Tom and Elsley are safe at Whitbury at last; and Tom, ere he has seen his father, has packed Elsley safe away in lodgings with an old dame whom he can trust. Then he asks his way to his father’s new abode; a small old-fashioned house, with low bay windows jutting out upon the narrow pavement.
Tom stops, and looks in the window. His father is sitting close to it, in his arm-chair, his hands upon his knees, his face lifted to the sunlight, with chin slightly outstretched, and his pale eyes feeling for the light. The expression would have been painful, but for its perfect sweetness and resignation. His countenance is not, perhaps, a strong one; but its delicacy, and calm, and the high forehead, and the long white locks, are most venerable. With a blind man’s exquisite sense, he feels Tom’s shadow fall on him, and starts, and calls him by name; for he has been expecting him, and thinking of nothing else all the morning, and takes for granted that it must be he.
In another moment Tom is at his father’s side. What need to describe the sacred joy of those first few minutes, even if it were possible? But unrestrained tenderness between man and man, rare as it is, and, as it were, unaccustomed to itself, has no passionate fluency, no metaphor or poetry, such as man pours out to woman, and woman again to man. All its language lies in the tones, the looks, the little half-concealed gestures, hints which pass themselves off modestly in jest; and such was Tom’s first interview with his father; till the old Isaac, having felt Tom’s head and hands again and again, to be sure whether it were his very son or no, made him sit down by him, holding him still fast, and began —
“Now, tell me, tell me, while Jane gets you something to eat. No, Jane, you mustn’t talk to Master Tom yet, to bother about how much he’s grown; — nonsense, I must have him all to myself, Jane. Go and get him some dinner. Now, Tom,” as if he was afraid of losing a moment; “you have been a dear boy to write to me every week; but there are so many questions which only word of mouth will answer, and I have stored up dozens of them! I want to know what a coral reef really looks like, and if you saw any trepangs upon them? And what sort of strata is the gold really in? And you saw one of those giant rays; I want a whole hour’s talk about the fellow. And — What an old babbler I am! talking to you when you should be talking to me. Now begin. Let us have the trepangs first. Are they real Holothurians or not?”
And Tom began, and told for a full half-hour, interrupted then by some little comment of the old man’s, which proved how prodigious was the memory within, imprisoned and forced to feed upon itself.
“You seem to know more about Australia than I do, father,” said Tom at last.
“No, child; but Mary Armsworth, God bless her! comes down here almost every evening to read your letters to me; and she has been reading to me a book of Mrs. Lee’s Adventures in Australia, which reads like a novel; delicious book — to me at least. Why, there is her step outside, I do believe, and her father’s with her!”
The lighter woman’s step was inaudible to Tom; but the heavy, deliberate waddle of the banker was not. He opened the house-door, and then the parlour-door, without knocking; but when he saw the visitor, he stopped on the threshold with outstretched arms.
“Hillo, ho! who have we here? Our prodigal son returned, with his pockets full of nuggets from the diggings. Oh, mum’s the word, is it?” as Tom laid his finger on his lips. “Come here, then, and let’s have a look at you!” and he catches both Tom’s hands in his, and almost shakes them off. “I knew you were coming, old boy! Mary told me — she’s in all the old man’s secrets. Come along, Mary, and see your old playfellow. She has got a little fruit for the old gentleman. Mary, where are you I always colloguing with Jane.”
Mary comes in: a little dumpty body, with a yellow face, and a red nose, the smile of an angel, and a heart full of many little secrets of other people’s — and of one great one of her own, which is no business of any man’s — and with fifty thousand pounds as her portion, for she is an only child. But no man will touch that fifty thousand; for “no one would marry me for myself,” says Mary; “and no one shall marry me for my money.”
So she greets Tom shyly and humbly, without looking in his face, yet very cordially; and then slips away to deposit on the table a noble pine-apple.
“A little bit of fruit from her greenhouse,” says the old man in a disparaging tone: “and, oh Jane, bring me a saucer. Here’s a sprat I just capered out of Hemmelford mill-pit; perhaps the Doctor would like it fried for supper, if it’s big enough not to fall through the gridiron.”
Jane, who knows Mark Armsworth’s humour, brings in the largest dish in the house, and Mark pulls out of his basket a great three-pound trout.
“Aha! my young rover; Old Mark’s right hand hasn’t forgot its cunning, eh? And this is the month for them; fish all quiet now. When fools go a-shooting, wise men go a-fishing! Eh? Come here, and look me over. How do I wear, eh? As like a Muscovy duck as ever, you young rogue? Do you recollect asking me, at the Club dinner, why I was like a Muscovy duck? Because I was a fat thing in green velveteen, with a bald red head, that was always waddling about the river bank. Ah, those were days! We’ll have some more of them. Come up to-night and try the old ‘21 bin.”
“I must have him myself to-night; indeed I must, Mark,” says the Doctor.
“All to yourself you selfish old rogue?”
“Why — no —”
“We’ll come down, then, Mary and I, and bring the ‘21 with us, and hear all his cock-and-bull stories. Full of travellers’ lies as ever, eh? Well, I’ll come, and smoke my pipe with you. Always the same old Mark, my lad,” nudging Tom with his elbow; “one fellow comes and borrows my money, and goes out and calls me a stingy old hunks because I won’t let him cheat me; another comes, and eats my pines, and drinks my port, goes home, and calls me a purse-proud upstart, because he can’t match ’em. Never mind; old Mark’s old Mark; sound in the heart, and sound in the liver, just the same as thirty years ago, and will be till he takes his last quietus est —
‘And drops into his grassy nest.’
Bye, bye, Doctor! Come, Mary!”
And out he toddled, with silent little Mary at his heels.
“Old Mark wears well, body and soul,” said Tom.
“He is a noble, generous fellow, and as delicate-hearted as a woman withal, in spite of his conceit and roughness. Fifty and odd years now, Tom, have we been brothers, and I never found him change. And brothers we shall be, I trust, a few years more, till I see you back again from the East, comfortably settled. And then —”
“Don’t talk of that, sir, please!” said Tom, quite quickly and sharply. “How ill poor Mary looks!”
“So they say, poor child; and one hears it in her voice. Ah, Tom, that girl is an angel; she has been to me daughter, doctor, clergyman, eyes and library; and would have been nurse too, if it had not been for making old Jane jealous. But she is ill. Some love affair, I suppose —”
“How quaint it is, that the father has kept all the animal vigour to himself, and transmitted none to the daughter.”
“He has not kept the soul to himself, Tom, or the eyes either. She will bring me in wild flowers, and talk to me about them, till I fancy I can see them as well as ever. Ah, well! It is a sweet world still, Tom, and there are sweet souls in it. A sweet world: I was too fond of looking at it once, I suppose, so God took away my sight, that I might learn to look at Him.” And the old man lay back in his chair, and covered his face with his handkerchief, and was quite still awhile. And Tom watched him, and thought that he would give all his cunning and power to be like that old man.
