Whosoever enjoys the sight of an honest man doing his work well, would have enjoyed the sight of Tom Thurnall for the next two months. In-doors all the morning, and out of doors all the afternoon, was that shrewd and good-natured visage, calling up an answering smile on every face, and leaving every heart a little lighter than he found it. Puzzling enough it was, alike to Heale and to Headley, how Tom contrived, as if by magic, to gain every one’s good word — their own included. For Frank, in spite of Tom’s questionable opinions, had already made all but a confidant of the Doctor; and Heale, in spite of envy and suspicion, could not deny that the young man was a very valuable young man, if he wasn’t given so much to those new-fangled notions of the profession.
By which term Heale indicated the, to him, astounding fact, that Tom charged the patients as little, instead of as much as possible, and applying to medicine the principles of an enlightened political economy, tried to increase the demand by cheapening the supply.
“Which is revolutionary doctrine, sir,” said Heale to Lieutenant Jones, over the brandy-and-water, “and just like what the Cobden and Bright lot used to talk, and have been the ruin of British agriculture, though don’t say I said so, because of my Lord Minchampstead. But, conceive my feelings, sir, as the father of a family, who have my bread to earn, this very morning. — In comes old Dame Penaluna (which is good pay I know, and has two hundred and more out on a merchant brig) for something; and what was my feelings, sir, to hear this young party deliver himself —‘Well, ma’am,’ says he, as I am a living man, ‘I can cure you, if you like, with a dozen bottles of lotion, at eighteenpence a-piece; but if you’ll take my advice, you’ll buy two pennyworth of alum down street, do what I tell you with it, and cure yourself.’ It’s robbery, sir, I say, all these out-of-the-way cheap dodges, which arn’t in the pharmacopoeia, half of them; it’s unprofessional, sir — quackery.”
“Tell you what, Doctor, robbery or none, I’ll go to him to-morrow, d’ye see, if I live as long, for this old ailment of mine. I never told you of it, old pill and potion, for fear of a swinging bill: but just grinned and bore it, d’ye see.”
“There it is again,” cries Heale in despair. “He’ll ruin me.”
“No, he won’t, and you know it.”
“What d’ye think he served me last week? A young chap comes in, consumptive, he said, and I dare say he’s right — he is uncommonly ‘cute about what he calls diagnosis. Says he, ‘You ought to try Carrageen moss. It’s an old drug, but it’s a good one.’ There was a drawer full of it to his hand; had been lying there any time this ten years: I go to open it; but what was my feelings when he goes on, as cool as a cucumber —‘And there’s bushels of it here,’ says he, ‘on every rock; so if you’ll come down with me at low tide this afternoon, I’ll show you the trade, and tell you how to boil it.’ I thought I should have knocked him down.”
“But you didn’t,” said Jones, laughing in every muscle of his body. “Tell you what, Doctor, you’ve got a treasure; he’s just getting back your custom, d’ye see, and when he’s done that, he’ll lay on the bills sharp enough. Why, I hear he’s up at Mrs. Vavasour’s every day.”
“And not ten shillings’ worth of medicine sent up to the house any week.”
“He charges for his visits, I suppose.”
“Not he! If you’ll believe me, when I asked him if he wasn’t going to, he says, says he, that Mrs. Vavasour’s company was quite payment enough for him.”
“Shows his good taste. Why, what now, Mary?” as the maid opens the door.
“Mr. Thurnall wants Mr. Heale.”
“Always wanting me,” groans Heale, hugging his glass, “driving me about like any negro slave. Tell him to come in.”
“Here, Doctor,” says the Lieutenant, “I want you to prescribe for me, if you’ll do it gratis, d’ye see. Take some brandy and water.”
“Good advice costs nothing,” says Tom, filling; “Mr. Heale, read that letter.”
And the Lieutenant details his ailments, and their supposed cause, till Heale has the pleasure of hearing Tom answer —
“Fiddlesticks! That’s not what’s the matter with you. I’ll cure you for half-a-crown, and toss you up double or quits.
