The skipper came alongside at last, shouting at the top of his voice, "Ahoy, there, men! Give us a hand at this 'ere lumber, an' be spry about it, fur there's a storm brewin', an' I've got ter be twenty mile down the coast afore it breaks!"
The fishermen drew near at this summons, and as soon as the "Gull" was fast, they began to unload the cargo, under the carpenter's directions. It was carried well up the sand to preserve it from the dash of the sea and the treachery of the tide, and Noll stood looking on with a heart so full of joy and satisfaction that he forgot all about the skipper till a gruff voice cried, "Why don't ye come aboard, lad? Here be sumat fur ye that come from the city. It be a mighty thick letter, somehow. Give us yer hand an' come up, lad!"
Noll got aboard quickly enough after this intelligence, and took the packet which the skipper fished out from under his pea-jacket, saying, "I wonder if it can be from Ned?"
"How ken I tell?" said Ben, evasively. "Best open it, lad,—best open it."
Noll quickly had the envelope open, and, holding the packet upside down, there fell out upon the deck a thick little wad of bank-notes, which the wind threatened to take off into the sea before the boy's astonished senses returned to him. Ben prevented such a disaster, however, by picking up the roll and placing it in Noll's hand, with, "It's worth savin', lad, fur 'tain't every bush that grows sech blossoms, eh?"
"I should think not," said Noll, still full of amazement, and hurriedly opened his letter to see where this bounty hailed from, while Ben walked off to assist in his craft's unlading. This is what Noll's wondering eyes found:—
"HASTINGS, May 20th.
"DEAR NOLL,—I can imagine just how your eyes are staring by this time; but you needn't be alarmed, for I came by the money honestly. This is how it was: Papa said I might have a new pony if I would save my spending-money till I got a third of the sum which one would cost, and so, though I didn't hint of it to you when I was down at Culm, I've been laying up and laying up, like an old miser; and last Monday morning I found that I had got the sum, and so papa made up the rest to me. But when I thought of you and those miserable Culm people, and how you were making a fool of yourself (as Ben T. said), I thought I'd like to—to—well, let pony go, and help you a bit. So here's the whole sum (if you get it safe), and you're just as welcome as you can be, and don't you make any fuss about it, for it's your own, and I can go without spending-money if you can, and am willing to too. And it's no great denial, either, for the pony'll come sometime, I'm quite sure. So don't you worry any more about how the carpenter is to be paid. Good-by, dear old fellow,
"P.S.—I was just as dismal as I could be after I got home, longing to go back to that dreary, dismal, good-for-nothing Culm Rock. The shells, etc., got here all right. Give my respects to Uncle Richard, and tell him I'll come down and turn his house topsy-turvy for him again next summer, if he wants me to. Don't you forget to send a letter back by Ben, now."
Noll finished this characteristic letter with something very like tears in his eyes. "The dear, generous fellow!" he thought to himself; "how could he ever bring himself to do it? for it is a denial, because Ned is so fond of a horse! And he claimed, all the time, that he never could help at all!"
Ben came stumping along the deck with his gruff, "Well, we hev brought yer lumber an' yer carpenter, lad,—both on 'em the best I c'u'd find. One's 'bout stacked up on the sand, yender, and t'other'll be waitin' fur yer orders purty soon. He's good at his trade, John Sampson be, an' he'll do fair an' square by ye. John ben't delicate neither, an' won't mind the livin' he'll get 'mongst these 'ere good-fur-nothin's,—I looked out fur that, ye see."
"I thank you more than I can tell, Ben," said Noll, taking the skipper's hand; "and have you taken your pay for the freight and all the trouble?"
"The freight be paid fur," said Ben, "an' the trouble likewise. An' ef ye hev anythin' more fur the 'Gull' ter do, don't ye be backward, boy, about lettin' her know't."
The last of the lumber was now being dragged up the sand, and the skipper hurried away, saying,—
"Luck ter ye an' yer undertakin', lad! We be in a desput hurry to get off, fur we'd stan' a poor chance on this shore in a storm."
Noll wished the skipper a safe run to a better harbor, and went back to the wharf, where the carpenter intercepted him. He was a rough, blunt-spoken man, but was evidently "good at his trade," as Ben had said, and did not despair of making the Culm huts decent and habitable; and after a long talk with him, Noll started for home, as the afternoon was fast giving way to a gray and lowery night. His heart was full of gratitude and love to Ned, and he stopped more than once on his homeward walk to read the letter over by the gray glimmer of twilight. At first he was more than half resolved to return the money, and bid his friend to buy the pony,—it seemed such a great denial for horse-loving, mirthful Ned to make,—but as he read the letter again and again, and pondered over its contents, he began to think that his friend had more earnestness and love for kind-doing than he had ever suspected.
"I wronged the poor fellow," he thought to himself, "because he was so merry and careless all the time. And now he's sent me this great roll of bills to help those people whom he pretended to hate! Oh, I wonder if it is best to keep them?"
This question was not decided then. It took more than one day's thought about the matter before he at last concluded to accept Ned's bounty, and perhaps he would not have decided thus at all if he had been quite sure that his friend would not be greatly grieved and offended at having the money returned.
Meanwhile, the carpenter commenced operations. Dirk's house was the first to undergo repairs, and Noll took every opportunity to go over to Culm to see how matters were progressing. It was a great delight to him to watch John Sampson at his labor, and note how saw and hammer and plane, guided by his strong and skilful hand, repaired the rents, brought the shackling doors and windows to comfortable tightness, made the crooked and twisted roofs to assume something like straight and even proportions, and righted matters generally. When Dirk's habitation was thoroughly repaired, it was the wonder and admiration of all the Culm people.
"It be like what it was when I was a gal, an' all the housen was new," said one old fish-wife, who had tottered in with the others.
"Ay, mother," said Dirk, "an' it be time we had new habits to go with the new housen, eh?"
Noll had not allowed any good opportunities, wherein he might hint to Dirk that cleanliness and industry should reign in the snug new quarters, to pass without improving them. Dirk, out of regard and gratitude to "the young master," as he called him, was willing to make the attempt, and strove, in his bungling way, to impress his neighbors with the fact that they were expected to reform their way of living. But it was up-hill work for people who had lived all their life in filth and wretchedness, and progressed but slowly. Many were the hours, after the recitations were over, that Noll spent over at the little village those warm days, planning with John Sampson about broken doors and shattered beams, which were to be made strong and serviceable, or, sitting on a pile of lumber, watching the carpenter as he put in execution the plans which they had made. The children of the village were generally playing near by, in the sand, with blocks and chips,—growing up as unlettered and ignorant as their parents. Some of them were great boys and girls,—almost as tall as Noll himself,—and had never yet seen the inside of a book.
"If Uncle Richard would only hire a teacher," thought Noll, "and have them grow up with some knowledge in their heads, they'd never get so low and wretched as their parents. But that never'll be, I'm afraid. Oh! if I were only rich, how quick I'd change it all!"
But there was no prospect of any such fortune befalling him, and he usually turned away from the cluster of dirty, unkempt children with a hopeless sigh. He said, one day, while sitting on a great heap of shingles beside the carpenter,—
"What's to become of all these children, Mr. Sampson? Will they be left to grow up like their fathers and mothers?"
"Well, I don't see much to hinder," said the carpenter, with a glance at the dirty little ones who were throwing sand over their heads. "Don't think you'll ever see many lawyers and ministers out o' the lot."
"If there could only be a school here," continued Noll, "what a change it would make! But there's no teacher, no schoolroom, no nothing, and no prospect of there ever being anything!"
"Why don't you teach 'em yourself?" said Sampson, between the creakings and rasping of his saw.
Noll was silent for a few minutes before he answered, "Why, to tell the truth, I never had thought of the thing. But how can I? I don't have any time till after four o'clock."
The carpenter sawed and planed, and made no reply, being entirely indifferent to the whole matter; but his chance question had put an idea in Noll's head which was not out of it for that afternoon, at least. Could he teach those idle, ignorant children? he wondered. Would they ever sit still long enough to look in a book? And where could a room for the school be found? And where was the leisure time to come from? Noll pondered over these questions many days, and several times came near discarding the plan as impracticable. He knew that he could only have the time after recitations were over for his own, and that, at the most, would be only an hour or two,—the time between four o'clock and the supper-hour. He was quite sure that he was willing to give this time to the Culm children, if it would do any good, and if a room could be found for them to assemble in. A whole week of days went by before he mentioned this plan to any one, and then it was only Dirk to whom he mentioned it. The rough fisherman looked upon reading and writing as some of the wonderful and mysterious arts to which dull and humble people like himself had no right. He looked blank and mystified at Noll's proposition, and expressed himself thus:—
"I don' know, I don' know, lad,—we but poor folk anyway. But ye ken do as ye like, an' ef ye say so, the youngsters shall take ter books an' sech, an' ye ken hev a room where ye say, I'll say fur't. I don' know, I don' know, lad; ye mus' do as ye think it best, anyway."
THE WORK PROGRESSING.
