It hurt Alfred, and he burst out, almost crying, 'Mother! Mother, now isn't that too bad!'
'It is very thoughtless,' said Mrs. King sorrowfully; 'but you know everybody has their feelings, Alfred, and I am sorry it happened so.'
'I'm sure I couldn't help it,' said Alfred, as if his mother were turning against him. 'Harold had better have brought up the farmer's whole stable at once!'
'When you were well, you did not think of such things any more than he does.'
Alfred grunted. He could not believe that; and he did not feel gently when his brother shewed any want of consideration; but his mother thought he would only grow crosser by dwelling on the unlucky subject, so she advised him to lie still and rest before his being moved to bed, and went down herself to finish some ironing.
Presently Alfred saw the Curate coming over the bridge with quick long steps, and this brought to his mind that he had been wishing to hear more of the poor crippled boy. He watched eagerly, and was pleased to see Mr. Cope turn in at the wicket, and presently the tread upon the stairs was heard, and the high head was lowered at the door.
'Good evening, Alfred; your mother told me it would not disturb you if I came up alone;' and he began to inquire into his amusements and occupations, till Alfred became quite at home with him, and at ease, and ventured to ask, 'If you please, Sir, do you ever hear about Jem now?' and as Mr. Cope looked puzzled, 'the boy you told me of, Sir, that fell off the scaffold.'
'Oh, the boy at Liverpool! No, I only saw him once when I was staying with my cousin; but I will ask after him if you wish to hear.'
'Thank you, Sir. I wanted to know if he had been a bad boy.'
'That I cannot tell. Why do you wish to know? Was it because he had such an affliction?'
'I don't think that is quite the way to look at troubles,' said Mr. Cope. 'I should think his accident had been a great blessing to him, if it took him out of temptation, and led him to think more of God.'
'But isn't it punishment?' said Alfred, not able to get any farther; but Mr. Cope felt that he was thinking of himself more than of Jem.
'All our sufferings in this life come as punishment of sin,' he said. 'If there had been no sin, there would have been no pain; and whatever we have to bear in this life is no more than is our due, whatever it may be.'
'Every one is sinful,' said Alfred slowly; 'but why have some more to bear than others that may be much worse?'
'Did you never think it hard to be kept strictly, and punished by your good mother?'
Alfred answered rather fretfully, 'But if it is good to be punished, why ain't all alike?'
'God in His infinite wisdom sees the treatment that each particular nature needs. Some can be better trained by joy, and some by grief; some may be more likely to come right by being left in active health; others, by being laid low, and having their faults brought to mind.'
Alfred did not quite choose to take this in, and his answer was half sulky:
'Bad boys are quite well!'
'And a reckoning will be asked of them. Do not think of other boys. Think over your past life, of which I know nothing, and see whether you can believe, after real looking into it, that you have done nothing to deserve God's displeasure. There are other more comforting ways of bringing joy out of pain; but of this I am sure, that none will come home to us till we own from the bottom of our heart, that whatever we suffer in this life, we suffer most justly for the punishment of our sins. God bless and help you, my poor boy. Good night.'
With these words he went down-stairs, for well he knew that while Alfred went on to justify himself, no peace nor joy could come to him, and he thought it best to leave the words to work in, praying in his heart that they might do so, and help the boy to humility and submission.
Finding Mrs. King in her kitchen, he paused and said, 'We shall have a Confirmation in the spring, Mrs. King; shall not you have some candidates for me?'
'My daughter will be very glad, thank you, Sir; she is near to seventeen, and a very good girl to me. And Harold, he is but fourteen—would he be old enough, Sir?'
'I believe the Bishop accepts boys as young; and he might be started in life before another opportunity.'
'Well, Sir, he shall come to you, and I hope you won't think him too idle and thoughtless. He's a good-hearted boy, Sir; but it is a charge when a lad has no father to check him.'
'Indeed it is, Mrs. King; but I think you must have done your best.'
'I hope I have, Sir,' she said sadly; 'I've tried, but my ability is not much, and he is a lively lad, and I'm sometimes afraid to be too strict with him.'
'If you have taught him to keep himself in order, that's the great thing, Mrs. King; if he has sound principles, and honours you, I would hope much for him.'
'And, Sir, that boy he has taken a fancy to; he is a poor lost lad who never had a home, but Harold says he has been well taught, and he might take heed to you.'
'Thank you, Mrs. King; I will certainly try to speak to him. You said nothing of Alfred; do you think he will not be well enough?'
'Ah! Sir,' she said in her low subdued voice, 'my mind misgives me that it is not for Confirmation that you will be preparing him.'
Mr. Cope started. He had seen little of illness, and had not thought of this. 'Indeed! does the doctor think so ill of him? Do not these cases often partially recover?'
'I don't know, Sir; Mr. Blunt does not give much account of him,' and her voice grew lower and lower; 'I've seen that look in his father's and his brother's face.'
She hid her face in her handkerchief as if overpowered, but looked up with the meek look of resignation, as Mr. Cope said in a broken voice, 'I had not expected—you had been much tried.'
'Yes, Sir. The Will of the Lord be done,' she said, as if willing to turn aside from the dark side of the sorrow that lay in wait for her; 'but I'm thankful you are come to help my poor boy now—he frets over his trouble, as is natural, and I'm afraid he should offend, and I'm no scholar to know how to help him.'
'You can help him by what is better than scholarship,' said Mr. Cope; and he shook her hand warmly, and went away, feeling what a difference there was in the ways of meeting affliction.
CHAPTER V—AN UNWELCOME VISITOR
'The axe is laid to the root of the tree,' was said by the Great Messenger, when the new and better Covenant was coming to pierce, try, and search into, the hearts of men.
Something like this always happens, in some measure, whenever closer, clearer, and more stringent views of faith and of practice are brought home to Christians. They do not always take well the finding that more is required of them than they have hitherto fancied needful; and there are many who wince and murmur at the sharp piercing of the weapon which tries their very hearts; they try to escape from it, and to forget the disease that it has touched, and at first, often grow worse rather than better. Well is it for them if they return while yet there is time, before blindness have come over their eyes, and hardness over their heart.
Perhaps this was the true history of much that grieved poor Mrs. King, and distressed Ellen, during the remainder of the summer. Anxious as Mrs. King had been to bring her sons up in the right way, there was something in Mr. Cope's manner of talking to them that brought things closer home to them, partly from their being put in a new light, and partly from his being a man, and speaking with a different kind of authority.
Alfred did not like his last conversation—it was little more than his mother and Miss Selby had said—but then he had managed to throw it off, and he wanted to do so again. It was pleasanter to him to think himself hardly treated, than to look right in the face at all his faults; he knew it was of no use to say he had none, so he lumped them all up by calling himself a sinful creature, like every one else; and thus never felt the weight of them at all, because he never thought what they were.
And yet, because Mr. Cope's words had made him uneasy, he could not rest in this state; he was out of temper whenever the Curate's name was spoken, and accused Ellen of bothering about him as much as Harold did about Paul Blackthorn; and if he came to see him, he made himself sullen, and would not talk, sometimes seeming oppressed and tired, and unable to bear any one's presence, sometimes leaving Ellen to do all the answering, dreading nothing so much as being left alone with the clergyman. Mr. Cope had offered to read prayers with him, and he could not refuse; but he was more apt to be thinking that it was tiresome, than trying to enter into what, poor foolish boy, would have been his best comfort.
To say he was cross when Mr. Cope was there, would be saying much too little; there was scarcely any time when he was not cross; he was hardly civil even to Miss Jane, so that she began to think it was unpleasant to him to have her there; and if she were a week without calling, he grumbled hard thoughts about fine people; he was fretful and impatient with the doctor; and as to those of whom he had no fears, he would have been quite intolerable, had they loved him less, or had less pity on his suffering.
He never was pleased with anything; teased his mother half the night, and drove Ellen about all day. She, good girl, never said one word of impatience, but bore it all with the sweetest good humour; but her mother now and then spoke severely for Alfred's own good, and then he made himself more miserable than ever, and thought she was unkind and harsh, and that he was very much to be pitied for having a mother who could not bear with her poor sick boy. He was treating his mother as he was treating his Father in Heaven.
How Harold fared with him may easily be guessed—how the poor boy could hardly speak or step without being moaned at, till he was almost turned out of his own house; and his mother did not know what to do, for Alfred was really very ill, and fretting made him worse, and nothing could be so bad for his brother as being driven out from home, to spend the long summer evenings as he could.
Ellen would have been thankful now, had Paul Blackthorn been the worst company into which Harold fell. Not that Paul was a bit cleaner; on the contrary, each day could not fail to make him worse, till, as Ellen had once said, you might almost grow a crop of radishes upon his shoulders.
Mrs. King's kind offer of washing his shirt had come to nothing. She asked Harold about it, and had for answer, 'Do you think he would, after the way you served him?'
Either he was affronted, or he was ashamed of her seeing his rags, or, what was not quite impossible, there was no shirt at all in the case; and he had a sturdy sort of independence about him, that made him always turn surly at any notion of anything being done for him for charity.
How or why he stayed on with the farmer was hard to guess, for he had very scanty pay, and rough usage; the farmer did not like him; the farmer's wife scolded him constantly, and laid on his shoulders all the mischief that was done about the place; and the shuffler gave him half his own work to do, and hunted him about from dawn till past sunset. He was always going at the end of every week, but never gone; perhaps he had undergone too much in his wanderings, to be ready to begin them again; or perhaps either Caesar or Harold, one or both, kept him at Friarswood. And there might be another reason, too, for no one had ever spoken to him like Mr. Cope. Very few had ever thrown him a kindly word, or seemed to treat him like a thing with feelings, and those few had been rough and unmannerly; but Mr. Cope's good-natured smile and pleasant manner had been a very different thing; and perhaps Paul promised to come to the Confirmation class, chiefly because of the friendly tone in which he was invited.
When there, he really liked it. He had always liked what he was taught, apart from the manner of teaching; and now both manner and lessons were delightful to him. His answers were admirable, and it was not all head knowledge, for very little more than a really kind way of putting it was needed, to make him turn in his loneliness to rest in the thought of the ever-present Father. Hard as the discipline of his workhouse home had been, it had kept him from much outward harm; the little he had seen in his wanderings had shocked him, and he was more untaught in evil than many lads who thought themselves more respectable, so there was no habit of wickedness to harden and blunt him; and the application of all he had learnt before, found his heart ready.
