Some half-mile up, a path led out of the main road to a wooden bridge across the stream. He followed it, careless whither he went; and in five minutes found himself in the quaintest little woodland cavern he ever had seen.
It was simply a great block of black lava, crowned with brushwood, and supported on walls and pillars of Dutch cheeses, or what should have been Dutch cheeses by all laws of shape and colour, had not his fingers proved to them that they were stone. How they got there, and what they were, puzzled him; for he was no geologist; and finding a bench inside, he sat down and speculated thereon.
There was more than one doorway to the "Cheese Cellar." It stood beneath a jutting knoll, and the path ran right through; so that, as he sat, he could see up a narrow gorge to his left, roofed in with trees; and down into the main valley on his right, where the Issbach glittered clear and smooth beneath red-berried mountain-ash and yellow leaves.
There he sat, and tried to forget Marie in the tinkling of the streams, and the sighing of the autumn leaves, and the cooing of the sleepy doves; while the ice-bird, as the Germans call the water-ouzel, sat on a rock in the river below, and warbled his low sweet song, and then flitted up the grassy reach to perch and sing again on the next rock above.
And, whether, it was that he did forget Marie awhile; or whether he were tired, as he well might have been; or whether he had too rapidly consumed his bottle of red Walporzheimer, forgetful that it alone of German wines combines the delicacy of the Rhine sun with the potency of its Burgundian vinestock, transplanted to the Ahr by Charlemagne;— whether it were any of these causes, or whether it were not, Stangrave fell fast asleep in the Kaise-kellar, and slept till it was dark, at the risk of catching a great cold.
How long he slept he knew not: but what wakened him he knew full well. Voices of people approaching; and voices which he recognised in a moment.
Sabina? Yes; and Marie too, laughing merrily; and among their shriller tones the voice of Thurnall. He had not heard it for years; but, considering the circumstances under which he had last heard it, there was no fear of his forgetting it again.
They came down the side-glen; and before he could rise, they had turned the sharp corner of the rock, and were in the Kaise-kellar, close to him, almost touching him. He felt the awkwardness of his position. To keep still was, perhaps, to overhear, and that too much. To discover himself was to produce a scene; and he could not trust his temper that the scene would not be an ugly one, and such as women must not witness.
He was relieved to find that they did not stop. They were laughing about the gloom; about being out so late.
"How jealous some one whom I know would be," said Sabina, "if he found you and Tom together in this darksome den!"
"I don't care," said Tom; "I have made up my mind to shoot him out of hand, and marry Marie myself. Sha'n't I now, my—" and they passed on; and down to their carriage, which had been waiting for them in the road below.
What Marie's answer was, or by what name Thurnall was about to address her, Stangrave did not hear: but he had heard quite enough.
He rose quietly after a while, and followed them.
He was a dupe, an ass! The dupe of those bad women, and of his ancient enemy! It was maddening! Yet, how could Sabina be in fault? She had not known Marie till he himself had introduced her; and he could not believe her capable of such baseness. The crime must lie between the other two. Yet—
However that might be mattered little to him now. He would return, order his carriage once more, and depart, shaking off the dust of his feet against them! "Pah! There were other women in the world; and women, too, who would not demand of him to become a hero."
He reached the Kurhaus, and went in; but not into the public room, for fear of meeting people whom he had no heart to face.
He was in the passage, in the act of settling his account with the waiter, when Thurnall came hastily out, and ran against him.
Stangrave stood by the passage lamp, so that he saw Tom's face at once.
Tom drew back; begged a thousand pardons; and saw Stangrave's face in turn.
The two men looked at each other for a few seconds. Stangrave longed to say, "You intend to shoot me? Then try at once;" but he was ashamed, of course, to make use of words which he had so accidentally overheard.
Tom looked carefully at Stangrave, to divine his temper from his countenance. It was quite angry enough to give Tom excuse for saying to himself—
"The fellow is mad at being caught at last. Very well."
"I think, sir," said he, quietly enough, "that you and I had better walk outside for a few minutes. Allow me to retract the apology I just made, till we have had some very explicit conversation on other matters."
"Curse his impudence!" thought Stangrave. "Does he actually mean to bully me into marrying her?" and he replied haughtily enough,—
"I am aware of no matters on which I am inclined to be explicit with Mr. Thurnall, or on which Mr. Thurnall has a right to be explicit with me."
"I am, then," quoth Tom, his suspicion increasing in turn. "Do you wish, sir, to have a scene before this waiter and the whole house, or will you be so kind as to walk outside with me?"
"I must decline, sir; not being in the habit of holding intercourse with an actress's bully."
Tom did not knock him down: but replied smilingly enough—
"I am far too much in earnest in this matter, sir, to be stopped by any coarse expressions. Waiter, you may go. Now, will you fight me to-morrow morning, or will you not?"
"I may fight a gentleman: but not you."
"Well, I shall not call you a coward, because I know that you are none; and I shall not make a row here, for a gentleman's reasons, which you, calling yourself a gentleman, seem to have forgotten. But this I will do; I will follow you till you do fight me, if I have to throw up my own prospects in life for it. I will proclaim you, wherever we meet, for what you are—a mean and base intriguer; I will insult you in Kursaals, and cane you on public places; I will be Frankenstein's man to you day and night, till I have avenged the wrongs of this poor girl, the dust of whose feet you are not worthy to kiss off."
Stangrave was surprised at his tone. It was certainly not that of a conscious villain: but he only replied sneeringly,—
"And pray what may give Mr. Thurnall the right to consider himself the destined avenger of this frail beauty's wrongs?"
"I will tell you that after we have fought; and somewhat more. Meanwhile, that expression, 'frail beauty,' is a fresh offence, for which I should certainly cane you, if she were not in the house."
"Well," drawled Stangrave, feigning an ostentatious yawn, "I believe the wise method of ridding oneself of impertinents is to grant their requests. Have you pistols? I have none."
"I have both duellers and revolvers at your service."