“Oh!” groans Heale, as he spells away over the letter —
“Lord Minchampstead having been informed by Mr. Armsworth that Mr. Thurnall is now in the neighbourhood of his estates of Pentremochyn, would feel obliged to him at his earliest convenience to examine into the sanitary state of the cottages thereon, which are said to be much haunted by typhus and other epidemics, and to send him a detailed report, indicating what he thinks necessary for making them thoroughly healthy. Mr. Thurnall will be so good as to make his own charge.”
“Well, Mr. Thurnall, you ought to turn a good penny by this,” said Heale, half envious of Tom’s connection, half contemptuous at his supposed indifference to gain.
“I’ll charge what it’s worth,” said Tom. “Meanwhile, I hope you’re going to see Miss Beer to-night.”
“Couldn’t you just go yourself, my dear sir? It is so late.”
“No; I never go near young women. I told you so at first, and I stick to my rule. You’d better go, sir, on my word, or if she’s dead before morning, don’t say it’s my fault.”
“Did you ever hear a poor old man so tyrannised over?” said Heale, as Tom coolly went into the passage, brought in the old man’s great coat and hat, arrayed him and marched him out, civilly, but firmly.
“Now, Lieutenant, I’ve half an hour to spare; let’s have a jolly chat about the West Indies.”
And Tom began with anecdote and joke, and the old seaman laughed till he cried, and went to bed vowing that there never was such a pleasant fellow on earth, and he ought to be physician to Queen Victoria.
Up at five the next morning, the indefatigable Tom had all his work done by ten; and was preparing to start for Pentremochyn, ere Heale was out of bed, when a customer came in who kept him half an hour.
He was a tall broad-shouldered young man, with a red face, protruding bull’s eyes, and a moustachio. He was dressed in a complete suit of pink and white plaid, cut jauntily enough. A bright blue cap, a thick gold watch-chain, three or four large rings, a dog-whistle from his button-hole, a fancy cane in his hand, and a little Oxford meerschaum in his mouth, completed his equipment. He lounged in, with an air of careless superiority, while Tom, who was behind the counter, cutting up his day’s provision of honey-dew, eyed him curiously.
“Who are you, now? A gentleman? Not quite, I guess. Some squireen of the parts adjacent, and look in somewhat of a crapulocomatose state moreover. I wonder if you are the great Trebooze of Trebooze.”
“I say,” yawned the young gentleman, “where’s old Heale?” and an oath followed the speech, as it did every other one herein recorded.
“The playing half of old Heale is in bed, and I’m his working half. Can I do anything for you?”
“Cool fish,” thought the customer. “I say — what have you got there?”
“Australian honey-dew. Did you ever smoke it?”
“I’ve heard of it; let’s see:” and Mr. Trebooze — for it was he — put his hand across the counter unceremoniously, and clawed up some.
“Didn’t know you sold tobacco here. Prime stuff. Too strong for me, though, this morning, somehow.”
“Ah? A little too much claret last night? I thought so. We’ll set that right in five minutes.”
“Eh? How did you guess that?” asked Trebooze, with a larger oath than usual.
“Oh, we doctors are men of the world,” said Tom, in a cheerful and insinuating tone, as he mixed his man a draught.
“You doctors? You’re a cock of a different hackle from old Heale, then.”
“I trust so,” said Tom.
“By George, I feel better already. I say, you’re a trump; I suppose you’re Heale’s new partner, the man who was washed ashore!”
Tom nodded assent;
“I say — How do you sell that honey-dew?”
“I don’t sell it; I’ll give you as much as you like, only you shan’t smoke it till after dinner.”
“Shan’t?” said Trebooze, testy and proud.
“Not with my leave, or you’ll be complaining two hours hence that I am a humbug, and have done you no good. Get on your horse, and have four hours’ gallop on the downs, and you’ll feel like a buffalo bull by two o’clock.”