He had not gone to church since he left the workhouse: he did not think it belonged to vagabonds like him; besides, he always felt walls like a prison; and he had not profited much by the workhouse prayers, which were read on week-days by the master, and on Sundays by a chaplain, who always had more to do than he could manage, and only went to the paupers when they were very ill. But when Mr. Cope talked to him of the duty of going to church, he said, 'I will, Sir;' and he sat in the gallery with the young lads, who were not quite as delicate as Alfred.
The service seemed to rest him, and to be like being brought near a friend; and he had been told that church might always be his home. He took a pleasure in going thither—the more, perhaps, that he rather liked to shew how little he cared for remarks upon his appearance. There was a great deal of independence about him; and, having escaped from the unloving maintenance of the parish, while he had as yet been untaught what affection or gratitude meant, he would not be beholden to any one.
Scanty as were his wages, he would accept nothing from anybody; he daily bought his portion of bread from Mrs. King, but it was of no use for her to add a bit of cheese or bacon to it; he never would see the relish, and left it behind; and so he never would accept Mr. Cope's kind offers of giving him a bit of supper in his kitchen, perhaps because he was afraid of being said to go to the Rectory for the sake of what he could get.
He did not object to the farmer's beer, which was sometimes given him when any unusual extra work had been put on him. That was his right, for in truth the farmer did not pay him the value of his labour, and perhaps disliked him the more, because of knowing in his conscience that this was shameful extortion.
However, just at harvest time, when Paul's shoes had become very like what may be sometimes picked up by the roadside, Mr. Shepherd did actually bestow on him a pair that did not fit himself! Harold came home quite proud of them.
However, on the third day they were gone, and the farmer's voice was heard on the bridge, rating Paul violently for having changed them away for drink.
Mrs. King felt sorrowful; but, as Ellen said, 'What could you expect of him?' In spite of the affront, there was a sort of acquaintance now over the counter between Mrs. King and young Blackthorn; and when he came for his bread, she could not help saying, 'I'm sorry to see you in those again.'
'Why, the others hurt me so, I could hardly get about,' said Paul.
'Ah! poor lad, I suppose your feet has got spread with wearing those old ones; but you should try to use yourself to decent ones, or you'll soon be barefoot; and I do think it was a pity to drink them up.'
'That's all the farmer, Ma'am. He thinks one can't do anything but drink.'
'Well, what is become of them?'
'Why, you see, Ma'am, they just suited Dick Royston, and he wanted a pair of shoes, and I wanted a Bible and Prayer-book, so we changed 'em.'
When Ellen heard this, she could not help owning that Paul was a good boy after all, though it was in an odd sort of way. But, alas! when next he was to go to Mr. Cope, there was a hue-and-cry all over the hay-loft for the Prayer-book. There was no place to put it safely, or if there had been, Poor Paul was too great a sloven to think of any such thing; and as it was in a somewhat rubbishy state to begin with, it was most likely that one of the cows had eaten it with her hay; and all that could be said was, that it would have been worse if it had been the Bible.
As to Dick Royston, to find that he would change away his Bible for a pair of shoes, made Mrs. King doubly concerned that he should be a good deal thrown in Harold's way. There are many people who neglect their Bibles, and do not read them; but this may be from thoughtlessness or press of care, and is not like the wilful breaking with good, that it is to part with the Holy Scripture, save under the most dire necessity; and Dick was far from being in real want, nor was he ignorant, like Mr. Cope's poor Jem, for he had been to school, and could read well; but he was one of those many lads, who, alas! are everywhere to be found, who break loose from all restraint as soon as they can maintain themselves. They do their work pretty well, and are tolerably honest; but for the rest—alas! they seem to live without God. Prayers and Church they have left behind, as belonging to school-days; and in all their strength and health, their days of toil, their evenings of rude diversion, their Sundays of morning sleep, noonday basking in the sun, evening cricket, they have little more notion of anything concerning their souls than the horses they drive. If ever a fear comes over them, it seems a long long way off, a whole life-time before them; they are awkward, and in dread of one another's jeers and remarks; and if they ever wish to be better, they cast it from them by fancying that time must steady them when they have had their bit of fun, or that something will come from somewhere to change them all at once, and make it easy to them to be good—as if they were not making it harder each moment.
This sort of lad had been utterly let alone till Mr. Cope came; and Lady Jane and the school-master felt it was dreary work to train up nice lads in the school, only to see them run riot, and forget all good as soon as they thought themselves their own masters.
Mr. Cope was anxious to do the best he could for them, and the Confirmation made a good opportunity; but the boys did not like to be interfered with—it made them shy to be spoken to; and they liked lounging about much better than having to poke into that mind of theirs, which they carried somewhere about them, but did not like to stir up. They had no notion of going to school again—which no one wanted them to do—nor to church, because it was like little boys; and they wouldn't be obliged.
So Mr. Cope made little way with them; a few who had better parents came regularly to him, but others went off when they found it too much trouble, and behaved worse than ever by way of shewing they did not care. This folly had in some degree taken possession of Harold; and though he could not be as bad as were some of the others, he was fast growing impatient of restraint, and worried and angry, as if any word of good advice affronted him. Driven from home by the fear of disturbing Alfred, he was left the more to the company of boys who made him ashamed of being ordered by his mother; and there was a jaunty careless style about all his ways of talking and moving, that shewed there was something wrong about him—he scorned Ellen, and was as saucy as he dared even to his mother; and though Mr. Cope found him better instructed than most of his scholars, he saw him quite as idle, as restless at church, and as ready to whisper and grin at improper times, as many who had never been trained like him.
One August Sunday afternoon, Mrs. King was with Alfred while Ellen was at church. He was lying on his couch, very uncomfortable and fretful, when to the surprise of both, a knock was heard at the door. Mrs. King looked out of the window, and a smart, hard-looking, pigeon's-neck silk bonnet at once nodded to her, and a voice said, 'I've come over to see you, Cousin King, if you'll come down and let me in. I knew I should find you at home.'
'Betsey Hardman!' exclaimed Alfred, in dismay; 'you won't let her come up here, Mother?'
'Not if I can help it,' said Mrs. King, sighing. If there were a thing she disliked above all others, it was Sunday visiting.
'You must help it, Mother,' said Alfred, in his most pettish tones. 'I won't have her here, worrying with her voice like a hen cackling. Say you won't let her come her!'
'Very well,' said Mrs. King, in doubt of her own powers, and in haste to be decently civil.
'Say you won't,' repeated Alfred. 'Gadding about of a Sunday, and leaving her old sick mother—more shame for her! Promise, Mother!'
He had nearly begun to cry at his mother's unkindness in running down- stairs without making the promise, for, in fact, Mrs. King had too much conscience to gain present quiet for any one by promises she might be forced to break; and Betsey Hardman was only too well known.
Her mother was an aunt of Alfred's father, an old decrepit widow, nearly bed-ridden, but pretty well to do, by being maintained chiefly by her daughter, who made a good thing of taking in washing in the suburbs of Elbury, and always had a girl or two under her. She had neither had the education, nor the good training in service, that had fallen to Mrs. King's lot; and her way of life did not lead to softening her tongue or temper. Ellen called her vulgar, and though that is not a nice word to use, she was coarse in her ways of talking and thinking, loud-voiced, and unmannerly, although meaning to be very good-natured.
Alfred lay in fear of her step, ten times harder than Harold's in his most boisterous mood, coming clamp clamp! up the stairs; and her shrill voice—the same tone in which she bawled to her deaf mother, and hallooed to her girls when they were hanging out the clothes in the high wind—coming pitying him—ay, and perhaps her whole weight lumbering down on the couch beside him, shaking every joint in his body! His mother's ways, learnt in the Selby nursery, had made him more tender, and more easily fretted by such things, than most cottage lads, who would have been used to them, and never have thought of not liking to have every neighbour who chose running up into the room, and talking without regard to subject or tone.
He listened in a fright to the latch of the door, and the coming in. Betsey's voice came up, through every chink of the boards, whatever she did herself; and he could hear every word of her greeting, as she said how it was such a fine day, she said to Mother she would take a holiday, and come and see Cousin King and the poor lad: it must be mighty dull for him, moped up there.
Stump! stump! Was she coming? His mother was answering something too soft for him to hear.
'What, is he asleep?'
'O Mother, must you speak the truth?'
'Bless me! I should have thought a little cheerful company was good for him. Do you leave him quite alone? Well—' and there was a frightful noise of the foot of the heaviest chair on the floor. 'I'll sit down and wait a bit! Is he so very fractious, then?'
What was his mother saying? Alfred clenched his fist, and grinned anger at Betsey with closed teeth. There was the tiresome old word, 'Low—ay, so's my mother; but you should rise his spirits with company, you see; that's why I came over; as soon as ever I heard that there wasn't no hope of him, says I to Mother—'
What? What was that she had heard? There was his mother, probably trying to restrain her voice, for it came up now just loud enough to make it most distressing to try to catch the words, which sounded like something pitying. 'Ay, ay—just like his poor father; when they be decliny, it will come out one ways or another; and says I to Mother, I'll go over and cheer poor Cousin King up a bit, for you see, after all, if he'd lived, he'd be nothing but a burden, crippled up like that; and a lingering job is always bad for poor folks.'
Alfred leant upon his elbow, his eyes full stretched, but feeling as if all his senses had gone into his ears, in his agony to hear more; and he even seemed to catch his mother's voice, but there was no hope in that; it was of her knowing it would be all for the best; and the sadness of it told him that she believed the same as Betsey. Then came, 'Yes; I declare it gave me such a turn, you might have knocked me down with a feather. I asked Mr. Blunt to come in and see what's good for Mother, she feels so weak at times, and has such a noise in her head, just like the regiment playing drums, she says, till she can't hardly bear herself; and so what do you think he says? Don't wrap up her head so warm, says he—a pretty thing for a doctor to say, as if a poor old creature like that, past seventy years old, could go without a bit of flannel to her head, and her three night-caps, and a shawl over them when there's a draught. I say, Cousin, I ha'n't got much opinion of Mr. Blunt. Why don't you get some of them boxes of pills, that does cures wonderful? Ever so many lords and ladies cured of a perplexity fit, by only just taking an imposing draught or two.'
Another time Alfred would have laughed at the very imposing draught, that was said to cure lords and ladies of this jumble between apoplexy and paralysis; but this was no moment for laughing, and he was in despair at fancying his mother wanted to lead her off on the quack medicine; but she went on.
