Friday, April 20, 2018

Worth It All (Part 7 of 7)

* This is Part 7 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 was on the front step even before Mary had time to dismount. She had sent her young chambermaid out to the McNeill estate to inquire after the old servant’s health, and then, if the opportunity arose, to speak to Victor on Anna’s behalf.

Anna bit her lower lip in fear-fraught anticipation, her hands locked tightly against her breast. The maid avoided her lady’s gaze as she slid out of the side-saddle, her feet landing softly against the flagstone paving. Hesitantly, she drew in a breath and looked at her mistress. Her dark eyes were full of cautious sorrow, sorrow that rent Anna’s heart before even a word was spoken.
“Would he not even hear you?” she whispered, her voice husky with emotion.
Mary sighed. “He wasn’t there, my lady.”
“Then why do you look so forlorn?”
“I spoke with Lady McNeill. She was standing at the door as I rode up. She said that Master Victor had just left. I asked her where he had gone and when we could expect him back, and I could see that she didn’t want to tell me.”
Anna swallowed nervously. “Did she tell you?”
The girl nodded. “Ruben has arranged for him to go meet another woman. He was going to find her.”
Anna turned her face away, ashamed of how quickly hot tears had sprung up in her eyes.
“Another woman? Victor? I didn’t think….But perhaps it’s nothing. Perhaps it’s one of Ruben’s silly games.”
Mary shook her head. “Lady McNeill said that Victor was…was looking for a wife. It has to do with a requirement from his missionary agency, I think. She…she told me not to tell you that, but….I’m sorry, Anna. Oh, please don’t cry. Now I’ve broken her confidence and your heart, too.” She ran up the marble steps and wrapped her slender arms around her mistress.
Anna was fighting, trying desperately not to weep. She thought she was stronger. She should have been stronger. But the past few days had stripped away all of her defenses. She wasn’t even sure who she was anymore.
“Are you certain, Mary?”
“I don’t know…that’s what she said. I saw Ruben walking in town, but I didn’t stop to speak with him. I didn’t want to keep you waiting.”
“Thank you.” It was all she could say. She had no strength for anything else. She clung to the frail serving-girl, hoping that somehow she could go on. It was only when she heard the sound of footsteps behind her that she straightened her posture and broke the embrace. Still looking into Mary’s tearful dark eyes, she tried to smile.
The bass growl of a throat being cleared sounded from the doorway behind her.
“I…I hope I’m not interrupting anything, Miss Anna.”
It was Lieutenant Green’s voice. Elijah’s voice.
She closed her eyes briefly, drew a breath, and turned around. He was standing in the open doorway, tall and powerful in a dark waistcoat that emphasized the breadth of his shoulders. She saw his gentle expression turn to concern as she raised her gaze.
“Are you quite alright, my dear?” he asked, stepping forward to take her by the shoulders.
She pressed her lips together tightly for a moment. “Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, I’m alright now, Elijah.”
“Your father said I might find you here. I was hoping to take a walk in the gardens with you, but…perhaps another time would be better.”
“No,” she shook her head. “I’m ready, Elijah. Let’s walk.”
“Splendid,” he said, offering her his arm. She linked her elbow with his, and together they began strolling along the front of the grand house, toward the rolling gardens that lay on the east side of the estate.
Mary watched them disappear around the corner of the house, unable to hide the sorrow on her face. She released a heavy sigh and walked down the steps to where the little gray mare still stood patiently. Running an affectionate hand along the beautiful animal’s silky neck, she smiled wistfully.
“I was at the point of believing that it might work after all, Duchess,” she whispered.
The horse nickered softly in reply, and Mary shook her head. “But maybe this will be better in the end. Africa really is no place for—”
Her words faltered as she caught sight of a bulky, dust-covered form burst through the ironwork gates of the estate. His rolling gait was almost a jog, and though he was breathing heavily, the fire of secret delight shone from his face.