Studies at home progressed steadily under Uncle Richard's supervision, meanwhile, and that grim gentleman found much more pleasure and satisfaction in directing his nephew's tasks than he would have been willing to acknowledge. The boy brought so much brightness and pleasant life into the gloomy stone house that the stern master, as week after week passed by, visibly began to lose something of his grimness and gloominess, and to take something like a faint interest in what was passing around him. And, after a time, he himself began to be sensible of this gradual change which was stealing over his thoughts and actions, and, vexed with himself, strove to check these new emotions, and wrap himself again in the cloak of sadness and melancholy which so long had shielded him from everything bright and cheerful and happy. But he found it hardly an easy task. Noll was almost always blithe and light-hearted, and Trafford found his bright influence a hard one to struggle against. He loved the boy so well that it was almost an impossibility to harden his heart to all his winning ways and pleasant talk, which met him so constantly, and these summer days, which Noll found such delight in, were days of struggle and wavering to his uncle. He could not but acknowledge to himself that he was interested in all the boy's plans for the future,—all his youthful anticipations of happiness and success,—all his present little projects for progress and self-improvement,—and these matters, trivial though they may have been, gradually drew his thoughts from himself and his sorrow, put them farther and farther away into the dimness and silence of the past, and made the present a more vivid and earnest reality. Was it any wonder that, seeing he could not maintain his gloom and grimness in Noll's sunshine, and finding it slipping away from him in spite of his endeavors to retain it, he should astonish his nephew by strange fits of moroseness, alternating with the utmost kindness and indulgence?
The boy sometimes fancied that his uncle had grown to utterly dislike him,—being so irritable and unjust at times; then again his heart was light with joy and hope, for he fancied that the grim man was just on the point of losing his great burden of gloom, and becoming hopeful and unoppressed. But how could he be hopeful for whom there was no hope?—who refused to trust in God's promises?—for whom the shadow of the grave was utter darkness and horror, wherein dear faces had vanished—forever?
One day Noll had begged him to come out for a walk on the beach, thinking he would lead his uncle on and on till they should come out upon Culm village, and in this manner disclose what he had been doing for the dwellings and their inmates.
Trafford at first appeared inclined to consent, and followed his nephew out as far as the piazza steps, but here he stopped, and all Noll's entreaties could not prevail upon him to go further. He sat down, looking dispiritedly across the tranquil sea, all warm and fair with changing lights, and down at his feet at the bit of verdure which Noll had caused to flourish by dint of much seed-sowing and watering, saying, "No, I've no part in it all. I'll go no further."
So Noll was obliged to set off for Culm alone, consoling himself with the thought that next time, perhaps, he should be so successful as to get Uncle Richard a little farther, and next time a little way farther still, till, at last, they might walk together as uncle and nephew should. Would that happy day ever come? he wondered.
At last, after many delays and hindrances, the plan of a school was decided upon. Noll did not begin the undertaking with much confidence of success, or with any great hope of making the Culm children very bright or vigorous scholars; but it would be something toward supplying the great want, he thought, and who could tell what this little beginning might lead to? So, about half-past four one misty, lowery afternoon, he found himself in a little room in Dirk's dwelling, with ten dirty-faced, frowsy-headed children huddled together in one corner, each of them regarding him with wide-open eyes, and apparently without the remotest idea what they were there for. The only furniture which the "schoolroom" could boast were two rough benches, just from John Sampson's hands, and a three-legged stool, which Noll appropriated to himself. Of course none of the ten had anything in the shape of books or primers, and here the boy had reason to rejoice that all his old school-books had made the journey with himself to Culm.
After getting the wondering assemblage seated in proper order, Noll began by asking, "Who wants to learn to read?"
It seemed as if the sound of his voice had wrought a spell, for each of the ten were as silent as so many mutes.
"Who would like to know how to read?" Noll repeated.
Still a long silence, most discouraging to the teacher. At last—the sound of his voice a most welcome one to Noll—a little fellow, who sat on the end of one of the benches, ventured to query, "What be 'read'?"
"Well," thought the would-be teacher, "I've got to explain what 'read' is before they'll know whether they fancy it, to be sure! I didn't think of that."
Among his books was a great primer, with painted letters and pictures, and bringing this forth, he gathered the ten around him, and used all his powers of description and story-telling to endeavor to awaken the slumbering interest of these unpromising pupils. It was a weary hour's work. A few of them betrayed a slight curiosity in regard to the bright colors, which Noll endeavored to stimulate; but it soon died out, and all looked on and listened with listless attention. They appeared much more inclined to stand with their fingers in their mouths, and gaze steadfastly into Noll's face, than to put eyes on the book.
"If I had the alphabet stamped upon my face, I believe they'd learn it easily enough!" he thought to himself, in despair, as, on looking up, he found the whole ten staring in his face, instead of having had their eyes upon the primer during his long explanation. As a last resort, he stepped out upon the sand in front of the door, and there drew a great A.
"Now," said he, "see which of you can make a letter like that. Take a stick and try, every one of you. Look sharp, and make it just like the one I've made."
Thereupon, there was a great searching for sticks, and when all the little ones had been supplied, there was a great scratching and marking in the sand. To Noll's great delight, the result was two or three tolerable A's, which were allowed to stand, and the rest were brushed away. Then a new attempt at making the wonderful symbol ensued, and added another to the successful list, and so the letter-making was kept up till all the pupils had succeeded in making a tolerably faithful representation of the letter. Noll began to take heart. What the children cared nothing for, when seen in the book, they were apparently delighted to draw on the sand, and soon learned to give the proper pronunciation of the character. The night came on apace, and Noll began to perceive that it was time for him to be on his homeward way.
"Remember," he said to his pupils, who were scratching A's all about the door, "you're not to forget this while I'm gone. To-morrow afternoon I'll come again, and then I shall want to see you make it over, and you are to have a new letter, besides. Will you all be here?"
"Yes! yes!" one after another promised; and, once more bidding them remember, Noll walked away,—the children still making the mysterious character along the beach, and keeping it up till darkness came over sea and land.
"Only one letter!" Noll said to himself, as he hurried homeward. "Why, that's not a tenth of what I meant to do this afternoon! What dull wits they've got! and will they ever, ever learn the whole alphabet?" The prospect did not seem very encouraging, and he was obliged to confess himself disappointed with the result of the first day's lesson. "However, one can't tell much by the first afternoon," he thought. "Perhaps they'll be quicker and brighter when we're better acquainted."
The next afternoon he arrived at Dirk's house at the appointed time, and found not ten, but twelve awaiting him, sticks in hand, and all eager for the lesson to commence. Noll could not refrain from laughing at the sight which the sand directly in front of the house presented, covered as it was with A's of all shapes and sizes. It looked much as if a great bird, with a peculiarly-constructed foot, had been walking there. He did not need to be assured that his pupils had all remembered yesterday's lesson, and proceeded at once to instruct them in the art of making B. This the young learners of the alphabet found to be somewhat more difficult of execution, but appeared to like it none the less on that account, and, after its curves were mastered, were much delighted with this acquisition to their stock of accomplishments.
While this second lesson was yet in progress, Dirk and one or two other fishermen came up from their boats, and stopped to look on, with wonder and astonishment written on their countenances.
"I don' know," said Dirk, shaking his head as he eyed the mystic characters traced before him; "we be all poor folk, anyhow, an' this do beat me! Why, what be this?" he exclaimed, pointing at a letter staring up at him from the sand at his feet.
"That be A!" said half a dozen voices at once.
"An' what be this?" said Hark Darby, pointing to a character by his feet.
"That be B!" chorused the voices again.
The two fishermen exchanged wondering glances. "That do beat me!" said poor Dirk, regarding the letters before him with much awe. "Ah, lad," turning to Noll, "my little gal w'u'd liked yer teaching, an' yer B's an' A's, eh?" and Dirk drew his hand across his eyes.
Noll went home much encouraged after this second alphabet lesson. Time and patience would do something for these Culm children, after all, he thought. And could he have the patience and skill which was necessary? "I'll try,—I'll try hard for it!" he thought, "and pray Christ to keep me from losing my patience and courage. It's his work, and he'll help me to teach them, and by winter there'll be something accomplished." And of his help he had great need, for patience and courage were often sorely tried in the days which followed, and it was not always his pupils' obtuseness which brought the greatest strain to bear upon them. One old fish-wife, the oldest woman in the village, had regarded the whole plan of teaching the children as suspicious and ill-omened.
"It be a bad day fur us, lads," she warned, standing on Dirk's door-step among the fishermen, and looking frowningly upon Noll as he instructed his pupils in the making of U. "It be no good fur yer chile to be ther', Hark Darby, learnin' ye don' know what! Yes, lads, I say it be an evil day, and ye'll find no good cum from it! I warn ye, I warn ye!" shaking her skinny forefinger and solemnly nodding her head. Noll's face flushed at these words, and he half resolved to go home, and leave these Culm children to their parents' ignorance.
"I warn ye! I—" The old crone was about to continue her forebodings; but Dirk interposed with a gruff, "Hush ye, hush ye, Mother Deb! ye be doin' the lad wrong. D'ye think he be one to teach our young uns wrong, eh? Be it evil, think ye? W'u'd he be doin' us a bad turn who's mendin' the housen an' makin' us comf'table? I'd like ye ter show't, mother, ef it be!"
"Ay," said Hark Darby, "an' ef he ken do us evil, who ha' been so good an' kind in the sickness, we w'u'd like ye ter show't, Mother Deb!"
The old woman said no more, but went muttering homeward, not all convinced that Noll was not teaching the children some evil, mysterious art.
THE WORK FINISHED.