"Ah? I think we'll try the revolvers then," said Stangrave, savage from despair, and disbelief in all human goodness. "After what has passed, five or six shots apiece will be hardly outre."
"Hardly, I think," said Tom. "Will you name your second'?"
"I know no one. I have not been here two hours; but I suppose they do not matter much."
"Humph! it is as well to have witnesses in case of accident. There are a couple of roystering Burschen in the public room, who, I think, would enjoy the office. Both have scars on their faces, so they will be au fait at the thing. Shall I have the honour of sending one of them to you?"
"As you will, sir; my number is 34." And the two fools turned on their respective heels, and walked off.
At sunrise next morning Tom and his second are standing on the Falkenhohe, at the edge of the vast circular pit, blasted out by some explosion which has torn the slate into mere dust and shivers, now covered with a thin coat of turf.
"Schoene aussicht!" says the Bursch, waving his hand round, in a tone which is benevolently meant to withdraw Tom's mind from painful considerations.
"Very pretty prospect indeed. You're sure you understand that revolver thoroughly?"
The Bursch mutters to himself something about English nonchalance, and assures Thurnall that he is competently acquainted with the weapon; as indeed he ought to be; for having never seen one before, he has been talking and thinking of nothing else since they left Bertrich.
And why does not Tom care to look at the prospect? Certainly not because he is afraid. He slept as soundly as ever last night; and knows not what fear means. But somehow, the glorious view reminds him of another glorious view, which he saw last summer walking by Grace Harvey's side from Tolchard's farm. And that subject he will sternly put away. He is not sure but what it might unman even him.
The likeness certainly exists; for the rock, being the same in both places, has taken the same general form; and the wanderer in Rhine-Prussia and Nassau might often fancy himself in Devon or Cornwall. True, here there is no sea: and there no Moselkopf raises its huge crater-cone far above the uplands, all golden in the level sun. But that brown Tannus far away, or that brown Hundsruck opposite, with its deep-wooded gorges barred with level gleams of light across black gulfs of shade, might well be Dartmoor, or Carcarrow moor itself, high over Aberalva town, which he will see no more. True, in Cornwall there would be no slag-cliffs of the Falkenley beneath his feet, as black and blasted at this day as when yon orchard meadow was the mouth of hell, and the south-west wind dashed the great flame against the cinder cliff behind, and forged it into walls of time-defying glass. But that might well be Alva stream, that Issbach in its green gulf far below, winding along toward the green gulf of the Moselle—he will look at it no more, lest he see Grace herself come to him across the down, to chide him, with sacred horror, for the dark deed which he has come to do.
And yet he does not wish to kill Stangrave. He would like to "wing him." He must punish him for his conduct to Marie; punish him for last night's insult. It is a necessity, but a disagreeable one; he would be sorry to go to the war with that man's blood upon his hand. He is sorry that he is out of practice.
"A year ago I could have counted on hitting him where I liked. I trust I shall not blunder against his vitals now. However, if I do, he has himself to blame!"
The thought that Stangrave may kill him never crosses his mind. Of course, out of six shots, fired at all distances from forty paces to fifteen, one may hit him: but as for being killed!...
Tom's heart is hardened; melted again and again this summer for a moment, only to freeze again. He all but believes that he bears a charmed life. All the miraculous escapes of his past years, instead of making him believe in a living, guiding, protecting Father, have become to that proud hard heart the excuse for a deliberate, though unconscious, atheism. His fall is surely near.
At last Stangrave and his second appear. Stangrave is haggard, not from fear, but from misery, and rage, and self-condemnation. This is the end of all his fine resolves! Pah! what use in them? What use in being a martyr in this world? All men are liars, and all women too!
Tom and Stangrave stand a little apart from each other, while one of the seconds paced the distance. He steps out away from them, across the crater floor, carrying Tom's revolver in his hand, till he reaches the required point, and turns.
He turns: but not to come back. Without a gesture or an exclamation which could explain his proceedings, he faces about once more, and rushes up the slope as hard as legs and wind permitted.
Tom is confounded with astonishment: either the Bursch is seized with terror at the whole business, or he covets the much-admired revolver; in either case, he is making off with it before the owner's eyes.
"Stop! Hillo! Stop thief! He's got my pistol!" and away goes Thurnall in chase after the Bursch, who, never looking behind, never sees that he is followed: while Stangrave and the second Bursch look on with wide eyes.
Now the Bursch is a "gymnast," and a capital runner; and so is Tom likewise; and brilliant is the race upon the Falkenhohe. But the victory, after a while, becomes altogether a question of wind; for it was all up-hill. The crater, being one of "explosion, and not of elevation," as the geologists would say, does not slope downward again, save on one side, from its outer lip: and Tom and the Bursch were breasting a fair hill, after they had emerged from the "kessel" below.
Now, the Bursch had had too much Thronerhofberger the night before; and possibly, as Burschen will in their vacations, the night before that also; whereby his diaphragm surrendered at discretion, while his heels were yet unconquered; and he suddenly felt a strong gripe, and a stronger kick, which rolled him over on the turf.
The hapless youth, who fancied himself alone upon the mountain tops, roared mere incoherences; and Tom, too angry to listen, and too hurried to punish, tore the revolver out of his grasp; whereon one barrel exploded—
"I have done it now!"
No: the ball had luckily buried itself in the ground.
Tom turned, to rush down hill again, and meet the impatient Stangrave.
Yes! And, prodigy on prodigy, up the hill towards him charged, as he would upon a whole army, a Prussian gendarme, with bayonet fixed.
Tom sat down upon the mountain-side, and burst into inextinguishable laughter, while the gendarme came charging up, right toward his very nose.
But up to his nose he charged not; for his wind was short, and the noise of his roaring went before him. Moreover, he knew that Tom had a revolver, and was a "mad Englishman." Now, he was not afraid of Tom, or of a whole army: but he was a man of drills and of orders, of rules and of precedents, as a Prussian gendarme ought to be; and for the modes of attacking infantry, cavalry, and artillery, man, woman, and child, thief and poacher, stray pig, or even stray wolf, he had drill and orders sufficient: but for attacking a Colt's revolver, none.