“Ruben O’Connell!” she hailed him. “What on earth are you doing here?”
“For the love of God, Mary, why didn’t you stop?” he grinned. “Didn’t you hear me call out to you?”
She shook her head. “No. I did see you, though.”
“Why didn’t you stop to say hello? I could’ve used your help.”
“Truth be told, Ruben, I was a trifle upset with you.”
“Oh? Why?”
“I’m told that you’ve set Victor up with another woman. You had to know that would break my lady’s heart, regardless of what her final choice might be.”
Ruben laughed and waved both arms. “No, no. That was all a distraction. It’s nothing, nothing. I had to get Victor out and away whilst I set things in motion here in town. Had you stopped when you saw me, I could have informed you of the details.”
Mary regarded him with a quizzical expression, now less certain than ever of what was actually going on. “Well, I was on an important errand for Miss Anna, and I wanted to return quickly.”
“Oh? I also have an important errand for Miss Anna. Where is she?”
Mary grimaced slightly. “She’s gone for a walk in the gardens with Lieutenant Green.”
Ruben cocked his head to one side, studying her gaze for a long moment. “You mean more than you say, Mary. Is this walk important for some reason?”
“Master O’Connell,” she breathed, “I think this walk could be very important.”
“Oh, hellfire take me now,” he groaned. “Well, I have to stop them. Did they go this way?”
“Wait!” Mary called, stopping him in his tracks.
He whirled back on her, his face a mask of impatient vigor. “What is it?”
“Anna is precious to me. I won’t have you barging in on her like this until I know for certain what it’s about.”
He let out a frustrated blast of air. “I think there’s a chance of getting Victor and Anna together again. Together for good. I just want to get Anna down to the McNeill house to talk with Julius first—maybe…I don’t know, maybe hearing his stories, his longing for Africa and for its people…maybe that might help her consider the Lord’s heart for Africa before she sees Victor again. It’s all I could think of. But we don’t have much time.”
“You really think it might work?”
“If Anna can resolve herself to serving the Lord as a missionary, then I think Victor will take her.”
Mary allowed a slight smile to turn the corners of her mouth. “Come, then. I’ll take you. Quickly now!”
They raced around the perimeter of the house, swiftly following the course of a little footpath that ran parallel to a tall hedge of bushes. Verdant foliage flew past them in a blur. Though Ruben scoured the grounds with his gaze, the couple was not in sight. Suddenly Mary held up her hand, and they both froze.
“There they are,” she whispered.
“Behind the hedge. They’re walking this way.”
Ruben hunched down against the bushes, peering through a crack in the foliage. And, sure enough, there they were. Anna was studying the ground at her feet intensely as they walked, while the Lieutenant was stammering through a rehearsed speech, his eyes riveted straight ahead. His stride was stiff, almost nervous, but even so there was an aura of calm authority about the man.
When they were directly across the hedge from where Ruben and Mary were hiding, the Lieutenant abruptly cut short his step and turned to face Anna. Ruben watched in dismay as the proud officer took her hands in his own, a look of hopeful expectancy on his hard countenance. Behind the couple, the silver waters of the little fishpond glimmered and danced beneath the noon sunlight.
“What are you going to do?” Mary whispered in Ruben’s ear.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you had better do something fast. I think he’s about to—”
“Anna.” The Lieutenant’s gentle baritone echoed over the waters. “You do understand what I’ve been saying, don’t you?”
She hesitated, still looking down at their joined hands. “I think I do, Elijah.” There was a tremor in her voice, but something in her tone made Ruben suddenly afraid.
“She wouldn’t, would she?”
“I think she might,” whispered Mary.
Just then the Lieutenant began to kneel, sinking down on one knee. But even as he dropped, Ruben knew he could wait no longer. He hated himself for what he was doing, but he was certain that if he didn’t do it, he would always look back to this day with profound regret. With a bellow like that a whipped ox, he flung himself into the bush and crashed through to the other side. The Lieutenant whirled on him in shock and alarm, but it was too late. The momentum of his charge sent him barreling into the officer’s chest, and both men went head-over-heels down the shallow incline and into the water.
