Friday, March 16, 2018

Worth It All (Part 2 of 7)

* This is Part 2 of a historical fiction novella that I wrote in 2005, now publicly available for the first time. You can find the other parts by clicking the "Worth It All" link under the Full Series list in the sidebar.

Anna Nelson sat at the little piano, playing a soft, slow tune that filled the corner of the grand room. The voices of the men, her father and Lieutenant Elijah Green, floated out from the drawing room, where they had retreated to smoke their pipes and talk of war. Though she was interested in the conversation, she knew that a woman’s presence would be seen as an intrusion, and so she had settled at the piano bench to await the return of Oliver, the butler.
She smiled as her fingers glided nimbly over the ivory keys, blending the crisp sounds together in a harmony of peace. It was a tune she knew well—one that had been in her heart for years, and it came out now with beauty and power that surprised her. She closed her eyes, her mind flooding with images of green meadows, of springtime, and of two children playing happily by the silvery waves of the little pond.
Mary, the young housemaid, bustled through the room with a delicate silver tray on which were set a pot of tea and two cups. Anna watched her disappear into the drawing room, then smiled upon her return.
“Would you like anything, my lady?” she asked, her hands clasped humbly in front of her.
“No thank you, Mary.”
She nodded, and began to move back toward the kitchens.
“Actually,” Anna began, and the young maid turned on her heel. “Maybe you could just sit with me for a minute or two.” She slid over on the bench and patted the seat beside her.
Mary nodded and took the seat, letting her fingers rest lightly on the ivories.
“Play me something, Mary.”
The servant blushed and shook her head. “I’m not very good, Miss Anna.”
“Neither am I,” she replied graciously.
“But I heard you playing just a minute ago, Miss. It was beautiful.”
“Only because I knew the song so well. Oftentimes I’m terribly clumsy at the pianoforte.”
They sat in silence for a long moment, listening to the drone of the men’s voices coming from the drawing room. Lieutenant Green was relating one of his many heroic stories from his months in the King’s Navy, and his voice rose and fell with the authority and thunder of the drama. Even the fire in the hearth seemed to dance with the rhythm of his words, gaining power and brightness in an authoritative climax that was interrupted before its conclusion by the nasal whine of Lord Nelson’s voice.
Anna smiled, and Mary looked at her for a few moments.
“Do you think he’ll come tomorrow?” the maid asked.
Even though she didn’t say his name, Anna knew of whom she spoke. “I don’t know, Mary. I hope so. But…well, all I’ve gotten from him lately is a sense of our distance from one another.”
Mary closed her eyes for a few moments and allowed her hands to bring out a quick, lively melody from the keys of the piano. It wasn’t perfect in timing, but the spirit was there, and it brought a smile to Anna’s lips.
“That was a song my mother used to sing as we did the washing down at the river,” the maid said softly.
The two young women sat there, side by side at the piano for a few minutes in silence, their eyes still fixed on the fire. There was a painting, grand in scale, which hung on the wall above the warming blaze—the portrait of a naval commander standing boldly, gazing out into the distance from his place on the bridge of his ship. And the sharp-featured, noble face beneath the Admiral’s hat was one that Anna knew well. And one she wished that she could see again.
The sound of clipped, measured footsteps broke them from their reverie, and they glanced up to see Oliver standing in the draperied doorway, his face grave, as always. He bowed, then righted himself to his ramrod-straight posture.
“Did you speak with him, Oliver?” Anna asked, her eyes wide with anticipation and hope.
“I did, yes,” he replied slowly. “He sends his apologies for not responding to your first invitation, and he wishes to tell you that he is planning to attend, along with his parents and some friends.”
“Ruben O’Connell, no doubt,” she grinned.
“Yes, and a young woman who has, I believe, not yet made your acquaintance.”
“Did you get her name?” Anna asked.
“Patience Carmichael. She appeared to accept Master McNeill’s extension of your invitation hesitantly, and only on the condition that it would stand well with you. I assured her that your hospitality is open to all.”
“Of course you’re right, Oliver. Thank you.”
The butler paused for a moment, then decided that further explanation was warranted. “I think she may be working as an assistant to Dr. Simons, because he was also at the McNeill residence when I arrived.”
“Yes, I suppose,” said Anna. “Carmichael. I wonder if she might be the daughter of the Methodist minister who recently arrived in town.”
“A distinct possibility, my lady.”
“Well, of course she’s welcome to come. Thank you, Oliver. That will be all.”
“Very good,” he said, bowed, and made his way into the drawing room, where he was immediately called upon by Lord Nelson to give his interpretation of the political events on the Continent.
Anna drew a deep breath and then released it. “Well, he’s coming,” she smiled. “That’s good. I’m looking forward to seeing him.”
“But things are not as you had hoped?” Mary pressed.
“No, I suppose not. Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure what I expect from him. I just don’t understand why things can’t be the same as when he left.”
“When he left,” she replied softly, “your uncle was not yet the man who saved all of England.”
Mary rose, nodded respectfully, and made her way out of the room. Anna’s eyes were drawn again to the painting hanging above the mantle. Uncle Horatio to her. To the rest of the world, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the hero and martyr of Trafalgar. In the background, the strong baritone of Lieutenant Elijah Green was barking out his critique of the butler’s analysis. Anna listened for a few moments with a furrowed brow, smiled, then rose and made her way back to her own chamber.

