He stood in the candle-light, smiling blandly, while we all stayed for an instant, after our first exclamation, speechless with astonishment.
The Major was the first who showed signs of consciousness, for I verily believe that one half of the company at least believed him to be a ghost. “You are the man,” said the Major, “who in the flesh called himself Maximilian Mulhaus! Why are you come to trouble us, O spirit? — not that we shouldn’t be glad to see you if you were alive, you know, but — my dear old friend, how are you?”
Then we crowded round him, all speaking at once and trying to shake hands with him. Still he remained silent, and smiled. I, looking into his eyes, saw that they were swimming, and divined why he would not trust himself to speak. No one hated a show of emotion more than the Doctor, and yet his brave warm heart would often flood his eyes in spite of himself.
He walked round to the fire-place, and, leaning against the board that answered for a chimney-piece, stood looking at us with beaming eyes, while we anxiously waited for him to speak.
“Ah!” he said at length, with a deep sigh, “this does me good. I have not made my journey in vain. A man who tries to live in this world without love must, if he is not a fool, commit suicide in a year. I went to my own home, and my own dogs barked at me. Those I had raised out of the gutter, and set on horseback, splashed mud on me as I walked. I will go back, I said, to the little English family who loved and respected me for my own sake, though they be at the ends of the earth. So I left those who should have loved me with an ill-concealed smile on their faces, and when I come here I am welcomed with tears of joy from those I have not known five years. Bah! Here is my home, Buckley: let me live and die with you.”
“Live!” said the Major —“ay, while there’s a place to live in; don’t talk about dying yet, though — we’ll think of that presently. I can’t find words enough to give him welcome. Wife, can you?”
“Not I, indeed,” she said; “and what need? He can see a warmer welcome in our faces than an hour’s clumsy talk could give him. I say, Doctor, you are welcome, now and for ever. Will that serve you, husband?”
I could not help looking at Miss Thornton. She sat silently staring at him through it all, with her hands clasped together, beating them upon her knee. Now, when all was quiet, and Mrs. Buckley and Mary had run off to the kitchen to order the Doctor some supper, he seemed to see her for the first time, and bowed profoundly. She rose, and, looking at him intently, sat down again.
The Doctor had eaten his supper, and Mrs. Buckley had made him something to drink with her own hands; the Doctor had lit his pipe, and we had gathered round the empty fire-place, when the Major said —
“Now, Doctor, do tell us your adventures, and how you have managed to drop upon us from the skies on Christmas-day.”
“Soon told, my friend,” he answered. “See here. I went back to Germany because all ties in England were broken. I went to Lord C——: I said, ‘I will go back and see the palingenesis of my country; I will see what they are doing, now the French are in the dust.’ He said, ‘Go, and God speed you!’ I went. What did I find? Beggars on horseback everywhere, riding post-haste to the devil — not as good horsemen, either, but as tailors of Brentford, and crowding one another into the mud to see who would be there first. ‘Let me get out of this before they ride over me,’ said I. So I came forth to England, took ship, and here I am.”
“A most lucid and entirely satisfactory explanation of what you have been about, I must say,” answered the Major; “however, I must be content.”
At this moment, little Sam, who had made his escape in the confusion, came running in, breathless. “Papa! papa!” said he, “Lee has come home with a snake seven feet long.” Lee was at the door with the reptile in his hand — a black snake, with a deep salmon-coloured belly, deadly venomous, as I knew. All the party went out to look at it, except the Doctor and Miss Thornton, who stayed at the fire-place.
“Mind your hands, Lee!” I heard James say; “though the brute is dead, you might prick your fingers with him.”
I was behind all the others, waiting to look at the snake, which was somewhat of a large one, and worth seeing, so I could not help overhearing the conversation of Miss Thornton and the Doctor, and having heard the first of it my ears grew so unnaturally quickened, that I could not for the life of me avoid hearing the whole, though I was ashamed of playing eavesdropper.
“My God, sir!” I heard her say, “what new madness is this? Why do you persist in separating yourself from your family in this manner?”
“No madness at all, my dear madam,” he answered; “you would have done the same under the circumstances. My brother was civil, but I saw he would rather have me away, and continue his stewardship. And so I let him.”
Miss Thornton put another question which I did not catch, and the sense of which I could not supply, but I heard his answer plainly: it was —
“Of course I did, my dear lady, and, just as you may suppose, when I walked up the Ritter Saal, there was a buzz and giggle, and not one held out his hand save noble Von H——; long life to him!”
“But —?” said Miss Thornton, mentioning somebody, whose name I could not catch.
“I saw him bend over to M—— as I came up to the Presence, and they both laughed. I saw a slight was intended, made my devoirs, and backed off. The next day he sent for me, but I was off and away. I heard of it before I left England.”
“And will you never go back?” she said.
“When I can with honour, not before; and that will never be till he is dead, I fear; and his life is as good as mine. So, hey for natural history, and quiet domestic life, and happiness with my English friends! Now, am I wise or not?”
“I fear not,” she said.
The Doctor laughed, and taking her hand, kissed it gallantly; by this time we had all turned round, and were coming in.
“Now, Doctor,” said the Major, “If you have done flirting with Miss Thornton, look at this snake.”
“A noble beast, indeed,” said the Doctor. “Friend,” he added to Lee, “if you don’t want him, I will take him off your hands for a sum of money. He shall be pickled, as I live.”
