He was not a man of many words, and nothing passed for a long time but shouts of hoy, and whoa, and the like, to the horse. Paul went heavily on, scarce knowing what he was about; there was a stunned jaded feel about him, as if he were hunted and driven about, a mere outcast, despised by every one, even by the Kings, whose kindness had been his only ray of brightness. Not that his senses or spirits were alive enough even to be conscious of pain or vexation; it was only a dull dreary heedlessness what became of him next; and, quick clever boy as he had been in the Union, he did not seem to have a bit more sense, thought, or feeling, than John Farden.
John Farden was the first to break the silence: 'I wouldn't bide,' said he.
Paul looked up, and muttered, 'I have nowhere to go.'
'Farmer uses thee shameful,' repeated John. 'Why don't thee cut?'
Paul saw the smoke of Mrs. King's chimney. That had always seemed like a friend to him, but it came across him that they too thought him a runaway from prison, and he felt as if his only bond of fellowship was gone. But there was something else, too; and he made answer, 'I'll bide for the Confirmation.'
'Eh?' said John, 'what good'll that do ye?'
'Help me to be a good lad,' said Paul, who knew John Farden would not enter into any other explanation.
'Why, what'll they do to ye?'
'The Bishop will put his hand on me and bless me,' said Paul; and as he said the words there was hope and refreshment coming back. He was a child of God, if no other owned him.
'Whoy,' said Farden, much as he might have spoken to his horse, 'rum sort of a head thou'st got! Thee'll never go up to Bishop such a guy!'
'Can't help it,' said Paul rather sullenly; 'it ain't the clothes that God looks at.'
John scanned him all over, with his face looking more foolish than ever in the puzzle he felt.
'Well,' he said, 'and what wilt get by it?'
'God's grace to do right, I hope,' said Paul; then he added, out of his sad heart, 'It's bad enough here, to be sure. It would be a bad look-out if one hoped for nothing afterwards.'
Somehow John's mind didn't take in the notion of afterwards, and he did not go on talking to Paul. Perhaps there was a dread in his poor dull mind of getting frightened out of the deadly stupefied sleep it was bound in.
But that bit of talk had done Paul great good, by rousing him to the thought of what he had to hope for. There was the Confirmation nigh at hand, and then on beyond there was rest; and the words came into his mind, 'There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest.'
Poor, poor boy! He was very young to have such yearnings towards the grave, and well-nigh to wish he lay as near to it as Alfred King, so he might have those loving tender hands near him, those kind voices round him. Paul had gone through a great deal in these few months; and, used to good shelter and regular meals, he was less inured to bodily hardship than many a cottage boy. His utter neglect of his person was telling on him; he was less healthy and strong than he had been, and though high spirits, merriment, and the pleasure of freedom and independence, had made all light to him in the summer, yet now the cold weather, with his insufficient food and scanty clothing, was dulling him and deadening him, and hard work and unkind usage seemed to be grinding his very senses down. To be sure, when twelve o'clock came, he went up into the loft, ate his bit of dry bread, and said his prayers, as he had not been able to do in the morning, and that made him feel less forlorn and downcast for a little while; but then as he sat, he grew cold, and numb, and sleepy, and seemed to have no life in him, but to be moving like a horse in a mill, when Boldre called him down, and told him not to be idling there.
The theft in Mrs. Barker's poultry-yard was never traced home to any one, but the world did not the less believe Dick Royston and Jesse Rolt to have been concerned in it. Indeed, they had been drinking up some of their gains when Harold met them at the shooting-gallery: and Mrs. Shepherd would not put it out of her head that Paul Blackthorn was in the secret, and that if he did really go for the medicine as he said, it was only as an excuse for carrying the chickens to some receiver of stolen goods. She had no notion of any person doing anything out of pure love and pity. Moreover, it is much easier to put a suspicion into people's heads than out again; and if Paul's whole history and each day's doings had been proved to her in a court of justice, she would still have chiefly remembered that she had always thought ill of him, and that Ellen King had said he was a runaway convict, and so she would have believed him to the end.
Ellen had long ago forgotten that she had said anything of the kind; and though she still held her nose rather high when Paul was near, she would have answered for his honesty as readily as for that of her own brothers. But hers had not been the charity that thinketh no evil, and her idle words had been like thistle-down, lightly sent forth, but when they had lighted, bearing thorns and prickles.
Those thorns were galling poor Paul. Nobody could guess what his glimpses of that happy, peaceful, loving family were to him. They seemed to him like a softer, better kind of world, and he looked at their fair faces and fresh, well-ordered garments with a sort of reverence; a kind look or greeting from Mrs. King, a mere civil answer from Ellen, those two sights of the white spirit-looking Alfred, were like the rays of light that shone into his dark hay-loft. Sometimes he heard them singing their hymns and psalms on a Sunday evening, and then the tears would come into his eyes as he leant over the gate to listen. And, as if it was because Ellen kept at the greatest distance from him, he set more store by her words and looks than those of any one else, was always glad when she served him in the shop, and used to watch her on Sunday, looking as fresh as a flower in her neat plain dress.
And now to hear that she not only thought meanly of him, which he knew well enough, but thought him a thief, a runaway, and an impostor coming about with false tales, was like a weight upon his sunken spirits, and seemed to take away all the little heart hard usage had left him, made him feel as if suspicious eyes were on him whenever he went for his bit of bread, and took away all his peace in looking at the cottage.
He did once take courage to say to Harold, 'Did your sister really say I had run away from gaol?'
'Oh, nobody minds what our Ellen says,' was the answer.
'But did she say so?'
'I don't know, I dare say she did. She's so fine, that she thinks no one that comes up-stairs in dirty shoes worth speaking to. I'm sure she's the plague of my life—always at me.'
That was not much comfort for Paul. He had other friends, to be sure. All the boys in the place liked him, and were very angry with the way the farmer treated him, and greatly to their credit, they admired his superior learning instead of being jealous of it. Mrs. Hayward, the sexton's wife, the same who had bound up his hand when he cut it at harvest, even asked him to come in and help her boys in the evenings with what they had to prepare for Mr. Cope. He was not sorry to do so sometimes. The cottage was a slatternly sort of place, where he did not feel ashamed of himself, and the Haywards were mild good sort of folks, from whom he was sure never to hear either a bad or an unkind word; though he did not care for them, nor feel refreshed and helped by being with them as he did with the Kings.
John Farden, too, was good-natured to him, and once or twice hindered Boldre from striking or abusing him; he offered him a pipe once, but Paul could not smoke, and another time brought him out a pint of beer into the field. Mrs. Shepherd spied him drinking it from her upper window, and believed all the more that he got money somehow, and spent it in drink.
So the time wore on till the Confirmation, all seeming like one dull heavy dream of bondage; and as the weather became colder, the poor boy seemed to have no power of thinking of anything, but of so getting through his work as to avoid violence, to keep himself from perishing with cold, and not to hurt his chilblains more than he could help.
All his quick intellect and good instruction seemed to have perished away, and the last time he went to Mr. Cope's, he sat as if he were stupid or asleep, and when a question came to him, sat with his mouth open like silly Bill Pridden.
Mr. Cope knew him too well not to feel, as he wrote the ticket, that there were very few of whom he could so entirely from his heart say 'Examined and APPROVED,' as the poor lonely outcast foundling, Paul Blackthorn, who could not even tell whether he were fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen, but could just make sure that he had once been caned by old Mr. Haynes, who went away from the Union twelve years ago.
'Do you think you can keep the ticket safe if I give it you now, Paul?' asked Mr. Cope, recollecting that the cows might sup upon it like his Prayer-book.
Paul put his hands down to the bottom of his pockets. They were all one hole, and that sad lost foolish look came over his wan face again, and startled Mr. Cope.
The boys grinned, but Charles Hayward stepped forward. 'Please, Sir, let me take care of it for him.'
Mr. Cope and Paul both agreed, and Mr. Cope kept Charles for a moment to say, as he gave him a shilling, 'Look here, Charles, do you think you can manage to get that poor fellow a tolerable breakfast on Saturday before he goes? And if you could make him look a little more decent?'
Charles pulled his forelock and looked knowing. In fact, there was a little plot among these good-natured boys, and Harold King was in it too, though he was not of the Confirmation party, and said and thought he was very glad of it. He did not want to bind himself to be so very good. Silly boy; as if Baptism had not bound him already!
Mrs. Hayward put her head out as Paul passed her cottage, and called out, 'I say, you Paul, you come in to-morrow evening with our Charlie and Jim, and I'll wash you when I washes them.'
Good Mrs. Hayward made a mistake that the more delicate-minded Mrs. King would never have made. Perhaps if a pail of warm water and some soap had been set before Paul, he might actually have washed himself; but he was much too big and too shamefaced a lad to fancy sharing a family scrubbing by a woman, whatever she might do to her own sons. But considering the size of the Hayward cottage, and the way in which the family lived, this sort of notion was not likely to come into the head of the good-natured mother.
So she and her boys were much vexed when Paul did not make his appearance, and she made a face of great disgust when Charles said, 'Never mind, Mother, my white frock will hide no end of dirt.'
