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A YEAR AND A HALF AFTERWARDS.
It is sunset after a fine day in August, and Mr. Blyth is enjoying the evening breeze in the invalid room.
Besides the painter and his wife, and Madonna, two visitors are present, who occupy both the spare beds in the house. One is Mrs. Thorpe, the other Mrs. Peckover; and they have been asked to become Valentine's guests, to assist at the joyful ceremony of welcoming Zack to England on his return from the wilds of America. He has outstayed his year's leave of absence by nearly six months; and his appearance at Mr. Blyth's has become an event of daily, or more properly, of hourly expectation.
There is a sad and significant change in Mrs. Thorpe's dress. She wears the widow's cap and weeds. It is nearly seven months since her husband died, in the remote Welsh village to which he retired on leaving London. With him, as with many other confirmed invalids, Nature drooped to her final decay gradually and wearily; but his death was painless, and his mental powers remained unimpaired to the end. One of the last names that lingered lovingly on his lips--after he had bade his wife farewell--was the name of his absent son.
Mrs. Thorpe sits close to Mrs. Blyth, and talks to her in low, gentle tones. The kind black eyes of the painter's wife are brighter than they have been for many a long year past, and the clear tones of her voice--cheerful always--have a joyous sound in them now. Ever since the first days of the Spring season, she has been gaining so greatly in health and strength, that the "favorable turn" has taken place in her malady, which was spoken of as "possible" by the doctors long ago, at the time of her first sufferings. She has several times, for the last fortnight, been moved from her couch for a few hours to a comfortable seat near the window; and if the fine weather still continues, she is to be taken out, in a day or two, for an airing in an invalid chair.
The prospect of this happy event, and the pleasant expectation of Zack's return, have made Valentine more gaily talkative and more nimbly restless than ever. As he skips discursively about the room at this moment, talking of all sorts of subjects, and managing to mix Art up with every one of them; dressed in the old jaunty frock-coat with the short tails, he looks, if possible, younger, plumper, rosier, and brisker than when he was first introduced to the reader. It is wonderful when people are really youthful at heart, to see how easily the Girdle of Venus fits them, and how long they contrive to keep it on, without ever wearing it out.
Mrs. Peckover, arrived in festively-flaring cap-ribbons, sits close to the window to get all the air she can, and tries to make more of it by fanning herself with the invariable red cotton pocket-handkerchief to which she has been all her life attached. In bodily circumference she has not lost an inch of rotundity; suffers, in consequence, considerably, from the heat; and talks to Mr. Blyth with parenthetical pantings, which reflect little credit on the cooling influence of the breeze, or the ventilating properties of the pocket-handkerchief fan.
Madonna sits opposite to her at the window--as cool and pretty a contrast as can be imagined, in her white muslin dress, and light rose-coloured ribbons. She is looking at Mrs. Peckover, and smiling every now and then at the comically languishing faces made by that excellent woman, to express to "little Mary" the extremity of her sufferings from the heat. The whole length of the window-sill is occupied by an AEolian harp--one of the many presents which Valentine's portrait painting expeditions have enabled him to offer to his wife. Madonna's hand is resting lightly on the box of the harp; for by touching it in this way, she becomes sensible to the influence of its louder and higher notes when the rising breeze draws them out. This is the only pleasure she can derive from music; and it is always, during the summer and autumn evenings, one of the amusements that she enjoys in Mrs. Blyth's room.
Mrs. Thorpe, in the course of her conversation with Mrs. Blyth, has been reminded of a letter to one of her sisters, which she has not yet completed, and goes to her own room to finish it--Valentine running to open the door for her, with the nimblest juvenile gallantry, then returning to the window and addressing Mrs. Peckover.
"Hot as ever, eh? Shall I get you one of Lavvie's fans?" says Mr. Blyth.
"No, thank'ee, sir; I ain't quite melted yet," answers Mrs. Peckover. "But I'll tell you what I wish you would do for me. I wish you would read me Master Zack's last letter. You promised, you know, sir."