'Well, only read the papers that come with them. I make my girl Sally read 'em all to me, being that she's a better scholar; and the long words is quite heavenly—I declare there ain't one of them shorter than peregrination. I'd have brought one of them over to shew you if I hadn't come away in a hurry, because Evans's cart was going out to the merry orchard, and says I to Mother, Well, I'll get a lift now there's such a chance to Friarswood: it'll do them all a bit of good to see a bit of cheerful company, seeing, as Mr. Blunt says, that poor lad is going after his father as fast as can be. Dear me, says I, you don't say so, such a fine healthy-looking chap as he was. Yes, he says, but it's in the constitution; it's getting to the lungs, and he'll never last out the winter.'
Alfred listened for the tone of his mother's voice; he knew he should judge by that, even without catching the words—low, subdued, sad—he almost thought she began with 'Yes.'
All the rest that he heard passed by him merely as a sound, noted no more than the lowing of the cattle, or the drone of the thrashing machine. He lay half lifted up on his pillows, drawing his breath short with apprehension; his days were numbered, and death was coming fast, fast, straight upon him. He felt it within himself—he knew now the meaning of the pain and sinking, the shortness of breath and choking of throat that had been growing on him through the long summer days; he was being 'cut off with pining sickness,' and his sentence had gone forth. He would have screamed for his mother in the sore terror and agony that had come over him, in hopes she might drive the notion from him; but the dread of seeing her followed by that woman kept his lips shut, except for his long gasps of breath.
And she could not keep him—Mr. Blunt could not keep him; no one could stay the hand that had touched him! Prayer! They had prayed for his father, for Charlie, but it had not been God's Will. He had himself many times prayed to recover, and it had not been granted—he was worse and worse.
Moreover, whither did that path of suffering lead? Up rose before Alfred the thought of living after the unknown passage, and of answering for all he had done; and now the faults he had refused to call to mind when he was told of chastisement, came and stood up of themselves. Bred up to know the good, he had not loved it; he had cared for his own pleasure, not for God; he had not heeded the comfort of his widowed mother; he had been careless of the honour of God's House, said and heard prayers without minding them; he had been disrespectful and ill-behaved at my Lady's—he had been bad in every way; and when illness came, how rebellious and murmuring he had been, how unkind he had been to his patient mother, sister, and brother; and when Mr. Cope had told him it was meant to lead him to repent, he would not hear; and now it was too late, the door would be shut. He had always heard that there was a time when sorrow was no use, when the offer of being saved had been thrown away.
When Ellen came in, and after a short greeting to Betsey Hardman, went up- stairs, she found Alfred lying back on his pillow, deadly white, the beads of dew standing on his brow, and his breath in gasps. She would have shrieked for her mother, but he held out his hand, and said, in a low hoarse whisper, 'Ellen, is it true?'
'What, Alfy dear? What is the matter?'
'What she says.'
'Who? Betsey Hardman? Dear dear Alf, is it anything dreadful?'
'That I shall die,' said Alfred, his eyes growing round with terror again. 'That Mr. Blunt said I couldn't last out the winter.'
'Dear Alfy, don't!' cried Ellen, throwing her arms round him, and kissing him with all her might; 'don't fancy it! She's always gossiping and gadding about, and don't know what she says, and she'd got no business to tell stories to frighten my darling!' she exclaimed, sobbing with agitation. 'I'm sure Mr. Blunt never said no such thing!'
'But Mother thinks it, Ellen.'
'She doesn't, she can't!' cried Ellen vehemently; 'I know she doesn't, or she could never go about as she does. I'll call her up and ask her, to satisfy you.'
'No, no, not while that woman is there!' cried Alfred, holding her by the dress; 'I'll not have her coming up.'
Even while he spoke, however, Mrs. King was coming. Betsey had spied an old acquaintance on the way from church, and had popped out to speak to her, and Mrs. King caught that moment for coming up. She understood all, for she had been sitting in great distress, lest Alfred should be listening to every word which she was unable to silence, and about which Betsey was quite thoughtless. So many people of her degree would talk to the patient about himself and his danger, and go on constantly before him with all their fears, and the doctor's opinions, that Betsey had never thought of there being more consideration and tenderness shewn in this house, nor that Mrs. King would have hidden any pressing danger from the sick person; but such plain words had not yet passed between her and Mr. Blunt; and though she had long felt what Alfred's illness would come to, the perception had rather grown on her than come at any particular moment.
Now when Ellen, with tears and agitation, asked what that Betsey had been saying to frighten Alfred so, and when she saw her poor boy's look at her, and heard his sob, 'Oh, Mother!' it was almost too much for her, and she went up and kissed him, and laid him down less uneasily, but he felt a great tear fall on his face.
'It's not true, Mother, I'm sure it is not true,' cried Ellen; 'she ought—'
Mrs. King looked at her daughter with a sad sweet face, that stopped her short, and brought the sense over her too. 'Did he say so, Mother?' said Alfred.
'Not to me, dear,' she answered; 'but, Ellen, she's coming back! She'll be up here if you don't go down.'
Poor Ellen! what would she not have given for power to listen to her mother, and cry at her ease? But she was forced to hurry, or Betsey would have been half-way up-stairs in another instant. She was a hopeful girl, however, and after that 'not to me,' resolved to believe nothing of the matter. Mrs. King knelt down by her son, and looked at him tenderly; and then, as his eyes went on begging for an answer, she said, 'Dr. Blunt never told me there was no hope, my dear, and everything lies in God's power.'
'But you don't think I shall get well, Mother?'
'I don't feel as if you would, my boy,' she said, very low, and fondling him all the time. 'You've got to cough like Father and Charlie, and—though He might raise my boy up—yet anyhow, Alfy boy, if God sees it good for us, it will be good for us, and we shall be helped through with it.'
'But I'm not good, Mother! What will become of me?'
'Perhaps the hearing this is all out of God's mercy, to give you time to get ready, my dear. You are no worse now than you were this morning; you are not like to go yet awhile. No, indeed, my child; so if you don't put off any longer—'
'Mother!' called up Ellen. She was in despair. Betsey was not to be kept by her from satisfying herself upon Alfred's looks, and Mrs. King was only in time to meet her on the stairs, and tell her that he was so weak and low, that he could not be seen now, she could not tell how it would be when he had had his tea.
Ellen thought she had never had so distressing a tea-drinking in her life, as the being obliged to sit listening civilly to Betsey's long story about the trouble she had about a stocking of Mrs. Martin's that was lost in the wash, and that had gone to Miss Rosa Marlowe, because Mrs. Martin had her things marked with a badly-done K. E. M., and all that Mrs. Martin's Maria and all Miss Marlowe's Jane had said about it, and all Betsey's 'Says I to Mother,'—when she was so longing to be watching poor Alfred, and how her mother could sit so quietly making tea, and answering so civilly, she could not guess; but Mrs. King had that sense of propriety and desire to do as she would be done by, which is the very substance of Christian courtesy, the very want of which made Betsey, with all her wish to be kind, a real oppression and burthen to the whole party.
And where was Harold? Ellen had not seen him coming out of church, but meal-times were pretty certain to bring him home.
'Oh,' said Betsey, 'I'll warrant he is off to the merry orchard.'
'I hope not,' said Mrs. King gravely.
'He never would,' said Ellen, in anger.
'Ah, well, I always said I didn't see no harm in a lad getting a bit of pleasure.'
'No, indeed,' said Mrs. King. 'Harold knows I would not stint him in the fruit nor in the pleasure, but I should be much vexed if he could go out on a Sunday, buying and selling, among such a lot as meet at that orchard.'
'Well, I'm sure I don't know when poor folks is to have a holiday if not on a Sunday, and the poor boy must be terrible moped with his brother so ill.'
'Not doing thine own pleasure on My holy day,' thought Ellen, but she did not say it, for her mother could not bear for texts to be quoted at people. But her heart was very heavy; and when she went up with some tea to Alfred, she looked from the window to see whether, as she hoped, Harold might be in Paul's hay-loft, preferring going without his tea to being teased by Betsey. Paul sat in his loft, with his Bible on his knee, and his head on Caesar's neck.
'Alfred,' said Ellen, 'do you know where Harold is? Sure he is not gone to the merry orchard?'
'Is not he come home?' said Alfred. 'Oh, then he is! He is gone to the merry orchard, breaking Sunday with Dick Royston! And by-and-by he'll be ill, and die, and be as miserable as I am!' And Alfred cried as Ellen had never seen him cry.
CHAPTER VI—THE MERRY ORCHARD
Where was Harold?
Still the evening went on, and he did not come. Alfred had worn himself out with his fit of crying, and lay quite still, either asleep, or looking so like it, that when Betsey had finished her tea, and again began asking to see him, Ellen could honestly declare that he was asleep.
Betsey had bidden them good-bye, more than half affronted at not being able to report to her mother all about his looks, though she carried with her a basket of gooseberries and French beans, and Mrs. King walked all the way down the lane with her, and tried to shew an interest in all she said, to make up for the disappointment.
Maybe likewise Mrs. King felt it a relief to her uneasiness to look up and down the road, and along the river, and into the farm-yard, in the hope that Harold might be in sight; but nothing was to be seen on the road, but Master Norland, his wife, and baby, soberly taking their Sunday walk; nor by the river, except the ducks, who seemed to be enjoying their evening bath, and almost asleep on the water; nor in the yard, except Paul Blackthorn, who had come down from his perch to drive the horses in from the home-field, and shut the stable up for the night.
She could not help stopping a moment at the gate, and calling out to Paul to ask whether he had seen anything of Harold. He seemed to have a great mind not to hear, and turned very slowly with his shoulder towards her, making a sound like 'Eh?' as if to ask what she said.
'Have you seen my boy Harold?'
'I saw him in the morning.'
'Have you not seen him since? Didn't he go to church with you?'
'No; I don't go to Sunday school.'
'Was he there?'
She did not receive any answer.
'Do you know if many of the boys are gone to the merry orchard?'
'Well, you are a good lad not to be one of them.'
'Hadn't got any money,' said Paul gruffly; but Mrs. King thought he said so chiefly from dislike to be praised, and that there had been some principle as well as poverty to keep him away.
'It might be better if no one had it on a Sunday,' she could not help sighing out as she looked anxiously along the lane ere turning in, and then said, 'My good lad, I don't want to get you to be telling tales, but it would set my heart at rest, and his poor brother's up there, if you could tell me he is not gone to Briar Alley.'
Paul turned up his face from the gate upon which he was leaning his elbows, and gazed for a moment at her sad, meek, anxious face, then exclaimed, 'I can't think how he could!'
