"Is dis ye, Mas'r Dick? Hagar's glad 'nough ter find ye, anyhow. 'Pears like she couldn't stay up ter de house, nohow,—'twas so lonesome."
"Yes, I know, Hagar," said the man, without raising his head.
The twilight was so thick that the old negress could not see the speaker's face, but a certain tremble and softness of his voice did not escape her notice.
"Have ye foun' de Lord, Mas'r Dick?" she asked, quickly.
"I know not what I have found," Trafford answered, while his tears fell; "but if I might find his face, and know that it smiled upon me, I should care for little else."
"Now praise de Lord!" said Hagar, fervently; "dat's more'n ye ever felt afore. Thar's help fur ye, Mas'r Dick, an' 'tain't fur off!"
"Too far for me to find it!" said Trafford; "he does not smile upon those who have rejected him."
"Oh, chile!" said Hagar, in a shocked tone; "don't ye know de Lord's all mercy an' lubbin' kin'ness? Don't ye know he won't 'spise an' hate ye jes' as ef he was like a man? Oh, honey! Hagar's feared ter hear ye talk like dat. 'Pears as ef ye made de Lord jes' like poor, eble, good-fur-nuffin man."
Trafford made no reply. A sudden darkness seemed shutting down upon him. It was as if a great golden gleam had fallen out of heaven upon him, warming and softening his heart, and when he turned with tears and joy to look along its pathway heavenward, it vanished and left him groping in confusion and dismay. He got up from off his seat, saying, mournfully,—
"The brightness is all gone from me! I'm in doubt and fear. Oh, how can I ever find his face?—and how can he ever smile upon me who have rejected him?"
Hagar sighed heavily as she said, "Ye don't 'preciate de Lord, chile. Ye talks jes' as ef he was a man, an' could feel 'vengeful towards ye! Don't s'pose any man could forgive ye, honey, but de bressed Lord is all lub,—Hagar knows dat,—an' Jesus died jes' as much fur ye as he did fur anybody. Ye's got to look to dat bressed Lord Jesus, an' ef ye looks hard 'nough, ye'll find him. Oh, Hagar t'anks de Lord frum de bottom ob her heart fur yer feelin' so to-night."
"But I have not found him! He is hidden from me!" said Trafford.
"But ye will ef ye looks long enough!" said Hagar, cheerfully; "he'll come out ob de darkness to ye: bimeby. Bress ye, chile, dis ole woman was lookin' an' seekin' an' stribin' in mis'ry till she was 'bout ready to give up in 'spair; but I foun' him at las', an' he nebber 'sook Hagar,—nebber!"
The sea was growing calmer with every hour that passed. But it was rough and thunderous still, and its wave-crests gleamed whitely under the starlight. Trafford at last remembered the lateness of the hour, and said, "Come, Hagar, this is no place for us. We will go in."
The two slowly made their way along the shore up to the dark and deserted stone house. Hagar smothered the sigh that rose up from her heart as the silence and loneliness smote upon it, and led the way around to her kitchen-door.
"Poor chile! ye habn't had nuffin to eat dis day," said she, after they were once within her little dominion and she had kindled the fire; "go into de libr'y, honey, an' I'll hab ye sumfin' purty quick."
But Trafford shook his head, saying, "Not there!—not there, yet!" and sat down on the bench by the fire.
Hagar moved wearily about from the cupboard to the table, saying to herself,—
"What ye t'inkin' ob, Hagar, to tell him dat? Dar's all poor Mas'r Noll's books an' t'ings lyin' 'bout eberywhar, an' how ken de poor chile stan' it? De Lord's han' is heaby upon him, an', O good Lord Jesus, jes' come an' bress de poor chile an' sabe him!"
DAYS OF CALM.
