"Ay, lad," said the skipper, his eyes twinkling. "What be these?" drawing a parcel from under his pea-jacket.
Noll's eager "Letters! and for me?" tickled the old sailor wonderfully.
"Yes, these be letters," he said, chuckling; "Jack, here, talks o' runnin' a smack down this winter purpose to bring yer mail!"
"'Tw'u'd take something bigger'n a smack," observed Mr. Snape, looking askance to see how Noll grasped the precious parcel.
"All yer frien's said as how I was to bring ye back on the 'Gull,'" called the skipper after him, as Noll went running across the sand toward the house.
"Oh, how I wish—No! I can't go, skipper; it's no use talking," Noll answered back as he gained the piazza, and there sat down to open his precious missives.
Five or six of his boy friends had agreed to surprise him each with a letter, and here they were, together with a kind note from Mr. Gray. What a comfort and pleasure they were! It was almost like seeing the writers' faces and talking with them, Noll thought.
Trafford came out upon the piazza while he sat there absorbed in their contents, and as he walked along toward the skipper, who stood waiting at the bottom of the steps, noted the boy's eager, delighted face, and wondered why the lad did not return to his friends, where, it was quite evident, he was much desired and longed for. Why did he stay on this dreary Rock? What was there here to make the place endurable for a boy of his age and tastes? He could not see.
Those were the last letters which Noll received. The "Gull" made one or two trips after that, but the first of November brought keen, sleety weather, and Skipper Ben came no more; so that for the long months ahead Culm Rock was to be shut out from the world entirely. The thought of being isolated from all assistance, in case of illness or trouble, oppressed Noll somewhat till he had accustomed himself to the thought, and then a vague dread of loneliness and homesickness in the dragging days of winter haunted him for a time. But getting bravely over these, and interested in his studies, he began to find that the November days were not so intolerable, after all.
Uncle Richard had surprised him one day by bringing in a writing-table, from one of the unoccupied rooms, and placing it opposite his own chair by one of the tall windows. "For your books, Noll," he had said; and from thenceforth the boy's well-worn school volumes had a place there, and study in the cold chamber was exchanged for the comfortable warmth of the library. It was not an unpleasant schoolroom, by any means, though the high, old window framed nothing but a great stretch of sea and sky,—both, this chilly month of November, often gray and misty.
Instead of the roar and din of the city which sounded about the dearly-remembered room at Hastings, there was the hoarse murmur of the tide on its rocks and pebbles, the wild whirling of the wind and its screaming around the corners and over the chimney,—not cheery sounds, any of them; yet, in the still afternoons, and the cozy quietness of long evenings when the lamp shed its mild light over the room, and the fire on the hearth shone redly, there was such calm and peace for books and study as Noll found both pleasant and profitable.
In these days, you may be sure, the boy's thoughts were often across the vast gray sea in front of his window, even when he was bending over his problems or translations; not that he regretted his decision to share Uncle Richard's life with him, nor that he had any thoughts of fleeing away, but those flitting sails on the far horizon were messengers which alway bore on their white wings thoughts of hope and love and patience to those over the sea.
It was not the natural sphere of a boy,—this monotonous, unvarying round of days, with no companions of his age or tastes; and, as week after week passed, and Noll was still blithe and apparently contented, Trafford wondered and conjectured, and could not surmise a reason for it; though, had he observed closely, it would not have been a great mystery. For Noll there was the unfailing comfort of the little Bible which lay beside the huge old bed up-stairs, and which gave the double comfort of its own blessedness and the remembrance of its preciousness to her who turned its pages to the last; and there were ever the pitying ears of Jesus ready to hear the story of discouragement and loneliness, when the burden of slow, weary days seemed too heavy to bear.
Into Trafford's life had come more brightness and content than he had known since that dark day when his wife left him and vanished in the darkness which, to his eyes, filled and hovered over the grave. It did not, as yet, seem like a real and lasting joy; he trembled lest some day it should prove but a dream, a vision, and so vanish. He often laid aside his book and looked up, half expecting to find the room as silent and lonely as when, of old, he was the only inhabitant of the great library; but there, at the opposite window, sat the pleasant figure of the boy, busy with his books, and as real and tangible as heart could wish. It was a perpetual delight, though he hid all knowledge of it from Noll, to feel that the boy was present, to see him curled up in a great chair by the fire, watching the flames or the depths of rosy coal, of a twilight, and to feel that he was his,—a precious gift to love and cherish. So the man's heart began to go out toward the boy,—tremblingly, warningly at first, then, as he found him true and worthy, with all its might and all the fervor of which it was capable.
Noll closed his books one afternoon after recitations, saying, "I'll put on my overcoat, Uncle Richard, and take a run up the shore,—just for exercise. The waves are monstrous, and how they thunder! I haven't seen them so large since I came to Culm."
"Look out for the tide," continued his uncle; "keep away from that narrow strip of sand up the shore, for the waves will cover it in an hour."
Noll promised to be cautious, and ran off after cap and overcoat. Hagar met him as he came down from his room all muffled for the walk, and exclaimed,—
"Bress ye, honey! where ye bound fur now? Dis yer is a drefful bad time on de shore! I's 'feard to hev ye roun' dar!" looking at him anxiously.
Noll laughed merrily. "Do you think I'm too small to take care of myself, Hagar?" he asked; "I'm only going for a walk, and to see the waves. I'll be back for supper with Uncle Richard."
The sky was wild and gray with clouds. A keen, chilly wind swept fiercely over the rocks and along the shore, and the dark, foam-fringed waves rode grandly in upon the beach with a thunderous shock as they flew into spray. Some of the spray mist wet Noll's face, even as he stood upon the piazza steps. But, warmly clad, and loving the sight of the wild tumult, he started with a light heart for his walk up the shore. As far as he could see, the sea was dark and gloomy, with long curves of foam whitening its surface and gleaming on the crests of its racing waves. At his feet, on the sand, lay great tangles of kelp and flecks of yeasty froth. The air was keen, and frosty enough to film the still pools in the hollows with brittle ice, and where the spray fell upon the rocks, it congealed and cased the old boulders with glittering mail. Not a sail was there in sight, and Noll thought the sea had never looked so vast and lonely as now. Along the horizon the clouds were white-edged, and seemed to open and lead away into illimitable distances of vapor. He stopped under the shelter of a rock to look behind him, over the path which he had trodden. The stone house looked dark and forbidding, like everything else under this wild gray sky; but Noll had long ago ceased to consider it as resembling a prison. It was home, now, and so took a fairer, brighter shape in his eyes. Beyond, the pines stood up against the sky, full of sombreness and inky shadow.
"How cold and desolate everything is!" thought Noll; "but it's not half so gloomy as it seems, after all. I wish, though, that Ned—dear fellow!—was here, just to make it lively once in a while." He walked on, listening to the heavy thunder of waves, and looking upon the troubled waste of sea, till he came to the curve of the shore. Here lay the narrow path of pebbles against which his uncle had warned him. But there seemed no immediate danger, for the path looked as wide as ever, and as there was yet an hour before the tide would be in, Noll hurried across, the salt spray flying wildly about him.
"I'll go on a little further," he thought, "and I shall get home long enough before tea-time, then."
Having gone a little way, however, he chanced to remember that he had not been at Culm village for a month, at least, and longed to take a run down to the little cluster of houses.
"How the waves will dash in there!" he thought; "and I wonder how those huts stand such a tempest as this? I've a good mind to go, anyhow,—it's such a good chance to see the place in a gale." He wavered and walked hesitatingly about in the sand for a few minutes, and at last decided to go. He ran and walked by turns, the wind blowing his curly locks in his eyes and taking his breath almost away with its fierce gusts; yet he kept on. It seemed as if the waves jarred and thundered heavier on this Culm side than on his own quarter of the Rock; at any rate, the wind was more powerful, and blew the spray upon him in showers.
"I'll get drenched, if the wind keeps on like this!" he thought; "if I weren't so near, I'd turn back; but the houses are in sight, already, and I've got to get acquainted with salt water. I'll keep on!"
When he drew near the little settlement, he was tired enough with running and battling the wind, and was content to take a slower pace. Never had the fishermen's huts looked so forlorn and miserable as now. Noll half expected to see them come tumbling and rolling along the sand in every gust of wind which struck them; yet, with some mysterious attraction to their sandy foundations, they held their own, though some of them creaked and groaned with the strain which was brought to bear upon their timbers.
The boy kept on toward the little wharf, over which the waves rolled and tumbled furiously, without meeting a soul. The water dashed so high and wildly up the sand that he was obliged to keep well up beside the houses to escape a drenching. He thought he had never looked upon so grand a sight as the sea presented here,—all its vast waste lashed into great waves that came roaring in like white-maned monsters to dash themselves upon the laud.
Standing here, close by Dirk Sharp's door, Noll suddenly fancied he heard a faint wail within. He was not at all sure, the sea thundered so, and the wind screamed so shrilly about the miserable dwelling; but presently, in a slight lull of the tempest, he heard the wail—if wail it was—again. It sounded like the voice of a child,—a child suffering illness or pain.
"I wonder if Dirk has any little ones?" thought Noll; "and what can he do with them, if they are ill?"
Mentally hoping that his ears had deceived him, and that no one on the desolate Rock stood in need of aid which they could not have, he was about to turn away and retrace his steps homeward, as the sky seemed to shut down grayer and darker than before, and nightfall was approaching. But at that instant the door of the dwelling opened, and out came Dirk, beating his breast and crying aloud, whether with pain or grief Noll was too surprised to notice at first.
The man failed to see the lad standing close by his door-step till he had taken several strides up and down the sand, where the wind blew the spray full upon him,—walking there hatless and coatless. When he did perceive him, he stopped short, exclaiming, almost fiercely,—
"What ye here fur, lad?—what ye here fur? The Lord knows it's no place fur the sort ye b'long to!"
"I was looking at the sea," said Noll; "and—and—what's the matter, Dirk?"
"Nothin' that'll do ye any good ter know!" cried Dirk, roughly, beginning to pace up and down the sand again. "Ye can't know nothin' o' trouble, lad! How ken ye?"
Noll hardly knew what answer to make to this vehement question, and finally made none at all, but asked,—
"Are any of your family ill, Dirk?"
"Ill? Sick, ye mean? O Lord! yes, yes,—and dyin'!"
Noll started. Some one ill and dying on this dreary, wretched Rock! and no doctor to give aid. He did not know how far he might dare to interrogate Dirk in his present half-frenzied condition, but ventured, after a minute or two of silence, to ask,—
"Is it one of the children?"
"Yes, my little gal!" said Dirk, groaning,—"my little gal it is, an' nothin' to keep her frum it. O Lord! seems as ef I sh'u'd go mad!" and he threw up his hands to the lowering sky in despair, and faced about to the sea, letting the cold drops drive into his face.
