Friday, March 30, 2018

Worth It All (Part 4 of 7)

* This is Part 4 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.

It didn’t take long for Anna to notice that Victor had fled the scene. There was a silent angst between them, the longing of old hopes that would not submit to be spoken nor to die. For every moment of the evening, she had known where he stood. As she greeted her guests, she could see in her peripheral vision his dark suit-jacket on the edge of the crowd, as vibrantly present to her mind as if it had been bright gold instead of black. When the young naval lieutenant, Elijah Green, had spun her around the room in a flowing dance, she could feel Victor’s presence at every moment, like a compass to a magnet. And when he slipped out of the crowd to leave, thinking he had gone unseen, she knew his absence at a glance.
Lieutenant Green was standing at her side, studying her face as her eyes traced around the room.
“Would you care to take a stroll in the gardens, Anna? It’s a beautiful night.”
She looked at him and gave a strained smile. “Thank you, Lieutenant, but I’m afraid I can’t just yet. There’s someone I need to talk to.”
“Ah,” he smiled knowingly. “The McNeill lad, no?”
Anna winced. She didn’t know that her inner thoughts had been so obvious. “He’s my friend, Elijah—one of my oldest friends in the world. And we don’t seem to know what to make of each other now. I…I fear that somehow I may have hurt him.”
The lieutenant nodded. “It would be a sorry thing to lose such a fine friend. He’s a good man, even if he doesn’t want to enlist as surgeon on my ship.”
“Turned you down, did he?” Anna laughed. “Well, he can be as stubborn a man as I’ve ever known. But you’re right—he is a good man. Thank you for understanding, Elijah. I’ve no doubt I’ll see you again before the night is out.”
“I will look forward to it with great anticipation, my lady.” He bowed and kissed her gloved fingers, then turned to rejoin the company of his midshipmen, who were engaged in a lively debate with some of the Canterbury men.
Anna left the ballroom and went to the main hallway, where a few of the guests mingled while Oliver stood guard at the door.
“Has Victor come this way?” she asked.
“Yes, my lady,” said the butler. “He left about ten minutes ago.”
Anna began to head back to the ballroom when Oliver’s voice interrupted the act. “He said he was going to go up to St. Martin’s chapel for awhile.”
Anna turned. She knew she was blushing, but couldn’t help but smile at the butler. “Thank you, Oliver,” she said softly. “Would you be so kind as to call the carriage around to the front? I’ll meet it there in just a moment.”
“Of course, Miss,” he said with a bow.
She made her way back to the ballroom, and it only took a few moments to pinpoint Ruben’s bulk, as he danced with Patience Carmichael around the room. Coming up beside them, Anna tapped Patience lightly on the shoulder.
“I don’t mean to intrude, friends,” she smiled graciously, “but I was wondering if I might steal Ruben for one dance before the evening ends.”
Patience stepped back with a smile, and Ruben beamed as he drew Anna up to him. “Well, this is a lovely turn of events,” he chuckled. “Do you remember when your mother kicked me out of the house because I was too dirty?”
“Yes, I remember. You poor boy, we did treat you shamefully at times.”
“If Victor hadn’t been there to carry both of us through it all, I don’t suppose we would be here dancing tonight.”
Anna glanced around the room, and they changed their steps to a new song as it began. “He has left already, Ruben.”
“I know. I saw him go.”
“Do you know why he left?”
Ruben shrugged. “To think. To pray. He never was much for social gatherings anyway.”
“I know that… But was there something more behind it all?”
“Something to do with you, you mean?”
She bit her lower lip, gazing up into her friend’s eyes. “Yes. Anything to do with me?”
“Victor doesn’t confide in me about all the details of his life. But if I had to guess, I would say that you are on his mind a great deal.”
“Is he upset with me, then?”
Ruben shook his head. “No. There would be no reason to be upset with you, really. I think he’s coming to the point of realizing that he’s moving on from this part of his life. He’ll be going to London, and he doesn’t seem to think he’ll have much contact with us out here. It’s a difficult time for him, faced with moving on from the familiar world to a strange one.”
“But he still shares the same camaraderie with you that he always has! Why does it have to be different with me?”
“Do you really have to ask, Anna?”
She nodded, closing her eyes for a moment. “I know. His friendship towards me has always been different.”
“And your friendship towards him?”
She smiled wistfully. “Different, in the same manner, I suppose.”
“Aye,” Ruben nodded sagely. “And he is not so blind to those things as he would have us believe. But he has known for years he would be a doctor, probably working in some of the poorer areas, and when he left for London to go to school, I think he decided to leave all of this behind him, for your sake. And then when your uncle saved the day at Trafalgar, and you became the goddess of every young naval officer in the fleet, well… I think it merely served to harden his resolve to move on.”
 “Is it jealousy that afflicts him, then?”
Ruben chuckled. “Jealous of your tall, handsome lieutenant, you mean? Maybe a little. But that’s not the main part. He knows Lieutenant Green is a good man, and he is content in that. What bothers him, I think, is disappointment—not with you, Anna, but with himself and with the situation. With himself, because he can’t move on as smoothly as he would have liked. And with the situation, because it is complicated and he knows that he’s hurting you, but he can’t see any other way around it. He still cares for you, Anna, and this process of leaving all over again is tearing him up.”
“Thank you for your candor, dear friend…for your wisdom.” She began to step away, but Ruben caught her by the shoulder.
“What are you going to do?”
“I have to talk with him, Ruben. I won’t let it end, not like this.” Her expression was firm, and her dark eyes danced with the same insatiable fire that he had seen many times before. There would be no stopping her.
“Be careful, Anna,” he said gravely. “Reconciliation is good, but I don’t want to see either of you coming out of this wounded. Think well on what you do, because this thing may shape the remainder of your days, or his.”
She set her jaw and nodded. “I know what I’m doing, Ruben. I have been waiting for this night since he went away to London. But do say a prayer for me, please. Perhaps through all of this we may yet see the peace of Christ in our friendships, even in all the confusion.”
“That is a noble hope, my friend. Go on, then. And may God go with you.”
“Thank you,” she whispered as she drew away. Making her way quickly to the entrance of the manor, she threw a shawl over her shoulders and stepped out into the night. The carriage was there, with Oliver sitting on the driver’s bench.
She smiled at him. “Shouldn’t you be minding the door, Oliver?”
Uncharacteristically, he returned the smile. “And miss the crowning moment of my lady’s birthday? I think not.”