He found it at last,—the peace which comes after a long, weary, despairing struggle. But it was not easily won. It seemed to Trafford as if God had hidden himself in a thick, awful darkness, through which not the faintest ray of light or hope could glimmer upon his heavy, despairing heart. He sought for him as one who, feeling himself in the grasp of Death, would seek for Life. He had long rejected him and put him away; now, in his hour of anguish and extremity, his face and his peace were hard to find. Never had such utter silence reigned in the stone house since its occupancy as reigned there now. Hagar kept mostly within her own province, and Trafford sat day after day in the dining-room, hardly stirring from thence. He had not entered the library since the night of the shipwreck, neither had Hagar stepped within the room, where all Noll's books and shells and treasures gathered from the sea lay, and where everything hinted of the sunny, joyous life which once had made the great room cheerful. Neither looked within, as if they dreaded to recall the dear and pleasant vision of the curly-haired boy who had lived and studied there. These were the days in which Trafford groped in darkness and despondency. Hagar set the table by his side, and brought him his meals, and carried away the untasted viands, with much sighing and regret, but, nevertheless, with joy in her heart.
"'Pears as ef 'twas a drefful t'ing fur de poor chile ter be suff'rin' so," she would sigh to herself as she watched his worn and heavy face on her passages through the room; "but Hagar's t'ankful 'nough to see it, 'cause de poor chile'll find de Lord bimeby. Bress de Lord! Mas'r Dick'll find him some time!"
A long and weary week passed away. Without, the world had never been fairer, nor the sea lovelier. No storms lashed it, and the great world of waves glittered calm and untroubled under the sun, with no hint of death or woe in its purple evening lights or its bright morning gleams.
Then, after this long seeking, a faint hope began to dawn in Trafford's heart. He did not dare to give it heed or trust at first,—he who had been in despair so long,—and when, at last, he began to put forth feeble, trembling anticipations of the peace and joy which might come when God's smile and forgiveness shone upon him, this little ray of hope broadened and grew warmer and brighter, and he began to look up out of his depths of anguish. It was long coming,—it seemed at times to be utterly unattainable,—it was sometimes almost within his heart, and then it fled from him; but at last it came, and abode with him,—this peace which a poor, wandering soul feels after it has found its Lord. Then he was at rest. He came out into Hagar's kitchen one sunshiny afternoon, and, in answer to the old negress' look of wonder and surprise at seeing him there, said, with a grave joy thrilling his words,—
"Hagar, I have found him; and I do not think that his peace will ever leave me, or that my heart will ever forget him."
Hagar got up off the bench where she was sitting, and came slowly forward, saying, brokenly, "Bress de Lord, bress de Lord! dat's all Hagar ken say. Oh, chile, ef ye knew how dis ole heart felt ter hear ye say dem words! ef ye only c'u'd know! But ye nebber will till dis ole woman gits such a tongue as de Lord'll gib her when she gets ter heaben. Den Hagar ken tell ye!"
She followed him to the door, and sat down there in the sunshine, softly blessing him again and again as she watched him follow the thread of a path which led around to the piazza. Trafford paused here, on the smooth sand by the piazza-steps, and looked out upon the sea. It was like a new sea, and the very earth seemed not as of old, for now God reigned over them, and it was his sunshine which fell so brightly and broadly everywhere, and his smile and the knowledge of his forgiveness which filled his heart with such utter peace and tranquillity. This great joy and calm held him quiet for a little space, and, when he turned about, his eyes fell upon the little breadth of grass waving there by the step. One or two gay, crimson asters nodded in the warm wind, planted there by the same hand that watered and cared for the bit of turf. Trafford sat down by them, stroking the turf's green blades, and gazing at the warm-hued flowers through tears. "Gone—gone," they seemed to whisper as they softly rustled. Somehow these tender, soulless things brought up the boy's memory most vividly. He remembered how Noll sat on the same bit of turf only those two short weeks ago with the warm wind blowing his curly locks about his eyes while he looked off upon the sea. Who thought of danger or death then? Who thought of death lying in wait in that calm, shadowy sea? Trafford's tears fell thick and fast upon the green blades, thinking of the lad. Did ever the sea quench a fairer, brighter life? he wondered,—a life fuller of rich and generous promise? Yet, only two short weeks ago,—short, in reality, but slow and long in passing,—the boy had sat upon this little breadth of verdure full of life and spirits and happiness.