Noll was fain to comfort him, but was at a loss how to offer consolation to such anguish as Dirk's.
"Isn't there some one on the Rock that can help, that knows something about medicine?" he asked, eagerly.
"No, no, lad!" Dirk cried, "there ain't a soul this side o' the sea ken help my little gal! Ye don' know nothin' o' trouble, lad! Ye don' know what 'tis ter feel that yer chile's dyin' fur want o' somethin' to save it! O Lord! seems as ef I c'u'd swim through this sea to Hastings fur my little gal!"
He rushed down to the boiling surf, and Noll half expected to see him throw himself into the sea; but he came back, drenched with a great wave, with despair and agony upon his face.
"Here, lad," he exclaimed, "come in,—come in an' see what trouble is! Ye don' know. How ken ye?"
Noll followed, and Dirk pushed open the door of his dwelling. The air which met the boy as he entered the small, low room was so close and foul that he almost staggered back. The floor was bare, and through a crack under the door the keen wind swept in across it, flaring the fire on the stone hearth and puffing ashes and smoke about. A fishy odor was upon everything. Household utensils were scattered about in front of the hearth, occupying a quarter of the room, and what few chairs and other articles of wooden furniture there were, were fairly black with dirt and smoke. Noll had never before entered a dwelling so filthy, wretched, and miserable as this.
"Here, lad," said Dirk, brokenly,—"here—be—the—little gal," and pointed to one corner, where, watched over by a thin, slovenly woman, the child lay on its little bed.
The mother did not take her eyes off the girl, and Noll went forward, with much inward repugnance, to look upon Dirk's treasure. The child's cheeks were flushed a bright red, and it lay with drowsy, heavy-lidded eyes, uttering, at intervals, a low wail.
Noll shivered, and involuntarily thought of those dreary, desolate graves which he stumbled upon in one of his rambles. Could nothing be done? Must the child die for lack of a little medicine? He looked through the little dirt-crusted window upon the tossing sea, and saw what a hopeless barrier it interposed between them and aid. He thought of Uncle Richard, and knew that it was useless to expect aid from that direction; and then he thought of Hagar! She was a good nurse, he remembered, and knew—or claimed to know—a vast deal about medicine. Perhaps she could help this child! he thought, with a glad heart, and if she could! His heart suddenly sank, for he remembered that the old housekeeper could not make a journey through the storm and tempest, even had she the necessary skill.
"But," he thought to himself, "I can tell her about the child,—it's got a fever,—and she can send medicines; and to-morrow, if it's pleasant, she can come herself!" and thinking thus, Noll turned to Dirk, with—
"I can get you some medicines, I think, from our old housekeeper. May I? Shall I try?"
The fisherman was silent with surprise. He would probably have sooner expected aid from across the raging sea than from this lad.
Noll read an answer in his eyes, and hastened to the door, and bounded away without waiting for any more words or explanations.
How fast it had grown dark while he was in Dirk's hut! The horizon was quite hidden, so was all the wide waste a half-mile from shore; but with the coming of night the sea had lost none of its thunder, nor the wind aught of its fierceness. Noll ran till he was out of breath. Then he walked, thinking that the homeward path was wonderfully long. Then he ran again, feeling almost as if the child's life depended upon his exertions, and seeming to hear its wail above all the din of wind and waves.
Suddenly he plashed to his ankles, and this brought his headlong race to an abrupt termination. What could it mean? Then he remembered, with a sudden chill, what, in his eagerness and anxiety, he had entirely forgotten,—the tide was coming in, and was already over the path which Uncle Richard warned him against.
He looked back. The beach over which he had come glimmered faintly in the dusk, with its long line of breakers gleaming far up and down. Back there in the darkness, he thought, Dirk's child was dying for want of medicine. Oh! what to do? He looked down at the foam creeping about his ankles, and said to himself,—
"Pshaw! it's only over shoe, now, and my feet are wet already. I'll dash through; 'twon't take but three minutes, and I can't wait!"
He sprang on, thinking to clear the short strip, which the tide had covered, with a few bounds. A wave, high and broad, which had been gathering power and volume in all its long, onward course, came sweeping thunderingly in and engulfed him.
IN THE SEA.
Noll's presence of mind enabled him to clutch the jagged sides of the rock desperately, so that in the wave's return he was not drawn with it into the sea depths. Stunned, strangled, half blinded, and impelled by a sudden horror of death in the cold, treacherous sea, he took two or three forward steps, fell, then rose and strove to struggle on. But a little hollow in the path let him down into the flood to his waist. The spray flew into his eyes and mouth, and breathless and bewildered he fell again, this time to disappear under the foam-flecked water. He struggled up to air and life at last, with many gasps for breath, and once more clutched at the rocks behind him. It all seemed like the terror of a dream, not real and threatening. Was he to be drowned? Some sudden thought of the pleasantness of life, of dear friends across this same cruel, ravenous sea, of Uncle Richard and his warning, came to him here. To be drowned in this dark, chill, raging flood? Oh! no, no! Then he saw, out in the gloom and mistiness, the white gleaming of a wave-crest, rising and sinking, but sweeping steadily toward him, and knew that it would dash upon his narrow foothold. Could he survive another?
Then from Noll's lips came a shrill cry, which rose above the thunder and battering of the sea; and, whether from terror or whether from the fact that the dear name was so warm and vivid in his heart at that moment, the cry was not "Help!" but, "Papa, papa!"
The cry was answered!—at least, Noll fancied it was, and clung to the jagged edges of rock with a new love of life in his heart, and, with his eyes on the approaching wave, which began to loom up dark and vast, cried out again with all his might.
Out of the darkness which hovered over his submerged path beyond, a figure came struggling,—battling the water and making desperate efforts to run,—crying,—
"Noll, Noll! where are you?"
"Here,—Uncle Richard,—quick!" answered the boy, clinging desperately to his only refuge,—the slippery, icy rocks.
The wave came thunderingly in, burst, and hid uncle and nephew from each other. Trafford uttered a groan of despair, and stood, for an instant, like one palsied. Back swept the flood, leaving the sand bare for a minute, and with a shout, the master of the stone house rushed forward, seized the figure which had fallen there, and sprang away toward the sand and safety. He gained it, and tremblingly laid his burden down. Had he only saved a body from which the life had flown?
"Oh, Noll!" he cried, brokenly,—"Noll, Noll!"
Only the sea and the wailing of the wind answered him. Hurriedly gathering the boy in his arms, he started for the house, running and stumbling through the sand and over the rocks, fearful lest he should reach its warmth and shelter too late. But before he had gained half the distance between him and the redly-gleaming window, where he knew Hagar was sitting before her fire, Noll stirred in his arms. Trafford stopped, fearing that his excited imagination had deceived him.
"Noll," he cried, "speak to me,—speak!"
"Yes—only—I'm—I'm so cold," chattered Noll, faintly; "and—Uncle Richard—you—you've saved me!"
Trafford could not speak, so great was the load which had suddenly lifted from his heart. He started on with his burden, though Noll protested against being carried, and at every step rejoiced within himself. What cared he for the thunder of the sea, the wind's screaming, and the terror of death which they boded? His treasure was safe, safe!—torn from the very yawning mouth of the deep, and what were wreck and disaster of others to him? He came to the little kitchen, presently, the light from its one window toward the shore beaming cheerily upon him, and threw open the door and entered so suddenly that Hagar screamed out with affright.
"De good Lord help us now!" she cried at the sight of the master and his burden. "What's happened, Mas'r Dick?"
Noll answered, assuringly, "Nothing very serious, Hagar. I've been in—the sea. Oh, Uncle Richard! how did you find me?"
Trafford set his burden down upon the three-legged stool which Hagar had just vacated, saying,—
"I was looking for you, Noll, and heard your cry. O Heaven! what if I had failed to hear it!"
"I should have been swept away," said Noll.
Here Hagar recovered her wits sufficiently to give a little howl of lamentation.
"Out ob de sea! out ob de sea!" she cried; "de Lord be t'anked fur it! Dat yer sea am a drefful t'ing, honey,—allers swallerin', swallerin', an' nebber ken get 'nough fur itself, nohow. Hagar's seen it; she knows what dat yer sea is, an' t'ank de Lord, he's let ye come out of it alive. Mas'r Dick, why don't ye t'ank Him fur savin' ob yer boy fur ye?"
"Hush!" said Trafford, his face growing gloomy; "find Noll some dry clothes, Hagar. Quick, woman!"
"Yes, in a minnit, Mas'r Dick; quick's I ken git dis yer ole candle lit. But ef ye don't t'ank de Lord now, ye'll have to come to it 'fore long, Mas'r Dick; Hagar tells ye so! dat yer time'll come! it'll come!"
"Hush!" said Trafford, harshly, "and do as I bade you."
Hagar went out, sighing, "Dat time'll come, dat time'll come, bress de Lord!"
Noll looked up from his seat by the fire, where he sat dripping and shivering, and said,—
"But aren't you glad I'm safe, Uncle Richard?—aren't you thankful?"
Trafford answered this question with a look which made his nephew exclaim,—
"I know you are, Uncle Richard! Then why—why—aren't you thankful to God?"
"Don't, don't, Noll!" said his uncle. "Strip off those wet garments and make haste to get warm again. Culm Rock is no place for one to be sick in. Hurry, boy?"
Instead of hurrying, however, Noll suddenly grew very grave and exclaimed,—
"Oh, I've forgotten something, Uncle Richard! That tide drove it all out of my head. What can I do? Dirk Sharp's little girl is sick—dying, and I was to bring her some medicine, if Hagar had any!"
"What is Dirk or his to you?" exclaimed Trafford. "Was that what kept you so late? Is that how you came to be caught by the tide?"
"Yes," said Noll, "I—"
His uncle interrupted him with a stern, "Noll, you reckless lad! What are those Culm people to us,—to me? You put your life in peril—oh, I tremble to think what peril!—for Dirk's miserable child? What were you thinking of? Have you no regard for your life,—for my happiness?"
"Why," said Noll, quickly, "Dirk loves his child as well as you love me, and I thought perhaps Hagar's medicines could help it, and I didn't know there was any peril till I got into it; and oh, Uncle Richard, what will they do now that I can't come back?"
"I don't know," said Trafford, gloomily; "they are accustomed to such things, I suppose. Shall I have to command you to take off those wet clothes?"
Noll began to remove his ice-cold garments, but presently said,—
"Is there,—do you think there'll be any hope of my going back to-night, Uncle Richard? The child is dreadful sick, you know."
"Going back!—to-night! Are you crazy, Noll?" Trafford cried. "No, you will not put foot outside the door this night!"
