by George Meredith
'Heigh, boys!' cried Grandfather Bridgeman, 'it's time before dinner to-day.'
He lifted the crumpled letter, and thumped a surprising 'Hurrah!'
Up jumped all the echoing young ones, but John, with the starch in his throat,
Said, 'Father, before we make noises, let's see the contents of the note.'
The old man glared at him harshly, and twinkling made answer: 'Too bad!
John Bridgeman, I'm always the whisky, and you are the water, my lad!'
But soon it was known thro' the house, and the house ran over for joy,
That news, good news, great marvels, had come from the soldier boy;
Young Tom, the luckless scapegrace, offshoot of Methodist John;
His grandfather's evening tale, whom the old man hailed as his son.
And the old man's shout of pride was a shout of his victory, too;
For he called his affection a method: the neighbours' opinions he knew.
Meantime, from the morning table removing the stout breakfast cheer,
The drink of the three generations, the milk, the tea, and the beer
(Alone in its generous reading of pints stood the Grandfather's jug),
The women for sight of the missive came pressing to coax and to hug.
He scattered them quick, with a buss and a smack; thereupon he began
Diversions with John's little Sarah: on Sunday, the naughty old man!
Then messengers sped to the maltster, the auctioneer, miller, and all
The seven sons of the farmer who housed in the range of his call.
Likewise the married daughters, three plentiful ladies, prime cooks,
Who bowed to him while they condemned, in meek hope to stand high in his books.
'John's wife is a fool at a pudding,' they said, and the light carts up hill
Went merrily, flouting the Sabbath: for puddings well made mend a will.
The day was a van-bird of summer: the robin still piped, but the blue,
As a warm and dreamy palace with voices of larks ringing thro',
Looked down as if wistfully eyeing the blossoms that fell from its lap:
A day to sweeten the juices: a day to quicken the sap.
All round the shadowy orchard sloped meadows in gold, and the dear
Shy violets breathed their hearts out: the maiden breath of the year!
Full time there was before dinner to bring fifteen of his blood,
To sit at the old man's table: they found that the dinner was good.
But who was she by the lilacs and pouring laburnums concealed,
When under the blossoming apple the chair of the Grandfather wheeled?
She heard one little child crying, 'Dear brave Cousin Tom!' as it leapt;
Then murmured she: 'Let me spare them!' and passed round the walnuts, and wept.
Yet not from sight had she slipped ere feminine eyes could detect
The figure of Mary Charlworth. 'It's just what we all might expect,'
Was uttered: and: 'Didn't I tell you?' Of Mary the rumour resounds,
That she is now her own mistress, and mistress of five thousand pounds.
'Twas she, they say, who cruelly sent young Tom to the war.
Miss Mary, we thank you now! If you knew what we're thanking you for!
But, 'Have her in: let her hear it,' called Grandfather Bridgeman, elate,
While Mary's black-gloved fingers hung trembling with flight on the gate.
Despite the women's remonstrance, two little ones, lighter than deer,
Were loosed, and Mary, imprisoned, her whole face white as a tear,
Came forward with culprit footsteps. Her punishment was to commence:
The pity in her pale visage they read in a different sense.
'You perhaps may remember a fellow, Miss Charlworth, a sort of black sheep,'
The old man turned his tongue to ironical utterance deep:
'He came of a Methodist dad, so it wasn't his fault if he kicked.
He earned a sad reputation, but Methodists are mortal strict.
His name was Tom, and, dash me! but Bridgeman! I think you might add:
Whatever he was, bear in mind that he came of a Methodist dad.'
This prelude dismally lengthened, till Mary, starting, exclaimed,
'A letter, Sir, from your grandson?' 'Tom Bridgeman that rascal is named,'
The old man answered, and further, the words that sent Tom to the ranks
Repeated as words of a person to whom they all owed mighty thanks.
But Mary never blushed: with her eyes on the letter, she sate,
And twice interrupting him faltered, 'The date, may I ask, Sir, the date?'
'Why, that's what I never look at in a letter,' the farmer replied:
'Facts first! and now I'll be parson.' The Bridgeman women descried
A quiver on Mary's eyebrows. One turned, and while shifting her comb,
Said low to a sister: 'I'm certain she knows more than we about Tom.
She wants him now he's a hero!' The same, resuming her place,
Begged Mary to check them the moment she found it a tedious case.
Then as a mastiff swallows the snarling noises of cats,
The voice of the farmer opened. '"Three cheers, and off with your hats!"
- That's Tom. "We've beaten them, Daddy, and tough work it was, to be sure!
A regular stand-up combat: eight hours smelling powder and gore.
I entered it Serjeant-Major,"-and now he commands a salute,
And carries the flag of old England! Heigh! see him lift foes on his foot!