Then Jane came in, and laid the cloth — a coarse one enough — and Tom picked a cold mutton bone with a steel fork, and drank his pint of beer from the public-house, and lighted his father’s pipe, and then his own, and vowed that he had never dined so well in his life, and began his traveller’s stories again.
And in the evening Mark came in, with a bottle of the ‘21 in his coat-tail pocket; and the three sat and chatted, while Mary brought out her work, and stitched listening silently, till it was time to lead the old man upstairs.
Tom put his father to bed, and then made a hesitating request —
“There is a poor sick man whom I brought down with me, sir, if you could spare me half-an-hour. It really is a professional case; he is under my charge, I may say.”
“What is it, boy?”
“Well, laudanum and a broken heart.”
“Exercise and ammonia for the first. For the second, God’s grace and the grave: and those latter medicines you can’t exhibit, my dear boy. Well, as it is professional duty, I suppose you must: but don’t exceed the hour; I shall lie awake till you return, and then you must talk me to sleep.”
So Tom went out and homeward with Mark and Mary, for their roads lay together; and as he went, he thought good to tell them somewhat of the history of John Briggs, alias Elsley Vavasour.
“Poor fool!” said Mark, who listened in silence to the end. “Why didn’t he mind his bottles, and just do what Heaven sent him to do? Is he in want of the rhino, Tom?”
“He had not five shillings left after he had paid his fare; and he refuses to ask his wife for a farthing.”
“Quite right — very proper spirit.” And Mark walked on in silence a few minutes.
“I say, Tom, a fool and his money are soon parted. There’s a five-pound note for him, you begging, insinuating dog, and be hanged to you both! I shall die in the workhouse at this rate.”
“Oh father, you will never miss —”
“Who told you I thought I should, pray? Don’t you go giving another five pounds out of your pocket-money behind my back, ma’am. I know your tricks of old. Tom, I’ll come and see the poor beggar to-morrow with you, and call him Mr. Vavasour — Lord Vavasour, if he likes — if you’ll warrant me against laughing in his face.” And the old man did laugh, till he stopped and held his sides again.
“Oh, father, father, don’t be so cruel. Remember how wretched the poor man is.”
“I can’t think of anything but old Bolus’s boy turned poet. Why did you tell me, Tom, you bad fellow? It’s too much for a man at my time of life, and after his dinner too.”
And with that he opened the little gate by the side of the grand one, and turned to ask Tom —
“Won’t come in, boy, and have one more cigar?”
“I promised my father to be back as quickly as possible.”
“Good lad — that’s the plan to go on —
‘You’ll be churchwarden before all’s over,
And so arrive at wealth and fame.’
Instead of writing po-o-o-etry? Do you recollect that morning, and the black draught? Oh dear, my side!”
And Tom heard him keckling to himself up the garden walk to his house; went off to see that Elsley was safe; and then home, and slept like a top; no wonder, for he would have done so the night before his execution.
And what was little Mary doing all the while?
She had gone up to the room, after telling her father, with a kiss, not to forget to say his prayers. And then she fed her canary bird, and made up the Persian cat’s bed; and then sat long at the open window, gazing out over the shadow-dappled lawn, away to the poplars sleeping in the moonlight, and the shining silent stream, and the shining silent stars, till she seemed to become as one of them, and a quiet heaven within her eyes took counsel with the quiet heaven above. And then she drew in suddenly, as if stung by some random thought, and shut the window. A picture hung over her mantelpiece — a portrait of her mother, who had been a country beauty in her time. She glanced at it, and then at the looking-glass. Would she have given her fifty thousand pounds to have exchanged her face for such a face as that?
She caught up her little Thomas à Kempis, marked through and through with lines and references, and sat and read steadfastly for an hour and more. That was her school, as it has been the school of many a noble soul. And, for some cause or other, that stinging thought returned no more; and she knelt and prayed like a little child; and like a little child slept sweetly all the night, and was away before breakfast the next morning, after feeding the canary and the cat, to old women who worshipped her as their ministering angel, and said, looking after her: “That dear Miss Mary, pity she is so plain! Such a match as she might have made! But she’ll be handsome enough, when she is a blessed angel in heaven.”
Ah, true sisters of mercy, whom the world sneers at as “old maids,” if you pour out on cats and dogs and parrots, a little of the love which is yearning to spend itself on children of your own flesh and blood! As long as such as you walk this lower world, one needs no Butler’s Analogy to prove to us that there is another world, where such as you will have a fuller and a fairer (I dare not say a juster) portion.
Next morning Mark started with Tom to call on Elsley, chatting and puffing all the way.
“I’ll butter him, trust me. Nothing comforts a poor beggar like a bit of praise when he’s down; and all fellows that take to writing are as greedy after it as trout after the drake, even if they only scribble in county newspapers. I’ve watched them when I’ve been electioneering, my boy!”
“Only,” said Tom, “don’t be angry with him if he is proud and peevish. The poor fellow is all but mad with misery.”
“Poh! quarrel with him? whom did I ever quarrel with? If he barks, I’ll stop his mouth with a good dinner. I suppose he’s gentleman enough, to invite?”
“As much a gentleman as you and I; not of the very first water, of course. Still he eats like other people, and don’t break many glasses during a sitting. Think! he couldn’t have been a very great cad to marry a nobleman’s daughter!”
“Why, no. Speaks well for him, that, considering his breeding. He must be a very clever fellow to have caught the trick of the thing so soon.”
“And so he is, a very clever fellow; too clever by half; and a very fine-hearted fellow, too, in spite of his conceit and his temper. But that don’t prevent his being an awful fool!”
“You speak like a book, Tom!” said old Mark, clapping him on the back. “Look at me! no one can say I was ever troubled with genius: but I can show my money, pay my way, eat my dinner, kill my trout, hunt my hounds, help a lame dog over a stile” (which was Mark’s phrase for doing a generous thing), “and thank God for all; and who wants more, I should like to know? But here we are — you go up first!”
They found Elsley crouched up over the empty grate, his head in his hands, and a few scraps of paper by him, on which he had been trying to scribble. He did not look up as they came in, but gave a sort of impatient half-turn, as if angry at being disturbed. Tom was about to announce the banker; but he announced himself.
“Come to do myself the honour of calling on you, Mr. Vavasour. I am sorry to see you so poorly; I hope our Whitbury air will set all right.”
“You mistake me, sir; my name is Briggs!” said Elsley, without turning his head; but a moment after he looked up angrily.
“Mr. Armsworth? I beg your pardon, sir; but what brings you here? Are you come, sir, to use the rich successful man’s right, and lecture me in my misery?”
“‘Pon my word, sir, you must have forgotten old Mark Armsworth, indeed, if you fancy him capable of any such dirt. No, sir, I came to pay my respects to you, sir, hoping that you’d come up and take a family dinner. I could do no less,” ran on the banker, seeing that Elsley was preparing a peevish answer, “considering the honour that, I hear, you have been to your native town. A very distinguished person, our friend Tom tells me; and we ought to be proud of you, and behave to you as you deserve, for I am sure we don’t send too many clever fellows out of Whitbury.”
