Friday, March 23, 2018

Worth It All (Part 3 of 7)

* This is Part 3 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.

The Carmichaels’ house was, as Aidan had predicted, nothing compared to the McNeill residence. It was a low, blockish structure, built of several different shades of brickwork. It had one rickety door and two windows, covered now with wooden shutters which had been drawn tight against the gathering chill of the evening.
“Let’s hope the minister is in good spirits,” Ruben said. “Sometimes these religious men can be a bit uptight.”
“Compared to you, Rube, the entire world is marvelously uptight. Go on, do the honors.”
Ruben rapped sharply on the wooden door. It opened, and there stood Patience, beaming the same bright smile that had provided a warming light in the darkness of the previous night. She had let down her long brown hair, and it hung about her shoulders in a most attractive way. But Aidan had been right again—she was wearing a long blue skirt and a white blouse, which, although they gave her an air of simple grace, would have seemed very much out of place amid the grandeur of Anna Nelson’s ball.
“Gentlemen,” she said with a curtsy. “Welcome to our home.”
The two friends bowed low.
“You look wonderful,” Ruben said with a smile.
Victor nodded his assent. “Very nice indeed.”
She laughed. “It’s been too long since I heard shameless flattery. Thank you both.”
Ruben gave her a broad grin. “You’re quite welcome, Miss Carmichael.”
“Please, call me Patience. I, um… I think I might stand out a bit at the ball with these dreary clothes, but there wasn’t a great deal else I could go with at the last minute.”
“We thought the invitation was rather quick as well,” said Ruben. “So we brought you a gift. Victor’s father is a tailor, and he was more than happy to provide it. So if you would like, you’re welcome to try this.” He thrust the package toward her, wrapped in plain brown paper.
She blushed and accepted it with thanks. Opening up the paper, she let out a little gasp of delight. “It’s beautiful,” she breathed, holding her new gown up in the fading light of the dimming sun. “Thank you so much.”
“Our pleasure, Patience,” Ruben replied with another bow.
“Patience!” a deep voice called out from inside the house. “Are you going to keep those poor lads standing on the doorstep all night long? Bring them on in!”
She smiled and stepped aside, ushering Ruben and Victor inside. If the outside of the house looked as though they were in the depths of poverty, the interior managed to improve on the impression a bit, with a quaint sort of simplistic charm. The furnishings were austere, to be sure, but there was definite evidence of a woman’s refining touch to it all. The house was divided into just three rooms—two to the left, which provided separate chambers for the minister and his daughter, and one on the right, which served as a kitchen, dining room, parlor, and study all combined into one cramped space.
As they rounded the corner from the narrow entryway, Victor and Ruben were greeted by a large, powerful man—not quite as big as Ruben, but impressive nonetheless. He had great, muscled arms that bespoke more years of turning soil with a plow than turning the pages of a Bible. He looked to be about fifty, with a balding head crowned in a wild tonsure of silvery hair. But his eyes, more than anything else about the man, were what seized their attention. Large eyes, and gray, they seemed to dance and sparkle with a joyous intensity, a frenetic energy that caught them both off-guard.
He stood up and offered his hand to both young men, nearly crushing Victor’s hand in the process. His smile was broad, and, despite being gap-toothed, it reflected the same powerful joy that radiated from his daughter’s presence.
“We’re glad to have you with us, lads,” he said, motioning to two straight-backed wooden chairs, which they took. Patience made the introductions and then turned around to tend to the food while the men talked.
The minister eased his considerable mass onto a similar chair, which offered a creak of complaint under the stress.
“Well, boys,” he grinned, “you’re in for a treat. Patience has been cooking for you all afternoon, and she can cook as well as her Mum, if not better!”
They nodded in agreement, for already the succulent aroma of roasted lamb and freshly-baked bread was filling the air. Victor wondered with a flash of guilt at what expense they had gone to provide that kind of meal for them.
“Patience told me a bit about what happened last night,” he said, continuing on in his grand, open style. “It looks like you two came out not too poorly after all, save for your eye, Mister McNeill.”
“I’m just glad we were able to drive them away in time,” he replied.
“Yes,” said Patience, turning away from the kitchen table for a moment. “How is your servant?”
“He’s awake, and that’s a blessing. It looks like he’ll make his recovery, but I doubt he’ll ever be able to use his leg quite as well again.”
“No doubt the time of prayer was efficacious for his healing,” Ruben noted, at which the minister nodded.
Victor smiled slightly. His friend was trying to win the approval of Patience’s father, for rather obvious reasons.
“Yes, and a noble cause, that,” the minister said as he crossed one leg onto his knee. “To save the life of a servant. Noble cause. Christ gave his life to save the least of these, our brethren.”