'I shall have to wash it over again before you can wear it, I know,' said Mrs. Hayward. 'Not as I grudges the trouble; he's a poor lost orphant, that it's a shame to see so treated.'
Mrs. Hayward did not know that she was bestowing the cup of cold water, as well as being literally ready to wash the feet of the poor disciple.
A clean body is a type and token of a pure mind; and though the lads of Friarswood did not quite perceive this, there was a feeling about them of there being something unnatural and improper, and a disgrace to Friarswood, in any one going up to the Bishop in such a condition as Paul. Especially, as Charles Hayward said, when he was the pick of the whole lot. Perhaps Charles was right, for surely Paul was single-hearted in his hope of walking straight to his one home, Heaven, and he had been doing no other than bearing his cross, when he so patiently took the being 'buffeted' when he did well, and faithfully served his froward master.
But Paul was not to escape the outward cleansing, and from one of the very last people from whom it would have been expected. He had just pulled his bed of hay down over him, and was trying to curl himself up so as to stop his teeth from chattering, with Caesar on his feet, when the dog growled, and a great voice lowered to a gruff whisper, said, 'Come along, young un!'
'I'm coming,' cried Paul.
Though it was not Boldre's voice, it had startled him terribly; he was so much used to ill-treatment, that he expected a savage blow every moment.
But the great hand that closed on him, though rough, was not unkind.
'Poor lad, how he quakes!' said John Farden's voice. 'Don't ye be afeard, it's only me.'
'Nobody got at the horses?' cried Paul.
'No, no; only I ain't going to have you going up to yon big parson all one muck-heap! Come on, and make no noise about it.'
Paul did not very well know what was going to befall him, but he did not feel unsafe with John Farden, and besides, his lank frame was in the grasp of that big hand like a mouse in the power of a mastiff. So he let himself be hauled down the ladder, into an empty stall, where, behold, there was a dark lantern (which had been at bad work in its time), a pail, a brush, a bit of soap, and a ragged towel.
John laid hold of him much as Alfred in his page days used to do of Lady Jane's little dog when it had to be washed, but Puck had the advantage in keeping on his shaggy coat all the time, and in being more gently handled, whereas Farden scrubbed with such hearty good-will, that Paul thought his very skin would come off. But he had undergone the like in the workhouse, and he knew how to accommodate himself to it; and when his rough bath was over, though he was very sore, and stiff, and chilly, he really felt relieved, and more respectable than he had done for many months, only rather sorry he must put on his filthy old rags again; and he gave honest John more thanks than might have been expected.
The Confirmation was to be at eleven o'clock, at Elbury, and John had undertaken his morning's work, so that Mr. Shepherd grudgingly consented to spare him, knowing that all the other farmers of course did the same, and that there would be a cry of shame if he did not.
Paul had just found his way down the ladder in the morning, with thoughts going through his mind that to him this would be the coming of the Comforter, and he was sure he wanted comfort; and that for some hours of this day at least, he should be at peace from rude words and blows, when he heard a great confusion of merry voices and suppressed laughing, and saw the heads of some of the lads bobbing about near Mrs. King's garden.
Was it time already to set off, he wondered, looking up to the sun; but then those boys seemed to be in an uproarious state such as did not suit his present mood, nor did he think Mr. Cope would consider it befitting. He would have let them go by, feeling himself such a scare-crow as they might think a blot upon them; but he remembered that Charles Hayward had his ticket, and as he looked at himself, he doubted whether he should be let into a strange church.
'Paul! Paul Blackthorn!' called Harold, with a voice all aglee.
'Well!' said Paul, 'what do you want of me?'
'Come on, and you'll see.'
'I don't want a row. Is Charlie Hayward there? Just ask him for my card, and don't make a work.'
'He'll give it you if you'll come for it,' said Harold; and seeing there was no other chance, Paul slowly came. Harold led him to the stable, where just within the door stood a knot of stout hearty boys, snorting with fun, hiding their heads on each other's shoulders, and bending their buskined knees with merriment.
'Now then!' cried Charles Hayward, and he had got hold of the only button that held Paul's coat together.
Paul was bursting out with something, but George Grant's arms were round his waist, and his hands were fumbling at his fastenings. They were each one much stronger than he was now, and they drowned his voice with shouts of laughter, while as fast as one garment was pulled off, another was put on.
'Mind, you needn't make such a work, it bain't presents,' said George Grant, 'only we won't have them asking up at Elbury if we've saved the guy to bring in.'
'It is a present, though, old Betty Bushel's shirt,' said Charles Hayward. 'She said she'd throw it at his head if he brought it back again; but the frock's mine.'
'And the corduroys is mine,' said George Grant. 'My! they be a sight too big in the band! Run in, Harold, and see if your mother can lend us a pin.'
'And the waistcoat is my summer one,' said Fred Bunting. 'He's too big too; why, Paul, you're no better than a natomy!'
'Never mind, my white frock will hide it all,' said Charles, 'and here's Ned's cap for you. Oh! and it's poor Alfred's boots.'
Paul could not make up his mind to walk all the way in the boots, but to satisfy the boys he engaged to put them on as soon as they were getting to Elbury.
'My! he looks quite respectable,' cried Charles, running back a little way to look at him.
'I wonder if Mr. Cope will know him?' exclaimed Harold, jumping leap-frog fashion on George Grant's back.
'The maids will take him for some strange gentleman,' exclaimed Jem Hayward; 'and why, bless me, he's washed, I do declare!' as a streak of light from the door fell on Paul's visage.
'No, you don't mean it,' broke out Charles. 'Let's look! yes, I protest, why, the old grime between his eyes is gone after all. How did you manage that, Paul?'
Paul rather uneasily mumbled something about John Farden, and the boys clapped their hands, and shouted, so that Alfred, who well knew what was going on, raised himself on his pillow and laughed. It was rather blunt treatment for feelings if they were tender, but these were rough warm- hearted village boys, and it was all their good-nature.
'And where's the grub?' asked Charles importantly, looking about.
'Oh, not far off,' said Harold; and in another moment, he and Charles had brought in a black coffee-pot, a large mug, some brown sugar, a hunch of bread, some butter, and a great big smoking sausage.
Paul looked at it, as if he were not quite sure what to do with it. One boy proceeded to turn in an inordinate quantity of sugar, another to pour in the brown coffee that sent out a refreshing steam enough to make any one hungry. George Grant spread the butter, cut the sausage in half, put it on the bread, and thrust it towards Paul.
'Eat it—s—s,' said Charles, patting Paul on the back. 'Mr. Cope said you was to, and you must obey your minister.'
'Not all for me?' said Paul, not able to help a pull at the coffee, the mug warming his fingers the while.
'Oh yes, we've all had our breakfastisses,' said George Grant; 'we are only come to make you eat yours like a good boy, as Mr. Cope said you should.'
They stood round, looking rather as they would have done had Paul been an elephant taking his meal in a show; but not one would hear of helping him off with a crumb out of Mr. Cope's shilling. George Grant was a big hungry lad, and his breakfast among nine at home had not been much to speak of; but savoury as was the sausage, and perfumy as was the coffee, he would have scorned to take a fragment from that stranger, beg him to do so as Paul might; and what could not be eaten at that time, with a good pint of the coffee, was put aside in a safe nook in the stable to be warmed up for supper.
That morning's work was not a bad preparation for Confirmation after all.
Harold had stayed so long, that he had to jump on the pony and ride his fastest to be in time at the post. He was very little ashamed of not being among those lads, and felt as if he had the more time to enjoy himself; but there were those who felt very sad for him—Alfred, who would have given so much to receive the blessing; and Ellen, whose confirmation was very lonely and melancholy without either of her brothers; besides his mother, to whom his sad carelessness was such constant grief and heart-ache.
Ellen was called for by the carriage from the Grange, and sat up behind with the kitchen-maid, who was likewise to be confirmed. Little Miss Jane sat inside in her white dress and veil, looking like a snowdrop, Alfred thought, as his mother lifted him up to the window to see her, as the carriage stood still while Ellen climbed to her seat.
In the course of the morning, Mrs. King made time to read over the Confirmation Service with Alfred, to think of the blessing she was receiving, and to pray that it might rest upon her through life. And they entreated, too, that Harold might learn to care for it, and be brought to a better mind.
'O Mother,' said Alfred, after lying thinking for sometime, 'if I thought Harold would take up for good and be a better boy to you than I have been, I should not mind anything so much.'
And there was Harold all the time wondering whether he should be able to get out in the evening to have a lark with Dick and Jesse.
Ellen was set down by-and-by. Her colour was very deep, but she looked gentle and happy, and the first thing she did was to bend over Alfred, kiss him, and say how she wished he had been there.
Then, when she had been into her own room, she came back and told them about the beautiful large Elbury Church, and the great numbers of young girls and boys on the two sides of the aisle, and of the Bishop seated in the chair by the altar, and the chanted service, with the organ sounding so beautiful.
And then how her heart had beat, and she hardly dared to speak her vow, and how she trembled when her turn came to go up to the rail, but she said it was so comfortable to see Mr. Cope in his surplice, looking so young among the other clergymen, and coming a little forward, as if to count out and encourage his own flock. She was less frightened when she had met his kind eye, and was able to kneel down with a more quiet mind to receive the gift which had come down on the Day of Pentecost.