Moreover, for arresting all manner of riotous Burschen, drunken boors, French red Republicans, Mazzini-hatted Italian refugees, suspect Polish incendiaries, or other feras naturse, he had precedent and regulation: but for arresting a mad Englishman, none. He held fully the opinion of his superiors, that there was no saying what an Englishman might not, could not, and would not do. He was a sphinx, a chimera, a lunatic broke loose, who took unintelligible delight in getting wet, and dirty, and tired, and starved, and all but lolled; and called the same "taking exercise:" who would see everything that nobody ever cared to see, and who knew mysteriously everything about everywhere; whose deeds were like his opinions, utterly subversive of all constituted order in heaven and earth; being, probably, the inhabitant of another planet; possibly the man in the moon himself, who had been turned out, having made his native satellite too hot to hold him. All that was to be done with him was to inquire whether his passport was correct, and then (with a due regard to self-preservation) to endure his vagaries in pitying wonder.
So the gendarme paused panting; and not daring to approach, walked slowly and solemnly round Tom, keeping the point of his bayonet carefully towards him, and roaring at intervals—
"You have murdered the young man!"
"But I have not!" said Tom. "Look and see."
"But I saw him fall!"
"But he has got up again, and run away."
"So! Then where is your passport?"
That one other fact cognisable by the mind of a Prussian gendarme, remained as an anchor for his brains under the new and trying circumstances, and he used it. "Here!" quoth Tom, pulling it out.
The gendarme stepped cautiously forward.
"Don't be frightened. I'll stick it on your bayonet-point;" and suiting the action to the word, Tom caught the bayonet-point, put the passport on it, and pulled out his cigar-case.
"Mad Englishman!" murmured the gendarme. "So! The passport is correct. But der Herr must consider himself under arrest. Der Herr will give up his death-instrument."
"By all means," says Tom: and gives up the revolver.
The gendarme takes it very cautiously; meditates awhile how to carry it; sticks the point of his bayonet into its muzzle, and lifts it aloft.
"Schon! Das kriegt! Has der Herr any more death-instruments?"
"Dozens!" says Tom, and begins fumbling in his pockets; from whence he pulls a case of surgical instruments, another of mathematical ones, another of lancets, and a knife with innumerable blades, saws, and pickers, every one of which he opens carefully, and then spreads the whole fearful array upon the grass before him.
The gendarme scratches his head over those too plain proofs of some tremendous conspiracy.
"So! Man must have a dozen hands! He is surely Palmerston himself; or at least Hecker, or Mazzini!" murmurs he, as he meditates how to stow them all.
He thinks now that the revolver may be safe elsewhere; and that the knife will do best on the bayonet-point So he unships the revolver.
Bang goes barrel number two, and the ball goes into the turf between his feet.
"You will shoot yourself soon, at that rate," says Tom.
"So? Der Herr speaks German like a native," says the gendarme, growing complimentary in his perplexity. "Perhaps der Herr would be so good as to carry his death-instruments himself, and attend on the Herr Polizeirath, who is waiting to see him."
"By all means!" And Tom picks up his tackle, while the prudent gendarme reloads; and Tom marches down the hill, the gendarme following, with his bayonet disagreeably near the small of Tom's back.
"Don't stumble! Look out for the stones, or you'll have that skewer through me!"
"So! Der Herr speaks German like a native," says the gendarme, civilly. "It is certainly der Palmerston," thinks he, "his manners are so polite."
Once at the crater edge, and able to see into the pit, the mystery is, in part at least, explained: for there stand not only Stangrave and Bursch number two, but a second gendarme, two elderly gentlemen, two ladies, and a black boy.
One is Lieutenant D——, by his white moustache. He is lecturing the Bursch, who looks sufficiently foolish. The other is a portly and awful-looking personage in uniform, evidently the Polizeirath of those parts, armed with the just terrors of the law: but Justice has, if not her eyes bandaged, at least her hands tied; for on his arm hangs Sabina, smiling, chatting, entreating. The Polizeirath smiles, bows, ogles, evidently a willing captive. Venus had disarmed Rhadamanthus, as she has Mars so often; and the sword of Justice must rust in its scabbard.
Some distance behind them is Stangrave, talking in a low voice, earnestly, passionately,—to whom but to Marie?
And lastly, opposite each other, and like two dogs who are uncertain whether to make friends or fight, are a gendarme and Sabina's black boy: the gendarme, with shouldered musket, is trying to look as stiff and cross as possible, being scandalised by his superior officer's defection from the path of duty; and still more by the irreverence of the black boy, who is dancing, grinning, snapping his fingers, in delight at having discovered and prevented the coming tragedy.
Tom descends, bowing courteously, apologises for having been absent when the highly distinguished gentleman arrived; and turning to the Bursch, begs him to transmit to his friend who has run away his apologies for the absurd mistake which led him to, etc. etc.
The Polizeirath looks at him with much the same blank astonishment as the gendarme had done; and at last ends by lifting up his hands, and bursting into an enormous German laugh; and no one on earth can laugh as a German can, so genially and lovingly, and with such intense self-enjoyment.
"Oh, you English! you English! You are all mad, I think! Nothing can shame you, and nothing can frighten you! Potz! I believe when your Guards at Alma walked into that battery the other day, every one of them was whistling your Jim Crow, even after he was shot dead!" And the jolly Polizeirath laughed at his own joke, till the mountain rang. "But you must leave the country, sir; indeed you must. We cannot permit such conduct here—I am very sorry."
"I entreat you not to apologise, sir. In any case, I was going to Alf by eight o'clock, to meet the steamer for Treves. I am on my way to the war in the East, via Marseilles. If you would, therefore, be so kind as to allow the gendarme to return me that second revolver, which also belongs to me—"
"Give him his pistol!" shouted the magistrate.