Trebooze looked at him with a stupid curiosity and a little awe. He saw that Tom’s cool self-possession was not meant for impudence; and something in his tone and manner told him that the boast of being “a man of the world” was not untrue. And of all kinds of men, a man of the world was the man of whom Trebooze stood most in awe. A small squireen, cursed with six or seven hundreds a year of his own, never sent to school, college, or into the army, he had grown up in a narrow circle of squireens like himself, without an object save that of gratifying his animal passions; and had about six years before, being then just of age, settled in life by marrying his housemaid — the only wise thing, perhaps, he ever did. For she, a clever and determined woman, kept him, though not from drunkenness and debt, at least from delirium tremens and ruin, and was, in her rough, vulgar way, his guardian angel — such a one at least, as he was worthy of. More than once has one seen the same seeming folly turn out in practice as wise a step as could well have been taken; and the coarse nature of the man, which would have crushed and ill-used a delicate and high-minded wife, subdued to something like decency by a help literally meet for it.
There was a pause. Trebooze fancied, and wisely, that the Doctor was a cleverer man than he, and of course would want to show it. So, after the fashion of a country squireen, he felt a longing to “set him down.” “He’s been a traveller, they say,” thought he in that pugnacious, sceptical spirit which is bred, not, as twaddlers fancy, by too extended knowledge, but by the sense of ignorance, and a narrow sphere of thought, which makes a man angry and envious of any one who has seen more than he.
“Buffalo bulls?” said he, half contemptuously; “what do you know about buffalo bulls?”
“I was one once myself,” said Tom, “where I lived before.”
Trebooze swore. “Don’t you put your traveller’s lies on me, sir.”
“Well, perhaps I dreamt it,” said Tom, placidly; “I remember I dreamt at the same time that you were a grizzly bear, fourteen feet long, and wanted to eat me up: but you found me too tough about the hump ribs.”
Trebooze stared at his audacity.
“You’re a rum hand.”
To which Tom made answer in the same elegant strain; and then began a regular word-battle of slang, in which Tom showed himself so really witty a proficient, that Mr. Trebooze laughed himself into good-humour, and ended by —
“I say, you’re a good fellow, and I think you and I shall suit.”
Tom had his doubts, but did not express them.
“Come up this afternoon and see my child; Mrs. Trebooze thinks it’s got swelled glands, or some such woman’s nonsense. Bother them, why can’t they let the child alone, fussing and doctoring; and she will have you. Heard of you from Mrs. Vavasour, I believe. Our doctor and I have quarrelled, and she said, if I could get you, she’d sooner have you than that old rum-puncheon Heale. And then, you’d better stop and take pot-luck, and we’ll make a night of it.”
“I have to go round Lord Minchampstead’s estates, and will take you on my way: but I’m afraid I shall be too dirty to have the pleasure of dining with Mrs. Trebooze coming back.”
“Mrs. Trebooze! She must take what I like; and what’s good enough for me is good enough for her, I hope. Come as you are — Liberty Hall at Trebooze;” and out he swaggered.
“Does he bully her?” thought Tom, “or is he hen-pecked, and wants to hide it? I’ll see to-night, and play my cards accordingly.”
All which Miss Heale had heard. She had been peeping and listening at the glass-door, and her mother also; for no sooner had Trebooze entered the shop, than she had run off to tell her mother the surprising fact, Trebooze’s custom having been, for some years past, courted in vain by Heale. So Miss Heale peeped and peeped at a man whom she regarded with delighted curiosity, because he bore the reputation of being “such a naughty wicked man!” and “so very handsome too, and so distinguished as he looks!” said the poor little fool, to whose novel-fed imagination Mr. Trebooze was an ideal Lothario.
But the surprise of the two dames grew rapidly as they heard Tom’s audacity towards the country aristocrat.
“Impudent wretch!” moaned Mrs. Heale to herself. “He’d drive away an angel if he came into the shop.”
“Oh, ma! hear how they are going on now.”
“I can’t bear it, my dear. This man will be the ruin of us. His manners are those of the pot-house, when the cloven foot is shown, which it’s his nature as a child of wrath, and we can’t expect otherwise.”
“Oh, ma! do you hear that Mr. Trebooze has asked him to dinner?”