"And I would have performed my promise before, Mrs. Peckover, if Mrs. Thorpe had not been in the room. There are passages in the letter, which it might revive very painful remembrances in her to hear. Now she has left us, I have not the least objection to read, if you are ready to listen."
Saying this, Valentine takes a letter from his pocket. Madonna recognizing it, asks by a sign if she may look over his shoulder and read it for the second time. The request is granted immediately. Mr. Blyth makes her sit on his knee, puts his arm round her waist, and begins to read aloud as follows:
"My Dear Valentine,
Although I am writing to you to announce my return, I cannot say that I take up my pen in good spirits. It is not so long since I picked up my last letters from England that told me of my father's death. But besides that, I have had a heavy trial to bear, in hearing the dreadful secret, which you all kept from me when it was discovered; and afterwards in parting from Matthew Grice.
"What I felt when I knew the secret, and heard why Mat and all of you had kept it from me, I may be able to tell you--but I cannot and dare not write about it. You may be interested to hear how my parting with Matthew happened; and I will relate it to you, as well as I can.
"You know, from my other letters, all the glorious hunting and riding we have had, and the thousands of miles of country we have been over, and the wonderful places we have seen. Well, Bahia (the place I now write from) has been the end of our travels. It was here I told Mat of my father's death; and he directly agreed with me that it was my duty to go home, and comfort my poor dear mother, by the first ship that sailed for England. After we had settled that, he said he had something serious to tell me, and asked me to go with him, northward, half a day's march along the seacoast; saying we could talk together quietly as we went along. I saw that he had got his rifle over his shoulder, and his baggage at his back; and thought it odd--but he stopped me from asking any questions, by telling me from beginning to end, all that you and he knew about my father, before we left England. I was at first so shocked and amazed by what I heard, and then had so much to say to him about it, that our half day's march, by the time we had got to the end of it, seemed to me to have hardly lasted as long as an hour.
"He stopped, though, at the place he had fixed on; and held out his hand to me, and said these words: 'I've done my duty by you, Zack, as brother should by brother. The time's come at last for us two to say Good-bye. You're going back over the sea to your friends, and I'm going inland by myself on the tramp.' I had heard him talk of our parting in this way before, but had never thought it would really take place; and I tried hard, as you may imagine, to make him change his mind, and sail for England with me. But it was useless.
"'No, Zack,' he said, 'I doubt if I'm fit for the life you're going back to lead. I've given it a trial, and a hard and bitter one it's been to me. I began life on the tramp; and on the tramp I shall end it. Good-bye, Zack. I shall think of you, when I light my fire and cook my bit of victuals without you, in the lonesome places to-night.'
"I tried to control myself, Valentine; but my eyes got dim, and I caught fast hold of him by the arm. 'Mat,' I said, 'I can't part with you in this dreary, hopeless way. Don't shut the future up from both of us for ever. We have been eighteen months together, let another year and-a-half pass if you like; and then give yourself; and give me, another chance. Say you'll meet me, when that time is past, in New York; or say at least, you'll let me hear where you are?' His face worked and quivered, and he only shook his head. 'Come, Mat,' I said, as cheerfully as I could, 'if I am ready to cross the sea again, for your sake, you can't refuse to do what I ask you, for mine?' 'Will it make the parting easier to you, my lad?' he asked kindly. 'Yes, indeed it will,' I answered. 'Well, then, Zack,' he said, 'you shall have your way. Don't let's say no more, now. Come, let's cut it as short as we can, or we shan't part as men should. God bless you, lad, and all of them you're going back to see.' Those were his last words.
"After he had walked a few yards inland, he turned round and waved his hand--then went on, and never turned again. I sat down on the sand-hillock where we had said Good-bye, and burst out crying. What with the dreadful secret he had been telling me as we came along, and then the parting when I didn't expect it, all I had of the man about me gave way somehow in a moment. And I sat alone, crying and sobbing on the sand-hillock, with the surf roaring miles out at sea behind me, and the great plain before, with Matthew walking over it alone on his way to the mountains beyond.