"Hush! not another word," said his uncle, sternly. "If you have no regard for your life, I must have for you. Hagar is waiting at the door with your dry clothes. Are you ready for them?"
Noll answered "Yes," his heart suddenly filled with a dreary recollection of the sight which he had seen in Dirk's miserable abode. It seemed to him as if he could hear the sick child's wail above the war of the storm. Dirk, he thought, would watch and wait for his return, peering through the dirty little window into the gathering gloom and darkness, and, finding that he did not come, would settle back into despair again.
Noll put on the dry garments with a heavy heart. He was sure he felt strong enough to return to Culm, and although the sea barred the beach path, yet, with a lantern, he could find a way over the rocks, he thought. But Uncle Richard had utterly refused; so there was no hope, and the child must suffer on, and Dirk watch in vain.
"Oh," thought Noll, "why wasn't I more careful? Why didn't I think of the tide? Then nothing would have happened, and I could have gone back!"
Hagar came in, saying, "Ye'll hab yer supper here, in de kitchen, Mas'r Noll, 'cause it's warmer fur ye dan in de dinin'-room. Ye won't mind Hagar's ole kitchen jes' fur once, honey?"
"No," said Noll, sadly, "I won't mind at all, Hagar, and I'm not hungry—much."
Trafford went out to change his own wet clothing. The old housekeeper bustled between her cupboards and a little round table which she had drawn before the fire, casting wistful looks at Noll as he sat gravely gazing in the coals.
"Bress de Lord! bress de Lord fur savin' ye!" she ejaculated, fervently, as she bent down over her tea-pot which was spouting odorous jets of steam from its place on the hearth; "'pears like dar wouldn't be nuffin left in dis ole house ef de sea had swallered ye, Mas'r Noll. Don't ye t'ank de Lord?" she asked, peering up into the boy's sober face.
"Yes; I'm glad to live, and I thank God for saving me; but oh, Hagar," said Noll, almost with tears in his eyes, "there's somebody on this Rock to-night that's as sad as you or Uncle Richard would have been if the tide had swept me away!"
"Now!" said Hagar; "an' who is dem yer?"
"Dirk Sharp's little girl is sick with a fever, and I think she's going to die,—though of course I can't tell,—and they haven't a drop of medicine. Just think, Hagar,—dying, and nothing to save!"
Hagar thought, and sighed heavily over her tea-pot. "Don' know what's goin' to 'come o' them yer Culm folks!" she said.
"And," continued Noll, "I promised to bring Dirk some medicine,—I was going to get it of you; but I got into that fearful tide and was half drowned, and now—oh, what can I do?"
"Bress ye, honey, ye didn't 'spect to go back in de dark to Culm?" cried Hagar.
"I would—if Uncle Richard hadn't forbidden," said Noll; "do you think you have any medicines that can help the child, Hagar?"
"Don' know," shaking her turbaned head. "Ef 'twas rheumatiz, or ef 'twas a cut, or ef 'twas one o' dem yer colds, Hagar'd 'spect to know; but can't tell nuffin 'bout fevers, nohow. 'Tw'u'd be jes' as de Lord's willin'!"
"Will you go, or send something in the morning?" queried Noll.
"Ef it's pleasant, honey, Hagar'll go wid ye. Yer supper's waiting fur ye!"
Noll sighed, and did not stir. The misery which he had seen in Dirk's wretched hut haunted him.
Hagar poured out the boy's cup of tea, waited a little space, then returned it to its steaming pot again.
"Come, yer supper's cold 'nough, now, honey," said she, coming up to Noll's seat. "What ye waitin' fur? Oh, chile, ye grows more'n' more like yer poor father. T'inkin' ob de mis'ry ober dar; ain't ye?"
"Such misery, too!" said Noll.
"Well, dar's mis'ry eberywhere!" said Hagar; "can't go nowhere but what ye'll find it. Yer Uncle Dick has had mis'ry 'nough in his day, but 'tain't done him no good 'tall. Jes' froze his heart up harder'n a stone."
"It isn't all stone," said Noll.
"Don' ye t'ink so? Well, 'pears like ye's sent here by de Lord, jes' to break dat heart ob his all to pieces!" said Hagar, earnestly.
"Sent here to break Uncle Richard's heart?" laughed Noll. "Well, I wonder if he thinks I came here for that purpose?"
"Don' know," said the old housekeeper, with a shake of her head; "but dat's what I t'ink de Lord sent ye here fur. Dat heart ob his is all frizzed up. 'Spects 'twon't be so allus, chile,—de Lord helpin'."
Noll ate his supper, bade Hagar good-night, admonishing her to "be sure and have the medicines ready the first thing!" and groped his way to the library, where his uncle was sitting at his organ.
Trafford stopped playing the instant the door opened, and as Noll drew near, put his arm about him, saying,—
"My boy!—mine!—doubly my own since I snatched you from death! Oh, Noll! if I had lost you!"
The boy sighed. "Dirk has got to lose his child," he said, "and oh, Uncle Richard, I should be a great deal happier if I might only try to save it!"
At the first gray glimmer of the wintry dawn, Noll was awake. He felt stiff and lame after his adventure of the previous evening, and not at all inclined to stir. But a sudden recollection of Dirk and his child, and the aid which he had promised them, came to him almost as soon as he was conscious of the day's dawning, and he got up and limped to the window to see whether there was any prospect of Hagar's journey to Culm being realized. The sky was as gray and sombre as yesterday's had been. All the sea was in a great turmoil, and rolled in a flood of foam upon the shore as far as he could see. Not a sail in sight upon the lonely waste, not a sign of human life anywhere. Now and then a snow-flake fluttered down; and the wind screamed shrilly about the house-corners, and wailed hoarsely in the casements.
"Hagar can't go to-day," thought Noll, with a sinking heart; "and, oh! what can be done?"
He trembled for fear Uncle Richard would forbid him to go to Culm again. He felt as if he could never bear to meet Dirk's eyes after promising him aid and failing to bring it; and, with this thought oppressing him, and the lonely cry of the sea filling his ears, he dressed himself, and went down to the library with a downcast heart. His uncle sat by a window, looking, with a sad and gloomy face, upon the sea; and, as his nephew entered, acknowledged his "Good-morning, Uncle Richard," with only a cold nod. But Noll, resolved to have the matter settled at once, came up to his chair, saying,—
"I've got a great favor to ask of you, Uncle Richard. May I go around to Culm after breakfast?"
Trafford's face grew gloomier than before.
"For what?" he asked.
"To carry something for Dirk's child," Noll answered, meeting his uncle's stern eyes with his own pleading blue ones.
"Pshaw!" exclaimed Trafford, impatiently, "what are these miserable fish-folks to you? I don't want you to care for them!"
"But, Uncle Richard—"
"Dirk's child is sick,—dying, I'm afraid!"
"So are hundreds in this world. There's misery everywhere."
"Perhaps I might aid this misery, Uncle Richard, if you'll let me try. Will you?"
"You will have more than your hands full if you are going to look after these Culm people," said Trafford, coldly; "you had better not begin."
Noll's face grew graver and graver, and he made no reply to his uncle's last remark.
"Well," said Trafford, after a long silence, "do you wish anything more, Noll?"
The boy turned away, as if hurt by his uncle's coldness, and walked quickly to the library door. There he wavered—stopped—then turned about, and came back.
"Uncle Richard," said he, tremulously, "papa said I was to do all the good I could in the world, and never pass by any trouble that I might help, and—and I think he would tell me to go to Dirk's, if he were here."
Trafford turned about with an impatient word upon his lips, but it was not spoken. It seemed to him as if his dead brother stood before him,—as he had known him when they were boys together,—and that those words were meant for a reproach. He put out his hand and touched Noll's shoulder, as if to make sure that it was really his nephew and no vision.
"Ah!" said he, with a sigh, "your father looks out at me from your eyes, Noll. Turn them away from me. Go to Culm, if you like,—you have my permission."
"Breakfas's waitin' fur ye!" said Hagar, at the door.
"But, Uncle Richard," said Noll, in some perplexity, "I don't like to go and have you all the time wishing me at home."
"I cannot help that," said Trafford, as he rose to answer Hagar's call. "I have given you permission,—go."
The breakfast was a silent one. After it was over, and the door had closed upon the grim master of the house as he went back to his books, Hagar said,—
"Don't ye let nuffin make ye downhearted, honey! De Lord'll help ye, ef yer Uncle Dick won't. 'Tain't de might nor de money dat'll do eberyting, chile. All 'pends on whether de Lord's on yer side. Jes' come in my ole kitchen and see what I's put up fur ye to carry to dem yer mis'able folks."
Noll got his overcoat and cap, and followed the old housekeeper into her cozy and comfortable dominion.
"Look at dis yer," said Hagar, taking a basket off the table; "jes' as chock full as nuffin ye ken think ob. Dis yer is brof,—chicken-brof,—an' dat yer bundle is crackers. Dis bottle's de med'cine, an' de chile is to hab a teaspoonful ebery half an hour. Ef I could be there, de chile should hab a sweat, sure; but dis med'cine'll hev to answer! Dis yer is a teaspoon an' a teacup, 'cause ye won't find nuffin fit fur to drink nuffin out ob. Hagar knows how dem yer Culm folks lib! Now, ken ye 'member all dat, honey?"
"Yes," said Noll, "and I thank you a hundred times, Hagar. I'd better start at once, without waiting another minute."
The old housekeeper followed him to the door, cautioning, "Keep 'way from dat yer sea, chile! Don't yer git into dat yer drefful tide, honey! an' de Lord bress ye an' bring ye safe back!"
The wind was keen and bitter, and the sea thundered as mightily as on the previous evening. Noll hurried along over the great patches of icy sea-weed and frozen pools of water in the rocks and hollows, and thought, now that he was making such haste, that the way had never seemed quite so long before. He paused for a moment to look upon the scene of last night's peril, and remember, with a shudder, how the waves battered, and how they pierced and numbed him with their cold. Then he ran along the hard, sandy beach as fast as the wind and his burden would let him. The Culm huts came in sight at last, cheerless and desolate, and with no sign of life or occupancy about them, save the faint smoke which the wind whirled down from the chimneys.
Noll began to regard Dirk's habitation with anxious eyes long before he drew near. He half expected to see the fisherman's tall figure pacing up and down the sand, beating his breast and groaning with despair, perhaps; but instead, the sands were deserted. Noll came opposite the miserable dwelling, and paused a few seconds before rapping, waiting to hear the sick child's low wail. He heard only a confused, unintelligible murmur of voices.
A woman answered his summons,—not the child's mother, but a neighbor, evidently,—and stood staring blankly at him.
"Can I see Dirk,—Dirk Sharp?" Noll asked.
