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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWeighed And Wanting - Chapter 29. A Brave Act
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Weighed And Wanting - Chapter 29. A Brave Act Post by :voltaire11 Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :2946

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Weighed And Wanting - Chapter 29. A Brave Act

CHAPTER XXIX. A BRAVE ACT

The major had indeed taken a strong fancy to Hester, and during the whole of his visit kept as near her as he could, much to the annoyance of Vavasor. Doubtless it was in part to keep the other from her that he himself sought her: the major did not take to Vavasor. There was a natural repulsion between them. Vavasor thought the major a most objectionable, indeed low fellow, full of brag and vulgarity, and the major thought Vavasor a supercilious idiot. It is curious how differently a man's character will be read by two people in the same company, but it is not hard to explain, seeing his carriage to the individual affects only the man who is the object of it, and is seldom observed by the other; like a man, and you will judge him with more or less fairness; dislike him, fairly or unfairly, and you cannot fail to judge him unjustly. All deference and humility towards Hester and her parents, Vavasor without ceasing for a moment to be conventionally polite, allowed major Marvel to see unmistakably that his society was not welcome to the man who sat opposite him. Entirely ignorant each of the other's pursuits, and nearly incapable of sympathy upon any point, each would have gladly shown the other to be the fool he counted him. Only the major, being the truer man, was able to judge the man of the world with a better gauge than he could apply in return. Each watched the other--the major annoyed with the other's silent pretension, and disgusted with his ignorance of everything in which he took an interest, and Vavasor regarding the major as a narrow-minded overgrown school-boy--though, in fact, his horizon was very much wider than his own--and disgusted with the vulgarity which made even those who knew his worth a little anxious every time he opened his mouth. He did not offend very often, but one never knew when he might not. The offence never hurt, only rendered the sensitive, and others for their sakes, uncomfortable.

After breakfast the next day, they all but Mr. Raymount went out for a little walk together.

It seemed destined to be a morning of small adventures. As they passed the gate of the Home Farm, out rushed, all of a sudden, a half-grown pig right between the well-parted legs of the major, with the awkward consequence that he was thrown backwards, and fell into a place which, if he had had any choice, he certainly would not have chosen for the purpose. A look of keen gratification rose in Vavasor's face, but was immediately remanded; he was much too well-bred to allow it to remain. With stony countenance he proceeded to offer assistance to the fallen hero, who, however, heavy as he was, did not require it, but got cleverly on his feet again with a cheerfulness which discomfited discomfiture, and showed either a sweetness or a command of temper which gave him a great lift in the estimation of Hester.

"Confound the brute!" he said, laughing. "He can't know how many of his wild relatives I have stuck, else I should set it down to revenge. What a mess he has made of me! I shall have to throw myself in the river, like a Hindoo, for purification. It's a good thing I've got some more clothes in my portmanteau."

Saffy laughed right merrily over his fall and the fun he made of it; but Mark looked concerned. He ran and pulled some grass and proceeded to rub the Major down.

"Let us go into the farmhouse," said Mrs. Raymount. "Mrs. Stokes will give us some assistance."

"No, no," returned the major. "Better let the mud dry, it will come off much better then. A hyena once served me the same. I didn't mind that, though all the fellows cracked their waistbands laughing at me. Why shouldn't piggy have his fun as well as another--eh, Mark? Come along. You sha'n't have your walk spoiled by my heedllessness."

"The pig didn't mean it, sir," said Mark. "He only wanted to get out."

But there seemed to be more creatures about the place that wanted to get out. A spirit of liberty was abroad. Mark and Saffy went rushing away like wild rabbits every now and then, making a round and returning, children once more. It was one of those cooler of warm mornings that rouse all the life in heart, brain and nerves, making every breath a pleasure, and every movement a consciousness.

