And though to her eye each frost was freshly piercing her boy's breast, each warm damp day he faded into greater feebleness, yet the hope was far clearer. He was happy and content. He had laid hold of the blessed hope of Everlasting Life, and was learning to believe that the Cross laid on him here was in mercy to make him fit for Heaven, first making him afraid and sorry for his sins, and ready to turn to Him Who could take them away, and then almost becoming gladness, in the thought of following his Master, though so far off.
Not that Alfred often said such things, but they breathed peace over his mind, and made Scripture-reading, prayers, and hymns very delightful to him, especially those in Matilda's book; and he dwelt more than he told any one on Mr. Cope's promise, when he trusted to be made more fully 'one with Christ' in the partaking of His Cup of Life. It used to be his treat, when no one was looking, to read over that Service in his Prayer- book, and to think of the time. It was like a kind of step; he could fix his mind on that, and the sense of forgiveness he hoped for therein, better than on the great change that was coming; when there was much fear and shrinking from the pain, and some dread of what as yet seemed strange and unknown, he thought he should feel lifted up so as to be able to bear the thought, when that holy Feast should have come to him.
All this made him much less occupied with himself, and he took much more share in what was going on; he could be amused and playful, cared for all that Ellen and Harold did, and was inclined to make the most of his time with his brother. It was like old happy times, now that Alfred had ceased to be fretful, and Harold took heed not to distress him.
One thing to which Alfred looked forward greatly, was Paul's being able to come into his room, and the two on their opposite sides of the wall made many pleasant schemes for the talk and reading that were to go on. But when the day came, Alfred was more disappointed than pleased.
Paul had been cased, by Lady Jane's orders, in flannel; he had over that a pair of trousers of Alfred's—much too long, for the Kings were very tall, and he was small and stunted in growth—and a great wrapping-gown that Mr. Cope had once worn when he was ill at college, and over his shaven head a night-cap that had been their father's.
Ellen, with many directions from Alfred, had made him up a couch with three chairs, and the cushions Alfred used to have when he could leave his bed; the fire was made up brightly, and Mrs. King and Harold helped Paul into the room.
But all the rheumatic pain was by no means over, and walking made him feel it; he was dreadfully weak, and was so giddy and faint after the first few steps, that they could not bring him to shake hands with Alfred as both had wished, but had to lay him down as fast as they could. So tired was he, that he could hardly say anything all the time he was there; and Alfred had to keep silence for fear of wearying him still more. There was a sort of shyness, too, which hindered the two from even letting their eyes meet, often as they had heard each other's voices, and had greeted one another through the thin partition. As Paul lay with his eyes shut, Alfred raised himself to take a good survey of the sharp pinched features, the hollow cheeks, deep-sunk pits for the eyes,—and yellow ghastly skin of the worn face, and the figure, so small and wasted that it was like nothing, curled up in all those wraps. One who could read faces better than young Alfred could, would have gathered not only that the boy who lay there had gone through a great deal, but that there was much mind and thought crushed down by misery, and a gentle nature not fit to stand up alone against it, and so sinking down without exertion.
And when Alfred was learning a verse of his favourite hymn—
'There is a rill whose waters rise—'
Paul's eye-lids rose, and looked him all over dreamily, comparing him perhaps with the notions he had carried away from his two former glimpses. Alfred did not look now so utterly different from anything he had seen before, since Mrs. King and Ellen had been hovering round his bed for nearly a month past; but still the fair skin, pink colour, dark eye-lashes, glossy hair, and white hands, were like a dream to him, as if they belonged to the pure land whither Alfred was going, and he was quite loath to hear him speak like another boy, as he knew he could do, having often listened to his talk through the wall. At the least sign of Alfred's looking up, he turned away his eyes as if he had been doing something by stealth.
He came in continually after this; and little things each day, and Harold's talk, made the two acquainted and like boys together; but it was not till Christmas Day that they felt like knowing each other.
It was the first time Paul felt himself able to be of any use, for he was to be left in charge of Alfred, while Mrs. King and both her other children went to church. Paul was sadly crippled still, and every frost filled his bones with acute pain, and bent him like an old man, so that he was still a long way from getting down-stairs, but he could make a shift to get about the room, and he looked greatly pleased when Alfred declared that he should want nobody else to stay with him in the morning.
Very glad he was that his mother would not be kept from Ellen's first Holy Communion. Owing to the Curate not being a priest, the Feast had not been celebrated since Michaelmas; but a clergyman had come to help Mr. Cope, that the parish might not be deprived of the Festival on such a day as Christmas.
Harold, though in a much better mood than at the Confirmation time, was not as much concerned to miss it as perhaps he ought to have been. Thought had not come to him yet, and his head was full of the dinner with the servants at the Grange. It was sad that he and Ellen should alone be able to go to it; but it would be famous for all that! Ay, and so were the young postman's Christmas-boxes!
So Paul and Alfred were left together, and held their tongues for full five minutes, because both felt so odd. Then Alfred said something about reading the Service, and Paul offered to read it to him.
Paul had not only been very well taught, but had a certain gift, such as not many people have, for reading aloud well. Alfred listened to those Psalms and Lessons as if they had quite a new meaning in them, for the right sound and stress on the right words made them sound quite like another thing; and so Alfred said when he left off.
'I'm sure they do to me,' said Paul. 'I didn't know much about "good- will to men" last Christmas.'
'You've not had overmuch good-will from them, neither,' said Alfred, 'since you came out.'
'What! not since I've been at Friarswood?' exclaimed Paul. 'Why, I used to think all that was only something in a book.'
'All what?' asked Alfred.
'All about—why, loving one's neighbour—and the Good Samaritan, and so on. I never saw any one do it, you know, but it was comfortable like to read about it; and when I watched to your mother and all of you, I saw how it was about one's neighbour; and then, what with that and Mr. Cope's teaching, I got to feel how it was—about God!' and Paul's face looked very grave and peaceful.
'Well,' said Alfred, 'I don't know as I ever cared about it much—not since I was a little boy. It was the fun last Christmas.'
And Paul looking curious, Alfred told all about the going out for holly, and the dining at the Grange, and the snap-dragon over the pudding, till he grew so eager and animated that he lost breath, and his painful cough came on, so that he could just whisper, 'What did you do?'
'Oh! I don't know. We had prayers, and there was roast beef for dinner, but they gave it to me where it was raw, and I couldn't eat it. Those that had friends went out; but 'twasn't much unlike other days.'
'Poor Paul!' sighed Alfred.
'It won't be like that again, though,' said Paul, 'even if I was in a Union. I know—what I know now.'
'And, Paul,' said Alfred, after a pause, 'there's one thing I should like if I was you. You know our Blessed Saviour had no house over Him, but was left out of the inn, and nobody cared for Him.'
Paul did not make any answer; and Alfred blushed all over.
Presently Alfred said, 'Harold will run in soon. I say, Paul, would you mind reading me what they will say after the Holy Sacrament—what the Angels sang is the beginning.'
Paul found it, and felt as if he must stand to read such praise.
'Thank you,' said Alfred. 'I'm glad Mother and Ellen are there. They'll remember us, you know. Did you hear what Mr. Cope promised me?'
Paul had not heard; and Alfred told him, adding, 'It will be the Ember- week in Lent. You'll be one with me then, Paul?'
'I'd like to promise,' said Paul fervently; 'but you see, when I'm well—'
'Oh, you won't go away for good. My Lady, or Mr. Cope, will get you work; and I want you to be Mother's good son instead of me; and a brother to Harold and Ellen.'
'I'd never go if I could help it,' said Paul; 'I sometimes wish I'd never got better! I wish I could change with you, Alfred; nobody would care if 'twas me; nor I'm sure I shouldn't.'
'I should like to get well!' said Alfred slowly, and sighing. 'But then you've been a much better lad than I was.'
'I don't know why you should say that,' said Paul, with his hand under his chin, rather moodily. 'But if I thought I could be good and go on well, I would not mind so much. I say, Alfred, when people round go on being—like Tom Boldre, you know—do you think one can always feel that about God being one's Father, and church home, and all the rest?'
'I can't say—I never tried,' said Alfred. 'But you know you can always go to church—and then the Psalms and Lessons tell you those things. Well, and you can go to the Holy Sacrament—I say, Paul, if you take it the first time with me, you'll always remember me again every time after.'
'I must be very odd ever to forget you!' said Paul, not far from crying. 'Ha!' he exclaimed, 'they are coming out of church!'
