Once, crossing a street, he met the Windom carriage coming toward him. Avery, fair and gracious beside her mother, was bowing to an acquaintance. He started forward eagerly. He had not seen her since the last night he attended church, but the picture of her pure, sweet face, upturned like a white flower as she listened to the service, had been with him ever since. It had come before him many an evening when, with head bowed on his hands, he had leaned over the little table in his room, gazing intently into vacancy; it had laid a detaining hand on him when he would have flung out of the house in his desperation, in search of some diversion to keep him from brooding over his fate.
Now they were almost face to face. Forgetting everything but his pleasure in seeing her once more, and remembering her smiling greetings in the past, his hand went up involuntarily toward his hat; but he stopped half-way, for, turning toward her mother just then, she called her attention to something on the other side of the street.
"Just what I might have expected!" muttered Alec, thinking she purposely avoided him. His teeth were set and his face white with mortification. But in his heart he had not expected it. He had taken a vague comfort in the thought that she would believe in his innocence, no matter who else doubted. She had insisted so kindly on his never giving the lost money another thought.
If there had been only one accusation to deny, he could have gone to her with that, he thought. He would have compelled her to believe his innocence by the very force of his earnestness. But the knowledge of the accusation against his father silenced him.
"Hello! You nearly knocked me down, Stoker. Where are you going?" It was one of the factory boys who asked the question, and Alec, hurrying down the street with unseeing eyes, became suddenly aware that he had run against some one who had caught him by the arm, and was laughingly shaking him to make him answer. "Where are you going?"
"Oh, I don't know, and I don't care," was the reckless answer.
"All right, come along if you want good company," was the joking reply, and the other boy, slipping his arm in Alec's, turned his steps to a corner where a jolly crowd were waiting for him to join them.
After that there were no more lonely evenings for Alec, when he sat with bowed head beside his table, staring into vacancy. He should have had another promotion in March. Alec felt that he was proficient enough to be advanced, and he told himself bitterly that the reason he was not was because the manager mistrusted him.
It was true that the manager did distrust him. Not on account of the suspicions which Ralph Bently had sowed broadcast, but because, made doubly watchful by the hint, he discovered how Alec was spending his evenings. Although the work in the factory was done as well as ever, he knew that no one could keep the company and late hours that Alec did and not fall short of the high standard he had set for the one who was ultimately to become his assistant.
The months slipped slowly by. Philippa wrote that the garden was gay with spring crocuses and snowdrops; then that Ridgeville had never been such a bower of roses as it was that June. But to Alec the months were marked only by his little winnings and little losings.
There came a time in the early autumn when Alec crept up the creaking stairs to his room, haggard and pale in the gray light of the breaking dawn. He had been out all night and lost not only all the money he had put away in the bank, the savings of seven endless months, but he was in debt for a greater sum than all his next month's salary would amount to.
Heavy-eyed and dizzy from the long hours spent in the close little gambling den, reeking with stifling tobacco smoke, Alec dragged himself to his room. After he had closed the door, he stood leaning with his back against it for a moment. He was facing two pictures that gazed at him from the mantel: One was the patient, wistful face of his Aunt Eunice; the other was Philippa's, looking straight out at him with such honest, sincere eyes, such eager questioning, that he could not meet their clear gaze. He strode across the room and turned both faces to the wall. Then, without undressing, he threw himself on the bed with a groan.
He was late reaching the factory that morning, for he fell asleep at once into a sleep of exhaustion, so deep that the usual sounds did not arouse him. As it was his first offence, the foreman passed it by in silence; but, faint from lack of food (there had been no time for breakfast), worn by the excitement and high nervous tension of the night before, he was in no condition to do his work. He made one mistake after another, until, made more nervous by repeated accidents both to the material and machinery he was handling, he made a blunder too serious to pass without a report to the manager. It involved the loss of considerable money to the company.
"You'll be lucky if that mistake doesn't give you your walking papers," said the foreman. "You'll hear from it at the end of the month."
If there had been only himself to consider, Alec would have welcomed his dismissal, but there was Flip and his Aunt Eunice. How they believed in him! How proud they were of him! Not for worlds would he have them know how far he had fallen short of their ideal of him. So for their sakes he waited in feverish anxiety to know the result.