They had not gone much farther, when, just as they approached the paling of a paddock, a horse which had been turned in to graze, came blundering over the fence, and would presently have been ranging the world. Unaccustomed to horses, except when equipped and held ready by the hand of a groom, the ladies and children started and drew back. Vavasor also stepped a little aside, making way for the animal to follow his own will. But as he lighted from his jump, carrying with him the top bar of the fence, he stumbled, and almost fell, and while yet a little bewildered, the major went up to him, and ere he could recover such wits as by nature belonged to him, had him by nose and ear, and leading him to the gap, made him jump in again, and replaced the bar he had knocked away.

"Mind we don't forget to mention it as we go back," he said to Mark.

"Thank you! How brave of you, major Marvel!" said Mrs. Raymount.

The Major laughed with his usual merriment.

"If it had been the horse of the Rajah of Rumtool," he said, "I should have been brave indeed only by this time there would have been nothing left of me to thank. A man would have needed courage to take him by the head! But a quiet good-tempered carriage-horse--none but a cockney would be frightened at him!"

With that he began and to the awful delight of the children, told them the most amazing and indeed horrible tales about the said horse. Whether it was all true or not I cannot tell; all I can say is that the major only told what he had heard and believed, or had himself seen.

Vavasor, annoyed at the involuntary and natural enough nervousness he had shown, for it was nothing more, turned his annoyance on the Major, who by such an insignificant display of coolness, had gained so great an advantage over him in the eyes of the ladies, and made up his opinion that in every word he said about the horse of the Rajah of Rumtool he was romancing--and that although there had been no slightest pretence to personal prowess in the narrative. Our judgment is always too much at the mercy of our likes and dislikes. He did indeed mention himself, but only to say that once in the street of a village he saw the horse at some distance with a child in his teeth shaking him like a terrier with a rat. He ran, he said, but was too far off. Ere he was half-way, the horse's groom, who was the only man with any power over the brute, had come up and secured him--though too late to save the child.

They were following the course of the river, and had gradually descended from the higher grounds to the immediate banks, which here spread out into a small meadow on each side. There were not now many flowers, but Saffy was pulling stalks of feathery-headed grasses, while Mark was walking quietly along by the brink of the stream, stopping every now and then to look into it. The bank was covered with long grass hanging over, here and there a bush of rushes amongst it, and in parts was a little undermined. On the opposite side lower down was a meal-mill, and nearly opposite, a little below, was the head of the mill-lade, whose weir, turning the water into it, clammed back the river, and made it deeper here than in any other part--some seven feet at least, and that close to the shore. It was still as a lake, and looked, as deep as it was. The spot was not a great way from the house, but beyond its grounds. The two ladies and two gentlemen were walking along the meadow, some distance behind the children, and a little way from the bank, when they were startled by a scream of agony from Saffy. She was running towards them-shrieking, and no Mark was to be seen. All started at speed to meet her, but presently Mrs. Raymount sank on the grass. Hester would have stayed with her, but she motioned her on.

Vavasor outran the major, and reached Saffy first, but to his anxious questions--"Where is he? Where did you leave him? Where did you see him last?" she answered only by shrieking with every particle of available breath. When the major came up, he heard enough to know that he must use his wits and lose no time in trying to draw information from a creature whom terror had made for the moment insane. He kept close to the bank, looking for some sign of the spot where he had fallen in.

He had indeed overrun the place, and was still intent on the bank when he heard a cry behind him. It was the voice of Hester, screaming "Across; Across!"

He looked across, and saw half-way over, slowly drifting towards the mill-lade, a something dark, now appearing for a little above the water, now sinking out of sight. The major's eye, experienced in every point of contact between man and nature, saw at once it must be the body, dead or alive--only he could hardly be dead yet--of poor Mark. He threw off his coat, and plunged in, found the water deep enough for good swimming, and made in the direction of the object he had seen. But it showed so little and so seldom, that fearing to miss it, he changed his plan, and made straight for the mouth of the mill-lade, anxious of all things to prevent him from getting down to the water-wheel.