"Potz! Let us be rid of him at any cost, and live in peace, like honest Germans. Ah, poor Queen Victoria! What a lot! To have the government of five-and-twenty million such!"
"Not five-and-twenty millions," says Sabina.
"That would include the ladies; and we are not mad too, surely, your Excellency?"
The Polizeirath likes to be called your Excellency, of course, or any other mighty title which does or does not belong to him; and that Sabina knows full well.
"Ah, my dear madam, how do I know that? The English ladies do every day here what no other dames would dare or dream—what then, must you be at home? Ach! your poor husbands!"
"Mr. Thurnall!" calls Marie, from behind. "Mr. Thurnall!"
Tom comes, with a quaint, dogged smile on his face.
"You see him, Mr. Stangrave! You see the man who risked for me liberty, life,—who rescued me from slavery, shame, suicide,—who was to me a brother, a father, for years!—without whose disinterested heroism you would never have set eyes on the face which you pretend to love. And you repay him by suspicion—insult—Apologise to him, sir! Ask his pardon now, here, utterly, humbly: or never speak to Marie Lavington again!"
Tom looked first at her, and then at Stangrave. Marie was convulsed with excitement; her thin cheeks were crimson, her eyes flashed very flame. Stangrave was pale—calm outwardly, but evidently not within. He was looking on the ground, in thought so intense that he hardly seemed to hear Marie. Poor fellow! he had heard enough in the last ten minutes to bewilder any brain.
At last he seemed to have strung himself for an effort, and spoke, without looking up.
"I have done you a great wrong!"
"We will say no more about it, sir. It was a mistake, and I do not wish to complicate the question. My true ground of quarrel with you is your conduct to Miss Lavington. She seems to have told you her true name, so I shall call her by it."
"What I have done, I have undone!" said Stangrave, looking up. "If I have wronged her, I have offered to right her; if I have left her, I have sought her again; and if I left her when I knew nothing, now that I know all, I ask her here, before you, to become my wife!"
Tom looked inquiringly at Marie.
"Yes; I have told him all—all?" and she hid her face in her hands.
"Well," said Tom, "Mr. Stangrave is a very enviable person; and the match in a worldly point of view, is a most fortunate one for Miss Lavington; and that stupid rascal of a gendarme has broken my revolver."
"But I have not accepted him," cried Marie; "and I will not unless you give me leave."
Tom saw Stangrave's brow lower, and pardonably enough, at this.
"My dear Miss Lavington, as I have never been able to settle my own love affairs satisfactorily to myself, I do not feel at all competent to settle other people's. Good-bye! I shall be late for the steamer." And, bowing to Stangrave and Marie, he turned to go.
"Sabina! Stop him!" cried she; "he is going, without even a kind word!"
"Sabina," whispered Tom as he passed her,—"a had business—selfish coxcomb; when her beauty goes, won't stand her temper and her flightiness: but I know you and Claude will take care of the poor thing, if anything happens to me."
"Tut, tut, tut!—Good-bye, you sweet little sunbeam. Good morning, gentlemen!"
And Tom hurried up the slope and out of sight, while Marie burst into an agony of weeping.
"Gone, without a kind word!"
Stangrave bit his lip, not in anger, but in manly self-reproach.
"It is my fault, Marie! my fault! He knew me too well of old, and had too much reason to despise me! But he shall have reason no longer. He will come back, and find me worthy of you; and all will be forgotten. Again I say it, I accept your quest, for life and death. So help me God above, as I will not fail or falter, till I have won justice for you and for your race! Marie?"
He conquered: how could he but conquer! for he was man, and she was woman; and he looked more noble in her eyes, while he was confessing his past weakness, than he had ever done in his proud assertion of strength.
But she spoke no word in answer. She let him take her hand, pass her arm through his, and lead her away, as one who had a right.
They walked down the hill behind the rest of the party, blest, but silent and pensive; he with the weight of the future, she with that of the past.
"It is very wonderful," she said at last. "Wonderful ... that you can care for me.... Oh, if I had known how noble you were, I should have told you all at once."
"Perhaps I should have been as ignoble as ever," said Stangrave, "if that young English Viscount had not put me on my mettle by his own nobleness."
"No! no! Do not belie yourself. You know what he does not;—what I would have died sooner than tell him."
Stangrave drew the arm closer through his, and clasped the hand. Marie did not withdraw it.
"Wonderful, wonderful love!" she said quite humbly. Her theatric passionateness had passed;—
"Nothing was left of her, Now, but pure womanly."
"That you can love me—me, the slave; me, the scourged; the scarred—Oh Stangrave! it is not much—not much really;—only a little mark or two...."
"I will prize them," he answered, smiling through tears, "more than all your loveliness. I will see in them God's commandment to me, written not on tables of stone, but on fair, pure, noble flesh. My Marie! You shall have cause even to rejoice in them!"
"I glory in them now; for, without them, I never should have known all your worth."
The next day Stangrave, Marie, and Sabina were hurrying home to England! while Tom Thurnall was hurrying to Marseilles, to vanish Eastward Ho.
He has escaped once more: but his heart is hardened still. What will his fall be like?
LAST CHRISTMAS EVE.
And now two years and more are past and gone; and all whose lot it was have come Westward Ho once more, sadder and wiser men to their lives' end; save one or two, that is, from whom not even Solomon's pestle and mortar discipline would pound out the innate folly.
Frank has come home stouter and browner, as well as heartier and wiser, than he went forth. He is Valencia's husband now, and rector, not curate, of Aberalva town; and Valencia makes him a noble rector's wife.
She, too, has had her sad experiences;—of more than absent love; for when the news of Inkerman arrived, she was sitting by Lucia's death-bed; and when the ghastly list came home, and with it the news of Scoutbush "severely wounded by a musket-ball," she had just taken her last look of the fair face, and seen in fancy the fair spirit greeting in the eternal world the soul of him whom she loved unto the death. She had hurried out to Scutari, to nurse her brother; had seen there many a sight—she best knows what she saw. She sent Scoutbush back to the Crimea, to try his chance once more; and then came home to be a mother to those three orphan children, from whom she vowed never to part. So the children went with Frank and her to Aberalva, and Valencia had learnt half a mother's duties, ere she had a baby of her own.
