Henry Ancrum: A Tale of the Last War in New Zealand, Volume 1
Henry Ancrum was that not very common thing, a thoroughly good waltzer, he had an excellent ear for music, and Edith and he were accustomed to dance together on board of ship; yes, often and often when the sea was calm, and the moon shone bright, had they waltzed to the music of that most popular person the ship's fiddler, and now as she glided off, supported by that strong arm, Edith felt more as if she was floating in air than treading this vulgar earth.
How happy she was as she looked up at that honest, truthful face. With her there page 188was no doubt, no changefulness, no shadow of turning; she loved him—it was enough—he was her lord, her master, and she was proud of her bondage! She knew his nature thoroughly. She knew he was good; she felt the truth of what has been so often said, that there are in this world few men who are really good; but that those who are good, are almost like gods in their goodness, and she trusted him implicitly. Yes; oh, happy thought! he was hers, and she was his, for ever and ever!
Henry had lately told her all about his affairs, at least all that could be told to an innocent girl. She knew his uncle had quarrelled with him, but she did not know why. Henry had said it was unjustly; and therefore she knew it must be so; she knew that one of the strong parts of his character was that the truth must be told under all circumstances, and she was page 189satisfied. Henry had told her that in consequence of the quarrel, his uncle had discontinued the liberal allowance he had formerly given him, and that now all he had to live upon was his subaltern's pay, and about a hundred a year, which his father with some difficulty was able to allow him. But what mattered all this? What was money? What did she care for money? If Henry wished it, and her parents would consent to the match, she would marry him at once. Manage! of course she could manage, even if papa did not give her anything, she was certain they could get on very well with the hundred a year and dear Henry's pay. Were there not Mr. and Mrs. Pinchem of the 150th, who people said had nothing besides their pay, and were not they very happy together? Of course they were!
With Henry matters were very different; page 190he was well aware how slender his income was, and that although sufficient for a bachelor subaltern, it was quite unequal to the support of a married couple. He also knew perfectly well that Mr. Mandeville would be very unlikely to consent to the marriage of his daughter to a nearly penniless man; all his hopes therefore rested on two points—first, that he might be able to convince his uncle of the falseness of the charges made against him; and second, that he might during the war obtain promotion in the army, and thus render the match with Edith a less unequal one. We have seen that he had decided not to tell Mr. and Mrs. Mandeville, that Edith and he had engaged themselves to one another, but in doing so he had acted contrary to the guiding principles of his life, for he had been brought up by his father in a strict reverence of the truth, page 191and a hatred of falsehood or deception of any kind.
"My boy," the old Colonel would say, "fear God, speak the truth, and do your duty; in these words I comprise a great deal. If you fear God in the right sense of the word, you will never willingly do anything to displease Him, and you must therefore be a good man. If you speak the truth under all circumstances, you must be straightforward in your dealings with your fellow men; and if you always do what you consider your duty, you will probably (as far as the weakness of human nature will permit) be walking in the right path as regards both heavenly and earthly things."
These precepts Henry Ancrum had always endeavoured to follow, and it may therefore be conceived what a strong temptation it was that could induce such a man page 192to swerve from the path of duty, for from the path of duty he felt that he had swerved. He knew well, alas, too well, that from the moment that Edith's and his eyes were opened, from the moment when they knew they loved, not with the love that selects one object to-day, and perhaps may select another in three months hence, but with the love that makes two souls one, the love that looks not to cones-sequences, that is really for richer for poorer until death do them part—from the moment, I say, when he felt that they loved with this love, he knew well that there ought to be no concealment, that he ought at once to apprise Edith's father of their engagement, and to beg his consent to it; he knew it was his duty to do so, and that he had failed in doing that duty.
The trial was too severe. He was, as we have said, afraid that Mr. Mandeville would page 193refuse, would deny him his house, would shut him out from the presence of his Edith, and he failed. Shall we sit in judgment upon him?
Have I, Smith—have you, Brown—have you, Jones, never failed in doing your duty? Do you remember, Brown, when you had won the affections of the lovely Miss Robinson? did you tell that venerable old sugar-boiler her father anything on the subject, until you made that lucky speculation which set you up in life, and made you an eligible parti? And thou, oh Jones, hast thou forgotten that thou hadst actually ordered the postchaise and the horses to carry off the beauteous Miss Jackson, when the unexpected death of your aunt made you the owner of Snobville, and smoothed your path to a humdrum wedding, and settlements, and all that sort of thing? Ah, no, my friends, let us re-page 194member that we, even we, perfect as we are, have sometimes failed in doing our duty, and let us be merciful to Henry Ancrum.
He had been thinking on the subject of asking Mr. Mandeville's consent to his engagement to his daughter for a long time, though, as we have seen, he failed to do so. But now a circumstance occurred which obliged him to come to a sudden decision. The waltz was just over, and he was leading Edith to a seat, when he saw the Adjutant of his regiment beckoning to him from a distant doorway. Edith saw him also, and her cheek grew pale.
