholds and long leases, over which I have no power. If the people will complain to me of any given nuisance, I’ll right it if I can; and if the doctor wants money, and sees any ways of laying it out well, he shall have what he wants, though I am very high in Queer Street just now, ma’am, having paid your bills before I left town, like a good brother: but I tell you again, I have no more power than you have, except over a few cottages, and Tardrew assured me, three weeks ago, that they were as comfortable as they ever had been.”
So Tardrew had forestalled Thurnall in writing to the Viscount. Well, there was one more chance to be tried.
Tom gave his lecture in the school-room. He showed them magnified abominations enough to frighten all the children into fits, and dilated on horrors enough to spoil all appetites: he proved to them that, though they had the finest water in the world all over the town, they had contrived to poison almost every drop of it; he waxed eloquent, witty, sarcastic; and the net result was a general grumble.
“How did he get hold of all the specimens, as he calls them? What business has he poking his nose down people’s wells and waterbutts?”
But an unexpected ally arose at this juncture, in the coast-guard lieutenant, who, being valiant after his evening’s brandy-and-water, rose and declared, “that Dr. Thurnall was a very clever man; that by what he’d seen himself in the West Indies, it was all as true as gospel; that the parish might have the cholera if it liked,”— and here a few expletives occurred — “but that he’d see that the coast-guard houses were put to rights at once; for he would not have the lives of Her Majesty’s servants endangered by such dirty tricks, not fit for heathen savages,” etc. etc.
Tom struck while the iron was hot. He saw that the great man’s speech had produced an impression.
“Would he” (so he asked the lieutenant privately) “get some one to join him, and present a few of these nuisances?”
He would do anything in his contempt for “a lot of long-shore merchant-skippers and herringers, who went about calling themselves captains, and fancy themselves, sir, as good as if they wore the Queen’s uniform!”
“Well, then, can’t we find another householder — some cantankerous dog who don’t mind a row?”
Yes, the cantankerous dog was found, in the person of Mr. John Penruddock, coal-merchant, who had quarrelled with Tardrew, because Tardrew said he gave short weight — which he very probably did — and had quarrelled also with Thomas Beer, senior, shipbuilder, about right of passage through a back-yard.
Mr. Penruddock suddenly discovered that Mr. Beer kept up a dirt-heap in the said back-yard, and with virtuous indignation vowed “he’d sarve the old beggar out at last.”
So far so good. The weapons of reason and righteousness having failed, Tom felt at liberty to borrow the devil’s tools. Now to pack a vestry, and to nominate a local committee.
The vestry was packed; the committee nominated: of course half of them refused to act — they “didn’t want to go quarrelling with their neighbours.”
Tom explained to them cunningly and delicately that they would have nothing to do; that one or two (he did not say that he was the one, and the two also) would do all the work, and bear all the odium; whereon the malcontents subsided, considering it likely that, after all, nothing would be done.
Some may fancy that matters were now getting somewhat settled. Those who do so know little of the charming machinery of local governments. One man has “summat to say,”— utterly irrelevant. Another must needs answer him with something equally irrelevant; a long chatter ensues, in spite of all cries to order and question. Soon one and another gets personal, and temper shows here and there. You would fancy that the go-ahead party try to restore order, and help business on. Not in the least. They have begun to cool a little. They are a little afraid that they have committed themselves. If people quarrel with each other, perhaps they may quarrel with them too. And they begin to be wonderfully patient and impartial, in the hope of staving off the evil day, and finding some excuse for doing nothing after all. “Hear ‘mun out!” . . . “Vair and zoft, let ev’ry man ha’ his zay!” . . . “There’s vary gude rason in it!” . . . “I didn’t think of that avore;"— and so forth; till in a quarter of an hour the whole question has to be discussed over again, through the fog of a dozen fresh fallacies, and the miserable earnest man finds himself considerably worse off than when he began. Happy for him if some chance word is not let drop, which will afford the whole assembly an excuse for falling on him open-mouthed, as the cause of all their woes!
That chance word came. Mr. Penruddock gave a spiteful hit, being, as he said, of a cantankerous turn, to Mr. Treluddra, principal “jowder,” i.e. fish salesman, of Aberalva. Whereon Treluddra, whose conscience told him that there was at present in his back-yard a cartload and more of fish in every stage of putrefaction, which he had kept rotting there rather than lower the market-price, rose in wrath.
“An’ if any committee puts its noz into my back-yard, if it doant get the biggest cod’s innards as I can collar hold on, about its ears, my name is not Treluddra! A man’s house is his castle, says I, and them as takes up with any o’ this open-day burglary, for it’s nothing less, has to do wi’ me, that’s all, and them as knows their interest, knows me!”
Terrible were these words; for old Treluddra, like most jowders, combined the profession of money-lender with that of salesman; and there were dozens in the place who were in debt to him for money advanced to buy boats and nets, after wreck and loss. Besides, to offend one jowder was to offend all. They combined to buy the fish at any price they chose: if angered, they would combine now and then not to buy it at all.
“You old twenty per cent rascal,” roared the Lieutenant, “after making a fortune out of these poor fellows’ mishaps, do you want to poison ’em all with your stinking fish?”
“I say, Lieutenant,” says old Beer, whose son owed Treluddra fifty pounds at that moment, “fair’s fair. You mind your Coastguard, and we’m mind our trade. We’m free fishermen, by charter and right; you’m not our master, and you shall know it.”
“Know it?” says the Lieutenant, foaming.
“Iss; you put your head inside my presences, and I’ll split mun open, if I be hanged for it.”
“You split my head open?”
“Iss, by —.” And the old grey-bearded sea-king set his arms akimbo.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, for Heaven’s sake!” cries poor Headley, “this is really going too far. Gentlemen, the vestry is adjourned!”
“Best thing too! oughtn’t never to have been called,” says one and another.
And some one, as he went out, muttered something about “interloping strange doctors, colloquies with popish curates,” which was answered by a —“Put ‘mun in the quay pule,” from Treluddra.
Tom stepped up to Treluddra instantly, “What were you so kind as to say, sir?”
Treluddra turned very pale. “I didn’t say nought.”
“Oh, but I assure you I heard; and I shall be most happy to jump into the quay pule this afternoon, if it will afford you the slightest amusement. Say the word, and I’ll borrow a flute, and play you the Rogue’s March all the while with my right hand, swimming with my left. Now, gentlemen, one word before we part!”
“Who be you?” cries some one.
“A man at least, and ought to have a fair hearing. Now, I ask you, what possible interest can I have in this matter? I knew when I began that I should give myself a frightful quantity of trouble, and get only what I have got.”
“Why did you begin at all, then?”
“Because I was a very foolish, meddlesome ass, who fancied that I ought to do my duty once in a way by my neighbours. Now, I have only to say, that if you will but forgive and forget, and let bygones be bygones, I promise you solemnly I’ll never do my duty by you again as long as I live, nor interfere with the sacred privilege of every free-born Englishman, to do that which is right in the sight of his own eyes, and wrong too!”
“You’m making fun at us,” said old Beer dubiously.
“Well, Mr. Beer, and isn’t that better than quarrelling with you? Come along, we’ll all go home and forget it, like good Christians. Perhaps the cholera won’t come; and if it does, what’s the odds so long as you’re happy, eh?”
And to the intense astonishment both of the Lieutenant and Frank, Tom walked home with the malcontents, making himself so agreeable, that he was forgiven freely on the spot.
“What does the fellow mean? He’s deserted us, sir, after bringing us here to make fools of us!”
Frank could give no answer; but Thurnall gave one himself that evening, both to Frank and the Lieutenant.