'-An officer! ay, Miss Charlworth, he is, or he is so to be;
You'll own war isn't such humbug: and Glory means something, you see.
"But don't say a word," he continues, "against the brave French any more."
- That stopt me: we'll now march together. I couldn't read further before.
That "brave French" I couldn't stomach. He can't see their cunning to get
Us Britons to fight their battles, while best half the winnings they net!'
The old man sneered, and read forward. It was of that desperate fight; -
The Muscovite stole thro' the mist-wreaths that wrapped the chill Inkermann height,
Where stood our silent outposts: old England was in them that day!
O sharp worked his ruddy wrinkles, as if to the breath of the fray
They moved! He sat bareheaded: his long hair over him slow
Swung white as the silky bog-flowers in purple heath-hollows that grow.
And louder at Tom's first person: acute and in thunder the 'I'
Invaded the ear with a whinny of triumph, that seem'd to defy
The hosts of the world. All heated, what wonder he little could brook
To catch the sight of Mary's demure puritanical look?
And still as he led the onslaught, his treacherous side-shots he sent
At her who was fighting a battle as fierce, and who sat there unbent.
'"We stood in line, and like hedgehogs the Russians rolled under us thick.
They frightened me there."-He's no coward; for when, Miss, they came at the quick,
The sight, he swears, was a breakfast.-"My stomach felt tight: in a glimpse
I saw you snoring at home with the dear cuddled-up little imps.
And then like the winter brickfields at midnight, hot fire lengthened out.
Our fellows were just leashed bloodhounds: no heart of the lot faced about.
'"And only that grumbler, Bob Harris, remarked that we stood one to ten:
'Ye fool,' says Mick Grady, 'just tell 'em they know to compliment men!'
And I sang out your old words: 'If the opposite side isn't God's,
Heigh! after you've counted a dozen, the pluckiest lads have the odds.'
Ping-ping flew the enemies' pepper: the Colonel roared, Forward, and we
Went at them. 'Twas first like a blanket: and then a long plunge in the sea.
'"Well, now about me and the Frenchman: it happened I can't tell you how:
And, Grandfather, hear, if you love me, and put aside prejudice now":
He never says "Grandfather"-Tom don't-save it's a serious thing.
"Well, there were some pits for the rifles, just dug on our French-leaning wing:
And backwards, and forwards, and backwards we went, and at last I was vexed,
And swore I would never surrender a foot when the Russians charged next.
'"I know that life's worth keeping."-Ay, so it is, lad; so it is! -
"But my life belongs to a woman."-Does that mean Her Majesty, Miss? -
"These Russians came lumping and grinning: they're fierce at it, though they are blocks.
Our fellows were pretty well pumped, and looked sharp for the little French cocks.
Lord, didn't we pray for their crowing! when over us, on the hill-top,
Behold the first line of them skipping, like kangaroos seen on the hop.
'"That sent me into a passion, to think of them spying our flight!"
Heigh, Tom! you've Bridgeman blood, boy! And, "'Face them!' I shouted: 'All right;
Sure, Serjeant, we'll take their shot dacent, like gentlemen,' Grady replied.
A ball in his mouth, and the noble old Irishman dropped by my side.
Then there was just an instant to save myself, when a short wheeze
Of bloody lungs under the smoke, and a red-coat crawled up on his knees.
'"'Twas Ensign Baynes of our parish."-Ah, ah, Miss Charlworth, the one
Our Tom fought for a young lady? Come, now we've got into the fun!-
"I shouldered him: he primed his pistol, and I trailed my musket, prepared."
Why, that's a fine pick-a-back for ye, to make twenty Russians look scared!
"They came-never mind how many: we couldn't have run very well,
We fought back to back: 'face to face, our last time!' he said, smiling, and fell.
'"Then I strove wild for his body: the beggars saw glittering rings,
Which I vowed to send to his mother. I got some hard knocks and sharp stings,
But felt them no more than angel, or devil, except in the wind.
I know that I swore at a Russian for showing his teeth, and he grinned
The harder: quick, as from heaven, a man on a horse rode between,
And fired, and swung his bright sabre: I can't write you more of the scene.
'"But half in his arms, and half at his stirrup, he bore me right forth,
And pitched me among my old comrades: before I could tell south from north,
He caught my hand up, and kissed it! Don't ever let any man speak
A word against Frenchmen, I near him! I can't find his name, tho' I seek.
But French, and a General, surely he was, and, God bless him! thro' him
I've learnt to love a whole nation."' The ancient man paused, winking dim.
A curious look, half woeful, was seen on his face as he turned
His eyes upon each of his children, like one who but faintly discerned
His old self in an old mirror. Then gathering sense in his fist,
He sounded it hard on his knee-cap. 'Your hand, Tom, the French fellow kissed!