"Ah!" sighed he, "I knew not a treasure I possessed till it passed from me. Now that I have lost it, I see what a blissful life I might have made for myself and it. God forgive me! but I was harsh and cruel to the boy. I made his life darker and less joyous than it ought to have been."
He sat here for a long time, till once more his face was calm and undisturbed. Sometime, he thought, he might meet the boy face to face, and tell him all that his heart longed to unburden itself of. He rose up, at last, and went slowly in, pausing at the library-door. After a few seconds of indecision, he opened it, and went softly in. The room was cold and chilly from its long unoccupancy; but through one of the high windows, and along the floor, streamed a broad bar of cheerful sunlight. It fell right across Noll's study-table and the chair which he was wont to occupy. Trafford moved forward, sat down in the chair, and looked about him with misty eyes. Traces of the boy's presence everywhere! The familiar school-books, open to the last lessons which Trafford had heard him recite; bits of paper, with sums and solutions traced thereon; copies of the fine and feathery sea-moss, which it was the boy's delight to gather, with odd pebbles and shells, met his gaze on either hand. He took up a scrap of paper from among the rest, and found something thereon which the boy had written, evidently in an idle moment. Trafford, however, read it not without emotion. It merely said:—
"Wednes., Aug. 24.—This is a long, gray, rainy day, and I have not stirred out of the house. I am at this moment (or ought to be) studying my Latin lesson. Uncle Richard has not spoken a word to me since breakfast. I wish I knew what made him look so grim and sober to-day, and I do wish he would speak to me. When the fog lifted just now, I fancied I saw a ship on the horizon, bound for Hastings, I suppose. Oh, but I—"
Here the slight record was broken off. Perhaps the boy had gone back to his Latin, or perhaps the passing ship had taken his thoughts along with it to Hastings, and thus left the half-commenced exclamation unfinished. Trafford read and reread the little bit of paper, and folded it carefully, and put it away with the precious letter which the boy's father had written on his dying-bed. Then he began to gather up Noll's books, thinking to put them out of his sight, but stopped before he had taken the third in his hand. Why hide them? Why shut them up in darkness, as if some evil, dreaded memory were connected with the sight of them? Had not everything about the boy and his life been bright and pleasant to think of? He put the books back in their places, saying to himself, "They shall stay where they are. Hagar shall not move them, and I will have them before my eyes alway, just as his dear hands left them? Why should I try to hide aught that his blessed memory lingers around?"
So he left everything just as Noll's hands had placed them last, and rose up from his chair, and went to his old familiar seat by the great bookcase, where he had sat and pored over great volumes day after day, and watched the boy at his studies. The portrait on the wall looked down at him with its soft and tender eyes, and he thought, "Now I may look at it without its reproaching me; for, dear heart, I have begun to 'come up.' I have turned my eyes toward thy abode, and, God helping me, I may some day hear thy own sweet voice. And though I may never see the boy's face, and rejoice to look upon it as I do upon thine, yet his pure memory lingers about everything that he loved and touched, and his face can never be removed from my heart."
Calm and peaceful days passed, and the third week after the shipwreck went by, and life in the stone house began to move on as it was wont to do. Once more the red light from the library-window streamed out into the night, but there was no Skipper Ben and his "Gull" for it to guide. Not a sail had been seen near the Rock, and its inhabitants had been shut out from the rest of mankind for three long weeks. That which at first was only an inconvenience grew to be a serious matter at last. The Culm folk, never very provident, exhausted their supply of flour and meal, and had only fish to eat; and fish, with a little salt, was not an extensive nor varied bill of fare.
In some way or another, Hagar discovered that the people had exhausted all their stores, and through her it came to Trafford's ears.
"Nuffin but fish ter live on, an' not de greatest plenty o' dat," Hagar had said, standing beside Trafford's chair in the library.