“The cholera will come; and these fellows are just mad; but I mustn’t quarrel with them, mad or not.”
“For the same reason that you must not. If we keep our influence, we may be able to do some good at the last, which means, in plain English, saving a few human lives. As for you Lieutenant, you have behaved like a hero, and have been served as heroes generally are. What you must do is this. On the first hint of disease, pack up your traps and your good lady, and go and live in the watch-house across the river. As for the men’s houses, I’ll set them to rights in a day, if you’ll get the commander of the district to allow you a little chloride of lime and whitewash.”
And so the matter ended.
“You are a greater puzzle than ever to me, Thurnall,” said Frank. “You are always pretending to care for nothing but your own interest, and yet here you have gone out of your way to incur odium, knowing, you say, that your cause was all but hopeless.”
“Well, I do it because I like it. It’s a sort of sporting with your true doctor. He blazes away at a disease where he sees one, as he would at a bear or a lion; the very sight of it excites his organ of destructiveness. Don’t you understand me? You hate sin, you know. Well, I hate disease. Moral evil is your devil, and physical evil is mine. I hate it, little or big; I hate to see a fellow sick; I hate to see a child rickety and pale; I hate to see a speck of dirt in the street; I hate to see a woman’s gown torn; I hate to see her stockings down at heel; I hate to see anything wasted, anything awry, anything going wrong; I hate to see water-power wasted, manure wasted, land wasted, muscle wasted, pluck wasted, brains wasted; I hate neglect, incapacity, idleness, ignorance, and all the disease and misery which spring out of that. There’s my devil; and I can’t help it for the life of me, going right at his throat, wheresoever I meet him!”
Lastly, rather to clear his reputation than in the hope of doing good, Tom wrote up to London, and detailed the case to that much-calummated body, the General Board of Health, informing them civilly, that the Nuisances Removal Act was simply waste paper; that he could not get it to bear at all on Aberalva; and that if he had done so, it would have been equally useless, for the simple reason that it constituted the offenders themselves judge and jury in their own case.
To which the Board returned for answer, that they were perfectly aware of the fact, and deeply deplored the same: but that as soon as cholera broke out in Aberalva, they should be most happy to send down an inspector.
To which Tom replied courteously, that he would not give them the trouble, being able, he trusted, to perform without assistance the not uncommon feat of shutting the stable-door after the horse was stolen.
And so was Aberalva left “a virgin city,” undefiled by Government interference, to the blessings of that “local government,” which signifies, in plain English, the leaving the few to destroy themselves and the many, by the unchecked exercise of the virtues of pride and ignorance, stupidity and stinginess.
But to Tom, in his sorest need, arose a new and most unexpected coadjutor; and this was the way in which it came to pass.
For it befell in that pleasant summer time, “when small birds sing and shaughs are green,” that Thurnall started, one bright Sunday eve, to see a sick child at an upland farm, some few miles from the town. And partly because he liked the walk, and partly because he could no other, having neither horse nor gig, he went on foot; and whistled as he went like any throstle-cock, along the pleasant vale, by flowery banks and ferny walls, by oak and ash and thorn, while Alva flashed and swirled, between green boughs below, clear coffee-brown from last night’s rain. Some miles up the turnpike road he went, and then away to the right, through the ash-woods of Trebooze, up by the rill which drips from pool to pool over the ledges of grey slate, deep-bedded in dark sedge, and broad bright burdock leaves, and tall angelica, and ell-broad rings and tufts of king, and crown, and lady-fern, and all the semi-tropic luxuriance of the fat western soil, and steaming western woods; out into the boggy moor at the glen head, all fragrant with the gold-tipped gale, where the turf is enamelled with the hectic marsh violet, and the pink pimpernel, and the pale yellow leaf-stars of the butterwort, and the blue bells and green threads of the ivy-leaved campanula; out upon the steep smooth down above, and away over the broad cattle-pastures; and then to pause a moment, and look far and wide over land and sea.
It was a “day of God.” The earth lay like one great emerald, ringed and roofed with sapphire; blue sea, blue mountain, blue sky overhead. There she lay, not sleeping, but basking in her quiet Sabbath joy, as though her two great sisters, of the sea and air, had washed her weary limbs with holy tears, and purged away the stains of last week’s sin and toil, and cooled her hot worn forehead with their pure incense-breath, and folded her within their azure robes, and brooded over her with smiles of pitying love, till she smiled back in answer, and took heart and hope for next week’s weary work.
Heart and hope for next week’s work. — That was the sermon which it preached to Tom Thurnall, as he stood there alone, a stranger and a wanderer, like Ulysses of old; but, like him, self-helpful, cheerful, fate-defiant. In one respect indeed, he knew less than Ulysses, and was more of a heathen than he; for he knew not what Ulysses knew, that a heavenly guide was with him in his wanderings; still less what Ulysses knew not, that what he called the malicious sport of fortune was, in truth, the earnest education of a father; but who will blame him for getting strength and comfort from such merely natural founts, or say that the impulse came from below, and not from above, which made him say —
“Brave old world she is, after all, and right well made; and looks right well to-day, in her go-to-meeting clothes; and plenty of room and chance in her for a brave man to earn his bread, if he will but go right on about his business, as the birds and the flowers do, instead of peaking and pining over what people think of him, like that miserable Briggs. Hark to that jolly old missel-thrush below! he’s had his nest to build, and his supper to earn, and his young ones to feed, and all the crows and kites in the wood to drive away, the sturdy John Bull that he is; and yet he can find time to sing as merrily as an abbot, morning and evening, since he sang the new year in last January. And why should not I?”
Let him be a while; there are sounds of deeper meaning in the air, if his heart had ears to hear them; far off church-bells chiming to even-song; hymn-tunes floating up the glen from the little chapel in the vale. He may learn what they, too, mean some day. Honour to him, at least, that he has learnt what the missel-thrush below can tell him. If he accept cheerfully and manfully the things which he does see, he will be all the more able to enter hereafter into the deeper mystery of things unseen. The road toward true faith and reverence for God’s kingdom of heaven does not lie through Manichaean contempt and slander of God’s kingdom of earth.
So let him stride over the down, enjoying the mere fact of life, and health, and strength, and whistling shrilly to the bird below, who trumpets out a few grand ringing notes, and repeats them again and again, in saucy self-satisfaction; and then stops to listen for the answer to this challenge; and then rattles on again with a fresh passage, more saucily than ever, in a tone which seems to ask — “You could sing that, eh? but can you sing this, my fine fellow on the down above?” So he seems to Tom to say; and, tickled with the fancy, Tom laughs, and whistles, and laughs, and has just time to compose his features as he steps up to the farm-yard gate.
Let him be, I say again. He might have better Sunday thoughts; perhaps he will have some day. At least he is a man, and a brave one; and as the greater contains the less, surely before a man can be a good man, he must be a brave one first, much more a man at all. Cowards, old Odin held, inevitably went to the very bottom of Hela-pool, and by no possibility, unless of course they became brave at last, could rise out of that everlasting bog, but sank whining lower and lower, like mired cattle, to all eternity in the unfathomable peat-slime. And if the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Revelation, and the eighth verse, is to be taken as it stands, their doom has not altered since Odin’s time, unless to become still worse.
Tom came up, over the home-close and through the barton-gate, through the farm-yard, and stopped at last at the porch. The front door was open, and the door beyond it; and ere he knocked, he stopped, looking in silence at a picture which held him spellbound for a moment by its rich and yet quiet beauty.