“Would that you had never sent me!” said Elsley in his bitter way.
“Ah, sir, that’s matter of opinion! You would never have been heard of down here, never have had justice done you, I mean; for heard of you have been. There’s my daughter has read your poems again and again — always quoting them; and very pretty they sound too. Poetry is not in my line, of course; still, it’s a credit to a man to do anything well, if he has the gift; and she tells me that you have it, and plenty of it. And though she’s no fine lady, thank Heaven, I’ll back her for good sense against any woman. Come up, sir, and judge for yourself if I don’t speak the truth; she will be delighted to meet you, and bade me say so.”
By this time good Mark had talked himself out of breath; and Elsley flushing up, as of old, at a little praise, began to stammer an excuse. “His nerves were so weak, and his spirits so broken with late troubles.”
“My dear sir, that’s the very reason I want you to come. A bottle of port will cure the nerves, and a pleasant chat the spirits. Nothing like forgetting all for a little time; and then to it again with a fresh lease of strength, and beat it at last like a man.”
“Too late, my dear sir; I must pay the penalty of my own folly,” said Elsley, really won by the man’s cordiality.
“Never too late, sir, while there’s life left in us. And,” he went on in a gentler tone, “if we all were to pay for our own follies, or lie down and die when we saw them coming full cry at our heels, where would any one of us be by now? I have been a fool in my time, young gentleman, more than once or twice; and that too when I was old enough to be your father: and down I went, and deserved what I got: but my rule always was — Fight fair; fall soft; know when you’ve got enough; and don’t cry out when you’ve got it: but just go home; train again; and say — better luck next fight.” And so old Mark’s sermon ended (as most of them did) in somewhat Socratic allegory, savouring rather of the market than of the study; but Elsley understood him, and looked up with a smile.
“You too are somewhat of a poet in your way, I see, sir!”
“I never thought to live to hear that, sir. I can’t doubt now that you are cleverer than your neighbours, for you have found out something which they never did. But you will come? — for that’s my business.”
Elsley looked inquiringly at Tom; he had learnt now to consult his eye, and lean on him like a child. Tom looked a stout yes, and Elsley said languidly —
“You have given me so much new and good advice in a few minutes, sir, that I must really do myself the pleasure of coming and hearing more.”
“Well done, our side!” cried old Mark. “Dinner at half-past five. No London late hours here, sir. Miss Armsworth will be out of her mind when she hears you’re coming.”
And off he went.
“Do you think he’ll come up to the scratch, Tom?”
“I am very much afraid his courage will fail him. I will see him again, and bring him up with me: but now, my dear Mr. Armsworth, do remember one thing; that if you go on with him at your usual rate of hospitality, the man will as surely be drunk, as his nerves and brain are all but ruined; and if he is so, he will most probably destroy himself to-morrow morning.”
“He will. The shame of making a fool of himself just now before you will be more than he could bear. So be stingy for once. He will not wish for it unless you press him; but if he talks (and he will talk after the first half-hour), he will forget himself, and half a bottle will make him mad; and then I won’t answer for the consequences.”
“Good gracious! why, these poets want as tender handling as a bag of gunpowder over the fire.”
“You speak like a book there in your turn.” And Tom went home to his father.
He returned in due time. A new difficulty had arisen. Elsley, under the excitement of expectation, had gone out and deigned to buy laudanum — so will an unhealthy craving degrade a man! — of old Bolus himself, who luckily did not recognise him. He had taken his fullest dose, and was now unable to go anywhere or do anything. Tom did not disturb him: but went away, sorely perplexed, and very much minded to tell a white lie to Armsworth, in whose eyes this would be an offence — not unpardonable, for nothing with him was unpardonable, save lying or cruelty — but very grievous. If a man had drunk too much wine in his house, he would have simply kept his eye on him afterwards, as a fool who did not know when he had his “quotum;” but laudanum drinking — involving, too, the breaking of an engagement, which, well managed, might have been of immense use to Elsley — was a very different matter. So Tom knew not what to say or do; and not knowing, determined to wait on Providence, smartened himself as best he could, went up to the great house, and found Miss Mary.
“I’ll tell her. She will manage it somehow, if she is a woman; much more if she is an angel, as my father says.”
Mary looked very much shocked and grieved; answered hardly a word; but said at last, “Come in, while I go and see my father.” He came into the smart drawing-room, which he could see was seldom used; for Mary lived in her own room, her father in his counting-house, or in his “den.” In ten minutes she came down. Tom thought she had been crying.
“I have settled it. Poor unhappy man! We will talk of something more pleasant. Tell me about your shipwreck, and that place — Aberalva, is it not? What a pretty name!”
Tom told her, wondering then, and wondering long afterwards, how she had “settled it” with her father. She chatted on artlessly enough, till the old man came in, and to dinner, in capital humour, without saying one word of Elsley.
“How has the old lion been tamed?” thought Tom. “The two greatest affronts you could offer him in old times were, to break an engagement, and to despise his good cheer.” He did not know what the quiet oil on the waters of such a spirit as Mary’s can effect.
The evening passed pleasantly enough till nine, in chatting over old times, and listening to the history of every extraordinary trout and fox which had been killed within twenty miles, when the footboy entered with a somewhat scared face.
“Please, sir, is Mr. Vavasour here?”
“Here? Who wants him?”
“Mrs. Brown, sir, in Hemmelford Street. Says he lodges with her, and has been to seek for him at Dr. Thurnall’s.”
“I think you had better go, Mr. Thurnall,” said Mary, quietly.
“Indeed you had, boy. Bother poets, and the day they first began to breed in Whitbury! Such an evening spoilt! Have a cup of coffee? No? then a glass of sherry?”
Out went Tom. Mrs. Brown had been up, and seen him seemingly sleeping; then had heard him run downstairs hurriedly. He passed her in the passage, looking very wild. “Seemed, sir, just like my nevy’s wife’s brother, Will Ford, before he made away with hes’self.”
Tom goes off post haste, revolving many things in a crafty heart. Then he steers for Bolus’s shop. Bolus is at “The Angler’s Arms;” but his assistant is in.
“Did a gentleman call here just now, in a long cloak, with a felt wide-awake?”
“Yes.” And the assistant looks confused enough for Tom to rejoin —
“And you sold him laudanum?”
“Why — ah —”
“And you had sold him laudanum already this afternoon, you young rascal? How dare you, twice in six hours? I’ll hold you responsible for the man’s life!”
“You dare call me a rascal?” blusters the youth, terror-stricken at finding how much Tom knows.
“I am a member of the College of Surgeons,” says Tom, recovering his coolness, “and have just been dining with Mr. Armsworth. I suppose you know him?”
The assistant shook in his shoes at the name of that terrible justice of the peace and of the war also; and meekly and contritely he replied —
“Oh sir, what shall I do?”
“You’re in a very neat scrape; you could not have feathered your nest better,” says Tom, quietly filling his pipe, and thinking. “As you behave now, I will get you out of it, or leave you to — you know what, as well as I. Get your hat.”