"Ah, Henry!" she said, "I am afraid there is bad news; but I will be brave—brave as one who intends to be a soldier's wife should be. I will go to mamma, and do you come soon and tell me what it is. I am afraid that your regiment is ordered to march to the front."page 195
And so it was. Henry Ancrum went to the Adjutant, and heard that they were ordered to start on the morning of the second day. He returned to Edith, and told her so, as gently as he could. He led her away.
"Edith," he said, "I must now tell your father all."
"Yes," she replied, "I am afraid it must be so. But oh, Henry!" she murmured, looking up at him with those large truthful eyes, "remember, if he should refuse, still I am yours—yours in soul, in spirit—yours always, here and beyond the grave! I could not marry without the consent of my parents, or against their wishes, but one thing I can promise, if I am not married to you, I will never be another's! But oh, Henry! I am so afraid. My father loves me, I know; but then he thinks that girls do not know their own minds, and that their page 196parents should think for them; and then when he has made up his mind, he is so determined, and so—so hard. He has had to battle with the world himself, and now that he is rich, he thinks so much of money. But I do hope he will not refuse his consent, dearest, and that he will allow us to be engaged, and then better times may come; but recollect, Henry, you must only ask for that—only ask that we may be engaged."
"Yes," said Henry, gently pressing the arm that leant on his, "I will remember;" and then they managed to get away to some distant nook, and have a quiet chat for a few minutes. Ah, it was sweet to them: most of us can remember such little chats, but it would be foolish to repeat what was said, and so we shall only record that soon—too soon—Edith was summoned to her mamma, page 197who was going home, and that Henry, having seen them into their carriage, departed on his own way also. It was daylight as he walked slowly home to his hotel; the sun, just risen from out the sea, was gilding with his earliest rays some of the peaks of the picturesque island of Rangitoto, and shining on the eastern side of the graceful hill near the point of the north shore, which he bathed in brilliant light, whilst the houses on its western slope were still shrouded in the deepest gloom. His beams were dancing on the rippling waters of the lovely Waitemata, stirred by the fresh morning breeze. How calm it was—how still—how lovely! there was scarce a sound to break the enchantment. Life was beginning to stir in the lower town, individuals could be seen moving about here and there, but no sound from thence reached the height where Henry Ancrum page 198stood. Boats were seen flitting over the surface of the bay, but their motion was noiseless; a stately iron-built clipper ship was just loosening her sails preparatory to spreading her broad canvas wings for flight back to the dear old mother country; but even in this case the "Cheerily ho!" of the sailors came up the hill mellowed by the distance till it sounded like a lullaby.
Henry felt soothed by the stillness, the silence, the beauty, and the freshness of everything around him, it was all so calm, so peaceful; but yet he could not rest. He felt that sleep was impossible, he knew that a few hours must decide his fate. If Mr. Mandeville consented to his engagement to his daughter he would be happy—oh, so happy! but if he refused him, then what was there in this dreary world to live for. He went to his hotel—he ascended to his room—he took up one after another of his page 199favourite books. What did they mean? what were they all about? He could not understand them; even Shakspeare was foolishness!
He paced his room backwards and forwards for some time, but that only made him more restless. "Ah!" he said, "I must employ my mind, I must study." He took up a book on mathematics, of which he was very fond: the whole thing was a blank. He referred to his own notes on the passage he had tried to read, they would explain everything, of course they would,—not a bit of it; he found them just as unintelligible as the book itself. Yes, he thought, drawing—that is the thing; drawing is mechanical: I'll draw. He sat down to an unfinished landscape, a tree in the foreground rapidly assumed the appearance of a respectably sized cabbage, a house near it quickly emulated the position of the page 200falling Tower of Pisa; but soon even they ceased to engage attention, and Henry started to find that he had nearly finished a portrait of Edith in one of the corners of his paper.
He called for breakfast, and drank some scalding tea—to eat was almost impossible; but at length the time came when he knew that he could present himself to Mr. Mandeville. That gentleman always breakfasted early, and he was aware that the best time to see him would be after that meal, and before he went to his office. The door was opened by a maid-servant, who welcomed Henry with a smile, but seemed rather surprised at his paying so early a visit. She showed him into the drawing-room, and went to inform Mr. Mandeville of his arrival.
"Ah, my young friend," said the master of the house, entering shortly afterwards, page 201"glad to see you; was sorry to hear last night that you were so soon to leave us, but hope it is all for your good, eh ! You young officers are always looking to promotion, is it not so? Well, I hope we shall soon see you back here as a captain. In the meantime if I can do anything for you I shall be most happy."
"Oh, sir," said Henry, "you can do for me what I most wish on earth. I have long wished to speak to you. I—I—"and here an eloquent speech which he had prepared entirely broke down, and he could only say—"I love your daughter. I do not ask you to consent to our marriage at once, but, only to let us be engaged, and let me hope to be united to her when the war is over, and I——"
"Stop, stop, young gentleman," said Mr. Mandeville, "I had no idea of this; pray has my daughter—has Miss Mandeville page 202any knowledge that you have come to ask me this question?"