Tom was no artist, and knew no more of painting, in spite of his old friendship with Claude, than was to be expected of a keen and observant naturalist who had seen half the globe. Indeed, he had been in the habit of snubbing Claude’s profession; and of arriving, on pre-Raphaelite grounds, at a by no means pre-Raphaelite conclusion. “A picture, you say, is worth nothing unless you copy Nature. But you can’t copy her. She is ten times more gorgeous than any man can dare represent her. Ergo, every picture is a failure; and the nearest hedge-bush is worth all your galleries together”— a syllogism of sharp edge, which he would back up by Byron’s —
“I’ve seen much finer women, ripe and real,
Than all the nonsense of their stone ideal.”
But here was one of Nature’s own pictures, drawn and coloured by more than mortal hand, and framed over and above, ready to his eye, by the square of the dark doorway, beyond which all was flooded with the full glory, of the low north-western sun.
A dark oak-ribbed ceiling; walls of pale fawn-yellow; an open window, showing a corner of rich olive-stone wall, enamelled with golden lichens, orange and green combs of polypody, pink and grey tufts of pellitory, all glowing in the sunlight.
Above the window-sill rose a bush of maiden-blush roses; a tall spire of blue monkshood; and one head of scarlet lychnis, like a spark of fire; and behind all, the dark blue sea, which faded into the pale-blue sky.
At the window stood a sofa of old maroon leather, its dark hue throwing out in strong relief two figures who sat upon it. And when Tom had once looked at them, he looked at nothing else.
There sat the sick girl, her head nestling upon the shoulder of Grace Harvey; a tall, delicate thing of seventeen, with thin white cheeks, the hectic spot aflame on each, and long fair curls, which mingled lovingly with Grace’s dark tresses, as they sat cheek against cheek, and hand in hand. Her eyes were closed; Tom thought at first that she was asleep: but there was a quiet smile about her pale lips; and every now and then her left hand left Grace’s, to move toward a leaf full of strawberries which lay on Grace’s lap; and Tom could see that she was listening intently to Grace, who told and told, in that sweet, measured voice of hers, her head erect, her face in the full blaze of sunshine, her great eyes looking out far away beyond the sea, beyond the sky, into some infinite which only she beheld.
Tom had approached unheard, across the farm-yard straw. He stood and looked his fill. The attitude of the two girls was so graceful, that he was loth to disturb it; and loth, too, to disturb a certain sunny calm which warmed at once and softened his stout heart.
He wished, too — he scarce knew why — to hear what Grace was saying; and as he listened, her voice was so distinct and delicate in its modulations, that every word came clearly to his ear.
It was the beautiful old legend of St. Dorothea:—
“So they did all sorts of dreadful things to her, and then led her away to die; and they stood laughing there. But after a little time there came a boy, the prettiest boy that ever was seen on earth, and in his hand a basket full of fruits and flowers, more beautiful than tongue can tell. And he said, ‘Dorothea sends you these, out of the heavenly garden which she told you of — will you believe her now?’ And then, before they could reply, he vanished away. And Theophilus looked at the flowers, and tasted the fruit — and a new heart grew up within him; and he said, ‘Dorothea’s God shall be my God, and I will die for him like her.’
“So you see, darling, there are sweeter fruits than these, and gayer flowers, in the place to which you go; and all the lovely things in this world here will seem quite poor and worthless beside the glory of that better land which He will show you: and yet you will not care to look at them; for the sight of Him will be enough, and you will care to think of nothing else.”
“And you are sure He will accept me, after all?” asked the sick girl, opening her eyes, and looking up at Grace. She saw Thurnall standing in the doorway, and gave a little scream.
Tom came forward, bowing. “I am very sorry to have disturbed you. I suspect Miss Harvey was giving you better medicine than I can give.”
Now why did Tom say that, to whom the legend of St. Dorothea, and, indeed, that whole belief in a better land, was as a dream fit only for girls?
Not altogether because he must need say something civil. True, he felt, on the whole, about the future state as Goethe did —“To the able man this world is not dumb: why should he ramble off into eternity? Such incomprehensible subjects lie too far off, and only disturb our thoughts, if made the subject of daily meditation.” That there was a future state he had no doubt. Our having been born once, he used to say, is the strongest possible presumption in favour of our being born again; and probably, as nature always works upward and develops higher forms, in some higher state. Indeed, for aught he knew, the old ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs might be alive now, as lions — or as men. He himself, indeed, he had said, ere now, had been probably a pterodactyle of the Lias, neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring, but crocodile and bat in one, able alike to swim, or run, or fly, eat anything, and live in any element. Still it was no concern of his. He was here; and here was his business. He had not thought of this life before he came into it; and it would be time enough to think of the next life when he got into it. Besides, he had all a doctor’s dislike of those terrors of the unseen world, with which some men are wont to oppress still more failing nature, and break the bruised reed. His business was to cure his patients’ bodies; and if he could not do that, at least to see that life was not shortened in them by nervous depression and anxiety. Accustomed to see men of every character die under every possible circumstance, he had come to the conclusion that the “safety of a man’s soul” could by no possibility be inferred from his death-bed temper. The vast majority, good or bad, died in peace: why not let them die so? If nature kindly took off the edge of sorrow, by blunting the nervous system, what right had man to interfere with so merciful an arrangement? Every man, he held in his easy optimism, would go where he ought to go: and it could be no possible good to him — indeed, it might be a very bad thing for him, as in this life — to go where he ought not to go. So he used to argue, with three-fourths of mankind, mingling truth and falsehood: and would, on these grounds, have done his best to turn the dissenting preacher out of that house, had he found him in it. But to-day he was in a more lenient, perhaps in a more human, and therefore more spiritual mood. It was all very well for him, full of life, and power, and hope, to look on death in that cold, careless way; but for that poor young thing, cut off just as life opened from all that made life lovely — was not death for her a painful, ugly anomaly? Could she be blamed, if she shuddered at going forth into the unknown blank, she knew not whither? All very well for the old emperor of Rome, who had lived his life and done his work, to play with the dreary question —
“Animula, vagula, blandula,
Hospes comesque corporis,
Quae nunc abibis in loca,
Rigidula, nudula, pallida? —”
But she, who had lived no life, and done no work — only had pined through weary years of hideous suffering; crippled and ulcerated with scrofula, now dying of consumption: was it not a merciful dream, a beautiful dream, a just dream — so beautiful and just, that perhaps it might be true — that in some fairer world, all this, and more, might be made up to her? If not, was it not a mistake and an injustice, that she should ever have come into the world at all? And was not Grace doing a rational as well as a loving work, in telling her, under whatsoever symbols, that such a home of rest and beauty awaited her? It was not the sort of place to which he expected, perhaps even wished, to go: but it fitted well enough with a young girl’s hopes, a young girl’s powers of enjoyment. Let it be; perhaps there was such a place — why not? — fitted for St. Dorothea, and those cut off in youth like her; and other places fit for such as he. And he spoke more tenderly than usual (though he was never untender), as he said —
“And you feel better to-day? I am sure you must, with such a kind friend, to tell you such sweet tales.”
“I do not feel better, thank you. And why should I wish to do so? You all take too much trouble about me; why do you want to keep me here?”
“We are loth to lose you; and besides, while you can be kept here, it is a sign that you ought to be here.”
“So Grace tells me. Yes, I will be patient, and wait till He has done His work. I am more patient now; am I not, Grace?” And she fondled Grace’s hand, and looked up in her face.