"When I had had time to get ashamed of myself for crying, and had got my eyesight clear again, he was already far away from me. I ran to the top of the highest hillock, and watched him over the plain--a desert, without a shrub to break the miles and miles of flat ground spreading away to the mountains. I watched him, as he got smaller and smaller--I watched till he got a mere black speck--till I was doubtful whether I still saw him or not--till I was certain at last, that the great vacancy of the plain had swallowed him up from sight.
"My heart was very heavy, Valentine, as I went back to the town by myself. It is sometimes heavy still; for though I think much of my mother, and of my sister--whom you have been so kind a father to, and whose affection it is such a new happiness to me to have the prospect of soon returning--I think occasionally of dear old Mat, too, and have my melancholy moments when I remember that he and I are not going back together.
"I hope you will think me improved by my long trip--I mean in behavior, as well as health. I have seen much, and learnt much, and thought much--and I hope I have really profited and altered for the better during my absence. It is such a pleasure to think I am really going home--"
Here Mr. Blyth stops abruptly and closes the letter, for Mrs. Thorpe re-enters the room. "The rest is only about when he expects to be back," whispers Valentine to Mrs. Peckover. "By my calculations," he continues, raising his voice and turning towards Mrs. Thorpe; "by my calculations (which, not having a mathematical head, I don't boast of, mind, as being infallibly correct), Zack is likely, I should say, to be here in about--"
"Hush! hush! hush!" cries Mrs. Peckover, jumping up with incredible agility at the window, and clapping her hands in a violent state of excitement. "Don't talk about when he will be here--here he is! He's come in a cab--he's got out into the garden--he sees me. Welcome back, Master Zack, welcome back! Hooray! hooray!" Here Mrs. Peckover forgets her company-manners, and waves the red cotton handkerchief out of the window in an irrepressible burst of triumph.
Zack's hearty laugh is heard outside--then his quick step on the stairs--then the door opens, and he comes in with his beaming sunburnt face healthier and heartier than ever. His first embrace is for his mother, his second for Madonna; and, after he has greeted every one else cordially, he goes back to those two, and Mr. Blyth is glad to see that he sits down between them and takes their hands gently and affectionately in his.
Matthew Grice is in all their memories, when the first greetings are over. Valentine and Madonna look at each other--and the girl's fingers sign hesitatingly the letters of Matthew's name.
"She is thinking of the comrade you have lost," says the painter, addressing himself, a little sadly, to Zack.
"The only living soul that's kin to her now by her mother's side," adds Mrs. Peckover. "It's like her pretty ways to be thinking of him kindly, for her mother's sake."
"Are you really determined, Zack, to take that second voyage?" asks Valentine. "Are you determined to go back to America, on the one faint chance of seeing Mat once more?"
"If I am a living man, eighteen months hence," Zack answers resolutely, "nothing shall prevent my taking the voyage. Matthew Grice loved me like a brother. And, like a brother, I will yet bring him back--if he lives to keep his promise and meet me, when the time comes."
* * * * * * *
The time came; and on either side, the two comrades of former days--in years so far apart, in sympathies so close together--lived to look each other in the face again. The solitude which had once hardened Matthew Grice, had wrought on him, in his riper age, to better and higher ends. In all his later roamings, the tie which had bound him to those sacred human interests in which we live and move and have our being--the tie which he himself believed that he had broken--held fast to him still. His grim, scarred face softened, his heavy hand trembled in the friendly grasp that held it, as Zack pleaded with him once more; and, this time, pleaded not in vain.
"I've never been my own man again" said Mat, "since you and me wished each other good-bye on the sandhills. The lonesome places have got strange to me--and my rifle's heavier in hand than ever I knew it before. There's some part of myself that seems left behind like, between Mary's grave and Mary's child. Must I cross the seas again to find it? Give us hold of your hand, Zack--and take the leavings of me back, along with you."
So the noble nature of the man unconsciously asserted itself in his simple words. So the two returned to the old land together. The first kiss with which his dead sister's child welcomed him back, cooled the Tramp's Fever for ever; and the Man of many Wanderings rested at last among the friends who loved him, to wander no more.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
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