But it was true.
“Well! if there ain’t the signs of the end of the world, which is? All the years your poor father has been here, and never so much as send him a hare, and now this young penniless interloper; and he to dine at Trebooze off purple and fine linen.”
“There is not much of that there, ma; I’m sure they are poor enough, for all his pride; and as for her —”
“Yes, my dear; and as for her, though we haven’t married squires, my dear, yet we haven’t been squires’ housemaids, and have adorned our own station, which was good enough for us, and has no need to rise out of it, nor ride on Pharaoh’s chariot-wheels after filthy lucre —”
Miss Heale hated poor Mrs. Trebooze with a bitter hatred, because she dreamed insanely that, but for her, she might have secured Mr. Trebooze for herself. And though her ambition was now transferred to the unconscious Tom, that need not make any difference in the said amiable feeling.
But that Tom was a most wonderful person, she had no doubt. He had conquered her heart — so she informed herself passionately again and again; as was very necessary, seeing that the passion, having no real life of its own, required a good deal of blowing to keep it alight. Yes, he had conquered her heart, and he was conquering all hearts likewise. There must be some mystery about him — there should be. And she settled in her novel-bewildered brain, that Tom must be a nobleman in disguise — probably a foreign prince exiled for political offences. Bah! perhaps too many lines have been spent on the poor little fool; but as such fools exist, and people must be as they are, there is no harm in drawing her; and in asking, too — Who will help those young girls of the middle class who, like Miss Heale, are often really less educated than the children of their parents’ workmen; sedentary, luxurious, full of petty vanity, gossip, and intrigue, without work, without purpose, except that of getting married to any one who will ask them — bewildering brain and heart with novels, which, after all, one hardly grudges them; for what other means have they of learning that there is any fairer, nobler life possible, at least on earth, than that of the sordid money-getting, often the sordid puffery and adulteration, which is the atmosphere of their home? Exceptions there are, in thousands, doubtless; and the families of the great city tradesmen, stand, of course, on far higher ground, and are often far better educated, and more high-minded, than the fine ladies, their parents’ customers. But, till some better plan of education than the boarding-school is devised for them; till our towns shall see something like in kind to, though sounder and soberer in quality than, the high schools of America; till in country villages the ladies who interest themselves about the poor will recollect that the farmers’ and tradesmen’s daughters are just as much in want of their influence as the charity children, and will yield a far richer return for their labour, though the one need not interfere with the other; so long will England be full of Miss Heales; fated, when they marry, to bring up sons and daughters as sordid and unwholesome as their mothers.
Tom worked all that day in and out of the Pentremochyn cottages, noting down nuisances and dilapidations: but his head was full of other thoughts; for he had received, the evening before, news which was to him very important, for more reasons than one.
The longer he stayed at Aberalva, the longer he felt inclined to stay. The strange attraction of Grace had, as we have seen, something to do with his purpose: but he saw, too, a good opening for one of those country practices, in which he seemed more and more likely to end. At his native Whitbury, he knew, there was no room for a fresh medical man; and gradually he was making up his mind to settle at Aberalva; to buy out Heale, either with his own money (if he recovered it), or with money borrowed from Mark; to bring his father down to live with him, and in that pleasant wild western place, fold his wings after all his wanderings. And therefore certain news which he had obtained the night before was very valuable to him, in that it put a fresh person into his power, and might, if cunningly used, give him a hold upon the ruling family of the place, and on Lord Scoutbush himself. He had found out that Lucia and Elsley were unhappy together; and found out, too, a little more than was there to find. He could not, of course, be a month among the gossips of Aberalva, without hearing hints that the great folks at the court did not always keep their tempers; for, of family jars, as of everything else on earth, the great and just law stands true:—“What you do in the closet, shall be proclaimed on the housetop.”