And thus to her, as to all hearts, has the war brought a discipline from heaven.
Frank shrank at first from returning to Aberalva, when Scoutbush offered him the living on old St. Just's death. But Valencia all but commanded him; so he went: and, behold his return was a triumph.
All was understood now, all forgiven, all forgotten, save his conduct in the cholera, by the loving, honest, brave West-country hearts; and when the new-married pair were rung into the town, amid arches and garlands, flags and bonfires, the first man to welcome Frank into his rectory was old Tardrew.
Not a word of repentance or apology ever passed the old bulldog's lips. He was an Englishman, and kept his opinions to himself. But he had had his lesson like the rest, two years ago, in his young daughter's death; and Frank had thenceforth no faster friend than old Tardrew.
Frank is still as High Church as ever; and likes all pomp and circumstance of worship. Some few whims he has given up, certainly, for fear of giving offence; but he might indulge them once more, if he wished, without a quarrel. For now that the people understand him, he does just what he likes. His congregation is the best in the archdeaconry; one meeting-house is dead, and the other dying. His choir is admirable; for Valencia has had the art of drawing to her all the musical talent of the tuneful West-country folk; and all that he needs, he thinks, to make his parish perfect, is to see Grace Harvey schoolmistress once more.
What can have worked the change? It is difficult to say, unless it be that Frank has found out, from cholera and hospital experiences, that his parishioners are beings of like passions with himself; and found out, too, that his business is to leave the Gospel of damnation to those whose hapless lot it is to earn their bread by pandering to popular superstition; and to employ his independent position, as a free rector, in telling his people the Gospel of salvation—that they have a Father in heaven.
Little Scoutbush comes down often to Aberalva now, and oftener to his Irish estates. He is going to marry the Manchester lady after all, and to settle down; and try to be a good landlord; and use for the benefit of his tenants the sharp experience of human hearts, human sorrows, and human duty, which he gained in the Crimea two years ago.
And Major Campbell?
Look on Cathcart's Hill. A stone is there, which is the only earthly token of that great experience of all experiences which Campbell gained two years ago.
A little silk bag was found, hung round his neck, and lying next his heart. He seemed to have expected his death; for he had put a label on it—
"To be sent to Viscount Scoutbush for Miss St. Just."
Scoutbush sent it home to Valencia, who opened it, blind with tears.
It was a note, written seven years before; but not by her; by Lucia ere her marriage. A simple invitation to dinner in Eaton Square, written for Lady Knockdown, but with a postscript from Lucia, herself: "Do come, and I will promise not to tease you as I did last night."
That was, perhaps, the only kind or familiar word which he had ever had from his idol; and he had treasured it to the last. Women can love, as this book sets forth: but now and then men can love too, if they be men, as Major Campbell was.
And Trebooze of Trebooze?
Even Trebooze got his new lesson two years ago. Terrified into sobriety, he went into the militia, and soon took delight therein. He worked, for the first time in his life, early and late, at a work which was suited for him. He soon learnt not to swear and rage, for his men would not stand it; and not to get drunk, for his messmates would not stand it. He got into better society and better health than he ever had had before. With new self-discipline has come new self-respect; and he tells his wife frankly, that if he keeps straight henceforth, he has to thank for it his six months at Aldershott.
When you meet Mary in heaven, you can ask her there.
But Frank's desire, that Grace should become his schoolmistress once more, is not fulfilled.
How she worked at Scutari and at Balaklava, there is no need to tell. Why mark her out from the rest, when all did more than nobly? The lesson which she needed was not that which hospitals could teach; she had learnt that already. It was a deeper and more dreadful lesson still. She had set her heart on finding Tom; on righting him, on righting herself. She had to learn to be content not to find him; not to right him, not to right herself.
And she learnt it. Tearless, uncomplaining, she "trusted in God, and made no haste." She did her work, and read her Bible; and read too, again and again, at stolen moments of rest, a book which some one lent her, and which was to her as the finding of an unknown sister— Longfellow's Evangeline. She was Evangeline; seeking as she sought, perhaps to find as she found—No! merciful God! Not so! yet better so than not at all. And often and often, when a new freight of agony was landed, she looked round from bed to bed, if his face too, might be there. And once, at Balaklava, she knew she saw him: but not on a sick bed.
Standing beneath the window, chatting merrily with a group of officers— It was he! Could she mistake that figure, though the face was turned away? Her head swam, her pulses beat like church bells, her eyes were ready to burst from their sockets. But—she was assisting at an operation. It was God's will, and she must endure.
When the operation was over, she darted wildly down the stairs without a word.
He was gone.
Without a word she came back to her work, and possessed her soul in patience.
Inquiries, indeed, she made, as she had a right to do; but no one knew the name. She questioned, and caused to be questioned, men from Varna, from Sevastopol, from Kerteh, from the Circassian coast; English, French, and Sardinian, Pole and Turk. No one had ever heard the name. She even found at last, and questioned, one of the officers who had formed that group beneath the window.
"Oh! that man? He was a Pole, Michaelowyzcki, or some such name. At least, so he said; but he suspected the man to be really a Russian spy."
Grace knew that it was Tom: but she went back to her work again, and in due time went home to England.
Home, but not to Aberalva. She presented herself one day at Mark Armsworth's house in Whitbury, and humbly begged him to obtain her a place as servant to old Dr. Thurnall. What her purpose was therein she did not explain; perhaps she hardly knew herself.
Jane, the old servant who had clung to the doctor through his reverses, was growing old and feeble, and was all the more jealous of an intruder: but Grace disarmed her.
"I do not want to interfere; I will be under your orders. I will be kitchen-maid—maid-of-all-work. I want no wages. I have brought home a little money with me; enough to last me for the little while I shall be here."