The days went by,—busy enough for Noll with lessons and the afternoon lesson at Culm,—and John Sampson's labors began to draw to a close. The carpenter had worked steadily and faithfully, and the result was a gratifying one to more than one person. True, the houses were not models of elegance; that was not needed; and they did look somewhat patchy, with here and there a fresh new board over the old weather-beaten gray of the dwelling, and new doors staring blank and yellow out of the dinginess of their surroundings; but, if they were not handsome, they were thoroughly repaired and now stood warmer and more comfortable than any of the present generation of Culm people had ever known them.
If they could only have a coat of paint or whitewash to make them look fresh and cheerful, what an improvement it would be! Noll thought. How the sun would gleam upon them with his last ruddy rays as he sank into the sea! How fair and pleasant they would look from the sea, when the coast first came upon the mariner's vision! It would be one bright spot against the black background of the Rock,—those twelve houses,—if only they might have a coat of fresh white paint. But after counting his stock of money, this desire was obliged to remain ungratified; for there was the carpenter's bill, which would shortly be due, and must be paid upon the completion of the work.
"The houses must wait till—till another year," Noll thought, with something like a sigh; "they can wait, after all, for the painting isn't really necessary, though it would improve them wonderfully! And I'm thankful enough that I can pay the carpenter. Oh, but I wonder if Ned ever regrets his denial, and longs for the pony?"
Letters came down from Ned Thorn with almost every trip of the "Gull," but not a word about the pony did they contain, nor the least sentence which Noll could interpret to mean a sigh or regret for the pet which he had given up. If Ned felt any regret, it was all carefully hidden from his friend's observation, and the missives, which Noll received through the skipper's kindness, were fairly bubbling over with the briskness and bright spirits of Ned's light heart.
"If they should stop coming, I don't know how I could manage," thought Noll; "I'm afraid Culm Rock would grow dreadfully lonesome and dreary." It was always, "And how do you get on with your plan?—and are the houses 'most finished?" or, "Have you got those Culm savages almost civilized, you dear old Noll?—and does Uncle Richard know anything about it yet? Won't he stare! and what do you suppose he'll say?" or, "Oh, now I think of it, how many scholars in Latin have you got down there? and how do they manage with their Greek? And are you putting on airs because you've got to be a pedagogue? And how much is the tuition a term?—because, you see, I've some idea of going away to boarding-school, and yours might suit me, if the charges aren't too high." And the whole generally concluded with, "P. S.—I don't mean a word of all that last I've written, my dear Noll, and you're not to think so. How does the money hold out? Don't fail to let me know if you're in a tight place, and I'll try to get a few dollars somehow. And hurry up and answer this letter by return steamer (what should we do if the old 'Gull' went to the bottom?), and so good-night," etc., etc.
Perhaps Noll expected a great deal too much of the Culm people when he looked to see them give up their filthy and slovenly habits at once, after getting fairly settled again in their whole and comfortable abodes. If he really expected to see this, he was disappointed. People do not follow a habit for the best part of a lifetime, to give it up suddenly and at once, even when gratitude and a sense of their short-coming are both urging them to do so. So he was obliged to content himself with some few faint evidences of thrift, and a desire to do better, on the part of those whom he had befriended, and wait patiently for the rest.
Dirk's household improved somewhat. Dirk was the most intelligent of the fishermen, and began to dimly perceive that it was much better and pleasanter to live cleanly and neatly than to pattern his household arrangements after the beasts of the field. He was, moreover, strongly actuated to reform his way of living by his deep, strong sense of gratitude to Noll, which led him to endeavor to accomplish whatever the boy suggested. It gave the stalwart fisherman something like a feeling of shame to see the lad—bright, fresh, and ruddy—enter his dirty and smoke-begrimed hovel and hardly be able to find himself a seat among the litter of old nets, broken chairs, household utensils, and all conceivable kinds of rubbish which strewed the floors and filled the corners.
"It be a shame," Dirk said to his wife, after Noll had gone, one day, "that the lad hev ter stan' up, an' ben't able ter find a seat, nohow. I tell ye it be a shame, woman!"
"Ye might mend the chairs a bit, man!" retorted Mrs. Sharp. "I'll warrant the lad be able ter find a seat then."
Dirk was sulky for a while after this, but saw that there could be nothing to sit upon so long as the chairs were for the most part legless, and at last got energy enough to mend them after a rude fashion. Then another place was found for the old nets besides the two corners by the fireplace, and when these had been removed, Mrs. Sharp took her broom and—well, it was not exactly sweeping, for the woman had not much idea of what a good housekeeper would call sweeping, but it was a feeble attempt at cleanliness, and she really thought she had made a great exertion, and was certainly proud of the achievement. Dirk chanced to be at home when Noll came again, and the flash of surprise and pleasure which swept over the boy's face as he entered and noted the change which had taken place since his last call pleased Dirk amazingly.
"Here be a seat fur ye, lad," he said, not without some pride in his tone, as he brought forward a rough three-legged block and placed it for his visitor. A faint stir of worthy ambition having slightly roused Dirk and his wife, they were hardly contented to allow matters to remain as they were. Mrs. Sharp once more took her broom, and used it with rather better effect. Dirk made an onslaught upon the rubbish which had been collecting in their kitchen and about the doorsteps for years, and which no one had had the energy to remove, and threw many a basketful into the sea.
The neighbors, meanwhile, were not entirely insensible to the fact that Dirk's house began to present—both within and without—a much more cleanly and respectable appearance than their own. They stopped at the door to look in and say, "La, ye be slickin' up finely, Dirk!" or, "Ye be gittin' fine ways, lately, man. An' what be all this fur?"
"Why," Dirk would answer, "I be 'shamed of livin' like a beast, man. An' the young master be wishin' us to hev cleaner housen an' slicker, an' I be willin' to do't ef he wish, now! He be a good lad to mend our housen so finely, and w'u'd ye think I ben't willin' to do his wish?"
Noll was greatly encouraged at these signs of improvement, and mentally rejoiced, hoping to see this new ambition spread till the whole twelve houses were reclaimed from their present filth and wretchedness.
The carpenter's work came to an end at last,—his labor all plain and visible to every eye in patched walls, roofs, mended doors and windows, and the general look of repair about the whole line of what were once but the poorest of shelters. Sampson's task had been a hard and bothersome one,—"Couldn't ha' got another man to teched it," the skipper said,—and Noll expected, as he walked around to Culm one afternoon with his roll of bills to pay the carpenter, that the bill would be a large one,—perhaps even more than Ned's generous bounty and his own amount of spending-money, saved since the lumber was purchased, could meet. He found Sampson packing up his tools,—he was to leave on the "Gull" the next morning,—with the bill all ready, added up and written out on a bit of smooth shingle. It proved to be five dollars less than the sum which Noll held in his hand.
"I swun!" said Sampson, roughly, as he counted over the bills which the boy placed in his hands, "I told the skipper, comin' down, that you was a born fool to be layin' out your money in this style. Now, I've been thinkin' on't over all the while I've been hammerin' and sawin', and I can't make out, to save my neck, how you're goin' to get any return from this 'ere investment. 'Tain't payin' property, I should judge," said the carpenter, looking up and down the beach.
"Of course I don't expect to get any money back from it," said Noll, laughing a little at the idea. "It was to help these fish-folk and to try and make them more comfortable that I did it."
Sampson put the roll of bills away in his capacious purse, remarking, "Well, you're a queer un. I did the job right well, though, if I do say it, and I ha'n't charged very steep for it, neither. Couldn't do it, somehow!—went too much against the grain. And—well, can't you shake hands over it? You're a tip-top paymaster, and if you want anything done, I'll come and do it, if I'm in China—there! Don't you lay out another cent on this settlement, though,—'tain't worth it."
Noll did not promise to take this advice, and started homeward, Sampson calling after him, "Good-by, good-by, lad! Hope you'll get some return from this 'ere investment!"
So the work was done, and a glad and happy letter went over the sea to Hastings, telling Ned Thorn that the labor was accomplished, and the houses all as whole and comfortable as when new, and that the people were actually beginning to show a little thrift and ambition; and saying, among other things, "I send you back five dollars that were left,—so you can begin to save your money again for that pony. And, oh! Ned, I don't think you can know how much good that money did! Perhaps you never will know (it must seem to you almost like throwing it away, because you are where you cannot see any result from it), and I felt, at first, as if you ought not to make the denial; but, somehow, I'm very glad, now, and I shall always feel sure that if you do make fun and pretend to laugh at a plan, you're all the time meaning to 'give it a lift,' as you say. And, oh! Ned, I believe I'm one of the happiest boys in the world! and I'm sure Uncle Richard has changed a great deal since last spring, when you were here, for he's got over being cross and gloomy, and actually asked me yesterday where I spent so much of my time. I'm going, if I can, to persuade him to take a walk with me, one of these afternoons, and so bring him around to the new houses. Wouldn't you like to be here to see us then? As for my school, it flourishes a little. There are still twelve scholars, and all but four have got through with their sand letters, and are at work at their 'a-b, ab,' and 'b-a, ba.' They'll get into spelling-books, sometime. Now, I'll end this long letter with telling you once more that you can't know how much good your money has done and will do, and say,
Good-night, "NOLL TRAFFORD."