He went out, and the youth followed trembling, while Tom formed his plans in his mind.
“The wild beast goes home to his lair to die, and so may he; for I fear it’s life and death now. I’ll try the house where he was born. Somewhere in Water Lane it is I know.”
And toward Water Lane he hurried. It was a low-lying offshoot of the town, leading along the water meadows, with a straggling row of houses on each side, the perennial haunts of fever and ague. Before them, on each side the road, and fringed with pollard willows and tall poplars, ran a tiny branch of the Whit, to feed some mill below; and spread out, meanwhile, into ponds and mires full of offal and duckweed and rank floating grass. A thick mist hung knee-deep over them, and over the gardens right and left; and as Tom came down on the lane from the main street above, he could see the mist spreading across the water-meadows and reflecting the moon-beams like a lake; and as he walked into it, he felt as if he were walking down a well. And he hurried down the lane, looking out anxiously ahead for the long cloak.
At last he came to a better sort of house. That might be it. He would take the chance. There was a man of the middle class, and two or three women, standing at the gate. He went up —
“Pray, sir, did a medical man named Briggs ever live here?”
“What do you want to know for?”
“Why”— Tom thought matters were too serious for delicacy —“I am looking for a gentleman, and thought he might have come here.”
“And so he did, if you mean one in a queer hat and a cloak.”
“How long since?”
“Why, he came up our garden an hour or more ago; walked right into the parlour without with your leave, or by your leave, and stared at us all round like one out of his mind; and so away, as soon as ever I asked him what he was at —”
“To the river, I expect: I ran out, and saw him go down the lane, but I was not going far by night alone with any such strange customers.”
“Lend me a lanthorn then, for Heaven’s sake!”
The lanthorn is lent, and Tom starts again down the lane.
Now to search. At the end of the lane is a cross road parallel to the river. A broad still ditch lies beyond it, with a little bridge across, where one gets minnows for bait: then a broad water-meadow; then silver Whit.
The bridge-gate is open. Tom hurries across the road to it. The lanthorn shows him fresh footmarks going into the meadow. Forward!
Up and down in that meadow for an hour or more did Tom and the trembling youth beat like a brace of pointer dogs, stumbling into gripes, and over sleeping cows; and more than once stopping short just in time, as they were walking into some broad and deep feeder.
Almost in despair, and after having searched down the river bank for full two hundred yards, Tom was on the point of returning, when his eye rested on a part of the stream where the mist lay higher than usual, and let the reflection of the moonlight off the water reach his eye; and in the moonlight ripples, close to the farther bank of the river — what was that black lump?
Tom knew the spot well; the river there is very broad, and very shallow, flowing round low islands of gravel and turf. It was very low just now too, as it generally is in October: there could not be four inches of water where the black lump lay, but on the side nearest him the water was full knee deep.
The thing, whatever it was, was forty yards from him; and it was a cold night for wading. It might be a hassock of rushes; a tuft of the great water-dock; a dead dog; one of the “hangs” with which the club-water was studded, torn up and stranded: but yet, to Tom, it had not a canny look.
“As usual! Here am I getting wet, dirty, and miserable, about matters which are not the slightest concern of mine! I believe I shall end by getting hanged or shot in somebody else’s place, with this confounded spirit of meddling. Yah! how cold the water is!”
For in he went, the grumbling honest dog; stepped across to the black lump; and lifted it up hastily enough — for it was Elsley Vavasour.
No. But wet through, and senseless from mingled cold and laudanum.
Whether he had meant to drown himself, and lighting on the shallow, had stumbled on till he fell exhausted: or whether he had merely blundered into the stream, careless whither he went, Tom knew not, and never knew; for Elsley himself could not recollect.
Tom took him in his arms, carried him ashore and up through the water meadow; borrowed a blanket and a wheelbarrow at the nearest cottage; wrapped him up; and made the offending surgeon’s assistant wheel him to his lodgings.
He sat with him there an hour; and then entered Mark’s house again with his usual composed face, to find Mark and Mary sitting up in great anxiety.
“Mr. Armsworth, does the telegraph work at this time of night?”
“I’ll make it, if it is wanted. But what’s the matter?”
“You will indeed?”
“‘Gad, I’ll go myself and kick up the station-master. What’s the matter?”
“That if poor Mrs. Vavasour wishes to see her husband alive, she must be here in four-and-twenty hours. I’ll tell you all presently —”
“Mary, my coat and comforter!” cries Mark, jumping up.
“And, Mary, a pen and ink to write the message,” says Tom.
“Oh! cannot I be of any use?” says Mary.
“No, you angel.”
“You must not call me an angel, Mr. Thurnall. After all, what can I do which you have not done already?”
Tom started. Grace had once used to him the very same words. By the by, what was it in the two women which made them so like? Certainly, neither face nor fortune. Something in the tones of their voices.
“Ah! if Grace had Mary’s fortune, or Mary Grace’s face!” thought Tom, as he hurried back to Elsley, and Mark rushed down to the station.
Elsley was conscious when he returned, and only too conscious. All night he screamed in agonies of rheumatic fever; by the next afternoon he was failing fast; his heart was affected; and Tom knew that he might die any hour.
The evening train brings two ladies, Valencia and Lucia. At the risk of her life, the poor faithful wife has come.
A gentleman’s carriage is waiting for them, though they have ordered none; and as they go through the station-room, a plain little well-dressed body comes humbly up to them —
“Are either of these ladies Mrs. Vavasour?”
“Yes! I! — I! — is he alive?” gasps Lucia.
“Alive, and better! and expecting you —”
“Better? — expecting me?” almost shrieks she, as Valencia and Mary (for it is she) help her to the carriage. Mary puts them in, and turns away.
“Are you not coming too?” asks Valencia, who is puzzled.
“No, thank you, madam; I am going to take a walk. John, you know where to drive these ladies.”
Little Mary does not think it necessary to say that she, with her father’s carriage, has been down to two other afternoon trains, upon the chance of finding them.
But why is not Frank Headley with them, when he is needed most? And why are Valencia’s eyes more red with weeping than even her sister’s sorrow need have made them?
Because Frank Headley is rolling away in a French railway, on his road to Marseilles, and to what Heaven shall find for him to do.
Yes, he is gone Eastward Ho among the many; will he come Westward Ho again, among the few?
They are at the door of Elsley’s lodgings now. Tom Thurnall meets them there, and bows them upstairs silently. Lucia is so weak that she has to cling to the banister a moment; and then, with a strong shudder, the spirit conquers the flesh, and she hurries up before them both.
It is a small low room — Valencia had expected that: but she had expected, too, confusion and wretchedness: for a note from Major Campbell, ere he started, had told her of the condition in which Elsley had been found. Instead, she finds neatness — even gaiety; fresh damask linen, comfortable furniture, a vase of hothouse flowers, while the air was full of cool perfumes. No one is likely to tell her that Mary has furnished all at Tom’s hint —“We must smarten up the place, for the poor wife’s sake. It will take something off the shock; and I want to avoid shocks for her.”