“Yes,” said Grace, who was standing near, with downcast face, trying to avoid Tom’s eye. “Yes, you are very good; but you must not talk:” but the girl went on, with kindling eye —
“Ah — I was very fretful at first, because I could not go to heaven at once: but Grace showed me how it was good to be here, as well as there, as long as He thought that I might be made perfect by sufferings. And since then, my pain has become quite pleasant to me, and I am ready to wait and bear — wait and bear.”
“You must not talk — see, you are beginning to cough,” said Tom, who wished somehow to stop a form of thought which so utterly puzzled him. Not that he had not heard it before; commonplace enough indeed it is, thank God: but that day the words came home to him with spirit and power, all the more solemnly from their contrast with the scene around — without, all sunshine, joy, and glory: all which could tempt a human being to linger here: and within, that young girl longing to leave it all, and yet content to stay and suffer. What mysteries there were in the human spirit — mysteries to which that knowledge of mankind on which he prided himself gave him no key!
“What if I were laid on my back to-morrow for life, by a fall, a blow, as I have seen many a better man than me; — should I not wish to have one to talk to me, as she was talking to that child?” And for a moment a yearning after Grace came over him, as it had done before, and swept from his mind the dark cloud of suspicion.
“Now I must talk with your mother,” said he; “for you have better company than mine; and I hear her just coming in.”
He settled little matters for his patient’s comfort with the farmer’s wife. When he returned to bid her good-bye Grace was gone.
“I hope I have not driven her away.”
“Oh no; she had been here an hour, and she must go back now, to get her mother’s supper.”
“That is a good girl,” said Tom, looking after her as she went down the field.
“She’s an angel from heaven, sir. Not a three days go over without her walking up here all this way after her work, to comfort my poor maid — and all of us as well. It’s like the dew of heaven upon us. Pity, sir, you didn’t see her home.”
“I should have liked it well enough; but folks might talk, if two young people were seen walking together Sunday evening.”
“Oh, sir, they know her too well by now, for miles round: and you too, sir, I’ll make bold to say.”
“Well, at least I’ll go after her.”
So Tom went, and kept Grace in sight, till she had crossed the little moor, and disappeared in the wood below.
He had gone about a hundred yards into the wood, when he heard voices and laughter — then a loud shriek. He hurried forward. In another minute, Grace rushed up to him, her eyes wide with terror and indignation.
“What is it?” cried he, trying to stop her: but, not seeming to see him, she dashed past him, and ran on. Another moment, and a man appeared in full pursuit.
It was Trebooze of Trebooze, an evil laugh upon his face.
Tom planted himself across the narrow path in an attitude which there was no mistaking.
Not a word passed between them. Silently and instinctively, like two fierce dogs, the two men flew upon each other; Tom full of righteous wrath, and Trebooze of half-drunken passion, turned to fury by the interruption.
He was a far taller and heavier man than Thurnall, and, as the bully of the neighbourhood, counted on an easy victory. But he was mistaken. After the first rush was over, he found it impossible to close with his foe, and saw in the doctor’s face, now grown cool and business-like as usual, the wily smile of superior science and expected triumph.
“Brandy-and-water in the morning ought not to improve the wind,” said Tom to himself, as his left hand countered provokingly, while his right rattled again and again upon Trebooze’s watch-chain. “Justice will overtake you in the offending part, which I take to be the epigastric region.”
In a few minutes more the scuffle ended shamefully enough for the sottish squireen.
Tom stood over him for a minute, as he sat grovelling and groaning among the long grass. “I may as well see that I have not killed him. No, he will do as well as ever — which is not saying much. . . . Now, sir! Go home quietly, and ask Mrs. Trebooze for a little rhubarb and salvolatile. I’ll call up in the course of to-morrow to see how you are.”
“I’ll kill you, if I catch you!”
“As a man, I am open of course to be killed by any fair means; but as a doctor, I am still bound to see after my patient’s health.” And Tom bowed civilly, and walked back up the path to find Grace, after washing face and hands in the brook.
He found her up at Tolchard’s farm, trembling and thankful.
“I cannot do less than see Miss Harvey safe home.”
“Mrs. Tolchard, I am sure, will walk with us; it would be safer, in case you felt faint again.”
But Mrs. Tolchard would not come to save Grace’s notions of propriety; so Tom passed Grace’s arm through his own. She offered to withdraw it.
“No; you will require it. You do not know yet how much you have gone through. My fear is, that you will feel it all the more painfully when the excitement is past. I shall send you up a cordial; and you must promise me to take it. You owe me a little debt you know, to-day; you must pay it by taking my medicines.”
Grace looked up at him sidelong; for there was a playful tenderness in his voice which was new to her, and which thrilled her through and through.
“I will indeed, I promise you. But I am so much better now. Really, I can walk alone!” And she withdrew her arm from his, but not hastily.
After that they walked on awhile in silence. Grace kept her veil down, for her eyes were full of tears. She loved that man intensely, utterly. She did not seek to deny it to herself. God had given him to her, and hers he was. The very sea, the devourer whom she hated, who hungered to swallow up all young fair life, the very sea had yielded him up to her, alive from the dead. And yet that man, she knew, suspected her of a base and hateful crime. It was too dreadful! She could not exculpate herself, save by blank denial — and what would that avail? The large hot drops ran down her cheeks. She had need of all her strength to prevent sobbing.
She looked round. In the bright summer evening, all things were full of joy and love. The hedge-banks were gay as flower gardens; the swifts chased each other, screaming harsh delight; the ring-dove murmured in the wood beneath his world-old song, which she had taught the children a hundred times —
“Curuckity coo, curuck coo;
You love me, and I love you!”
The woods slept golden in the evening sunlight; and over head brooded, like one great smile of God, the everlasting blue.
“He will right me!” she said. “‘Hold thee still in the Lord, and abide patiently, and He will make thy righteousness clear as the light, and thy just dealing as the noon-day!’” And after that thought she wept no more.
Was it as a reward for her faith that Tom began to talk to her? He had paced on by her side, serious, but not sad. True, he had suspected her; he suspected her still. But that scene with the dying child had been no sham. There, at least, there was nothing to suspect, nothing to sneer at. The calm purity, self-sacrifice, hope, which was contained in it, had softened his world-hardened spirit, and woke up in him feelings which were always pleasant, feelings which the sight of his father, or the writing to his father, could only awaken. Quaintly enough, the thought of Grace and of his father seemed intertwined, inextricable. If the old man had but such a nurse as she! And for a moment he felt a glow of tenderness toward her, because he thought she would be tender to his father. She had stolen his money, certainly; or if not, she knew where it was, and would not tell him. Well, what matter just then? He did not want the money at that minute. How much pleasanter and wiser to take things as they came, and enjoy himself while he could; and fancy that she was always what he had seen her that day. After all, it was much more pleasant to trust people than to suspect them: “Handsome is who handsome does! And besides, she did me the kindness of saving my life; so it would but be civil to talk to her a little.”
He began to talk to her about the lovely scene around; and found, to his surprise, that she saw as much of it as he, and saw a great deal more in it than he. Her answers were short, modest, faltering; but each one of them suggestive; and Tom soon found that he had met with a mind which contained all the elements of poetry, and needed only education to develop them.
“What a blue stocking, pre-Raphaelite seventh-heavenarian she would have been, if she had had the misfortune to be born in that station of life!” But where a clever man is talking to a beautiful woman, talk he will, and must, for the mere sake of showing off, though she be but a village schoolmistress; and Tom soon found himself, with a secret sneer at his own vanity, displaying before her all the much finer things that he had seen in his travels; and as he talked, she answered, with quiet expressions of wonder, sympathy, regret at her own narrow sphere of experience, till, as if the truth was not enough, he found himself running to the very edge of exaggeration, and a little over it, in the enjoyment of calling out her passion for the marvellous, especially when called out in honour of himself.