“You drunken fool!” Lieutenant Green roared, scrambling to haul himself upright again. His waistcoat was soaked through, and his dark pants were now coated in a thick layer of mud and slime.
Ruben looked up at him, his expression a mixture of shock and apology. “Oh!” he said, still sitting in the shallows of the pond. “I’m very sorry, sir.”
Anna stood on the bank, her mouth wide open. “Ruben,” she finally managed to gasp. “What…what are you doing here?”
“I was…on a fox hunt,” he said, glancing in both directions down the path. “You haven’t seen the little rascal, have you?”
“A fox hunt?” Elijah scoffed. “And pray, sir, where is your horse? Where are your hounds?”
“Well, as Miss Nelson could tell you, I’m much too poor to afford a horse or hounds. For us peasants, the game is much more exciting. They’re quick little devils, those foxes, especially if you have to chase them on foot. I can see why you privileged classes enjoy it so much.”
“Bloody Irishman,” he growled. “You’ve had a bit too much ale, I think.” Turning to Anna, he gritted his jaw and frowned. “I’m sorry, Miss Nelson. Perhaps we can continue our discussion after I’ve managed to dust up some dry clothes for myself.”
“Yes, Elijah…perhaps we can.”
He nodded curtly, then turned, stepped up the bank, and marched swiftly down the path towards the house.
Anna turned her gaze back to Ruben, fixing him with an imperious glare.
“Alright, Ruben. Tell me what that was all about. And be careful. What you’ve just done is enough to lose a lifelong friend.”
Ruben sighed and lifted himself up to his feet. A flood of droplets showered down from his drenched clothes. “Forgive me, Anna. I just need to ask you one question. If you say no, you can go on with your conversation with the Lieutenant.”
“Alright. What’s the question?”
“If you had one more chance to get back together with Victor…would you take it?”
Anna stood there silent and expressionless for a long moment, her wide eyes locked on Ruben’s face. Then she began to smile.
“Yes,” she said. “I would.”
The young Irishman grinned impishly. “Then come with me.”

~ ~ ~

“Ruben,” Victor growled under his breath. “You can’t possibly be serious.”
The Dover road had offered a long and unexciting string of villages, farmland, and empty landscapes, but none of the women he had encountered were of his acquaintance. He felt a little awkward, wondering if the poor, footsore travelers noticed his open stares as he tried to hunt down the woman Ruben had arranged for him to meet.
The noontide sun was hot above him, and though the sweat was beading on his brow he still trembled with shivers of nervousness. Finally, at the end of a long, straight stretch of dusty road, he glimpsed a figure that seemed vaguely familiar to him. It was difficult to tell from behind, but as he drew nearer, the impression grew more certain. And then suddenly, he knew who it was. He groaned and drew the carriage to a halt, muttering as many creative curses against his friend as his mind could generate.
With a resigned sigh, he urged Phaeton back up to a gentle trot, and within the space of a minute he had pulled up to where the young woman was walking, a large wicker basket hanging from the crook of her elbow.
“Hello, Felice,” he called down to her, doffing his cap. Felice was Ruben’s sister, two years his junior, a stout, heavy-set lass who, despite a gentle disposition, seemed to bear a naturally dour expression. Victor had never been able to shake the unfavorable feeling that Felice was the image of what Ruben have looked like if he had been born female. But while Ruben’s rugged countenance gave him a sort of hard-edged charm, the same characteristics in Felice resulted in a rather unappealing visage. But she could be amiable, and Victor had always been a friend to her. Even so, he had never entertained romantic considerations about her, nor did he now. He found it difficult to believe that Ruben would think such a match possible.
“Oh, hello, Victor,” she said, looking up at him in surprised pleasure. “What are you doing out here?”