So Tom had worked with his own hands that morning; arranging the room as carefully as any woman, with that true doctor’s forethought and consideration, which often issues in the loftiest, because the most unconscious, benevolence.
He paused at the door —
“Will you go in?” whispered he to Valencia, in a tone which meant —“you had better not.”
“Not yet — I daresay he is too weak.”
Lucia darted in, and Tom shut the door behind her, and waited at the stair-head. “Better,” thought he, “to let the two poor creatures settle their own concerns. It must end soon, in any case.”
Lucia rushed to the bed-side, drew back the curtains —
“Tom!” moaned Elsley.
“Not Tom! — Lucia!”
“Lucia? — Lucia St. Just!” answered he, in a low abstracted voice, as if trying to recollect.
“Lucia Vavasour! — your Lucia!”
Elsley slowly raised himself upon his elbow, and looked into her face with a sad inquiring gaze.
“Elsley — darling Elsley! — don’t you know me?”
“Yes, very well indeed; better than you know me. I am not Vavasour at all. My name is Briggs — John Briggs, the apothecary’s son, come home to Whitbury to die.”
She did not hear, or did not care for those last words.
“Elsley! I am your wife! — your own wife! — who never loved any one but you — never, never, never!”
“Yes, my wife, at least! — Curse them, that they cannot deny!” said he, in the same abstracted voice.
“Oh God! is he mad?” thought she. “Elsley, speak to me! — I am your Lucia — your love —”
And she tore off her bonnet, and threw herself beside him on the bed, and clasped him in her arms, murmuring — “Your wife! who never loved any one but you!”
Slowly his frozen heart and frozen brain melted beneath the warmth of her great love: but he did not speak: only he passed his weak arm round her neck; and she felt that his cheek was wet with tears, while she murmured on, like a cooing dove, the same sweet words again —
“Call me your love once more, and I shall know that all is past.”
“Then call me no more Elsley, love!” whispered he. “Call me John Briggs, and let us have done with shams for ever.”
“No; you are my Elsley — my Vavasour! and I am your wife once more!” and the poor thing fondled his head as it lay upon the pillow. “My own Elsley, to whom I gave myself, body and soul; for whom I would die now, — oh, such a death! — any death!”
“How could I doubt you? — fool that I was!”
“No, it was all my fault. It was all my odious temper! But we will be happy now, will we not?”
Elsley smiled sadly, and began babbling — Yes, they would take a farm, and he would plough, and sow, and be of some use before he died; “But promise me one thing!” cried he, with sudden strength.
“That you will go home and burn all the poetry — all the manuscripts, and never let the children write a verse — a verse — when I am dead?” And his head sank back, and his jaw dropped.
“He is dead!” cried the poor impulsive creature, with a shriek which brought in Tom and Valencia.
“He is not dead, madam: but you must be very gentle with him, if we are to —”
Tom saw that there was little hope.
“I will do anything — only save him! — save him! Mr. Thurnall, till I have atoned for all.”
“You have little enough to atone for, madam,” said Tom, as he busied himself about the sufferer. He saw that all would soon be over, and would have had Mrs. Vavasour withdraw: but she was so really good a nurse as long as she could control herself, that he could hardly spare her.
So they sat together by the sick-bed side, as the short hours passed into the long, and the long hours into the short again, and the October dawn began to shine through the shutterless window.
A weary eventless night it was, a night as of many years, as worse and worse grew the weak frame; and Tom looked alternately at the heaving chest, and shortening breath, and rattling throat, and then at the pale still face of the lady.
“Better she should sit by (thought he), and watch him till she is tired out. It will come on her the more gently, after all. He will die at sunrise, as so many die.”
At last be began gently feeling for Elsley’s pulse.
Her eye caught his movement, and she half sprang up; but at a gesture from him she sank quietly on her knees, holding her husband’s hand in her own.
Elsley turned toward her once, ere the film of death had fallen, and looked her full in the face, with his beautiful eyes full of love. Then the eyes paled and faded; but still they sought for her painfully long after she had buried her head in the coverlet, unable to bear the sight.
And so vanished away Elsley Vavasour, poet and genius, into his own place.
“Let us pray,” said a deep voice from behind the curtain: it was Mark Armsworth’s. He had come over with the first dawn, to bring the ladies food; had slipped upstairs to ask what news, found the door open, and entered in time to see the last gasp.
Lucia kept her head still buried: and Tom, for the first time for many a year, knelt, as the old banker commended to God the soul of our dear brother just departing this life. Then Mark glided quietly downstairs, and Valencia, rising, tried to lead Mrs. Vavasour away.
But then broke out in all its wild passion the Irish temperament. Let us pass it over; why try to earn a little credit by depicting the agony and the weakness of a sister?
At last Thurnall got her downstairs. Mark was there still, having sent off for his carriage. He quietly put her arm through his, led her off, worn out and unresisting, drove her home, delivered her and Valencia into Mary’s keeping, and then asked Tom to stay and sit with him.
“I hope I’ve no very bad conscience, boy; but Mary’s busy with the poor young thing, mere child she is, too, to go through such a night; and, somehow, I don’t like to be left alone after such a sight as that!”
“Tom!” said Mark, as they sat smoking in silence, after breakfast, in the study. “Tom!”
“That was an awful death-bed, Tom!”
Tom was silent.
“I don’t mean that he died hard, as we say; but so young, Tom. And I suppose poets’ souls are worth something, like other people’s — perhaps more. I can’t understand ’em; but my Mary seems to, and people, like her, who think a poet the finest thing in the world. I laugh at it all when I am jolly, and call it sentiment and cant: but I believe that they are nearer heaven than I am: though I think they don’t quite know where heaven is, nor where” (with a wicked wink, in spite of the sadness of his tone)—“where they themselves are either.”
“I’ll tell you, sir. I have seen men enough die — we doctors are hardened to it: but I have seen unprofessional deaths — men we didn’t kill ourselves; I have seen men drowned, shot, hanged, run over, and worse deaths than that, sir, too; — and, somehow, I never felt any death like that man’s. Granted, he began by trying to set the world right, when he hadn’t yet set himself right; but wasn’t it some credit to see that the world was wrong?”
“I don’t know that. The world’s a very good world.”
“To you and me; but there are men who have higher notions than I of what this world ought to be; and, for aught I know, they are right. That Aberalva curate, Headley, had; and so had Briggs, in his own way. I thought him once only a poor discontented devil, who quarrelled with his bread and butter because he hadn’t teeth to eat it with: but there was more in the fellow, coxcomb as he was. ‘Tisn’t often that I let that croaking old bogy, Madam might have been, trouble me; but I cannot help thinking that if, fifteen years ago, I had listened to his vapourings more, and bullied him about them less, he might have been here still.”
“You wouldn’t have been then. Well for you that you didn’t catch his fever.”
“And write verses too? Don’t make me laugh, sir, on such a day as this; I always comfort myself with —‘it’s no business of mine:’ but, somehow, I can’t do so just now.” And Tom sat silent, more softened than he had been for years.