Noll did not lose sight for a moment of his plan to persuade Uncle Richard to take a walk with him. It filled his thoughts all the pleasant days that followed after Mr. Sampson's departure, and several times he hinted very broadly to his uncle that it was "a splendid afternoon for a walk! the beach is hard as a floor, and the tide out." But Trafford was oblivious to all hints, and at last, on one warm, balmy, cloudless afternoon, Noll thought, "It is now, or never! I'll ask him at once." And straightway he started for the library, where he knew his uncle sat reading.
A HAPPY WALK.
Trafford looked up from his books as his nephew entered, and greeted him with a smile. Noll thought this welcome portended good, and remembered, with a grateful thrill in his heart, that Uncle Richard had fallen into the habit of greeting him thus of late. He went up to the reader's chair, and without waiting for his courage to cool, laid a hand on the reader's arm, saying,—
"Uncle Richard, I've come to ask a great favor of you. Do you think you'll grant it? Can't you guess what it is?"
Trafford did not reply at once, but sat looking steadfastly into his nephew's face, his eyes wearing the dreamy, far-away look which lingered in them much of late, and it was not until Noll had repeated his question that he replied, musingly,—
"I'm sure I cannot think. Perhaps you wish more pocket-money, or—"
"Oh, no!" answered the boy, quickly, "it's nothing like that, Uncle Richard! It's—it's—oh, it's will you take a walk?"
Trafford's forehead began to wrinkle and slowly gather the shade of gloom which seemed always hovering about him, even in his most cheerful moments; but before it had time to cover the man's brow, and before he could utter a refusal, Noll's hand was endeavoring to smooth away the wrinkles, and he was saying,—
"There, don't say 'No,'—don't, Uncle Richard! I won't ask you to go again if you are not pleased with this walk, but this time—just this once—do say 'Yes,' uncle! There can't be a pleasanter afternoon in the whole year than this, and I've walked alone, always till now. Why, Uncle Richard, you won't say 'No' this time?"
Trafford hesitated, a refusal trembling on his lips, which he did not quite wish to utter. The boy had walked alone, he remembered, and it was a very simple request to grant; and if it was going to be such a pleasure and gratification to Noll, why not yield, and for once put aside his own preferences and inclinations? It is not an easy matter for a man who has lived only for himself and his own pleasure to put the gratification of these aside to give place to the happiness and comfort of another; but, with an effort, Trafford put his books away, and rose from his chair, saying,—
"This once, Noll,—this once. One walk with me will suffice you, I think. When shall we start?"
"Now,—at once, Uncle Richard!" said Noll, joyfully; "it's two o'clock already, and the tide a long, long way out. Don't let's wait a minute longer."
Trafford smiled a little at his nephew's eagerness, and taking his hat, followed the boy to the piazza. It was a great change from the half-gloom of the library, and the chilliness of the long, dark halls, to the bright, sunny piazza, where the light fell so warm and broadly, and from whence the blue and shining sea stretched far and wide and vast.
Noll felt sure that Uncle Richard must notice it and rejoice, even though it might be secretly. From east to west there were no clouds, and nothing to hinder the sunbeams from finding the earth and working wondrous charms on land and rock and sea. They stood for a few minutes there, one of them, at least, enjoying the wide view very much, then Noll said,—
"We'll go up the shore, if you'd as lief, Uncle Richard. It's much pleasanter that way, I think."
"Very well," said Trafford, with an indifference which was not encouraging, and they passed down the steps on to the sand. It was a silent and uncomfortable walk for the first few rods, Trafford walking with his head bowed upon his breast and looking only at the yellow sand upon which he trod. He seemed to have no eyes for the calm and gentle peace which had descended upon that afternoon, robbing the sea of its terror and making it enchanting and lovely, and weaving a mystic charm about the bare, bald Rock basking warm and purple under the sun. Even the waves murmured only softly and soothingly and with drowsy echoes, as they rippled in and out among the rocks and along the sand. Fortunately for their pleasure, Noll picked up a curious pebble before they had gone a great way. It was not an agate, nor was it like the rounded pebbles of porphyry which the tide washed up, and puzzling over this, and asking Uncle Richard, at last, to explain its nature, somehow broke the heavy silence which had been between them, and questions and pleasant talk came naturally enough after this.
Trafford lost his gloom and reserve, and followed after his nephew, chatting and explaining strange matters of rock and sea, and stopping now and then to pull over great bunches of freshly-stranded kelp to help Noll search for rare shells or bits of scarlet or purple weed which were hidden and entangled there. How brightly shone the sun! What peace and calm hovered over land and sea! He was just beginning to be conscious of the joy and loveliness which the afternoon held. It was no wonder, he thought, that Noll's blithe, unclouded heart loved such a pleasant earth, and found delight in all the hours which flitted by. But for himself, alas! all this brightness was clouded over by the ever-present, ever-shadowing darkness of the future. It might have been different if—if—But with a sigh Trafford put away these thoughts, and followed on. They lingered around the rocks in their path, black with fringes of dry sea-weed, and talked of gneiss and sienite, granite and trap; they stopped at the curve in the shore, and sat down to watch the white flitting of sails on the far horizon-line, and somehow, the sight of them led to a long talk about Hastings and Noll's papa, and happy memories of other days. Trafford was in a softened mood as they rose up from their seat on a great fragment which had fallen from the cliff above, and Noll said,—
"Come, Uncle Richard, let's keep on toward Culm. It's so pleasant, and night is a long way off yet."
If he had followed his own inclinations, the uncle would have turned about and retraced his steps, but Noll had started on, and Trafford followed, thinking, "It isn't often the boy has company in his rambles. I can humor him for once."
Slowly enough they approached the Culm houses, loitering along the moist, shining sand, over which the waves had rolled and rippled but a few hours before, and marking their devious path with straying footprints. Noll's heart began to beat somewhat faster as they neared the fishermen's houses, and he kept a keen watch upon his uncle's face in order to detect the first look of surprise and astonishment that should come across it when he perceived how the huts had been improved. But Trafford's eyes were turned toward the sea, thoughtfully and gravely, and they drew very near the village without the discovery being made. They came upon Dirk, Hark Darby, and two or three other fishermen, spreading their nets in the sun, all of whom touched their hats and nodded respectfully to Noll, eying the uncle, meanwhile, with curious eyes and half-averted faces. The sight of these men brought Trafford's eyes and thoughts back to Culm and the present. He turned to Noll, saying, with a little smile,—
"Some of your sworn friends?"
"Yes, they're my friends, Uncle Richard," said Noll, expecting every moment to see Trafford raise his eyes to the houses, which they were passing, "and they do me a great many favors too."
"In what way?" Trafford was about to ask; but just then he looked up and about him, and the words died on his lips. Noll paused, waiting in suspense for what was to come next. His uncle stood still, and looked for a full minute upon Dirk's house, then cast his eyes up and down the line of dwellings, while a look of wonder and amazement came over his face. He turned about, and looked at Noll, who could not, for the life of him, keep the bright color from creeping up into his cheeks and over his forehead, and then he looked at the houses again. A sudden suspicion came into Trafford's mind, and turning his keen eyes upon Noll, he exclaimed,—
"Can you explain this?"
The nephew hesitated, looked down in some embarrassment, then gathering sudden courage, looked up and answered, brightly, "Yes, Uncle Richard, I know all about it."
It was all plain to Trafford then. For a moment his own eyes faltered and refused to meet Noll's, and he showed some signs of emotion. But his voice and tone were as calm as ever when he said, a few minutes after,—
"You did this? How can I believe it? What had you to do with? And why was I not consulted, if this was your work?"
"Oh, Uncle Richard!" said Noll, quickly, "don't be vexed with me. You gave me permission to help these Culm people. Don't you remember?"
Trafford made no reply, and again looked at the line of comfortable, well-repaired houses. There were deeper thoughts and emotions in his heart at that moment than Noll could know or guess.
The long silence was so uncomfortable that the boy was fain to break it, with, "I've one more thing to show you, Uncle Richard. It's not much,—only just a beginning,—but I'd like you to see and know about it."
Trafford followed, without a word, and Noll led the way to the little schoolroom, with its two benches and three-legged stool and pile of well-thumbed primers and spelling-books.
"It's not much," said Noll, apologetically, "but it's a beginning, and they all know their letters, and some can spell a little."
Trafford evinced no surprise, much to Noll's wonder, and merely asked, "Where do you find the time?"
"After recitations," replied the nephew; and that was all that was said about the matter.
Trafford went out and sat down on the little wharf, and Noll lingered in the doorway of his schoolroom, thinking that he had never seen Uncle Richard act more strangely. Was he offended at what he had done and was doing for the Culm people? he wondered. He looked out and saw that his uncle had turned his face away, and was looking off upon the sea with the same dreamy, thoughtful look which he had noticed in his eyes of late. Noll would have given a great deal could he have known his thoughts at that moment. To human eyes this grave and thoughtful man, who sat on the wharf, was not a whit less the stern and gloomy creature that he had been an hour before. Yet, all hidden from others' gaze, and almost from his own consciousness, a sudden sense of regret and of a great short-coming in himself had welled up through the crust of his hardened heart. His heart had been deeply stirred, and now it smote him. His thoughts took some such shape as this,—even while he was looking with such apparent calmness upon the changing, shadowy lights of the sea:—
"This boy has done more in this short summer for his fellow-men and for his God than I have done in my whole forty years of life! Oh, what a life mine has been!—all a wreck, a failure, a miserable waste! And he? Why, in this short summer-time, and on this barren Rock, he has made his very life a blessing to every one upon it. I suppose those dirty, ignorant fishermen bless the day that brought him here. And I? O Heaven! what a failure, what a failure! I've done the world no good,—it's no better for my having lived in it,—it would miss me no more than one of these useless pebbles which I cast into the sea. And this boy—my boy—always at work to make others rejoice that he was born into the world!"