“Just enjoying the day. Beautiful weather, isn’t it?”
“Oh, it certainly is.”
“Where are you headed today, Felice?”
“To Uncle Donald’s house. Momma decided to send him some food, since Auntie’s been ailin’ of late.”
“Well, you must have come a long way already. Would you like a ride? I can take you the rest of the way.”
“Oh…I wouldn’t want to trouble you none.”
“It’s no trouble for a friend. What’s the sense in having a carriage if one doesn’t use it? Climb right inside, and I’ll have you there in the wink of an eye.”
“Thank you kindly, Victor. It is very gentlemanly of you to offer.”
“Don’t mention it,” he smiled, watching as she opened the door of the carriage and stepped up into the inside. He would have offered to let her sit up on the bench with him, but he was still simmering over Ruben’s tomfoolery, and she was probably more comfortable inside the cab as it was. He waited until he felt her weight settle in the carriage seat, and then snapped Phaeton’s reins.
“Come on, old friend,” he called to the horse. “Just a bit farther.”

~ ~ ~

Ruben had left Anna with Julius in the McNeill’s sitting-room. The old servant was sitting there awake, sipping a soothing broth when she came in. Ruben bade her sit down, too, guiding her toward an empty chair.
“Here, Anna. Victor’s out on a little errand that I sent him on, just a little something to keep him occupied for a bit. He’ll be back soon. In the meantime, Julius, I hope you don’t mind entertaining the lovely young lady. Now, Anna, you may not know this, but we recently discovered that our dear old Julius is a writer! Lots of stories about Africa and his tribe, about the way that God plans to spread the Gospel among them. Go on, Julius, tell her all about it. I’ll just slip out and leave you two alone until Victor gets back.”
Anna gave him a bemused smile, but sat down obediently. She didn’t ask any questions, just gave Julius a polite nod as he cleared his throat to meet Ruben’s request.
Ruben, for his part, was glad that she wasn’t overly inquisitive, so he set off into the city again, but not to retrieve Victor. He had other things on his mind now. Victor would return after the diversion with Felice played out, find Anna there in his house, and then they would have to sort things out on their own. He had played his part, and now the fire was burning inside of him to have his own romantic scheme played out. He wasn’t a man of great patience, and now that the impulse was firm within him, he knew what he was going to do.
His legs were stiff and sore, but somehow he found the strength to run. The streets of Canterbury had already seen him pass through twice that day, and now he made his way through the ancient maze again. Up past the grand cathedral and beyond, his steps led him to the outskirts once more, to a tiny, blockish house that had become one of his favorite sights in the past weeks. Dashing up the narrow dirt footpath that led to the door, he paused for a moment to catch his breath.
“Well,” he whispered, “here we go.”
But just as he raised his hand to knock, the door flew open. With his fist still upraised, he regarded Patience Carmichael with a bemused grin.
“Ruben,” she said pleasantly, her cheeks dimpling in a smile. “I thought I heard someone gasping like a dying man out here. Been running, have you?”
“Just to see your face, my love.”
“Is that so?” she laughed. “Why don’t you come in, then? Papa just came back from a meeting with the rector, and he’ll be happy to see you.”
He followed her inside, and they made their way into the tiny main room of the house, where John sat, his Bible open in his lap.
“Ruben!” he called out. “How are you, lad?”
“Very well, sir, thank you. And you?”
“Oh, I’m alright. So how are your plans for Africa coming together?”
“Actually, that’s why I’ve come, to tell the truth.”
“Oh?” John asked, closing his Bible and setting his full attention on the nervous young man. There was a delighted sparkle in his eyes, and Ruben wondered if he had some inkling of what he was about to ask.
“Forgive me for being so sudden, sir, but…I would like to ask your permission and blessing to have Patience’s hand in marriage.”
John let out a great bellow of a laugh, and Patience’s eyes opened wide. She was still standing beside Ruben, but she took a half-step back in shock.