“Let’s talk of something else,” said Mark at last. “You had the cholera very bad down there, I hear?”
“Oh, sharp, but short,” said Tom, who disliked any subject which brought Grace to his mind.
“Any on my lord’s estate with the queer name?”
“Not a case. We stopped the devil out there, thanks to his lordship.”
“So did we here. We were very near in for it, though, I fancy. — At least, I chose to fancy so — thought it a good opportunity to clean Whitbury once for all.”
“It’s just like you. Well?”
“Well, I offered the Town-council to drain the whole town at my own expense, if they’d let me have the sewage. And that only made things worse; for as soon as the beggars found out the sewage was worth anything, they were down on me, as if I wanted to do them — I, Mark Armsworth! — and would sooner let half the town rot with an epidemic, than have reason to fancy I’d made any money out of them. So a pretty fight I had, for half-a-dozen meetings, till I called in my lord; and, sir, he came down by the next express, like a trump, all the way from town, and gave them such a piece of his mind — was going to have the Board of Health down, and turn on the Government tap, commissioners and all, and cost ’em hundreds: till the fellows shook in their shoes; — and so I conquered, and here we are, as clean as a nut — and a fig for the cholera! — except down in Water-lane, which I don’t know what to do with; for if tradesmen will run up houses on spec in a water-meadow, who can stop them? There ought to be a law for it, say I; but I say a good many things in the twelve months that nobody minds. But, my dear boy, if one man in a town has pluck and money, he may do it. It’ll cost him a few: I’ve had to pay the main part myself, after all: but I suppose God will make it up to a man somehow. That’s old Mark’s faith, at least. Now I want to talk to you about yourself. My lord comes into town to-day, and you must see him.”
“Why, then? He can’t help me with the Bashi-bazouks, can he?”
“Bashi-fiddles! I say, Tom, the more I think over it, the more it won’t do. It’s throwing yourself away. They say that Turkish contingent is getting on terribly ill.”
“More need of me to make them well.”
“Hang it — I mean — hasn’t justice done it, and so on. The papers are full of it.”
“Well,” quoth Tom, “and why should it?”
“Why, man alive, if England spends all this money on the men, she ought to do her duty by them.”
“I don’t see that. As Pecksniff says, ‘if England expects every man to do his duty, she’s very sanguine, and will be much disappointed.’ They don’t intend to do their duty by her, any more than I do; so why should she do her duty by them?”
“Don’t intend to do your duty?”
“I’m going out because England’s money is necessary to me; and England hires me because my skill is necessary to her. I didn’t think of duty when I settled to go, and why should she? I’ll get all out of her I can in the way of pay and practice, and she may get all she can out of me in the way of work. As for being ill-used, I never expect to be anything else in this life. I’m sure I don’t care; and I’m sure she don’t; so live and let live; talk plain truth, and leave Bunkum for right honourables who keep their places thereby. Give me another weed.”
“Queer old philosopher you are; but go you shan’t!”
“Go I will, sir; don’t stop me. I’ve my reasons, and they’re good ones enough.”
The conversation was interrupted by the servant; — Lord Minchampstead was waiting at Mr. Armsworth’s office.
“Early bird, his lordship, and gets the worm accordingly,” says Mark, as he hurries off to attend on his ideal hero. “You come over to the shop in half-an-hour, mind.”
“Confound you, sir! you talk of having your reasons: I have mine!”
Mark looked quite cross; so Tom gave way, and went in due time to the bank.
Standing with his back to the fire in Mark’s inner room, he saw the old cotton prince.
“And a prince he looks like,” quoth Tom to himself, as he waited in the bank outside, and looked through the glass screen. “How well the old man wears! I wonder how many fresh thousands he has made since I saw him last, seven years ago.”
And a very noble person Lord Minchampstead did look; one to whom hats went off almost without their owners’ will; tall and portly, with a soldier-like air of dignity and command, which was relieved by the good-nature of the countenance. Yet it was a good-nature which would stand no trifling. The jaw was deep and broad, though finely shaped; the mouth firm set; the nose slightly aquiline; the brow of great depth and height, though narrow; — altogether a Julius Caesar’s type of head; that of a man born to rule self, and therefore to rule all he met.
Tom looked over his dress, not forgetting, like a true Englishman, to mark what sort of boots he wore. They were boots not quite fashionable, but carefully cleaned on trees; trousers strapped tightly over them, which had adopted the military stripe, but retained the slit at the ankle which was in vogue forty years ago; frock coat with a velvet collar, buttoned up, but not too far; high and tight blue cravat below an immense shirt collar; a certain care and richness of dress throughout, but soberly behind the fashion: while the hat was a very shabby and broken one, and the whip still more shabby and broken; all which indicated to Tom that his lordship let his tailor and his valet dress him; and though not unaware that it behoved him to set out his person as it deserved, was far too fine a gentleman to trouble himself about looking fine.
Mark looks round, sees Tom, and calls him in.
“Mr. Thurnall, I am glad to meet you, sir. You did me good service at Pentremochyn, and did it cheaply. I was agreeably surprised, I confess, at receiving a bill for four pounds seven shillings and sixpence, where I expected one of twenty or thirty.”
“I charged according to what my time was really worth there, my lord. I heartily wish it had been worth more.”
“No doubt,” says my lord, in the blandest, but the driest tone.
Some men would have, under a sense of Tom’s merits, sent him a cheque off-hand for five-and-twenty pounds: but that is not Lord Minchampstead’s way of doing business. He had paid simply the sum asked: but he had set Tom down in his memory as a man whom he could trust to do good work, and to do it cheaply; and now —
“You are going to join the Turkish contingent?”
“You know that part of the world well, I believe?”
“And the languages spoken there?”
“By no means all. Russian and Tartar well; Turkish tolerably; with a smattering of two or three Circassian dialects.”
“Humph! A fair list. Any Persian?”
“Only a few words.”
“Humph! If you can learn one language I presume you can learn another. Now, Mr. Thurnall, I have no doubt that you will do your duty in the Turkish contingent.”
“But I must ask you if your resolution to join it is fixed?”
“I only join it because I can get no other employment at the seat of war.”
“Humph! You wish to go then, in any case, to the seat of war?”
“No doubt you have sufficient reasons. . . . Armsworth, this puts the question in a new light.”
Tom looked round at Mark, and, behold, his face bore a ludicrous mixture of anger and disappointment, and perplexity. He seemed to be trying to make signals to Tom, and to be afraid of doing so openly before the great man.
“He is as wilful and as foolish as a girl, my lord; and I’ve told him so.”
“Everybody knows his own business best, Armsworth; Mr. Thurnall, have you any fancy for the post of Queen’s messenger?”
“I should esteem myself only too happy as one.”
“They are not to be obtained now as easily as they were fifty years ago; and are given, as you may know, to a far higher class of men than they were formerly. But I shall do my best to obtain you one, when an opportunity offers”
Tom was beginning his profusest thanks: for was not his fortune made? but Lord Minchampstead stopped him with an uplifted finger.