“Reverend Carmichael,” Victor began, at which the minister held up his hand.
“I haven’t been ordained by the Church of England, lad, and Methodist ordinations don’t proffer much credit for most people hereabouts. Call me John.”
“John,” he continued, “tell us a little bit about the work you’ll be doing here.”
The big man nodded in appreciation of the request. “Have you lads heard much about the Methodists?”
“You take after John Wesley, don’t you?”
“After a fashion. We prefer to say that we take after Jesus Christ and his disciples, but you’re right—John Wesley was the spark that God used to light the fire. Canterbury is not an easy city to do this kind of work in, you know.”
“I wouldn’t think so,” Ruben chuckled. “Most of the folks around these parts are woven into the grain of the established Church—always have been, always will be. What with the archbishop here, and the added fact that this was where Christianity began in England. They’re proud of their heritage here.”
“True. But in actuality, I’m not trying to win anyone away from the Church of England. It might work out that way in some cases, but that’s not the goal. In fact, Wesley himself stood firmly against separating from the state church. So I look on my ministry more as one within the existing church—reaching out to those of the parish that, for one reason or another, haven’t sought to be woven into the grain of their local church. I’m not building anything new, but I’m trying to breathe life onto the spark of Christian spirituality in the hearts of the men and women of these parts.”
“And how do you go about that?” asked Ruben.
“Well, by encouraging them to follow the disciplines. Here in England, many are afforded remarkable luxury, and that can lead to laxity in the spiritual life. People don’t have to depend on God for day-to-day life, so God becomes a sort of add-on to life rather than the underlying foundation. Christianity becomes a Sunday experience rather than the meaning of life. I’m here to fight that kind of laxity and to remind people that although the Christian life is a blessing and gift of God through His grace, it is something that must be worked at. We must persevere. Christians today miss so much of the abundant life the Christ offered. So I help people by encouraging them to continue in their personal devotional life—in reading the Bible and in persistent prayer. Only in such things will we really begin to see the face of God and know His will for our lives.”
As John spoke, Victor felt his heart begin to rise. There was something special about this man, something captivating. Something that made him want to embrace that abundant life with everything he had within him. If it was anything like the joy that radiated from John and Patience, he wanted that deeper experience of the faith.
“But you don’t have your own church, do you?” Ruben asked. “How do you plan to go about this—in a practical sense?”
“No, I don’t have a church,” he replied, leaning back in his seat. “But the rector at St. Martin’s chapel has been gracious enough to allow me to help him in his ministry there. He has agreed that since I’m not trying to pull members away from his flock, there is nothing in my message with which he can find fault. So for the time being, I will be encouraging and uplifting the flock there.”
“Ah,” Ruben laughed. “If the rector tells you any interesting stories about the two of us, use a discerning ear. I think he may yet harbor a grudge, though I suppose as an upstanding churchman he has probably forgiven us by now.”
“Why would he hold a grudge against you?”
“Well,” Ruben said, glancing over at Victor, “in our younger days most of the rectors of the city predicted that we would become the most unregenerate, filthy sinners in the city—damned in life before ever seeing the Judgment Seat.”
“But,” Victor added, “our reputation was not entirely undeserved. It’s merely that what we saw as harmless fun, the clerics took as evidence of rank sinfulness in our hearts. You see, we would play pranks on them to—well, to liven up the meetings a bit. We had a band of friends about our age—probably twelve of us—and we would pull of some rather intricate schemes, but none of it came across favorably to them. They particularly disliked our re-enactments of certain biblical scenes in the cathedral yard. We were dubbed ‘the Hellfire Brigade,’ and the name stuck. So I fear we may not be seen in the most favorable light by most of the clergymen in this town.”
“Ah, yes,” John smiled, tapping a finger thoughtfully against his cheek. “Let’s see—you drink, you brawl in the street, you dance. And I might add,” he grinned coyly, “you invite a strange, pretty girl to go with you. On top of all that, you’ve been known to show blatant disrespect for churchmen. Not a recipe for acclamation by men wearing the robe of the church, is it?”
Victor and Ruben exchanged another glance, and John laughed.
“In fact, John Wesley himself would have undoubtedly condemned you and called you to repentance! But to be honest, lads, I’ve grown up with a faith that told me not to judge men—that it’s the heart that counts. And as I think on it, the Lord we follow was known to drink, to start a brawl of sorts in the Temple, to speak to strange women in a way completely off-limits for the customs of his time, and he certainly wasn’t overly concerned with impressing the religious men of his day. So all in all, I couldn’t pass judgment on you without passing the same judgment against the Savior of the world. From where I sit, lads, you’re in good company.”