It was a rainy Sunday afternoon. A few lumps of coal burned in the dingy grate in Alec's room. He had slept for several hours, had finished reading his last library book, and now, as he clasped his hands behind his head, yawning lazily, he remembered that he had not written home for two weeks. Letter-writing had become a dreaded task now. What was there to tell them of himself that he cared for them to know? Only that he worked from seven until six, ate, slept, and rose to work again with the dreary monotony of a machine.
For seven months he had not been inside a church door. The only people he met now were the workmen at the factory and the boys with whom he spent his evenings. He could not mention them. Long ago he had exhausted his descriptions of the city. There was nothing for him to write but that he was well and busy, and to fill up the pages with questions about the people at home. It taxed his ingenuity sometimes to evade Flip's straightforward questions, and he often thought that his letters had an insincere ring.
"I wonder what they are doing at home now!" he exclaimed, looking thoughtfully into the coals. "It's just a year ago to-day that I left. I can't imagine them living in the new house. It's always the old sitting-room I see when I think of them. Mack is probably down on the hearth-rug, popping corn or roasting apples, and Flip's curled up in the chimney-seat, telling him stories. And Aunt Eunice—I know what she's doing; what she always does Sunday evening just at this time, when the twilight begins to fall. She has gone into her room and shut the door and knelt down by the big red rocking-chair that we used to be rocked to sleep in. And she's praying for us this very minute, and doesn't know that the dust is half an inch thick on my Bible, and that a prayer hasn't passed my lips since last February. Dear old Aunt Eunice!"
An ache clutched his throat as he thought of her, and a tender mood, such as he had not known for weeks, rushed warm across him. One after another the old scenes rose up before him, until an overwhelming longing to see the well-known faces made the homesick tears start to his eyes.
The twilight shadows deepened in the room, but, lost in the rush of tender memories, he forgot everything save the pictures that seemed to rise before him out of the glowing embers in the grate. In the midst of his reverie, there was a noise on the stairs—a familiar noise, although he had not heard it for months, a tread and a double tap, as if a foot and two canes were coming up the steps.
"Old Jimmy Scott!" thought Alec, looking round as if awakening from a dream and discovering that the room was nearly dark; he stirred the fire until it burst into cheerful flames.
"Well!" he exclaimed, cordially, throwing open the door in answer to old Jimmy's knock, "of all people! Did you rain down? Here I sat in the dumps, feeling that I hadn't a friend in the town. Come in! Come in!"
He pulled a chair hospitably toward the grate for his guest, and put another lump of coal on the fire.
"Knew you'd be surprised to see me a day like this," said the old soldier, thrusting his foot toward the blaze; "but I've been intending to look you up for some time. Kind o' had a drawing in this direction. Thinks I, when I felt it, wonder if he's sick and needs me. When I have feelings like that, I usually pay attention to 'em."
They talked of various things for the next quarter of an hour; of the weather, the new city hall, the approaching elections; but they were both ill at ease. It seemed to Alec that the old man's heart was not in the conversation; that he was only trying to pave the way to some other topic. Finally a pause fell between them. Alec rose to put another lump of coal on the fire, and old Jimmy, looking round the room, noticed the two photographs on the mantel with their faces turned to the wall. He knew well enough whose pictures they were. During Alec's convalescence he had studied them many a time while he listened to the homesick boy's enthusiastic description of his sister and the aunt who had been like a mother to him.
As Alec took his chair again, he saw the old man's surprised glance at the pictures. Then their eyes met. Alec flushed guiltily.
"Something's wrong, boy," said old Jimmy, tenderly. "I knew it. That's why I felt moved to come. Seemed as if the Lord put it in my heart that I must. There's special services going on at Grace Church this week. Something in the evangelist's sermon this morning made me feel that I'd got to speak to somebody before nightfall—stir up somebody to a better life—or I'd be held accountable. Then all of a sudden I began to think of you, so I came up to ask if you wouldn't go to hear him to-night. But I see now that it's more than an invitation to church you need. You're in trouble, or you never would have done that." He nodded toward the pictures. "What is it?"
Alec hesitated a minute, and old Jimmy, reaching over, laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. Something in the friendly touch brought a swift rush of tears to Alec's eyes. He was so homesick and lonely, and it seemed so good to have some one to talk with who was really interested in him. Dropping his face in his hands and leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, he blurted out his trouble in broken sentences.