Poor Paul! was it not crossing him how impossible it would seem to do anything to vex one who so cared for him?
'Then he is gone,' she said mournfully.
'They were all at him,' said Paul; 'and he said he'd never seen what it was like. Please don't take on, Missus; he's right kind and good-hearted, and wanted to treat me.'
'I had rather he had hearkened to you, my boy,' said Mrs. King.
'I don't know why he should do that,' said Paul, perhaps meaning that a boy who heeded not such a mother would certainly heed no one else. 'But please, Missus,' he added, 'don't beat him, for you made me tell on him.'
'Beat him! no,' said Mrs. King, with a sad smile; 'he's too big a boy for me to manage that way. I can't do more than grieve if he lets himself be led away.'
'Then I'd like to beat him myself if he grieves you!' burst out Paul, doubling up his brown fist with indignation.
'But you won't,' said Mrs. King gently; 'I don't want to make a quarrel among you, and I hope you'll help to keep him out of bad ways, Paul. I look to you for it. Good-night.'
Perhaps the darkness and her own warm feeling made her forget the condition of that hand; at any rate, as she said Good-night she took it in her own and shook it heartily, and then she went in.
Paul did not say Good-night in answer; but when she had turned away, his head went down between his two crossed arms upon the top of the gate, and he did not move for many many minutes, except that his shoulders shook and shook again, for he was sobbing as he had never sobbed since Granny Moll died. If home and home love were not matters of course to you, you might guess what strange new fountains of feeling were stirred in the wild but not untaught boy, by that face, that voice, that touch.
And Mrs. King, as she walked to her own door in the twilight, with bitter pain in her heart, could not help thinking of those from the highways and hedges who flocked to the feast set at naught by such as were bidden.
A sad and mournful Sunday evening was that to the mother and daughter, as each sat over her Bible. Mrs. King would not talk to Ellen, for fear of awakening Alfred; not that low voices would have done so, but Ellen was already much upset by what she had heard and seen, and to talk it over would have brought on a fit of violent crying; so her mother thought it safest to say nothing. They would have read their Bible to one another, but each had her voice so choked with tears, that it would not do.
That Alfred was sinking away into the grave, was no news to Mrs. King; but perhaps it had never been so plainly spoken to her before, and his own knowledge of it seemed to make it more sure; but broken-hearted as she felt, she had been learning to submit to this, and it might be better and safer for him, she thought, to be aware of his state, and more ready to do his best with the time left to him. That was not the freshest sorrow, or more truly a darker cloud had come over, namely, the feeling, so terrible to a good careful mother, that her son is breaking out of the courses to which she has endeavoured and prayed to bring him up—that he is casting off restraint, and running into evil that may be the beginning of ruin, and with no father's hand to hold him in.
O Harold, had you but seen the thick tears dropping on the walnut table behind the arm that hid her face from Ellen, you would not have thought your fun worth them!
That merry orchard was about three miles from Friarswood. It belonged to a man who kept a small public-house, and had a little farm, and a large garden, with several cherry trees, which in May were perfect gardens of blossoms, white as snow, and in August with small black fruit of the sort known as merries; and unhappily the fertile produce of these trees became a great temptation to the owner and to all the villagers around.
As Sunday was the only day when people could be at leisure, he chose three Sundays when the cherries were ripe for throwing open his orchard to all who chose to come and buy and eat the fruit, and of course cakes and drink of various kinds were also sold. It was a solitary spot, out of the way of the police, or the selling in church-time would have been stopped; but as there may be cases of real distress, the law does not shut up all houses for selling food and drink on a Sunday, so others, where there is no necessity, take advantage of it; and so for miles round all the idle young people and children would call it a holiday to go away from their churches to eat cherries at Briar Alley, buying and selling on a Sunday, noisy and clamorous, and forgetting utterly that it was the Lord's Day, not their day of idle pleasure.
It was a sad pity that an innocent feast of fruit should be almost out of reach, unless enjoyed in this manner. To be sure, merries might be bought any day of the week at Briar Alley, and were hawked up and down Friarswood so cheaply that any one might get a mouth as purple as the black spaniel's any day in the season; but that was nothing to the fun of going with numbers, and numbers never could go except on a Sunday. But if people wish to serve God truly, why, they must make up their minds to miss pleasures for His sake, and this was one to begin with; and I am much mistaken if the happiness of the week would not have turned out greater in the end with him. Ay, and as to the owner of the trees, who said he was a poor man, and could not afford to lose the profit, I believe that if he would have trusted God and kept His commandment, his profit in the long run would have been greater here, to say nothing of the peril to his own soul of doing wrong, and leading so many into temptation.
The Kings had been bred up to think a Sunday going to the merry orchard a thing never to be done; and in his most idle days Alfred would never have dreamt of such a thing. Indeed, their good mother always managed to have some treat to make up for it when they were little; and they certainly never wanted for merries, nay, a merry pudding had been their dinner this very day, with savage-looking purple juice and scalding hot stones. If Harold went it was for the frolic, not for want of the dainty; and wrong as it was, his mother was grieving more at the thought of his casting away the restraint of his old habits than for the one action. One son going away into the unseen world, the other being led away from the paths of right—no wonder she wept as she tried to read!
At last voices were coming, and very loud ones. The summer night was so still, they could be heard a great way—those rude coarse voices of village boys boasting and jeering one another.
'I say, wouldn't you like to be one of they chaps at Ragglesford School?'
'What lots they bought there on Saturday, to be sure!'
'Well they may: they've lots of tin!'
'Have they? How d'ye know?'
'Why, the money-letters! Don't I know the feel of them—directed to master this and master that, and with a seal and a card, and half a sovereign, or maybe a whole one, under it; and such lots as they gets before the holidays—that's to go home, you see.'
'Well, it's a shame such little impudent rogues should get so much without ever doing a stroke of work for it.'
'I say, Harold, don't ye never put one of they letters in your pocket?'
'For shame, Dick!'
'Ha! I shall know where to come when I wants half a sovereign or so!'
'No, you won't.'
It was only these last two or three speeches that reached the cottage at all clearly; and they were followed by a sound as if Harold had fallen upon one of the others, and they were holding him off, with halloos and shouts of hoarse laughing, which broke Alfred's sleep, and his voice came down-stairs with a startled cry of 'Mother! Mother! what is that?' She ran up-stairs in haste, and Ellen threw the door open. The sudden display of the light silenced the noisy boys; and Harold came slowly up the garden-path, pretty certain of a scolding, and prepared to feel it as little as he could help.
'Well, Master, a nice sort of a way of spending a Sunday evening this!' began Ellen; 'and coming hollaing up the lane, just on purpose to wake poor Alfred, when he's so ill!'
'I'm sure I never meant to wake him.'
'Then what did you bring all that good-for-nothing set roaring and shouting up the road for? And just this evening, too, when one would have thought you would we have cared for poor Mother and Alfred,' said she, crying.
'Why, what's the matter now?' said Harold.
'Oh, they've been saying he can't live out the winter,' said Ellen, shedding the tears that had been kept back all this time, and broke out now with double force, in her grief for one brother and vexation with the other.
But next winter seemed a great way off to Harold, and he was put out besides, so he did not seem shocked, especially as he was reproached with not feeling what he did not know; so all he did was to say angrily, 'And how was I to know that?'
'Of course you don't know anything, going scampering over the country with the worst lot you can find, away from church and all, not caring for anything! Poor Mother! she never thought one of her lads would come to that!'
'Plenty does so, without never such a fuss,' said Harold. 'Why, what harm is there in eating a few cherries?'
There would be very little pleasure or use in knowing what a wrangling went on all the time Mrs. King was up-stairs putting Alfred to bed. Ellen had all the right on her side, but she did not use it wisely; she was very unhappy, and much displeased with Harold, and so she had it all out in a fretful manner that made him more cross and less feeling than was his nature.
There was something he did feel, however—and that was his mother's pale, worn, sorrowful face, when she came down-stairs and hushed Ellen, but did not speak to him. They took down the books, read their chapter, and she read prayers very low, and not quite steadily. He would have liked very much to have told her he felt sorry, but he was too proud to do so after having shewn Ellen he was above caring for such nonsense.
So they all went to bed, Harold on a little landing at the top of the stairs; but—whether it was from the pounds of merry-stones he had swallowed, or the talk he had had with his sister—he could not go to sleep, and lay tossing and tumbling about, thinking it very odd he had not heeded more what Ellen had said when he first came in, and the notion dawning on him more and more, that day after day would come and make Alfred worse, and that by the time summer came again he should be alone. Who could have said it? Why had not he asked? What could he have been thinking about? It should not be true! A sort of frenzy to speak to some one, and hear the real meaning of those words, so as to make sure they were only Ellen's nonsense, came over him in the silent darkness. Presently he heard Alfred moving on his pillow, for the door was open for the heat; and that long long sigh made him call in a whisper, 'Alf, are you awake?'
In another moment Harold was by his brother's side. 'Alf! Alf! are you worse?' he asked, whispering.
'Then what's all this? What did they say? It's all stuff; I'm sure it is, and you're getting better. But what did Ellen mean?'
'No, Harold,' said Alfred, getting his brother's hand in his, 'it's not stuff; I shan't get well; I'm going after poor Charlie; and don't you be a bad lad, Harold, and run away from your church, for you don't know—how bad it feels to—' and Alfred turned his face down, for the tears were coming thick.
'But you aren't going to die, Alf. Charlie never was like you, I know he wasn't; he was always coughing. It is all Ellen. Who said it? I won't let them.'
'The doctor said it to Betsey Hardman,' said Alfred; and his cough was only too like his brother's.
Harold would have said a great deal in contempt of Betsey Hardman, but Alfred did not let him.
'You'll wake Mother,' he said. 'Hush, Harold, don't go stamping about; I can't bear it! No, I don't want any one to tell me now; I've been getting worse ever since I was taken, and—oh! be quiet, Harold.'
'I can't be quiet,' sobbed Harold, coming nearer to him. 'O Alf! I can't spare you! There hasn't been no proper downright fun without you, and—'
Harold had lain down by him and clung to his hand, trying not to sob aloud.
'O Harold!' sighed Alfred, 'I don't think I should mind—at least not so much—if I hadn't been such a bad boy.'
'You, Alfy! Who was ever a good boy if you was not?'
'Hush! You forget all about when I was up at my Lady's, and all that. Oh! and how bad I behaved at church, and when I was so saucy to Master about the marbles; and so often I've not minded Mother. O Harold! and God judges one for everything!'
What a sad terrified voice it was!