By that time, both young men were beaming at him. Here was a churchman whom they could grow to love—a man not tinged by pride or false decorum, and thoroughly concerned with portraying the love and joy of a life surrendered to Christ. For both Victor and Ruben, who despite their good-natured pranks had grown up in strong religious families, their faith was the foundation of their lives. And to hear it so marvelously put from his lips of this simple, impoverished minister was as moving as listening to a breathtaking piece of music.
The conversation continued on from there, and Victor talked for a while about his time at the London School of Medicine and his plans to return there to work in Dr. Taylor’s practice. Ruben also spoke for a time, talking about his family and their daily routine of work on the farm. After a while the conversation turned to politics—the one subject that every man in Europe was well-versed in. As Napoleon continued his march across the Continent virtually unchecked, tensions were rising in Britain, and there wasn’t a soul in England who didn’t know a thing or two about the situation.
They hadn’t spent more than ten minutes on the subject, however, before Patience announced that the food was ready. Picking up their chairs, they moved over to the simple wooden table, which was decked out with ordinary pewter ware. But the food itself seemed incredible, and Patience was practically glowing with delight as all three men voiced their hearty compliments. Joining hands around the table, John led them in a short, heartfelt prayer, and they quickly fell to consuming as much of the lamb and potatoes as they could. Even Ruben was able to sate his appetite, and by the end all three men were leaning back in their rickety wooden chairs, smiling contentedly.
After the dishes and remaining food had been cleared away, John announced that he would take over washing the dishes for the night, and Patience planted a grateful kiss on his cheek.
“Why don’t you go see how that new dress looks?” he suggested. After she withdrew to her room, he turned to Victor and Ruben. “You know, lads,” he said softly, “that girl has been my light and joy since her mother passed on five years ago. I’m trusting you to take care of her tonight.”
“You have the word of our honor,” said Ruben.
Within a few minutes Patience had reappeared, now wearing the beautiful blue gown, which seemed to draw out the fire and warmth of her eyes. All three men stared at her for a long moment, then her father let out a low chuckle.
“Patience, darling,” he breathed, “you are beautiful. All the boys in town will be wanting to dance with you tonight. Don’t let it pull you down the road of pride. For my part, though, looking at you…well, pride is just about the best word for it, I guess.”
“Stop it, Daddy,” she blushed.
It was nearing time for them to be on their way, and just as they were bidding goodnight to the minister, there came the sound of a horse’s hoofs drawing close to the house. Victor threw open the door, and there in the lane was Phaeton, the family’s stallion, hitched up to the black carriage. Julius, of course, was in no condition to drive, so Aidan sat perched on the front bench, and Clara was sitting in the coach, a picture of grace and elegance in her frilly gown. Ruben offered his hand as Patience stepped into the coach, and the two young men clambered up after her.
It took a good fifteen minutes to drive to the Nelson estate, and the air was warm and sweet that night as the dew settled onto the fields. Victor breathed deeply, hoping and praying that somehow the night would end without significant heartache for him.
The Nelson manor was grand, on a scale that easily dwarfed the McNeill home, and as they disembarked from the carriage a flood of memories overwhelmed Victor’s mind. So many times he had joyfully frequented these halls, and now his return was something of a question mark.
They entered in, first Aidan and Clara McNeill, followed closely by their son, and then Ruben and Patience, arm-in-arm. Oliver greeted them at the door in his usual somber tone and led them down the resplendent hallway into the grand ballroom, a vast open area lit above by two crystal chandeliers. The sweet music of a string quintet filled the air, and already several of the guests were dancing in time to a lively waltz. The eyes of Patience and Ruben, unaccustomed to such opulence, were open wide to take it all in.
At the far end of the room, Anna sat on a chair of mahogany and rich red velvet, behind which stood her parents and Lieutenant Green, who was decked out in all the resplendent trappings of his dress uniform. Anna herself was an image of beauty—she was dressed in a bright green gown, the color of springtime, and her dark, curly hair fell attractively around the curves of her high cheekbones. She watched the people at the ball with pleasure and grace, often rising from her seat to trade a few words of greeting. It was the evening of her nineteenth birthday, and she was the paragon of womanly charm and splendor, and so all the brash young men made bold to tell her. There were, in fact, a number of them there—mostly naval men, seeking to win the heart of the beautiful niece of Admiral Lord Nelson, hero of Trafalgar.
Oliver marched directly up to Anna with the five newly arrived guests close behind. Bowing low, he presented them each by name. She smiled graciously at Aidan and Clara, thanking them for the gift of the dress which she was wearing. Victor had managed to drop to the rear of the group, so Ruben and Patience were presented next, and she rose and embraced Ruben with a grin. The Irishman lifted her off her feet and twirled her around, drawing out a merry laugh.