Alfred wanted to know whether she had seen Paul, but Ellen had been kneeling down and not thinking of other people, when the Friarswood boys went up. Only she had passed him on the way home, and seen that though he was lagging the last of the boys, he did not look dull and worn, as he had been doing lately.
Ellen had been asked to go to the Grange after church to-morrow evening, and drink tea there, in celebration of the Confirmation which the two young foster-sisters had shared.
Harold went to fetch her home at night, and they both came into the house fresh and glowing with the brisk frosty air, and also with what they had to tell.
'O mother, what do you think? Paul Blackthorn is to go to the Grange to- morrow. My Lady wants to see him, and perhaps she will make Mr. Pound find some work for him about the farm.'
Harold jumped up and snapped his fingers towards the farm. 'There's for old Skinflint!' said he; 'not a chap in the place but will halloo for joy!'
'Well, I am glad!' said Mrs. King; 'I didn't think that poor lad would have held out much longer, winter weather and all. But how did my Lady come to hear of it?'
'Oh, it seems she noticed him going to church in all his rags, and Mr. Cope told her who he was; so Miss Jane came and asked me all about him, and I told her what a fine scholar he is, and how shamefully the farmer and Boldre treat him, and how good he was to Alfred about the ointment, and how steady he is. And I told her about the boys dressing him up yesterday, and how he wouldn't take a gift. She listened just as if it was a story, and she ran away to her grandmamma, and presently came back to say that the boy was to come up to-morrow after his work, for Lady Jane to speak to him.'
'Well, at least, he has been washed once,' said Mrs. King; 'but he's so queer; I hope he will have no fancies, and will behave himself.'
'I'll tackle him,' declared Harold decidedly. 'I've a great mind to go out this moment and tell him.'
Mrs. King prevented this; she persuaded Harold that Mrs. Shepherd would fly out at them if she heard any noise in the yard, and that it would be better for every one to let Paul alone till the morning.
Morning came, and as soon as Harold was dressed, he rushed to the farm- yard, but he could not find Paul anywhere, and concluded that he had been sent out with the cows, and would be back by breakfast-time.
As soon as he had brought home the post-bag, he dashed across the road again, but came back in a few moments, looking beside himself.
'He's gone!' he said, and threw himself back in a chair.
'Gone!' cried Mrs. King and Ellen with one voice, quite aghast.
'Gone!' repeated Harold. 'The farmer hunted him off this morning! Missus will have it that he's been stealing her eggs, and that there was a lantern in the stable on Friday night; so they told him to be off with him, and he's gone!'
'Poor, poor boy! just when my Lady would have been the making of him!' cried Ellen.
'But where—which way is he gone?' asked Mrs. King.
'I might ride after him, and overtake him,' cried Harold, starting up, 'but I never thought to ask! And Mrs. Shepherd was ready to pitch into me, so I got away as soon as I could. Do you run over and ask, Ellen; you always were a favourite.'
They were in such an eager state, that Ellen at once sprang up, and hastily throwing on her bonnet, ran across the road, and tapped at Mrs. Shepherd's open door, exclaiming breathlessly, 'O Ma'am, I beg your pardon, but will you tell me where Paul Blackthorn is gone?'
'Paul Blackthorn! how should I know?' said Mrs. Shepherd crossly. 'I'm not to be looking after thieves and vagabonds. He's a come-by-chance, and he's a go-by-chance, and a good riddance too!'
'Oh but, Ma'am, my Lady wanted to speak to him.'
This only made Mrs. Shepherd the more set against the poor boy.
'Ay, ay, I know—coming over the gentry; and a good thing he's gone!' said she. 'The place isn't to be harbouring thieves and vagrants, or who's to pay the rates? My eggs are gone, I tell you, and who should take 'em but that lad, I'd like to know?'
'Them was two rotten nest-eggs as I throwed away when I was cleaning the stable.'
'Who told you to put in your word, John Farden?' screamed Mrs. Shepherd, turning on him. 'Ye'd best mind what ye're about, or ye'll be after him soon.'
'No loss neither,' muttered John, stopping to pick up his shovel.
'And you didn't see which way he was gone?' asked Ellen, looking from the labourer to the farmer's wife.
'Farmer sent un off or ever I come,' replied John, 'or I'd ha' gied un a breakfast.'
'I'm sure I can't tell,' said Mrs. Shepherd, with a toss of her head. 'And as to you, Ellen King, I'm surprised at you, running after a scamp like that, that you told me yourself was out of a prison.'
'Oh but, Mrs. Shepherd—'
'You ought to be ashamed of yourself,' interrupted Mrs. Shepherd; 'and I wonder your mother allows it. But there's nothing like girls now-a-days.'
Ellen thought John Farden grinned; and feeling as if nothing so shocking could ever happen to her again, she flew back, she hardly knew how, to her home, clapped the door after, and dropping into a chair as Harold had done, burst into such a fit of crying, that she could not speak, and only shook her head in answer to Harold's questions as to how Paul was gone.
'Oh, no one knew!' she choked out among her sobs; 'and Mrs. Shepherd—such things!'
Harold stamped his foot, and Mrs. King tried to soothe her. In the midst, she recollected that she could not bear her brothers to guess at the worst part of the 'such things;' and recovering herself a moment, she said, 'No, no, they've driven him off! He's gone, and—and, oh! Mother, Mrs. Shepherd will have it he's a thief, and—and she says I said so.'
That was bad enough, and Ellen wept bitterly again; while her mother and Harold both cried out with surprise.
'Yes—but—I did say I dare said he was out of a reformatory—and that she should remember it! Now I've taken away his character, and he's a poor lost boy!'
Oh, idle words! idle words!
CHAPTER IX—ROBBING THE MAIL
There was no helping it! People must have their letters whether Paul Blackthorn were lost or not, and Harold was a servant of the public, and must do his duty, so after some exhortations from his mother, he ruefully rose up, hoping that he should not have to go to Ragglesford.
'Yes, you will,' said his mother, 'and maybe to wait. Here's a registered letter, and I think there are two more with money in them.'
'To think,' sighed Harold, as he mounted his pony, 'of them little chaps getting more money for nothing, than Paul did in a month by working the skin off his bones!'
'Don't be discontented, Harold, on that score. Them little chaps will work hard enough by-and-by: and the money they have now is to train them in making a fit use of it then.'
Harold looked anxiously up and down the road for Paul, and asked Mr. Cope's housekeeper whether he had been there to take leave. No; and indeed Harold would have been a little vexed if he had wished good-bye anywhere if not at home.
There was a fine white frost, and the rime hung thickly on every spray of the heavy branches of the dark firs and larches that overhung the long solitary lane between the Grange and Ragglesford, and fringed the park palings with crystals. Harold thought how cold poor Paul must be going on his way in his ragged clothes. The ice crackled under the pony's feet as she trotted down Ragglesford Lane, and the water of the ford looked so cold, that Peggy, a very wise animal, turned her head towards the foot- bridge, a narrow and not very sound affair, over which Harold had sometimes taken her when the stream was high, and threatened to be over his feet.
Harold made no objection; but no sooner were all the pony's four hoofs well upon the bridge, than at the other end appeared Dick Royston.
'Hollo, Har'ld!' was his greeting, 'I've got somewhat to say to ye.'
'D'ye know where Paul Blackthorn is?' asked Harold.
'Not I—I'm a traveller myself, you must know.'
'You, going to cut?' cried Harold.
'Ay,' said Dick, laying hold of the pony's rein. 'The police have been down at Rolt's—stupid fellow left old gander's feet about—Mrs. Barker swore to 'em 'cause he'd had so many kicks and bites on common—Jesse's took up and peached—I've been hiding about all night—precious cold it was, and just waiting, you see, to wish you good-bye.'
Harold, very much shocked, could have dispensed with his farewells, nor did he like the look of his eyes.
'Thank you, Dick; I'm sorry—I didn't think—but I'm after time—I wish you'd let go of Peggy.'
'So that's all you have to say to an old comrade!' said Dick; 'but, I say, Har'ld, I'm not going so. I must have some tin to take me to Portsmouth. I want to know what you've got in that there bag!'
'You won't have that; it's the post. Let go, Dick;' and he pushed the pony forward, but Dick had got her fast by the head. Harold looked round for help, but Ragglesford Lane was one of the loneliest places in the country. There was not a house for half a mile, and Lady Jane's plantations shut in the road on either side.
'I mean to have it,' said Dick, looking coolly up into his face; 'I mean to see if there's any of the letters with a half-sovereign in 'em, that you tell us about.'
'Dick, Dick, it would be robbing! For shame, Dick! What would become of Mother and me?'
'That's your look-out,' said Dick; and he stretched out his hand for the bag. He was four years older than Harold, and much stouter.
Harold, with a ready move, chucked the bag round to his back, and shouted lustily in hopes that there might be a keeper in the woods, 'Help! Thieves! He's robbing the post!'
Dick's hoarse laugh was all the answer. 'That'll do, my dear,' he said; 'now you'd best be quiet; I'd be loath to hurt you.'