But the gossips of Aberalva, as women are too often wont to do, had altogether taken the man’s side in the quarrel. The reason was, I suppose, that Lucia, conscious of having fallen somewhat in rank, “held up her head” to Mrs. Trebooze and Mrs. Heale (as they themselves expressed it), and to various other little notabilities of the neighbourhood, rather more than she would have done had she married a man of her own class. She was afraid that they might boast of being intimate with her; that they might take to advising and patronising her as an inexperienced young creature; afraid, even, that she might be tempted, in some unguarded moment, to gossip with them, confide her unhappiness to them, in the blind longing to open her heart to some human being; for there were no resident gentry of her own rank in the neighbourhood. She was too high-minded to complain much to Clara; and her sister Valencia was the very last person to whom she would confess that her run-away-match had not been altogether successful. So she lived alone and friendless, shrinking into herself more and more, while the vulgar women round mistook her honour for pride, and revenged themselves accordingly. She was an uninteresting fine lady, proud and cross, and Elsley was a martyr. “So handsome and agreeable as he was —(and to do him justice, he was the former, and he could be the latter when he chose)— to be tied to that unsociable, stuck-up woman;” and so forth.
All which Tom had heard, and formed his own opinion thereof; which was —
“All very fine: but I flatter myself I know a little what women are made of; and this I know, that where man and wife quarrel, even if she ends the battle, it is he who has begun it. I never saw a case yet where the man was not the most in fault; and I’ll lay my life John Briggs has led her a pretty life: what else could one expect of him?”
However, he held his tongue, and kept his eyes open withal whenever he went up to Penalva Court, which he had to do very often; for though he had cured the children of their ailments, yet Mrs. Vavasour was perpetually, more or less, unwell, and he could not cure her. Her low spirits, headaches, general want of tone and vitality, puzzled him at first; and would have puzzled him longer, had he not settled with himself that their cause was to be sought in the mind, and not in the body; and at last, gaining courage from certainty, he had hinted as much to Miss Clara the night before, when she came down (as she was very fond of doing) to have a gossip with him in his shop, under the pretence of fetching medicine.
“I don’t think I shall send Mrs. Vavasour any more, Miss Clara. There is no use running up a long bill when I do no good; and, what is more, suspect that I can do none, poor lady.” And he gave the girl a look which seemed to say, “You had better tell me the truth; for I know everything already.”
To which Clara answered by trying to find out how much he did know: but Tom was a cunninger diplomatist than she; and in ten minutes, after having given solemn promises of secresy, and having, by strong expressions of contempt for Mrs. Heale and the village gossips, made Clara understand that he did not at all take their view of the case, he had poured out to him across the counter all Clara’s long-pent indignation and contempt.
“I never said a word of this to a living soul, sir; I was too proud, for my mistress’s sake, to let vulgar people know what we suffered. We don’t want any of their pity indeed; but you, sir, who have the feelings of a gentleman, and know what the world is, like ourselves —”
“Take care,” whispered Tom; “that daughter of Heale’s may be listening.”
“I’d pull her hair about her ears if I caught her!” quoth Clara; and then ran on to tell how Elsley “never kept no hours, nor no accounts either; so that she has to do everything, poor thing; and no thanks either. And never knows when he’ll dine, or when he’ll breakfast, or when he’ll be in, wandering in and out like a madman; and sits up all night, writing his nonsense. And she’ll go down twice and three times a night in the cold, poor dear, to see if he’s fallen asleep; and gets abused like a pickpocket for her pains (which was an exaggeration); and lies in bed all the morning, looking at the flies, and calls after her if his shoes want tying, or his finger aches; as helpless as the babe unborn; and will never do nothing useful himself, not even to hang a picture or move a chair, and grumbles at her if he sees her doing anything, because she ain’t listening to his prosodies, and snaps, and worrits, and won’t speak to her sometimes for a whole morning, the brute.”
“But is he not fond of his children?”
“Fond? Yes, his way, and small thanks to him, the little angels! To play with ’em when they’re good, and tell them cock-and-a-bull fairy tales — wonder why he likes to put such stuff into their heads — and then send ’em out of the room if they make a noise, because it splits his poor head, and his nerves are so delicate. Wish he had hers, or mine either, Doctor Thurnall; then he’d know what nerves was, in a frail woman, which he uses us both as his negro slaves, or would if I didn’t stand up to him pretty sharp now and then, and give him a piece of my mind, which I will do, like the faithful servant in the parable, if he kills me for it, Doctor Thurnall!”