And, by the help of Mark and Mary, she took up her abode in the old man's house; and ere a month was past she was to him as a daughter.
Perhaps she had told him all. At least, there was some deep and pure confidence between them; and yet one which, so perfect was Grace's humility, did not make old Jane jealous. Grace cooked, swept, washed, went to and fro as Jane bade her; submitted to all her grumblings and tossings; and then came at the old man's bidding to read to him every evening, her hand in his; her voice cheerful, her face full of quiet light. But her hair was becoming streaked with gray. Her face, howsoever gentle, was sharpened, as if with continual pain. No wonder; for she had worn that belt next her heart for now two years and more, till it had almost eaten into the heart above which it lay. It gave her perpetual pain: and yet that pain was a perpetual joy—a perpetual remembrance of him, and of that walk with him from Tolchard's farm.
Mary loved her—wanted to treat her as an equal—to call her sister: but Grace drew back lovingly, but humbly, from all advances; for she had divined Mary's secret with the quick eye of woman; she saw how Mary grew daily paler, thinner, sadder, and knew for whom she mourned. Be it so; Mary had a right to him, and she had none.
* * * * *
And where was Tom Thurnall all the while?
No man could tell.
Mark inquired; Lord Minchampstead inquired; great personages who had need of him at home and abroad inquired: but all in vain.
A few knew, and told Lord Minchampstead, who told Mark, in confidence, that he had been heard of last in the Circassian mountains, about Christmas, 1854: but since then all was blank. He had vanished into the infinite unknown.
Mark swore that he would come home some day: but two full years were past, and Tom came not.
The old man never seemed to regret him; never mentioned his name after a while.
"Mark," he said once, "remember David. Why weep for the child? I shall go to him, but he will not come to me."
None knew, meanwhile, why the old man needed not to talk of Tom to his friends and neighbours; it was because he and Grace never talked of anything else.
* * * * *
So they had lived, and so they had waited, till that week before last Christmas-day, when Mellot and Stangrave made their appearance in Whitbury, and became Mark Armsworth's guests.
The week slipped on. Stangrave hunted on alternate days; and on the others went with Claude, who photographed (when there was sun to do it with) Stangrave End, and Whitford Priory, interiors and exteriors; not forgetting the Stangrave monuments in Whitbury church; and sat, too, for many a pleasant hour with the good Doctor, who took to him at once, as all men did. It seemed to give fresh life to the old man to listen to Tom's dearest friend. To him, as to Grace, he could talk openly about the lost son, and live upon the memory of his prowess and his virtues; and ere the week was out, the Doctor, and Grace too, had heard a hundred gallant feats, to tell all which would add another volume to this book.
And Grace stood silently by the old man's chair, and drank all in without a smile, without a sigh, but not without full many a prayer.
It is the blessed Christmas Eve; the light is failing fast; when down the high street comes the mighty Roman-nosed rat-tail which carries Mark's portly bulk, and by him Stangrave, on a right good horse.
They shog on side by side—not home, but to the Doctor's house. For every hunting evening Mark's groom meets him at the Doctor's door to lead the horses home, while he, before he will take his bath and dress, brings to his blind friend the gossip of the field, and details to him every joke, fence, find, kill, hap and mishap of the last six hours.
The old man, meanwhile, is sitting quietly, with Claude by him, talking —as Claude can talk. They are not speaking of Tom just now: but the eloquent artist's conversation suits well enough the temper of the good old man, yearning after fresh knowledge, even on the brink of the grave; but too feeble now, in body and in mind, to do more than listen. Claude is telling him about the late Photographic Exhibition; and the old man listens with a triumphant smile to wonders which he will never behold with mortal eyes. At last,—
"This is very pleasant—to feel surer and surer, day by day, that one is not needed; that science moves forward swift and sure, under a higher guidance than one's own; that the sacred torch-race never can stand still; that He has taken the lamp out of old and failing hands, only to put it into young and brave ones, who will not falter till they reach the goal."
Then he lies back again, with closed eyes, waiting for more facts from Claude.
"How beautiful!" says Claude—"I must compliment you, sir—to see the child-like heart thus still beating fresh beneath the honours of the grey head, without envy, without vanity, without ambition, welcoming every new discovery, rejoicing to see the young outstripping them."
"And what credit, sir, to us? Our knowledge did not belong to us, but to Him who made us, and the universe; and our sons' belonged to Him likewise. If they be wiser than their teachers, it is only because they, like their teachers, have made His testimonies their study. When we rejoice in the progress of science, we rejoice not in ourselves, not in our children, but in God our Instructor."
And all the while, hidden in the gloom behind, stands Grace, her arms folded over her bosom, watching every movement of the old man; and listening, too, to every word. She can understand but little of it: but she loves to hear it, for it reminds her of Tom Thurnall. Above all she loves to hear about the microscope, a mystery inseparable in her thoughts from him who first showed her its wonders.
At last the old man speaks again:—
"Ah! How delighted my boy will be when he returns, to find that so much has been done during his absence."
Claude is silent awhile, startled.
"You are surprised to hear me speak so confidently? Well, I can only speak as I feel. I have had, for some days past, a presentiment—you will think me, doubtless, weak for yielding to it. I am not superstitious."
"Not so," said Claude, "but I cannot deny that such things as presentiments may be possible. However miraculous they may seem, are they so very much more so than the daily fact of memory? I can as little guess why we can remember the past as why we may not, at times, be able to foresee the future."
"True. You speak, if not like a physician, yet like a metaphysician; so you will not laugh at me, and compel the weak old man and his fancy to take refuge with a girl—who is not weak.—Grace, darling, you think still that he is coming?"
She came forward and leaned over him.
"Yes," she half whispered. "He is coming soon to us: or else we are soon going to him. It may mean that, sir. Perhaps it is better that it should."