And she, simple creature, drank it all in as sparkling wine, and only dreaded lest the stream should cease. Adventures with noble savages in palm-fringed coral-islands, with greedy robbers amid the fragrant hills of Greece, with fierce Indians beneath the snow-peaks of the Far West, with coward Mexicans among tunals of cactus and agave, beneath the burning tropic sun — What a man he was! Where had he not been? and what had he not seen? And how he had been preserved — for her? And his image seemed to her utterly beautiful and glorious, clothed as it was in the beauty and glory of all that he had seen, and done, and suffered. Oh Love, Love, Love, the same in peasant and in peer! The more honour to you, then, old Love, to be the same thing in this world which is common to peasant and to peer. They say that you are blind; a dreamer, an exaggerator — a liar, in short. They know just nothing about you, then. You will not see people as they seem, and as they have become, no doubt: but why? because you see them as they ought to be, and are, in some deep way, eternally, in the sight of Him who conceived and created them.
At last she started, as if waking from a pleasant dream, and spoke, half to herself —
“Oh, how foolish of me — to be idling away this opportunity; the only one, perhaps, which I may have! Oh, Mr. Thurnall, tell me about this cholera!”
“What about it?”
“Everything. Ever since I heard of what you have been saying to the people, ever since Mr. Headley’s sermon, it has been like fire in my ears!”
“I am truly glad to hear it. If all parsons had preached about it for the last fifteen years as Mr. Headley did last Sunday, if they had told people plainly that, if the cholera was God’s judgment at all, it was His judgment of the sin of dirt, and that the repentance which He required was to wash and be clean in literal earnest, the cholera would be impossible in England by now.”
“Oh, Mr. Thurnall: but is it not God’s doing? and can we stop His hand?”
“I know nothing about that, Miss Harvey. I only know that wheresoever cholera breaks out, it is some one’s fault; and if deaths occur, some one ought to be tried for manslaughter — I had almost said murder, and transported for life.”
“That will be settled in the next generation, when men have common sense enough to make laws for the preservation of their own lives, against the dirt, and covetousness, and idleness, of a set of human hogs.”
Grace was silent for awhile.
“But can nothing be done to keep it off now? Must it come?”
“I believe it must. Still one may do enough to save many lives in the meanwhile.”
“Enough to save many lives — lives? — immortal souls, too! Oh, what could I do?”
“A great deal, Miss Harvey,” said Tom, across whom the recollection of Grace’s influence flashed for the first time. What a help she might be to him!
And he talked on and on to her, and found that she entered into his plans with all her wild enthusiasm, but also with sound practical common sense; and Tom began to respect her intellect as well as her heart.
At last, however, she faltered —
“Oh, if I could but believe all this! Is it not fighting against God?”
“I do not know what sort of God yours is, Miss Harvey. I believe in some One who made all that!” and he pointed round him to the glorious woods and glorious sky; “I should have fancied from your speech to that poor girl, that you believed in Him also. You may, however, only believe in the same being in whom the Methodist parson believes, one who intends to hurl into endless agony every human being who has not had a chance of hearing the said preacher’s nostrum for delivering men out of the hands of Him who made them!”
“What do you mean?” asked Grace, startled alike by Tom’s words, and the intense scorn and bitterness of his tone.
“That matters little. What do you mean in turn? What did you mean by saying, that saving lives is saving immortal souls?”
“Oh, is it not giving them time to repent? What will become of them, if they are cut off in the midst of their sins?”
“If you had a son whom it was not convenient to you to keep at home, would his being a bad fellow — the greatest scoundrel on the earth — be a reason for your turning him into the streets to live by thieving, and end by going to the dogs for ever and a day?”
“No; but what do you mean?”
“That I do not think that God, when He sends a human being out of this world, is more cruel than you or I would be. If we transport a man because he is too bad to be in England, and he shows any signs of mending, we give him a fresh chance in the colonies, and let him start again, to try if he cannot do better next time. And do you fancy that God, when He transports a man out of this world, never gives him a fresh chance in another — especially when nine out of ten poor rascals have never had a fair chance yet?”
Grace looked up in his face astonished.
“Oh, if I could but believe that! Oh! it would give me some gleam of hope for my two! — But no — it’s not in Scripture. Where the tree falls there it lies.”
“And as the fool dies, so dies the wise man; and there is one account to the righteous and to the wicked. And a man has no pre-eminence over a beast, for both turn alike to dust; and Solomon does not know, he says, or any one else, anything about the whole matter, or even whether there be any life after death at all; and so, he says, the only wise thing is to leave such deep questions alone, for Him who made us to settle in His own way, and just to fear God and keep His commandments, and do the work which lies nearest us with all our might.”
Grace was silent.
“You are surprised to hear me quote Scripture, and well you may be: but that same book of Ecclesiastes is a very old favourite with me; for I am no Christian, but a worlding, if ever there was one. But it does puzzle me why you, who are a Christian, should talk one half-hour as you have been talking to that poor girl, and the next go for information about the next life to poor old disappointed, broken-hearted Solomon, with his three hundred and odd idolatrous wives, who confesses fairly that this life is a failure, and that he does not know whether there is any next life at all.”
Whether Tom was altogether right or not, is not the question here; the novelist’s business is to represent the real thoughts of mankind, when they are not absolutely unfit to be told; and certainly Tom spoke the doubts of thousands when he spoke his own.
Grace was silent still.
“Well,” he said, “beyond that I can’t go, being no theologian. But when a preacher tells people in one breath of a God who so loves men that He gave His own Son to save them, and in the next, that the same God so hates men that He will cast nine-tenths of them into hopeless torture for ever — (and if that is not hating, I don’t know what is) — unless he, the preacher, gets a chance of talking to them for a few minutes — Why, I should like, Miss Harvey, to put that gentleman upon a real fire for ten minutes, instead of his comfortable Sunday’s dinner, which stands ready frying for him, and which he was going home to eat, as jolly as if all the world was not going to destruction; and there let him feel what fire was like, and reconsider his statements.”
Grace looked up at him no more; but walked on in silence, pondering many things.
“Howsoever that may be, sir, tell me what to do in this cholera, and I will do it, if I kill myself with work or infection!”
“You shan’t do that. We cannot spare you from Aberalva, Grace,” said Tom; “you must save a few more poor creatures ere you die, out of the hands of that Good Being who made little children, and love, and happiness, and the flowers, and the sunshine, and the fruitful earth; and who, you say, redeemed them all again, when they were lost, by an act of love which passes all human dreams.”
“Do not talk so!” cried Grace. “It frightens me; it puzzles me, and makes me miserable. Oh, if you would but become a Christian!”
“And listen to the Gospel?”
“Yes — oh yes!”
“A gospel means good news, I thought. When you have any to tell me, I will listen. Meanwhile, the news that three out of four of those poor fellows down town are going to a certain place, seems to me such terribly bad news, that I can’t help fancying that it is not the Gospel at all; and so get on the best way I can, listening to the good news about God which this grand old world, and my microscope, and my books, tell me. No, Grace, I have more good news than that, and I’ll confess it to you.”
He paused, and his voice softened.
“Say what the preacher may. He must be a good God who makes such creatures as you, and sends them into the world to comfort poor wretches. Follow your own sweet heart, Grace, and torment yourself no more with these dark dreams!”
“My heart?” cried she, looking down; “it is deceitful and desperately wicked.”
“I wish mine were too, then,” said Tom: “but it cannot be, as long as it is so unlike yours. Now stop, Grace, I want to speak to you.”