He kissed my boy's old pounder! I say he's a gentleman!' Straight
The letter he tossed to one daughter; bade her the remainder relate.
Tom properly stated his praises in facts, but the lady preferred
To deck the narration with brackets, and drop her additional word.
What nobler Christian natures these women could boast, who, 'twas known,
Once spat at the name of their nephew, and now made his praises their own!
The letter at last was finished, the hearers breathed freely, and sign
Was given, 'Tom's health!'-Quoth the farmer: 'Eh, Miss? are you weak in the spine?'
For Mary had sunk, and her body was shaking, as if in a fit.
Tom's letter she held, and her thumb-nail the month when the letter was writ
Fast-dinted, while she hung sobbing: 'O, see, Sir, the letter is old!
O, do not be too happy!'-'If I understand you, I'm bowled!'
Said Grandfather Bridgeman, 'and down go my wickets!-not happy! when here,
Here's Tom like to marry his General's daughter-or widow-I'll swear!
'I wager he knows how to strut, too! It's all on the cards that the Queen
Will ask him to Buckingham Palace, to say what he's done and he's seen.
Victoria's fond of her soldiers: and she's got a nose for a fight.
If Tom tells a cleverish story-there is such a thing as a knight!
And don't he look roguish and handsome!-To see a girl snivelling there -
By George, Miss, it's clear that you're jealous'-'I love him!' she answered his stare.
'Yes! now!' breathed the voice of a woman.-'Ah! now!' quiver'd low the reply.
'And "now"'s just a bit too late, so it's no use your piping your eye,'
The farmer added bluffly: 'Old Lawyer Charlworth was rich;
You followed his instructions in kicking Tom into the ditch.
If you're such a dutiful daughter, that doesn't prove Tom is a fool.
Forgive and forget's my motto! and here's my grog growing cool!'
'But, Sir,' Mary faintly repeated: 'for four long weeks I have failed
To come and cast on you my burden; such grief for you always prevailed!
My heart has so bled for you!' The old man burst on her speech:
'You've chosen a likely time, Miss! a pretty occasion to preach!'
And was it not outrageous, that now, of all times, one should come
With incomprehensible pity! Far better had Mary been dumb.
But when again she stammered in this bewildering way,
The farmer no longer could bear it, and begged her to go, or to stay,
But not to be whimpering nonsense at such a time. Pricked by a goad,
'Twas you who sent him to glory:- you've come here to reap what you sowed.
Is that it?' he asked; and the silence the elders preserved plainly said,
On Mary's heaving bosom this begging-petition was read.
And that it was scarcely a bargain that she who had driven him wild
Should share now the fruits of his valour, the women expressed, as they smiled.
The family pride of the Bridgemans was comforted; still, with contempt,
They looked on a monied damsel of modesty quite so exempt.
'O give me force to tell them!' cried Mary, and even as she spoke,
A shout and a hush of the children: a vision on all of them broke.
Wheeled, pale, in a chair, and shattered, the wreck of their hero was seen;
The ghost of Tom drawn slow o'er the orchard's shadowy green.
Could this be the martial darling they joyed in a moment ago?
'He knows it?' to Mary Tom murmured, and closed his weak lids at her 'No.'
'Beloved!' she said, falling by him, 'I have been a coward: I thought
You lay in the foreign country, and some strange good might be wrought.
'Each day I have come to tell him, and failed, with my hand on the gate.
I bore the dreadful knowledge, and crushed my heart with its weight.
The letter brought by your comrade-he has but just read it aloud!
It only reached him this morning!' Her head on his shoulder she bowed.
Then Tom with pity's tenderest lordliness patted her arm,
And eyed the old white-head fondly, with something of doubt and alarm.
O, take to your fancy a sculptor whose fresh marble offspring appears
Before him, shiningly perfect, the laurel-crown'd issue of years:
Is heaven offended? for lightning behold from its bosom escape,
And those are mocking fragments that made the harmonious shape!
He cannot love the ruins, till, feeling that ruins alone
Are left, he loves them threefold. So passed the old grandfather's moan.
John's text for a sermon on Slaughter he heard, and he did not protest.
All rigid as April snowdrifts, he stood, hard and feeble; his chest
Just showing the swell of the fire as it melted him. Smiting a rib,
'Heigh! what have we been about, Tom! Was this all a terrible fib?'
He cried, and the letter forth-trembled. Tom told what the cannon had done.
Few present but ached to see falling those aged tears on his heart's son!
Up lanes of the quiet village, and where the mill-waters rush red
Thro' browning summer meadows to catch the sun's crimsoning head,
You meet an old man and a maiden who has the soft ways of a wife
With one whom they wheel, alternate; whose delicate flush of new life
Is prized like the early primrose. Then shake his right hand, in the chair -
The old man fails never to tell you: 'You've got the French General's there!'
Last updated January 14, 2019