“Happy birthday, old friend,” he beamed as he set her down. “For a lady with one foot in the grave, you don’t look too bad.”
“Thanks, Ruben!” she smiled. “You’re looking pretty good yourself. And this must be Miss Carmichael.”
“Please call me Patience,” she said, curtsying.
“Of course. Welcome, and thank you for coming.”
They moved on, and Victor stood alone before her. They gazed at each other for a long moment, and then Victor bowed low, took her hand, and pressed her slender fingers to his lips. Straightening, he gave her an easy smile.
“Happy Birthday, Anna.”
Immediately, she rushed forward and caught him in an embrace, as much to hide from him the tears welling up in her eyes as to hold him in her arms. Victor caught the glances of surprise on the faces of Lord and Lady Nelson, but he had no choice but to raise his arms and complete the embrace. And holding her there, in the midst of the crowd, it felt for just an instant like the hard years of separation were gone, and they were together again, friends through childhood and now friends once more.
Victor glanced up again and now saw the hard glare he was receiving from both the Lieutenant and Lord Nelson, so he cleared his throat and released her. She looked at him, her dark eyes still a bit watery, and she smiled.
“I’m glad you came, Victor.”
“It is good to see you again, Anna,” he replied, barely above a whisper.
He made to move away, but she caught his elbow. “You must save at least one dance for me tonight. For old times’ sake, at the very least.”
“The pleasure will be mine,” he said with a respectful incline of his head.
The evening seemed to go by fairly swiftly at first—both Ruben and Victor danced with Patience several times, who, despite being a Methodist, proved to be fairly skilled at it. Anna danced as well—mostly with Elijah Green, the stunningly handsome young naval officer who, it was commonly known, had won the approval of Lord Nelson. It was a light, merry time for the most part, with the musicians keeping the mood cheerful as couples danced about on the ballroom floor. Later in the evening, Lieutenant Green and several of his midshipmen cornered Victor and Ruben, trying to convince them that the state of the world demanded of their consciences that they enlist in the war effort. It was a pleasant talk for the most part, but neither of the two young men made any promises to join His Majesty’s navy.
Anna did get her dance with Victor—two, in fact. On the second dance, the musicians asked Anna for her choice, and once the piece was selected, all of the other guests dropped back from the dance floor in order to watch. So there, with all of their Canterbury friends looking on, Victor and Anna danced together, making their way gracefully around the floor. And in his heart, Victor believed it would be the last time in his life when he would dance with that lovely young lady who had been his faithful friend for as long as he could remember.
The dance ended, they parted with a smile, and Victor began to look for an opportunity to withdraw from the party. But at that moment, he heard his mother’s voice rising over the murmur of the crowd in the silence between songs.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Clara McNeill called out, “I am pleased to be able to announce to you that my son, Victor McNeill, has a special birthday gift which he has prepared for Miss Anna Nelson. This is a song that he composed, and he will play it for you now.”
Victor was frozen in shock. His mother asked for a violin from the musicians and carried it over to him. Placing the instrument in his hands, she looked deep into his eyes.
“You wrote it for her, Victor. Play it with everything that’s in your heart.”
He walked over to where Anna was standing, bowed to her, and set the violin to his chin. Carefully drawing the horsehair bow across the taut strings, he began to play, filling the room with the melody. It came more easily than he thought it would—as he gazed into Anna’s eyes, the song seemed to come to life on its own. And as the melody filled the room and built to its crescendo, there came that familiar array of notes. And when he played them, he saw Anna’s eyes grow bright with tears. It was their song—the one they had sung together from childhood days. As the melody traced gently over those notes, her lips formed the silent words. The resolution of the piece was quick, but beautiful, and as he lowered the violin he was greeted with a thunderous round of applause.
Blushing slightly, he turned and bowed to the crowd, then turned back and faced Anna. She was crying openly, but smiling through her tears, and she rushed up and threw her arms around his neck.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
By that time, Victor didn’t know what to make of it all, and he retreated quickly from the attention of the crowd, which returned to Anna. He slipped out of the ballroom and made his way toward the door, where Oliver stood, tall and proper.
“Headed home, Master McNeill?” he wondered aloud.
“Not home,” he breathed. “I’m going to St. Martin’s. I need some time to think. You can tell my family that I’ll come home on my own.”
Oliver nodded. “There are few better spots for thinking than the chapel of St. Martin. Thank you for coming, Master McNeill, and may God bless you.”
Victor smiled slightly. “And you also, Oliver. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, sir,” he said, opening wide the door.
Victor stepped out, took one look at the star-lit heavens, and disappeared into the night.