For all answer, Harold, shouting all the time, dealt him a stroke right over the eyes and nose with his riding-switch, and made a great effort to force the pony on in hopes the blow might have made him slacken his hold. But though one moment Dick's arm was thrown over his watering eyes, the other hand held the bridle as firmly as ever, and the next instant his fist dealt Harold such a blow, as nearly knocked out all his breath. Setting his teeth, and swearing an oath, Dick was pouncing on the boy's arm, when from the road before them came bursting a meagre thing darting like a wild cat, which fell upon him, hallooing as loud as Harold.
Dick turned in fury, and let go the bridle. The pony backed in alarm. The new-comer was grappling with the thief, and trying to drag him aside. 'On, on; go on, Har'ld!' he shouted, but his strength was far from equal to Dick's, who threw him aside on the hand-rail. Old rotten rail that it was, it crashed under the weight, and fell with both the boys into the water. Peggy dashed forward to the other side, where Harold pulled her up with much difficulty, and turned round to look at the robber and the champion. The fall was not far, nor the water deep, and they had both risen, and were ready to seize one another again in their rage. And now Harold saw that he who had come to his help was no other than Paul Blackthorn, who shouted loudly, 'On, go on! I'll keep him.'
'He'll kill you!' screamed Harold, in despair, ready to push in between them with his horse; but at that moment cart-wheels were heard in the road, and Dick, shaking his fist, and swearing at them both, shook off Paul as if he had been a feather, and splashing out of the ford on the other side, leapt over the hedge, and was off through the plantations.
Paul more slowly crept up towards Harold, dripping from head to foot.
'Paul! Paul! I'm glad I've found you!' cried Harold. 'You've saved the letters, man, and one was registered! Come along with me, up to the school.'
'Nay, I'll not do that,' said Paul.
'Then you'll stay till I come back,' said Harold earnestly; 'I've got so much to tell you! My Lady sent for you. Our Ellen told her all about you, and you're to go to her. Ellen was in such a way when she found you were off.'
'Then she didn't think I'd taken the eggs?' said Paul.
'She'd as soon think that I had,' said Harold. 'Why, don't we all know that you're one of the parson's own sort? But what made you go off without a word to nobody?'
'I don't know. Every one was against me,' said Paul; 'and I thought I'd just go out of the way, and you'd forget all about me. But I never touched those eggs, and you may tell Mr. Cope so, and thank him for all his kindness to me.'
'You'll tell him yourself. You're going home along with me,' cried Harold. 'There! I'll not stir a step till you've promised! Why, if you make off now, 'twill be the way to make them think you have something to run away for, like that rascal.'
'Very well,' said Paul, rather dreamily.
'Then you won't?' said Harold. 'Upon your word and honour?'
Paul said the words after him, not much as if he knew what he was about; and Harold, rather alarmed at the sound of the Grange clock striking, gave a cut to the pony, and bounded on, only looking back to see that Paul was seating himself by the side of the lane. Harold said to himself that his mother would not have liked to see him do so after such a ducking, but he knew that he was more tenderly treated than other lads, and with reason for precaution too; and he promised himself soon to be bringing Paul home to be dried and warmed.
But he was less speedy than he intended. When he arrived at the school, he had first to account to the servants for his being so late, and then he was obliged to wait while the owner of the registered letter was to sign the green paper, acknowledging its safe delivery.
Instead of having the receipt brought back to him, there came a message that he was to go up to tell the master and the young gentlemen all about the robbery.
So the servant led the way, and Harold followed a little shy, but more curious. The boys were in school, a great bare white-washed room, looking very cold, with a large arched window at one end, and forms ranged in squares round the hacked and hewed deal tables. Harold thought he should tell Alfred that the young gentlemen had not much the advantage of themselves in their schoolroom.
The boys were mostly smaller than he was, only those of the uppermost form being of the same size. There might be about forty of them, looking rather red and purple with the chilly morning, and all their eighty eyes, black or brown, blue or grey, fixed at once upon the young postman as he walked into the room, straight and upright, in his high stout gaiters over his cord trousers, his thick rough blue coat and red comforter, with his cap in his hand, his fair hair uncovered, and his blue eyes and rosy cheeks all the more bright for that strange morning's work. He was a well-mannered boy, and made his bow very properly to Mr. Carter, the master, who sat at his high desk.
'So, my little man,' said the master, 'I hear you've had a fight for our property this morning. You've saved this young gentleman's birthday present of a watch, and he wants to thank you.'
'Thank you, Sir,' said Harold; 'but he'd have been too much for me if Paul hadn't come to help. He's a deal bigger than me.'
The boys all made a thumping and scuffling with their feet, as if to applaud Harold; and their master said, 'Tell us how it was.'
Harold gave the account in a very good simple manner, only he did not say who the robber was—he did not like to do so—indeed, he would not quite believe it could be his old friend Dick. The boys clapped and thumped doubly when he came to the switching, and still more at the tumble into the water.
'Do you know who the fellow was?' asked Mr. Carter.
'Yes, I knowed him,' said Harold, and stopped there.
'But you had rather not tell. Is that it?'
'Please, Sir, he's gone, and I wouldn't get him into trouble.'
At this the school-boys perfectly stamped, and made signs of cheering.
'And who is the boy that came to help you?'
'Paul Blackthorn, Sir; he's a boy from the Union who worked at Farmer Shepherd's. He's a right good boy, Sir; but he's got no friends, nor no—nothing,' said Harold, pausing ere he finished.
'Why didn't you bring him up with you?' asked the master.
'Please, Sir, he wouldn't come.'
'Well,' said Mr. Carter, 'you've behaved like a brave fellow, and so has your friend; and here's something in token of gratitude for the rescue of our property.'
It was a crown piece.
'And here,' said the boy whose watch had been saved, 'here's half-a-crown. Shake hands, you're a jolly fellow; and I'll tell my uncle about you.'
Harold was a true Englishman, and of course his only answer could be, 'Thank you, Sir, I only did my duty;' and as the other boys, whose money had been rescued, brought forward more silver pledges of gratitude, he added, 'I'll take it to Paul—thank you, Sir—thank you, Sir.'
'That's right; you must share, my lad,' said the school-master. 'It is a reward for both of you.'
'Thank you, Sir, it was my duty,' repeated Harold, making his bow.
'Sir, Sir, pray let us give him three cheers,' burst out the head boy in an imploring voice.
Mr. Carter smiled and nodded; and there was such a hearty roaring and stamping, such 'hip, hip, hurrah!' bursting out again and again, that the windows clattered, and the room seemed fuller of noise than it could possibly hold. It is not quite certain that Mr. Carter did not halloo as loud as any of the boys.
Harold turned very red, and did not know which way to look while it was going on, nor what to do when it was over, except to say a very odd sort of 'Thank you, Sir;' but his heart leapt up with a kind of warm grateful feeling of liking towards those boys for going along with him so heartily; and the cheers gave a pleasure and glow that the coins never would have done, even had he thought them his own by right.
He was not particularly good in this; he had never felt the pinch of want, and was too young to care; and he did not happen to wish to buy anything in particular just then. A selfish or a covetous boy would not have felt as he did; but these were not his temptations. Knowing, as he did, that the assault had been the consequence of his foolish boasts about the money-letters, and that he, being in charge, ought to defend them to the last gasp, he was sure he deserved the very contrary from a reward, and never thought of the money belonging to any one but Paul, who had by his own free will come to the rescue, and saved the bag from robbery, himself from injury and disgrace.
How happy he was in thinking what a windfall it was for his friend, and how far it would go in fitting him up respectably!
Peggy was ready to trot nearly as fast as he wished her down the lane to the place where he had left Paul; and no sooner did Harold come in sight of the olive-coloured rags, than he bawled out a loud 'Hurrah! Come on, Paul; you don't know what I've got for you! 'Twas a young gentleman's watch as you saved; and they've come down right handsome! and here's twelve-and-sixpence for you—enough to rig you out like a regular swell! Why, what's the matter?' he added in quite another voice, as he had now come up to Paul, and found him sitting nearly doubled up, with his head bent over his knees.
He raised his face up as Harold came, and it was so ghastly pale, that the boy, quite startled, jumped off his pony.
'Why, old chap, what is it? Have you got knit up with cold, sitting here?'
'Yes, I suppose so,' said Paul; but his very voice shivered, his teeth chattered, and his knees knocked together with the chill. 'The pains run about me,' he added; but he spoke as if he hardly knew what he was doing or saying.
'You must come home with me, and Mother will give you something hot,' said Harold. 'Come, you'll catch your death if you don't. You shall ride home.'
He pulled Paul from his seat with some difficulty, and was further alarmed when he found that the poor fellow reeled and could hardly stand; but he was somewhat roused, and knew better what he was about. Harold tried to put him on the pony, but this could not be managed: he could not help himself enough, Peggy always swerved aside, nor was Harold strong enough to lift him up.