At the sound of the boy's voice, the fisherman himself came to the door. His face was haggard, and looked wan and worn, for all the bronze of wind and weather that was upon it.
"Lord bless ye, lad!" he cried to Noll, "but ye be too late."
"Yes," brokenly, "my little gal died las' night."
Noll was silent with surprise. He was too late,—too late.
"Oh, Dirk," he said, as soon as he could speak, "I would have come back last night, but I got into the sea, and—and it was impossible. So I brought what I could this morning."
Dirk looked at the lad and his basket, and choked. At last he said, gratefully, "It be good in ye to care for the like o' us, lad. We be poor folks fur ye to look at, the Lord knows! What did ye bring fur my little gal?"
Noll lifted the cover of his basket, and Dirk peered in, exclaiming, "My little gal never seed the like o' them, lad! She wur a tender thing, my little gal wur, and mabby ef she'd had a bit o' somethin' better'n the salt fish—Well, she be beyond meat and drink now," he said, choking again.
Noll knew not whether to turn back, or to stay. Dirk, however, presently said, "Come, lad, step in an' see my little gal. She wur as white an' sof'-cheeked as yerself. O Lord! I might ha' knowed she'd never come up stout an' growin' like the rest," he groaned as he turned back to lead the way for Noll.
In the room where the little one had lain sat three or four old fish-wives,—wrinkled, weather-beaten old faces they had,—who were nodding and whispering over their pipes in a solemn kind of way, occasionally addressing a word to the mother, who sat enveloped in the smoke which poured into the room from the ill-constructed fireplace. They regarded Noll with many curious glances as he passed through after Dirk to the apartment where the child was laid, and one old creature followed after them, apparently to ascertain the boy's errand.
It was a bare room where Dirk's treasure was sleeping,—not a thing in it save the two wooden stools and rough board which upheld their still little burden. Pure and white the child lay,—a fair, delicate flower when compared with the dinginess and squalor of everything about it; and something of this contrast seemed to glimmer upon Dirk's rough perceptions, for he said to Noll,—
"Ye wouldn't think she could be mine, lad! Ye don't wonder the little gal couldn't come up like the rest o' the young uns?"
"It wur a fair gal, Lord knows," said the old fish-wife who had followed them in; "it warn't black and freckly, never. Sich kinds don't love this salt water, Dirk Sharp,—ye couldn't ha' raised her, man!"
"Oh, my little gal!" murmured Dirk, smoothing a fleck of golden hair with his great brawny hand.
"Ye be fair an' white," said the old fish-wife, touching Noll's cheek with her skinny finger, "an' what be ye here on the Rock fur?"
"Sh!—ye let the lad alone, mother," said Dirk; "he be come here to bring my little gal somethin', an' she be beyond eatin' an' drinkin'. He be a good lad to do it!"
Noll looked upon the little sleeper's face, and then at the wretched surroundings, and was glad for the child's sake that sleep and peace had come at last. Yet his heart was heavy as he looked upon his basket and its now useless contents, and he thought, "Oh, if I had only been more careful last night!—perhaps—perhaps Hagar's medicines could have helped it." He turned to Dirk, saying, quietly,—
"I must go now. I'm—I'm so sorry I was too late!"
The fisherman followed Noll out on to the sand, and, as the boy was about to turn away homeward, took both his hands in one of his own great brown ones, saying,—
"Ye be kinder to me 'an I ken tell ye, lad. I thought yer kind had no heart fur us folk. Bless ye, lad, bless ye!"
Noll's homeward walk seemed somewhat brighter to him, even though he left the child dead behind him. Dirk's gratitude, a small matter though it may have been, gave him a thrill of pleasure. It was pleasant to think that he had one friend among the fish-folk, rough and ignorant though they were. He remembered how, in the little sea-town in which his father had once dwelt, the fishermen came at last to love and respect the kind minister who worked so patiently to raise them out of their slough of ignorance and degradation, and that whenever his father walked among them, they flocked about him to listen to his words and counsel, and watch for his look or smile of approval.
"And," thought Noll, "if Uncle Richard would only do as papa did, what a happy man he would be, and what good he could do for Culm!" But that time—if ever it came—was yet a long, long way off, he thought, and so the people must live on their old, dreary, wretched life till some one taught them better.
The boy walked soberly home, with a great many serious, earnest thoughts in his heart. Somehow, this morning's sight had made another impression upon his mind beside that of sadness and disappointment. He felt and saw that there was a great work to do. Who was to do it?
Hagar met him at the door, rejoicing that he had returned in safety, but, stopping only to tell her that the child was dead, Noll went on to the library. It was the boy's intention to open his heart to his uncle, and tell him of all the want and wretchedness there was at Culm, while the impression was so deep and vivid in his mind; but Trafford sat at the organ and took no notice of his nephew's presence, and, after a long lingering, Noll gave up the attempt for that day, at least.
It was late in the afternoon when he went out for his accustomed walk. Partly by accident, partly by design, he came to the little place of graves in the frozen sand, and there found the funeral party from the fish-huts just gathering about the shallow resting-place which had been scooped for Dirk's treasure. The huddling crowd of poorly-clad men and women respectfully made way for him, and Dirk looked unutterable thanks for what he considered a great honor. Without a prayer, without a word of consolation, the little one was lowered into the earth amid the wailing of the women, and the shrill and lonely screaming of the fierce and bitter wind.
Noll had never seen anything so unutterably dreary, and when all was over, and the mourners had disappeared over the other side of the Rock, he went home, thinking more deeply than ever of the work to be done, and wondering who was to do it.
The warmth and quietness of the library made such a bright and pleasant contrast to the dreary scene in the Culm burying-ground that Noll gave a great sigh of pleasure and relief as he entered the room and found it light and cheerful with the blaze of a brisk fire on the hearth. He sat down in one of the big arm-chairs which stood either side of the fireplace, and held his numbed hands in the warmth, and looked about him, thinking that the old stone house was a palace in comparison with the other Culm habitations. Uncle Richard sat in his usual seat by the window, with his face toward the darkening sea, and, with the dismal scene which he had just witnessed fresh in his mind, Noll felt a tenderer yearning toward the stern man,—feeling, somehow, as if they could not be too near and dear to each other on this lonely Rock, where, just now, it seemed as if there was little else than wretchedness. Perhaps it was this feeling which led the boy to leave his seat and stand by his uncle's chair, and, with one hand on the grim man's shoulder, to say, "Dirk's child is dead, Uncle Richard, and they've just buried it. Oh! what a lonely place to be buried in! I would rather lie in the sea, it seems to me."
Trafford turned suddenly about at these words, exclaiming, "Hush, hush! don't talk about death, boy! What have you been up to that dreary little heap of graves for?"
"Partly to please Dirk,—partly because I wished, Uncle Richard. It's a dismal place! I'm glad enough to get back."
"We shall both sleep there soon enough," said Trafford, who seemed to be in one of his gloomiest moods. "Why go there till we go for the last time?"
Noll's arm went about his uncle's neck. "Don't say such things!" he said. "Perhaps we'll not live here always, Uncle Richard; and, if we do have to be buried up there in the sand, heaven is just as near, after all."
Trafford looked at the boy's face, ruddy and glowing from the long walk in the wind, and sighed,—
"Yes, for you, Noll. But for me,—no, no!"
"Why, Uncle Richard?"
"Because—it is all dark,—dark! I have nothing, see nothing to hope for beyond."
"Why won't you try to hope?" said Noll, softly.
"Hush! it's no use. Your Aunt Marguerite bade me follow after her long ago. I did not try. Your father said almost the same, Noll. Yet here I am,—I have not tried, I see no light, there is no hope for me."
The crackle of the fire and the hoarse voice of the sea had the silence all to themselves for a long time. At last Noll said,—
"When papa died, he did not fear at all, Uncle Richard. He said it was only the end of his journey, and that I was to follow on in the same way till I got to him at last. And papa said the truth, Uncle Richard."
"Yes! he never said aught else, Noll,—never!"
"And," continued the boy, his face growing grave, "papa said I was never to forget God, and never to forget to help any of his creatures if they were in trouble, and, oh! Uncle Richard, I hope I never shall!"
"Ah!" said Trafford, thoughtfully, "your father ever had others' welfare at heart. I remember, when we were lads, how, one day, in coming from the woods with nuts and grapes, we passed a poor creature by the roadside, who seemed fainting with fatigue or hunger. We both laughed at the queer figure at first, and passed by merrily, and went on our way; but Noll's face grew graver and graver, I remember, and by and by he would turn about, in spite of me, and go all the long way back to empty his pockets of their pennies and bits of silver into the wanderer's lap. Yes, he had a heart for every unfortunate, and it was not closed against them as he grew older."
Again the room was silent, while the fire flickered and painted flame-shadows on the wall, and lit up the dusky corners with its red glow. Noll sat on the arm of his uncle's chair, and watched the quivering shapes, and, in fancy, went back over the sea to Hastings. It was something such a night as this, he remembered, that papa had bidden him farewell,—lying so calm and patient in the great south chamber, where people were stepping softly about, and speaking in whispers and sighs. And papa's dear arms had been around him till the last, Noll thought, with his eyes brimming, and seeming yet to feel their gentle pressure; and, as long as it could whisper, the dear voice had breathed love and solemn counsel and fervent prayer into his ears. Back to the boy came the vivid recollection of all the hushed voice had said,—all the injunctions, the earnest entreaties to follow in the path which led only heavenward, and his heart was so full that he longed to cry out, "Papa, papa! If I might only see your face in this dreary place!"
Trafford presently said, speaking his thoughts aloud, "It was an evil day that separated us. God only knows what I might have been, had I always lived in the sunshine of his pure, warm heart. Why are you so silent, Noll?"
The boy could not trust himself to speak, and Trafford suddenly saw that there were tears shining in his eyes. Noll felt his uncle's hand laid upon his head, and the stern voice said, with all the tenderness of which it was capable,—
"It's a hard life for you, Noll. I can see,—I know it."
"No, no!" said the boy, quickly, "it's not that, Uncle Richard! I was only thinking of—of papa,—that was all."
"What about him?" queried Trafford; "I never knew that you mourned before."
"Why," said Noll, chokingly, "papa told me so much,—so much that he wished me to do and be,—and it all came to me just then, as if he were saying it over again."
"What did he wish you to do and be?" Trafford quietly asked.
"He said that—that I should find Christ's work to do wherever I might be, and that I must do his work and follow him wherever I should go; and—and I'm a long way from that, Uncle Richard; though," Noll added, turning his face away from the shining firelight, "I do try to do it, and not forget him nor his work."
Again Trafford's hand was laid upon the boy's head, this time to stroke his curly locks away from his eyes, where the wind had blown them.
"Did he tell you aught of me?" he asked, presently.