'Oh! don't go on so, Alf! I can't bear it! Why, we are but boys; and those things were so long ago! God will not be hard on little boys. He is merciful, don't you know?'
'But when I knew it was wrong, I did the worst I could!' said Alfred. 'Oh, if I could only begin all over again, now I do care! Only, Harold, Harold, you are well; you can be good now when there's time.'
'I'll be ever so good if you'll only get well,' said Harold. 'I wouldn't have gone to that there place to-night; but 'tis so terribly dull, and one must do something.'
'But in church-time, and on Sunday!'
'Well, I'll never do it again; but it was so sunshiny, and they were all making such fun, you see, and it did seem so stuffy, and so long and tiresome, I couldn't help it, you see.'
Alfred did not think of asking how, if Harold could not help it this time, he could be sure of never doing so again. He was more inclined to dwell on himself, and went back to that one sentence, 'God judges us for everything.' Harold thought he meant it for him, and exclaimed,
'Yes, yes, I know, but—oh, Alf, you shouldn't frighten one so; I never meant no harm.'
'I wasn't thinking about that,' sighed Alfred. 'I was wishing I'd been a better lad; but I've been worse, and crosser, and more unkind, ever since I was ill. O Harold! what shall I do?'
'Don't go on that way,' said Harold, crying bitterly. 'Say your prayers, and maybe you will get well; and then in the morning I'll ask Mr. Cope to come down, and he'll tell you not to mind.'
'I wouldn't listen to Mr. Cope when he told me to be sorry for my sins; and oh, Harold, if we are not sorry, you know they will not be taken away.'
'Well, but you are sorry now.'
'I have heard tell that there are two ways of being sorry, and I don't know if mine is the right.'
'I tell you I'll fetch Mr. Cope in the morning; and when the doctor comes he'll be sure to say it is all a pack of stuff, and you need not be fretting yourself.'
When Harold awoke in the morning, he found himself lying wrapped in his coverlet on Alfred's bed, and then he remembered all about it, and looked in haste, as though he expected to see some sudden and terrible change in his brother.
But Alfred was looking cheerful, he had awakened without discomfort; and with some amusement, was watching the starts and movements, the grunts and groans, of Harold's waking. The morning air and the ordinary look of things, had driven away the gloomy thoughts of evening, and he chiefly thought of them as something strange and dreadful, and yet not quite a dream.
'Don't tell Mother,' whispered Harold, recollecting himself, and starting up quietly.
'But you'll fetch Mr. Cope,' said Alfred earnestly.
Harold had begun not to like the notion of meeting Mr. Cope, lest he should hear something of yesterday's doings, and he did not like Alfred or himself to think of last night's alarm, so he said, 'Oh, very well, I'll see about it.'
He had not made up his mind. Very likely, if chance had brought him face to face with Mr. Cope, he would have spoken about Alfred as the best way to hinder the Curate from reproving himself; but he had not that right sort of boldness which would have made him go to meet the reproof he so richly deserved, and he was trying to persuade himself either that when Alfred was amused and cheery, he would forget all about 'that there Betsey's nonsense,' or else that Mr. Cope might come that way of himself.
But Alfred was not likely to forget. What he had heard hung on him through all the little occupations of the morning, and made him meek and gentle under them, and he was reckoning constantly upon Mr. Cope's coming, fastening on the notion as if he were able to save him.
Still the Curate came not, and Alfred became grieved, feeling as if he was neglected.
Mr. Blunt, however, came, and at any rate he would have it out with him; so he asked at once very straightforwardly, 'Am I going to die, Sir?'
'Why, what's put that in your head?' said the doctor.
'There was a person here talking last night, Sir,' said Mrs. King.
'Well, but am I?' said Alfred impatiently.
'Not just yet, I hope,' said Mr. Blunt cheerfully. 'You are weak, but you'll pick up again.'
'But of this?' persisted Alfred, who was not to be trifled with.
Mr. Blunt saw he must be in earnest.
'My boy,' he said, 'I'm afraid it is not a thing to be got over. I'll do the best I can for you, by God's blessing; and if you get through the winter, and it is a mild spring, you might do; but you'd better settle your mind that you can't be many years for this world.'
Many years! that sounded like a reprieve, and sent gladness into Ellen's heart; but somehow it did not seem in the same light to Alfred; he felt that if he were slowly going down hill and wasting away, so as to have no more health or strength in which to live differently from ever before, the length of time was not much to him, and in his sickly impatience he would almost have preferred that it should not be what Betsey kindly called 'a lingering job.'
There he lay after Mr. Blunt was gone, not giving Ellen any trouble, except by the sad thoughtfulness of his face, as he lay dwelling on all that he wanted to say to Mr. Cope, and the terror of his sin and of judgment sweeping over him every now and then.
Still Mr. Cope came not. Alfred at last began to wonder aloud, and asked if Harold had said anything about it when he came in to dinner; but he heard that Harold had only rushed in for a moment, snatched up a lump of bread and cheese, and made off to the river with some of the lads who meant to spend the noon-tide rest in bathing.
When he came for the evening letters he was caught, and Mr. Cope was asked for; and then it came out that Harold had never given the message at all.
Alfred, greatly hurt, and sadly worn by his day of expectation, had no self-restraint left, and flew out into a regular passion, calling his brother angry names. Harold, just as passionate, went into a rage too, and scolded his brother for his fancies. Mrs. King, in great displeasure, turned him out, and he rushed off to ride like one mad to Elbury; and poor Alfred remained so much shocked at his own outbreak, just when he meant to have been good ever after, and sobbing so miserably, that no one could calm him at all; and Ellen, as the only hope, put on her bonnet to fetch Mr. Cope.
At that moment Paul was come for his bit of bread. She found him looking dismayed at the sounds of violent weeping from above, and he asked what it was.
'Oh, Alfred is so low and so bad, and he wants Mr. Cope! Here's your bread, don't keep me!'
'Let me go! I'll be quicker!' cried Paul; and before she could thank him, he was down the garden and right across the first field.
Alfred had had time to cry himself exhausted, and to be lying very still, almost faint, before Mr. Cope came in in the summer twilight. Good Paul! He had found that Mr. Cope was dining at Ragglesford and had run all the way thither; and here was the kind young Curate, quite breathless with his haste, and never regretting the cheerful party whence he had been called away. All Alfred could say was, 'O Sir, I shall die; and I'm a bad boy, and wouldn't heed you when you said so.'
'And God has made you see your sins, my poor boy,' said Mr. Cope. 'That is a great blessing.'
'But if I can't do anything to make up for them, what's the use? And I never shall be well again.'
'You can't make up for them; but there is One Who has made up for them, if you will only truly repent.'
'I wasn't sorry till I knew I should die,' said Alfred.
'No, your sins did not come home to you! Now, do you know what they are?'
'Oh yes; I've been a bad boy to Mother, and at church; and I've been cross to Ellen, and quarrelled with Harold; and I was so audacious at my Lady's, they couldn't keep me. I never did want really to be good. Oh! I know I shall go to the bad place!'
'No, Alfred, not if you so repent, that you can hold to our Blessed Saviour's promise. There is a fountain open for sin and all uncleanness.'
'It is very good of Him,' said Alfred, a little more tranquilly, not in the half-sob in which he had before spoken.
'Most merciful!' said Mr. Cope.
'But does it mean me?' continued Alfred.
'You were baptized, Alfred, you have a right to all His promises of pardon.' And he repeated the blessed sentences:
'Come unto Me, all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.'
'God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.'
'But how ought I to believe, Sir?'
'You say you feel what your sins are; think of them all as you lie, each one as you remember it; say it out in your heart to our Saviour, and pray God to forgive it for His sake, and then think that it cost some of the pain He bore on the Cross, some of the drops of His agony in the Garden. Each sin of ours was indeed of that burden!'
'Oh, that will make them seem so bad!'
'Indeed it does; but how it will make you love Him, and feel thankful to Him, and anxious not to waste the sufferings borne for your sake, and glad, perhaps, that you are bearing some small thing yourself. But you are spent, and I had better not talk more now. Let me read you a few prayers to help you, and then I will leave you, and come again to-morrow.'
How differently those Prayers and Psalms sounded to Alfred now that he had really a heart grieved and wearied with the burthen of sin! The point was to make his not a frightened heart, but a contrite heart.
CHAPTER VII—HAROLD TAKES A WRONG TURN
Mrs. King was very anxious about Alfred for many hours after this visit from the Curate, for he was continually crying, not violently, but the tears flowing quietly from his eyes as he lay, thinking. Sometimes it was the badness of the faults as he saw them now, looking so very different from what they did when they were committed in the carelessness of fun and high spirits, or viewed afterwards in the hardening light of self-justification. Now they did look so wantonly hard and rude—unkind to his sister, ruinous to Harold, regardless of his widowed mother, reckless of his God—that each one seemed to cut into him with a sense of its own badness, and he was quite as much grieved as afraid; he hated the fault, and hated himself for it.
Indeed, he was growing less afraid, for the sorrow seemed to swallow that up; the grief at having offended One so loving was putting out the terror of being punished; or rather, when he thought that this illness was punishment, he was almost glad to have some of what he deserved; just as when he was a little boy, he really used to be happier afterwards for having been whipped and put in the corner, because that was like making it up. Though he knew very well that if he had ten thousand times worse than this to bear, it would not be making up for his faults, and he felt now that one of them had been his 'despising the chastening of the Lord.' And then the thought of what had made up for it would come: and though he had known of it all his life, and heeded it all too little, now that his heart was tender, and he had felt some of the horror and pain of sin, he took it all home now, and clung to it. He recollected the verses about that One kneeling—nay, falling on the ground, in the cold dewy night, with the chosen friends who could not watch with Him, and the agony and misery that every one in all the world deserved to feel, gathering on Him, Who had done no wrong, and making His brow stream with great drops of Blood.
And the tortures, the shame, the slow Death—circumstance after circumstance came to his mind, and 'for me,' 'this fault of mine helped,' would rise with it, and the tears trickled down at the thought of the suffering and of the Love that had caused it to be undergone.
Once he raised up his head, and saw through the window the deep dark-blue sky, and the stars, twinkling and sparkling away; that pale band of light, the Milky Way, which they say is made of countless stars too far off to be distinguished, and looking like a cloud, and on it the larger, brighter burnished stars, differing from one another in glory. He thought of some lines in a book Miss Jane once gave Ellen, which said of the stars:
'The Lord resigned them all to gain The bliss of pardoning thee.'