The only thing to be done was for Harold to mount, and Paul to lean against the saddle, while the pony walked. When they had to separate at the ford, poor Paul's walk across the bridge was so feeble and staggering, that Harold feared every moment that he would fall where the rail was broken away, but was right glad to put his arm on his shoulder again to help to hold him up. The moving brought a little more life back to the poor boy's limbs, and he walked a little better, and managed to tell Harold how he had felt too miserable to speak to any one after the rating the farmer had given him, and how he had set out on the tramp for more work, though with hope so nearly dead in his heart, that he only wished he could sit down and die. He had walked out of the village before people were about, so as not to be noticed, and then had found himself so weak and weary that he could not get on without food, and had sat down by the hedge to eat the bit of bread he had with him. Then he had taken the first lonely-looking way he saw, without knowing that it was one of Harold's daily rides, and was slowly dragging himself up the hill from the ford when the well-known voice, shouting for help, had suddenly called him back, and filled him with spirit and speed that were far enough off now, poor fellow!
That was a terrible mile and a half—Harold sometimes thought it would never be over, or that Paul would drop down, and he would have to gallop off for help; but Paul was not one to give in, and somehow they got back at last, and Harold, with his arm round his friend, dragged him through the garden, and across the shop, and pushed him into the arm-chair by the fire, Mrs. King following, and Ellen rushing down from up-stairs.
'There!' cried Harold, all in a breath, 'there he is! That rascal tried to rob me on Ragglesford Bridge, and was nigh too much for me; but he there came and pulled him off me, and got spilt into the river, and he's got a chill, and if you don't give him something jolly hot, Mother, he'll catch his death!'
Mrs. King thought so too: Paul's state looked to her more alarming than it did even to Harold. He did not seem able to think or speak, but kept rocking himself towards the fire, and that terrible shivering shaking him all over.
'Poor lad!' she said kindly. 'I'll tell you what, Harold, all you can do is put him into your bed at once.—Here, Ellen, you run up first, and bring me a shirt to warm for him. Then we'll get his own clothes dried.'
'No, no,' cried Harold, with a caper, 'we'll make a scare-crow of 'em. You don't know what I know, Mother. I've got twelve shillings and sixpence here all his own; and you'll see what I won't do with it at old Levi's, the second-hand clothes man, to-night.'
Harold grew less noisy as he saw how little good the fire was doing to his patient, and how ill his mother seemed to think him. He quietly obeyed her, by getting him up-stairs, and putting him into his own bed, the first in which Paul had lain down for more than four months. Then Mrs. King sent Harold out for some gin; she thought hot spirits and water the only chance of bringing back any life after such a dreadful chill; and she and Ellen kept on warming flannels and shawls to restore some heat, and to stop the trembling that shook the bed, so that Alfred felt it, even in the next room, where he lay with the door open, longing to be able to help, and wishing to understand what could have happened.
At last, the cordial and the warm applications effected some good. Paul was able to say, 'I don't know why you are so good to me,' and seemed ready to burst into a great fit of crying; but Mrs. King managed to stop him by saying something about one good turn deserving another, and that she hoped he was coming round now.
Harold was now at leisure to tell the story in his brother's room. Alfred did not grieve now at his brother's being able to do spirited things; he laughed out loud, and said, 'Well done, Harold!' at the switching, and rubbed his hands, and lighted up with glee, as he heard of the Ragglesford boys and their cheers; and then, Harold went eagerly on with his scheme for fitting up Paul at the second-hand shop, both Mrs. King and Alfred taking great interest in his plans, till Mrs. King hearing something like a moan, went back to Paul.
She found his cheeks and hands as burning hot as they had been cold; they were like live coals; and what was worse, such severe pains were running all over his limbs, that he was squeezing the clothes into his mouth that he might not scream aloud.
Happily it was Mr. Blunt's day for calling; and before the morning was over he came, and after a few words of explanation, he stood at Paul's bedside.
Not much given to tenderness towards the feelings of patients of his degree, Mr. Blunt's advice was soon given. 'Yes, he is in for rheumatic fever—won't be about again for a long time to come. I say, Mistress, all you've got to do is to send in your boy to the Union at Elbury, tell 'em to send out a cart for him, and take him in as a casual pauper. Then they may pass him on to his parish.'
Therewith Mr. Blunt went on to attend to Alfred.
'Then you think this poor lad will be ill a long time, Sir?' said Mrs. King, when Mr. Blunt was preparing to depart.
'Of course he will; I never saw a clearer case! You'd better send him off as fast as you can, while he can be moved. He'll have a pretty bout of it, I dare say.
'It is nothing infectious, of course, Sir?' said the mother, a little startled by this hastiness.
'Infectious—nonsense! why, you know better than that, Mrs. King; I only meant that you'd better get rid of him as quick as you can, unless you wish to set up a hospital at once—and a capital nurse you'd be! I would leave word with the relieving officer for you, but that I've got to go on to Stoke, and shan't be at home till too late.'
Mrs. King's heart ached for the poor forlorn orphan, when she remembered what she had heard of the nursing in Elbury Union. She did not know how to turn him from her door the day he had saved her son from danger such as she could not think of without shuddering; and yet, what could she do? Her rent and the winter before her, a heavy doctor's bill, and the loss of Alfred's work!
Slowly she went up the stairs again to the narrow landing that held the bed where Paul Blackthorn lay. He was quite still, but there were large tears coursing one after the other from his eyes, his hollow cheeks quite glazed with them.
'Is the pain so very bad?' she said in her soft voice, putting her hand over his hot forehead, in the way that Alfred liked.
'I don't—know,' he answered; and his black eyes, after looking up once in her face with the piteous earnest glance that some loving dogs have, shut themselves as if on purpose to keep in the tears, but she saw the dew squeezing out through the eye-lashes.
'My poor boy, I'm sure it's very bad for you,' she said again.
'Please, don't speak so kind,' said Paul; and this time he could not prevent a-sob. 'Nobody ever did so before, and—' he paused, and went on, 'I suppose they do it up in Heaven, so I hope I shall die.'
'You are vexing about the Union,' said Mrs. King, without answering this last speech, or she knew that she should begin to cry herself.
'I did think I'd done with them,' said Paul, with another sob. 'I said I'd never set foot in those four walls again! I was proud, maybe; but please don't stop with me! If you wouldn't look and speak like that, the place wouldn't seem so hard, seeing I'm bred to it, as they say;' and he made an odd sort of attempt to laugh, which ended in his choking himself with worse tears.
'Harold is not gone yet,' said Mrs. King soothingly; 'we'll wait till he comes in from his work, and see how you are, when you've had a little sleep. Don't cry; you aren't going just yet.'
That same earnest questioning glance, but with more hope in it, was turned on her again; but she did not dare to bind herself, much as she longed to take the wanderer to her home. She went on to her son's room.
'Mother, Mother,' Alfred cried in a whisper, so eager that it made him cough, 'you can't never send him to the workhouse?'
'I can't bear the thought, Alfy,' she said, the tears in her eyes; 'but I don't know what to do. It's not the trouble. That I'd take with all my heart, but it is hard enough to live, and—'
'I'm sure,' said Ellen, coming close, that her undertone might be heard, 'Harold and I would never mind how much we were pinched.'
'And I could go without—some things,' began Alfred.
'And then,' went on the mother, 'you see, if we got straitened, and Matilda found it out, she'd want to help, and I can't have her savings touched; and yet I can't bear to let that poor lad be sent off, so ill as he is, and after all he's done for Harold—such a good boy, too, and one that's so thankful for a common kind word.'
'O Mother, keep him!' said Alfred; 'don't you know how the Psalm says, "God careth for the stranger, and provideth for the fatherless and the widow"?'
Mrs. King almost smiled. 'Yes, Alf, I think it would be trusting God's word; but then there's my duty to you.'
'You've not sent Harold off for the cart?' said Alfred.
'No; I thought somehow, we have enough for to-day; and it goes against me to send him away at once. I thought we'd wait to see how it is to-morrow; and Harold won't mind having a bed made up in the kitchen.'
Tap, tap, on the counter. Some one had come in while they were talking. It was Mr. Cope, very anxious to hear the truth of the strange stories that were going about the place. Ellen and Alfred thought it very tiresome that he was so long in coming up-stairs; but the fact was, that their mother was very glad to talk the matter over without them. She knew indeed that Mr. Cope was a very young man, and not likely to be so well able as herself, with all her experience, to decide what she could afford, or whether she ought to follow her feelings at the risk of debt or of privations for her delicate children; but she also knew that though he had not experience, education had given him a wider and clearer range of thought; and that, as her pastor, he ought to be consulted; so though she did not exactly mean to make it a matter for his decision (unless, indeed, he should have some view which had not occurred to her), she knew that he was by far the best person to help her to see her way, and form her own judgment.
Mr. Cope heard all the story with as much eagerness as the Ragglesford boys themselves, and laughed quite out loud at Harold's spirited defence.
'That's a good lad!' said he. 'Well, Mrs. King, I don't think you need be very uneasy about your boy. When a fellow can stand up like that in defence of his duty, there must be the right stuff in him to be got at in time! And now, as to his ally—this other poor fellow—very kind of you to have taken him in.'