For all the calmness and repose that was on his face, he longed to cry out. Oh! was there no deliverance? Might not these long wasted years yet be paid for by deeds of mercy and charity? But where was there a deliverer? and who could tell how many years of good deeds and charity could pay for forty years of wasted ones?
NEW THOUGHTS AND NEW PLANS.
Noll, sitting in the doorway, was presently aroused from a little reverie into which he had fallen by hearing a voice call, "Noll, my boy, come here." He obeyed the call, and started for the little wharf, half expecting that Uncle Richard was about to reprove him for what he had done. Trafford gazed in his nephew's face for a short space, and then, smothering what his heart longed to cry out, and what he had intended to say to the boy, he sighed only, "We will start homeward, if you are ready."
Noll was sure that his uncle had kept back something which it was in his heart to say, and, wondering what it could be, he followed after the tall figure along the homeward path.
The sun was getting well down into the west. The fair clearness of the sky was broken by a soft, mellow haze which began to steal across it, yet the afternoon was no less beautiful, and along the horizon there were long and lovely trails of misty color,—faint, delicate flushes of amber and purple,—which gave an added charm to the day's declining.
Not a word did uncle and nephew speak till, as they rounded the curve of the shore, and the stone house came in sight, Trafford asked, abruptly, "Noll, where did your pocket-money go?"
The boy explained the whole matter, with an account of Ned Thorn's bounty and help, at the last, and then they paced along the sand in silence, as before. Noll managed to get many looks at his uncle's face, and seeing that it wore no stern nor forbidding aspect, ventured to ask,—
"Are you offended with me, or what, Uncle Richard?"
Trafford took his nephew's hand as he replied, "Not in the least, Noll."
His voice was strangely kind and tender, and Noll exclaimed, looking up joyfully and brightly, "I'm very glad, Uncle Richard! and do you know your voice sounded like papa's just now?"
They walked hand in hand along the shore,—Noll, at least, very happy,—and looking afar at the sea through glad and hopeful eyes. He mentally prayed that Uncle Richard's gloom and sternness might never return, and that he might always be in his present softened and subdued mood. They came to the stone house at last, and, as they reached the steps, Noll took one long look at his uncle's face, thinking to himself that not soon again should he see it so gentle and tender, for the gloom of the library would soon shadow it, and make it once more stern and forbidding. But, just as if he felt something of this himself, Trafford lingered on the steps, as if loath to go in, and at last sat down. Noll inwardly rejoiced, and seated himself on the bit of green which he had caused to grow, by much watering and nourishing, close beside the piazza. That little breadth of grass, with its deep verdure, was a wonderfully pleasant thing for the eyes to rest upon in this waste of rock and sand. Trafford looked down at it and at the boy sitting there,—his curly locks blown all about his face by the warm wind,—and thought to himself, that, wherever the lad went, brightness and pleasantness sprang up about him, even though the soil was naught but sand and barrenness. His heart was full of reproachful cries. "What this boy has done,—and I!" was a thought continually haunting him. And he did not try to put it away; but, as he sat there, went back over all the months of the lad's stay, remembering what he had done to brighten the old stone house and himself, and contrasting all the boy's actions and motives with his own,—sparing himself not at all in the condemnation which his own heart was ready to pronounce. "What this boy has done,—and I! I? Nothing, nothing! The earth will never miss me, for I have had no part in its life, and have cared naught for its joys or its sorrows; and beyond—where this boy's heaven lies—there will be no place for me, because I have not sought it, and have cared only for my own peace. So I have no part nor place in the world or out of it." A more vivid sense of this truth came to Trafford here, and he sighed long and heavily, thinking of what might have been. He saw and felt what a great matter it was to have a heart wherein God's love dwelt so steadfastly that eye nor ear could ever be closed against the wants of his creatures, and the work of his that lay waiting for the doing. And it was another matter to have a heart so cold and frozen that no warmth of his love ever thrilled it with pity or compassion,—ever drew it with tender, gentle guidance toward himself,—ever stirred it with longings for his love and his blessing and upholding. It was no wonder, he thought, that for one heart the earth was joyous and beautiful, while for the other it was but a gloomy, unhappy waste; for over the pure, warm heart's earth God reigned, and his sunshine lighted it, and his flowers blossomed by the wayside, and they who lived in the land were his own, and their needs the needs of his children. All doing was but doing for God, while in a cold, frozen heart his work is not remembered, and the sunshine is but gloom, because it does not come from him, and the flowers are not his, and the poor soul mourns and sorrows, wrapped up in its own darkness and chilliness, and fails to find the earth bright or beautiful.
With such thoughts as these in his heart, Trafford was silent a long time. The sun set, and shadows began to steal over the sea, gradually and softly wrapping its farther distances in hazy indistinctness. Hagar's voice, from the kitchen-door, where she was calling her chickens to their supper, floated around to his ears and awoke him from his long and sorrowful reverie. He started up, surprised to see how fast the light had flitted from sky and earth. Noll still sat on the bit of grass, busy over a heap of shells and pebbles, which he had gathered during his afternoon walk. Trafford looked at him a few minutes in silence, and finally asked,—
"What plans have you made for winter about your school, my boy?"
A sudden look of surprise flitted over the boy's face ere he answered, "I haven't made any, Uncle Richard. I can't, you see, because the days will be so short that I'm afraid there'll not be time after my recitations. And there's no stove nor fireplace in the room, and not much of anything comfortable. But I'm going to try, though," he added, hopefully.
Trafford was silent and thoughtful for a long time. At last he said, "What would you say if I forbade you to continue your school through the winter?"
"I don't think you'll say that, Uncle Richard," said Noll,—not very confidently, however. "I should be very sorry to give it up now."
"Even if I thought it best?"
Noll could not deny but that he should. "They're just beginning to learn," he said, "and it would be too bad for them to lose all they have gained. Don't you really think so, too, Uncle Richard?"
Trafford made no reply to this question, but, when he spoke again, said, "Not even if another teacher filled your place, Noll?"
The boy's tongue was silent with wonder and astonishment. Then, thinking his ears had deceived him, he said, "Why—why—what did you say, Uncle Richard?"
"I asked you," said Trafford, "whether you would be willing to give up the school if another teacher took your place?"
The warm, eager color rushed into Noll's face, and he cried, "Do you mean that—that—a teacher might take my place, Uncle Richard? Do you really mean it? Were you in earnest, and shall I answer?"
"To be sure," said his uncle, gravely enough.
"Oh, Uncle Richard!" cried Noll, "I knew the time would come some day! I knew it! I knew it! And will you hire a teacher for those Culm children? Was that what you meant?"
"I do not know that they need two," said Trafford.
"Yes, I'll give up the school this minute!" said Noll, remembering that he had not answered his uncle's question; "I'm willing to, if the children can only have a teacher. Oh, but it seems too good to be true! And are you really going to hire some one to take my place?"
"I have hardly thought yet; you must not press questions upon me too fast. I do not know my own mind."
Hagar heard their voices, and came around the piazza corner to say, "Tea hab been waitin' fur ye dis yer whole hour, Mas'r Dick, an' 'tain't growin' better, nohow. Will ye hab it wait any longer?"
"No, we're coming, shortly," said Trafford, and presently they went in to tea, for which Noll had not the least appetite, in spite of his long walk,—it being quite driven away by the question which his uncle had put to him,—and he spent most of the meal-time in taking keen and watchful looks at Uncle Richard's face, to see when it began to cloud over with gloom and grow stern and moody again. But the shadow which he so much dreaded did not make its appearance, and from the supper-table they went to the library, where Hagar had lit the lamp, Noll feeling wonderfully happy and quite sure that this was the eve of a brighter day for Uncle Richard and the Culm people.
Contrary to his usual habit, Trafford did not take up his books on reaching the library, but sat looking thoughtfully at Noll, and at last, as if speaking his thoughts aloud, he said,—
"If a new teacher comes, a new schoolroom will have to follow, as a matter of consequence; and those two rough benches which I saw over at Culm are hardly the best style of school furniture. And how is it about books?"
"There are none but primers and leaves from old spelling-books," said Noll, sitting very still and quiet with delight at hearing Uncle Richard ask such questions. It all seemed like a dream, and not at all a matter of reality. What could have come across the man's feelings so suddenly and with such effect?
Trafford resumed his inquiries after a short silence, and little by little drew from his nephew the whole story of the school's commencement, and what drawbacks the lack of a good room, with seats and desks and the necessary books, were, till he had made himself acquainted with all the needs of the school. He talked with Noll about the Culm people, and listened to the boy's hopeful and enthusiastic account of their slight improvement, with something that was very like interest. But the school seemed to interest him most. He proposed that a teacher be sent for to take charge of the school during the winter, and that the best room which could be found among the houses be fitted up as a schoolroom, and as nicely and warmly as possible. The teacher and the furniture would have to come from Hastings, and most likely a carpenter would be needed. Noll thought of John Sampson at once.