The man started, as a sudden remembrance of forgotten duties came into his mind. He had neglected to look after those Culm people,—he had forgotten about Noll's school and its pupils. But it should be so no longer, he resolved at once. That work which the boy loved and desired to complete, he would take up and carry out. It should be a pleasure and delight. He would gather up the broken, half-completed plans, and make it the work of his life to perfect them as Noll would have done. Now the inmates of the stone house were not well supplied with provisions, as the winter stores had not been laid in. There was no telling when another ship would touch at Culm, but, in all probability, it would be soon. The skipper must have friends somewhere, who would be searching for his whereabouts. Trafford divided his supplies with the fishermen, trusting that ere long some sail would appear, bound for the Rock, or within signalling distance of it. He walked often by the sea, looking toward Hastings, and trying in vain to discern some sail bound hitherward. He walked over to Culm village, and lingered about the little room where Noll's school had been, and resolved that the plan of a new schoolroom, with good seats, benches, and a faithful teacher, should be carried out if ever communication was opened between the Rock and Hastings. And if no teacher could be got for the winter, he would teach the children himself. He wondered whether there were any chairs or benches left from the cargo of the "Gull," remembering that Noll was to bring school-furniture from Hastings with him; but, though he searched long and keenly among the timbers and refuse which the sea had thrown up, he could not find so much as a bit of varnished wood that looked as if it might have belonged to a desk or chair. At this he wondered, but thought, "The poor boy was unsuccessful, or else the sea refuses to give up aught that was his, as well as himself."
And still he watched and waited for a sail, thinking that if none came soon, a way must be devised for getting to Hastings.
OUT OF THE SEA.
The fourth week after the shipwreck dragged slowly away,—spent in watching and waiting for a sail. None came. The lack of good food was getting to be a serious matter for both Culm folk and the inmates of the stone house. Trafford's stores were well-nigh exhausted, and the last day of that long fourth week was spent in company with Dirk Sharp and some of his comrades, devising plans by which they might communicate with Hastings. The master of the stone house walked homeward after his conference with the fishermen, and paused in the gathering dusk on the spot where he had stood that fearful night when the "Gull" and her crew were on the rocks in the awful roar and thunder of the tempest. How silent and peaceful it all lay now,—the sea purpling in its calm and shadowy depths, its waves faintly murmuring on the pebbles, and, overhead, the arch of silvery sky bending down to the far horizon, full of the tender lights of the after-glow! Only one month since that fearful night, yet how far in the dim past the event seemed! What a great darkness and despair he had struggled through! How full and real every minute of those four weeks had been! And, as he stood there, such strong and tender memories of the lad he had lost came back to him that he turned away with a throbbing heart, and walked homeward along the sand with a bowed head, and so failed to see the white gleaming of a sail which rose out of the sea and stood toward the Rock. The lingering daylight touched it with a rosy flush as the rising night-breeze bore it steadily onward; but Trafford saw it not, and went up the piazza-steps, and into the stone house, without turning his eyes seaward.
He ate his scanty supper, which Hagar—poor heart!—had placed upon the table with a wonderful display of dishes, as if to make up for the lack of food by a board spread with cups and plates enough for a feast, and then took his way to the silent library. He sat down at his organ, and from its long-silent pipes drew soft and tender music that filled the room and stole gently through the house. The tears came into Hagar's eyes as she listened to it.
"'Pears as ef de angels was singin'," she said, wiping her cheeks. "Hagar wonders ef de Lord'll gib her a voice like dat when she gets ter glory."