And when he thought that it was the King of those stars Who was scourged and spit on, and for the sake of his faults, the loving tears came again, and he turned to another hymn of Ellen's:
'Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee!'
And going on with this, he fell into a more quiet sleep than he had had for many nights.
Alfred had worked up his mind to a point where it could not long remain; and when he awoke in the morning, the common affairs of the day occupied him in a way that was not hurtful to him, as the one chief thought was ever present, only laid away for a time, and helping him when he might have been fretful or impatient.
He was anxious for Mr. Cope, and grateful when he saw him coming early in the day. Mr. Cope did not, however, say anything very new. He chiefly wished to shew Alfred that he must not think all his struggle with sin over, and that he had nothing to do but to lie still and be pardoned. There was much more work, as he would find, when the present strong feeling should grow a little blunt; he would have to keep his will bent to bear what was sent by God, and to prove his repentance by curing himself of all his bad habits of peevishness and exacting; to learn, in fact, to take up his cross.
Alfred feebly promised to try, and it did not seem so difficult just then. The days were becoming cooler, and he did not feel quite so ill; and though he did not know how much this helped him, it made it much easier to act on his good resolutions. Miss Selby came to see him, and was quite delighted to see him looking so much less uncomfortable and dismal.
'Why, Alfred,' said she, 'you must be much better.'
Ellen looked mournful at this, and shook her head so that Miss Jane turned her bright face to her in alarm.
'No, Ma'am,' said Alfred. 'Dr. Blunt says I can never get over it.'
'And does that make you glad?' almost gasped Miss Jane.
'No, Ma'am,' said Alfred; 'but Mr. Cope has been talking to me, and made it all so—'
He could not get out the words; and, besides, he saw Miss Jane's eyes winking very fast to check the tears, and Ellen's had begun to rain down fast.
'I didn't mean to be silly,' said little Jane, in rather a trembling voice; 'but I'm sorry—no—I'm glad you are happy and good, Alfred.'
'Not good, Miss Jane,' cried Alfred; 'I'm such a bad boy, but there are such good things as I never minded before—'
'Well then, I think you'll like what I've brought you,' said Jane eagerly.
It was a little framed picture of our Blessed Lord on His Cross, all darkness round, and the Inscription above His Head; and Miss Jane had painted, in tall Old English red letters, under it the two words, 'For me.'
Alfred looked at it as if indeed it would be a great comfort to him to be always reminded by the eye, of how 'He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities.'
He thanked Miss Jane with all his heart, and she and Ellen soon found a place to hang it up well in his sight. It was a pretty bright sight to see her insisting on holding the nail for it, and then playfully pretending to shrink and fancy that Ellen would hammer her fingers.
Alfred could enjoy the sunshine of his sick-room again; and Ellen and his mother down-stairs told Miss Selby, with many tears, of the happy change that had come over him ever since he had resigned himself to give up hopes of life. Mrs. King looked so peaceful and thankful, that little Jane could hardly understand what it was that made her so much more at rest.
Even Ellen, though her heart ached at the hope having gone out, and left a dark place where it had been, felt the great relief from hour to hour of not being fretted and snarled at for whatever she either did or left undone. Thanks and smiles were much pleasanter payment than groans, murmurs, and scoldings; and the brother and sister sometimes grew quite cheerful and merry together, as Alfred lay raised up to look over the hedge into the harvest-field across the meadow, where the reaper and his wife might be seen gathering the brown ears round, and cutting them with the sickle, and others going after to bind them into the glorious wheat sheaves that leant against each other in heaps of blessed promise of plenty.
Paul tried reaping; but the first thing he did was to make a terrible cut in his hand, which the shuffler told him was for good luck! Some of the women in the field bound it up, but he was good for nothing after it except going after the cattle, and so he was likely to lose all the chance of earning himself any better clothes in harvest-time.
Harold grumbled dreadfully that his mother could not spare him to go harvesting beyond their own tiny quarter of an acre of wheat. The post made it impossible for him to go out to work like the labourers; and besides, his mother did not think he had gained much good in hay-time, and wished to keep him from the boys.
Very hard he thought it; and to hear him grumble, any one would have thought Mrs. King was a tyrant far worse than Farmer Shepherd, working the flesh off his bones, taking away the fun and the payment alike.
The truth was, that the morning when Harold threw away from him the thought of his brother's danger, and broke all his promises to him in the selfish fear of a rebuke from the clergyman, had been one of the turning- points of his life, and a turning-point for the bad. It had been a hardening of his heart, just as it had begun to be touched, and a letting in of evil spirits instead of good ones.
He became more than ever afraid of Mr. Cope, and shirked going near him so as to be spoken to; he cut Ellen off short if she said a word to him, and avoided being with Alfred, partly because it made him melancholy, partly because he was afraid of Alfred's again talking to him about the evil of his ways. In reality, his secret soul was wretched at the thought of losing his brother; but he tried to put the notion away from him, and to drown it in the noisiest jokes and most riotous sports he could meet with, keeping company with the wildest lads about the parish. That Dick Royston especially, whose honesty was doubtful, but who, being a clever fellow, was a sort of leader, was doing great harm by setting his face against the new parson, and laughing at the boys who went to him. Mrs. King was very unhappy. It was almost worse to think of Harold than of his sick brother; and Alfred grieved very much too, and took to himself the blame of having made home miserable to Harold, and driven him into bad company; of having been so peevish and unpleasant, that it was no wonder he would not come near him more than could be helped; and above all, of having set a bad example of idleness and recklessness, when he was well. If the tears were brought into his eyes at first by some unkind neglect of Harold's, they were sure to end in this thought at last; and then the only comfort was, that Mr. Cope had told him that he might make his sick-bed very precious to his brother's welfare, by praying always for him.
Mr. Cope had talked it over with Mrs. King; and they had agreed that as Harold was under the regular age for Confirmation, and seemed so little disposed to prepare for it in earnest, they would not press it on him. He was far from fit for it, and he was in such a mood of impatient irreverence, that Mr. Cope was afraid of making his sin worse by forcing serious things on him, and his mother was in constant fear of losing her last hold on him.
Yet Harold was not a bad or unfeeling boy by nature; and if he would but have paused to think, he would have been shocked to see how cruelly he was paining his widowed mother and dying brother, just when he should have been their strength and stay.
One afternoon in October, when Alfred was in a good deal of pain, Mr. Blunt said he would send out some cooling ointment for the wound at the joint, when Harold took the evening letters into Elbury. Alfred reckoned much on the relief this was to give, and watched the ticks of the clock for the time for Harold to set off.
'Make haste,' were the last words his mother spoke—and Harold fully meant to make haste; nor was it weather to tempt him to stay long, for there was a chill raw fog hanging over the meadows, and fast turning into rain, which hung in drops upon his eyebrows, and the many-tiered cape of his father's box-coat, which he always wore in bad weather. It was fortunate he was likely to meet nothing, and that he and the pony both knew the road pretty well.
How fuzzy the grey fog made the lamps of the town look! Did they disturb the pony? What a stumble! Ha! there's a shoe off. Be it known that it was Harold's own fault; he had not looked at the shoes for many a morning, as he knew it was his duty to do.
He left Peggy with her ears back, much discomposed at being shod in a strange forge, and by any one but Bill Saunders.
Then Harold was going to leave his bag at the post-office, when, as he turned up the street, some one caught hold of him, and cried, 'Ho! Harold King on foot! What's the row? Old pony tumbled down dead?'
'Cast a shoe,' said Harold.
'Oh, jolly, you'll have to wait!' went on Dick Royston. 'Come in here! Here's such a lark!'
Harold looked into a court-yard belonging to a low public-house, and saw what was like a tent, with a bright red star on a blue ground at the end, lighted up. A dark figure came between, and there was a sudden crack that made Harold start.
'It's the unique (he called it eu-ni-quee) royal shooting-gallery, patronized by his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales,' (what a story!) said Dick. 'You've only to lay down your tin; one copper for three shots, and if you hit, you may take your choice—gingerbread-nuts, or bits of cocoa-nut, or, what's jolliest, lollies with gin inside 'em! Come, blaze away! or ha'n't you got the money? Does Mother keep you too short?'
If there was a thing Harold had a longing for, it was to fire off a gun! If there was a person he envied more than another, it was old Isaac Coffin, when he prowled up and down Farmer Ledbitter's fields with an old blunderbuss and some powder, to keep off the birds!
To be sure it was a public-house, but it was not inside one! And Mother would call it gambling. Oh, but it wasn't cards or skittles! And if he shot away his half-pence, how should he pay for the shoeing of the pony? The blacksmith might trust him, or the clerk at the post-office would lend him the money, or Betsey Hardman. And the time? One shot would not waste much! Pony must be shod. Besides, Dick and all the rest would say he was a baby.
He paid the penny, threw aside his cap, and took the gun, though after all it was only a sham one, and what a miss he made! What business had every one to set up that great hoarse laugh? which made him so angry that he had nearly turned on Dick and cuffed him for his pains.
However, he was the more bent on trying again, and the owner of the gallery shewed him how to manage better. He hit anything but the middle of the star, and just saw how he thought he might hit next time. Next time was barely a miss, so that the man actually gave him a gin-drop to encourage him. That made him mad to meet with real success; but it was the turn of another 'young gent,' as the man called him, and Harold had to stand by, with his penny in his hand, burning with impatience, and fancying he could mend each shot of that young gent, and another, and another, and another, who all thrust in to claim their rights before him. His turn came at last; and so short and straight was the gallery, that he really did hit once the side of the star, and once the middle, and thus gained one gingerbread-nut, and three of the gin-drops.
It would have been his nature to share them with Alfred, but he could not do so without saying where he had been, and that he could not do, so he gave one to Dick, and swallowed the rest to keep out the cold.
Just then the town clock struck six, and frightened him. He had been there three-quarters of an hour. What would they say at the post-office?
The clerk looked out of his hole as angry as clerk could look. 'This won't do, King,' he said. 'Late for sorting! Fine, remember—near an hour after time.'
'Pony cast a shoe, Sir,' said Harold. He had never been so near a downright falsehood.
'Whew! Then I suppose I must not report you this time! But look out! You're getting slack.'
No time this for borrowing of the clerk. Harold was really frightened, for he had dawdled much more than he ought of late, and though he sometimes fancied himself sick of the whole post business, a complaint to his mother would be a dreadful matter. It put everything else out of his head; and he ran off in great haste to get the money from Betsey Hardman, knocking loud at her green door.