“He is very venomous, sir,” said Lee. “The blacks eat ’em, it’s true, but they always cut the head off first. I’d take the head off, sir, before I ventured to taste him.”
We all laughed at Lee’s supposing that the Doctor meant to make a meal of the deadly serpent, and Lee laughed as loudly as anybody.
“You see, sir,” he said, “I’ve always heard that you French gents ate frogs, so I didn’t know as snakes would come amiss.”
“Pray, don’t take me for a Frenchman, my good lad,” said the Doctor; “and as for frogs, they are as good as chickens.”
“Well, I’ve eaten guaners myself,” said Lee, “though I can’t say much for them. They’re uglier than snakes any way.”
Lee was made to sit down and take a glass of grog. So, very shortly, the conversation flowed on into its old channel, and, after spending a long and pleasant evening, we all went to bed.
James and I slept in the same room; and, when we were going to bed, I said —
“James, if that fellow were to die, there would be a chance for you yet.”
“With regard to what?” he asked.
“You know well enough, you old humbug,” I said; “with regard to Mary Hawker — NEE Thornton!”
“I doubt it, my lad,” he said. “I very much doubt it indeed; and, perhaps, you have heard that there must be two parties to a bargain, so that even if she were willing to take me, I very much doubt if I would ask her.”
“No one could blame you for that,” I said, “after what has happened. There are but few men who would like to marry the widow of a coiner.”
“You mistake me, Jeff. You mistake me altogether,” he answered, walking up and down the room, with one boot off. “That would make but little difference to me. I’ve no relations to sing out about a mesalliance, you know. No, my dear old fellow, not that; but — Jeff, Jeff! You are the dearest friend I have in the world.”
“Jim, my boy,” I answered, “I love you like a brother. What is it?”
“I have no secrets from you, Jeff,” he said; “so I don’t mind telling you.” Another hesitation! I grew rather anxious. “What the deuce is coming?” I thought. “What can she have been up to? Go on, old fellow,” I added aloud; “let’s hear all about it.”
He stood at the end of the room, looking rather sheepish. “Why, the fact is, old fellow, that I begin to suspect that I have outlived any little attachment I had in that quarter. I’ve been staying in the house two months with her, you see; and, in fact! — in fact!”— here he brought up short again.
“James Stockbridge,” I said, sitting up in bed, “you atrocious humbug; two months ago you informed me, with a sigh like a groggy pair of bellows, that her image could only be effaced from your heart by death. You have seduced me, whose only fault was loving you too well to part with you, into coming sixteen thousand miles to a barbarous land, far from kindred and country, on the plea that your blighted affections made England less endurable than — France, I’ll say for argument; — and, now having had two months’ opportunity of studying the character of the beloved one, you coolly inform me that the whole thing was a mistake. I repeat that you are a humbug.”
“If you don’t hold your tongue, and that quick,” he replied, “I’ll send this boot at your ugly head. Now, then!”
I ducked, fully expecting it was coming, and laughed silently under the bed-clothes. I was very happy to hear this — I was very happy to hear that a man, whom I really liked so well, had got the better of a passion for a woman who I knew was utterly incapable of being to him what his romantic high-flown notions required a wife to be. “If this happy result,” I said to myself, “can be rendered the more sure by ridicule, that shall not be wanting. Meanwhile, I will sue for peace, and see how it came about.”
I rose again and saw he had got his other boot half off, and was watching for me. “Jim,” said I, “you ain’t angry because I laughed at you, are you?”
“Angry!” he answered. “I am never angry with you, and you know it. I’ve been a fool, and I ought to be laughed at.”
“Pooh!” said I, “no more a fool than other men have been before you, from father Adam downwards.”
“And he was a most con-”
“There,” I interrupted: “don’t abuse your ancestors. Tell me why you have changed your mind so quick?”
“That’s a precious hard thing to do, mind you;” he answered. “A thousand trifling circumstances, which taken apart are as worthless straws, when they are bound up together become a respectable truss, which is marketable, and ponderable. So it is with little traits in Mary’s character, which I have only noticed lately, nothing separately, yet when taken together, to say the least, different to what I had imagined while my eyes were blinded. To take one instance among fifty; there’s her cousin Tom, one of the finest fellows that ever stepped; but still I don’t like to see her, a married woman, allowing him to pull her hair about, and twist flowers in it.”
This was very true, but I thought that if James instead of Tom had been allowed the privilege of decorating her hair, he might have looked on it with different eyes. James, I saw, cared too little about her to be very jealous, and so I saw that there was no fear of any coolness between him and Troubridge, which was a thing to be rejoiced at, as it would have been a terrible blow on our little society, and which I feared at one time that evening would have been the case.
“Jim,” said I, “I have got something to tell you. Do you know, I believe there is some mystery about Doctor Mulhaus.”
“He is a walking mystery,” said Jim; “but he is a noble good fellow, though unhappily a frog-eater.”
“Ah! but I believe Miss Thornton knows it.”
“Very like,” said Jim, yawning.
“I told him all the conversation I overheard that evening.”
“Are you sure she said ‘the king’?” he asked.
“Quite sure,” I said; “now, what do you make of it?”
“I make this of it,” he said: “that it is no earthly business of ours, or we should have been informed of it; and if I were you, I wouldn’t breathe a word of it to any mortal soul, or let the Doctor suspect that you overheard anything. Secrets where kings are concerned are precious sacred things, old Jeff. Good night!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10