So the evening passed away in planning and discussion, and when Noll went to bed, it seemed as if all the events of the afternoon and evening were but phases of a happy dream, which morning light would banish as unreal. His thankfulness for this token of dawn, after the long, black, weary night of gloom through which he had struggled, could not find words enough in which to praise God for this promise of brighter days. He prayed that it might not be fleeting, and that morning might not show this gleam of brightness to be only imaginary. But the morrow came, and proved yesterday's events to be real and true, and Uncle Richard still without his stern and gloomy face, and ready to perfect the plans which they had discussed the previous evening.
One day after another passed, till Noll began to be certain that Uncle Richard's gloom and moroseness had departed from him forever. The boy wondered and surmised, but could not account for this sudden disappearance of the shadow. What had wrought the change so suddenly? Would it last alway? True, Uncle Richard was not cheerful yet, and he seemed to be carrying some heavy grief or sorrow about with him; but from his face the grimness and gloominess were gone, and Noll was sure that there must be some little change in his heart, else he would not care for the welfare of these Culm children.
A week or two elapsed before this new plan was put in operation, or rather before anything was done toward carrying it out. The skipper was hardly the person to intrust with the care of finding a teacher and looking up school-books, and for a time they were in doubt and perplexity. Then Noll proposed—what he had long been wishing—to go to Hastings himself, and find such a teacher as was needed, procure the suitable books and furniture, and bring John Sampson back with him. It would require but a week's absence, and in that time all the business could be done, and some happy days be spent with Ned Thorn and old friends.
Trafford hesitated a long time. Who could tell what peril the boy might be in while crossing the sea? How could he lose him now? And, when once in the charmed circle of old friends and associations, would he not dislike to return to gray and barren Culm Rock? But Noll went.
IN PERIL OF THE SEA.
The day had dawned clear and brilliant, but as the afternoon waned, a gray curtain of ragged cloud slowly rose and hid the sun, and brought an early nightfall. The wind was strong, and the sea—calm and silvery but a few hours before—began to toss and thunder heavily. Hagar came from the pine woods with a great basket of cones, just as the early dusk began to settle over the windy sea and to wrap the forest in heavy shadow, and as the old woman crossed the narrow bar of sand which connected Culm Rock with the main-land, the wind swept over in such strong gusts, and with such blinding sheets of spray, that her safety was more than once endangered. But she reached the firm, unyielding Rock, with no worse misfortune than a drenching befalling her, and made her way to the warm and comfortable precincts of her kitchen, with many ejaculations of delight and thankfulness. The first sound which greeted her ears on entering was the long-drawn, solemn voice of the organ.
"Wonder what Mas'r Dick's got on his heart dis yer night?" she muttered, bustling about to prepare supper; "'tain't sech music as dat yer organ make lately. 'Pears like somethin' was de matter, anyhow."
She prepared supper in the dining-room, muttering to herself about the lonesomeness and silence of the house since "Mas'r Noll dun gone off;" and when the solitary meal was in readiness, put her head in at the library-door and called her master to tea. When she had got back to her kitchen, and was standing in the open door, her grizzled head thrust out into the gathering gloom and tempest to watch the progress of the storm, she noticed that the music did not cease, but kept on in its slow and solemn measure, rising and falling and stealing plaintively in.
"Something's de matter, sure," Hagar said, turning about and shutting the door; "dat ain't de kind of music dat Mas'r Dick's made lately. 'Pears like he's 'stressed 'bout somethin'! But, Hagar, ye can't do nuffin but jes' trust de Lord, nohow. Ye'd better get yer own supper, ef yer Mas'r Dick don't tech his."
She ate her supper and washed the dishes, and gave the little kitchen a stroke or two with her broom, and yet the music from the library came stealing in as sad-voiced and heavy as ever.
"'Pears as if he'd never eat his supper," Hagar grumbled; "de chile can't live on music, allers, nohow. Reckon he'll nebber hab much sperits till he eats more. But jes' stop yer talkin', chile, ye can't do nuffin' but trust de Lord."
By and by the wandering notes ceased, and in the deep silence there came up the hoarse and awful roar of the surf, with the wailing of the wind over the chimney, and filled the house with their echoes. Hagar heaped wood on the fire, drew her little low chair nearer the light and gladsome blaze, shivering and muttering as she did so. She had a great dread of cold and darkness, and the deep hush, broken by the clamor of the sea, made her afraid.
"De Lord's about," said she, drawing her old woollen shawl close around her; "de Lord's on de sea, an' 'pears like nobody need be feared when he holds it in his hand like as I holds dis yer silber ob Mas'r Noll's dat he lost under de rug in de dinin'-room,"—looking down at the shining coin which she had picked up that morning, and wondering where the boy was at that moment. "'Pears as ef de sunshine had been hid de whole time sence he went off to de city," she muttered, gazing in the coals. "Wonder ef Mas'r Dick misses him? Wonder ef dis yer ole woman won't be tickled 'nuff to see him when de day comes? Ki! Hagar, ye knows ye will."
The roar of the sea and the cry of the wind came in again, more lonesome, sadder than ever. The old negress shivered, peered about her into the dark corners of the kitchen, and crooned to herself,—a wild, monotonous air, set to words which came to her lips for the occasion:—
"Oh, Hagar, don't ye know De Lord's on de sea? He rides on de waves, And de wind is in his hand,— De Lord keeps dem all!
What ye feared of, Hagar? Kase, don't ye know de Lord's in it? 'Pears like ye done forget dat de whole time—Now!" and she broke into her rhymeless chant again. It was only a way she had got of setting her thoughts to music, drawing the words out very slowly, and weaving to and fro the while. When she had repeated her first lines, she kept on with her thoughts, peering over her shoulder at the flickering shadows which the fire cast on the wall behind her, shivering with awe at the clamor without, and chanting, waveringly,—
"Oh, Hagar, don't ye know De Lord's on de sea? De wind blows, an' de sky is dark, An' de sea cries like a little chile, An' de boats will be blowed away; But de Lord is good, an' mornin' will come, An', oh, Hagar, sing hallelujah! Fur de Lord is in it all!"
Here she stopped her chanting, and began to sing "Hallelujah!" softly, ceasing her swaying, to look into the coals. The fire burned down to rosy embers, in which little blue-tongued flames darted up fitfully,—anon lighting up the room brilliantly, then dying away and leaving it almost in darkness,—while Hagar's crooning died away to a whisper. A little gray light still shone in at the kitchen-window, but it was fast flitting. The roar of the sea became thunder, the wind grew tempestuous. By and by the rain began to fall, sounding strangely soft and still, when compared with the din of wind and waves.
"God bress us!" said Hagar, "dis yer is an awful night. Keep de boats off de Rock, Lord, and pity de sailors in dis yer awful storm!"
The old woman knew how the sea must look now,—yeasty, horrible, its white wave-caps shining through the darkness and hurrying to topple over and thunder against the rocks. To her, as she sat crouched before the fire, it seemed to howl and scream and mourn hoarsely, like some great voice rending the night with lamentation.
"Call on de Lord, Hagar," she muttered frequently; "can't nuffin else help ye now!"
Sometimes she fell to chanting her thoughts,—the sound of her own voice was pleasant to her in the loneliness,—and she piled cedar chips on the fire to see their cheerful blaze and enjoy their brisk crackle.
"Might as well hab a candle," she said, after a time. "Git yer knittin', chile, an' 'pear as ef ye didn't distrus' de Lord. What ef de wind is blowin'? what ef de sea is a-screamin'? Don't ye know whose wind and whose sea 'tis?" She got up to grope for a candle on the shelf over the fireplace.
"Hagar!" exclaimed a voice at the farther end of the kitchen,—a voice so full of compressed fear and anxiety that the old negress tumbled back in her chair with affright,—"Hagar! are you here?" demanded the voice.
"Bress ye! yes, I's here, Mas'r Dick!" she answered, catching sight of his white face by the dining-room door. "I's here, but ye spoke so suddent! Jes' wait, an' I'll hab a candle in a minnit."
The candle was found, and, after a long blowing of coals and burning of splinters, began to burn dimly. Hagar set it on the table, and looked up at her master with a start of alarm, his face was so white and anxious.
"Hagar," said he, huskily, "Noll was to start from Hastings this morning!"
The old negress stood looking at him a full minute,—a fearful, lonesome minute in which the rain beat against the panes, and the awful voice of the sea filled the room,—then she sank down by the fire with a low cry.
"Lord bress us all!" she wailed, as she looked up, "fur he'll nebber get here, Mas'r Dick!"
Trafford looked at her silently. Oh, that awful voice without!—the thunder, the tremble of the earth, the screaming of the wind! At last,—
"Is ye certain sure, Mas'r Dick? D'ye know he started? Did he say?"
"Oh, Hagar, if I did not—not know,—if I had any doubt that he started, I would give all my possessions this very moment!"
"'Tain't de money nor de lands dat'll do now!" moaned Hagar, beginning to sway back and forth; "it's only de Lord! De Lord's on de sea to-night, an' 'tain't fur man to say! Oh, Mas'r Dick! t'ink o' dat bressed boy in dese waves an' dis wind!"
"Hush!" said the master, imperatively, "I will not think of it! It can't be! Noll? Oh, Hagar, I believe I'm going mad!" He turned away from the old negress and opened the door. The tempest swept in, overturning the candle and flaring up the fire, and bearing the rain, in one long gust, across the little kitchen, even into Hagar's face.