“Does he drink?” asked Tom, bluntly.
“He!” she answered, in a tone which seemed to imply that even one masculine vice would have raised him in her eyes. “He’s not man enough, I think; and lives on his slops, and his coffee, and his tapioca; and how’s he ever to have any appetite, always a sitting about, heaped up together over his books, with his ribs growing into his backbone? — If he’d only go and take his walk, or get a spade and dig in the garden, or anything but them everlasting papers, which I hates the sight of;” and so forth.
From all which Tom gathered a tolerably clear notion of the poor poet’s state of body and mind; as a self-indulgent, unmethodical person, whose ill-temper was owing partly to perpetual brooding over his own thoughts, and partly to dyspepsia, brought on by his own effeminacy — in both cases, not a thing to be pitied or excused by the hearty and valiant Doctor. And Tom’s original contempt for Vavasour took a darker form, perhaps one too dark to be altogether just.
“I’ll tackle him, Miss Clara.”
“I wish you would: I’m sure he wants some one to look after him just now. He’s half wild about some review that somebody’s been and done of him in The Times, and has been flinging the paper about the room, and calling all mankind vipers and adders, and hooting herds — it’s as bad as swearing, I say — and running to my mistress, to make her read it, and see how the whole world’s against him, and then forbidding her to defile her eyes with a word of it; and so on, till she’s been crying all the morning, poor dear!”
“Why not laughing at him?”
“Poor thing; that’s where it all is: she’s just as anxious about his poetry as he is, and would write it just as well as he, I’ll warrant, if she hadn’t better things to do; and all her fuss is, that people should ‘appreciate’ him. He’s always talking about appreciating, till I hate the sound of the word. How any woman can go on so after a man that behaves as he does! but we’re all soft fools, I’m afraid, Doctor Thurnall.” And Clara began a languishing look or two across the counter, which made Tom answer to an imaginary Doctor Heale, whom he heard calling from within.
“Yes, Doctor! coming this moment, Doctor! Good-bye, Miss Clara. I must hear more next time; you may trust me, you know; secret as the grave, and always your friend, and your lady’s too, if you will allow me to do myself such an honour. Coming, Doctor!”
And Tom bolted through the glass door, till Miss Clara was safe on her way up the street.
“Very well,” said Tom to himself. “Knowledge is power: but how to use it? To get into Mrs. Vavasour’s confidence, and show an inclination to take her part against her husband? If she be a true woman, she would order me out of the house on the spot, as surely as a fish-wife would fall tooth and nail on me as a base intruder, if I dared to interfere with her sacred right of being beaten by her husband when she chooses. No; I must go straight to John Briggs himself, and bind him over to keep the peace; and I think I know the way to do it.”
So Tom pondered over many plans in his head that day; and then went to Trebooze, and saw the sick child, and sat down to dinner, where his host talked loud about the Treboozes of Trebooze, who fought in the Spanish Armada — or against it; and showed an unbounded belief in the greatness and antiquity of his family, combined with a historic accuracy about equal to that of a good old dame of those parts, who used to say “her family comed over the water, that she knew; but whether it were with the Conqueror, or whether it were wi’ Oliver, she couldn’t exactly say!”
Then he became great on the subject of old county families in general, and poured out all the vials of his wrath on “that confounded upstart of a Newbroom, Lord Minchampstead,” supplanting all the fine old blood in the country —“Why, sir, that Pentremochyn, and Carcarrow moors too (— good shooting there, there used to be), they ought to be mine, sir, if every man had his rights!” And then followed a long story; and a confused one withal, for by this time Mr. Trebooze had drunk a great deal too much wine, and as he became aware of the fact, became proportionately anxious that Tom should drink too much also; out of which story Tom picked the plain facts, that Trebooze’s father had mortgaged Pentremochyn estate for more than its value, and that Lord Minchampstead had foreclosed; while some equally respectable uncle, or cousin, just deceased, had sold the reversion of Carcarrow to the same mighty Cotton Lord twenty years before. “And this is the way, sir, the land gets eaten up by a set of tinkers, and cobblers, and money-lending jobbers, who suck the blood of the aristocracy!” The oaths we omit, leaving the reader to pepper Mr. Trebooze’s conversation therewith, up to any degree of heat which may suit his palate.