~ ~ ~

Victor was kneeling at the prayer rail in the chapel of St. Martin. He had always loved that ancient little church—dwarfed in size and splendor by the cathedral at the base of the hill, but possessing a simple feeling of the presence of the holy. It was a tiny, unadorned chapel, with nothing but white walls, a set of wooden chairs, and the little altar. But Christians had been worshipping there ever since the Gospel first reached Saxon lands, and Victor felt in some way connected to that chain of witnesses.
And there he knelt, begging for God to make him a witness, too. His mind and heart were in turmoil, and he wasn’t quite certain why. Some if it concerned Anna, but there was also something more. Something from listening to John Carmichael and something from reading William Carey’s Enquiry earlier that day. But whatever it was, he knew he was on the brink of something great—something that stole the very breath from his lungs.
After a few minutes in prayer, just as he was beginning to get a sense of the answer he had come there seeking—an answer that had first haunted his hearing like the soft, low notes of a violin, and which was now thundering down on his consciousness as the clarion call of God—just then, he heard the wooden door of the chapel swing open. Wiping a sleeve over his tearful eyes, he turned and looked behind him. His suit was covered in dust from the floor of the chapel, but it didn’t matter anymore. And in spite of his tears, he couldn’t help but allow a smile to break out across his face when he saw his friend standing there.
“Oliver told me you were here,” she admitted, her hands clasped before her. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“No. No, I’ve done what needed to be done here. Would you like to go outside to talk?”
She nodded, and Victor blew out the candles he had lit, leaving the chapel shrouded in darkness. They walked arm in arm out of the chapel and around its side, through the old parish cemetery. Tall, ancient yew trees grew like silent guardians around the sanctuary, giving it an added air of holy mystery. There was something quiet and beautiful there—as if the place itself had memory of the holy deeds done there.
They walked up the little slope behind the chapel, where they turned and stood, gazing up together at the heavens. The stars were out in all their glory that night, shining like candles lit for a celestial Evensong. And there, beneath their resplendent beauty, the two friends breathed together.
“I’m sorry for rushing away like that, Anna,” he said at last. “There were some matters of the heart that I had to make straight.”
“That’s quite alright. I’m just glad I found you again.” They were silent for a few moments, then she turned to him. “I really loved your song. Thank you for that—it brought back memories of happy days together.”
“Yes, happy days. But to be honest, I hadn’t planned on playing it for you. That was my mother’s doing, and it certainly took me by surprise.”
“That makes sense.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I spoke with Ruben after you left. He’s under the impression that you’re trying to make a clean cut with your friendships here before you move on to the next stage in life.”
“I suppose there’s some truth in that.”
There was a long, trembling silence between them. And then Anna spoke, her voice a broken whisper.
“So there’s no room for me in the next stage of your life?”
He turned and looked at her for a long moment.
“Anna,” he breathed softly. “I would have wanted it to be so, but… But it can’t be, can it? Our stations in life are so different, more different now than ever. I thought I had to do what is best for you.”
“And what is best for me, Victor?”
“You need to be in a place where you’ll be able to live a long, happy life—with a man who can provide for you, with a man of whom your father will approve.”
“Father can be persuaded. Tell me, what changed between us? I always imagined that you and I…. But then you went away to school, and nothing has been the same since you returned.” Tears began to well up in her eyes again.