In the meantime, Hester, followed by Vavasor, while Saffy ran to her mother, sped along the bank till she came to the weir, over which hardly any water was running. When Vavasor saw her turn sharp round and make for the weir, he would have prevented her, and laid his hand on her arm; but she turned on him with eyes that flashed, and lips which, notwithstanding her speed, were white as with the wrath that has no breath for words. He drew back and dared only follow. The footing was uncertain, with deep water on one side up to a level with the stones, and a steep descent to more deep water on the other. In one or two spots the water ran over, and those spots were slippery. But, rendered absolutely fearless by her terrible fear, Hester flew across without a slip, leaving Vavasor some little way behind, for he was neither very sure-footed nor very sure-headed.

But when they had run along the weir and landed, they were only on the slip between the lade and the river: the lade was between them and the other side--deep water therefore between them and the major, where already he was trying to heave the unconscious form of Mark on to the bank. The poor man had not swum so far for many years, and was nearly spent.

"Bring him here," cried Vavasor. "The stream is too strong for me to get to you. It will bring you in a moment."

The major muttered an oath, gave a great heave, got the body half on the shore, and was then just able to scramble out himself.

When Vavasor looked round, he saw Hester had left him, and was already almost at the mill. There she crossed the lade and turning ran up the other side, and was soon at the spot where the major was doing all he could to bring back life. But there was little hope out there in the cold. Hester caught the child up in her arms.

"Come; come!" she cried, and ran with him back to the mill. The major followed, running, panting, dripping. When they met Vavasor, he would have taken him from her, but she would not give him up.

"Go back to my mother," she said. "Tell her we have got him, and he is at the mill. Then go and tell my father, and ask him to send for the doctor."

Vavasor obeyed, feeling again a little small. But Hester had never thought that he might have acted at all differently; she never recalled even that he had tried to prevent her from crossing to the major's help. She thought only of Mark and her mother.

In a few minutes they had him in the miller's blankets, with hot water about him, while the major, who knew well what ought to be done, for he had been tried in almost every emergency under the sun, went through the various movements of the arms prescribed; inflated the chest again and again with his own breath, and did all he could to bring back the action of the breathing muscles.

Vavasor took upon him to assure Mrs. Raymount that Mark was safe and would be all right in a little while. She rose then, and with what help Saffy could give her, managed to walk home. But after that day she never was so well again. Vavasor ran on to the house. Mr. Raymount crossed the river by the bridge, and was soon on the spot--just as the first signs of returning animation appeared. His strength and coolness were a great comfort both to Hester and the major. The latter was the more anxious that he knew the danger of such a shock to a delicate child. After about half-an-hour, the boy opened his eyes, looked at his father, smiled in his own heavenly way, and closed them again with a deep sigh. They covered him up warm, and left him to sleep till the doctor should appear.

That same night, as Hester was sitting beside him, she heard him talking in his sleep:

"When may I go and play with the rest by the river? Oh, how sweetly it talks! it runs all through me and through me! It was such a nice way, God, of fetching me home! I rode home on a water-horse!"

He thought he was dead; that God had sent for him home; that he was now safe, only tired. It sent a pang to the heart of Hester. What if after all he was going to leave them! For the child had always seemed fitter for. Home than being thus abroad, and any day he might be sent for!

He recovered by degrees, but seemed very sleepy and tired; and when, two days after, he was taken home he only begged to go to bed. But he never fretted or complained, received every attention with a smile, and told his mother not to mind, for he was not going away yet. He had been told that under the water, he said.

Before winter, he was able to go about the house, and was reading all his favourite books over again, especially the Pilgrim's Progress, which he had already read through five times.

The major left Yrndale the next morning, saying now there was Mark to attend to, his room was better than his company. Vavasor would stay a day or two longer, he said, much relieved. He could not go until he saw Mark fairly started on the way of recovery.

But in reality the major went because he could no longer endure the sight of "that idiot," as he called Vavasor, and with design against him fermenting in his heart.

"The poltroon!" he said. "A fellow like that to marry a girl like cousin Helen's girl! A grand creature, by George! The grandest creature I ever saw in my life! Why, rather than wet his clothes the sneak would have let us both drown after I had got him to the bank! Calling to me to go to him, when I had done my best, and was at the last gasp!"