"It matters little, child, if he be near, as near he is. I tell you, Mr. Mellot, this conviction has become so intense during the last week, that—that I believe I should not be thrown off my balance if he entered at this moment.... I feel him so near me, sir, that—that I could swear, did I not know how the weak brain imitates expected sounds, that I heard his footstep outside now."
"I heard horses' footsteps," says Claude.—"Ah, there comes Stangrave and our host."
"I heard them: but I heard my boy's likewise," said the old man quietly.
The next minute he seemed to have forgotten the fancy, as the two hunters entered, and Mark began open-mouthed as usual—
"Well, Ned! In good company, eh? That's right. Mortal cold I am! We shall have a white Christmas, I expect. Snow's coming."
"What sport?" asked the doctor blandly.
"Oh! Nothing new. Bothered about Sidricstone till one. Got away at last with an old fox, and over the downs into the vale. I think Mr. Stangrave liked it?"
"Mr. Stangrave likes the vale better than the vale likes him. I have fallen into two brooks following, Claude; to the delight of all the desperate Englishmen."
"Oh! You rode straight enough, sir! You must pay for your fun in the vale:—but then you have your fun. But there were a good many falls the last ton minutes: ground heavy, and pace awful; old rat-tail had enough to do to hold his own. Saw one fellow ride bang into a pollard-willow, when there was an open gate close to him—cut his cheek open, and lay; but some one said it was only Smith of Ewebury, so I rode on."
"I hope you English showed more pity to your wounded friends in the Crimea," quoth Stangrave, laughing, "I wanted to stop and pick him up: but Mr. Armsworth would not hear of it."
"Oh, sir, if it had been a stranger like you, half the field would have been round you in a minute: but Smith don't count—he breaks his neck on purpose three days a week:—by the by, Doctor, got a good story of him for you. Suspected his keepers last month. Slips out of bed at two in the morning; into his own covers, and blazes away for an hour. Nobody comes. Home to bed, and tries the same thing next night. Not a soul comes near him. Next morning has up keepers, watchers, beaters, the whole posse; and 'Now, you rascals! I've been poaching my own covers two nights running, and you've been all drunk in bed. There are your wages to the last penny; and vanish! I'll be my own keeper henceforth; and never let me see your faces again!"
The old Doctor laughed cheerily. "Well: but did you kill your fox?"
"All right: but it was a burster,—just what I always tell Mr. Stangrave. Afternoon runs are good runs; pretty sure of an empty fox and a good scent after one o'clock."
"Exactly," answered a fresh voice from behind; "and fox-hunting is an epitome of human life. You chop or lose your first two or three: but keep up your pluck, and you'll run into one before sun-down; and I seem to have run into a whole earthful!"
All looked round; for all knew that voice.
Yes! There he was, in bodily flesh and blood; thin, sallow, bearded to the eyes, dressed in ragged sailor's clothes: but Tom himself.
Grace uttered a long, low, soft, half-laughing cry, full of the delicious agony of sudden relief; a cry as of a mother when her child is born; and then slipped from the room past the unheeding Tom, who had no eyes but for his father. Straight up to the old man he went, took both his hands, and spoke in the old cheerful voice,—
"Well, my dear old daddy! So you seem to have expected me; and gathered, I suppose, all my friends to bid me welcome. I'm afraid I have made you very anxious: but it was not my fault; and I knew you would be certain I should come at last, eh?"
"My son! my son! Let me feel whether thou be my very son Esau or not!" murmured the old man, finding half-playful expression in the words of Scripture, for feelings beyond his failing powers.
Tom knelt down: and the old man passed his hands in silence over and over the forehead, and face, and beard; while all stood silent.
Mark Armsworth burst out blubbering like a great boy:
"I said so! I always said so! The devil could not kill him, and God wouldn't!"
"You won't go away again, dear boy? I'm getting old—and—and forgetful; and I don't think I could bear it again, you see."
Tom saw that the old man's powers were failing. "Never again, as long as I live, daddy!" said he, and then, looking round,—"I think that we are too many for my father. I will come and shake hands with you all presently."
"No, no," said the Doctor. "You forget that I cannot see you, and so must only listen to you. It will be a delight to hear your voice and theirs;—they all love you."
A few moments of breathless congratulation followed, during which Mark had seized Tom by both his shoulders, and held him admiringly at arm's length.
"Look at him, Mr. Mellot! Mr. Stangrave! Look at him! As they said of Liberty Wilkes, you might rob him, strip him, and hit him over London Bridge: and you find him the next day in the same place, with a laced coat, a sword by his side, and money in his pocket! But how did you come in without our knowing?"
"I waited outside, afraid of what I might hear—for how could I tell!" said he, lowering his voice; "but when I saw you go in, I knew all was right, and followed you; and when I heard my father laugh, I knew that he could bear a little surprise. But, Stangrave, did you say? Ah! this is too delightful, old fellow! How's Marie and the children?"
Stangrave, who was very uncertain as to how Tom would receive him, had been about to make his amende honorable in a fashion graceful, magnificent, and, as he expressed it afterwards laughingly to Thurnall himself, "altogether highfalutin:" but what chivalrous and courtly words had arranged themselves upon the tip of his tongue, were so utterly upset by Tom's matter-of-fact bonhomie, and by the cool way in which he took for granted the fact of his marriage, that he burst out laughing, and caught both Tom's hands in his.
"It is delightful; and all it needs to make it perfect is to have Marie and the children here."
"How many?" asked Tom.
"Is she as beautiful as ever!"
"More so, I think."
"I dare say you're right; you ought to know best, certainly."
"You shall judge for yourself. She is in London at this moment."
"Tom!" says his father, who has been sitting quietly, his face covered in his handkerchief, listening to all, while holy tears of gratitude steal down his face.
"You have not spoken to Grace yet!"
"Grace?" cries Tom, in a very different tone from that in which he had yet spoken.
"Grace Harvey, my boy. She was in the room when you came in."
"Grace? Grace? What is she doing here?"
"Nursing him, like an angel as she is!" said Mark.
"She is my daughter now, Tom; and has been these twelve months past."