~ ~ ~

The next day dawned bright and clear, and despite the pressure of his confusing friendship with Anna and the pounding ache in his head, Victor found that he was in relatively good spirits. Ruben had spent the night at their house, and as the first light of day dawned, he departed to go work in the field with his father and brothers. Victor took his breakfast with his parents, and they were delighted when, on checking Julius, they found him awake.
He smiled up at Victor slowly. “Good morning, Master Victor,” he rasped. “It’s a fine day for gardening.”
“Of which you’ll do none, Julius!” he laughed. “You must lie there for awhile, and not try to move. Doctor Simons will be along shortly to check on you.”
Victor took a few moments to check the servants bandaged, clicking his tongue in silent thought. Julius lay there in calm repose, watching the young man work over him with an expression of quiet pleasure on his face.
“You used to make me lie here, just like this, when you were a boy.”
Victor grinned. “Oh? I don’t remember. Why did I do that?”
“You were playing doctor,” the old servant chuckled. “And look, you still are!”
Victor gave his arm an affectionate squeeze. “Thanks for letting me be your doctor one more time, my friend. Well, it all looks good to me, Julius. But we’re certainly glad you’re with us—we thought you might be off to meet your Master last night.”
“And here I am, still stuck with my old master instead.”
“Promise me you won’t try to get up and do any gardening, at least not until Dr. Simons has checked in on you.”
Julius sighed. “As you wish. But you must promise me that you’ll look in on my garden. There are a few more rows of carrots to be planted.”
“I’ll take care of it. I promise.”
Dr. Simons arrived shortly thereafter, and Victor assisted him as needed. Julius fell asleep again, but the doctor thought it was a good sign of healing, so they left him to his slumbers. The rest of the day went by slowly for Victor—he wrote a letter to Dr. Taylor of London, with whom he would be working for the next few months, then went to take his lunch. As afternoon rolled upon him, he set to work in the garden and planted a few more rows of carrot seeds in the rich, dark earth. The work happily consumed several hours, and by the end he had finished planting the garden and stood back to examine his work. He gazed appreciatively at the neat rows of dark soil, imagining how they would look in a few weeks, when the crop would really begin to grow.
As he replaced the garden tools in the little shed, he noticed an inkwell and quill sitting out on the little table that Julius used to sort seeds.
“Strange,” he remarked aloud, raising the quill to examine it. The ink was wet, and the quill sharpened and ready for use. Victor had never considered the possibility that the old servant was literate; he had assumed the opposite, though he couldn’t quite remember now how he had gotten that impression. Raising up the cloth that hung down over the edge of the desk, he peered into the darkness below. And there, to his further amazement, he found four books, which he drew out into the light.
One was a Bible, and another was the Book of Common Prayer, which Victor set aside with a quiet smile. Julius’ faith ran deep; he knew that well. That was the source from which the old servant drew his strength and grace. The third book was one that Victor had never seen before. The simple cover bore nothing but the word Enquiry and the name of its author, William Carey. The name was unfamiliar, but as he leafed through the book, he saw that it was again fare of a spiritual and theological nature.
The fourth book was the one that piqued his interest the most, however, because it wasn’t bound in the same manner as the others—it was merely a collection of loose papers secured by thin strips of cloth down one side. Opening it up, he saw that it was handwritten—drawn out in a clumsy, erratic script. And it was long—as he ran his thumb over the pages, all full, he realized that it must have been at least two hundred sheets of handwritten material. He turned to the first page and scanned it quickly. It was a narrative, telling the story of a young boy in Africa, living among a tribe called the Mbeno. And to Victor’s surprise, the prose was passable—in some points, even captivating.
He set the book down for a few moments, still struggling with amazement at the discovery. He never would have guessed that Julius could read, much less that he had been writing his own book. Setting down the handwritten tome, he reached back and picked up the book titled Enquiry. Drawing a deep breath, he ran his hand over the clothbound cover and opened it. Light fell on the first page, and the full title written there caught his eye: An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.
For nearly an hour, he sat there on the wooden floor of the garden shed, his mind racing through the ideas presented on those pages. William Carey was forceful, at times painfully blunt in his argument—that Christendom had committed a great sin against the world and against God by ignoring the commission to go and spread the Good News. Victor leaned back and reflected on the matter for awhile. It was true—Europeans reflected the belief that Europe was the heart and soul of the world, and certainly the only part that really mattered. It had never even crossed his mind that there were hundreds of thousands of other people out there, scattered throughout the earth—people who had never heard the glorious truths of the Gospel, people who were cast aside without hearing of the Risen Christ. Troubled in heart, he closed the book again.
Drawing in a deep breath, he set it back under the table along with the Bible and prayer book and tucked Julius’ work into the crook of his arm. He marched into the house and made for the room where Julius lay, but as he approached he saw that the old servant was fast asleep. In fact, he was snoring loudly, and Victor couldn’t help but smile at him. He took the book up to his own chamber and set it aside, resolving to speak to Julius about it later on and perhaps even read a bit more.