There was a gate in front of them, leading into the road.
As they came to it, Tom lingered with his hand upon the top bar, that Grace might stop. She did stop, half-frightened. Why did he call her Grace?
“I wish to speak to you on one matter, on which I believe I ought to have spoken long ago.”
She looked up at him, surprise in her large eyes: and turned pale as he went on.
“I ought long ago to have begged your pardon for something rude which I said to you at your own door. This day has made me quite ashamed of —”
But she interrupted him, quite wildly, gasping for breath.
“The belt? The belt? Oh, my God! my God! Have you heard anything more? — anything more?”
“Not a word; but —”
To his astonishment, she heaved a deep sigh, as if relieved from a sudden fear. His face clouded, and his eyebrows rose. Was she guilty, then, after all?
With the quick eyes of love, she saw the change; and broke out passionately —
“Yes; suspect me! suspect me, if you will! only give me time! Send me to prison, innocent as I am — innocent as that child there above — would God I were dying like her! — Only give me time! O misery! I had hoped you had forgotten — that it was lost in the sea — that — what am I saying? — Only give me time!”— and she dropped on her knees before him, wringing her hands.
“Miss Harvey! This is not worthy of you. If you be innocent, as I don’t doubt, what more do you need — or I?”
He took her hands, and lifted her up: but she still kept looking down, round, upwards, like a hunted deer, and pleading in words which seemed sobbed out — as by some poor soul on the rack — between choking spasms of agony.
“Oh, I don’t know — God help me! O Lord, help me! I will try and find it — I know I shall find it! only have patience; have patience with me a little, and I know I shall bring it you; and then — and then you will forgive? — forgive?”
And she laid her hands upon his arms, and looked up in his face with a piteous smile of entreaty.
She had never looked so beautiful as at that moment. The devil saw it; and entered into the heart of Thomas Thurnall. He caught her in his arms, kissed away her tears, stopped her mouth with kisses. “Yes! I’ll wait — wait for ever, if you will! I’ll lose another belt, for such another look as that!”
She was bewildered for a moment, poor fond wretch, at finding herself where she would gladly have stayed for ever: but quickly she recovered her reason.
“Let me go!” she cried, struggling. “This is not right! Let me go, sir!” and she tried to cover her burning cheeks with her hands.
“I will not, Grace! I love you! I love you, I tell you!”
“You do not, sir!” and she struggled still more fiercely. “Do not deceive yourself! Me you cannot deceive! Let me go, I say! You could not demean yourself to love a poor girl like me!”
Utterly losing his head, Tom ran on with passionate words.
“No, sir! you know that I am not fit to be your wife: and do you fancy that I—”
Maddened now, Tom went on, ere he was aware, from a foolish deed to a base speech.
“I know nothing, but that I shall keep you in pawn for my belt. Till that is at least restored, you are in my power, Grace! Remember that!”
She thrust him away with so sudden and desperate a spasm, that he was forced to let her go. She stood gazing at him, a trembling deer no longer, but rather a lioness at bay, her face flashing beautiful indignation.
“In your power! Yes, sir! My character, my life, for aught I know: but not my soul, Send me to Bodmin Gaol if you will; but offer no more insults to a modest maiden! Oh!”— and her expression changed to one of lofty sorrow and pity; —“Oh! to find all men alike at heart? After having fancied you — fancied you” (what she had fancied him her woman’s modesty dare not repeat)—“to find you even such another as Mr. Trebooze!”
Tom was checked. As for mere indignation, in such cases, he had seen enough of that to trust it no more than “ice that is one night old:” but pity for him was a weapon of defence to which he was unaccustomed. And there was no contempt in her pity; and no affectation either. Her voice was solemn, but tender, gently upbraiding, like her countenance. Never had he felt Grace’s mysterious attraction so strong upon him; and for the first and last time, perhaps, for many a year, he answered with downcast eyes of shame.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Harvey. I have been rude — mad. If you will look in your glass when you go home, and have a woman’s heart in you, you may at least see an excuse for me: but like Mr. Trebooze I am not. Forgive and forget, and let us walk home rationally.” And he offered to take her hand.
“No: not now! Not till I can trust you, sir!” said she. The words were lofty enough: but there was a profound melancholy in their tone which humbled Tom still more. Was it possible — she seemed to have hinted it — that she had thought him a very grand personage till now, and that he had disgraced himself in her eyes?
If a man had suspected Tom of such a feeling, I fear he would have cared little, save how to restore the balance by making a fool of the man who fancied him a fool: but no male self-sufficiency or pride is proof against the contempt of woman; and Tom slunk along by the schoolmistress’s side, as if he had been one of her naughtiest school-children. He tried, of course, to brazen it out to his own conscience. He had done no harm, after all; indeed, never seriously meant any. She was making a ridiculous fuss about nothing. It was all part and parcel of her methodistical cant. He dared say that she was not as prudish with the methodist parson. And at that base thought he paused; for a flush of rage, and a strong desire on such hypothesis to slay the said methodist parson, or any one else who dared even to look sweet on Grace, showed him plainly enough what he had long been afraid of, that he was really in love with her; and that, as he put it, if she did not make a fool of herself about him, he was but too likely to end in making a fool of himself about her. However, he must speak, to support his own character as a man of the world; — it would never do to knock under to a country girl in this way; — she might go and boast of it all over the town; — beside, foiled or not, he would not give in without trying her mettle somewhat further.
“Miss Harvey, will you forgive me?”
“I have forgiven you.”
“Will you forget?”
“If I can!” she said, with a marked expression, which signified (though, of course, she did not mean Tom to understand it), “some of what is past is too precious, and some too painful, to forget.”
“I do not ask you to forget all which has passed!”
“I am afraid that there is nothing which would be any credit to you, sir, to have remembered.”
“Credit or none,” said Tom, unabashed, “do not forget one word that I said.”
She looked hastily and sidelong round — “That I am in your power?”
“No! curse it! I wish I had bitten out my tongue before I had said that. No! that I am in your power, Miss Harvey.”
“Sir! I never heard you say that; and if you had, the sooner anything so untrue is forgotten the better.”
“I said that I loved you, Grace; and if that does not mean that —”
“Sir! Mr. Thurnall! I cannot, I will not hear! You only insult me, sir, by speaking thus, when you know that — that you consider me — a thief!” and the poor girl burst into tears again.
“I do not! I do not;” cried Tom, growing really earnest at the sight of her sorrow, “Did I not begin this unhappy talk by begging your pardon for ever having let such a thought cross my mind?”
“But you do! you do! you told me as much at my own door; and I have seen it ever since, till I have almost gone mad under it!”
“I will swear to you by all that is sacred that I do not! Oh, Grace, the first moment I saw you my heart told me that it was impossible; and now, this afternoon, as I listened to you with that sick girl, I felt a wretch for ever having — Grace, I tell you, you made me feel, for the moment, a better man than I ever felt in my life before. A poor return I have made for that, truly!”
Grace looked up in his face gasping.
“Oh, say that! say that again. Oh, good Lord, merciful Lord, at last! Oh, if you knew what it was to have even one weight lifted off, among all my heavy burdens, and that weight the hardest to bear. God forgive me that it should have been so! Oh, I can breathe freely now again, that I know I am not suspected by you.”
“By you?” Tom could not but see what, after all, no human being can conceal, that Grace cared for him. And the devil came and tempted him once more: but this time it was in vain. Tom’s better angel had returned; Grace’s tender guilelessness, which would with too many men only have marked her out as the easier prey, was to him as a sacred shield before her innocence. So noble, so enthusiastic, so pure! He could not play the villain with that woman.