“My boy,” the burly minister chuckled, “you may be a bit impulsive, but I admire your forthrightness. I’m sensing that you haven’t discussed this with Patience yet, am I right?”
Ruben glanced nervously over at Patience. “No, um…I guess I haven’t. I thought it would be proper to ask you first.”
“Well, you seem to have found a way to do both at once. What do you think, my dear?”
Patience was blushing, but the same bright smile remained fixed on her face. “Well…I…I don’t know. You need me here with you, Papa.”
John waved his hand dismissively. “I’ll miss you sorely, to be sure. But you know well enough that I’ll be able to get along alright on my own. The Lord will look after me.”
Her gaze flitted nervously over to Ruben. “Would you really have me for your wife?”
He grinned, giving his head a slight shake of absolute wonderment. “I’ve thought of little else since the day I met you, Patience. Would you do me the great honor of becoming my wife?”
Her eyes began to brighten with tears of joy, and she glanced over to her father again.
John chuckled and sat back in his chair, beaming joyfully. “I’ve seen your heart, Ruben. You’re a good man. You’ll take care of her now, won’t you?”
“I will, sir. With all the strength and love I have.”
“Then you have my permission, my friend. And my blessing.”
Ruben drew a deep breath and looked back at Patience, taking her small hands in his own, the rough and callused hands of a workman. His ruddy face was bright with one silent, hopeful question as he awaited her response.
“I will be your wife, Ruben O’Connell.”
The laugh that broke out from him was an overflow of pure delight. “You are a gift of God’s grace to me, my love….But I want you to be sure. It will not be an easy life in Africa, and we may not have many years together.”
She smiled, a few of her tears now tracing gleaming trails down her cheeks. “I will go with you, Ruben. God has brought us together, and wherever He calls us we will go. That is enough for me.”
Ruben looked over at John again as the minister let loose a rumbling chuckle. “You needn’t worry about whether she’s ready to go to Africa, lad. She’s been speaking of nothing else ever since she heard you were going. It was all I could do to keep her from running to you on bended knee.”
Patience flushed crimson and cast a disapproving look at her father, much as a parent would give to a beloved but mischievous child.
Ruben turned to Patience again, the light of answered prayers and hopes burning in his eyes. “I love you, Patience Carmichael.”

~ ~ ~

Anna felt strangely confident. When she had arrived at the McNeill home she thought she might well break apart in the crash of her emotional breakers. To have Victor torn from her again and then suddenly returned in one day, together with the heady, confusing proposal from Elijah Green, was too much to process. She had nothing to do but wait. Her thoughts were turbulent, so much so that she wished she could somehow stop thinking about the whole situation. And Julius’ stories did just that for her.
She had never spent much time with the elderly servant before. But he was in all her early memories of visiting the McNeill home, a pleasant and loveable man who would always give her a brilliant smile and ask her for advice on horticulture. It was only much later, when she was in her teens, that she realized that he had always known more about gardening than she ever would, but that he had simply delighted in holding her attention for a few minutes.
He looked frail now, a spent and weary little man sitting on a low couch, much of his head and leg still swathed in bandages. But there was a radiant joy about him, and his smile never faded. She had always loved his smile—the proud white of his teeth against his wrinkled, coal-black skin. It was with joy he greeted her, and with joy that he began speaking of Africa. At first she was uncomfortable, but soon she found herself leaning forward in her seat, clinging to every word the old servant said. He spoke of his mother and her stories, his dreams of returning to his homeland with the Gospel, and his joy at seeing Victor preparing to go. And somewhere, in the midst of it all, Anna was able to forget her own heartache for a few moments.
She wasn’t sure how long she had been sitting there, but when she heard the door open, she knew who was there. Julius stopped speaking, a peaceful smile on his lips as his gaze shifted to the doorway behind her. The dance of joy in his eyes seemed to brighten anew. Victor had returned.