"No,—only that if you ever found me, or I you, that I was to be your boy. Papa said you would care for me."
"He believed in me still! He trusted me!" said Trafford. "Alas! he knew not what a father I should make his child."
Noll slipped off the chair arm, saying, "Don't say that again, Uncle Richard. Papa trusted you,—so do I. And, if you please, will you go out to supper? Hagar called a long time ago. Come, Uncle Richard, don't look so gloomy! Papa smiled even when—when he was saying good-by to me."
The instant these words escaped Noll's lips he half regretted them. He had never before allowed his uncle to know that he thought him sad and gloomy, and he was not quite sure that the careless word would strike agreeably upon his ears. But Trafford only said,—
"Yes, Noll, I know. We will go out to supper," and rose from the chair and followed after his nephew.
The boy did his best to make the meal a cheery one, thinking to himself that this, as much as anything, was a part of the work which papa wished him to do; and, observing his efforts, Trafford endeavored to keep pace with his nephew's cheerful talk. Noll did not go back to the library after tea was over, but followed Hagar out to her kitchen as she went thither with her tray of dishes, and sat down in the cozy corner by the fireplace. Somehow, the boy thought, the old housekeeper's humble kitchen seemed to gather more brightness and cheerfulness into its rough and smoke-tarnished precincts than the great library, with all its comforts and elegancies, ever held. The reason for this he did not seek; he only knew that it was so, and liked the wooden seat in the chimney-corner accordingly. Hagar came out with her last tray-load from the dining-room, and set it down upon the table with,—
"Bress ye, honey, Hagar's glad 'nough to see ye sittin' dar. 'Pears like I never heard de sea shoutin' like it is dis yer ebenin'. Seems as ef all de folks dat de cruel ole monster hab swallered wur jes' openin' the'r moufs and cryin' 'loud! Hagar t'anks de Lord dat yer ain't in de bottom ob it, honey."
The old housekeeper took two or three side glances at the boy's sober face as she poured the hot water over her dishes, and said at last, "Now don' ye s'pose Hagar knows what ye're t'inkin' ob so hard, chile? Ki! she c'u'd tell ye quicker'n nuffin. You's t'inkin' ob dem mis'able Culm folks, you is."
"You are partly right," said Noll. "It seems to me as if I couldn't think of anything else. I try to sometimes, but the sight of their wretched ways keeps coming to me, and it's no use to try and put it away. Oh, dear, I wish something could be done for them!"
"Dat's yer bressed father all ober!" said Hagar. "'Spects ef he was 'live an' livin' on dis yer wild'ness, we'd see somethin' did fur 'em. But Mas'r Dick—well, his heart is all frizzed up, jes' as I telled ye afore. But de Lord'll open it sometime, honey,—Hagar's got faith 'nough to b'lieve dat!"
"Oh! I hope so," said Noll; "but what are the people going to do till then?"
"Can't tell ye nuffin 'bout dat," said Hagar, making a vigorous clatter among her dishes; "'spects the day's comin', tho', when de Lord gets ready fur't. 'Tain't till he says, honey."
Noll gravely replenished the fire from the great basket of cones and chips which stood on the hearth, and stood listening, for a little time, to their brisk snap and crackle, then turned to Hagar, saying,—
"Do you think I could do anything for them, Hagar? I've been thinking this long time about it, and there's no one to ask but you, for I can't quite get courage enough to say anything to Uncle Richard about it,—he would be angry, I'm afraid. Do you think I could do anything, Hagar?"
The old housekeeper let go her dishcloth, and turned about to look at Noll, as he stood before the fire. Her eyes surveyed the lad from head to foot,—as if it was the first time she had seen him,—and after a few minutes of silence she slowly said, "What put dat in yer head, chile?"
"I don't know; it's been there this great while. It was the misery over there, I suppose," said Noll.
"Well, well," said she, turning back to her dishes, "Hagar's 'stonished, she is! Does I 'spect ye ken do anything fur dem yer? Bress de Lord! He'll help ye, honey!—he'll help ye! An' ef it wa'n't de Lord dat put it in yer head—Well, chile," Hagar added, "de Lord's eberywhere, an' 'pears to me like as ef it was his doin'. What ye t'ink, honey?"
Noll was looking in the rosy bed of coals, and for a few minutes made no reply; then he said, in answer to Hagar's question,—
"I'd like to think that, Hagar. I'd like to have all my thoughts and plans come from him, and I'd like to do the Lord's work; for that's what I promised,—that's what I am trying to do."
Hagar wiped a pile of plates, and laying down her towel, said, reverently,—
"Promise, chile? Did ye promise de Lord, or who?"
After she had asked this question, she looked furtively over her shoulder at Noll, as if fearing she had asked about something which she had no right to know.
But Noll, with hands clasped over knee, was looking straight into the firelight, and did not appear offended; and pretty soon he said, slowly and softly, Hagar stopping her clatter to listen,—
"Before mamma died—Did you know mamma, Hagar?"
"Not muchly, chile," said Hagar; "yer Uncle Dick's wife was my lady."
"Well, before mamma died," continued Noll, "we used to take long walks upon the shore by the town. A great shining shore it was, I remember, and yellow like gold sometimes when the sun shone upon it."
"Like de shore ob de new Jerusalem," interposed Hagar, gazing abstractedly in her dish-pan.
"And there were great cedars and pines drooping down from the rocks," continued Noll, "and here mamma and I used to walk up and down when papa was busy in his study; and almost always he used to come out to walk a little with us before we were through. And one day we waited a long time for him to come out, and at last sat down on a rock, for mamma was not well then, and could not walk long without a rest; and as she looked across the smooth water, she said, 'And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass.' Though I was a good deal smaller than I am now, I knew what she meant, and of what she was thinking, for mamma used to talk about leaving me then; and I laid my head in her lap and cried a little, and said,—
"'Oh, don't talk of that, mamma, for what am I going to do?'"
Noll choked a little here at the remembrance, and Hagar drew a long breath.
"Then," continued Noll, with a quivering voice, "she bent her face over me and the tears in her eyes ran over on to my cheeks, and she said,—
"'Oh, my little Noll, if mamma could feel sure that you were ready to come after her into that city, she would never cry or mourn again!'
"It seemed as if my heart would break to see her cry and to know that I was not ready, and that I could not stop her tears. I wanted to scream and groan, my heart swelled so."
"Ob course ye did," said Hagar, with ready sympathy.
Noll was silent for a long minute. Somehow, the talk with Uncle Richard in the library had brought back the remembrance of all these past events so brightly and vividly that it was like living them over again. But he had not yet got to the "promise," and Hagar was waiting patiently. So he continued, with a slight effort, saying,—
"Mamma dried her tears very suddenly, for papa came in sight just then, and I suppose she feared he would be worried or anxious about her, and though she said nothing more to me about the city to which she was going, I couldn't forget her tears, nor that she was sorrowful and unhappy on my account. It made me miserable. I didn't want to walk with her the next day, for fear I should see her tears again; and I knew I could not bear that. So when it came time to go, I hid away, and she went alone."
"Poor honey!" said Hagar, reflectively.
"But that only made it all worse. I knew that I was all wrong, and that I ought to try and find Jesus, through whom, mamma said, she could only enter into the city. But it seemed as if he had hidden away from me; and the way was all dark and I was afraid and wretched and miserable."
"Oh, chile," said Hagar, "de bressed Lord was waitin' an' ready to take ye up in his arms de berry minnit ye frowed yerself on his mercy!"
"Yes," said Noll, "but I was not ready. I held back, and was wicked and wretched; but it couldn't last alway, and one night when I had said my prayer and been tucked in bed by mamma's poor weak, patient hands, I could delay no longer, and throwing my arms about her neck when she bent down to kiss me, I cried and sobbed, and begged her to help me find Jesus, who reigned over the city, and mamma cried too,—tears of joy they were, she said,—and told me that I had not to seek for him as for a great stranger, but that he stood ready to enter in and dwell in my heart the moment I yielded it up to him."
"Dat was de bressed troof!" said Hagar, with shining eyes; "an' what did ye do den, honey?"
"Mamma called papa to come, and he prayed that Jesus would forgive me and make my heart his own, and help me to always walk in the path that ends at last at the gate of his city. And," Noll added, turning partly about to Hagar, "I did give up, and—and I think he forgave me. The dreary load went off my heart, and I promised Jesus then to never forget him nor his work. When mamma did at last go to the city, I promised her the same; when papa went, I promised him too. That is my promise," said Noll, a little tremulously. "Do you think I can forget it, Hagar? Do you think I can help wanting to do what is his work?"
Hagar wiped her eyes. "'Spects dere's no need ob answerin' dat question," said she, quietly; "when de Lord's wid ye, dar ain't nobody gwine to 'vent yer workin' good, nohow."
"But I don't know how to begin," said Noll, "even if I could do anything. There's so much to be done, and I've nothing to do with. And I'm afraid that Uncle Richard will forbid me to do anything about it. He doesn't want me to go to Culm, he says, and he dislikes the Culm people."
Hagar did not know what consolation to offer for this unfavorable prospect. She could not counsel the boy to disobey his uncle's commands, neither did she accept the idea of having Noll's projects defeated for lack of permission to carry them out.
"Don' know, honey," said she, after a long meditation; "can't tell ye nuffin 'bout dat, nohow. But jes' go right on wid yer plans, an' de Lord'll find a way fur ye. He ken do it,—he ken do it, chile."
But the question was not settled in Noll's mind. It was not a thing to be undertaken without much deliberation, and, as yet, only the vaguest of schemes floated through his mind. He wished to aid, he longed to be doing something of the work that was to be done, but there did not seem to be the smallest prospect of a commencement.
Christmas came and went. The eve was not an unpleasant one to Noll, though he remembered all too well what a blithe evening the last Christmas-eve had been, and could not help thinking yearningly of the dear friends gathered merrily together across the sea, and wonder whether he was missed from the throng, as he sat by the fire all the solitary evening.
THE WINTER'S WANING.
Dirk's little one was not the only fever-stricken sleeper that was laid to rest in the dreary little burying-ground that winter. The fever, born of want and filth and exposure, lingered among the wretched huts, taking down the strong men and wasting the lives of the little ones, till, after weary lingering, they flickered out. Of course the sick ones had but the poorest of care and the rudest of medical aid. The people were disheartened and apathetic, and seemed to have no idea of cleansing their habitations or reforming their way of living. Noll once ventured to hint to Dirk, with whom he was more intimately acquainted than the others, that cleanliness and care might do much toward ridding them of the haunting fever. The fisherman stared blankly at this suggestion, and replied,—
"It mought do fur the like o' ye, lad; but we be poor folks, an' I don't think 'tw'u'd do the good ye think. The fever be come, an' it be goin' to stay till we be all lyin' up in the sand yender."