'I want to say one thing more, while I've got it in my head,' said Alfred. 'Mr. Cope said all this sickness was a cross to me, and I'd got to take it up for our Saviour's sake. Well, and then mayn't yours be being plagued and bullied, without any friends? I'm sure something like it happened to our Lord; and He never said one word against them. Isn't that the way you may be to follow Him?'
Illness and thought had made such things fully plain to Alfred, and his words sank deep into Paul's mind; but there was not time for any answer, for Harold was heard unlocking the door, and striding up three steps at a time, sending his voice before him. 'Well, old chaps, have you quarrelled yet? Have you been jolly together? I say, Mrs. Crabbe told Ellen that the pudding was put into the boiler at eight o'clock last night; and my Lady and Miss Jane went in to give it a stir! I'm to bring you home a slice, you know; and Paul will know what a real pudding is like.'
The two boys spent a happy quiet afternoon with Mrs. King; and Charles Hayward brought all the singing boys down, that they might hear the carols outside the window. Paul, much tired, was in his bed by that time; but his last thought was that 'Good-will to Men' had come home to him at last.
CHAPTER XI—BETTER DAYS FOR PAUL
Paul's reading was a great prize to Alfred, for he soon grew tired himself; his sister could not spare time to read to him, and if she did, she went mumbling on like a bee in a bottle. Her mother did much the same, and Harold used to stumble and gabble, so that it was horrible to hear him. Such reading as Paul's was a new light to them all, and was a treat to Ellen as she worked as much as to Alfred; and Paul, with hands as clean as Alfred's, was only too happy to get hold of a book, and infinitely enjoyed the constant supply kept up by Miss Selby, to make up for her not coming herself.
Then came the making out the accounts, a matter dreaded by all the family. Ellen and Alfred both used to do the sums; but as they never made them the same, Mrs. King always went by some reckoning of her own by pencil dots on her thumb-nail, which took an enormous time, but never went wrong. So the slate and the books came up after tea, one night, and Ellen set to work with her mother to pick out every one's bill. There might be about eight customers who had Christmas bills; but many an accountant in a London shop would think eight hundred a less tough business than did the King family these eight; especially as there was a debtor and creditor account with four, and coals, butcher's meat, and shoes for man and horse, had to be set against bread, tea, candles, and the like.
One pound of tea, 3s. 6d., that was all very well; but an ounce and a half of the same made Ellen groan, and look wildly at the corner over Alfred's bed, as if in hopes she should there see how to set it down, so as to work it.
'Fourpence, all but—' said a voice from the arm-chair by the fire.
Ellen did not take any particular heed, but announced the fact that three shillings were thirty-six pence, and six was forty-two. Also that sixteen ounces were one pound, and sixteen drams one ounce; but there she got stuck, and began making figures and rubbing them out, as if in hopes that would clear up her mind. Mrs. King pecked on for ten minutes on her nail.
'Well,' she said, 'Paul's right; it is fourpence.'
'However did you do it?' asked Ellen.
'As 16 to 1.5, so 42,' quoth Paul quickly. 'Three halves into 42; 21 and 42 is 63; 63 by 16, gives 3 and fifteen-sixteenths. You can't deduct a sixteenth of a penny, so call it fourpence.'
Ellen and Alfred were as wise as to the working as they were before.
Next question—Paul's answer came like the next line in the book—Mrs. King proved him right, and so on till she was quite tired of the proofs, and began to trust him. Alfred asked how he could possibly do such things, which seemed to him a perfect riddle.
'I should have had my ears pretty nigh pulled off if I took five minutes to work that in my head,' said Paul. 'But I've forgotten things now; I could do it faster once.'
'I'm sure you hadn't need,' said Mrs. King; 'it's enough to distract one's senses to count so fast. All in your poor head too!'
'And I've got to write them all out to-morrow,' said Ellen dismally; 'I must wait till dark, or I shan't set a stitch of work. I wish people would pay ready money, and then one wouldn't have to set down their bills. Here's Mr. Cope, bread—bread—bread, as long as my arm!'
'If you didn't mind, maybe I could save you the trouble, Miss Ellen,' said Paul.
'Did you ever make out a bill?' asked Mrs. King.
'Never a real one; but every Thursday I used to do sham ones. Once I did a jeweller's bill for twelve thousand pounds and odd! It is so long since I touched a pen, that may be I can't write; but I should like to try.'
Ellen brought a pen, and the cover of a letter; and hobbling up to the table, he took the pen, cleared it of a hair that was sticking in it, made a scratch or two weakly and ineffectually, then wrote in a neat clear hand, without running up or down, 'Friarswood, Christmas.'
'A pretty hand as ever I saw!' said Mrs. King. 'Well, if you can write like that, and can be trusted to make no mistakes, you might write out our bills; and we'd be obliged to you most kindly.'
And so Paul did, so neatly, that when the next evening Mr. Cope walked in with the money, he said, looking at Harold, 'Ah! my ancient Saxon, I must make my compliments to you: I did not think you could write letters as well as you can carry them.'
''Twas Paul did it, Sir,' said Harold.
'Yes, Sir; 'twas Paul,' said Mrs. King. 'The lad is a wonderful scholar: he told off all the sums as if they was in print; and to hear him read—'tis like nothing I ever heard since poor Mrs. Selby, Miss Jane's mother.'
'I saw he had been very well instructed—in acquaintance with the Bible, and the like.'
'And, Sir, before I got to know him for a boy that would not give a false account of himself, I used to wonder whether he could have run away from some school, and have friends above the common. If you observe, Sir, he speaks so remarkably well.'
Mr. Cope had observed it. Paul spoke much better English than did even the Kings; though Ellen was by way of being very particular, and sometimes a little mincing.
'You are quite sure it is not so?' he said, a little startled at Mrs. King's surmise.
'Quite sure now, Sir. I don't believe he would tell a falsehood on no account; and besides, poor lad!' and she smiled as the tears came into her eyes, 'he's so taken to me, he wouldn't keep nothing back from me, no more than my own boys.'
'I'm sure he ought not, Mrs. King,' said the Curate, 'such a mother to him as you have been. I should like to examine him a little. With so much education, he might do something better for himself than field-labour.'
'A very good thing it would be, Sir,' said Mrs. King, looking much cheered; 'for I misdoubt me sometimes if he'll ever be strong enough to gain his bread that way—at least, not to be a good workman. There! he's not nigh so tall as Harold; and so slight and skinny as he is, going about all bent and slouching, even before his illness! Why, he says what made him stay so long in the Union was that he looked so small and young, that none of the farmers at Upperscote would take him from it; and so at last he had to go on the tramp.'
Mr. Cope went up-stairs, and found Ellen, as usual, at her needle, and Paul in the arm-chair close by Alfred, both busied in choosing and cutting out pictures from Matilda's 'Illustrated News,' with which Harold ornamented the wall of the stair-case and landing. Mr. Cope sat down, and made them laugh with something droll about the figures that were lying spread on Alfred.
'So, Paul,' he said, 'I find Mrs. King has engaged you for her accountant.'
'I wish I could do anything to be of any use,' said Paul.
'I've half a mind to ask you some questions in arithmetic,' said Mr. Cope, with his merry eyes upon the boy, and his mouth looking grave; 'only I'm afraid you might puzzle me.'
'I can't do as I used, Sir,' said Paul, rather nervously; 'I've forgotten ever so much; and my head swims.'
The slate was lying near; Mr. Cope pushed it towards him, and said, 'Well, will you mind letting me see how you can write from dictation?'
And taking up one of the papers, he read slowly several sentences from a description of a great fire, with some tolerably long-winded newspaper words in them. When he paused, and asked for the slate, there it all stood, perfectly spelt, well written, and with all the stops and capitals in the right places.
'Famously done, Paul! Well, and do you know where this place was?' naming the town.
Paul turned his eyes about for a moment, and then gave the name of a county.
'That'll do, Paul. Which part of England?'
And so on, Mr. Cope got him out of his depth by asking about the rivers, and made him frown and look teased by a question about a battle fought in that county. If he had ever known, he had forgotten, and he was weak and easily confused; but Mr. Cope saw that he had read some history and learnt some geography, and was not like some of the village boys, who used to think Harold had been called after Herod—a nice namesake, truly!
'Who taught you all this, Paul?' he said. 'You must have had a cleverer master than is common in Unions. Who was he?'
'He was a Mr. Alcock, Sir. He was a clever man. They said in the House that he had been a bit of a gentleman, a lawyer, or a clerk, or something, but that he could never keep from the bottle.'
'What! and so they keep him for a school-master?'
'He was brought in, Sir; he'd got that mad fit that comes of drink, Sir, and was fresh out of gaol for debt. And when he came to, he said he'd keep the school for less than our master that was gone. He couldn't do anything else, you see.'