Tom was silent, as one astonished.
"If she is not, she will be soon," said he quietly, between his clenched teeth. "Gentlemen, if you'll excuse me for five minutes, and see to my father:"—and he walked straight out of the room, closing the door behind him—to find Grace waiting in the passage.
She was trembling from head to foot, stepping to and fro, her hands and face all but convulsed; her left hand over her bosom, clutching at her dress, which seemed to have been just disarranged; her right drawn back, holding something; her lips parted, struggling to speak; her great eyes opened to preternatural wideness, fixed on him with an intensity of eagerness;—was she mad?
At last words bubbled forth: "There! there! There it is!—the belt!— your belt! Take it! take it, I say!"
He stood silent and wondering; she thrust it into his hand.
"Take it! I have carried it for you—worn it next my heart, till it has all but eaten into my heart. To Varna, and you were not there!—Scutari, Balaklava, and you were not there!—I found it, only a week after!—I told you I should! and you were gone!—Cruel, not to wait! And Mr. Armsworth has the money—every farthing—and the gold:—he has had it these two years!—I would give you the belt myself; and now I have done it, and the snake is unclasped from my heart at last, at last, at last!"
Her arms dropped by her side, and she burst into an agony of tears.
Tom caught her in his arms: but she put him back, and looked up in his face again.
"Promise me!" she said, in a low clear voice; "promise me this one thing only, as you are a gentleman; as you have a man's pity, a man's gratitude in you"
"Promise me that you will never ask, or seek to know, who had that belt."
"I promise: but, Grace!—"
"Then my work is over," said she in a calm collected voice. "Amen. So lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace. Good-bye, Mr. Thurnall. I must go and pack up my few things now. You will forgive and forget?"
"Grace!" cried Tom; "stay!" and he girdled her in a grasp of iron. "You and I never part more in this life, perhaps not in all lives to come!"
"Me? I?—let me go! I am not worthy of you!"
"I have heard that once already;—the only folly which ever came out of those sweet lips. No! Grace, I love you, as man can love but once; and you shall not refuse me! You will not have the heart, Grace! You will not dare, Grace! For you have begun the work; and you must finish it."
"Work? What work?"
"I don't know," said Tom. "How should I? I want you to tell me that."
She looked up in his face, puzzled. His old self-confident look seemed strangely past away.
"I will tell you" he said, "because I love you. I don't like to show it to them; but I've been frightened, Grace, for the first time in my life."
She paused for an explanation; but she did not straggle to escape from him.
"Frightened; beat; run to earth myself, though I talked so bravely of running others to earth just now. Grace, I've been in prison!"
"In prison? In a Russian prison? Oh, Mr. Thurnall!"
"Ay, Grace, I'd tried everything but that; and I could not stand it. Death was a joke to that. Not to be able to get out!—To rage up and down for hours like a wild beast; long to fly at one's gaoler and tear his heart out;—beat one's head against the wall in the hope of knocking one's brains out;—anything to get rid of that horrid notion, night and day over one—I can't get out!"
Grace had never seen him so excited.
"But you are safe now," said she soothingly. "Oh, those horrid Russians!"
"But it was not Russians!—If it had been, I could have borne it.—That was all in my bargain,—the fair chance of war: but to be shut up by a mistake!—at the very outset, too—by a boorish villain of a khan, on a drunken suspicion;—a fellow whom I was trying to serve, and who couldn't, or wouldn't, or daren't understand me—Oh, Grace, I was caught in my own trap! I went out full blown with self-conceit. Never was any one so cunning as I was to be!—Such a game as I was going to play, and make my fortune by it!—And this brute to stop me short—to make a fool of me—to keep me there eighteen months threatening to cut my head off once a quarter, and wouldn't understand me, let me talk with the tongue of the old serpent!"
"He didn't stop you: God stopped you!"
"You're right, Grace; I saw that at last! I found out that I had been trying for years which was the stronger, God or I; I found out I had been trying whether I could not do well enough without Him: and there I found that I could not, Grace;—could not! I felt like a child who had marched off from home, fancying it can find its way, and is lost at once. I felt like a lost child in Australia once, for one moment: but not as I felt in that prison; for I had not heard you, Grace, then. I did not know that I had a Father in heaven, who had been looking after me, when I fancied that I was looking after myself;—I don't half believe it now—If I did, I should not have lost my nerve as I have done!—Grace, I dare hardly stir about now, lest some harm should come to me. I fancy at every turn, what if that chimney fell? what if that horse kicked out?—and, Grace, you, and you only, can cure me of my new cowardice. I said in that prison, and all the way home,—if I can but find her!—let me but see her—ask her—let her teach me; and I shall be sure! Let her teach me, and I shall be brave again! Teach me, Grace! and forgive me!"
Grace was looking at him with her great soft eyes opening slowly, like a startled hind's, as if the wonder and delight were too great to be taken in at once. The last words unlocked her lips.
"Forgive you? What! Do you forgive me?"
"You? It is I am the brute; ever to have suspected you. My conscience told me all along I was a brute! And you—have you not proved it to me in this last minute, Grace?—proved to me that I am not worthy to kiss the dust from off your feet?"
Grace lay silent in his arms: but her eyes were fixed upon him; her hands were folded on her bosom; her lips moved as if in prayer.
He put back her long tresses tenderly, and looked into her deep glorious eyes.
"There! I have told you all. Will you forgive my baseness; and take me, and teach me, about this Father in heaven, through poverty and wealth, for better, for worse, as my wife—my wife?"
She leapt up at him suddenly, as if waking from a dream, and wreathed her arms about his neck.
"Oh, Mr. Thurnall! my dear, brave, wise, wonderful Mr. Thurnall! come home again!—home to God!—and home to me! I am not worthy! Too much happiness, too much, too much:—but you will forgive, will you not,—and forget—forget?"
And so the old heart passed away from Thomas Thurnall: and instead of it grew up a heart like his father's; even the heart of a little child.