He was not fair to Vavasor; he never asked if he could swim. But indeed Vavasor could swim, well enough, only he did not see the necessity for it. He did not love his neighbor enough to grasp the facts of the case. And after all he could and did do without him!

The major hurried to London, assured he had but to inquire to find out enough and more than enough to his discredit, of the fellow.

He told them to tell Mark he was gone to fetch tiger-skins and a little idol with diamond eyes, and a lot of queer things that he had brought home; and he would tell him all about them, and let him have any of them he liked to keep for his own, as soon as he was well again. So he must make haste, for the moth would get at them if they were long lying about and not seen to.

He told Mr. Raymount that he had no end of business to look after; but now he knew the way to Yrndale, he might be back any day. As soon as Mark was well enough to be handed over to a male nurse he would come directly. He told Mrs. Raymount that he had got some pearls for her--he knew she was fond of pearls--and was going to fetch them.

For Hester he made her promise to write to him at the Army and Navy Club every day till Mark was well. And so he departed, much blessed of all the family for saving the life of their precious boy.

The major when he reached London hunted up some of his old friends, and through them sent out inquiry concerning Vavasor. He learned then some few things about him--nothing very bad as things went where everything was more or less bad, and nothing to his special credit. That he was heir to an earldom he liked least of all, for he was only the more likely to marry his beautiful cousin, and her he thought a great deal too good for him--which was truer than he knew.

Vavasor was relieved to find that Hester, while full of gratitude to the major, had no unfavourable impression concerning his own behaviour in the sad affair. As the days went on, however, and when he expected enthusiasm to have been toned down, he was annoyed to find that she was just as little impressed with the objectionable character of the man who by his unselfish decision, he called it his good luck, had got the start of him in rendering the family service. To himself he styled him "a beastly fellow, a lying braggart, a disgustingly vulgar ill-bred rascal." He would have called him an army-cad, only the word _cad was not then invented. If there were any more such relations likely to turn up, the sooner he cut the connection the better! But that Hester should not be shocked with him was almost more than he could bear; that was shocking indeed!

He could not understand that as to the pure all things are pure, so the common mind sees far more vulgarity in others than the mind developed in genuine refinement. It understands, therefore forgives, nor finds it hard. Hester was able to look deeper than he, and she saw much that was good and honourable in the man, however he might have the bridle of his tongue too loose for safe riding in the crowded paths of society. Vavasor took care, however, after hearing the first words of defence which some remark of his brought from Hester, not to go farther, and turned the thing he had said aside. Where was the use of quarrelling about a man he was never likely to set eyes on again?

A day or two before the natural end of his visit, as Mrs. Raymount, Hester and he were sitting together in the old-fashioned garden, the letters were brought them--one for Vavasor, with a great black seal. He read it through, and said quietly:

"I am sorry I must leave you to-morrow. Or is there not a train to-night? But I dare say it does not matter, only I ought to be present at the funeral of my uncle, Lord Gartley. He died yesterday, from what I can make out. It is a tiresome thing to succeed to a title with hardly property enough to pay the servants!"

"Very tiresome," assented Mrs. Raymount; "but a title is not like an illness. If you can live without, you can live with one."

"True; very true! But society, you see. There's so much expected of a man in my position! What do you think, Miss Raymount?" he asked, turning towards her with a look that seemed to say whatever she thought would always be law to him.

"I think with mamma," replied Hester. "I do not see why a mere name should have any power to alter one's mode of life. Of course if the change brings new duties, they must be attended to; but if the property be so small as you say, it cannot want much looking after. To be sure there are the people upon it, but they cannot be many. Why should you not go on as you are?"

"I must go a good deal by what my aunt thinks best. She has a sort of right, you see. All her life her one fixed idea, knowing I was likely to succeed, has been the rehabilitation of the earldom, and all her life she has been saving for that."

"Then she is going to make you her heir?" said Hester, who, having been asked her opinion, simply desired the grounds on which to give it.

"My dear Hester!" said her mother.