'And how did he teach you?'
'He knocked us about,' said Paul, drawing his shoulders together with an unpleasant recollection; 'he wasn't so bad to me, because I liked getting my tasks, and when he was in a good humour, he'd say I was a credit to him, and order me in to read to him in the evening.'
'And when he was not?'
'That was when he'd been out. They said he'd been at the gin-shop; but he used to be downright savage,' said Paul. 'At last he never thought it worth while to teach any lessons but mine, and I used to hear the other classes; but the inspector came all on a sudden, and found it out one day when he'd hit a little lad so that his nose was bleeding, and so he was sent off.'
'How long ago was this?'
'Going on for a year,' said Paul.
'Didn't the inspector want you to go to a training-school?' said Alfred.
'Yes; but the Guardians wouldn't hear of it.'
'Did you wish it?' asked Mr. Cope.
'I liked my liberty, Sir,' was the answer; and Paul looked down.
'Well, and what you do think now you've tried your liberty?'
Paul didn't make any answer, but finding that good-humoured face still waiting, he said slowly, 'Why, Sir, it was well-nigh the worst of all to find I was getting as stupid as the cows.'
Mr. Cope laughed, but not so as to vex him; and added, 'So that was the way you learnt to be a reader, Paul. Can you tell me what books you used to read to this master?'
Paul paused; and Alfred said, '"Uncle Tom's Cabin," Sir; he told us the story of that.'
'Yes,' said Paul; 'but that wasn't all: there was a book about Paris, and all the people in the back lanes there; and a German prince who came, and was kind.'
'You must not tell them stories out of that book, Paul,' said Mr. Cope quickly, for he knew it was a very bad one.
'No, Sir,' said Paul; 'but most times it was books he called philosophy, that I couldn't make anything of—no story, and all dull; but he was very savage if I got to sleep over them, till I hated the sight of them.'
'I'm glad you did, my poor boy,' said Mr. Cope. 'But one thing more. Tell me how, with such a man as this, you could have learnt about the Bible and Catechism, as you have done.'
'Oh,' said Paul, 'we had only the Bible and Testament to read in the school, because they were the cheapest; and the chaplain asked us about the Catechism every Sunday.'
'What was the chaplain's name?'
Paul was able, with some recollection, to answer; but he knew little about the clergyman, who was much overworked, and seldom able to give any time to the paupers.
Three days after, Mr. Cope again came into the post-office.
'Well, Mrs. King, I suppose you don't need to be told that our friend Paul has spoken nothing but truth. The chaplain sends me his baptismal registry, for which I asked. Just seventeen he must be—a foundling, picked up at about three weeks old, January 25th, 1836. They fancy he was left by some tramping musicians, but never were able to trace them—at least, so the chaplain hears from some of the people who remember it. Being so stunted, and looking younger than he is, no farmer would take him from the House, and the school-master made him useful, so he was kept on till the grand exposure that he told us of.'
'Ah! Sir,' said Mrs. King,' I'm afraid that master was a bad man. I only wonder the poor lad learnt no more harm from him!'
'One trembles to think of the danger,' said Mr. Cope; 'but you see there's often a guard over those who don't seek the temptation, and perhaps this poor fellow's utter ignorance of anything beyond the Union walls helped him to let the mischief pass by his understanding, better than if he had had any experience of the world.'
'I doubt if he'll ever have that, Sir,' said Mrs. King, her sensible face lighting up rather drolly; 'there's Harold always laughing at him for being so innocent, and yet so clever at his book.'
'So much the better for him,' said Mr. Cope. 'The Son of Sirach never said a wiser word than that "the knowledge of wickedness is not wisdom." Why, Mrs. King, what have I said? you look as if you had a great mind to laugh at me.'
'I beg your pardon, Sir,' said Mrs. King, much disconcerted at what seemed to her as if it might have been disrespect, though that was only Mr. Cope's droll way of putting it, 'I never meant—'
'Well, but what were you thinking of?'
'Why, Sir, I beg your pardon, but I was thinking it wouldn't have been amiss if he had had sense enough to keep himself clean and tidy.'
'I agree with you,' said Mr. Cope, laughing, and seeing she used 'innocent' in a slightly different sense from what he did; 'but perhaps Union cleanliness was not inviting, and he'd not had you to bring him up to fresh cheeks like Harold's. Besides, I believe it was half depression and want of heart to exert himself, when there was no one to care for him; and he certainly had not been taught either self-respect, or to think cleanliness next to godliness.'
'Poor lad—no,' said Mrs. King; 'nor I don't think he'd do it again, and I trust he'll never be so lost again.'
'Lost, and found,' said Mr. Cope gravely. 'Another thing I was going to say was, that this irreverent economy of the Guardians, in allowing no lesson-books but the Bible, seems to have, after all, been blest to him in his knowledge of it, like an antidote to the evil the master poured in.'
'Yes, Sir,' said Mrs. King, 'just so; only he says, that though he liked it, because, poor lad, there was nothing else that seemed to him to speak kind or soft, he never knew how much it was meant for him, nor it didn't seem to touch him home till he came to you, Sir.'
Mr. Cope half turned away. His bright eyes had something very like a tear in them, for hardly anything could have been said to make the young clergyman so happy, as to tell him that any work of his should be blessed; but he went on talking quickly, to say that the chaplain gave a still worse account of Alcock than Paul's had been, saying that some gentlemen who had newly become Guardians at the time of the inspector's visit, had taken up the matter, and had been perfectly shocked at the discoveries they had made about the man to whom the poor children had been entrusted.
On his dismissal, some of the old set, who were all for cheapness, had talked of letting young Blackthorn act as school-master; but as he was so very young, and had been brought up by this wretched man, the gentlemen would not hear of it; and as they could not afford to accept the inspector's offer of recommending him to a government school, he had been sent out in quest of employment, as being old enough to provide for himself. Things had since, the chaplain said, been put on a much better footing, and he himself had much more time to attend to the inmates. As to Paul, he was glad to hear that he was in good hands; he said he had always perceived him to be a very clever boy, and knew no harm of him but that he was a favourite with Alcock, which he owned had made him very glad to get him out of the House, lest he should carry on the mischief.
Mr. Cope and Mrs. King were both of one mind, that this was hard measure. So it was. Man's measure always is either over hard or over soft, because he cannot see all sides at once. Now they saw Paul's side, his simplicity, and his suffering; the chaplain had only seen the chances of his conveying the seeds of ungodly teaching to the workhouse children; he could not tell that the pitch which Paul had not touched by his own will, had not stuck by him—probably owing to that very simplicity which had made him so helpless in common life.
Having learnt all this, Mr. Cope proposed to Paul to use the time of his recovery in learning as much as he could, so as to be ready in case any opportunity should offer for gaining his livelihood by his head rather than by his hands.
Paul's face glowed. He liked nothing better than to be at a book, and with Mr. Cope to help him by bright encouragements and good-natured explanations instead of tweaks of the ears and raps on the knuckles, what could be pleasanter? So Mr. Cope lent him books, set him questions, and gave him pen, ink, and copy-book, and he toiled away with them till his senses grew dazed, and his back ached beyond bearing; so that 'Mother,' as he called her now, caught him up, and made him lie on his bed to rest, threatening to tell Mr. Cope not to set him anything so hard; while Ellen watched in wonder at any one being so clever, and was proud of whatever Mr. Cope said he did well; and Harold looked on him as a more extraordinary creature than the pie-bald horse in the show, who wore a hat and stood on his hind legs, since he really was vexed when book and slate were taken out of his hands.
He would have over-tasked himself in his weakness much more, if it had not been for his lovingness to Alfred. To please Alfred was always his first thought; and even if a difficult sum were just on the point of proving itself, he would leave off at the first moment of seeing Alfred look as if he wanted to be read to, and would miss all his calculations, to answer some question—who was going down the village, or what that noise could be.
Alfred tried to be considerate, and was sorry when he saw by a furrow on Paul's brow that he was trying to win up again all that some trifling saying had made him lose. But Alfred was not scholar enough to perceive the teasing of such interruptions, and even had he been aware of it, he was not in a state when he could lie quite still long together without disturbing any one; he could amuse himself much less than formerly, and often had most distressing restless fits, when one or other of them had to give him their whole attention; and it was all his most earnest efforts could do to keep from the old habit of fretfulness and murmuring. And he grieved so much over the least want of temper, and begged pardon so earnestly for the least impatient word—even if there had been real provocation for it—that it was a change indeed since the time when he thought grumbling and complaint his privilege and relief. Nothing helped him more than Paul's reading Psalms to him—the 121st was his favourite—or saying over hymns to him in that very sweet voice so full of meaning. Sometimes Ellen and Paul would sing together, as she sat at her work, and it almost always soothed him to hear the Psalm tunes, that were like an echo from the church, about which he had cared so little when he had been able to go there in health and strength, but for which he now had such a longing! He came to be so used to depend on their singing the Evening Hymn to him, that one of the times when it was most hard for him to be patient, was one cold evening, when Ellen was so hoarse that she could not speak, and an unlucky draught in from the shop door had so knit Paul up again, that he was lying in his bed, much nearer screaming than singing.