“And, meanwhile, there are foreign employments of which neither those who bestow them, nor those who accept them, are expected to talk much: but for which you, if I am rightly informed, would be especially fitted.”
Tom bowed; and his face spoke a hundred assents.
“Very well; if you will come over to Minchampstead to-morrow, I will give you letters to friends of mine in town. I trust that they may give you a better opportunity than the Bashi-bazouks will, of displaying that courage, address, and self-command, which, I understand, you possess in so uncommon a degree. Good morning!” And forth the great man went.
Most opposite were the actions of the two whom he had left behind him.
Tom dances about the room, hurrahing in a whisper —
“My fortune’s made! The secret service! Oh, what bliss! The thing I’ve always longed for!”
Mark dashes himself desperately back in his chair, and shoots his angry legs straight out, almost tripping up Tom.
“You abominable ass! You have done it with a vengeance! Why, he has been pumping me about you this month! One word from you to say you’d have stayed, and he was going to make you agent for all his Cornish property.”
“Don’t he wish he may get it? Catch a fish climbing trees! Catch me staying at home when I can serve my Queen and my country, and find a sphere for the full development of my talents! Oh, won’t I be as wise as a serpent? Won’t I be complimented by —— himself as his best lurcher, worth any ten needy Poles, greedy Armenians, traitors, renegades, rag-tag and bob-tail! I’ll shave my head to-morrow, and buy me an assortment of wigs of every hue!”
Take care, Tom Thurnall. After pride comes a fall; and he who digs a pit may fall into it himself. Has this morning’s death-bed given you no lesson that it is as well not to cast ourselves down from where God has put us, for whatsoever seemingly fine ends of ours, lest, doing so, we tempt God once too often?
Your father quoted that text to John Briggs, here, many years ago. Might he not quote it now to you? True, not one word of murmuring, not even of regret, or fear, has passed his good old lips about your self-willed plan. He has such utter confidence in you, such utter carelessness about himself, such utter faith in God, that he can let you go without a sigh. But will you make his courage an excuse for your own rashness? Again, beware; after pride may come a fall.
On the fourth day Elsley was buried. Mark and Tom were the only mourners; Lucy and Valencia stayed at Mark’s house, to return next day under Tom’s care to Eaton Square.
The two mourners walked back sadly from the churchyard. “I shall put a stone over him, Tom. He ought to rest quietly now; for he had little rest enough in this life. . . .
“Now, I want to talk to you about something; when I’ve taken off my hatband, that is; for it would be hardly lucky to mention such matters with a hatband on.”
Tom looked up, wondering.
“Tell me about his wife, meanwhile. What made him marry her? Was she a pretty woman?”
“Pretty enough, I believe, before she married: but I hardly think he married her for her face.”
“Of course not!” said the old man with emphasis; “of course not! Whatever faults he had, he’d be too sensible for that. Don’t you marry for a face, Tom! I didn’t.”
Tom opened his eyes at this last assertion; but humbly expressed his intention of not falling into that snare.
“Ah? you don’t believe me: well, she was a beautiful woman. — I’d like to see her fellow now in the county! — and I won’t deny I was proud of her. But she had ten thousand pounds, Tom. And as for her looks, why, if you’ll believe me, after we’d been married three months, I didn’t know whether she had any looks or not. What are you smiling at, you young rogue?”
“Report did say that one look of Mrs. Armsworth’s, to the last, would do more to manage Mr. Armsworth than the opinions of the whole bench of bishops.”
“Report’s a liar, and you’re a puppy! You don’t know yet whether it was a pleasant look, or a cross one, lad. But still — well, she was an angel, and kept old Mark straighter than he’s ever been since: not that he’s so very bad, now. Though I sometimes think Mary’s better even than her mother. That girl’s a good girl, Tom.”
“Report agrees with you in that, at least.”
“Fool if it didn’t. And as for looks — I can speak to you as to my own son — Why, handsome is that handsome does.”
“And that handsome has; for you must honestly put that into the account.”
“You think so? So do I! Well, then, Tom,”— and here Mark was seized with a tendency to St. Vitus’s dance, and began overhauling every button on his coat, twitching up his black gloves, till (as undertakers’ gloves are generally meant to do) they burst in half-a-dozen places; taking off his hat, wiping his head fiercely, and putting the hat on again behind before; till at last he snatched his arm from Tom’s, and gripping him by the shoulder, recommenced —
“You think so, eh? Well, I must say it, so I’d better have it out now, hatband or none! What do you think of the man who married my daughter, face and all?”
“I should think,” quoth Tom, wondering who the happy man could be, “that he would be so lucky in possessing such a heart, that he would be a fool to care about the face.”
“Then be as good as your word, and take her yourself. I’ve watched you this last week, and you’ll make her a good husband. There, I have spoken; let me hear no more about it.”
And Mark half pushed Tom from him, and puffed on by his side, highly excited.
If Mark had knocked the young Doctor down, he would have been far less astonished and far less puzzled too. “Well,” thought he, “I fancied nothing could throw my steady old engine off the rails; but I am off them now, with a vengeance.” What to say he knew not; at last —
“It is just like your generosity, sir; you have been a brother to my father; and now —”
“And now I’ll be a father to you! Old Mark does nothing by halves.”
“But, sir, however lucky I should be in possessing Miss Armsworth’s heart, what reason have I to suppose that I do so? I never spoke a word to her. I needn’t say that she never did to me — which —”
“Of course she didn’t, and of course you didn’t. Should like to have seen you making love to my daughter, indeed! No, sir; it’s my will and pleasure. I’ve settled it, and done it shall be! I shall go home and tell Mary, and she’ll obey me — I should like to see her do anything else! Hoity, toity, fathers must be masters, sir! even in these fly-away new times, when young ones choose their own husbands, and their own politics, and their own hounds, and their own religion too, and be hanged to them!”
What did this unaccustomed bit of bluster mean? for unaccustomed it was; and Tom knew well that Mary Armsworth had her own way, and managed her father as completely as he managed Whitbury.
“Humph! It is impossible; and yet it must be. This explains his being so anxious that Lord Minchampstead should approve of me. I have found favour in the poor dear thing’s eyes, I suppose: and the good old fellow knows it, and won’t betray her, and so shams tyrant. Just like him!” But — that Mary Armsworth should care for him! Vain fellow that he was to fancy it! And yet, when he began to put things together, little silences, little looks, little nothings, which all together might make something. He would not slander her to himself by supposing that her attentions to his father were paid for his sake: but he could not forget that it was she, always, who read his letters aloud to the old man: or that she had taken home and copied out the story of his shipwreck. Beside, it was the only method of explaining Mark’s conduct, save on the supposition that he had suddenly been “changed by the fairies” in his old age, instead of in the cradle, as usual.