"I am only too much delighted Miss Raymount should care to ask me _any_thing," said Vavasor. "My aunt does mean to make me her heir, I believe, but one must not depend upon that, because, if I were to displease her, she might change her mind any moment. But she has been like a mother to me, and I do not think, for any small provocation such as I am likely to give her, she would yield the dream of her life. She is a kind-hearted woman, though a little peculiar; true as steel where she takes a fancy. I wish you knew my aunt, Mrs. Raymount."

"I should be much pleased to know her."

"She would be delighted with this lovely place of yours. It is a perfect paradise. I feel its loveliness the more that I am so soon to hear its gates close behind me. Happily there is no flaming sword to mount guard against the expelled!"

"You must bring your aunt some time, Mr. Vavasor. We should make her very welcome," said Mrs. Raymount.

"Unfortunately, with all her good qualities, my aunt, as I have said, is a little peculiar. For one thing she shrinks from making new acquaintances."

He should have said--any acquaintances out of her own world. All others, so far as she was concerned, existed only on the sufferance of remoteness.

But by this time Vavasor had resolved to make an attempt to gain his aunt, and so Hester. He felt sure his aunt could not fail to be taken with Hester if only she saw her in fit surroundings: with her the frame was more than half the picture. He was glad now that she had not consented to call on the family in Addison Square: they would be of so much more importance in her eyes in the setting of Yrndale. He had himself also the advantage of being now of greater importance, the title being no longer in prospect but in possession: he was that Earl of Gartley for whom she had been saving all the time he was merely the heir, who might die, or be kept waiting twenty years for the succession. She must either be of one mind with him now, or lose the cherished purpose of so many years. If he stood out, seeming to prefer poverty and the woman of his choice, she would be compelled to give in.

That same evening he left them in high spirits, and without any pretence of decent regret for the death of one whom he had never seen, and who had for many years lived the life of an invalid and a poor man--neither of much account in his world.

He left behind him one child--a lovely but delicate girl, of whom no one seemed to think in the change that had arrived.

It would be untrue to say that Hester was not interested in the news. They had been so much thrown together of late, and in circumstances so favourable to intimacy, to the manifestation of what of lovable was in him, and to the revelation of how much her image possessed him, that she could hardly have been a woman at all and not care for what might befall him. Neither, although her life lay, and she felt that it lay, in far other regions, was she so much more than her mother absorbed in the best, as to be indifferent to the pleasure of wearing a distinguished historical name, or of occupying an exalted position in the eyes of the world. Her nature was not yet so thoroughly possessed with the things that _are as distinguished from the things that only appear, as not to feel some pleasure in being a countess of this world, while waiting the inheritance of the saints in light. Of course this was just as far unworthy of her as it is unworthy of any one who has seen the hid treasure not to have sold all that he has to buy it--not to have counted, with Paul, everything but dross to the winning of Christ--not even worth being picked up on the way as he presses towards the mark of the high calling; but I must say this for her, that she thought of it first of all as a buttressing help to the labours, which, come what might, it remained her chief hope to follow again among her poor friends in London. To be a countess would make many things easier for her, she thought. Little she knew how immeasurably more difficult it would make it to do anything whatever worth doing!--that, at the very first, she would have to fight for freedom--her own--with hidden crafts of slavery, especially mighty in a region more than any other under the influences of the prince of the power of the air! She had the foolish notion that, thus uplifted among the shows of rule, she would be able with more than mere personal help to affect the load of injustice laid upon them from without, and pressing them earthwards. She had learned but not yet sufficiently learned that, until a man has begun to throw off the weights that hold him down, it is a wrong done him to attempt to lighten those weights. Why seek a better situation for the man whose increase of wages will only go into the pocket of the brewer or distiller? While the tree is evil, its fruit will be evil.

So again the days passed quietly on. Mark grew a little better. Hester wrote regularly, but the briefest bulletins, to the major, seldom receiving an acknowledgment. The new earl wrote that he had been to the funeral, and described in a would-be humorous way the house and lands to which he had fallen heir. The house might, he said, with unlimited money, be made fit to live in, but what was left of the estate was literally a mere savage mountain.

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