Most of all, however, was Alfred helped by Mr. Cope's visits, and the looking forward to the promised Feast, with more earnestness as the time drew on, and he felt his own weakness more longing for the support and blessing of uniting his suffering with that of his Lord. 'In all our afflictions He was afflicted,' was a sound that came most cheeringly to him, and seemed to give him greater strength and good-will to bear his load of weakness.
There was a book which young Mrs. Selby had given his mother, which was often lying on his bed, and had marks in it at all the favourite places. Some he liked to look at himself, some for Paul to read to him. They were such sentences as these:
'My son, I descended from Heaven for thy salvation; I took upon Me thy miseries; not necessity, but charity, drawing Me thereto, that thou thyself mightest learn patience, and bear temporal miseries without grudging.'
'For from the hour of My Birth, even until My Death on the Cross, I was not without suffering and grief.'
And then again:
'Offer up thyself unto Me, and give thyself wholly for God, and thy offering shall be acceptable.'
'Behold, I offered up Myself wholly unto My Father for thee, and gave My whole Body and Blood for thy food, that I might be wholly thine, and that thou mightest continue Mine unto the end.'
So he might think of all that he went through as capable of being made a free offering, which God would accept for the sake of the One Great Offering, 'consuming and burning away' (as the book said) 'all his sins with the fire of Christ's love, and cleansing his conscience from all offences.' It was what he now felt in the words, 'Thy Will be done,' which he tried to say in full earnest; but he thought he should be very happy when he should go along with the offering ourselves, our souls, and bodies, to be a 'reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice.'
Each of Mr. Cope's readings brought out or confirmed these refreshing hopes; and Paul likewise dwelt on such thoughts. Hardship had been a training to him, like sickness for Alfred; he knew what it was to be weary and heavy laden, and to want rest, and was ready to draw closer to the only Home and Father that he could claim. His gentle unresisting spirit was one that so readily forgot ill-will, that positively Harold cherished more dislike to the Shepherds than he did; and there was no struggle to forgive, no lack of charity for all men, so that hope and trust were free.
These two boys were a great deal to the young deacon. Perhaps he reckoned on his first ministration as a priest by Alfred's bedside, as much or even more than did the lad, for to him the whole household were as near and like-minded friends, though neither he nor they ever departed from the fitting manners of their respective stations. He was one who liked to share with others what was near his heart, and he had shewn Alfred the Service for the Ordination of Priests, and the Prayers for Grace that would be offered, and the holy vows that he would take upon him, and the words with which those great Powers would be conferred—those Powers that our Chief Shepherd left in trust for the pastors who feed His flock.
And once he had bent down and whispered to Alfred to pray that help might be given to him to use those powers faithfully.
So wore on the early spring; and the morning had come when he was to set out for the cathedral town, when Harold rode up to the parsonage door, and something in his looks as he passed the window made Mr. Cope hasten to the door to meet him.
'O Sir!' said Harold, bursting out crying as he began to speak, 'poor Alfred is took so bad; and Mother told me to tell you, Sir—if he's not better—he'll never live out the day!'
Poor Harold, who had never seemed to heed his brother's illness, was quite overwhelmed now. It had come upon him all at once.
'What is it? Has the doctor been?'
'No, Sir; I went in at six o'clock this morning to ask him to come out, and he said he'd come—and sent him a blister—but Alf was worse by the time I got back, Sir,—he can't breathe—and don't seem to notice.'
And without another word, nor waiting for comfort, Harold dug his heels into Peggy, passed his elbow over his eyes, and cantered on with the tears drying on his face in the brisk March wind.
There was no finishing breakfast for the Curate; he thrust his letters into his pocket, caught up his hat, and walked off with long strides for the post-office.
It shewed how different things were from usual, that Paul, who had hardly yet been four times down-stairs, his thin pointed face all in a flush, was the only person in the shop, trying with a very shaky hand to cut out some cheese for a great stout farm maid-servant, who evidently did not understand what was the matter, and stared doubly when the clergyman put his strong hand so as to steady Paul's trembling one, and gave his help to fold up the parcel.
'How is he, Paul?'
Paul was very near crying as he answered, 'Much worse, Sir. Mother has been up all night with him. O Sir! he did so want to live till you came home.'
'May I go up?' asked Mr. Cope.
Paul was sure that he might, and crept up after him. It was bad enough, but not quite so bad as Harold, in his fright, had made Mr. Cope believe. Poor boy! it had all come upon him now; and seeing his brother unable to speak and much oppressed, he fancied he did not know him, whereas Alfred was fully sensible, though too ill to do more than lift his eyes, and put out his weak fingers as Mr. Cope came into the room, where he was lying raised on his pillows, with his mother and sister doing all they could for him.
A terrible pain in the side had come on in the night, making every breath painful, every cough agonizing, and his whole face and brow were crimson with the effort of gasping.
Paul looked a moment but could not bear it, and went, and sat down on the top of the stairs; while Mr. Cope kindly held Alfred's hot hand, and Mrs. King, in her low patient tone, told how the attack had begun.
She was in the midst, when Mr. Blunt's gig was seen at the gate. His having thus hastened his coming was more than they had dared to hope; and while Mrs. King felt grateful for the kindness, Ellen feared that it shewed that he thought very badly of the case.
Mr. Cope was much hurried, but he could not bear to go till he had heard Mr. Blunt's opinion; so he went down to the kitchen, tried to console Paul by talking kindly to him, wrote a note, and read his letters.
They were much comforted to hear that Mr. Blunt thought that there was hope of subduing the present inflammatory pain; and though there was much immediate danger, it was not hastening so very fast to the end as they had at first supposed. Yet, in such a state as Alfred's, a few hours might finish all. There was no saying.
Already, when Mr. Cope went up again, the remedies had given some relief; and though the breaths came short and hard, like so many stabs, Alfred had put his head into an easier position, and his eyes and lips looked more free to look a greeting. There was so much wistful earnestness in his face, and it deeply grieved Mr. Cope to be forced to leave him, and in too much haste even to be able to pray with him.
'Well, Alfred, dear fellow,' he said, his voice trembling, 'I am come to wish you good-bye. I am comforted to find that Mr. Blunt thinks there is good hope that you will be here—that we shall be together when I come back. Yes, I know that is what is on your mind, and I do reckon most earnestly on it; but if it should not be His Will—here, Ellen, will you take care of this note? If he should be worse, will you send this to Mr. Carter, at Ragglesford? and I know he will come at once.'
The dew stood on Alfred's eye-lashes, and his lips worked. He looked up sadly to Mr. Cope, as if this did not answer his longings.
Mr. Cope replied to the look—'Yes, dear boy, but if it cannot be, still remember it is Communion. He can put us together. We all drink into one Spirit. I shall be engaged in a like manner—I would not—I could not go, Alfred, for pleasure—no, nor business—only for this. You must think that I am gone to bring you home the Gift—the greatest, best Gift—the one our Lord left with His disciples, to bear them through their sorrows and pains—through the light affliction that is but for a moment, but worketh an exceeding weight of glory. And if I should not be in time,' he added, nearly sobbing as he spoke, 'then—then, Alfred, the Gift, the blessing is yours all the same. It is the Great High Priest to Whom you must look—perhaps you may do so the more really if it should not be through—your friend. If we are disappointed, we will make a sacrifice of our disappointment. Good-bye, my boy; God bless you!' Bending close down to his face, he whispered, 'Think of me. Pray for me—now—always.' Then, rising hastily, he shook the hands of the mother and sister, ran down-stairs, and was gone.
CHAPTER XII—REST AT LAST
The east wind had been swept aside by gales from the warm south, and the spring was bursting out everywhere; the sky looked softly blue, instead of hard and chill; the sun made everything glisten: the hedges were full of catkins; white buds were on the purple twigs of the blackthorns; primroses were looking out on the sunny side of the road; the larks were mounting up, singing as if they were wild with delight; and the sunbeams were full of dancing gnats, as the Curate of Friarswood walked, with quick eager steps, towards the bridge.