So the sickness lingered, meeting no resistance and no attempts to check its progress. It smote heaviest the little ones just toddling about, and who had not enough of strength and endurance in their little bodies to resist the slowly-destroying fever. So Dirk's treasure did not sleep alone in the sand, for many another father's was there to keep it company. Oh! the weariness of the days, the slow dragging of the weeks! When the sickness seemed to have spent itself, and hope was beginning to flicker up, back came the destroyer and fell upon some little one whom father and mother had fondly hoped to save,—for these Culm people, dull and ignorant though they were, had a strong and passionate love for their children that showed itself most vividly in these days of death,—and then the people settled into their old apathetic despair and found no light nor comfort for their souls.
Was it any wonder that—with all this misery and death about him, and the sight of it distressing him—Noll should grow sick at heart? The gloom of the old stone house and the desolateness of his new home, when compared with the one which he had left, had, at first, been all that his fresh young spirits could bear; and, having grown to like his new abode in a measure, he found, even then, that it would not do to remember Hastings and his friends too often; and now, in these dreary days, the boy began to grow less cheerful and to feel an unconquerable desire to go back to those who loved him and whose homes knew nothing of dreariness or gloom. This longing for friends he kept bravely to himself, because he thought it was a part of his work—the work which it seemed to him was God's—to be as brave and cheerful as possible before Uncle Richard, and win him out of his gloom and moroseness. So this yearning and desire for brighter scenes and faces was kept a secret, and Trafford suspected nothing of it. His keen eyes, however, detected that Noll was graver and less talkative than usual, and he began to look about for a reason. Some dim knowledge of the sickness and death in the village had crept in to him through Noll's and Hagar's talk, and a sudden fear chilled him lest his nephew, too, was to be stricken down with the lingering fever. What if it should be so? What if even now the boy was oppressed with the languor and depression which precedes illness? With this thought torturing him, he called to Noll one afternoon from the library window, as the boy was idly walking up and down the frozen sand. After a few minutes of waiting, Noll made his appearance at the library door, looking a little surprised, perhaps, at this unusual summons. Trafford bade him come up to his chair, and Noll obeyed.
"Where were you all the forenoon?" questioned the uncle. "I saw you but once after breakfast."
Noll looked as if he had much rather refrain from answering, but said, after a few seconds of hesitation, "Over at Culm, Uncle Richard."
"At Culm!" exclaimed Trafford, sternly. "Isn't the fever raging there?"
"And you have been exposing yourself? Speak, Noll!"
"Why—yes—I suppose so, Uncle Richard. I was in the room where Hark Darby's little boy was sick."
Trafford stamped upon the floor with impatience. "What were you there for?" he cried.
"To carry something that Hagar made for it to drink. There's no doctor, you know; and they're terribly poor, Uncle Richard. Oh! if you could only—"
"Stop! I wish to hear naught of those fish-folks," cried Trafford. "Oh! you careless lad, what can I do with you? Are you determined to catch the fever? Are you bound to be always in danger?"
"No; but it's terrible over there, and—and they're dying with the sickness, and nothing to make them comfortable! Oh! how can I help it, Uncle Richard?"
Trafford looked into the lad's earnest eyes and sighed. "Would you like to take the fever and be buried with the rest up there in the sand?" he asked.
Noll shivered a little, and answered, "No, I don't want to die, Uncle Richard. But I think I ought to help them all I can, over there, for all that. And it's such a little—such a very little—that I can do! Oh! Uncle Richard, don't you think it is terrible to see them so wretched, and no one to help them?"
"I don't see them!" said Trafford; "I should know nothing of it but for you, and I don't want you to see them or know aught of the misery or the sickness. Do you understand?"
Noll looked at his uncle as if he failed to comprehend.
"You don't mean that I'm not to go there any more?" he said.
"Yes, since you are not disposed to incline to my wishes, I must command you. You are not to go near—"
This time it was Noll who interrupted. Before Trafford could finish his command, the boy had taken two or three quick steps forward and clasped his arms so quickly and convulsively about the stern man's neck that he was startled into silence.
"Don't, don't say that, Uncle Richard!" cried Noll; "I couldn't mind you if you did! It wouldn't be right,—when they're all sick and almost starving,—and I couldn't do it, and it is not as papa told me to do! And—"
Trafford endeavored to release Noll's hold, but the boy only clung the tighter, exclaiming,—
"No, no! don't say it, Uncle Richard, for I couldn't mind you! Papa never would wish me to! And oh, why don't you help those poor, dying people? Why don't you help them, Uncle Richard? Why don't you,—why don't you?"
Surprised at this unusual vehemence on the part of his nephew, Trafford was silent, hardly knowing whether to be angry or indifferent. That this matter lay very near the boy's heart, he had no longer any doubt. What could he do with him?
"Noll," said he after a long silence, "do you mean that you will not obey me?"
The boy hesitated. "In everything else, Uncle Richard," he answered, with red cheeks and downcast eyes; "but this—but this—oh, how can you ask me to stop? There isn't any one else to do anything, and it helps a little, and they look for me to come every day; and if I did not—oh, Uncle Richard, it would be too cruel! I can't do it! Do you think papa would be pleased?"
"But you are mine, now, not his," said Trafford; with something like displeasure in his tone; "aren't you aware of it?"
Noll said not a word, but stood with his eyes turned away from his uncle's, and his cheeks crimsoning, while his breath came quick and fast.
"Will you obey me or not?" Trafford asked, sternly.
Noll turned around and met his uncle's eye. He began to plead. His awe of his uncle seemed to have vanished for the time, and Trafford was astonished at the boy's earnestness and vehemence. Two or three times he was about to put up his hand to command silence, but Noll redoubled his pleading, and he continued to listen. All the remembrances of the past dreary weeks—the want, the slow wasting, the flickering out of life, the dismal laying away of the poor body in the sand—came to Noll as vividly as the reality which he had witnessed, and made him pray for relief with an earnestness and entreaty which ordinarily were not his.
"Just think, Uncle Richard," said he, in conclusion, "papa would have gone to their aid long ago. He bade me do all the good I could, and you won't forbid me?—oh, I know you will not!—and won't you help me to do more,—won't you, Uncle Richard?"
Trafford gloomily pushed his nephew away.
"Go!" he said; "I do not care to see you any more this afternoon."
Hardly had the boy turned away, however, before the quick thought flashed into his mind that he had failed to ask him the question for which he had called him. He might even now be ill, and he was sending him away in anger!
"Noll!" exclaimed Trafford, "come back. Are you ill, my boy?"
"Why are you so grave and sober of late?"
"I didn't know that I was, Uncle Richard."
Trafford looked keenly in his nephew's face, and at last drew him toward himself. What if the fever should get a hold of the boy? he thought, anxiously. There was no aid, no succor!
"Oh, Noll," he said, as tenderly as he might, "you cannot know what a blow it would be to me to lose you. Won't you be careful for my sake?"
"Yes, Uncle Richard; I don't think there is much danger, though. It is only the weak, half-starved ones that are ill."
A long silence followed. Then Noll asked, softly,—
"Do you give me permission to help them all I can, Uncle Richard?"
Trafford drew a great sigh, as if he felt himself to be yielding, perhaps, the boy's very life, and answered, "Yes."
"And you'll help me, too?" said Noll, brightly.
"No! Isn't this enough? What more would you have?"
"I thought that—that perhaps you would help a little, too,—you can do so much more than I," said Noll.
Trafford shook his head, gloomily. "No," he said; "I can give you nothing but money. I have no heart for the work. And now I think of it, you've had no allowance since you came here, Noll. I had not thought of it before. Brother Noll and I always had spending-money."
"But I've no use for it," said Noll, with a little laugh; "I couldn't spend it if I tried, Uncle Richard!"
"You may find a use for it when the 'Gull' begins her trips again," said his uncle; "at any rate, you shall have an allowance. You will find it on your study table every Monday morning."
Noll thanked his uncle for this kindness, but at the time, was much at a loss what to do with his weekly allowance which every Monday morning brought him. He found a use for it, however, as time will show.
After this long talk, Noll felt somewhat lighter-hearted, if for no other reason than because he had received Uncle Richard's permission to go on with his work of aid. Spring was not far off, and with its coming the fever would most likely flee, and then, he thought, there would be some hope of doing something for the Culm people. And was he not already doing something?
To Noll, it seemed but the merest trifle; in the eyes of the poor fish-folk, his deeds were great and wonderful. All unconsciously, the boy was accomplishing one of the most difficult portions of the task which he had set for himself,—the winning of those rough, untaught hearts. Many an uncouth blessing was called down upon the lad's head as he made his appearance day after day at the doors of the habitations which the fever had entered. His cheery, gladsome presence, the Culm folk thought, was like a ray of sunshine in the gloom of their hovels. It was curious to see how those great brawny men confided in him, and watched to see him coming down the sands of a morning-time, with his basket of delicacies on one arm, balanced by a basket of more substantial food on the other. Not one of the men but what, in their hearts, loved the boy and blessed the day which brought him to Culm Rock. And, quite before he was aware of it, Noll had accomplished one great object, and won the love and confidence of the fish-folk.
The snow melted and ran into the sea, the ice in the rock hollows trickled its life away, and warmer winds and sunnier clouds gave token of the spring's coming; and Noll grew happier every day and looked gleefully forward to the coming of the "Gull," and the tidings which she would bring. Often in these days, when returning from his morning round, it seemed to the boy as if his own father's blessing rested upon his heart, it was so light and glad, and that God's love was all about him and smiling over the barren Rock and the far, wide sea.
It was on one of the balmiest of spring afternoons that Noll went over to Culm to see a little child who was recovering from the fever. The sickness, apparently, had run its course, and the people were beginning to take heart; and the men were overhauling their nets and making ready for their summer's work. There had been a heavy storm on the previous evening, and Noll found quantities of brilliant sea-weeds and curious shells and pebbles on his walk along the beach, and lingered long to search for treasures and enjoy the bright loveliness of the day. Culm Rock and the great sea had never looked fairer to him than on this afternoon,—the one lying warm and silent, its great stone ribs purpling under the sun, and the other flecked with curling ripples of snowy foam and emerald light.
It was late afternoon when he arrived at the Culm houses, and so long did he linger that the sun was dipping in the waves before he was ready to leave his little patient. He was standing in the door, swinging his basket to and fro, and on the point of taking his departure, when a sudden shout of voices from without turned his attention in that direction. There, slowly riding in over the waves all burnished and aflame with ruddy sunlight, was the "Gull"!
For a few short seconds Noll actually stood still with pleasure and delight, then dropping his basket, he ran off across the sand toward the wharf, as fast as he could go. The fishermen were already congregating there, and their wives were standing in the doors of their dwellings to gaze upon the welcome sight.