'I couldn't do no other, Sir,' said Mrs. King; 'he came in so drenched, and so terribly bad, I could do nothing but let him lie down on Harold's bed; and now Dr. Blunt thinks he's going to have a rheumatic fever, and wanted me to send in to the relieving officer, to have him removed, but I don't know how to do that; the poor lad doesn't say one word against it, but I can see it cuts him to the heart; and they do tell such stories of the nurses at the Union, that it does seem hard to send him there, such an innocent boy, too, and one that doesn't seem to know how to believe it if one says a kind word to him.' The tears were in Mrs. King's eyes as she went on: 'I do wish to let him stay here and do what I can for him, with all my heart, and so does all the children, but I don't hardly know what's right by them, poor things. If the parish would but allow him just one shilling and sixpence a week out of the house, I think I could do it.'
'What, with your own boy in such a state, you could undertake to nurse a stranger through a rheumatic fever!'
'It wouldn't make much difference, Sir,' said Mrs. King. 'You see I am up a good deal most nights with Alfred, and we have fire and candle almost always alight. I should only be glad to do it for a poor motherless lad like that, except for the cost; and I thought perhaps if you could speak to the Guardians, they might allow him ever so little, because there will be expenses.'
Mr. Cope had not much hope from the parish, so he said, 'Mr. Shepherd ought to do something for him after he has worked for him so long. He has been looking wretchedly ill for some time past; and I dare say half this illness is brought on by such lodging and living as he got there. But what did you say about some eggs?'
Mrs. King told him; and he stood a moment thoughtful, then said, 'Well, I'll go and see about it,' and strode across to the farm.
When Mr. Cope came back, Ellen was serving a customer. He stood looking redder than they had ever seen him, and tapping the toe of his boot impatiently with his stick; and the moment the buyer had turned away, he said, 'Ellen, ask your mother to be kind enough to come down.'
Mrs. King came, and found the young Curate in such a state of indignation, as he could not keep to himself. He had learnt more than he had ever known, or she had ever known, of the oppression that the farmer and his wife and Tom Boldre had practised on the friendless stranger, and he was burning with all the keen generous displeasure of one new to such base ways. At the gate he had met, going home to dinner, John Farden with Mrs. Hayward, who had been charing at the farm. Both had spoken out, and he had learned how far below the value of his labour the boy had been paid, how he had been struck, abused, and hunted about, as would never have been done to one who had a father to take his part. And he had further heard Farden's statement of having himself thrown away the eggs, and Mrs. Hayward's declaration that she verily believed that the farmer only made the accusation an excuse for hurrying the lad off because he thought him faltering for a fever, and wouldn't have him sick there.
This was shocking enough; Mr. Cope had thought it merely the kind-hearted woman's angry construction, but it was still worse when he came to the farmer and his wife.
So used were they to think it their business to wring the utmost they could out of whatever came in their way, that they had not the slightest shame about it. They thought they had done a thing to be proud of in making such a good bargain of the lad, and getting so much work out of him for so little pay; in fact, that they had been rather weakly kind in granting him the freedom of the hay-loft; the notion of his dishonesty was firmly fixed in their heads, though there was not a charge to bring against him. This was chiefly because they had begun by setting him down as a convict, and because they could not imagine any one living honestly on what they gave him. And lastly, the farmer thought the cleverest stroke of all, was the having got rid of him just as winter was coming on and work was scarce, and when there seemed to be a chance of his being laid up to encumber the rates. Mr. Cope was quite breathless after the answer he had made to them. He had never spoken so strongly in his life before, and he could hardly believe his own ears, that people could be found, not only to do such things, but to be proud of having done them.
It is to be hoped there are not many such thoroughgoing tyrants; but selfishness is always ready to make any one into a tyrant, and Mammon is a false god, who manages to make his servants satisfied that they are doing their duty.
It was plain enough that no help was to be expected from the farm, and neither Mrs. King nor the clergyman thought there was much hope in the Guardians; however, they were to be applied to, and this would be at least a reprieve for Paul. Mr. Cope went up to see him, and found Harold sitting on the top step of the stairs.
'Well, boys,' he said, in his hearty voice, 'so you've had a battle, I hear. I'm glad it turned out better than your namesake's at Hastings.'
Paul was not too ill to smile at this; and Harold modestly said, 'It was all along of he, Sir.'
'And he seems to be the chief sufferer.—Are you in much pain, Paul?'
'Sometimes, Sir, when I try to move,' said Paul; 'but it is better when I'm still.'
'You've had a harder time of it than I supposed, my boy,' said Mr. Cope. 'Why did you never let me know how you were treated?'
Paul's face shewed more wonder than anything else. 'Thank you, Sir,' he said, 'I didn't think it was any one's business.'
'No one's business!' exclaimed the young clergyman. 'It is every one's business to see justice done, and it should never have gone on so if you had spoken. Why didn't you?'
'I didn't think it would be any use,' again said Paul. 'There was old Joe Joiner, he always said 'twas a hard world to live in, and that there was nothing for it but to grin and bear it.'
'There's something better to be done than to grin,' said Mr. Cope.
'Yes, I know, Sir,' said Paul, with a brighter gleam on his face; 'and I seem to understand that better since I came here. I was thinking,' he added, 'if they pass me back to Upperscote, I'll tell old Joe that folks are much kinder than he told me, by far.'
'Kinder—I should not have thought that your experience!' exclaimed Mr. Cope, his head still running on the Shepherds.
But Paul did not seem to think of them at all, or else to take their treatment as a matter-of-course, as he did his Union hardships. There was a glistening in his eyes; and he moved his head so as to sign down- stairs, as he said, 'I didn't think there was ne'er a one in the world like her.'
'What, Mrs. King? I don't think there are many,' said Mr. Cope warmly. 'And yet I hope there are.'
'Ay, Sir,' said Paul fervently. 'And there's Harold, and John Farden, and all the chaps. Please, Sir, when I'm gone away, will you tell them all that I'll never forget 'em? and I'll be happier as long as I live for knowing that there are such good-hearted folks.'
Mr. Cope felt trebly moved towards one who thought harshness so much more natural than kindness, and who received the one so submissively, the other so gratefully; but the conversation was interrupted by Harold's exclaiming that my Lady in her carriage was stopping at the gate, and Mother was running out to her.
Rumours of the post-office robbery, as little Miss Selby called it, had travelled up to the Grange, and she was wild to know what had happened to Harold; but her grandmamma, not knowing what highway robbers might be roaming about Friarswood, would not hear of her walking to the post-office, and drove thither with her herself, in full state, close carriage, coachman and footman; and there was Mrs. King, with her head in at the carriage window, telling all the story.
'So you have this youth here?' said Lady Jane.
'Yes, my Lady; he was so poorly that I couldn't but let him lie down.'
'And you have not sent him to the workhouse yet?'
'Why, no, not yet, my Lady; I thought I would wait to see how he is to- morrow.'
'You had better take care, Mary,' said Lady Jane. 'You'll have him too ill to be moved; and then what will you do? a great lad of that age, and with illness enough in the house already!' She sighed, and it was not said unkindly; but Mrs. King answered with something about his being so good a lad, and so friendless. And Miss Jane exclaimed, 'O Grandmamma, it does seem so hard to send him to the workhouse!'
'Do not talk like a silly child, my dear,' said Lady Jane. 'Mary is much too sensible to think of saddling herself with such a charge—not fit for her, nor the children either—even if the parish made it worth her while, which it never will. The Union is intended to provide for such cases of destitution; and depend on it, the youth looks to nothing else.'
'No, my Lady,' said Mrs. King; 'he is so patient and meek about it, that it goes to one's very heart.'
'Ay, ay,' said the old lady; 'but don't be soft-hearted and weak, Mary. It is not what I expect of you, as a sensible woman, to be harbouring a mere vagrant whom you know nothing about, and injuring your own children.'
'Indeed, my Lady,' began Mrs. King, 'I've known the poor boy these four months, and so has Mr. Cope; and he is as steady and serious a boy as ever lived.'
'Very likely,' said Lady Jane; 'and I am sure I would do anything for him—give him work when he is out again, or send him with a paper to the county hospital. Eh?'
But the county hospital was thirty miles off; and the receiving day was not till Saturday. That would not do.
'Well,' added Lady Jane, 'I'll drive home directly, and send Price with the spring covered cart to take him in to Elbury. That will be better for him than jolting in the open cart they would send for him.'
'Why, thank you, my Lady, but I—I had passed my word that he should not go to-day.'
Lady Jane made a gesture as if Mary King were a hopelessly weak good-natured woman; and shaking her head at her with a sort of lady-like vexation, ordered the coachman to drive on.
My Lady was put out. No wonder. She was a very sensible, managing woman herself, and justly and up-rightly kind to all her dependants; and she expected every one else to be sternly and wisely kind in the same pattern. Mrs. King was one whom she highly esteemed for her sense and good judgment, and she was the more provoked with her for any failure in these respects. If she had known Paul as the Kings did, it is probable she might have felt like them. Not knowing him, nor knowing the secrets of Elbury Union, she thought it Mrs. King's clear duty to sacrifice him for her children's sake. Moreover, Lady Jane had strict laws against lodgers—the greatest kindness she could do her tenants, though often against their will. So to have her model woman receiving a strange boy into her house, even under the circumstances, was beyond bearing.