Tom sympathised with him deeply, of course; and did not tell him, as he might have done, that he thought the sooner such cumberers of the ground were cleared off, whether by an encumbered estates’ act, such as we may see yet in England, or by their own suicidal folly, the better it would be for the universe in general, and perhaps for themselves in particular. But he only answered with pleasant effrontery —
“Ah, my dear sir, I am sure there are hundreds of good sportsmen who can sympathise with you deeply. The wonder is, that you do not unite and defend yourselves. For not only in the West of England, but in Ireland, and in Wales, and in the north, too, if one is to believe those novels of Currer Bell’s and her sister, there is a large and important class of landed proprietors of the same stamp as yourself, and exposed to the very same dangers. I wonder at times that you do not all join, and use your combined influence on the Government.”
“The Government? All a set of Whig traitors! Call themselves Conservative, or what they like. Traitors, sir! from that fellow Peel upwards — all combined to crush the landed gentry — ruin the Church — betray the country party — D’Israeli — Derby — Free trade — ruined, sir! — Maynooth — Protection — treason — help yourself, and pass the — you know, old fellow —”
And Mr. Trebooze’s voice died away, and he slumbered, but not softly.
The door opened, and in marched Mrs. Trebooze, tall, tawdry, and terrible.
“Mr. Trebooze! it’s past eleven o’clock!”
“Hush, my dear madam! He is sleeping so sweetly,” said Tom, rising, and gulping down a glass, not of wine, but of strong ammonia and water. The rogue had put a phial thereof in his pocket that morning, expecting that, as Trebooze had said, he would be required to make a night of it,
She was silent; for to rouse her tyrant was more than she dare do. If awakened, he would crave for brandy and water; and if he got that sweet poison, he would probably become furious. She stood for half a minute; and Tom, who knew her story well, watched her curiously.
“She is a fine woman: and with a far finer heart in her than that brute. Her eyebrow and eye, now, have the true Siddons’ stamp; the great white forehead, and sharp-cut little nostril, breathing scorn — and what a Siddons-like attitude! — I should like, madam, to see the child again before I go.”
“If you are fit, sir,” answered she.
“Brave woman; comes to the point at once, I am a poor doctor, madam, and not a country gentleman; and have neither money nor health to spend in drinking too much wine.”
“Then why do you encourage him in it, sir? I had expected a very different sort of conduct from you, sir.”
Tom did not tell her what she would not (no woman will) understand; that it is morally and socially impossible to escape from the table of a fool, till either he or you are conquered; and she was too shrewd to be taken in by commonplace excuses; so he looked her very full in the face, and replied a little haughtily, with a slow and delicate articulation, using his lips more than usual, and yet compressing them:—
“I beg your pardon, madam, if I have unintentionally displeased you: but if you ever do me the honour of knowing more of me, you will be the first to confess that your words are unjust. Do you wish me to see your son, or do you not?”
Poor Mrs. Trebooze looked at him, with an eye which showed that she had been accustomed to study character keenly, perhaps in self-defence. She saw that Tom was sober; he had taken care to prove that, by the way in which he spoke; and she saw, too, that he was a better bred man than her husband, as well as a cleverer. She dropped her eye before his; heaved something very like a sigh; and then said, in her curt, fierce tone, which yet implied a sort of sullen resignation —
“Yes; come up-stairs.”
Tom went up, and looked at the boy again, as he lay sleeping. A beautiful child of four years old, as large and fair a child as man need see; and yet there was on him the curse of his father’s sins; and Tom knew it, and knew that his mother knew it also.