Trafford stood there, regardless of wind and rain, looking out upon the sea. The mighty tumult awed him and filled his heart with a sense of man's utter weakness and helplessness. The foamy expanse gleamed whitely through the night,—awful with the terror of death,—and its deafening roar smote upon his ears, and in the slightest lull, the rain-drops fell with a soft, dull patter. Noll in it all?—in this fearful, yawning sea,—in this wild tumult of wind and rain,—in the vast waste of waves which the thick darkness shrouded, and where death was riding? "God help me!" he cried in sudden frenzy,—"God help me!" He looked up at the thick, black depths of sky with a groan of agony when he remembered his utter powerlessness. But what right had he to look to Heaven for aid?—he who knew not God, nor sought him, nor desired his love? The bitterness of this thought made him groan and beat his breast. Would He—whom all his life long he had refused and rejected—hear his cries?
Hagar's voice came to him here through all the din and thunder, beseeching that the door might be closed. He closed it behind him, and stepped out into the darkness. It was already past the hour for the "Gull" to arrive, he remembered, and then a sudden thought flashed through his brain that beacons ought to be kindled to guide the skipper, if he were not already beyond the need of earthly guides and beacons. And close upon this thought came a remembrance of the Culm fishermen,—stout, skilful sailors, all of them,—and a great hope filled his heart that in them he might find aid in his extremity. And without waiting for a second thought, he started through the inky darkness and the tempest for Culm village. He ran till he was breathless. He climbed and groped his way over and along the slippery rocks, the awful voice of the sea filling his ears and goading him on.
The evening wore on. They were all on the beach,—Trafford and the Culm fishermen,—and now a beacon fire streamed up into the darkness, and made the night seem even more black and intense. They had piled their heap of driftwood somewhat in the shelter of a great rock, and around it the men were huddled, muttering and whispering to each other, and casting sober glances at Trafford, who stood apart from them in the shadow. Not a word had he spoken since the fire was kindled, but, grim and silent as a statue, had stood there, with his eyes looking upon the gleaming sea, and the rain beating in his face. He had worked desperately while gathering driftwood.
"The master be crazed, like," Dirk had whispered to the men as they came in with armfuls of fuel. "D'ye see his eyes? D'ye see the way he be runnin' up an' down, poor man?"
"Ay, an' his lad be where many o' your'n an' mine ha' been, eh, Dirk?" said Hark Harby. "Mabby he ken tell what 'tis ter be losin' his own, an' no help fur it, eh?"
"Sh!" said Dirk; "the sea ben't able ter get sech a lad as his every day. If he be lost, 'tis a losin' fur more'n he, yender."
This was before the beacon was kindled. Now they huddled in a gloomy circle about the hissing, sputtering fire, some crouching close to the rock to save themselves from the rain, and the others drawing their heads down into their wide-collared jackets, that bade defiance to the wet. The wind whirled and raved, and the sea thundered on. The fire cast a little pathway of light through the darkness, down to the sea's edge, and they could see its waves all beaten to foam as white as milk, flecking the sand in great patches. It was an awful waiting.
By and by Hagar came down along the sand in a great hood-cloak that gave her a most weird and witchlike appearance. The fishermen looked at her with startled, suspicious eyes as the bent old figure suddenly emerged from the darkness into the full glare of the firelight. The old negress passed on to where Trafford was standing.
"I's here, Mas'r Dick," she said, touching his arm, as if fain to assure him of her presence and sympathy.
He did not repel her, but said, with much of kindness in his tone, "This is no place for you, Hagar."
"De Lord's here," said Hagar, quietly, "an' I's gwine ter stay. I isn't feared, Mas'r Dick."
Trafford looked in her wrinkled, time-worn old face yearningly. This black, ignorant old woman had something within her heart that gave her a peace and serenity in this fearful hour that he envied. He felt the truth of this as he had never felt it before. She was stayed and upheld by some invisible hand. Somehow, in her humble life, this old negress had found some great truth which all his own study and research had failed to teach him. He turned about and made her a seat of boards on an old spar which lay on the sand, under the shelter of the rock by the fire.
"T'ank ye, Mas'r Dick," said Hagar, tremulously, as she sat down. This unusual kindness touched her. It was like his old-time thoughtfulness and gentleness, when he was her own blithe, merry schoolboy, she thought.
The rain began to fall less heavily. Only now and then a great drop fell with a hiss and sputter into the fire; but the wind grew fiercer as the evening waned, and the thunder and pounding of the sea was deafening. The spray dashed higher and higher, quite up to the backs of the men who huddled about the fire, and its fine mist sifted even into Hagar's face and grizzled locks.
"'Tain't nuffin tu what dat bressed boy is suff'rin'," she sighed, wiping the cold drops off her cheeks; "'pears as ef dis ole heart 'ud split'n two, thinkin' ob it. O good Lord, bress de chile!—bress him,—bress him!—dat's all Hagar ken say."
It was a weary watching. As the war of the sea grew louder and the wind fiercer, the Culm fishermen gathered into a yet closer group, and looked with awed and sober faces in the fire. For all that these men followed the sea, and it was almost a native element to them, they seemed to have a great dread and awe of it. Trafford yet stood apart from them with his eyes looking into the dense night, and Hagar, all muffled in her great cloak, swayed slowly to and fro with her face hidden. Oh, the suspense and agony of those minutes!—the weary watching and waiting for—what?
It came at last. In the short space of silence between the bursting of two great waves, there rose a cry from out the great waste of darkness beyond their little length and breadth of light. Trafford started and sprang forward. The men around the fire were startled from their crouching positions by this shrill, sudden shout, and looked in one another's faces and—waited. But the cry was not repeated. Then Dirk said,—
"It wur the skipper, sure. O Lord, men! but I be feared the 'Gull' be on the rocks, yender."
The sweat stood in drops on his forehead, and he slowly clinched and unclinched his great brawny hands. Trafford heard his words, and a sudden faintness like death smote him. But it passed away, and in sudden frenzy and despair he rushed up to Dirk, exclaiming,—
"How do you know, man? How can you tell? There was only a cry!"
Before Dirk could answer, there rose, clear and distinct, that one solitary voice from out the darkness,—a fearful, appealing cry for aid from some human heart out there in the awful presence of death. And that thrilling cry was all. It never came again. Trafford beat his breast with agony. Then he turned upon the fishermen.
"Why do you stand here," he cried, furiously, "when they are perishing out there? My boy is there!—my boy that's done so much for you and yours! Will you let him drown without lifting a hand to save him?"
"It be no use to try," said the men, pointing to the surf; "boat's ud crack like a gull's shell out there."
"But try,—only try!" shouted Trafford, in an agonized tone. "If money will tempt you, you shall have all of mine! You shall have more than ever your eyes saw before! I will make you all rich!—only try,—only try!"
"We'd try soon enough for the young master's sake, an' ye might keep yer gold," said Dirk; "but it wud be no use, an' only losin' of life. The lad be beyont our help or yer gold, either."
"'Tain't de money nor de lands dat'll do, now," moaned Hagar; "it's only de Lord!"
"But think of it, you ungrateful wretches!" cried Trafford, frantically,—"the lad has done more for you and yours than you can ever repay! He went across the sea this time to do you good, and it's for your sakes that he's out in the peril yonder! Will you let him drown without even an attempt to save him? Will you?"
Dirk shook his head. "It be no use," he said, "but we ken try. I be not one to hev it said that I be unthankful. Here, lads, give us a hand! Ef I'll be riskin' my life fur any one, 'tis fur the lad yender."
They dragged a boat down to the curling line of foam, and watching for a favorable opportunity, launched it. Trafford sprang in with them, and they pushed into the darkness. It seemed hardly three minutes to those who stood around the fire, before a great wave came riding in and threw the boat and its load upon the sand. Dirk sprang up and seized Trafford before the returning flood had engulfed him. He pointed to the rent ribs of the boat, saying, as he shook himself,—
"It be as I told ye. Yer lad be beyont yer gold or yer help."
They made no more attempts. Trafford gave up the idea of a rescue, and paced up and down the sand in the very face of the surf that drenched him at every tumble. Utterly helpless! The cold, cruel sea mocked his despair and frenzy. It was great and mighty, and even now was swallowing his treasure, he thought, which lay almost within his power to save. So near!—and yet death between! The thought made him half wild with despair and horror. Yet there was no help,—nowhere to turn for aid or succor,—not the faintest hope of saving the boy's life. The sea must swallow him.
The fishermen looked askance at the wild, desperate figure that rushed up and down the sand as if it sought to burst through the sea and save its treasure, and whispered gloomily among themselves. Suddenly the man wheeled about and came up to the fire, crying, fiercely,—
"Hagar, you have a God! I cannot find him. Pray to him,—pray to him! Quick, woman!—pray to him before it's too late!"
"Lord help ye, Mas'r Dick!" said Hagar, "I's jes' prayin' fur de dear chile ebery minnit! Don't ye know it? But de Lord's out thar!"—pointing with her skinny finger to the depths of darkness which shrouded the sea, with such vehemence as to startle the fishermen; "he's wid dat boy, and thar can't nuffin kill his soul. It's only goin' to glory quicker'n de rest ob us. Don't ye know it, Mas'r Dick?—can't ye feel it? What's de winds or de waves, so long as de Lord's got ye in his arms, holdin' ye up?—as he's got dat boy ob your'n. Oh, Mas'r Dick! jes' humble yerself 'fore de Lord, right off. What's de use ob stribin' to fight him?—what's de use? 'Tain't no use!—ye knows it dis minnit!—ye knows it all ober! Call on de Lord yerself, Mas'r Dick!—call on de Lord 'fore it's too late!"