The vessel's white wings slowly brought her round to the little wharf, revealing the skipper's sturdy person, and Mr. Snape's long and solemn visage. Noll could hardly wait for the craft to touch the planks, and Skipper Ben spied the lad before the "Gull" came up, with a dull thump and jar, alongside.
"Great fishes!" cried he, extending his hand to aid Noll in clambering aboard, "if here ben't the lad, alive an' hearty! Glad ter see ye,—glad ter see ye!" shaking the boy's hand as if he never would have done.
"You may believe I'm glad to see you!" said Noll; "I never was so glad to see anything as the old 'Gull' in my life; and oh, why didn't you come earlier, skipper?"
Ben laughed. "I knowed ye hev a hard time on't," he said; "reckoned ye'd be glad ter see the old skipper once more. An', lad, how goes it?"
Mr. Snape came up just here, drawling, "What ye think o' the winters down 'ere, now, lad?"
"They are long," said Noll; "but I've got through one, somehow. If it weren't for the sickness, and such a long time without letters, I wouldn't mind. Oh! skipper, haven't you got a great packet of 'em for me?"
"Been sick down 'ere; hev ye?" said Ben, evading Noll's question. "Well, that's wuss'n bein' without letters, eh, lad?"
"But haven't you got a bundle of 'em for me?" queried Noll. "I can't wait, skipper!"
The skipper began to slowly shake his head. "Sorry," he said, "but I didn't bring ye nary letter this time. Don' know but all yer frien's hev forgot ye, fur they didn't give a single scrap o' paper to bring, nor a message, nuther."
Mr. Snape began to grin, seeing how Noll's face fell, and how all his joy and eagerness had suddenly vanished, and stepping along to the hatchway, made certain mysterious signs and beckonings to something or some one, there. Noll, filled with disappointment, walked away to the stern and looked down into the green depths of water rippling there, and strove to conceal his feelings from the watchful skipper. Up from the hatchway and along the deck came a light step,—eager, hurrying,—and before Noll could turn around, two arms had clasped him about and held him fast against the rail, while a voice—just as full of laughter and merriness as a voice could be—cried,—
"Oh, Noll, Noll Trafford! not to know me! not to guess that I was here! Why, you dear old fellow, ain't I better than letters? I've a good mind to never let you look around to pay for not mistrusting that I was here! Oh, Noll!"
"Well, I be beat!" said the skipper. "I never seed a lad so dumbfounded afore. What ye goin' to give me fur bringin' ye sech a parcel, Master Noll?"
But Noll had only eyes and ears for his friend.
"Ned, Ned Thorn!" he exclaimed, looking at his friend with wide-open eyes, as if he thought he was seeing a vision. "It is really you, only grown a little taller!"
"Of course it is; who else should it be?" said Ned, drawing his friend out to one of the skipper's bales, where they could both sit down. "You're brown as an old salt, Noll; but you haven't grown a bit! Oh, but you may believe I'm glad to see you! I thought you'd be dying by this time to see some one from Hastings, and when the skipper pointed out the old stone dungeon where you live, I thought likely you were dead already. What a horrid old fortress 'tis! and weren't you awful homesick? and aren't you terribly moped up in such quarters? and, you dear old Noll, how have you managed to live it through, anyhow?"
"Beats everything at questions, that lad does," observed Mr. Snape to the skipper; "nigh about pestered me to death, comin' down. You'd better charge double ef yer goin' to carry him home, 'cause it's two days' work fur one man ter tend to his talk. I ben't goin' to do't fur nothin'."
"They ben't glad to see each other, eh, Jack?" said Ben; "wish there was some prospect o' taking t'other home, too."
"I sh'u'd be 'feared the 'Gull''d founder," said Mr. Snape.
Noll, in the midst of happy talk, suddenly recollected that it was after sundown, and that Uncle Richard and the tea-table would be waiting.
"Come, Ned," he said, gleefully, "I'd forgotten all about sunset and home till this minute. It's a good long walk, and we must start."
"I'm ready," said Ned, jumping up. "Skipper, where's my carpet-bag? I'm going to stay, Noll, just as long as you'll keep me; and now I'm anxious for a look inside your old dungeon and a peep at that grim old—that's what the skipper said he was—uncle of yours. Do you think he'll scold because I've come?"
"Indeed not!" said Noll; "and Uncle Richard's not so very grim, either. We'll have splendid times in the old house, and now see if you aren't sorry when it comes time for you to leave Culm Rock."
They clambered over the "Gull's" side on to the wharf, and passed through in the little lane which the fishermen made for them, to the smooth and shining sand, and so started for the stone house.
Ned Thorn was a boy of Noll's own age, and much resembled him in appearance, though, of the two, Ned was a trifle the taller. Indeed, as Mr. Snape observed, leaning over the rail and smoking his pipe while he watched the two lads walking briskly homeward,—
"They're as like as two peas, Ben,—did ye note?—only one's more so than t'other."
It seemed to Noll, while on this homeward walk, that nothing was lacking to make home pleasant, now that Ned had come. His friend's presence did not seem a reality, as yet, and he had to listen a long time to Ned's merry chatter before he could realize that it was actually Ned Thorn who was walking beside him in this purple twilight, along the shore of the glimmering, sounding sea.
"What a queer place!" said Ned, stopping, at the curve of the shore, to look off at the horizon, which seemed to rise higher than their heads, and turning to look at the dark wall of rock behind them; "and what a lonesome sound the waves make! I should have died of the blues in three weeks. And what a miserable set those fishermen are! They all seem to like you, though. Did you see how they made way for us, and touched their caps, some of them? What a capital place to fish, off those rocks! I'm glad I brought hooks and lines, and—What's that light ahead? A lighthouse?"
"No, only Hagar's kitchen window," said Noll; "Hagar's our black cook, and there's only three of us in that great house, Ned!"
"I should think you'd lose each other! Is your uncle like your father at all?"
"No, Uncle Richard's not much like papa," said Noll, with sudden graveness; "but he loves me, and—and I hope you'll like him, Ned."
They walked the rest of the way in silence till they came to the piazza steps under the shadow of the great stone house.
"It looks just as it did when I saw it first," said Noll,—"the sea getting dark and shadowy and making that lonesome sound on the pebbles, and oh, how I had to rap and search before I could find my way in! But come on, Ned."
Noll led his friend along the echoing hall, straight to Uncle Richard's library, where the lamp had been lighted.
"This is Ned Thorn, Uncle Richard," said he, as they entered, "and he's come clear from Hastings to see me."
"Ned is very welcome," said Trafford, who chanced to be in a cheerful mood, "and if you boys are ready, we will go out to tea."
Noll ran on before to Hagar's kitchen, where he burst in, exclaiming,—
"Another plate and teacup, Hagar! Did you know that we have actually got company? It's Ned Thorn, a dear friend of mine, and he's from Hastings, and going to stay—I don't know how long. Will you bring them? Is tea all ready?"
"Bress ye!" said Hagar, "I's 'stonished to see ye so 'cited, honey. I'll bring de dishes in a minnit."
The old housekeeper followed him back to the dining-room, where the new-comer was endeavoring to interest Trafford in the account of the day's journey, telling it in such a sprightly manner that the grim master was betrayed into more than one smile.
"And now, Mr. Trafford, I'm going to stay here in this dismal old house just as long as you'll keep me," said Ned, in conclusion. "And Noll and I are going to have tip-top good times! I don't know as there's a thing we can have fun out of, but if there isn't, we'll invent something. We can fish,—there's one consolation! Why, Mr. Trafford, what does Noll do with himself, anyhow? I think he's grown as sober as—as—I don't know what!"
"Very likely," said Trafford, with a shadow of gloom on his face; "this is a sober place. Noll has seen much of which you know nothing, and it has made him graver and more thoughtful, I suppose; yet—"
"Yet you think he's all the better for that?" said Ned, merrily. "Well, so do I! Papa always says I'm too much of a rattle-box; but I can't help it. I couldn't be sober, like Noll, if I should try; and you wouldn't want me to; would you, old fellow?"
Noll looked as if he was entirely suited, now, and secretly wondered what Uncle Richard thought of his merry, light-hearted friend. The days which followed were happy ones. Trafford recollected that Noll had had a long winter of study, and granted a vacation to last during Ned Thorn's stay; so the two boys were at liberty to fish and ramble and explore rock and sand to their hearts' content. They gathered basket after basket full of sea flowers and weeds of vivid dye, to be pressed and packed for transportation to Hastings, and such quantities of shells, with an occasional pebble of agate or carnelian, that Ned laughingly declared,—
"I'll have just all the baggage the 'Gull' can float under, Noll. I'll have to charter it to convey me and mine; for the skipper won't take me under any other condition, you may be sure."
And these days were merry ones too. Hagar declared, "Dat yer Thorn boy beat eberyt'ing dis ole woman eber seed. 'Peared like ther' was more'n forty boys racin' up an' down dem yer stairs, an' laughin' at de tops ob ther voices. Neber seed nuffn like it, nohow! But is ye sorry, Hagar? Ye knows ye isn't! Ye likes to hear dis yer ole house waked up an' 'pear as ef 'twas good fur somethin' 'sides holdin' mis'ry."
Noll more than once trembled lest Uncle Richard should be displeased at this unusual clamor and mirthfulness, and banish Ned in anger; but day after day passed, and Trafford made no opposition to the boys' plans or proceedings, and apparently took quite a fancy to Noll's friend.
"I'd just like to coax your uncle into playing a game of ball with us," said Ned, as the two sat on the piazza one evening at twilight; "do you suppose he would consent?"
"Uncle Richard play ball!" exclaimed Noll, laughing at the idea. "No! I would almost as soon expect to see this old stone house playing at toss and catch."
"Well, he is the strangest man!" observed Ned; "but he loves you,—I can see that, every day,—-and perhaps he'll come out as bright as a dollar, by and by. And—do you remember?—you was to tell me about that plan to-night. Go in, Noll dear,—I'm all attention."
Noll looked thoughtfully on the sea a few minutes before he said, "I don't know what you'll say, Ned, the plan is so difficult; but I've thought of it a long time,—I believe it's been in my head every day for the last two months,—and it seems to me it is possible. Oh! if it were, I'd be the happiest boy in the land!"
"Well, now what have you got in your head, I'd like to know?" said Ned; "tell me quickly, for I hate long speeches, you know."
"Well, in the first place, you must know I want to help those Culm people, somehow. That's—"
"Yes," interrupted Ned, "they need 'helping,' I should think! They're the laziest, miserablest set of people I ever saw. Some of 'em need 'helping' with a good, sound punching,—'twould stir 'em up a little."