But there was plainly a mystery. What were the burdens, heavier even than unjust suspicion, of which she had spoken? There was no harm in asking.
“But, Grace — Miss Harvey — You will not be angry with me if I ask? — Why speak so often, as if finding this money depended on you alone? You wish me to recover it, I know; and if you can counsel me, why not do so? Why not tell me whom you suspect?”
Her old wild terror returned in an instant. She stopped short —
“Suspect? I suspect? Oh, I have suspected too many already! Suspected till I began to hate my fellow-creatures — hate life itself, when I fancied that I saw ‘thief’ written on every forehead. Oh, do not ask me to suspect any more!”
Tom was silent.
“Oh,” she cried, after a moment’s pause. “Oh, that we were back in those old times I have read of, when they used to put people to the torture to make them confess!”
“Why, in Heaven’s name?”
“Because then I should have been tortured, and have confessed it, true or false, in the agony, and have been hanged. They used to hang them then, and put them out of their misery; and I should have been put out of mine, and no one have been blamed but me for ever more.”
“You forget,” said Tom, lost in wonder, “that then I should have blamed you, as well as every one else.”
“True; yes, it was a foolish faithless word. I did not take it, and it would have been no good to my soul to say I did. Lies cannot prosper, cannot prosper, Mr. Thurnall!” and she stopped short again.
“What, my dear Grace?” said he, kindly enough; for he began to fear that she was losing her wits.
“I saved your life!”
“You did, Grace.”
“Then, I never thought to ask for payment; but, oh, I must now. Will you promise me one thing in return?”
“What you will, as I am a man and a gentleman; I can trust you to ask nothing which is not worthy of you.”
Tom spoke truth. He felt — perhaps love made him feel it all the more easily — that whatever was behind, he was safe in that woman’s hands.
“Then promise me that you will wait one month, only one month: ask no questions; mention nothing to any living soul. And if, before that time, I do not bring you that belt back, send me to Bodmin Gaol, and let me bear my punishment.”
“I promise,” said Tom. And the two walked on again in silence, till they neared the head of the village.
Then Grace went forward, like Nausicaa when she left Ulysses, lest the townsfolk should talk; and Tom sat down upon a bank and watched her figure vanishing in the dusk.
Much he puzzled, hunting up and down in his cunning head for an explanation of the mystery. At last he found one which seemed to fit the facts so well, that he rose with a whistle of satisfaction, and walked homewards.
Evidently, her mother had stolen the belt; and Grace was, if not a repentant accomplice — for that he could not believe — at least aware of the fact.
“Well, it is a hard knot for her to untie, poor child; and on the strength of having saved my life, she shall untie it her own way. I can wait. I hope the money won’t be spent meanwhile, though, and the empty leather returned to me when wanted no longer. However, that’s done already, if done at all. I was a fool for not acting at once; — a double fool for suspecting her! Ass that I was, to take up with a false scent, and throw myself off the true one! My everlasting unbelief in people has punished itself this time. I might have got a search-warrant three months ago, and had that old witch safe in the bilboes. But no — I might not have found it, after all, and there would have been only an esclandre; and if I know that girl’s heart, she would have been ten times more miserable for her mother than for herself, so it’s as well as it is. Besides, it’s really good fun to watch how such a pretty plot will work itself out; — as good as a pack of harriers with a cold scent and a squatted hare. So, live and let live. Only, Thomas Thurnall, if you go for to come for to go for to make such an abominable ass of yourself with that young lady any more, like a miserable school-boy, you will be pleased to make tracks, and vanish out of these parts for ever. For my purse can’t afford to have you marrying a schoolmistress in your impoverished old age; and my character, which also is my purse, can’t afford worse.”
One word of Grace’s had fixed itself in Tom’s memory. What did she mean by “her two?”
He contrived to ask Willis that very evening.
“Oh, don’t you know, sir? She had a young brother drowned, a long while ago, when she was sixteen or so. He went out fishing on the Sabbath, with another like him, and both were swamped. Wild young lads, both, as lads will be. But she, sweet maid, took it so to heart, that she never held up her head since; nor will, I think, at times, to her dying day.”
“Humph! Was she fond of the other lad, then?”
“Sir,” said Willis, “I don’t think it’s fair like — not decent, if you’ll excuse an old sailor — to talk about young maids’ affairs, that they wouldn’t talk of themselves, perhaps not even to themselves. So I never asked any questions myself.”
“And think it rude in me to ask any. Well, I believe you’re right, good old gentleman that you are. What a nobleman you’d have made, if you had had the luck to have been born in that station of life!”
“I have found too much trouble, in doing my duty in my humble place, to wish to be in any higher one.”
“So!” thought Tom to himself, “a girl’s fancy: but it explains so much in the character, especially when the temperament is melancholic. However, to quote Solomon once more, ‘A live dog is better than a dead lion;’ and I have not much to fear from a rival who has been washed out of this world ten years since. Heyday! Rival! quotha? Tom Thurnall, you are going to make a fool of yourself. You must go, sir! I warn you; you must flee, till you have recovered your senses.”
There appeared next morning in Tom’s shop a new phenomenon. A smart youth, dressed in what he considered to be the newest London fashion; but which was really that translation of last year’s fashion which happened to be current in the windows of the Bodmin tailors. Tom knew him by sight and name — one Mr. Creed, a squireen like Trebooze, and an especial friend of Trebooze’s, under whose tutelage he had learned to smoke cavendish assiduously from the age of fifteen, thereby improving neither his stature, nor his digestion, his nerves, nor the intelligence of his countenance.
He entered with a lofty air, and paused awhile as he spoke.
“Is it possible,” said Tom to himself, “that Trebooze has sent me a challenge? It would be too good fun. I’ll wait and see.” So he went on rolling pills.
“I say, sir,” quoth the youth, who had determined, as an owner of land, to treat the doctor duly de haut en bas, and had a vague notion that a liberal use of the word “sir” would both help thereto, and be consonant with professional style of duel diplomacy, whereof he had read in novels.
Tom turned slowly, and then took a long look at him over the counter through halfshut eye-lids, with chin upraised, as if he had been suddenly afflicted with short sight; and worked on meanwhile steadily at his pills.
“That is, I wish — to speak to you, sir — ahem —!” went on Mr. Creed; being gradually but surely discomfited by Tom’s steady gaze.
“Don’t trouble yourself, sir: I see your case in your face. A slight nervous affection — will pass as the digestion improves. I will make you up a set of pills for the night; but I should advise a little ammonia and valerian at once. May I mix it?”
“Sir! you mistake me, sir!”
“Not in the least; you have brought me a challenge from Mr. Trebooze.”
“I have, sir!” said the youth with a grand air, at once relieved by having the awful words said for him, and exalted by the dignity of his first, and perhaps last, employment in that line.
“Well, sir,” said Tom deliberately, “Mr. Trebooze does me a kindness for which I cannot sufficiently thank him, and you also, as his second. It is full six months since I fought, and I was getting hardly to know myself again.”
“You will have to fight now, sir!” said the youth, trying to brazen off by his discourtesy increasing suspicion that he had “caught a Tartar.”
“Of course, of course. And of course, too, I fight you afterwards.”
“I— I, sir? I am Mr. Trebooze’s friend, his second, sir. You do not seem to understand, sir!”
“Pardon me, young gentleman,” said Tom, in a very quiet, determined voice; “it is I who have a right to tell you that you do not understand in such matters as these. I had fought my man, and more than one of them, while you were eating blackberries in a short jacket.”
“What do you mean, sir?” quoth the youth in fury; and began swearing a little.