"I cannot, I cannot!" groaned Trafford, dropping down on the sand by his old nurse; "I don't know him, and he will not hear me. Oh, my boy, my boy!"
He gave up then. Hagar knew by the way he sank back upon the sand, all the wildness and fierceness gone out of his face, and the crushed, broken-hearted manner in which his head drooped, that he had given up the boy. She gathered his head on her knee, as she had often done when he was a youth, and stroked it tenderly, saying, as her tears dropped,—
"Poor chile, poor honey! Hagar's sorry fur ye. It's a dreadful t'ing not ter know de Lord; ain't it, chile? Can't do nuffin widout him, somehow. But Hagar hopes ye'll find him; she hopes ye'll find him dis berry night. 'Pears like he ain't fur off dis awful night; an', O Lord Jesus!"—folding her hands reverently, and looking toward the sea as if she saw her Redeemer walking there,—"come an' bress dis poor broken heart dat can't find ye. It's jes' waitin' fur de bressin', an' 'pears like 'twould faint ter def ef ye didn't come. Come, Lord, come."
The night wore slowly on. The "Gull" began to break in pieces and float ashore. The fishermen had enough to do to snatch the boxes and bales which the sea hurled up. As yet, none of the "Gull's" more precious freight of life had made its way through the sea to the shore. Dirk was watching keenly for it. A half-dozen draggled, fearful women had stolen down from their houses, and were standing by the fire, whispering and talking in undertones, with many glances of pity at the figure lying prone on the sand with its head in the old black woman's lap.
"Alack!" said Dirk, with a great sigh, "it wur a fine lad. I never knowed kinder nor better. Ye ken all say that, women, an' this be the sorriest night I ever knowed, 'cept when my little gal died. He wur good to my little gal, the lad wur, an' he giv' me a bit o' flower to put on the sand where she be sleepin', an' it growed an' growed an' blossomed, an' the blossom wur like a great blue eye,—like my little gal's eye,—an' many's the night after fishin' I've gone up ter the buryin'-place ter look at it. An' now the lad himself be gone," said Dirk, wiping his eyes and snuffling.
"Ay, it be a heavy night!" moaned the women, wiping their eyes with the corners of their aprons.
A great heap of bales and boxes and bits of the "Gull's" timbers was accumulating on the sand by the fire. The women sat down on them, keeping up their low talk and whispers, and watching the two silent figures the other side of the fire. The man moved not a muscle. The old negress bent over him, stroking his forehead and whispering and crooning. Only once he had said, chokingly, "My Noll!—all that was left to me," and now lay passive and unheeding, overwhelmed and crushed by the sense of his loss and the consciousness that the sea had quenched the brave, bright life forever.
The long, long, weary night gave way to a gray and gloomy dawn. The tempest had not abated, and the sea thundered as furiously as ever. The wet and shivering women had gone back to their houses and their little ones; and as the cold, steely light of the coming day began to whiten in the east, Hagar made her way back to her kitchen, where she kindled a fire to warm her numb limbs. Never more, she thought,—rocking to and fro before the pleasant blaze,—could the old house be bright or cheerful. The sea had quenched its life and its joy, and never again would the merry voice echo in the great rooms, or the quick, eager steps sound along the hall and in at her kitchen-door.
"O good, bressed Lord!" moaned she, "bress yer poor chil'en dat's lef' behind! 'Pears like dey was jes' ready ter fall down an' faint ter def ef ye didn't hold 'em up. O Lord, keep Hagar up, an' 'vent her from 'strustin' ye! Bress us, Lord, fur we ain't nuffin dis yer time. Ye's all we hab ter hold on ter."
Meanwhile, Trafford and the fishermen lingered on the shore, waiting for the sea to give up its dead. The east grew whiter, and light broke dimly over the waste of waves, and faintly showed them where the "Gull" had struck. There was not much left of the little craft,—only a few timbers and the taper point of a mast, wedged in between some outlying rocks, which the sea thundered over. It was a dreary sight,—the vast, immeasurable waste lashed into foam, and dimly discerned through the gray gleaming of the dawn, with the bit of wreck swaying in the wares, where those lives had gone out in the awful thunder and darkness; but Trafford gazed upon it with a calm face. Groans and lamentation could not express the agony which rent his heart, and he walked up and down the drenched sand with a calm, white face that awed Dirk whenever he looked upon it.
"It be a heavier stroke for the master an' we ken tell, lads," he said to his comrades, as they kept keen lookout for the poor bodies which the sea still kept.
"Ay, there be a heart within him like the rest of us," said one of the fishermen, looking at Trafford as he kept his watchful vigil; "an' he be only losin' what we hev lost afore."
"But the lad wur not like ours," said Dirk, pityingly, "an' it wur a finer lad an' ever I see afore."
So they talked as they watched and waited, and the light grew, and somewhere behind the lowering banks of clouds in the east the sun had risen, and all the land and sea lay cold and warmthless and forlorn. Trafford relinquished not his keen search for a moment, fearful lest the waves should cast his lost treasure at his feet and snatch it back before he could grasp it. The dear face might be bruised and battered by the cruel, remorseless sea, and the eyes could never beam upon him with any light of love or recognition, he thought; yet find it and look upon it he must, even though the sight agonized him. So he watched and waited, with his tearless eyes roaming along the line of foam.
An hour fled. The sea relented, and gave up one poor form into the fishermen's hands. Trafford walked calmly out to where the men were bending over it with pale, awed faces, and saw that it was not Noll. He shivered, looking at the skipper's stalwart figure, and wondered whether, if the sailor but had the power of speech, he might not tell him something of his boy,—whether he met death's dark face calmly and fearlessly, and whether he sent a message to those whom he saw on the shore and could not call to. This thought gave him fresh anguish. If Noll had sent him a farewell,—a last message,—oh, what would he not give to hear it? But, if that were really the case, it had died with those to whom it was intrusted. The sea would never whisper it,—the dead could not. He went back to his lonely pacing.
Another long, long hour passed. The bit of wreck that was jammed between the rocks went to pieces and came ashore. Ben's mate came with it, but no Noll. The men began to straggle homeward, weary and worn with the night's vigil, till only Dirk and Hark Darby were left to keep the stricken master of the stone house company. Oh, such a weary waiting it was!—the ceaseless pouring of the waves upon the sand filling their ears with clamor, and the fearful tide bringing them not the treasure which they sought. Would the sea never give it up? Was the dear form caught and held by the entangling arms of some purple weed in the sea depths? or was it cradled in the calm, unruffled quiet of some crevice of the rocks?
"Oh, cruel, cruel sea!" he cried to himself, "to rob me of my boy, and refuse to give back the poor boon of his body."
It never came. The morning wore on to noon, the noon to night, and still the lonely watcher paced up and down. Toward night the tempest abated, and the turmoil of the sea subsided somewhat. The gray clouds broke and let through a slant mist of yellow sunshine as the sun departed, and the storm was over. Its work was done; and as the clouds fled in ragged squadrons, the calm, untroubled stars shone out over the sea, and mocked, with their deep, unutterable peace, the aching, wretched heart of him who still kept up his lonely pacing. Trafford's eyes suddenly caught sight of their silvery glitter, and he stopped, looking up at them, while the sudden thought flashed through his mind, "Is my boy up there? beyond those shining worlds, in that happy heaven which he trusted in?"
The thought held him silent and motionless. It had not entered his heart before. He had been searching for the lad upon this dreary, sea-beaten shore, without a thought of anything beyond. Was he really standing upon a heavenly shore, where no waves beat nor tempest raved, and, perhaps, looking down upon his own lonely vigil?
There was something in this thought which brought a great calm upon his heart. True, the boy was no less dead nor separated from him; the merry voice was no less hushed to him for all his life and journeying, and the echo of his footsteps might never float down from heavenly paths to gladden his ears; yet, though he realized this, there was a wonderful peace and joy in thinking of the lad as happy and joyous in a sphere where nothing would ever blight his happiness; where he had found those who bore him a great love and had been long waiting for his coming. Trafford sat down on the great pile of broken timbers, and once more looked upward at the stars. Pure and unwavering their gentle eyes looked down at him. And then peaceful as an angel's whisper, came the remembered words of one who was an angel too: "Oh, Richard! don't fail—don't fail to find Him and cling to Him, and come up,—come up too."
Why, oh, why, of all times, did this gentle breathing come to him here? It seemed to Trafford as if his wife's lips had whispered it close to his ear, and he bowed his head upon his breast, while his breath came quick and fast, and bitter tears of grief stood in his eyes. Had God taken his treasures, one after another, and placed them in that heaven which they all looked forward to, that his own wayward, straying heart might be drawn thither? Was this last loss meant to be the great affliction which, through love, should turn his heart toward God and his kingdom? He could not tell; his heart was strangely stirred and melted within him. It seemed to him as if that angel whisper had driven the great burden of despair and agony out of his heart by its gentle breathing, and left it broken and sorrowful, yet not without peace and hope. He looked up at the stars and thought of Noll, and wept. They were not tears of agony, and he did not rave and groan. A slow step came along the sand, turning hither and thither, as if in quest of some one. It drew near Trafford, at last, and a tremulous old voice said,—