It died away at last in gentle, tremulous whispers, and Trafford walked to the window and looked out. Twilight had settled so thickly that the sea was quite hidden, save a faint glimmer of ripples along the sand. Deep quiet reigned over land and sea, and nowhere with such undisputed sway as in the stone house. Trafford lit his study-lamp and sat down, with no desire, however, to read or study. Hardly had he seated himself, when, with startling suddenness, a shrill scream broke upon the deep quiet. It was Hagar's voice, and the cry came from her kitchen; and before Trafford had recovered from his surprise, there was a little sound of commotion in her distant province,—doors were thrown open, voices echoed, and then along the silent hall came a sound—the rush of eager feet—that drove every trace of color from Trafford's face, as well it might, and made his heart beat so loud and wildly that he pressed his hands over it to stay its tumultuous beating. He started up, gazing with wide-open eyes at the library-door, while at every echo of those coming footsteps, he started and trembled, and grew faint with anticipation. The door burst open, and there stood—Noll Trafford!
One moment the boy paused, perhaps frightened by the white face of the man who sat gazing motionlessly at him, then he bounded forward, crying, "It's I, Uncle Richard!—your own Noll!"
Trafford's arms did not clasp the boy about; his tongue refused to articulate; his heart could not take in this great, overwhelming joy. But Noll's arms were about his neck, the boy's warm breath was upon his cheek, and in his ears was the lad's whisper, "It's I,—I, Uncle Richard! no one else!"
Then the man began to sigh, just as if he were awakening from a long and troubled dream, and presently he put out his hand and touched the boy's cheeks, as if to assure himself that it was not all a vision, and then he said, chokingly, "My boy,—mine! O God! I don't deserve this."
His arms clasped the lad in one long, fervent embrace. He bent his head over the curly locks, and wept for joy, stroking the lad's shoulders and pressing his hands the while, as if he were not yet sure that the boy was a reality. He looked upon him as one from the dead. Had the sea given him up?—had that terrible tempest spared him in its wild fury? Why had the boy lingered so long? Where had he been sojourning all these long weeks? But too happy in the consciousness that it was really Noll, safe and unharmed, who was before him, to care for aught further at present, he sat silently holding the boy's hands, while his heart gave grateful thanks to God.
"Poor Uncle Richard!" said the boy, at last.
Trafford's lips moved, and with an effort he said, "No, no,—not poor! I'm rich, rich!—so rich! O God, help me! I can't believe my own happiness."
"But it's really I, Uncle Richard!" said Noll, assuringly; "you've felt my hands, my face, my shoulders, and aren't they alive and warm?"
"Yes, it is really you, thank God!" said Trafford, drawing a long breath, while he gazed upon the merry face that he never more expected to see on earth.
"Yes, and oh, Uncle Richard, you can't know how I longed to see you, to tell you that I was alive and safe! I knew you would worry, but I didn't think you'd think me dead. I didn't think that till we got to Culm, and Dirk and all the rest trembled, and were actually going to run away from me!"
"Then you have not been harmed?" said Trafford: "but oh, my boy, where were you on that awful night?"
"Safe and sound, with Ned Thorn, at Hastings, Uncle Richard, and not even dreaming of danger or shipwreck. You see, the furniture was not ready, and I hadn't found a teacher, and so I stayed. Ned and I went down to the wharf the night before the 'Gull' was to sail, and carried a letter to the skipper to give to you, telling you why I couldn't come; but poor Ben never got here alive, and the letter was lost with him, I suppose. Oh, Uncle Richard, if I had started,—if the furniture had been ready—"
"Thank God it was not!" interrupted Trafford, presently; "he watched over you, he stayed your coming, and now he has brought you out of the sea, as it were, to me. Oh, Noll!"
The boy looked up eagerly. "Have—have you found the Lord Jesus, Uncle Richard?" he asked.
Trafford's hands rested tenderly on the boy's head. "Yes," he said, with a great calm and peace in his voice, "I found him through great sorrow and grief. I think God led me through all this suffering that my heart might be softened and turned toward him. And now this Saviour has brought you back to me!"