His eyes were anxiously bent on the house, watching the white smoke rising from the chimney; then he hastened on to gain the first sight at the upper windows, feeling almost as he could have done had it been a brother who lay there; so much was his heart set on the first whom he had striven to help through the valley of the shadow of death. The window was open, but the blind was not drawn; and almost at the same moment the gate opened, some one looked out, and seeing him, waved his hand and arm in joyful signal towards some one within, and this gesture set Mr. Cope's heart at rest.
Was it Harold? No, it was Paul Blackthorn, who stood leaning on the wicket, as he held it open for the clergyman, at whom he looked up as if expecting some change, and a little surprised to find the same voice and manner.
'Well, Paul, then he is not worse?'
'No, Sir, thank you, he is better. The pain has left him, and he can speak again,' said Paul, but not very cheerfully.
'That is a great comfort! But who's that?' as a head, not Ellen's, appeared for a moment at the window.
'That's Miss King, Sir—Miss Matilda!'
'Oh! Well, and how are the bones, Paul? Better, I hope, since I see you are come out with the bees,' said Mr. Cope, laying his hand kindly on his shoulder (a thing fit to touch now, since it was in a fustian coat of poor Alfred's), and accommodating his swift strong steps to the feeble halt with which Paul still moved.
'Thank you, Sir, yes; I've been down here twice when the sun was out,' he said, as if it were a grand undertaking; but then, with a sudden smile, 'and poor Caesar knew me, Sir; he came right across the road, and wagged his tail, and licked my hand.'
'Good old Caesar! You were his best friend, Paul.—Well, Mrs. King, this is a blessing!'
Mrs. King looked sadly worn out with nursing, and her eyes were full of tears.
'Yes, Sir,' she said, 'indeed it is. My poor darling has been so much afraid he was too much set on your coming home, and yet so patient and quiet about it.'
'Then you ventured to wait?'
And Mr. Cope heard that the attack of inflammation had given way to remedies, but that Alfred was so much weakened, that they could not raise him again. He was sustained by as much nourishment as they could give him: but the disease had made great progress, and Mr. Blunt did not think that he could last many days. His eldest sister had come for a fortnight from her place, and was a great comfort to them all. 'And so is Paul,' said Mrs. King, looking for him kindly; 'I don't know what we should do without his help up-stairs and down. And, Sir, yesterday,' she added, colouring a good deal—'I beg your pardon, but I thought, maybe, you'd like to hear it—Alfred would have nobody else up with him in morning church-time—and made him read the most—of that Service, Sir.'
Mr. Cope's eyes glistened, and he said something huskily of being glad that Alfred could think of it.
It further appeared that Alfred had wished very much to see Miss Selby again, and that Mrs. King had sent the two sisters to the Grange to talk it over with Mrs. Crabbe, and word had been sent by Harold that morning that the young lady would come in the course of the afternoon.
Mr. Cope followed Mrs. King up-stairs; Alfred's face lighted up as his sister Matilda made way for the clergyman. He was very white, and his breath was oppressed; but his look had changed very much—it had a strange, still sort of brightness and peace about it. He spoke in very low tones, just above a whisper, and smiled as Mr. Cope took his hand, and spoke to him.
'Thank you, Sir. It is very nice,' he said.
'I thank God that He has let you wait for me,' said Mr. Cope.
'I am glad,' said Alfred. 'I did want to pray for it; but I thought, perhaps, if it was not His Will, I would not—and then what you said. And now He is making it all happy.'
'And you do not grieve over your year of illness?'
'I would not have been without it—no,' said Alfred, very quietly, but with much meaning.
'"It is good for me that I have been in trouble," is what you mean,' said Mr. Cope.
'It has made our Saviour seem—I mean—He is so good to me,' said Alfred fervently.
But talking made him cough, and that brought a line in the fair forehead so full of peace. Mr. Cope would not say more to him, and asked his mother whether the Feast, for which he had so much longed, should be on the following day. She thought it best that it should be so; and Alfred again said, 'Thank you, Sir,' with the serene expression on his face. Mr. Cope read a Psalm and a prayer to him, and thinking him equal to no more, went away, pausing, however, for a little talk with Paul in the shop.
Paul did not say so, but, poor fellow, he had been rather at a loss since Matilda had come. In herself, she was a very good, humble, sensible girl; but she wore a dark silk dress, and looked, moved, and spoke much more like a lady than Ellen: Paul stood in great awe of her, and her presence seemed all at once to set him aloof from the others.
He had been like one of themselves for the last three months, now he felt that he was like a beggar among them; he did not like to call Mrs. King mother, lest it should seem presuming; Ellen seemed to be raised up the same step as her sister, and even Alfred was almost out of his reach; Matilda read to him, and Paul's own good feeling shewed him that he would be only in the way if he spent all his time in Alfred's room as formerly; so he kept down-stairs in the morning, and went to bed very early. Nobody was in the least unkind to him: but he had just begun to grieve at being a burden so long, and to wonder how much longer he should be in getting his health again. And then it might be only to be cast about the world, and to lose his one glimpse of home kindness. Poor boy! he still cried at the thought of how happy Alfred was.
He did all he could to be useful, but he could scarcely manage to stoop down, could carry nothing heavy, and moved very slowly; and he now and then made a dreadful muddle in the shop, when a customer was not like Mrs. Hayward, who told him where everything was, and the price of all she wanted, as well as Mrs. King could do herself. He could sort the letters and see to the post-office very well; and for all his blunders, he did so much by his good-will, that when Mrs. King wanted to cheer him up, she declared that he saved her all the expense of having in a woman from the village to help, and that he did more about the house than Harold.
This was true: for Harold did not like doing anything but manly things, as he called them; whereas Paul did not care what it was, so that it saved trouble to her or Ellen.
Talking and listening to Harold was one use of Paul. Now that it had come upon him, and he saw Alfred worse from day to day, the poor boy was quite broken-hearted. Possibly, when at his work, or riding, he managed to shake off the remembrance; but at home it always came back, and he cried so much at the sight of Alfred, and at any attempt of his brother to talk to him, that they could scarcely let him stay ten minutes in the room. Then, when Paul had gone to bed on the landing at seven o'clock, he would come and sit on his bed, and talk, and cry, and sob about his brother, and his own carelessness of him, often till his mother came out and ordered him down-stairs to his own bed in the kitchen; and Paul turned his face into the pillow to weep himself to sleep, loving Alfred very little less than did his brother, but making less noise about it, and feeling very lonely when he saw how all the family cared for each other.
So Mr. Cope's kind manner came all the more pleasantly to him; and after some talk on what they both most cared about, Mr. Cope said, 'Paul, Mr. Shaw of Berryton tells me he has a capital school-master, but in rather weak health, and he wants to find a good intelligent youth to teach under him, and have opportunities of improving himself. Five pounds a year, and board and lodgings. What do you think of it, Paul?'
Paul's sallow face began growing red, and he polished the counter, on which he was leaning; then, as Mr. Cope repeated, 'Eh, Paul?' he said slowly, and in his almost rude way, 'They wouldn't have me if they knew how I'd been brought up.'
'Perhaps they would if they knew what you've come to in spite of bringing up. And,' added Mr. Cope, 'they are not so much pressed for time but that they can wait till you've quite forgotten your tumble into the Ragglesford. We must fatten you—get rid of those spider-fingers, and you and I must do a few more lessons together—and I think Mrs. King has something towards your outfit; and by Whitsuntide, I told Mr. Shaw that I thought I might send him what I call a very fair sample of a good steady lad.'
Paul did not half seem to take it in—perhaps he was too unhappy, or it sounded like sending him away again; or, maybe, such a great step in life was more than he could comprehend, after the outcast condition to which he had been used: but Mr. Cope could not go on talking to him, for the Grange carriage was stopping at the gate, and Matilda and Ellen were both coming down-stairs to receive Miss Jane. Poor little thing, she looked very pale and nervous; and as she shook hands with the Curate, as he met her in the garden-path, she said with a startled manner, 'Oh! Mr. Cope—were you there? Am I interrupting—?'
'Not at all,' he said. 'I had only called in as I came home, and had just come down again.'
'Is it—is it very dreadful?' murmured Jane, with a sort of gasp. She was so entirely unused to scenes of sadness or pain, that it was very strange and alarming to her, and it was more difficult than ever to believe her no younger than Ellen.
'Very far from dreadful or distressing,' said Mr. Cope kindly, for he knew it was not her fault that she had been prevented from overcoming such feelings, and that this was a great effort of kindness. 'It is a very peaceful, soothing sight—he is very happy, and not in a suffering state.'