It was a terrible temptation; and to no man more than to Thomas Thurnall. He was no boy, to hanker after mere animal beauty; he had no delicate visions or lofty aspirations; and he knew (no man better) the plain English of fifty thousand pounds, and Mark Armsworth’s daughter — a good house, a good consulting practice (for he would take his M.D. of course), a good station in the county, a good clarence with a good pair of horses, good plate, a good dinner with good company thereat; and, over and above all, his father to live with him; and with Mary, whom he loved as a daughter, in luxury and peace to his life’s end. — Why, it was all that he had ever dreamed of, three times more than he ever hoped to gain! — Not to mention (for how oddly little dreams of selfish pleasure slip in at such moments!)— that he would buy such a Ross’s microscope! and keep such a horse for a sly by-day with the Whitford Priors! Oh, to see once again a fox break from Coldharbour gorse!
And then rose up before his imagination those drooping steadfast eyes; and Grace Harvey, the suspected, the despised, seemed to look through and through his inmost soul, as through a home which belonged of right to her, and where no other woman must dwell, or could dwell; for she was there; and he knew it; and knew that, even if he never married till his dying day, he should sell his soul by marrying any one but her. “And why should I not sell my soul?” asked he, almost fiercely. “I sell my talents, my time, my strength; I’d sell my life to-morrow, and go to be shot for a shilling a day, if it would make the old man comfortable for life; and why not my soul too? Don’t that belong to me as much as any other part of me? Why am I to be condemned to sacrifice my prospects in life to a girl of whose honesty I am not even sure? What is this intolerable fascination? Witch! I almost believe in mesmerism now! — Again, I say, why should I not sell my soul, as I’d sell my coat, if the bargain’s but a good one?”
And if he did, who would ever know? — Not even Grace herself. The secret was his, and no one else’s.
Or if they did know, what matter? Dozens of men sell their souls every year, and thrive thereon; tradesmen, lawyers, squires, popular preachers, great noblemen, kings and princes. He would be in good company, at all events: and while so many live in glass houses, who dare throw stones?
But then, curiously enough, there came over him a vague dread of possible evil, such as he had never felt before. He had been trying for years to raise himself above the power of fortune; and he had succeeded ill enough: but he had never lost heart. Robbed, shipwrecked, lost in deserts, cheated at cards, shot in revolutions, begging his bread, he had always been the same unconquerable light-hearted Tom, whose motto was, “Fall light, and don’t whimper: better luck next round.” But now, what if he played his last court-card, and Fortune, out of her close-hidden hand, laid down a trump thereon with quiet sneering smile? And she would! He knew, somehow, that he should not thrive. His children would die of the measles, his horses break their knees, his plate be stolen, his house catch fire, and Mark Armsworth die insolvent. What a fool he was, to fancy such nonsense! Here he had been slaving all his life to keep his father: and now he could keep him; why, he would be justified, right, a good son, in doing the thing. How hard, how unjust of those upper Powers in which he believed so vaguely, to forbid his doing it!
And how did he know that they forbid him? That is too deep a question to be analysed here: but this thing is noteworthy, that there came next over Tom’s mind a stranger feeling still — a fancy that if he did this thing, and sold his soul, he could not answer for himself thenceforth on the score of merest respectability; could not answer for himself not to drink, gamble, squander his money, neglect his father, prove unfaithful to his wife; that the innate capacity for blackguardism, which was as strong in him as in any man, might, and probably would, run utterly riot thenceforth. He felt as if he should cast away his last anchor, and drift helplessly down into utter shame and ruin. It may have been very fanciful: but so he felt; and felt it so strongly too, that in less time than I have taken to write this he had turned to Mark Armsworth:—
“Sir, you are what I have always found you. Do you wish me to be what you have always found me?”
“I’d be sorry to see you anything else, boy.”
“Then, sir, I can’t do this. In honour, I can’t.”
“Are you married already?” thundered Mark.
“Not quite as bad as that;” and in spite of his agitation Tom laughed, but hysterically, at the notion. “But fool I am; for I am in love with another woman. I am, sir,” went he on hurriedly. “Boy that I am! and she don’t even know it: but if you be the man I take you for, you may be angry with me, but you’ll understand me. Anything but be a rogue to you and to Mary, and to my own self too. Fool I’ll be, but rogue I won’t!”
Mark strode on in silence, frightfully red in the face for full five minutes. Then he turned sharply on Tom, and catching him by the shoulder, thrust him from him.
“There — go! and don’t let me see or hear of you; that is, till I tell you! Go along, I say! Hum-hum!” (in a tone half of wrath, and half of triumph), “his father’s child! If you will ruin yourself, I can’t help it.”
“Nor I, sir,” said Tom, in a really piteous tone, bemoaning the day he ever saw Aberalva, as he watched Mark stride into his own gate. “If I had but had common luck! If I had but brought my £1500 safe home here, and never seen Grace, and married this girl out of hand! Common luck is all I ask, and I never get it!”
And Tom went home sulkier than a bear: but he did not let his father find out his trouble. It was his last evening with the old man. To-morrow he must go to London, and then — to scramble and twist about the world again till he died! “Well, why not? A man must die somehow: but it’s hard on the poor old father,” said Tom.
As Tom was packing his scanty carpet-bag next morning, there was a knock at the door. He looked out, and saw Armsworth’s clerk. What could that mean? Had the old man determined to avenge the slight, and to do so on his father, by claiming some old debt? There might be many between him and the doctor. And Tom’s heart beat fast, as Jane put a letter into his hand.
“No answer, sir, the clerk says.”
Tom opened it, and turned over the contents more than once ere he could believe his own eyes.
It was neither more nor less than a cheque on Mark’s London banker for just five hundred pounds.
A half-sheet was wrapped round it, on which were written these words:—
“To Thomas Thurnall, Esq., for behaving like a gentleman. The cheque will be duly honoured at Messrs. Smith, Brown, and Jones, Lombard Street. No acknowledgment is to be sent. Don’t tell your father. MARK ARMSWORTH.”
“Queer old world it is!” said Tom, when the first burst of childish delight was over. “And jolly old flirt, Dame Fortune, after all! If I had written this in a book now, who’d have believed it?”
“Father,” said he, as he kissed the old man farewell, “I’ve a little money come in. I’ll send you fifty from London in a day or two, and lodge a hundred and fifty more with Smith and Co. So you’ll be quite in clover while I am poisoning the Turkeys, or at some better work.”
The old man thanked God for his good son, and only hoped that he was not straitening himself to buy luxuries for a useless old fellow.
Another sacred kiss on that white head, and Tom was away for London, with a fuller purse, and a more self-contented heart too, than he had known for many a year.
And Elsley was left behind, under the grey church spire, sleeping with his fathers, and vexing his soul with poetry no more. Mark has covered him now with a fair Portland slab. He took Claude Mellot to it this winter before church time, and stood over it long with a puzzled look, as if dimly discovering that there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in his philosophy.
“Wonderful fellow he was, after all! Mary shall read us out some of his verses to-night. But, I say, why should people be born clever, only to make them all the more miserable?”
“Perhaps they learn the more, papa, by their sorrows,” said quiet little Mary; “and so they are the gainers after all.”
And none of them having any better answer to give, they all three went into the church, to see if one could be found there.
And so Tom Thurnall, too, went Eastward–Ho, to take, like all the rest, what God might send.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56