What a cloud of steamy heat the room was, with the fire glowing like a red furnace, and five black irons standing up before it; and clothes-baskets full of heaps of whiteness, and horses with vapoury webs of lace and cambric hanging on them; and the three ironing-boards, where smoothness ran along with the irons; and the heaps of folded clothes; and Betsey in her white apron, broad and red in the midst of her maidens!
'Ha! Harold King! Well, to be sure, you are a stranger! Don't come nigh that there hoss; it's Mrs. Parnell's best pocket-handkerchiefs, real Walencines!' (she meant Valenciennes.) 'If you'll just run up and see Mother, I'll have it out of the way, and we'll have a cup of tea.'
'Thank you, but I—'
'My! What a smoke ye're in! Take care, or I shall have 'em all to do over again. Go up to Mother, do, like a good lad.'
'I can't, Betsey; I must go home.'
'Ay! that's the way. Lads never can sit down sensible and comfortable! it's all the same—'
'I wanted,' said Harold, interrupting her, 'to ask you to lend me sixpence. Pony's cast a shoe, and I had to leave her with the smith.'
'Ay? Who did you leave her with?'
'The first I came to, up in Wood Street.'
'Myers. Ye shouldn't have done that. His wife's the most stuck-up proud body I ever saw—wears steel petticoats, I'll answer for it. You should have gone to Charles Shaw.'
'Can't help it,' said Harold. 'Please, Betsey, let me have the sixpence; I'll pay you faithfully to-morrow!'
'Ay! that's always the way. Never come in unless ye want somewhat. 'Twasn't the way your poor father went on! He'd a civil word for every one. Well, and can't you stop a minute to say how your poor brother is?'
'Much the same,' said Harold impatiently.
'Yes, he'll never be no better, poor thing! All decliny; as I says to Mother, what a misfortune it is upon poor Cousin King! they'll all go off, one after t'other, just like innocents to the slaughter.'
This was not a cheerful prediction; and Harold petulantly said he must get back, and begged for the sixpence. He got it at last, but not till all Betsey's pocket had been turned out; and finding nothing but shillings and threepenny-bits, she went all through her day's expenses aloud, calling all her girls to witness to help her to account for the sixpence that ought to have been there.
Mrs. Brown had paid her four and sixpence—one florin and a half-crown—and she had three threepenny-pieces in her pocket, and twopence. Then Sally had been out and got a shilling's-worth of soap, and six-penn'orth of blue, and brought home one shilling; and there was the sausages—no one could recollect what they had cost, though they talked so much about their taste; and five-pence-worth of red-herrings, and the butter; yes, and threepence to the beggar who said he had been in Sebastopol. Harold's head was ready to turn round before it was all done; but he got away at last, with a scolding for not going up to see Mother.
Home he trotted as hard as the pony would go, holding his head down to try to bury nose and mouth in his collar, and the thick rain plastering his hair, and streaming down the back of his neck. What an ill-used wretch was he, said he to himself, to have to rattle all over the country in such weather!
Here was home at last. How comfortable looked the bright light, as the cottage door was thrown open at the sound of the horse's feet!
'Well, Harold!' cried Ellen eagerly, 'is anything the matter?'
'No,' he said, beginning to get sulky because he felt he was wrong; 'only Peggy lost a shoe—'
'No, I took her to the smith.'
'Give me Alfred's ointment, please, before you put her up. He is in such a way about it, and we can't put him to bed—'
'Haven't got it.'
'Not got it! O Harold!'
'I should like to know how to be minding such things when pony loses a shoe, and such weather! I declare I'm as wet—!' said Harold angrily, as he saw his sister clasp her hands in distress, and the tears come in her eyes.
'Is Harold come safe?' called Mrs. King from above.
'Is the ointment come?' cried Alfred, in a piteous pain-worn voice.
Harold stamped his foot, and bolted to the stable to put the pony away.
'It's not come,' said Ellen, coming up-stairs, very sadly.
'He has forgot it.'
'Forgot it!' cried Alfred, raising himself passionately. 'He always does forget everything! He don't care for me one farthing! I believe he wants me dead!'
'This is very bad of him! I didn't think he'd have done it,' said Mrs. King sorrowfully.
'He's been loitering after some mischief,' exclaimed Alfred. 'Taking his pleasure—and I must stay all this time in pain! Serve him right to send him back to Elbury.'
Mrs. King had a great mind to have done so; but when she looked at the torrents of rain that streamed against the window, and thought how wet Harold must be already, and of the fatal illnesses that had been begun by being exposed to such weather, she was afraid to venture a boy with such a family constitution, and turning back to Alfred, she said, 'I am very sorry, Alfred, but it can't be helped; I can't send Harold out in the rain again, or we shall have him ill too.'
Poor Alfred! it was no trifle to have suffered all day, and to be told the pain must go on all night. His patience and all his better thoughts were quite worn away, and he burst into tears of anger and cried out that it was very hard—his mother cared for Harold more than for him, and nobody minded it, if he lay in such pain all night.
'You know better than that, dear,' said his poor mother, sadly grieved, but bearing it meekly. 'Harold shall go as soon as can be to-morrow.'
'And what good will that be to-night?' grumbled Alfred. 'But you always did put Harold before me. However, I shall soon be dead and out of your way, that's all!'
Mrs. King would not make any answer to this speech, knowing it only made him worse. She went down to see about Harold, an additional offence to Alfred, who muttered something about 'Mother and her darling.'
'How can you, Alfred, speak so to Mother?' cried Ellen.
'I'm sure every one is cross enough to me,' returned Alfred.
'Not Mother,' said Ellen. 'She couldn't help it.'
'She won't send Harold out again, though; I'm sure I'd have gone for him.'
'You don't know what the rain was,' said Ellen.
'Well, he should have minded; but you're all against me.'
'You'll be sorry by-and-by, Alfred; this isn't like the way you talk sometimes.'
'Some one else had need to be sorry, not me.'
Perhaps, in the midst of his captious state, Alfred was somewhat pacified by hearing sounds below that made him certain that Harold was not escaping without some strong words from his mother.
They were not properly taken. Harold was in no mood of repentance, and the consciousness that he had been behaving most unkindly, only made him more rough and self-justifying.
'I can't help it! I can't be a slave to run about everywhere, and remember everything—pony losing her shoe, and nigh tumbling down with me, and Ross at the post so cross for nothing!'
'You'll grieve at the way you have used your poor brother one of these days, Harold,' quietly answered his mother, so low, that Alfred could not hear through the floor. 'Now, you'll please to go to bed.'
'Ain't I to have no supper?' said Harold in a sullen voice, with a great mind to sit down in the chimney-corner in defiance.
'I shall give you something hot when you are in bed. If I treated you as you deserve, I should send you to Mr. Blunt's this moment; but I can't afford to have you ill too, so go to bed this moment.'
His mother could still master him by her steadiness and he went up, muttering that he'd no notion of being treated like a baby, and that he would soon shew her the difference: he wasn't going to be made a slave to Alfred, and 'twas all a fuss about that stuff!
He did fancy he said his prayers; but they could not have been real ones, for he was no softer when his mother came to his bedside with a great basin of hot gruel. He said he hated such nasty sick stuff, and grunted savagely when, with a look that ought to have gone to his heart, she asked if he thought he deserved anything better.
Yet she did not know of the shooting gallery, nor of his false excuses. If he had not been deceiving her, perhaps he might have been touched.
'Well, Harold,' she said at last, after taking the empty basin from him, and picking up his wet clothes and boots to dry them by the fire, 'I hope as you lie there you'll come to a better mind. It makes me afraid for you, my boy. It is not only your brother you are sinning against, but if you are a bad boy, you know Who will be angry with you. Good-night.'
She lingered, but Harold was still hard, and would neither own himself sorry, nor say good-night.
When she passed his bed at the top of the stairs again, after hanging up the things by the fire, he had his head hidden, and either was, or feigned to be, asleep.
Alfred's ill-temper was nearly gone, but he still thought himself grievously injured, and was at no pains to keep himself from groaning and moaning all the time he was being put to bed. In fact, he rather liked to make the most of it, to shew his mother how provoking she was, and to reproach Harold for his neglect.
The latter purpose he did not effect; Harold heard every sound, and consoled himself by thinking what an intolerable work Alfred was making on purpose. If he had tried to bear it as well as possible, his brother would have been much more likely to be sorry.
Alfred was thinking too much about his misfortunes and discomforts to attend to the evening reading, but it soothed him a little, and the pain was somewhat less, so he did fall asleep, so uneasily though, that Mrs. King put off going to bed as late as she could.
It was nearly eleven, and Ellen had been in bed a long time, when Alfred started, and Mrs. King turned her head, at the click of the wicket gate, and a step plashing on the walk. She opened the little window, and the gust of wet wind puffed the curtains, whistled round the room, and almost blew out the candle.
'It's me, Mrs. King! I've got the stuff,' called a hoarse tired voice.
'Well, if ever! It's Paul Blackthorn!' exclaimed Mrs. King. 'Thank ye kindly. I'll come and let you in.'
'Paul Blackthorn!' cried Alfred. 'Been all the way to Elbury for me! O Mother, bring him up, and let me thank him! But how ever did he know?' The tears came running down Alfred's cheeks at such kindness from a stranger. Mrs. King had hurried down-stairs, and at the threshold stood a watery figure, holding out the gallipot.
'Oh! thank you, thank you; but come in! Yes, come in! you must have something hot, and get dried.'
Paul shambled in very foot-sore. He looked as if he were made of moist mud, and might be squeezed into any shape, and streams of rain were dropping from each of his many rags.
'Well, I don't know how to thank you—such a night! But he'll sleep easy now. How did you come to think of it?'
'I was just coming home from the parson's, and I met Harold putting up Peggy, in a great way because he'd forgotten. That's all, Missus,' said Paul, looking shamefaced. 'Good-night to you.'
'No, no, that won't do. I must have you sit down and get dry,' said Mrs. King, nursing up the remains of the fire; and as Paul's day-garments served him for night-gear likewise, he could hardly help accepting the invitation, and spreading his chilled hands to the fire.
As to Mrs. King's feelings, it must be owned that, grateful as she was, it was rather like sitting opposite to the heap in the middle of Mr. Shepherd's farm-yard.
'Would you take that?' she said, holding out a three-penny piece. 'I'd make it twice as much if I could, but times are hard.'
'No, no, Missus, I didn't do it for that,' said Paul, putting it aside.
'Then you must have some supper, that I declare.'