“What a noble boy!” said he, after looking, not without honest admiration, upon the sleeping child, who had kicked off his bed-clothes, and lay in a wild graceful attitude, as children are wont to lie; just like an old Greek statue of Cupid, “It all depends upon you, madam, now.”
“On me?” she asked, in a startled, suspicious tone.
“Yes. He is a magnificent boy: but — I can only give palliatives. It depends upon your care now.”
“He will have that, at least, I should hope,” she said, nettled.
“And on your influence ten years hence,” went on Tom.
“Yes; only keep him steady, and he may grow up a magnificent man. If not — you will excuse me — but you must not let him live as freely as his father; the constitutions of the two are very different.”
“Don’t talk so, sir. Steady? His father makes him drunk now, if he can; teaches him to swear, because it is manly — God help him and me!”
Tom’s cunning and yet kind shaft had sped. He guessed that with a coarse woman like Mrs. Trebooze his best plan was to come as straight to the point as he could; and he was right. Ere half an hour was over, that woman had few secrets on earth which Tom did not know.
“Let me give you one hint before I go,” said he at last. “Persuade your husband to go into a militia regiment.”
“Why? He would see so much company, and it would be so expensive.”
“The expense would repay itself ten times over. The company which he would see would be sober company, in which he would be forced to keep in order. He would have something to do in the world; and he’d do it well. He is just cut out for a soldier, and might have made a gallant one by now, if he had had other men’s chances. He will find he does his militia work well; and it will be a new interest, and a new pride, and a new life to him. And meanwhile, madam, what you have said to me is sacred. I do not pretend to advise or interfere. Only tell me if I can be of use — how, when, and where — and command me as your servant.”
And Tom departed, having struck another root; and was up at four the next morning (he never worked at night; for, he said, he never could trust after-dinner brains), drawing out a detailed report of the Pentremochyn cottages, which he sent to Lord Minchampstead with —
“And your lordship will excuse my saying, that to put the cottages into the state in which your lordship, with your known wish for progress of all kinds, would wish to see them is a responsibility which I dare not take on myself, as it would involve a present outlay of not less than £450. This sum would be certainly repaid to your Lordship and your tenants, in the course of the next three years, by the saving in poor-rates; an opinion for which I subjoin my grounds drawn from the books of the medical officer, Mr. Heale: but the responsibility and possible unpopularity, which employing so great a sum would involve, is more than I can, in the present dependent condition of poor-law medical officers, dare to undertake, in justice to Mr. Heale my employer, save at your special command. I am bound, however, to inform your lordship, that this outlay would, I think, perfectly defend the hamlets, not only from that visit of the cholera which we have every reason to expect next summer, but also from those zymotic diseases which (as your lordship will see by my returns) make up more than sixty-five per cent of the aggregate sickness of the estate.”
Which letter the old Cotton Lord put in his pocket, rode into Whitbury therewith, and showed it to Mark Armsworth.
“Well, Mr. Armsworth, what am I to do?”
“Well, my Lord; I told you what sort of a man you’d have to do with; one that does his work thoroughly, and, I think, pays you a compliment, by thinking that you want it done thoroughly.”
Lord Minchampstead was of the same opinion; but he did not say so. Few, indeed, have ever heard Lord Minchampstead give his opinion: though many a man has seen him act on it.
“I’ll send down orders to my agent.”
“Why, then, my good friend?”
“Agents are always in league with farmers, or guardians, or builders, or drain-tile makers, or attorneys, or bankers, or somebody; and either you’ll be told that the work don’t need doing; or have a job brewed out of it, to get off a lot of unsaleable drain-tiles, or cracked soil-pans; or to get farm ditches dug, and perhaps the highway rates saved building culverts, and fifty dodges beside. I know their game; and you ought, too, by now, my lord, begging your pardon.”
“Perhaps I do, Mark,” said his lordship with a chuckle.
“So, I say, let the man that found the fox, run the fox, and kill the fox, and take the brush home.”
“And so it shall be,” quoth my Lord Minchampstead.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56