So Mrs. King stood on her threshold, knowing that to keep Paul Blackthorn would be an offence to her best friend and patroness. Moreover, Mr. Cope was gone, without having left her a word of advice to decide her one way or the other.
CHAPTER X—CHRISTMAS DAY
Things are rather apt to settle themselves; and so did Paul Blackthorn's stay at the post-office, for the poor boy was in such an agony of pain all night, and the fever ran so high, that it was impossible to think of moving him, even if the waiting upon him in such suffering had not made Mrs. King feel that she could not dismiss him to careless hands. His patience, gratitude, and surprise at every trouble she took for him were very endearing, as were the efforts he made to stifle and suppress moans and cries that the terrible aches would wring from him, so as not to disturb Alfred. When towards morning the fever ran to his head, and he did not know what he said, it was more moving still to see that the instinct of keeping quiet for some one's sake still suppressed his voice. Then, too, his wanderings shewed under what dread and harshness his life had been spent, and what his horror was of a return to the workhouse. In his senses, he would never have thought of asking to remain at Friarswood; but in his half-conscious state, he implored again and again not to be sent away, and talked about not going back, but only being left in a corner to die; and Mrs. King, without knowing what she was about, soothed him by telling him to lie still, for he was not going to that place again. At day-break she sent Harold, on his way to the post, for an order from the relieving officer for medical attendance; and, after some long and weary hours, the Union doctor came. He said, like Mr. Blunt, that it was a rheumatic fever, the effect of hardship and exposure; for which perhaps poor Paul—after his regular meals, warm clothing, and full shelter, in the workhouse—was less prepared than many a country lad, whose days had been much happier, but who had been rendered more hardy by often going without some of those necessaries which were provided for the paupers.
The head continued so much affected, that the doctor said the hair must be taken off; which was done by old Master Warren, who singed the horses in the autumn, killed the pigs in the winter, and shaved the men on Saturday night. It was a very good thing for all parties; and he would take no pay for his trouble, but sent down a pitcher with what he called 'all manner of yarbs' steeping in it, with which, as he said, to 'ferment the boy's limbs.' Foment was what he meant; and Mrs. King thought, as it was kindly intended, and could do no harm, she would try if it would do any good; but she could not find that it made much difference whether she used that or common warm water. However, the good will made Paul smile, and helped to change his notion about its being very few that had any compassion for a stranger. So, too, did good Mrs. Hayward, who, when he was at the worst, twice came to sit up all night with him after her day's work; and though she was not as tender a nurse as Mrs. King, treated him like her own son, and moreover carried off to her own tub all the clothes she could find ready to be washed, and would not take so much as a mouthful of meat or drink in return, struggling, toil-worn body as she was.
The parish, as might have been foreseen, would afford nothing but the doctor to a chance-comer such as Paul. If he needed more, he might come into the House, and be passed home to Upperscote.
But by the time this reply came, Mrs. King not only felt that it would be almost murder to send a person in such a state four miles on a November day, but she was caring so much for her patient, that it sounded almost as impossible as to send Alfred away.
Besides, she had remembered the cup of cold water, she had thought of the widow's cruse of oil and barrel of meal, and she had called to mind, 'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me;' and thereupon she took heart, and made up her mind that it was right to tend the sick lad; and that even if she should bring trouble and want on herself and her children, it would be a Heaven- sent trial that would be good for them.
So she made up her resolution to a winter of toil, anxiety, and trouble, and to Lady Jane's withdrawal of favour; and thinking her ungrateful, which, to say the truth, grieved her more than anything else, excepting of course her forebodings for Alfred.
Ellen was in great distress about my Lady's displeasure. Not that she dreamt of her mother's giving up Paul on that account; but she was very fond of her little foster-sister, and of many of the maid-servants, and her visits to the Grange were the chief change and amusement she ever had. So while Mrs. King was busy between the shop, her work, and Paul, Ellen sat by her brother, making the housekeeper's winter dress, and imagining all sorts of dreadful things that might come of my Lady being angry with them, till Alfred grew quite out of patience. 'Well, suppose and suppose,' he said, 'suppose it was not to happen at all! Why, Mother's doing right would be any good for nothing if she only did it to please my Lady.'
Certainly this was the very touchstone to shew whether the fear of man were the guide. And Ellen was still more terrified that day, for when she went across to the farm for the evening's supply of milk and butter, Mrs. Shepherd launched out into such a torrent of abuse against her and her mother, that she came home trembling from head to foot; and Mrs. King declared she should never go thither again. They would send to Mrs. Price's for the little bit of fresh butter that was real nourishment to Alfred: the healthy ones would save by going without any.
One word more as to the Shepherds, and then we have done with him. On the Sunday, Mr. Cope had an elder brother staying with them, who preached on the lesson for the day, the second chapter of the Prophet Habakkuk; and when he came to the text, 'Woe to him that coveteth an evil covetousness to his house,' he brought in some of the like passages, the threats to those that 'grind the faces of the poor,' that 'oppress the hireling in his wages,' and that terrible saying of St. James, 'Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept by fraud, crieth; and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabbath.'
Three days after, the Curate was very much amazed to hear that Mr. and Mrs. Shepherd did not choose to be preached at in their own church, and never meant to come thither again. Now it so happened that he could testify that the sermon had been written five years ago, and that his brother had preached it without knowing that the Shepherds were in existence, for he had only come late the night before, and there was so much to say about their home, that the younger brother had not said a word about his parish before church, though the Kings and their guests were very near his heart.
But it was of no use to say so. It was the truth that wounded the farmer and his wife, and no one could make that otherwise. They did not choose to hear their sin rebuked, so they made an excuse by pretending to take offence, and except when they now and then went to the next parish to a meeting-house, cut themselves off from all that might disturb them in the sole pursuit of gain. It is awful to think of such hardening of the heart, first towards man, then towards the warnings of God.
And mind, whoever chooses profit rather than mercy, is in the path of Farmer Shepherd.
Some certainty as to Lady Jane Selby's feelings came on the second evening of Paul's illness. Mrs. Crabbe, the housekeeper, was seen with infinite trouble and disgust getting her large person over the stiles across the path fields. A call from her was almost a greater event than one from my Lady herself. Why! Mother had been her still-room maid, and always spoke to her as 'Ma'am,' and she called her 'Mary,' and she had chosen Matilda's name for her, and had given her a silver watch!
So when Mrs. Crabbe had found her way in, and had been set down to rest in the arm-chair, she proceeded to give 'Mary' a good round scolding against being weak and soft-hearted, saying at last that my Lady was quite in a way about it. She was sure that Harold would catch his death of cold, putting him to sleep in the kitchen, upon the stones—and so—my Lady had sent off the cart with the little chair-bed, that would take down and put up again—mattress, bed-clothes, and all.
That was a comfortable finish to the scolding! Not that it was a finish though, for the thanks made Mrs. Crabbe afraid the family thought themselves forgiven, so she went on to declare they all would be pinched, and get into debt, and she should advise her god-daughter, Matilda, not to help them with a farthing of her wages, and as to going without their full meals, that was what none of them were fit to do. With which it appeared that the cart was bringing a can of broth, a couple of rabbits, some calves'-feet jelly, and a bottle of port wine for Alfred, who lived on that and cod-liver oil more than on any other nourishment.
At that rate, Lady Jane's displeasure did not seem likely to do much harm; but there was pain in it too, for when Mrs. Crabbe had managed to get up-stairs, past the patch-work quilt that was hung up to shelter Paul from the draught, and had seen Alfred, and been shocked to find how much wasted he was since she last had seen him, she said, 'One thing you know—my Lady says she can't have Miss Selby coming down here to see Alfred while this great lad is always about. And I'm sure it is not proper for her at any time, such a young lady as she is, over all those inconvenient stiles. I declare I shall speak to Mr. Price about them.'
Losing Miss Jane's visits was to Alfred like losing a sunbeam, and his spirit felt very dreary after he had heard this sentence. Ellen knew her well enough to suspect that she was very sorry, but that she could not help herself; and Mrs. King caught the brother and sister making such grumbling speeches to each other about the old lady's crossness, that her faithful, grateful spirit was quite grieved, and she spoke strongly up for the just, right-minded lady to whom she had loyally looked up for many and many a year, though, with the right sort of independence, she would not give up to any one's opinion what she knew to be her duty.
'We all knew it must cost us something,' she said, 'and we'll try to be ready with it, though it does go to one's heart that the first should be what vexes you, my Alfy; but it won't be for long.'
'No, Mother; but if it ain't here long? Oh! I don't seem to have nothing to look to if Miss Jane ain't coming here no more, with her pretty ways!'
And there were large tears on his cheeks. Mrs. King had tears in her eyes too, but she bent down over the boy, and turning his eyes to the little picture on the wall, she said in a whisper in his ear, 'Didn't He bear His Cross for the sake of other people?' Alfred did not answer; he turned his face in towards the pillow, and though Ellen thought he was crying, it did not seem to her to be so sadly.