He strode out of his room again and cast a glance at the old grandfather clock that stood at the end of the hallway. It was time for him to go to his father’s shop to pick up his suit for Anna’s party, but first he paused in the washroom to clean the dirt from his hands. Rather than retrieving Phaeton, their old bay stallion, from the paddock, he decided to walk into town. It was only a trip of a few minutes, but he enjoyed it immensely. Canterbury was a beautiful city, and he never tired of walking its narrow, ancient ways—paths he had frequented all his life. He made his way directly to his father’s shop, along the main avenue of commerce, at the end of which stood the old stone gate. The city was busy that day, and many of the young men and ladies paused and greeted him as he passed by. Most were friends from childhood days, and a few were even members of his old band of ragamuffin scoundrels who had plagued the city in their younger years.
He entered the tailor shop, greeted a few of the workers who were busily stitching fabric in the main room, and continued on up the old wooden stairway to the upper floor. The room was a jumble of fabrics and clothes of various colors and designs, stacked high on a row of tables and illuminated by the afternoon sunlight that was streaming in through the dusky window-panes. And there in the center of it all sat Ruben, who was crouched over in a chair while Aidan McNeill stood above, glowering down at him.
Before he could brace himself, he was wrapped in a crushing embrace, surrounded by Ruben’s massive arms. Tearing himself loose, he laughed and slapped his friend on the back.
“Your father let you go early, then?”
“Aye, that he did,” Ruben replied, sitting back down in a little wooden chair in the center of the room. “He has six other sons to help him, after all. And your grand old father here graciously offered to give me a suit at no charge this time.”
Aidan harrumphed loudly and frowned in distaste. “Would you believe, Victor, that your friend here has already outgrown every suit we have available! It takes more than twice as much material to cover his body as it does yours.”
 “I believe it,” he chuckled, walking over to a table, where he began to sort through piles of coats, trousers, and loose fabric.
“You should be able to find something there to meet your needs,” his father called out while stretching a measuring line across Ruben’s shoulders.
They talked for a while as Aidan began to create a coat large enough for the young Irishman. Most of the talk centered around Julius and the fight outside the pub the night before. Neither Victor nor Ruben could recall whether the men they fought were native to the city or not, but Aidan spent quite a bit of time grumbling about the whole affair.
“All in all, son, you were lucky to come out of it with just a black eye and a bloody nose.”
“I suppose,” Victor replied, reaching up to test the bruised skin around his left eye. He was about to ask his father about Julius’ book, but at the last moment he decided to wait until after he had spoken to the servant about it.
“So, Victor,” Ruben called out, “who is to escort Patience—you or me?”
“I hadn’t thought about it, really.”
“Well, I have,” he said quickly. “And seeing as you’re going to be leaving in a month for London, we wouldn’t want anything to further disrupt your relationship with our dear friend Anna Nelson. And I believe that seeing you escorting an attractive young woman like Patience might only serve to deepen that wound.”
“Your reasoning is sound,” his friend laughed. “But won’t Anna have her own escort?”
“If you’re referring to any of the succession of swaggering, boat-riding heroes who have been fawning over her, I suppose so. But they really don’t count much with anyone save Lord Nelson.”
“And perhaps Anna,” Victor said with a meaningful glance. “She is our friend, Ruben, but she is not exclusively ours.”
“Quite right, old chap,” he winked. “But even so, you were her first love.”
“That’s stretching the truth a bit, Rube.”
“I don’t think so. In any case, it wouldn’t be a good birthday present for the lass if she found that her first love was paired off with someone else. Therefore, I propose that I escort Miss Patience Carmichael.”
Aidan chuckled. “Sounds like he’s made up his mind, son. Best let him have his way with this one.”
Victor laughed as he slipped a dark blue coat over his shoulders. “Very well, you may escort her. It was rather nice of her to invite us to dinner, though, wasn’t it?”
“Aye, that it was.”
“Well, lads, don’t go expecting a lavish meal,” Aidan cut in.
“Why’s that?”
“Well, the address she gave you—that’s not the richest section of town by any means. And I’ve seen her here and there over the past few weeks. Her father’s name is John, and he has only recently moved here from Essex. He’s a Methodist minister—a widower, I believe—and he’s come to call the citizens at the heart of the English Church to repentance. And from what I’ve heard, he is not too well off.”
Ruben turned slightly in his seat. “Methodists dance, don’t they?”
Aidan shrugged. “I’m not sure that they do.”
“Well then how on earth am I to dance with the girl?”
“Just be glad she accepted the invitation at all, lads. From what I’ve heard, Methodism is a strict order of faith that has little time for frivolous things such as balls and dances.”
“Perhaps we should bring her a gift,” Victor suggested. “It is customary to offer a small gift to the lady.”
“Aye, that’s a grand idea,” Ruben agreed.

“Well,” Aidan chipped in, “you could bring her a dress for the ball. My guess is that she probably doesn’t have a great deal that would seem fitting for such an occasion. I’m sure we can find something modest enough that it will pass the good minister’s standards.”