Victor drew a deep breath and gazed up at the heavens as if pleading for strength. “Anna, you come from a noble family. I’m the son of a Scottish tailor. You’re a lady, and I’m going to be nothing more than a penniless doctor, giving my life away in the filth of the streets just so that some of those people out there can have a chance for some small piece of the happiness I’ve had in life!”
“Do you really think that would keep me away? I don’t need to be pampered, Victor.”
“But that’s not the entire picture, either. There is more—and I hesitate to tell you, because I’m still not certain of it myself.” He paused for a few moments, clenching his jaw. “Maybe you should just forget about me and go marry Lieutenant Green. He’s a fine man—brave and noble.”
“Victor, I don’t want to forget about you! Yes, Elijah’s a fine man, but there’s one thing in which he can never come close to you. He’s not… Well, he’s not Victor McNeill.”
“I see,” he breathed. Then, with a wistful smile, he continued: “There would have been a day when I would have given almost anything to hear such words from you.”
“Are those days gone already?” she was nearly weeping now, and it broke his heart. He wanted to gather her up in his embrace, but he knew he couldn’t. He had to do what was right, what was best for her. He loved her too much to let her come with him now. Not after realizing what lay before him in the road of life. But he still had to be honest.
Drawing a deep breath, he spoke. “No, those days are not gone. Anna, I care for you deeply, and this is why I can’t let you come with me where I’m going.”
“I don’t understand. I can live in London with you. Many Canterbury ladies dream of a life in that city!”
“I know that…but I may not be going to London.”
Her brow furrowed. “But I thought—”
“So did I. Until tonight. Anna, I’m going to be a missionary.”
“A missionary?” the breath caught in her throat. “But why?”
“Because someone must go, and so few have. Did you ever think about them, Anna?—multitudes upon multitudes of men and women, dying every day without ever hearing of the glorious news that we’ve known all our lives. I know the need, so how can I hold back now?”
“But surely there are others….”
“Yes, but they will not follow unless someone steps out and leads.”
“But you’ll be killed! Where will you go?”
“I don’t know. Africa, perhaps.”
Africa? Amidst the cannibals—heathen savages? If they don’t kill you within a week, the heat and tropical disease certainly will!”
“Maybe. But dangers are part of the way of the cross. I am in the Lord’s hands—if he sees fit to preserve me, then I will do his work for as many days as he grants. And if I am martyred, perhaps he will use my example to drive others to the ends of the earth.”
“Please, Victor, don’t throw your life away like this!” she grabbed his hands and held them tightly. “I don’t want to lose you!”
“Anna, can’t you understand? I am not my own anymore. Until tonight, when I prayed and heard his voice, I didn’t know for certain. But now I am convinced. He has commissioned me, and I must obey.”
Anna sank to her knees on the grassy turf, weeping into her hands. Victor knelt down and embraced her gently.
“I am sorry, Anna—sorry for us. Were it up to me, I would have chosen to stay here with you. But the choice is not simply mine to make. Unless I undertake the adventures that the Lord prepares for me, I will never be content. But now you see—I can’t put you through that kind of life. I love you too much, dear friend, to allow you to share my hard and bitter road.”
She shook her head, then looked up into his eyes for a long moment. Tears still streamed down her cheeks, and she leaned forward and gently placed a kiss on her friend’s cheek.
“Goodbye, Victor,” she whispered. “May God go with you.”
He broke the embrace, and she rose to her feet, and without turning made her way back through the silent churchyard, disappearing between the gnarled silhouettes of the yew trees.
Victor, still kneeling on the grass, released a deep breath and gazed heavenward. He heard her carriage roll away, and only then did the tears begin to come to his eyes. He let his body fall back onto the soft sod, and there he wept for the life he had thrown away.