“Simple fact. Are you not about twenty-three years old?”
“What is that to you, sir?”
“No business of mine, of course. You may be growing into your second childhood for aught I care: but if, as I guess, you are about twenty-three, I, as I know, am thirty-six: then I fought my first duel when you were five years old, and my tenth, I should say, when you were fifteen; at which time, I suppose, you were not ashamed either of the jacket or the blackberries.”
“You will find me a man now, sir, at all events,” said Creed, justly wroth at what was, after all, a sophism; for if a man is not a man at twenty, he never will be one.
“Tant mieux. You know, I suppose, that as the challenged, I have the choice of weapons?”
“Of course, sir,” said Creed, in an off-hand generous tone, because he did not very clearly know.
“Then, sir, I always fight across a handkerchief. You will tell Mr. Trebooze so; he is, I really believe, a brave man, and will accept the terms. You will tell yourself the same, whether you be a brave man or not.”
The youth lost the last words in those which went before them. He was no coward: would have stood up to be shot at, at fifteen paces, like any one else; but the deliberate butchery of fighting across a handkerchief —
“Do I understand you, sir?”
“That depends on whether you are clever enough, or not, to comprehend your native tongue. Across a handkerchief, I say, do you hear that?” And Tom rolled on at his pills.
“And when I have fought him, I fight you!” And the pills rolled steadily at the same pace.
“But — sir? — Why — sir?”
“Because,” said Tom, looking him full in the face, “because you, calling yourself a gentleman, and being, more shame for you, one by birth, dare to come here, for a foolish vulgar superstition called honour, to ask me, a quiet medical man, to go and be shot at by a man whom you know to be a drunken, profligate, blackguard: simply because, as you know as well as I, I interfered to prevent his insulting a poor helpless girl: and in so doing, was forced to give him what you, if you are (as I believe) a gentleman, would have given him also, in my place.”
“I don’t understand you, sir!” said the lad, blushing all the while, as one honestly conscience-stricken; for Tom had spoken the exact truth, and he knew it.
“Don’t lie, sir, and tell me that you don’t understand; you understand every word which I have spoken, and you know that it is true.”
“Yes, lie. Look you, sir; I have no wish to fight —”
“You will fight, though, whether you wish it or not,” said the youth with a hysterical laugh, meant to be defiant.
“But — I can snuff a candle; I can split a bullet on a penknife at fifteen paces.”
“Do you mean to frighten us by boasting? We shall see what you can do when you come on the ground.”
“Across a handkerchief: but on no other condition; and, unless you will accept that condition, I will assuredly, the next time I see you, be we where we may, treat you as I treated your friend Mr. Trebooze. I’ll do it now! Get out of my shop, sir! What do you want here, interfering with my honest business?”
And, to the astonishment of Mr. Trebooze’s second, Tom vaulted clean over the counter, and rushed at him open-mouthed.
Sacred be the honour of the gallant West country: but, “both being friends,” as Aristotle has it, “it is a sacred duty to speak the truth.” Mr. Creed vanished through the open door.
“I rid myself of the fellow jollily,” said Tom to Frank that day, after telling him the whole story.
“And no credit to me. I saw from the minute he came in there was no fight in him.”
“But suppose he had accepted — or suppose Trebooze accepts still?”
“There was my game — to frighten him. He’ll take care Trebooze shan’t fight, for he knows that he must fight next. He’ll go home and patch the matter up, trust him. Meanwhile, the oaf had not even savoir faire enough to ask for my second. Lucky for me; for I don’t know where to have found one, save the lieutenant; and though he would have gone out safe enough, it would have been a bore for the good old fellow.”
“And,” said Prank, utterly taken aback by Tom’s business-like levity, “you would actually have stood to shoot, and be shot at, across a handkerchief?”
Tom stuck out his great chin, and looked at him with one of his quaint sidelong moues.
“You are my very good friend, sir: but not my father-confessor.”
“I know that: but really — as a mere question of human curiosity —”
“Oh, if you ask me on the human ground, and not on the sacerdotal, I’ll tell you. I’ve tried it twice, and I should be sorry to try it again; though it’s a very easy dodge. Keep your right elbow up — up to your ear — and the moment you hear the word, fire. A high elbow and a cool heart — that’s all; and that wins.”
“Wins? Good heavens? As you are here alive you must have killed your man?”
“No. I only shot my men each through the body; and each of them deserved it: but it is an ugly chance; I should have been sorry to try it on that yokel. The boy may make a man yet. And what’s more,” said Tom, bursting into a great laugh, “he will make a man, and go down to his fathers in peace, quant à moi; and so will that wretched Trebooze. For I’ll bet you my head to a China orange, I hear no more of this matter; and don’t even lose Trebooze’s custom.”
“Upon my word, I envy your sanguine temperament!”
“Mr. Headley, I shall quietly make my call at Trebooze to-morrow, as if nothing had happened. What will you bet me that I am not received as usual?”
“I never bet,” said Frank.
“Then you do well. It is a foolish and a dirty trick; playing with edge tools, and cutting one’s own fingers. Nevertheless, I speak truth, as you will see.”
“You are a most extraordinary man. All this is so contrary to your usual caution.”
“When you are driven against the ropes, ‘hit out’ is the old rule of Fistiana and common sense. It is an extreme bore: all the more reason for showing such an ugly front, as to give people no chance of its happening again. Nothing so dangerous as half-measures, Headley. ‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you,’ your creed says. Mine only translates it into practice.”
“I have no liking for half-measures myself.”
“Did you ever,” said Tom, “hear the story of the two Sandhurst broom-squires?”
“So we call, in Berkshire, squatters on the moor who live by tying heath into brooms. Two of them met in Reading market once, and fell out:—
“‘How ever do you manage to sell your brooms for three halfpence? I steals the heth, and I steals the binds, and I steals the handles: and yet I can’t afoord to sell ’em under twopence.’
“Ah, but you see,’ says the other, ‘I steals mine ready made.’
“Moral — If you’re going to do a thing, do it outright.”
That very evening, Tom came in again.
“Well; I’ve been to Trebooze.”
“And fared, how?”
“Just as I warned you. Inquired into his symptoms; prescribed for his digestion — if he goes on as he is doing, he will soon have none left to prescribe for; and, finally, plastered, with a sublime generosity, the nose which my own knuckles had contused.”
“Impossible! you are the most miraculously impudent of men!”
“Pish! simple common sense. I knew that Mrs. Trebooze would suspect that the world had heard of his mishap, and took care to let her know that I knew, by coming up to inquire for him.”
“Power. To have them, or any one, a little more in my power. Next, I knew that he dared not fly out at me, for fear I should tell Mrs. Trebooze what he had been after — you see? Ah, it was delicious to have the great oaf sitting sulking under my fingers, longing to knock my head off, and I plastering away, with words of deepest astonishment and condolence. I verily believe that, before we parted, I had persuaded him that his black eye proceeded entirely from his having run up against a tree in the dark.”
“Well,” said Frank, half sadly, though enjoying the joke in spite of himself, “I cannot help thinking it would have been a fit moment for giving the poor wretch a more solemn lesson.”
“My dear sir — a good licking — and he had one, and something over — is the best lesson for that manner of biped. That’s the way to school him: but as we are on lessons, I’ll give you a hint.”
“Go on, model of self-sufficiency!” said Frank.
“Scoff at me if you will, I am proof. But hearken — you mustn’t turn out that schoolmistress. She’s an angel, and I know it; and if I say so of any human being, you may be sure I have pretty good reasons.”
“I am beginning to be of your mind myself,” said Frank.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10