"Yes, sir, she has."
"Indeed!" said the old gentleman, and his face became very grave; "may I ask, is there any engagement between my daughter and yourself?"
"Yes," replied Henry Ancrum, "there is. I——"
"How long has it lasted?" continued Mr. Mandeville, interrupting him.
"Since shortly after my landing in New Zealand."
"And, sir," said Mr. Mandeville, rather angrily, "do you consider that you have acted rightly, that you have acted honourably in entangling my daughter in an engagement, and not saying anything on the subject to her parents?"
"No, sir," replied Henry, in a voice and manner which might well disarm resent-page 203ment—"no, sir, I feel I was wrong; you cannot blame me more than I blame myself; but what can I say? The simple truth is the best. I was afraid you might not approve of the match, and I loved her so much I dared not run the risk of shutting myself out from her presence."
"Well, sir," said the old gentleman, a little mollified, in spite of himself, "well, sir, I am a practical man, I can only speak plain English. If you propose to marry, what means have you to support a wife?"
The point had come at last—the question which Henry Ancrum dreaded, which he knew must come, but which he felt it would be so difficult to answer in a satisfactory manner, had at length been asked. He told Mr. Mandeville all his history, all that the reader knows, and in addition that page 204he would be entitled to some two or three thousand pounds at his father's death.
Mr. Mandeville did not interrupt him; he listened patiently; his patience was almost ominous. He had for some years past been a man well-to-do in the world; and at the time of which we write there had been opportunities in New Zealand for making large sums of money in taking government contracts. Mr. Mandeville had freely embarked in these speculations, he had been successful, and was now a rich man. He had looked high for his daughter, she was his only child, and the idea of her marrying a subaltern, with little besides his pay, bore to him the appearance of absolute madness! He had never been a romantic man himself, and he could not understand romance in others. He listened, as has been said, patiently to all Henry Ancrum had to say. He was quiet, he was page 205gentlemanly—we may say (taking into consideration the character of the man) he was gentle in his reply; but that reply was not the less firm and decisive. The match could not take place: as to an engagement, that was out of the question. Long engagements he considered unfair to both parties, he would not sanction anything of the kind; he considered that the best and kindest course for both was that all acquaintance should cease. Henry might see Edith to wish her good-bye; but after that he trusted to his honour that all correspondence, either by word or letter, should be at an end.
And so he left the room. Henry was stupified. He had expected this. It was almost exactly as he had anticipated; but still when it came, it was too much for him. What was there to live for now? The world was a dreary void. It was true the page 206sun was shining brightly in through the open windows; it was true the birds were singing sweetly in the garden near at hand; but as to the sun, he saw it not, and as to the birds, he heard them not. All was dull and dark and dreary. He did not know how long he had sat thus—he never afterwards remembered.
He was aroused by a soft voice saying, "Henry." He started and looked up. Edith stood before him.
"Henry," she said, "papa said I might come to you."
Simple words, but with how much meaning? When an unfortunate is condemned to death, are not those nearest and dearest to him permitted to "come to him?" So it was, and he felt it. He was condemned, if not to death, at least to banishment from all he loved. And she had "come to him" for the last time. He looked at her as she stood before him, so calm page 207and motionless. She was as lovely as ever; but she was pale, very pale, and those dear large hazel eyes were not as soft as usual; there was a fixedness, a determination in them he had never seen there before.
"Henry," she repeated, "papa said I might come to you. He has told me nothing, but I know all; I knew it by his look. I see he has decided against us, but I can be determined too. I cannot marry without my father's consent. He has the power to separate us—he has the power to prevent my seeing you—but there his power ceases. He can never—he shall never—make me think for an instant of any one else. I say this because I know he wishes me to marry. I am certain that at some time or other he will be anxious for me to make what he would consider a good match, but it shall never be—no, it shall never be! Oh, Henry!" she cried, "I may say to you page 208now, in this moment of supreme misery, what I would have been ashamed to say under other circumstances. You know I love you—I need not repeat that—but I love you beyond the love of woman. I feel that I am yours and you are mine by some indissoluble tie. Although born such thousands and thousands of miles apart, and educated under such different circumstances, all our ideas, our thoughts, our feelings are the same. How often have I addressed you, and found that you were thinking on exactly the same subject as myself. How often have you spoken to me, and your words have been the echo of my thoughts. Oh, my darling! do not think me too bold in telling you all this, in telling you my whole soul: I do it to comfort you, I do it to show that you may put implicit trust in me, and that you may feel that even if we are separated I am yours as long as life remains."page 209
He clasped her in his arms—she did not resist: her soul was pure, and she had faith in him—they were to be parted so soon. It was his first, it might be his last kiss, and so she submitted to it; and then they sat down side by side, and tried to encourage one another, tried to hope for the future: so let us leave them.