'Oh, will you tell Grandmamma?' said Jane, with her pretty look of earnestness; 'she is so much afraid of its much for me, and she was so kind in letting me come.'
So Miss Selby went on to the two sisters, and Mr. Cope proceeded to the carriage, where Lady Jane had put out her head, glad to be able to ask him about the state of affairs. Having nothing but this little grand- daughter left to her, the old lady watched over her with almost over-tender care, and was in much alarm both lest the air of the sick- room should be unwholesome, or the sight too sorrowful for her; and though she was too kind to refuse the wish of the dying boy, she had come herself, in order that 'the child,' as she called her, might not stay longer than was good for her; and she was much relieved to hear Mr. Cope's account of Alfred's calm state, and of the freshness of the clean room, in testimony of which he pointed to the open window.
'Yes,' she said, 'I hope Mary King was wise enough; but I hardly knew how it might be with such a number about the house—that boy and all. He is not gone, is he?'
'No, he is not nearly well enough yet, though he does what he can to be useful to her. When he is recovered, I have a scheme for him.'
So Mr. Cope mentioned Mr. Shaw's proposal, by which my Lady set more store than did Paul as yet. Very kind-hearted she was, though she did not fancy adopting chance-comers into her parish; and as long as he was not saddled upon Mary King, as she said, she was very glad of any good for him; so she told Mr. Cope to come to her for what he might want to fit him out properly for the situation; and turning her keen eyes on him as he stood near the cottage door, pronounced that, after all, he was a nice, decent-looking lad enough, which certainly her Ladyship would not have said before his illness.
Miss Jane did not stay long. Indeed, Alfred could not talk to her, and she did not know what to say to him; she could only stand by his bed, with the tears upon her cheeks, making little murmuring sounds in answer to Mrs. King, who said for her son what she thought he wished to have said. Meanwhile, Jane was earnestly looking at him, remarking with awe, that, changed as he was since she had last seen him—so much more wasted away—the whole look of his face was altered by the gentleness and peace that it had gained, so as to be like the white figure of a saint.
She could not bear it when Mrs. King told her Alfred wanted to thank her for all her kindness in coming to see him. 'Oh, no,' she said, 'I was not kind at all;' and her tears would not be hindered. 'Only, you know, I could not help it.'
Alfred gave her a bright look. Any one could see what a pleasure it was to him to be looking at her again, though he did not repent of his share in the sacrifice for Paul's sake. No, if Paul had been given up that Miss Jane might come to him, Alfred would not have had the training that made all so sweet and calm with him now. He turned his head to the little picture, and said, 'Thank you, Ma'am, for that. That's been my friend.'
'Yes, indeed it has, Miss Jane,' said his mother. 'There's nothing you ever did for him that gave him the comfort that has been.'
'And please, Ma'am,' said Alfred, 'will you tell my Lady—I give her my duty—and ask her pardon for having behaved so bad—and Mrs. Crabbe—and the rest?'
'I will, Alfred; but every one has forgiven that nonsense long ago.'
'It was very bad of me,' said Alfred, pausing for breath; 'and so it was not to mind you—Miss Jane—when you said I was ill for a warning.'
'Did I?' said Jane.
'Yes—in hay-time—I mind it—I didn't mind for long—but 'twas true. He had patience with me.'
The cough came on, and Jane knew she must go; her grandmother had bidden her not to stay if it were so, and she just ventured to squeeze Alfred's hand, and then went down-stairs, checking her tears, to wish Matilda and Ellen good-bye; and as she passed by Paul, told him not to uncover his still very short-haired head, and kindly hoped he was better.
Paul, in his dreary feelings, hardly thought of Mr. Cope's plan, till, as he was getting the letters ready for Harold, he turned up one in Mr. Cope's writing, addressed to the 'Rev. A. Shaw, Berryton, Elbury.'
'That's to settle for me, then,' he said; and Harold who was at tea, asking, 'What's that?' he explained.
'Well,' said Harold, 'every one to his taste! I wouldn't go to school again, not for a hundred pounds; and as to keeping school!' (Such a face as he made really caused Paul to smile.) 'Nor you don't half like it, neither,' continued Harold. 'Come, you'd better stay and get work here! I'd sooner be at the plough-tail all day, than poke out my eyes over stuff like that,' pointing to Paul's slate, covered with figures. 'Here, Nelly,' as she moved about, tidying the room, 'do you hear? Mr. Cope's got an offer of a place for Paul—five pounds a year, and board and lodging, to be school-master's whipper-in, or what d'ye call it?'
'What do you say, Harold?' cried Ellen, putting her hands on the back of a chair, quite interested. 'You going away, Paul?'
'Mr. Cope says so—and I must get my living, you know,' said Paul.
'But not yet; you are not well enough yet,' said the kind girl. 'And where did you say—?'
'Berryton—oh! that's just four miles out on the other side of Elbury, where Susan Congleton went to live that was housemaid at the Grange. She says it's such a nice place, and such beautiful organ and singing at church! And what did you say you were to be, Paul?'
'I'm to help the school-master.'
'Gracious me!' cried Ellen. 'Why, such a scholar as you are, you'll be quite a gentleman yet, Paul. Why, they school-masters get fifty or sixty pounds salaries sometimes. I protest it's the best thing I've heard this long time! Was it Mr. Cope's doing, or my Lady's?'
'Mr. Cope's,' said Paul, beginning to think he had been rather less grateful than he ought.
'Ah! it is like him,' said Ellen, 'after all the pains he has taken with you. And you'll not be so far off, Paul: you'll come to see us in the holidays, you know.'
'To be sure he will,' said Harold; 'or if he don't, I shall go and fetch him.'
'Of course he will,' said Ellen, with her hand on Paul's chair, and speaking low and affectionately to console him, as she saw him so downcast; 'don't you know how poor Alfy says he's come to be instead of a son to Mother, and a brother to us? I must go up and tell Alf and mother. They'll be so pleased.'
Paul felt very differently about the plan now. All the house congratulated him upon it, and Matilda evidently thought more of him now that she found he was to have something to do. But such things as these were out of sight beside that which was going on in the room above.
Alfred slept better that night, and woke so much revived, that they thought him better: and Harold, greatly comforted about him, stood tolerably quietly by his side, listening to one or two things that Alfred had longed for months past to say to him.
'Promise me, Harold dear, that you'll be a good son to Mother: you'll be the only one now.'
Harold made a bend of his head like a promise.
'O Harold, be good to her!' went on Alfred earnestly; 'she's had so much trouble! I do hope God will leave you to her—if you are steady and good. Do, Harold! She's not like some, as don't care what their lads get to. And don't take after me, and be idle! Be right-down good, Harold, as Paul is; and when you come to be ill—oh! it won't be so bad for you as it was for me!'
'I do want to be good,' sighed Harold. 'If I'd only been confirmed; but 'twas all along of them merries last summer!'
'And I was such a plague to you—I drove you out,' said Alfred.
'No, no, I was a brute to you! Oh! Alfy, Alfy, if I could only get back the time!'
He was getting to the sobs that hurt his brother; and his sister was going to interfere; but Alfred said:
'Never mind, Harold dear, we've been very happy together, and we'll always love each other. You'll not forget Alf, and you'll be Mother's good son to take care of her! Won't you?'
So Harold gave that promise, and went away with his tears. Poor fellow, now was his punishment for having slighted the Confirmation. Like Esau, an exceeding bitter cry could not bring back what he had lightly thrown away. Well was it for him that this great sorrow came in time, and that it was not altogether his birthright that he had parted with. He found he could not go out to his potato-planting and forget all about it, as he would have liked to have done—something would not let him; and there he was sitting crouched up and sorrowful on the steps of the stairs, when Mr. Cope and all the rest were gathered in Alfred's room, a church for the time. Matilda and Ellen had set out the low table with the fair white cloth, and Mr. Cope brought the small cups and paten, which were doubly precious to him for having belonged to his father, and because the last time he had seen them used had been for his father's last Communion.