He told the whole story, beginning with the missing coin; Ralph Bently's insinuations and subsequent endeavour to fasten suspicion on him; the disclosure of his father's disgrace; the gossip that had caused him to drop out of the society and church, where he felt that he was no longer wanted. Finally the habits he had fallen into, and the money he had lost, and the foreman's prophecy of his discharge from the factory at the end of the month.
"I tried to do right," he said in conclusion. "I had tried all my life. I joined the church when I was no older than Mack, and I lived just as straight as I knew how. But after that—when every one cut me—it didn't seem as if it was any use. I just lost faith in everything and gave up trying. I used to believe in Aunt Eunice's idea of the eternal goodness. It made me feel so safe, somehow, to think that, no matter what happened, we could never—
"'Drift beyond His love and care.'"
That He had set islands for us to come across at every turn. You know. You remember that little map I made when I was getting well. One of the islands was named for you, and one was the Isle of Roses, because those flowers the Christian Endeavour society sent seemed to put new courage into me, and led to the acquaintances and friendships that helped me so much while I had them.
"But I've lost that feeling now. I'm cut loose from everything, and you don't know how terribly adrift I feel. I'm just whirled along from day to day, till I've almost come to the place it tells about in Job, where there's nothing left to do but 'curse God and die.'"
As he paused, old Jimmy's voice broke in with hearty cheerfulness, "Why, bless you, my boy, you're all in a fog. And do you know the reason? You haven't the right Pilot aboard any more.
"The 'islands' are all round you, just the same, put there on purpose for you, but you let the devil get his hand at the wheel, and he keeps you steered away from 'em. You say you stopped praying? That very moment he got aboard and took possession. You quit trusting the Lord the instant you got into deep water.
"You made a mistake when you let anybody's gossip run you out of the church or the society. You ought to have stayed and lived it down! That's the only thing for you to do now; go back and begin again and make people believe in your innocence. It will be hard for you, and powerfully awkward, for you have more than your share of pride and sensitiveness, but it's the only manly thing to do."
"Oh, I couldn't go back!" groaned Alec. "I believe I'd rather die first. If it had only been what they said about me, I might have done it, but I couldn't face what they'd continually be thinking about my father. I could never live that down."
"Yes, you can! If you'll only put yourself entirely in the Lord's hands, He'll furnish the strength for you to do whatever is right. You've come to a crisis, Alec Stoker. You've got to fight it out right now, which is to have control of the rest of your life, God or the devil."
There was a long silence. Presently, in a voice choked with emotion, the old man said, "Kneel down, son; I want to pray with you." Together they knelt in the darkening room.
For a long time after old Jimmy took his leave, Alec sat gazing into the flickering fire, as the room grew dimmer and dimmer. Then, urged on by some impulse almost beyond his control, he slipped on his overcoat and hurried out into the street. When he reached the vestibule at the side door of the church, he stood a moment with his hand on the latch. His courage had suddenly failed him. He would go back home and wait until another time, he told himself. The service must be nearly over.
But just then some one struck a few soft chords on the piano, and a full, clear voice began to sing. It was Avery's voice, and she sang with all the pleading earnestness of a prayer:
"Jesus, Saviour, pilot me Over life's tempestuous sea! Unknown waves before me roll, Hiding rock and treacherous shoal; Chart and compass come from thee: Jesus, Saviour, pilot me."
Out in the darkness, the storm-tossed, homesick boy stood listening, till his whole soul seemed to go out in that one cry, "Jesus, Saviour, pilot me!" It was a complete surrender of self, and as he whispered the words a peace that he had never known before, a great peace he could not understand, seemed to fold him safe in its keeping.
As the last words of the song died away, he opened the door and walked in. If there was surprise on the faces of many, he did not see it. If it was a departure from the usual custom, he never stopped to consider it. The evangelist who had charge of the service stood for a final word of exhortation, asking if there were not many who could make that song their own, and offer it as a prayer of consecration.
It was never quite clear to Alec afterward just what he said then. But as he told of the struggle he had just been through, and in broken sentences made a public confession of his faith, eyes grew dim, and hearts already touched by the song were strangely thrilled and stirred. Afterward the members came crowding round him with a warm welcome, and he carried away with him the remembrance of many a hearty hand-clasp. One of them was Mr. Windom's. He rarely attended the young people's meetings, and to-night had come only to hear his daughter sing. If he had had any misgivings as to the boy's sincerity of purpose before, every doubt was cleared away as he listened to his manly confession of faith, and looked into his happy face, almost transformed with the hope that illuminated it.