A deep silence followed, full of unutterable joy. Trafford reverently bent his head, his lips quivering with emotion, and with his nephew's hands clasped in his, silently thanked God for his goodness, for this great joy which was come into his life, for this precious lad that was dead and now was alive again. It seemed as if God had brought him out of the sea to him. At last Noll said, taking up his explanation where he had left it off,—
"After we had given the letter to the skipper, I thought no more about it, and Ned and I were busy enough with seeing about the furniture for a day or two, and we didn't notice the storm, or even think of the 'Gull' being in danger. And Mr. Gray helped me to find a teacher, and we were so busy with plans that the time passed away before I knew it, and when I came to go down on the wharf to engage a passage with Ben, the men said the 'Gull' had never got back from her last trip, and they were afraid it was lost. Ned didn't believe there had been a shipwreck, neither did Mr. Gray. He said that most likely the skipper had been kept by some business, or perhaps the 'Gull' had gone farther down the coast than usual. Oh, Uncle Richard! we didn't think that poor Ben was drowned, nor that you thought me wrecked with him."
Trafford said, "Those were fearful days for me. Go on, go on, Noll."
"We went down to the wharf every night till another week was gone, and then, we began to be certain that Ben was either wrecked or sick, and I began to be anxious to get some word to you. I thought that perhaps you might be worried about me, though Mr. Gray said that if the 'Gull' was wrecked anywhere near Culm, you could not help but know I was not on board. We waited and waited till the three weeks were gone, and then some of Ben's friends began to talk of going in search of him. But it was only till last night that they were ready to go, and we came off before daylight this morning. Oh, the time has seemed so long, Uncle Richard! but here I am, safe and sound, once more."
Trafford looked at his nephew as if he could yet hardly believe his eyes.
"And you should have seen Dirk and the rest!" continued Noll; "why, he wouldn't speak to me at first, but was going to run away; but when he did find that it was really I, he cried like a great child. He said that you thought me dead,—you can't know how I felt when he said that, Uncle Richard,—and so Ned and I didn't wait any longer, but ran all the way here. I can think, now, why you looked so white when I came in at the door!"
Trafford stroked the boy's hair, saying, "I never thought to hear the echoes of your feet again. God knows. Oh, my boy, you can never know what this night has brought to me. He who led you thither only can. But whose name did you mention?"
"Ned's; he came down with me, Uncle Richard, for it's vacation at Hastings. We came up to the kitchen-door, because Hagar's light shone so brightly, and what do you think? she threw up her hands and screamed at the sight of me. But it didn't take long to make her certain that I was real, and not a vision. And, oh, there's one thing I'd forgotten! The new teacher is at Culm, waiting for Dirk to come over with his trunks. It's one of papa's old scholars, Uncle Richard, and his name is Henry Fields. He worked with papa in the old sea-town where we lived, and he's come down to work here at Culm among our fish-folk. I like him very much, and you can't help but like him, too; and we've brought a cargo of benches and desks all ready to—"
The library-door began to swing softly open,—not so softly, however, but that Noll heard and stopped.
"It's Ned," he said, looking over his shoulder. "Come in!"
Ned came shyly around to where they were sitting, his usually merry face sobered by something which he perceived in the faces of his friends before him. A silence fell upon them here. Ned leaned against his friend, looking soberly at Trafford's rapt face, and wondering where all the man's grimness and gloominess had gone. And just then a sudden thought came into Noll's heart, and he said, looking up brightly,—
"It's a year this very night since I came to you, Uncle Richard! Don't you remember? What a long, long time!"
Trafford said, "Yes, I remember. Through all the days since then God has been teaching me, and he has led me on to this; and, oh! my boy, the sea may never divide us again, for, though through its dark floods we go down to death, beyond there is light and God and heaven!" And in his voice there was peace unutterable.
* * * * *
If this Story of a Year, and what it taught, is not already too long, you may know that a schoolhouse was built at Culm, and that Henry Fields proved a good and faithful teacher; that a stanch, new "White Gull" was built, and one of Skipper Ben's sea-loving sons was its captain; that the Culm children and their parents slowly improved in more ways than one under the constant, unfailing care and effort of Trafford and his nephew; that the Rock was not always Noll Trafford's home, but exchanged for a pleasanter one in Hastings, though the old stone house was often brightened by his presence, and never got to be entirely gloomy and deserted again.