Now was the time to feel that a change had really passed over the young pastor in the time of his absence. Before, he could only lead Alfred in his prayers, and give him counsel, tell him to hope in his repentance, and on what that hope was founded. Now that he had bent beneath the hand of the Bishop, he had received, straight down from the Twelve, the Power from on High. It was not Mr. Cope, but the Lord Who had purchased that Pardon by His own most Precious Blood, Who by him now declared to Alfred that the sins and errors of which he had so long repented, were pardoned and taken away. The Voice of Authority now assured him of what he had been only told to hope and trust before. And to make the promise all the more close and certain, here was the means of becoming a partaker of the Sacrifice—here was that Bread and that Cup which shew forth the Lord's Death till He come. It was very great rest and peace, the hush that was over the quiet room, with only Alfred's hurried breath to be heard beside Mr. Cope's voice as he spoke the blessed words, and the low responses of the little congregation. Paul was close beside Alfred—he would have him there between his mother and the wall—and the two whose first Communion it was, were the last to whom Mr. Cope came. To one it was to be the Food for the passage into the unseen world; to the other might it be the first partaking of the Manna to support him through the wilderness of this life.
'From the highways and hedges,' here was one brought into the foretaste of the Marriage Supper. Ah! there was one outside, who had loved idle pleasure when the summons had been sent to him. Perhaps the misery he was feeling now might be the means of sparing him from missing other calls, and being shut out at last.
It seemed to fulfil all that Alfred had wished. He lay still between waking and sleeping for a long time afterwards, and then begged for Paul to read to him the last chapters of the Book of Revelation. Matilda wished to read them for him; but he said, 'Paul, please.' Paul's voice was fuller and softer when it was low; his accent helped the sense, and Alfred was more used to them than to his visitor sister. Perhaps there was still another reason, for when Paul came to the end, and was turning the leaves for one of Alfred's favourite bits, he saw Alfred's eyes on him, as if he wanted to speak. It was to say, 'Brothers quite now, Paul! Thank you. I think God must have sent you to help me.'
Alfred seemed better all the evening, and they went to bed in good spirits; but at midnight, Mr. Cope, who was very deeply studying and praying, the better to fit himself for his new office in the ministry, was just going to shut his book, and go up to bed, when he heard a tremulous ring at the bell.
It was Harold, his face looking very white in the light from Mr. Cope's candle.
'Oh! please, Sir,' he said, 'Alfred is worse; and Mother said, if your light wasn't out, you'd like to know.'
'I am very grateful to her,' said Mr. Cope; and taking up his plaid, he wrapped one end round the boy, and put his arm round him, as he felt him quaking as Paul had done before, but not crying—too much awe-struck for that. He said that his mother thought something had broken in the lungs, and that he would be choked. Mr. Cope made the more haste, that he might judge if the doctor would be of any use.
Paul was sitting up in his bed—they had not let him get up—but his eyes were wide open with distress, as he plainly heard the loud sob that each breath had become. Mrs. King was holding Alfred up in her arms; Matilda was trying to chafe his feet; Ellen was kneeling with her face hidden.
The light of sense and meaning was not gone from Alfred's eyes, though the last struggle had come. He gave a look as though he were glad to see Mr. Cope, and then gazed on his brother. Mrs. King signed to Harold to come nearer, and whispered, 'Kiss him.' His sisters had done so, and he had missed Harold. Then Mr. Cope prayed, and Alfred's eyes at first owned the sounds; but soon they were closed, and the long struggling breaths were all that shewed that the spirit was still there.
'He shall swallow up death in victory, and the Lord God shall wipe away tears from all eyes.'
One moment, and the blue eyes they knew so well were opened and smiling on his mother, and then—
It was over; and through affliction and pain, the young spirit had gone to rest!
The funeral day was a very sore one to Paul Blackthorn. He would have given the world to be there, and have heard the beautiful words of hope which received his friend to his resting-place, but he could not get so far. He had tried to carry a message to a house not half so far off as the church, but his knees seemed to give way under him, and his legs ached so much that he could hardly get home. Somehow, a black suit, just such as Harold's, had come home for him at the same time; but this could not hinder him from feeling that he was but a stranger, and one who had no real place in the home where he lived. There was the house full of people, who would only make their remarks on him—Miss Hardman (who was very critical of the coffin-plate), the school-master, and some of the upper-servants of the house—and poor Mrs. King and Matilda, who could not help being gratified at the attention to their darling, were obliged to go down and be civil to them; while Ellen, less used to restraint, was shut into her own room crying; and Harold was standing on the stairs, very red, but a good deal engaged with his long hat-band. Poor Paul! he had not even his usual refuge—his own bed to lie upon and hide his face—for that had been taken away to make room for the coffin to be carried down.
There, they were going at last, when it had seemed as if the bustle and confusion would never cease. There was Alfred leaving the door where he had so often played, carried upon the shoulders of six lads in white frocks, his old school-fellows and Paul's Confirmation friends. How Paul envied them for doing him that last service! There was his mother, always patient and composed, holding Harold's arm—Harold, who must be her stay and help, but looking so slight, so boyish, and so young, then the two girls, Ellen so overpowered with crying that her sister had to lead her; Mrs. Crabbe with Betsey Hardman, who held up a great white handkerchief, for other people's visible grief always upset her, as she said; and besides, she felt it a duty to cry at such a time; and the rest two and two, quite a train, in their black suits: how unlike the dreary pauper funerals Paul had watched away at Upperscote! That respectable look seemed to make him further off and more desolate, like one cut off, whom no one would follow, no one would weep for. Alfred, who had called him a brother, was gone, and here he was alone!
The others were taking their dear one once more to the church where they had so often prayed that he might have a happy issue out of all his afflictions.
They were met by Mr. Cope, ending his loving intercourse with Alfred by reading out the blessed promise of Resurrection—the assurance that the body they were sowing in weakness would be raised in power; so that the noble boy, whom they had seen fade away like a drooping flower, would rise again blossoming forth in glory, after the Image of the Incorruptible—that Image, thought Mr. Cope, as he read on, which he faithfully strove to copy even through the sufferings due to the corruptible. His voice often shook and faltered. He had never before read that Service; and perhaps, except for those of his own kin, it could never be a greater effort to him, going along with Alfred as he had done, holding up the rod and staff that bore him through the dark valley. And each trembling of his tone seemed to answer something that the mother was feeling in her peaceful, hopeful, thankful grief—yes, thankful that she could lay her once high-spirited and thoughtless boy in his grave, with the same sure and certain hope of a joyful Resurrection, as that ripe and earnest-minded Christian his father, or his little innocent brother. It was peace—awful peace, indeed, but soothing even to Ellen and Harold, new as they were to grief.
But to poor Paul at home, out of hearing of the words of hope, only listening to the melancholy toll of the knell, and quite alone in the disarranged forlorn house, there seemed nothing to take off the edge of misery. He was not wanted to keep Alfred company now, nor to read to him—no one needed him, no one cared for him. He wandered up to where Alfred had lain so long, as if to look for the pale quiet face that used to smile to him. There was nothing but the bed-frame and mattress! He threw himself down on it and cried. He did not well know why—perhaps the chief feeling was that Alfred was gone away to rest and bliss, and he was left alone to be weary and without a friend.
At last the crying began to spend itself, and he turned and looked up. There was Alfred's little picture of the Crucified still on the wall, and the words under it, 'For us!' Paul's eye fell on it; and somehow it brought to mind what Alfred had said to him on Christmas Day. There was One Who had no home on earth; there was One Who had made Himself an outcast and a wanderer, and Who had not where to lay His Head. Was not He touched with a fellow-feeling for the lonely boy? Would He not help him to bear his friendless lot as a share of His own Cross? Nay, had He not raised him up friends already in his utmost need? 'There is a Friend Who sticketh closer than a brother.' He was the Friend that Paul need never lose, and in Whom he could still meet his dear Alfred. These thoughts, not quite formed, but something like them, came gently as balm to the poor boy, and though they brought tears even thicker than the first burst of lonely sorrow, they were as peaceful as those shed beside the grave. Though Paul was absent in the body, this was a very different shutting out from Harold's on last Tuesday.
Paul must have cried himself to sleep, for he did not hear the funeral- party return, and was first roused by Mrs. King coming up-stairs. He had been so much used to think of this as Alfred's room, that he had never recollected that it was hers; and now that she was come up for a moment's breathing-time, he started up ashamed and shocked at being so caught.
But good motherly Mrs. King saw it all, and how he had been weeping where her child had so long rested. Indeed, his face was swelled with crying, and his voice all unsteady.
'Poor lad! poor lad!' she said kindly, 'you were as fond of him as any of them; and if we wanted anything else to make you one of us, that would do it.'
'O Mother,' said Paul, as she kindly put her hand on him, 'I could not bear it—I was so lost—till I looked at that,' pointing to the little print.
'Ay,' said Mrs. King, as she wiped her quiet tears, 'that Cross was Alfred's great comfort, and so it is to us all, my boy, whatever way we have to carry it, till we come to where he is gone. No cross, no crown, they say.'