Cost them something their kindness did. To be sure, there came a party of boys with the master from Ragglesford, when there had been time for them to write the history of the robbery to their homes; and as it came just before the monthly letter which they all had to write by way of practice, to be shewn up to the master, it was a real treasure to them to have such a story to tell. Some of their friends, especially the uncle who gave the watch, had sent small sums of money for the lad who had behaved so well, and these altogether came to a fair amount, which the boys were highly pleased to give over into Mrs. King's hands. She, like Harold, never made the smallest question that it was all for Paul's benefit, and though, when she mentioned it to him, he gave a cheery smile, and said it would lessen the cost of his illness to her, yet she put it all aside with the first twelve-and-sixpence. She told Ellen that it went against her to touch the orphan's money, and that unless it came to very bad times indeed, it should be kept to set him up decently when he should recover.
No one else could afford aid in money, not Mr. Cope, for he had little more than a maintenance for himself; indeed, Mrs. King was not in a station where it would seem becoming to offer alms to her. Lady Jane gave help in nourishing food, but the days when this would come were uncertain, and she had made a resolution against undertaking any share of the expense, lest she should seem to encourage Mary King, as she said, in such weak good nature—cramming up her house with a strange boy like that, when she had quite enough to do with her own son. So they had to fight on as they could; and the first week, when Paul's illness was at the height, Ellen had so much more to do for Alfred and about the house, and was so continually called off her work, that she could not finish Mrs. Crabbe's gown as soon as was expected; and the ladies' maid, who was kept waiting, took huff, and sent her new purple silk to Elbury to be madeup.
It is not quite certain that Ellen did not shed a few tears.
Harold had to go without his butter, and once took it much to heart that his mother would buy no shrimps for tea, but after some one had whispered to him that if there were a trouble about rent, or about Mr. Blunt's bill, Peggy would be sold, he bore it all pretty well; and after all, Alfred and Paul were so apt to give him tastes of their dainties, that he had not much loss!
Rent was the care. The pig was killed and cut up to great advantage; Mrs. King sold a side of it at once, which went a good way towards it, but not the whole; and there was a bad debt of John Farden's for bread, contracted last winter, and which he had never paid off in the summer. That would just have made it up, but what hopes were there of that?
Just then, however, came a parcel from Matilda. It was her way of helping her family to send them the clothes which her mistresses allowed her to have when they left them off, when Mrs. King either made them up for herself or Ellen, or disposed of them at Elbury.
What a treat those parcels were! How curious were all the party at the unpacking, looking at the many odd things that were sure to come out, on the happy doubtful certainty that each one would be remembered by the good sister.
So there were the little directed parcels—a neat knitted grey and black handkerchief for Mother to wear in the shop; a whole roll of fashion-books for Ellen, and a nice little pocket-book besides; and a bundle of 'Illustrated News' to amuse the boys; a precious little square book of 'Hymns for the Sick' for Alfred; and a famous pair of riding-gloves, like bears' paws, for Harold. And what rolls besides! Worn flimsy dresses, once pretty, but now only fit for the old-clothes man, yet whose trimmings Ellen pulled out and studied; bonnets that looked as if they had been sat upon; rolls of soft ragged cambric handkerchiefs, on which Mrs. King seized as the most valuable part of the cargo, so useful would they be to poor Alfred; some few real good things, in especial, a beautiful thick silk dress which had been stained, but which dyeing would render very useful; and a particularly nice grey cloth mantle, which Matilda had mentioned in her letter as likely to be useful to Ellen—it was not at all the worse for wear, except as to the lining of the hood, and she should just fancy Ellen in it.
Ellen could just fancy herself in it. She had a black silk one, which had come in the same way, and looked very well, but it was just turning off, and it was not warm enough for winter without a shawl under it. That grey looked as if it was made for her, it suited her shoulders and her shape so well! She put it on and twisted about in it, and then she saw her good mother not saying one word, and knew she was thinking of the sum that was wanting to the rent.
'Well, Mother,' said Ellen, 'I'll go in and take the things to Betsey on the next market-day, and if we can get thirty shillings on them without the mantle—'
'Yes, if you can, my dear,' said her mother; 'I'm sure I should be very glad for you to have it, but you see—'
And Mrs. King sighed.
Ellen passed by Paul on the landing, and saw him with his face flushed with pain and fever, trying to smile at her. She remembered how her unkind words had brought trouble on him, and how her mother had begun by telling her that they must give up their own wishes if they were to nurse him.
Ellen went to Elbury on the market-day, and by the help of Betsey Hardman, she got great credit for her bargaining. She brought home thirty shillings, and ten shillings' worth of soap for the shop, where that article was running low; but she did not bring home the cloak, though Betsey had told her a silk cloak over a shawl looked so mean! and she feared all the servants at the Grange would think the same!
'They always were good children to me,' said Mrs. King to Mr. Cope, 'but somehow, since Paul has been here, I think they are better than ever! There's poor Alfred, though his cough has been so bad of late, has been so thoughtful and so good; he says he's quite ashamed to find how patient Paul is under so much sharper pain than he ever had, and he's ready to send anything to Paul that he fancies will do him good—quite carried out of himself, you see; and there's Harold, so much steadier; I've hardly had to find fault with him since that poor boy made off—he's sure to come in in time, and takes care not to disturb his brother, and helps his sister and me all he can.'
Mr. Cope was not at all surprised that the work of mercy was blessed to all the little household, nor that it drew out all the better side of their dispositions.
There was no positive change, nor sudden resolution, to alter Harold; but he had been a good deal startled by Dick's wickedness, and in him had lost a tempter. Besides, he considered Paul as his own friend, received for his sake, and therefore felt himself bound to do all he could for him, and though he was no nurse, he could do much to set his mother and Ellen free to attend to their patients. And Paul's illness, though so much less dangerous, frightened and subdued Harold much more than the quiet gradual pining away of Alfred, to which he was used. The severe pain, the raging fever, and the ramblings in talk, were much more fearful things to witness than the low cough, the wearing sore, and the helpless languor, though there was much hope for the one, and scarcely any for the other. While to Harold's apprehension, Alfred was always just the same, only worsening visibly from month to month; Paul was better or worse every time he came in, and when fresh from hearing his breath gasp with sharp pain, or receiving his feeble thanks for some slight service, it was not in Harold to go out and get into thoughtless mischief.
Moreover, there were helpful things to do at home, such as Harold liked. He was fond of chopping wood, so he was very obliging about the oven, and what he liked best of all was helping his mother in certain evening cookeries of sweet-meats, by receipts from Mrs. Crabbe. On the day of the expedition from Ragglesford, the young gentlemen had found out that Mrs. King's bottles contained what they called 'the real article and no mistake,' much better than what the old woman at the turnpike sold; and so they were, for Mrs. King made them herself, and, like an honest woman, without a morsel of sham in them. She was not going to break the Eighth Commandment by cheating in a comfit any more than by stealing a purse; and the children of Friarswood had long known that, and bought all the 'lollies' that they were not naughty enough to buy on Sundays, when, as may be supposed, her shutters were not shut only for a decent show.
And now Harold did not often ride up to the school without some little master giving him a commission for some variety of sweet-stuff; and though Mrs. King used to say it was a pity the children should throw away their money in that fashion, it brought a good deal into her till, and Harold greatly liked assisting at the manufacture. How often he licked his fingers during the process need not be mentioned; but his objection to Ragglesford was quite gone off, now that some one was nearly certain to be looking out for him, with a good-natured greeting, or an inquiry for Paul. He knew one little boy from another, and felt friendly with them all, and he really was quite grieved when the holidays came, and they wished him good-bye. The coach that had been hired to take them to Elbury seemed something to watch for now, and some thoughtful boy stopped all the whooping and hurraing as they came near the house on the bridge. Some other stopped the coach, and they all came dropping off it like a swarm of black flies, and tumbling into the shop, where Mrs. King and her daughter had need to have had a dozen pair of hands to have served them, and they did not go till they had cleared out her entire stock of sweet things and gingerbread; nay, some of them would have gone off without their change, if she had not raced out to catch them with it after they were climbing up the coach, and then the silly fellows said they hated coppers! And meeting Harold and his post-bag on his way home from Elbury, they raised such a tremendous cheer at him that poor Peggy seemed to make but three springs from the milestone to the bridge, and he could not so much as touch his cap by way of answer.
Somehow, even after those droll customers were gone, every Saturday's reckoning was a satisfactory one. More always seemed to come in than went out. The potatoes had been unusually free from disease in Mrs. King's garden, and every one came for them; the second pig turned out well; a lodger at the butcher's took a fancy to her buns; and on the whole, winter, when her receipts were generally at the lowest, was now quite a prosperous time with her. The great pressure and near anxiety she had expected had not come, and something was being put by every week towards the bill for flour, and for Mr. Blunt's account, so that she began to hope that after all the Savings Bank would not have to be left quite bare.
Quite unexpectedly, John Farden came in for a share of the savings of an old aunt at service, and, like an honest fellow as he was, he got himself out of debt at once. This quite settled all Mrs. King's fears; Mr. Blunt and the miller would both have their due, and she really believed she should be no poorer!
Then she recollected the widow's cruse of oil, and tears of thankfulness and faith came into her eyes, and other tears dropped when she remembered the other more precious comfort that the stranger had brought into the widow's house, but she knew that the days of miracles and cures past hope were gone, and that the Christian woman's promise was 'that her children should come again,' but not till the resurrection of the just.