It was Thanksgiving Day. Alec, home on his first vacation, stood in front of the open fire, watching Philippa set the table for their little feast. He had talked late the night before, and told of the many changes that had taken place during the last two months. He was in the office now, and his salary had been raised sufficiently to enable him to take a room in a comfortable boarding-house. Since his conversion, Mr. Windom had taken several occasions to show Alec that he trusted him implicitly.
Radiant in her joy at having her brother home again, Philippa kept breaking into little snatches of song whenever there was a pause in the conversation. She thought she had never known such a happy Thanksgiving.
"How nice and homelike it all is!" Alec exclaimed, sniffing the savoury odours that rushed in from the kitchen, of turkey and mince turnovers, whenever Aunt Eunice opened the oven door. "And how good it seems to hear you singing like that, Flip!"
"Do you remember the day you told me that it set your teeth on edge to hear me singing that hymn?" asked Philippa, laughingly.
"Yes, but that was because I was all out of tune myself. Everything is different now. Since I've given up trying to do my own piloting, it seems to me that I come across one of His 'islands' nearly every day." As he spoke, Macklin came running up on the porch, stamping the snow from his feet, and burst into the house, his cheeks as red as winter apples.
"Here's a letter for you, Alec!" he cried. "Where's my hammer, Flip? I want to crack some of those nuts we gathered on purpose for to-day."
She brought him the hammer, and he hurried away. Alec was turning the dainty blue envelope over in his hands.
The address was written in the same hand as the card which had come nearly a year ago with the Christian Endeavour roses. He tore open the envelope, glanced at the monogram, then down the page, and turned to Philippa with a long-drawn whistle. "I wish you'd listen to this!" he exclaimed.
"DEAR MR. STOKER:—I am writing this in the hope that it will reach you on Thanksgiving Day. You have suffered so much on account of that miserable gold piece of mine, it is only fair that you should have this explanation at once.
"This afternoon Miss Cornish and I went to the church to practise a new song that I am to sing at the Thanksgiving service. She was to play my accompaniments. The side door of the church was open, for the florist was decorating the altar, so we did not need to use the minister's latch-key, which we had borrowed for the occasion. We practised for some time, and then sat and talked until it was almost dark. When we started home, we found to our dismay that the janitor, thinking we had gone, had double-locked the door for the night with his big key. Our little latch-key was then of no use.
"We called and pounded until we were desperate. I had an engagement for dinner, and could not afford to lose any time. Finally we went into the prayer-meeting room, and found that we could open one of the panes in the great stained-glass window at the side. Miss Cornish climbed up on one of those old pulpit chairs that the officers use, and said that if she could lean out through the pane, she would call to the first one who passed, and ask him to bring the janitor to our release.
"But some way, in climbing, Miss Cornish caught her high heel in the plush with which the seat is upholstered. The goods is frayed and old. The chair tipped, and they both came to the floor with a bang. Just as I sprang to catch her, something bright and round rolled out of the chair toward me and dropped right at my feet.
"It was that unlucky gold coin, which must have slipped under the plush in some way when you counted the money on it that night.
"It was so late when we were finally rescued that I could not keep my dinner engagement. I am glad for one reason; it gives me time to write this now. I know that it will make your Thanksgiving brighter to know this, and I am sure that it is needless for me to say that I never for an instant connected the disappearance of the coin with you in any way. I regret extremely the silly gossip that wounded you so sorely, and want to tell you how much I respect the manly way in which you have since met and answered it.
"Wishing you a happy Thanksgiving with your family, I am
"Sincerely your friend,
Philippa, watching his face as he read, came up to him when he had finished, and put a hand on each shoulder.
"Alec," she said, with the straightforwardness of sixteen, "that means a lot to you, doesn't it, that she should write that she is 'sincerely your friend'?"
"Yes," he answered, honestly; "a very great deal."
"Do you suppose it would stand in the way, sometime, when you are older, you know, and have made a place for yourself in the world, her knowing about—about father?"
"I don't know, Flip," he answered, slowly; "I've often wondered about that."
Through the open door came Aunt Eunice's voice, singing jubilantly:
"I know not what the future hath Of marvel or surprise, Assured alone that life and death His mercy underlies."
"How that old hymn answers everything!" Alec said, softly. "No matter what lies ahead, it's all right now. God's at the helm, little sister! I shall find all the 'islands' he has set for me."