"That's the object of the plan, and the next thing is how to do it," continued Noll. "If papa had only lived here a little time, I know it would have been a different place, and I want to make it what he would have made it; but, though I can't do that, I want to do something."
"I'll warrant you do!" said Ned, edging nearer his friend. "What do you think Hagar has told me about your work this winter? You are the funniest fellow, and I don't see what puts such ideas in your head, anyhow!—they never get into mine."
"Well, I'll never get to my plan at this rate," said Noll, laughing a bit. "I don't believe the people will ever be any cleaner or more industrious till they have better houses to live in, and they're too poor to buy lumber and make repairs. Now, if I could only accomplish that, I think they'd soon have some pride in keeping their dwellings nice and neat, and that would keep the fever away, and perhaps—I almost know—they'd soon be a different people!"
"My stars!" exclaimed Ned, "what're you thinking of? Do you really mean that—that you're going to repair their huts for them?"
"Yes, that is what I wish to do, and what I've been planning for," said Noll, peering through the dusk to see how Ned received the project; "and do you think I'll succeed?—do you think it is possible?"
Ned was silent a few seconds, and the low voice of the sea rose and murmured far up and down the beach-line and died away in a faint whisper before he replied, "Well, I am astonished! and if any one else had proposed it, I should say they were out of their wits. Now, what are those dirty fishermen to you, Noll?"
"That was not the question," said Noll. "Do you think I can succeed?"
"I don't know,—can't tell,—it's all so sudden. Where will you get the money? and why don't your Uncle Richard do the work, instead of you?"
"Uncle Richard? why, he—he doesn't care for the Culm people," Noll was obliged to confess; "but as for the money, I think I can manage that. You see, he gives me more spending-money every week than I used to have in a whole quarter,—I showed you all my savings the other night, you remember,—and it has got to be quite a sum. Then I have about as much more that Mr. Gray gave me when I came away, and with this I'll make a commencement. The—"
"But what will your uncle say? Does he know?" queried Ned.
"No, he knows nothing about it. But he gave me permission, a long time ago, to aid the Culm people, and he lets me do as I choose with my money. So doesn't my plan seem possible?"
"Yes, if you can tell where lumber and nails and a carpenter are to come from," said Ned.
"Oh! but those will have to come down from Hastings, on the 'Gull,' of course. There's nothing here to do with," said Noll; "and I mean to coax Ben Tate to buy the lumber and hire a carpenter for me. You see, I've got it all planned, and if it will only work!"
"My stars!" said Ned, "I didn't know you were such a fellow. Why, I don't wonder these fish-folks all touch their hats to you,—they can afford to, I think. And, Noll, won't you tell me what these people are to you? I can't see, for the life of me! And why should you spend all your money for them?"
Noll hesitated, not feeling certain that Ned would understand his reason, if he told him, and, looking up at the stars, which had come out in great fleets over the sea, was silent. But Ned got up, came to Noll's end of the step, and, sitting down beside him, said,—
"Now for your reason! I'll not be put off at all. Won't you tell me?"
"Yes, if you wish very much to know," said Noll, in a lower tone. "I think everybody has a work to do,—a work that God gives them,—and I think this is mine, that he has given me. And I promised always to do his work, and I mean to do it, if I can. Besides," he added, softly taking Ned's hand in his, "it is work that papa would do if he were here, and I know that he, too, would be glad to have me do it. Wouldn't you be anxious to get about it at once, and without waiting for the Culm people to sink lower, if you thought it was your work and waiting for your hands? Wouldn't you, Ned?"
Noll's friend was suddenly silent. It was hardly such a reason as he had expected to hear, and what to reply he did not know. "Noll always was the funniest fellow ever since I knew him!" he thought to himself.
Noll waited, and tried to look into his friend's face, and feared that Ned did not comprehend his motives, after all. At last he said, "Don't you understand?"
"Oh, yes," said Ned, quickly, "but I—well—I didn't know what to say, and, somehow, you make me ashamed. It seems too bad for you to waste—spend, I mean—your money for those fishermen."
"Oh, no," said Noll, "I've no need of it for myself, and if I had, they need it more than I. And, Ned, I want to beg you to help me. Will you?"
"Pshaw! I'd be no help at all!" said Ned; "I'm no good at such things."
"But will you try?" said Noll, eagerly.
"Yes, if you wish. But I'll be sure to bother or make a mess of something,—see if I don't!"
At that instant the hall door behind them opened, and Trafford stepped out. So dark had it grown that he failed, at first, to see the two figures on the step; but when a little stir of Ned's betrayed them, he exclaimed, in a tone of great relief,—
"Ah, here you are, boys! I feared that—that you were up the shore, perhaps. Come in, come in. Why do you sit here in the darkness?"
"So I say!" said Ned, briskly, and not regretting this interruption; "what are we sitting here in the dark for, Noll? Let's go in!"
As they were groping along their darksome way to the library, Ned whispered,—
"When are you going to begin your plan, or 'put it in execution,' as the books say?"
"The skipper will touch here to-morrow; I'd like to see him then," said Noll.
"Why not?" returned Ned. "We can get up early and run over to Culm before breakfast, and coax Ben into doing the business for you."
"We will!" said Noll, gladly, "and have the work begun at once; and I knew you'd be willing to help. Oh, Ned, I wish you were to stay here always."
The boys did not linger long in the library after arriving there, but went up to Noll's chamber, where his little hoard of money was brought forth and counted. Neither of the lads knew how far it would go toward purchasing lumber, but to them the sum in hand seemed a large one, and they decided, after much deliberation, to place it in Ben's hands, and trust to his judgment and discretion.
"But how is the carpenter to be paid for his labor, if this all goes for lumber?" queried Ned.
"Why, my spending-money is accumulating all the time," said Noll, "and though that won't be enough, I'll manage to get the rest, somehow. I'll write to Mr. Gray, or do something that will bring it."
They were both up at the first glimmer of dawn the next morning, and on their way to Culm long before the mist had fled from off the face of the sea. They ran, and made all possible haste, and were only just in time after all; for Ben was about to stand out on the day's journey as they came panting and breathless on to the little wharf.
"What be wantin' now, lads?" he cried, gruffly; "we be in a hurry to get off!"
"But you must wait a few minutes," said Ned, "for we want to come aboard, skipper. We can't run a mile for nothing, and before breakfast too."
"S'pose I shall hev ter!" grumbled Ben, as he gave them each a hand to help them up.
Noll brought forth his roll of money, and narrated his errand, disclosing for what object the lumber was to be purchased. Ben sat down and stared blankly at the boy, while Mr. Snape, who had drawn near, looked utterly bewildered.
"Let me hear ye say that agen," said Ben, when his scattered senses began to return; "I think I did not hear ye rightly."
Noll repeated his errand, aided by some impatient explanations which Ned threw in for the skipper's benefit.
"Well," said the "Gull's" master, as he concluded, "I be beat! Why, lad, 'tw'u'd be like throwin' yer silver into the sea to spend it on them good-fur-nothin', shif'less critters. An' what be the like o' them to you?"
"Why," said Ned, coming to Noll's relief, "he want's to do them good. Can't you see through a ladder, Ben? And what we want to know is whether you will do the business?"
The skipper was silent for a time. What was passing in his mind, the boys did not suspect, and they feared lest he should refuse. But presently he got up, saying, with gruffness which was assumed to hide a sudden tenderness in the old sailor's heart,—
"I ken do't fur ye, lad, I s'pose!—tho' I call ye foolish all the same. The 'Gull' be engaged fur the next run, but the next arter that ye shall hev yer boards an' yer carpenter."
"That will be week after next," said Ned. "Hurrah for you, Ben! And I want to engage a passage home for next week. Come, Noll, let's go back and let the skipper put out, if he's in such a hurry. A good voyage to you, Ben!—and don't you forget that I'm to go next week, now!"
"Ay, ay," said Ben, "get along with you!" and over the side went the boys, and, after a little delay, off went the "Gull" with Noll's precious savings on board.
"Wait," said Noll, as they left the wharf, "there's Dirk Sharp out there with his boat, ready to put off. Wait here, Ned, till I've spoken with him." And Noll ran off across the sand.
Ned sat down on the wharf and watched his friend and the fisherman. They were sufficiently near for him to note the expressions upon their faces, and when he saw the blank look of wonder and incredulity that suddenly came over Dirk's coarse features, he suspected that Noll was disclosing his project.
"Oh, but Noll is a queer fellow," he said to himself. "How can he care for these dirty, dull-witted fellows that can't spell their own names, when he is so smart and such a long, long way above them?"
But Noll, he remembered, had answered this question on the previous evening; yet Ned could hardly comprehend such motives, and so sat puzzling his head over it till his friend came back with a pleased and happy face, to say,—
"I'm ready now. You should have seen Dirk when I told what was going to be done! The great fellow almost cried before I could finish; and he's promised to aid me in a dozen ways, at least, and promised, oh! so much besides. And it seems as if I'll be the happiest boy in the world when once things are under way."
"I suppose you will be," said Ned, with something like a sigh, "and I wish I could stay and see how the huts'll look after you've done with them. However," he added, brightly, "I can come again sometime,—there's one consolation."
The fair spring days went on with the speed with which all happy days fly by, and little by little the Culm people began to talk among themselves of the—to them—great event which was to take place so soon. Noll overheard one old fish-wife say, "We ben't slick 'nough for new housen; ther'll hev to be great scrubbin' an' scourin' that day, eh, Janet?" to her slatternly daughter-in-law; and the boy mentally prayed that this opinion would gain ground among all the fish-folk. If there was only some one to teach the children, and save them from the utter ignorance which was their parents', there would be great hope for Culm, he thought.
Ned Thorn went home, and this was the only sad day which Noll knew during the two weeks' waiting. He could not bid Ned good-by and see the dear, merry face fade away, as the "Gull" departed, without a great choking in his throat and a heaviness of heart that made one day a lonely, homesick one.
THE WORK BEGUN.
You may be sure that Noll did not fail to be at Culm village when the "Gull" and its precious freight arrived. The sky had been overcast all day and the sea somewhat rough, so that he was not certain that Ben would set sail from Hastings. But about half-past four in the afternoon the white wings of the skipper's craft hovered on the horizon, and soon after began to loom into shape and proportion. Noll first descried the welcome sight while standing on the piazza steps, anxiously surveying the sea and sky. A strong and vigorous breeze bore the "Gull" rapidly before it, and it was soon evident that it would arrive at the wharf before himself, unless he started soon. Recitations were over an hour ago, and he was now at liberty to go where he chose, and accordingly started for Culm at once. He arrived there some time before Ben and his craft, after all, and was forced to sit and wait impatiently. He could see the yellow lumber long enough before the "Gull" was in hailing distance, and knew that Ben had been successful.