Drawing in a breath to calm her nerves again, she stood up and slowly turned to face him. He was frozen in place, his weary face a mask of astonishment. She could see his pain in the way he looked at her, and her heart broke to know that he had shared her sorrow at their parting.
“Hello, Victor,” she said. “I…I hope you don’t mind my being here. I sent Mary around earlier, but you had already gone. Ruben said you might want to speak of me.”
His face brightened in understanding, and he began to smile. “Ruben said that? Well, that makes a bit more sense.”
Anna smiled nervously. “Maybe it was just another of his games. But I wanted to speak to you, too.”
He nodded gently, stepping into the room and moving nearer to where she stood. “Then speak, old friend.”
“Well, I don’t…I guess I didn’t quite know what I was going to say. But…well, Julius has been speaking to me. I was scared of losing you, Victor. I shouldn’t have left you up at the chapel that night. I’m sorry I ran away. I was afraid.”
“You were wise. Africa is a dangerous place. Part of me was glad to see you go.”
She bit her lower lip, dropping her gaze away from him. “You were glad?”
“Only to know that you would be safe, Anna. If I had brought you to Africa and you had perished there…I don’t think I could have lived with that.”
“Perhaps it was wise to human reason,” she admitted. “But the wisdom of God is foolishness to man.”
His eyes narrowed in thought. “What do you mean?”
“Julius here has been telling me about them—his people. Thousands upon thousands of people who have never had the chance to even hear about the very wellspring of life. Victor—I know now why you have to go to Africa. And in the same measure, I feel now that I must go, too. Refuse to marry me if you will, but don’t keep me from bearing the banner of Christ to those people. I want to go, Victor, and I want to be your friend even if I can’t be your wife. You needn’t worry about leading me into danger. I choose the danger.”
Victor regarded her quietly for a long moment, studying the face of the woman he had dreamt of so often, now opening her heart up before him and daring him to meet her there. And though he tried to fight the impulse, he couldn’t help but smile.
“But Anna,” he said softly, “what of your parents? They will never let you go.”
“They love me, Victor. Enough to let me go. It won’t be easy for them, but I know their hearts. My father might resist, but even he can be swayed. But please, tell me what you’re thinking. Is there room in your missionary company for a woman?”
Just as he opened his mouth to reply, they heard the great doors of the house crash open, and suddenly Ruben appeared in the doorway, his face flushed as he gasped for breath. At his side was Patience Carmichael, holding his hand and beaming a wide smile.
“Oh,” Ruben said as he caught sight of them. “You’re not done yet. We’ll wait outside.” And just as quickly as they had appeared, they were gone again, and neither Anna nor Victor could resist a laugh.
“Well,” said Victor, turning his attention back to Anna, “if what I just saw is any indication, you won’t be the only woman going to Africa.”
Anna’s smile filled out like a blossom opening to the sun. She took a half-step forward, as if to embrace him, then hesitated. With a self-conscious grin of absolute delight, Victor knelt down before her, completely oblivious to the joystruck gaze of Julius at their side.
“Anna Nelson,” he breathed. “Will you be my wife?”
She simply nodded, struck wordless with rapture for a few moments. “Yes, I will, Victor,” she finally said.
Rising to his feet again, he took her in his arms and held her close. He wanted to speak to her, to tell her how happy he was, to put into words the floods of joy that coursed through his soul. But for a long moment he couldn’t speak, and when finally he did, it came out as a prayer.
“O God,” he whispered in their embrace, “thank you for Anna. Thank you for this gift. Lord Jesus, I don’t know what lies ahead of us. Walk with us through the storm, and we will be safe. But even if you take from us what is most precious to our hearts, even if we have to give it all up again for the sake of the call, we know You are faithful, and our trust is in You. Whatever lies before us on this toilsome road, it will be worth it all, if we are counted worthy to bear the glory of Your name.”
Anna raised her head slightly, until she could look into his eyes. “Amen,” she breathed, “and Amen.”

The End