And she brought out a slice of cold bacon, and some bread, and warmed some beer at the fire. She would go without bacon and beer herself to- morrow, but that was nothing to her. It was a real pleasure to see the colour come into Paul's bony yellow cheeks at the hearty meal, which he could not refuse; but he did not speak much, for he was tired out, and the fire and the beer were making him very sleepy.
Alfred rapped above with the stick that served as a bell. It was to beg that Paul would come and be thanked; and though Mrs. King was a little afraid of the experiment, she did ask him to walk up for a moment.
Grunt went he, and in rather an unmannerly way, he said, 'I'd rather not.'
'Pray do,' said Mrs. King; 'I don't think Alfred will sleep easy without saying thank you.'
So Paul complied, and in a most ungainly fashion clumped up-stairs and stood at the door. He had not forgotten his last reception, and would not come a step farther, though Alfred stretched out his hand and begged him to come in.
Alfred could say only 'Thank you, I never thought any one would be so kind.'
And Paul made gruff reply, 'Ye're very welcome,' turned about as if he were running away, and tumbled down-stairs, and out of the house, without even answering Mrs. King's 'Good-night.'
Harold had wakened at the sounds. He heard all, but he chose to seem to be asleep, and, would you believe it? he was only the more provoked! Paul's exertion made his neglect seem all the worse, and he was positively angry with him for 'going and meddling, and poking his nose where he'd no concern. Now he shouldn't be able to get the stuff to-morrow, and so make it up; and of course mother would go and dock Paul's supper out of his dinner!'
If such reflections were going on upon one side of the partition, there were very different thoughts upon the other. The stranger's kindness had done more than relieve Alfred's pain: the warm sense of thankfulness had softened his spirit, and carried off his selfish fit. He knew not how kind people were to him, and how ungrateful he had been to punish his innocent mother and sister, and so much to magnify a bit of thoughtlessness on Harold's part; to be angry with his mother for not driving him out when she thought it might endanger his health and life, and to say such cruel things on purpose to wound her. Alfred felt himself far more cruel than he had even thought Harold.
And was this his resolution? Was this the shewing the sincerity of his repentance through his conduct in illness? Was this patience? Was it brotherly love? Was it the taking up the cross so as to bear it like his Saviour, Who spoke no word of complaining, no murmur against His tormentors?
How he had fallen! How he had lost himself! It was a bitter distress, and threw him almost into despair. He prayed over and over to be forgiven, and began to long for some assurance of pardon, and for something to prevent all his right feelings and wishes from thus seeming to slip away from his grasp at the first trial.
He told his mother how sorry he was; and she answered, 'Dear lad, don't fret about it. It was very hard for you to bear, and you are but learning, you see, to be patient.'
'But I'm not learning if I don't go on no better,' sighed Alfred.
'By bits you are, my boy,' she said; 'you are much less fractious now than you used to be, only you could not stand this out-of-the-way trial.'
'Do you remember what our Saviour said to St. Peter?' said his mother; '"Whither I go thou canst not follow Me now, but thou shalt follow Me afterwards." You see, St. Peter couldn't bear his cross then, but he went on doing his best, and grieving when he failed, and by-and-by he did bear it almost like his Master. He got to be made strong out of weakness.'
There was some comfort to Alfred in this; but he feared, and yet longed, to see Mr. Cope, and when he came, had scarcely answered his questions as to how he felt, before he said, 'O Sir, I've been a bad boy again, and so cross to them all!'
'O Sir,' said Ellen, who could not bear for him to blame himself, 'I'm sure it was no wonder—he's so distracted with the pain, and Harold getting idling, and forgetting to bring him the ointment. Why, even that vagabond boy was so shocked, that he went all the way to Elbury that very night for it. I told Alfred you'd tell him that anybody would be put out, and nobody would think of minding what he said.'
'Nobody, especially so kind a sister,' said Mr. Cope, smiling; 'but that is not what Alfred is thinking of.'
'No, Sir,' said Alfred; 'their being so good to me makes it all the worse.'
'I quite believe so; and you are very much disappointed in yourself.'
'Oh yes, Sir, just when I wanted to be getting patient, and more like—' and his eyes turned to the little picture, and filled with tears.
Mr. Cope said somewhat of what his mother had said that he was but a scholar in patience, and that he must take courage, though he had slipped, and pray for new strengthening and refreshing to go on in the path of pain his Lord had hallowed for him.
Perhaps the words reminded Alfred of the part of the Catechism where they occur, for he said, 'Oh, I wish I was confirmed! If I could but take the Holy Sacrament, to make me stronger, and sure of being forgiven—'
'You shall—before—' said Mr. Cope, speaking eagerly, but becoming choked as he went on. 'You are one whom the Church would own as ready and desirous to come, though you cannot be confirmed. You should at once—but you see I am not yet a priest; I have not the power to administer the Holy Communion; but I trust I shall be one in the spring, and then, Alfred—Or if you should be worse, I promise you that I would bring some one here. You shall not go without the Bread of Life.'
Alfred felt what he said to the depths of his heart, but he could not say anything but 'Thank you, Sir.'
Mr. Cope, still much moved, laid his hand upon that of the boy. 'So, Alfred, we prepare together. As I hope and long to prepare myself to have that great charge committed to me, which our Saviour Christ gave to His Apostles; so you prepare for the receiving of that Bread and that Cup which will more fully unite you to Him, and join your suffering to what He bore for you.'
'How shall I, Sir?' murmured Alfred.
'I will do my best to shew you,' said Mr. Cope; 'but your Catechism tells you best. Think over that last answer.'
Alfred's face lighted sweetly as he went over it. 'Why, that's what I can't help doing, Sir; I can't forget my faults, I'm so afraid of them; and I'm sure I do want to lead a new life, if I didn't keep on being so bad; and thinking about His dying is the best comfort I have. Nor I'm sure I don't bear ill-will to nobody, only I suppose it is not charity to run out at poor Mother and Ellen when one's put out.'
'Perhaps that is what you want to learn,' said Mr. Cope, 'and to get all these feelings deepened, and more earnest and steadfast. If the long waiting does that for you, it will be good, and keep you from coming lightly to the Holy Feast.'
'Oh, I could not do that!' exclaimed Alfred. 'And may I think that all my faults will be taken away and forgiven?'
'All you repent of, and bring in faith—'
'That is what they say at church in the Absolution,' said Alfred thoughtfully.
'Rather it is what the priest says to them,' said Mr. Cope; 'it is the applying the promise of forgiveness that our Saviour bought. I may not yet say those words with authority, Alfred, but I should like to hope that some day I may speak them to you, and bring rest from the weight at your heart.'
'Oh! I hope I may live to that!' said Alfred.
'You shall hear them, whether from me or from another,' said Mr. Cope, 'that is, if God will grant us warning. But you need not fear, Alfred, if you thoroughly repent, and put your full faith in the great Sacrifice that has been offered for your sins and the sins of all the world. God will take care of His child, and you already have His promise that He will give you all that is needful for your salvation.'
If Harold had known all the consequences of his neglect, perhaps he would have been more sorry for it than as yet he had chosen to be.
The long walk and the warm beer and fire sent Paul to his hay-nest so heavy with sleep, that he never stirred till next morning he was wakened by Tom Boldre, the shuffler, kicking him severely, and swearing at him for a lazy fellow, who stayed out at night and left him to do his work.
Paul stumbled to his feet, quite confused by the pain, and feeling for his shoes in the dark loft. The shuffler scarcely gave him an instant to put them on, but hunted him down-stairs, telling him the farmer was there, and he would catch it.
It would do nobody any good to hear the violent way in which Mr. Shepherd abused the boy. He was a passionate man, and no good labourers liked to work with him because of his tongue. With such grown men as he had, he was obliged to keep himself under some restraint, but this only incited him to make up for it towards the poor friendless boy.
It was really nearly eight o'clock, and Paul's work had been neglected, which was enough to cause displeasure; and besides, Boldre had heard Paul coming home past eleven, and the farmer insisted on knowing what he had been doing.
Under all his rags, Paul was a very proud boy, and thus asked, he would not tell, but stood with his legs twisted, looking very sulky.
'No use asking him,' cried Mrs. Shepherd's shrill voice at the back door; 'why, don't ye hear that Mrs. Barker's hen-roost has been robbed by Dick Royston and two or three more on 'em?'
'I never robbed!' cried Paul indignantly.
'None of your jaw,' said the farmer angrily. 'If you don't tell me this moment where you've been, off you go this instant. Drinking at the Tankard, I'll warrant.'
'No such thing, Sir,' said Paul. 'I went to Elbury after some medicine for a sick person.'
Somehow he had a feeling about the house opposite, which would not let him come out with the name in such a scene.
'That's all stuff,' broke in Mrs. Shepherd, 'I don't believe one word of it! Send him off; take my advice, Farmer, let him go where he comes from; Ellen King told me he was out of prison.'
Paul flushed crimson at this, and shook all over. He had all but turned to go, caring for nothing more at Friarswood; but just then, John Farden, one of the labourers, who was carrying out some manure, called out, 'No, no, Ma'am. Sure enough he did go to Elbury to Dr. Blunt's. I was on the road myself, and I hears him. "Good-night," says I. "Good-night," says he. "Where be'est going?" says I. "To doctor's," says he, "arter some stuff for Alfred King."
'Yes,' said Paul, speaking more to Farden than to his master, 'and then Mrs. King gave me some supper, and that was what made me so late.'
'She ought to be ashamed of herself, then,' said Mrs. Shepherd spitefully, 'having a vagabond scamp like that drinking beer at her house at that time of night. How one is deceived in folks!'
'Well, what are you doing here?' cried the farmer, turning on Paul angrily; 'd'ye mean to waste any more of the day?'
So Paul was not turned off, and had to go straight to his work. It was well he had had so good a supper, for he had not a moment to snatch a bit of breakfast. It so happened that his work was to go with John Farden, who was carrying out the manure in the cart. Paul had to hold the horse, while John forked it out into little heaps in the field. John was a great big powerful man, with a foolish face, not a good workman, nor a good character, or he would not have been at that farm. He had either never been taught anything, or had forgotten it all; he never went near church; he had married a disreputable wife, and had two or three unruly children, who were likely to be the plagues of their parents and the parish, but not a whit did John heed; he did not seem to have much more sense than to work just enough to get food, lodging, beer, and tobacco, to sleep all night, and doze all Sunday. There was not any malice nor dishonesty in him; but it was terrible that a man with an immortal soul should live so nearly the life of the brute beasts that have no understanding, and should never wake to the sense of God or of eternity.