Perhaps it was not bad for any one that this forlorn day had given Paul a fresh chill, which kept him in bed for nearly a week, so as gently to break the change from her life of nursing to Mrs. King, and make him very happy and peaceful in her care.
And when at last on a warm sunny Sunday, Paul Blackthorn returned thanks in church for his recovery—ay, and for a great deal besides—he had no reason to think that he was a stranger cared for by no one.
CHAPTER XIII—SIX YEARS LATER
It is a beautiful morning in Easter week. The sun is shining on the gilded weathercock, which flashes every time it veers from south to west; the snowdrops are getting quite out of date, and the buttercups and primroses have it all their own way; the grass is making a start, and getting quite long upon the graves in Friarswood churchyard.
'Really, I should have sent in the Saxon monarch to tidy us up!' says to himself the tall young Rector, as he stepped over the stile with one long stride; 'but I suppose he is better engaged.'
That tall young Rector is the Reverend Marcus Cope, six years older, but young still. The poor old Rector, Mr. John Selby, died four years ago abroad; and Lady Jane and Miss Selby's other guardians gave the living to Mr. Cope, to the great joy of all the parish, except the Shepherds, who have never forgiven him for their own usage of their farming boy, nor for the sermon he neither wrote nor preached.
The Saxon monarch means one Harold King, who looks after the Rectory garden and horse, as well as the post-office and other small matters.
The clerk is unlocking the church, and shaking out the surplice, and Mr. Cope goes into the vestry, takes out two big books covered with green parchment, and sees to the pen. It is a very good one, judging by the writing of the last names in that book. They are Francis Mowbray and Jane Arabella Selby.
'Captain and Mrs. Mowbray will be a great blessing to the place, if they go on as they have begun,' thinks Mr. Cope. 'How happy they are making old Lady Jane, and how much more Mrs. Mowbray goes among the cottages now that she does more as she pleases.'
Then Mr. Cope goes to the porch and looks out. He sees two men getting over the stile. One is a small slight person, in very good black clothes, not at all as if they were meant to ape a gentleman, and therefore thoroughly respectable. He has a thin face, rather pointed as to the chin and nose, and the eyes dark and keen, so that it would be over-sharp but that the mouth looks so gentle and subdued, and the whole countenance is grave and thoughtful. You could not feel half so sure that he is a certificated school-master, as you can that his very brisk- looking companion is so.
'Good morning, Mr. Brown.—Good morning, Paul,' said Mr. Cope. 'I did not expect to see you arrive in this way.'
The grave face glitters up in a merry look of amusement, while, with a little colouring, he answers:
'Why, Sir, Matilda said it was the proper thing, and so we supposed she knew best.'
There are not so many people who do talk of Paul now. Most people know him as Mr. Blackthorn, late school-master at Berryton, where the boys liked him for his bright and gentle yet very firm ways; the parents, for getting their children on, and helping them to be steady; and the clergyman, for being so perfectly to be trusted, so anxious to do right, and, while efficient and well informed, perfectly humble and free from conceit. Now he has just got an appointment to Hazleford school, in another diocese, with a salary of fifty pounds a year; but, as Charles Hayward would tell you, 'he hasn't got one bit of pride, no more than when he lived up in the hay-loft.'
There is not long to wait. There is another party getting over the stile. There is a very fine tall youth first. As Betsey Hardman tells her mother, 'she never saw such a one for being fine-growed and stately to look at, since poor Charles King when he wore his best wig.' A very nice open honest face, and as merry a pair of blue eyes as any in the parish, does Harold wear, nearly enough to tell you that, if in these six years it would be too much to say he has never done anything to vex his mother, yet in the main his heart is in the right place—he is a very good son, very tender to her, and steady and right-minded.
Whom is he helping over the stile? Oh, that is Mrs. Mowbray's pretty little maid! a very good young thing, whom she has read with and taught; and here, lady-like and delicate-looking as ever, is Matilda. Bridemaids before the bride! that's quite wrong; but the bride has a shy fit, and would not get over first, and Matilda and Harold are, the one encouraging her, the other laughing at her; and Mr. Blackthorn turns very red, and goes down the path to meet her, and she takes his arm, and Harold takes Lucy, and Mr. Brown Miss King.
Very nice that bride looks, with her hair so glossy under her straw bonnet trimmed with white, her pretty white shawl, and quiet purple silk dress, her face rather flushed, but quiet-looking, as if she were growing more like her mother, with something of her sense and calmness.
How Mr. Blackthorn ever came to ask her that question, nobody can guess, and Harold believes he does not know himself. However, it got an answer two years ago, and Mrs. King gave her consent with all her heart, though she knew Betsey Hardman would talk of picking a husband up out of the gutter, and that my Lady would look severe, and say something of silly girls. Yes—and though the rich widower bailiff had said sundry civil things of Miss Ellen being well brought up and notable—'For,' as Mrs. King wrote to Matilda, 'I had rather see Ellen married to a good religious man than to any one, and I do not know one I can be so sure of as Paul, nor one that is so like a son to me; and if he has no friends belonging to him, that is better than bad friends.' And Ellen herself, from looking on him as a mere boy, as she had done at their first acquaintance, had come to thinking no one ever had been so wise or so clever, far less so good, certainly not so fond of her—so her answer was no great wonder. Then they were to be prudent, and wait for some dependence; and so they did till Mr. Shaw recommended Paul Blackthorn for Hazleford school, where there is a beautiful new house for the master, so that he will have no longer to live in lodgings, and be 'done for,' as the saying is. Harold tells Ellen that he is afraid that without her he won't wash above once in four months; but however that may be, she is convinced that the new school-house will be lost on him, and that in spite of all his fine arithmetic, his fifty pounds will never go so far for one as for two; and so she did not turn a deaf ear to his entreaties that she would not send him alone to Hazleford.
They wanted very much to get 'Mother' to come and live with them, give up the post-office, and let Harold live in Mr. Cope's house; but Mother has a certain notion that Harold's stately looks and perfect health might not last, if she were not always on the watch to put him into dry clothes if he comes in damp, and such like 'little fidgets,' as he calls them, which he would not attend to from any one but Mother. So she will keep on the shop and the post-office, and try to break in that uncouth girl of John Farden's to be a tidy little maid; and Mr. and Mrs. Blackthorn will spend their holidays with her and Harold. She may come to them yet in time, if, as Paul predicts, Master Harold takes up with Lucy at the Grange—but there's time enough to think of that; and even if he should, it would take many years to make Lucy into such a Mrs. King as she who is now very busy over the dinner at home, but thinking about a good deal besides the dinner.
There! Paul and Ellen have stood and knelt in an earnest reverent spirit, making their vows to one another and before God, and His blessing has been spoken upon them to keep them all their lives through.
It is with a good heart of hope that Mr. Cope speaks that blessing, knowing that, as far as human eye can judge, here stands a man who truly feareth the Lord, and beside him a woman with the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit.
They are leaving the church now, the bridegroom and his bride, arm in arm, but they turn from the path to the wicket, and Harold will not let even Matilda follow them. Just by the south wall of the church there are three graves, one a very long one, one quite short, one of middle length. The large one has a head-stone, with the names of Charles King, aged forty years, and Charles King, aged seven years. The middle-sized one has a stone cross, and below it 'Alfred King, aged sixteen years,' and the words, 'In all their afflictions He was afflicted.'
It was Matilda who paid the cost of that stone, Miss Selby who drew the pattern of it, and 'Mother' who chose the words, as what Alfred himself loved best. At the bottom of Ellen's best work-box is a copy of verses about that very cross. She thinks they ought to have been carved out upon it, but Paul knows a great deal better, so all she could do was to write them out on a sheet of note-paper with a wide lace border, and keep them as her greatest treasure. Perhaps she prizes them even more than the handsome watch that Mr. Shaw gave Paul, though less, of course, than the great Bible and Prayer-book, in which Mr. Cope has waited till this morning to write the names of Paul and Ellen Blackthorn.
So they stand beside the cross, and read the words, and they neither of them can say anything, though the white sweet face is before the eyes of their mind at the same time, and Ellen thinks she loves Paul twice as much for having been one of his great comforts.
'Good-bye, Alfred dear,' she whispers at last.
'No, not good-bye,' says Paul. 'He is as much with us as ever, wherever we are. Remember how we were together, Ellen. I have always thought of him at every Holy Communion since, and have felt that if till now, no one living—at least one at rest, were mine by right.'
Ellen pressed his arm.
'Yes,' said Paul; 'the months I spent with Alfred were the great help and blessing of my life. I don't believe any recollection has so assisted to guard me in all the frets and temptations there are in a life like mine.'